defunkt theatre

DramaWatch: Drammys for all

This year's Portland theater awards put the spotlight on inclusion. Plus: "Indecent" opens in Ashland, "Wicked" flies back into town.

The annual Drammy Awards ceremony, which celebrates outstanding work in Portland-area theater, is a warm and welcoming event. How welcoming? Well, so much so that, after one acting award was announced, the evening’s host, Carla Rossi, observed, “That is the only instance in which it is acceptable to rise and cheer at the words ‘Nazi sympathizer.’”

Drag clown Carlo Rossi was emcee at an inclusionary Drammy Award ceremony. Photo: Scott Fisher/Sleeper Studios

Of course, the assembled theater artists and fans at last week’s party at The Armory weren’t cheering a Nazi sympathizer, but rather the portrayal of one, by Michael J. Teufel, who picked up a trophy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical as an unsavory character in Cabaret. Actual Nazis and their sympathizers weren’t among the welcome. As that production of Cabaret, by Fuse Theatre Ensemble, turned into the night’s big winner, acceptance speeches were peppered with what came to seem like the show’s unlikely mantra: “Fuck fascism!”


Defunkt’s dark dance of connection and rejection

"Slipping," an intimate drama by Daniel Talbott, is an overpowering vortex of yearning and grief -- with a shot of redemptive love.

Two men meet in a cafe. One is dressed in a stylish overcoat, the other is wearing a baggy sweatshirt. Much time has passed since they last saw each other and while their mutual adoration is clear, a cloud of awkwardness and regret looms over the encounter. Clearly, something happened to them—something that wrenched them apart.

Slipping, a moving and fearsome play by Daniel Talbott being produced at Defunkt Theatre, is the story of that something. It’s a brisk deep dive into the inner lives of two gay high schoolers that is sometimes painful to behold. The tale deals with death, self-mutilation and emotional abuse, and if you expect Talbott or director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard to address those topics coyly, prepare for a severe shock when the darkness of the theater is pierced by the gleam of spilled blood.

Yet while it can be tempting to recoil from Slipping, you shouldn’t. The play’s vigorously original writing, magnificently transportive imagery and fearlessly realistic performances combine to create an experience that is as unforgettable as it is overwhelming. The journey may shake you, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth taking—quite the contrary.

Clifton Holznagel and John Corr as young lovers in Defunkt Theatre’s production of “Slipping.” Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Slipping is set primarily in Iowa, where Eli (Clifton Holznagel) has moved with his mother Jan (Paige McKinney) following his father’s death. At school, Eli is fiercely withdrawn—he hides behind a figurative suit of armor made of headphones and cigarettes. Yet one classmate takes the trouble to bash his way through: Jake (John Corr), who initially presents himself as steadfastly heterosexual and is rapidly revealed to be anything but.

As Eli and Jake go from arguing in art class to hanging out at the local AMC Theatre to making love, we see the beginning of a romance that is remarkably immune to cliché. If you think that Jake, a macho baseball player, will be shy about coming out, think again — he barely shrugs when the school learns of his love for Eli. Similarly, the play is mercifully free of hate crimes, despite its red-state setting. Slipping is a love story that insists that gay men have the right to the same familiar struggles — father issues, commitment issues — as straight men.


Pride and the need to connect

The performances put the punch into defunkt theatre's "The Pride," which tells two tales of love and pain, half a century apart


The small black box theater that houses defunkt theatre welcomes audiences to its production of The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell without fanfare. The simple staging points accurately to a sitting room that does double duty in both 1958 and 2008. It is in no way an impressive backdrop, alive with special flourishes: Instead, it highlights how common the experiences of the three main characters are, and that is what makes the tears flow.

In the opening scene, audiences are introduced to Phillip (Morgan Lee), an estate agent, and his actress-turned-illustrator wife Sylvia (Paige McKinney), who has invited Oliver (Matthew Kern), the author with whom she is working, to meet her husband. As she finishes getting ready, the two men are left to work through tense chitchat, an undercurrent of attraction merely hinted at until, as they exit the flat for dinner, Sylvia comments that she “felt something.” Their storyline follows the relationship between the two men and Sylvia’s understanding of her husband’s desires.

McKinney and Lee in “The Pride.” Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

In a future that alternates with the 1950s narrative are another Phillip, Oliver, and Sylvia. Though they are played by the same actors, the understanding is that they are completely different people, if weighted with the psychic baggage of the ones that came before them. This Oliver is still a writer, a journalist, but rather than the romantic of the 1950s, he is seemingly addicted to having sex with strangers. Phillip, his recent ex, is a photographer. Sylvia, an actress, is his best friend. Whereas the 1950s are predominantly about Phillip and his self-hatred, the 2000s are all about Oliver and his self-hatred.


