Ellyn Bye Studio

Brilliant? Let us list the ways

The one-man show "Every Brilliant Thing" begins with an amiable Isaac Lamb and builds its odd-duck case one good thing at a time

Let the record stipulate that the reviewer is not a fan of audience-participation theater.

Let the record stipulate that Every Brilliant Thing, the one-man show that opened Friday evening in the downstairs Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, is, is fact, an audience-participation play.

Let the record further stipulate that, notwithstanding his biases, the reviewer found himself to be absolutely charmed, and sometimes moved, and often given to outbursts of immoderate laughter. Let the record observe that the reviewer stands corrected, at least this once.

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Isaac Lamb works the crowd. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Every Brilliant Thing – performed with intense likability (if that’s a possible thing) by Isaac Lamb, with the smart and nimble collaboration of director Rose Riordan and some on-the-nose sound design by Casi Pacilio – is an odd duck of a play, but then, sometimes the odd ducks are the interesting ones. Written by Duncan Macmillan and original performer Jonny Donahoe, it debuted in 2013 at the Ludlow Fringe Festival in Shropshire before crossing the Atlantic to New York and beyond. It bears a striking affinity to the sort of theater known as standup comedy, which thrives, among other things, on improvisational give-and-take with the audience. Lamb achieves complicity not by bristling aggressively at the audience, as standups often do, but by sweet-talking them, in gee-shucks conspiratorial tones, into helping him out. And help him out they do, even the ones who feel just a little self-conscious about being suckered in.

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Mary’s Wedding: a retro refuge

The Armory's darling Canadian romance echoes some classics and charms the family crowd

First love. First kiss. First horseback ride. First World War. When everything’s fresh and innocent and new, it seems like it’s all going to work out fine. We can never go back to those times. Or, pretty please, can we?

Portland Center Stage’s Mary’s Wedding—the first full-length play by playwright Stephen Massicotte—is an idealistic retelling of a small-town romance turned long-distance correspondence, reimagined after the fact as a wistful dream punctured by gunfire. Mary (Lexi Lapp) is a prim, gorgeous, feminine English rose who “dreams of flowers and little babies,” and Charlie (Alex J. Gould), though he modestly refers to himself as a “dirty farm boy,” is more like a handsome clean-shaven Canadian Disney prince. They meet at the outskirts of their families’ respective farms while sheltering in a barn during a rainstorm. They notice each other’s loveliness as they share a horse ride home, and they begin a courtship.

The mating game: Lexi Lapp as Mary and Alex J. Gould as Charlie. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

This is an easy show to enjoy, but a hard one to review without sounding like a condescending cynic—largely because so many elements within Massicotte’s script invite comparison to pre-existing classics. L.M. Montgomery’s characters (chiefly Anne of Green Gables) recited Tennyson very much like Massicotte’s Mary, right down to their shared favorite title, The Lady of Shalott. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town characters were as small-town innocent and romance-prone as Mary and Charlie. Also, the spirits of Wilder’s dearly departed remained free to reinhabit scenes from their pasts, their afterlife neither hell nor heaven but a liminal state of observing from a vantage point physically near to where they lived and died until they gradually detached from life at their own pace. Massicotte borrows this view, too. One line, “Run, Charlie!” even evokes Forrest Gump, and scenes of war-wounded emit fainter echoes of the same.

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Sparrow and the whole shebang

"His Eye Is on the Sparrow" at Portland Center Stage sets Ethel Waters in the middle of a world of cultural upheaval

The soil of American popular music has long been watered by black gospel, which in turn was watered by the work songs and spirituals of the slavery days, and those songs were built on the rhythms and instruments of West Africa. At some point it all met the melodic structure of European folk music and the theatrical sass of Tin Pan Alley, often flattening into the minor key of international lamentation, and created a garden gumbo that was all the better for its multiple and serendipitously clashing flavors: a brash, free-flowing, restlessly transforming American stew.

Ethel Waters stirred the pot.

To people who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, Waters was a figure of elderly power and spirituality, famous as a gospel singer, particularly in the Billy Graham Crusades, and iconically for her rendition of the spiritual His Eye Is on the Sparrow, which she had famously performed in the early 1950s Broadway and movie adaptations of Carson McCullers’ novel The Member of the Wedding. For people of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, Waters was something altogether feistier and more glamorous: before she joined the sacred industry of saving souls she was one of the biggest names in show business, a pioneering black star of Broadway and the movies, a recording artist whose jumpy, elegant, playful, and sometimes heart-shattering voice spanned the worlds of the blues, jazz, vaudeville, musical theater, swing, and, yes, occasionally gospel.

Maiesha McQueen as Ethel Waters: power and passion. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

It’s that budding and scrapping star of an Ethel Waters we meet, for the most part, in the musical biography His Eye Is on the Sparrow, which opened Friday night in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage in a production featuring the powerful and brooding Maiesha McQueen as Waters and – off to the side but of utmost importance – Darius Smith at an upright piano as her accompanist and musical provocateur.

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Truth to tell: American wrongs and rights

Portland Center Stage's "Hold These Truths" spins a fascinating real-life tale of World War II incarceration camps and a Japanese American hero

The United States Constitution has been coming up regularly in this most fractious and ridiculous of political seasons.

We’ve had the “pocket constitutionalists” of the Sagebrush Rebellion taking over a bird sanctuary in Eastern Oregon because (if I have their line of reasoning straight) all government beyond the county level is illegitimate and the Constitution proves that nothing in the Constitution actually applies to them.

We’ve had, amid an epidemic of mass shootings and more private gun-related tragedies, a hunkering-down on an antiquated and nonsensical interpretation of a few confusingly punctuated words in the Second Amendment that are alleged to guarantee the right to carry military weapons openly in houses of worship and kindergarten classrooms.

We’ve had the presidential candidate of an actual major political party loudly declaring he will build a wall across the southern border of the United States and make the Mexican government pay for it – an act that would be at once so environmentally irresponsible, morally reprehensible, patently unconstitutional, and impossible to achieve that I really don’t know where to begin talking about it.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in "Hold These Truths." Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in “Hold These Truths.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

How refreshing, then, to run across a piece of theater that tells the story of a true hero of the never-ending battle to protect the Constitution, and thus the American people in their everyday lives, against the ever-present forces trying to chip away at it for selfish or ideological reasons, or because of bouts of paranoia or sheer fright.

The title of Jeanne Sakata’s play Hold These Truths, which opened Friday night in the Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage, comes not from the Constitution but from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

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