Gemma Whelan

DramaWatch: Aliens in rom-coms

Corrib's "How To Keep an Alien" in review, "Jesus Takes the 'A' Train' and "Crossing Mnisose" opening, children's theater, new seasons

Irish playwright Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep an Alien, which took the best-production award when it premiered at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2014 and is now enjoying its West Coast premiere from Corrib, Portland’s all-Irish theater company, isn’t about flying saucers and little green men. It’s about that other kind of alien – the foreign-born kind, the kind who faces political and sometimes actual walls when trying to move from one nation to another, and who must overcome not only bureaucratic obstacles but also personal ones, the sort we often erect between our desires and our fears.

It’s intriguing, often appealing, and whimsically constructed, like a shifting tower leaning sharply to one side: an odd duck of a play, and I mean it no disrespect when I say it’s a contemporary rom-com, the sort of story that might make a good Hallmark movie if Hallmark movies ever were to recognize the actual and ordinary existence in the world of homosexuality (or, for that matter, the desirability of non-white characters filling any role in a romantic comedy larger than supportive sidekick). I happen to like a good rom-com, and this one has the enormous advantage of being about two lesbians falling in love, but approaching their affair altogether naturally, with no flashing lights of cultural or political importance: just two people going through what people of all sorts all over the world go through every day. The decision to not make a big deal out of the lovers’ gender – to treat it matter-of-factly, as just the way this story goes – is in fact a bigger deal than making a big deal would be.

Amy Katrina Bryan (left) and Sara Hennessy in Corrib Theatre’s “How To Keep an Alien.” Photo: Adam Liberman

In this case the two people overtaken by emotional attraction are Sonia, an Irish actor starring in a historical costume drama that she finds ridiculous, and Kate, the show’s Australian stage manager, who is also, in a meta sort of way, the onstage stage manager of How To Keep an Alien, batting back and forth between the reality of the story and the reality of the production. If this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but usually isn’t.

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The Quiet Men, ready to explode

Corrib Theatre's tense, potent production of Owen McCafferty's "Quietly" drags the Irish Troubles into the present in a Belfast Pub

The power of Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, Corrib Theatre’s latest production, takes you by surprise.

It starts slowly and, naturally, quietly. In fact, when it begins, it’s just a lone barman, Robert (Murri Lazaroff-Babin), sending texts to his love – or loves? The texts set up that they have moved to Belfast, where this play is set, from Poland. No one seems entirely happy about it.

Enter Jimmy (Ted Rooney), a depressed or angry (is there really a difference?) regular at the bar, clearly comfortable shooting the breeze with Robert, but not talking about anything particularly important. Their conversation mostly centers on a soccer match between Poland and Northern Ireland playing on a TV — and a 1974 soccer match between Poland and West Germany. But Jimmy hates soccer, so this conversation is meaningless. Or is it?

From left: Tim Blough, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Ted Rooney. Photo: Adam Liberman

Jimmy mentions that someone might stop by to talk to him, and to ignore any yelling. Robert has plenty of worries of his own, what with some local folks not appreciating having a Polish bartender. So he doesn’t want any trouble.

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Animal instinct: Corrib’s ‘Chapatti’

Last year's hit two-hander about a dog lover and a cat lover reopens for a new run, this time on the Artists Rep stage

EDITORS’ NOTE: Corrib Theatre’s February 2016 show “Chapatti,” starring veterans Allen Nause and Jacklyn Maddux as a couple of “lonely Dublin codgers,” is back for a fresh run opening Monday, April 3, and continuing though April 16, this time on the Artists Rep stage: ticket and schedule information are here. ArtsWatch’s review from last year’s production is below:

 


 

To begin with, Dan’s a dog man, even though he’s trying to give away his boon companion for reasons that will become unsettlingly clear. Betty’s a cat woman – you could almost say a crazy old cat lady, given that she’s got nineteen, more or less, prowling around the house, and curiously, no one ever questions how the place smells. Obviously, this is never going to work.

Then again, as they say, opposites attract.

I wouldn’t call Christian O’Reilly’s 2014 play Chapatti the flip side of The Gin Game, exactly, although you could make the case. D.L. Coburn’s oddly Pulitzerized 1976 two-hander, like Chapatti, throws together an older man and an older woman in a situation not entirely in either one’s control, and is a showcase for actors of a certain age, giving them sparkling leading roles rather than confining them to playing old Uncle Fred and Aunt Bea, stuck in the corner with the overstuffed furniture in yet another family drama about the libidos and travails of kids in their twenties or even their forties.