ArtsWatch year in theater 2017

From "Astoria" to "The Humans" with a whole lot in between, a month-by-month stroll with ArtsWatch through the year in Oregon theater

From Portland Center Stage’s Astoria: Part I (Part II is streaming around the bend in January, along with an encore run for Part I) to Artists Rep’s The Humans and a slew of holiday shows, it’s been a busy, busy year in Oregon theater.

In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival rolled out another season blending contemporary and classic with a wide-angle world view. And the fine actor G. Valmont Thomas, after spending a season playing Falstaff in all three plays in which the great character appears, died in December from bone cancer, at age 58.

In Hillsboro, Bag&Baggage, which had been temporarily homeless, opened a spiffy new home in a renovated downtown former bank building.

In Portland, the sprawling Fertile Ground festival introduced dozens of new works (and, like Astoria, is gearing up for a fresh new run in January). Chris Coleman, Center Stage’s artistic director for 17 years, announced he would be leaving at the end of this season to take over the theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. TCG, the influential Theatre Communications Group, held its annual conference in Portland. And theater companies large and small produced more plays than The Count could count in a dozen seasons of Sesame Street.


Review: Defunkt’s tense cockfight

A love-and-sex triangle heats up the stage with an edgy blend of energy and desperation


To paraphrase Mark Twain’s comment about Jane Austen, playwright Mike Bartlett would dig up Thornton Wilder and beat him with his own shinbone. Defunkt Theatre is putting on Bartlett’s play Cock through November 15.

Cock is no Our Town. It’s a love triangle – two men and the woman who comes between them – that hammers out dialogue with the intensity of a Beethoven symphony. There’s no moment of rest for the actors or audience: the air is dense and sweet, sparking with visceral lines that swing between love and hate, each of the characters swiveling back and forth between cutting character attacks and brilliant Noel Coward humor. And believe me, the jokes are needed. By the second act the night I saw the show, some members of the audience were visibly shaken, their faces flushed and holding back tears.

Take your corners: It's a cockfight. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Take your corners: It’s a cockfight. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

The play begins with an edgy spat whose purpose is to end in makeup sex. The chaotic dance between the lovers never ends. Clifton Holznagel as Jon and David Bellis-Squires as M fling heated words at each other, with an equal measure of gentleness. Bellis-Squires gives a great performance as a starched-shirt lover, full of kinetic energy and desperation: Jon and M’s relationship wrestles between attachment and bitterness. Both actors establish the character’s strengths and flaws within the first five minutes. They have a power struggle, and just as in real life, it’s pretty ugly. Members of the audience were so engaged, they felt uncomfortable, as if they’d walked into a real room where a real fight was going on. This is Defunkt at its best: intimate, honest, with an emphasis on acting and script.

In formal terms, Cock is what’s known as a well-made play. While the four characters play off each other and complement the plot, all of them are major players: there are no minor ones. Kayla Lian plays W, the woman who enters the picture and turns Jon’s head “right round, like that girl in The Exorcist.” She’s not a foil, but the feminine motif upon which the others respond. Lian is a subtle actress who uses her physical movements and timpani of a voice to great effect.

At its heart, Bartlett’s script is a contemporary conversation about relationships. Can we love whom we want as a person, or does our attraction create a dividing line? It’s a brutal, but successful look into binary gender roles. We in the audience want to know, who will Jon choose? By the end of the play, Holznagel’s Jon is weeping. We want to pick him up and hold him, tell him it’ll be OK.

Veteran Ted Schultz gives Cock an earthy, necessary grounding in Act II. With all the static flying around – attraction, partnership, dreams, the general chaos of infidelity – his staunch presence is welcoming. He plays M’s father and support, which are just as needed by the audience.

Defunkt is a minimalist theater in terms of props, and yet we move in and out of spaces such as subways, living rooms, bedrooms and patios with ease. Director Jon Kretzu makes it easy for us to imagine the spaces, meals, and lives of each of the characters: It’s a great triumph of the imagination. Andrew Klaus Vineyard, sound design and production manager, deftly takes us in and out of the flashback moments back to the plot, and guides us through the narratives as they play out. The play would not come off without his successful work.

After leaving the theater I was a bit worse for wear, but in a good way. Defunkt provides a generous space to reflect and come to terms with ourselves. There aren’t a lot of movies that can do this – only a handful of directors, like Ingmar Bergman, can tear you down to build you up – and we can choose which songs to listen to, but a play like Cock stares us right in the face. No one ever said art had to be pretty, but it can be right and tell the story we need to hear.


