Fallout

DramaWatch: two great musicals

This week features openings of two of the best musicals in the past 20 years: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "The Light in the Piazza"

There are those among us who — brace yourself for this — dislike musicals. Perhaps they hate them, with an active, withering passion, but more likely they simply dismiss the form altogether as sentimental or soapy or sappy or just stupid.

Theater folk understand how much craft and care and sheer intelligence of various sorts it takes to make a musical actually work, but anyway … The form’s detractors can find plenty of ammo for their view (Cats, anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc., etc.). A bad musical can be as dreadful as art gets.

And yet.

Do it right and the thrill is magnificent. Do it boldly and creatively, taking the form in new directions, and the overall effect is something that I’d argue is hard to duplicate in any sort of entertainment.

Dale Johannes in Triangle’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Photo: Henry Liu

This week in Portland we get new local productions of two of the most boldly creative, and thrilling musicals of the past 20 years.

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Laughing at the end of the world

Carol Triffle's apocalyptic comedy "Fallout" at Imago is a show of quirky madness with a heap of questions hanging like a mushroom cloud

What is Fallout? I suppose the term “end-of-days comedy” fits. Yet that seems too narrow for a play about war, friendship, sexual awakening and the adverse effects of nuclear ash on human hair. Written and directed by Imago Theatre’s renowned absurdist Carol Triffle, Fallout is a play far grander in scope than the cramped room where it unfolds.

In an era awash with self-important tales of heroines and heroes nobly braving the apocalypse, the idea of Triffle (co-founder of Imago and co-creator of the legendary Frogz) journeying to the end of the world armed with her trademark anarchic wit sounds inviting. Yet despite the healthy amount of chuckling in the audience on the night I saw Fallout, the play struck me as emotionally aloof and scattershot. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a cereal box stuffed with many disparate brands.

Kyle Delamarter: crazy like a fox, or just crazy in a foxhole? Imago Theatre photo

Fallout begins in a bomb shelter that a bumbling drifter named Bobby (Kyle Delamarter) has molded into a relatively cozy home. It’s not immediately clear whether Bobby is hiding from a nuclear war or is simply a reclusive lunatic (a scene where he muses nonsensically about snake bodies encourages the question). Yet he seems to have settled into a routine that consists of playing his out-of-tune guitar, writing in his diary, and dreaming of either going to college or dying (don’t look for logic in his thinking).

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DramaWatch Weekly: home run

Bobby Bermea finds the key to "Fences." Plus: Lady Day at Emerson's, Tim Stapleton's art, bubble-bath theater, openings and closings.

Gabriel, blow your horn!

Portland’s theater makers are a supportive lot, so it was no surprise that several prominent actors were in the audience at Portland Playhouse on the night last week that I went to see the current production of Fences. But I didn’t expect, necessarily, to see Michelle Mariana, Brenda Hubbard and Jeff Gorman – who’d sat together in the front row – clustered on the sidewalk after the show, asking the same question I was asking: “Which door is Bobby going to come out of?”

For my part, I’d come to the show specifically to see what Bobby Bermea and director Lou Bellamy had done with a seemingly small yet, to my mind, crucial role in August Wilson’s most celebrated drama. But I wasn’t the only one to come away powerfully struck by his performance.

(Disclosure: Bermea, in addition to a busy career as an actor and director, is a contributing writer for Oregon ArtsWatch, and he and I served together a few years ago on the Drammy Awards committee.)

Bobby Bermea (left) as Gabriel and Lester Purry as Troy in “Fences.” Photo: Brud Giles

Fences was Wilson’s “I’ll show them” play, the one in which he departed from his usual discursive, multivalent approach and proved he could write a more conventionally structured drama with a singular focus, something more akin to the classic “well-made play.” The story is about the towering, often glowering figure at its center, a former Negro Leagues baseball star named Troy Maxson, and the other characters exist as bodies in his orbit, the narrative’s several lines of tension pulsing between each of them and him, the hub of the wheel. In terms of action, what’s going on is mostly between Troy and his son Cory, who wants to play college football, despite his father’s bitterness about how his own opportunities were limited.  Or between Troy and his wife, Rose, who eventually laments not making the big man leave room for her wants and needs. Or between Troy and his longtime friend Jim Bono, who slips from admiration to concern to sad resignation as his hero self-destructs. Or …

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