Defunkt’s Cock continues through November 15. Ticket and schedule information here.





Review: Defunkt Theatre’s ‘States of Emergency’

Sure, Crimp is twisted and Durang's deranged … but Defunkt doesn't shy from tough shows

Midway through the second act of Defunkt Theatre‘s Fewer Emergencies, Steve Vanderzee’s alone onstage. His voice is as deadpan as cast iron, his face as vacant as a waxwork, and he’s describing a school shooting: “He shoots Child A in the head. He shoots Child B in the head. Child C … flinches away. Flinches away?”

The actor falters, jerks his head, squints, begins his recitation again:

“He shoots Child A in the head. He shoots Child B in the head…”

In my chair, I start to feel unsettled. Have I left the teakettle on? Should I make a run for one of the theater’s three exits? Is my home burning down while I sit here squirming? Damn you, Vanderzee, you’re actually scaring me….

White and Vanderzee in "Fewer Emergencies." Rosemary Ragusa Photography

White and Vanderzee in “Fewer Emergencies.” Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Defunkt’s season-closing suite, States of Emergency, is comprised of two plays in rep: Martin Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies and Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation. Fair warning, Crimp is twisted and Durang’s deranged — and Vanderzee plays a convincing psycho killer in each show. Though Emergency‘s generally suspenseful and Vacation rings comic, the shows are two peas in the same rotten pod. Spoiler alert: humanity’s hideously flawed.

Behind every great homicidal maniac, it seems, there’s a blithely monstrous woman, and each of these plays has one sick mother. Fewer Emergencies‘ “Mummy” (Angela White) and Vacation‘s Mrs. Sizemagraff (Jane Bement Geesman) are so mired in denial and so sozzled on booze and self-congratulation that they’re content to watch their children suffer. “What he’s losing in blood, he’s gaining in confidence!” exudes Mummy, stretching out her arms and grinning gloriously under pained brows to pantomime the time she coaxed her son — freshly shot in the legs — to crawl to her. Mrs. Sizemagraff pauses from preening, drinking, and wooing sexual predators off the street to flip her hand dismissively at her molested daughter Trudy: “She’s worthless! … No, she’s wonderful!” [guzzle, primp, pose]. Happy Mother’s Day, Portland.

Murderers, mothers … and the similarity doesn’t end there. Each show also makes space for the proverbial Peanut Gallery — a handful of generic voices that, for no specific reason, offer their opinions and try to shape the greater story. Both scripts wax particularly poetic about small pleasures (a child’s toys, the sound of the ocean, TV) while ignoring major atrocities (rape, destruction, dismemberment, death). And in both cases — believe it or not — this sensory rhapsody almost sways us against our better judgment. Mother’s right, the voices are appeased, nothing’s wrong, we should just relax and stop screaming.

Fewer Emergencies doesn’t explicitly call for anyone to play specific roles; it’s written in third person with no stage directions or character names, allowing very flexible interpretation.* However, after much workshopping, Defunkt director Jon Kretzu asked White and Vanderzee to embody the characters their lines were describing. Suddenly, what could read as detached postmodern commentary is brought to life as full-blown psychodrama. Subtitled scene breaks and lighting shifts from cool ultraviolet to deep red also help us parse Crimp’s cryptic text into a series of events.

Beyond Mummy and the shooter, the other actors don’t register as characters, per se. More like a chorus in the round, they burst in to clarify whatever Mummy says, contributing a general ethos of speculation and inaccuracy. While we often see an unreliable narrator, we rarely see one vetted for honesty by semi-anonymous agents onstage. It’s vaguely comparable to courtroom drama, but nonetheless a unique conceit. It’s also poetic, causing dialogue to flow into a regular cadence of repeated echoes, pauses, and rejoinders. Eerily, Vanderzee’s monologue progresses with the same halting structure, unaccompanied by “the voices.” “Don’t help me!” he repeatedly snaps, even though no one is. Perhaps he’s killed all of his detractors and interjectors by this point?

The cast confessed in talkback that all these asides, stops, and starts made Emergencies particularly hard to memorize … even hard to connect with artistically until they created secret “backstories” for the fluid supporting roles. Unofficially, they’ve dubbed Lori Sue Hoffman’s character “Pippa” and assigned her her own secret reasons for grilling Mummy with what seem like caseworker questions. They’ve also posed Matthew Kern as Mummy’s protective and somewhat complicit husband. Corey O’Hara**, a wild card who chimes into the dialogue with no apparent story-related character, gets his moment leading a brilliant singalong of a self-penned melody with a banjo. Unfortunately, these tacit character designations intrigue without fulfilling — which means, in effect, they distract. Kern, especially, spits every line with such significance that we’re tricked into thinking we’ll learn more about his character. Since we never do, it’d be better if the Defunkt mainstay and self-confessed Crimp super-fan would lean back and let the story shine.

Sob story: Tallent and Geesman in "Betty." Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Sob story: Tallent and Geesman in “Betty.” Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Betty’s Summer Vacation establishes an atmosphere of lighthearted leisure (beachfront cottage, bathing suits, cute-guy roommates, funny friend) and pours in a grab bag of mingled humor and horror (a cartoonish rapist/flasher in a trench coat, a lovably shy killer, a grown woman who talks to a doll, walls that eavesdrop and laugh at the characters) to lock the audience in stunned uncertainty. There’s no such thing as an appropriate audience reaction to any of the stuff that happens in this show — a fact that’s made even plainer when “the voices” point it out: “We’re very disturbed. We’re not sure we feel like laughter.”

The performances are caricatures, drawn broadly but aptly by character actors. Betty (Allie Pratt) is the “voice of reason,” sharing a vacation rental with her chatty, disturbed friend Trudy (Kelly Tallent), sexually insatiable surfer bro Buck (William Poole), and the quiet, uptight Keith (Vanderzee). They’re soon encroached upon by the cottage owner, Mrs. Sizemagraff (Geesman), who turns out to also be Trudy’s mom. Making herself at home immediately, Mrs. Sizemagraff invites a truly rogue element: Mr. Vanislaw, a flasher she met in the park (Joe Healy) … and … ahem, mayhem ensues.

Steeped in pop-culture reference, the script name-drops its inspirations directly: David Mamet’s Oleanna, Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall, CourtTV, and all of the high-profile trials from contemporary memory — Bobbitt, OJ, Clarence Thomas, you name it. But the closest we get to justice is a living room mock trial, where the increasingly bizarre Mrs. Sizemagraff takes over and both interrogates and defends herself.

Wait…isn’t “mock-CourtTV” redundant? Does a mockery of a mockery of justice work like a double negative in a sentence? Do the two layers of facetiousness cancel each other out to make a noble statement? Hard to say, but Durang thoroughly explores the form. Summer Vacation, I must say, feels long, forcing the audience to persist in its decision to laugh or not laugh at off-color jokes that recur and escalate literally ad nauseam. (“We feel sick. Bluuurrrghhh,” comment the ever-present voices.) This is Durang at his most cynical, and that’s really saying something. However, the show is saved by one major late-breaking surprise, and by Betty’s uncannily vulnerable, charming closing soliloquy.

Defunkt’s States of Emergency diptych is not for sensitive souls with susceptible guts. It comes with trigger warnings galore. Still, there may be some redemption, some catharsis, some context. After all, “no emergencies” would be unrealistic. So we try for fewer … with more wry laughter and dark fascination on the side.


* The same was apparently true for Theatre Vertigo’s Pool (No Water), which, according to director Samantha Van Der Merwe, could also have been done without direct character portrayals…but seemed much richer for them.

** Also a playwright, O’Hara co-wrote and acted in Fertile Ground standout Middle Names.




“The Submission”: shockingly candid, surprisingly forgiving

Defunkt Theatre tells an inflammatory story with (some) sympathy for all sides.

In Defunkt Theatre’s production of “The Submission,” we start off rooting for Danny (Matthew Kern), the playwright-within-a-play. He’s written a script that he believes deserves to be read, picked, and produced by the theater powers that be—and it’s a long shot. But his friend Trevor (Matthew Dieckman) and his boyfriend Pete (Bjorn Anderson) vouch that his script—a story of a black family struggling to get out of the projects—is surprisingly legit, even brilliant and profound. Danny has apparently used a black poverty vernacular to reveal universal truth…but as a white gay man, he starts to worry that he can’t get away with that.

To save his script from the dreaded slush pile, Danny Larson replaces his name with a fake, “black sounding” woman’s name, Shalia Ganatamobe, reasoning that in this context, any black woman’s chances would be better than his own—and that’s…not…fair?

When his submission gets accepted under the new name, he sees that as proof of his presumptions, and he decides to prolong his con. He enlists black actress Emilie (Andrea White) to help him—just til the play can achieve the success he’s certain it deserves. But as Emilie enters his social circle and starts voicing opinions of her OWN, Danny’s possessiveness and prejudice rears its ugly head on many fronts. Gradually the young, idealistic, self-described “very gay” artist reveals his resentment of the theater scene’s informal affirmative action push, reframing reparation as minority privilege and bemoaning the white man’s supposed disadvantage.