Nause and Maddux: animal instinct. Photo: Owen Carey

Nause and Maddux: animal instinct. Photo: Owen Carey

In that sense Chapatti (the title is the name of Dan’s little bowser, whom we never see on stage, although his presence is felt) and Gin are blood brothers, star vehicles for seasoned performers who know the tricks of the trade. But while The Gin Game grows increasingly nastier – time hasn’t turned resentful Weller into a cuddly bear, and he goes raging into that good card game like an unrepentant attack dog, stripping away the niceties of civilization as he snarls – Chapatti heads in a different direction, toward reconciliation and second chances. It unabashedly wears the trappings of a traditional romantic comedy (geezer meets geezer, geezer and geezer endure complications, geezer gets geezer) but it’s not precisely a sentimental play, because it veers away from the romcom formula, deepening and dropping into disturbing danger zones, and it leaves a great big question at the end, so you can’t say it’s all sunshine to The Gin Game‘s surly storm. But if Chapatti isn’t bubblingly optimistic, it’s generously hopeful, and it provides a lot of fun as it rolls down the tracks on its ninety-minute journey toward whatever its unsettled destination will be.

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Mary of the mysteries

Jacklyn Maddux tells a tale of wonder and regret as the mother of Jesus in Colm Tóibín’s "The Testament of Mary" for Corrib Theatre

Holy Mother of God, how could you say such things? Tense, sad, argumentative and just this side of bitter, Jacklyn Maddux is far from a Renaissance painter’s vision of the Virgin Mary. Then again, that symbol of serene and ardent holiness is not what Colm Tóibín wants her to be. What he wants, as things turn out, is something more combative and conflicted in its mysteries.

Watching Maddux’s solo turn for Corrib Theatre in The Last Testament of Mary, Tóibín’s stage adaptation of his 2012 novella, I thought almost inevitably of Nikos Kazantzakis and his startling, in some circles notorious, novel The Last Temptation of Christ.

Temptation was first published in Greek in 1955, the year that Tóibín was born in Ireland, and although Last Testament is in no way connected stylistically or narratively to the earlier novel, they share a thematic understanding: religious myth is built on human experience. It is rote among Christians to refer to Jesus as both man and god, and yet the “man” half of the equation is routinely subsumed, as if it were a tainted and shameworthy thing, in the glories of the god. Kazantzakis roiled the official waters by writing a novel in which Jesus, far from being above or otherwise separated from humanity, was deeply and passionately human. He felt every emotion, every temptation, including the temptations of the flesh; only by being fully human and understanding what that meant could he be the kind of god he was.

Jacklyn Maddux as Mary, remembering. Photo: Owen Carey

The Last Testament of Mary concentrates on the human, too, through the voice and experiences not of Jesus but his mother, speaking, finally, years after the events. And Mary, to tell the truth, isn’t buying a lot of the mythology. Tóibín chose the word “testament” carefully: This remarkable and sometimes heartrending narrative is indeed a testimony and not a gospel (from the Old English “god spell,” or “good news”). To Mary’s mind, there’s not much good about it. Her account of her son’s life and death could almost be a legal deposition, a statement of the facts as the witness sees them, and yet it is also a dogged questioning, a ruthless self-examination, a turning-inside-out of the soul.

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‘Our New Girl’: a lie of the mind

Corrib Theatre's contemporary Irish psychological thriller lights a volatile match to a not-so-happy hearth and home

Myths across the ages tell about strangers arriving at doorsteps and how the gods will give you good fortune if you trust enough to let the strangers in. Yet more often than not, that’s not how the story unfolds – and certainly not in the case of Our New Girl, a psychological thriller at Corrib Theatre that plays upon the dynamics of human relationships at their most vulnerable.

Nikki Weaver, fresh on the heels of her performance as Ibsen’s Nora in Shaking the Tree’s A Doll’s House, is Hazel, a former high-powered attorney whose confidence is now compromised in what seems an endless web of homegrown complexity. Much like Nora, Hazel has demands placed on her as a work-at-home mother of a social-climbing, workaholic husband.

Happy to be here: L-R, Salmon, McKinney, Van Voris, Weaver. Photo: Owen Carey

Group hug: L-R, Salmon, McKinney, Van Voris, Weaver. Photo: Owen Carey

Weaver plays the role with a stubbornness that speaks to Hazel’s recent past, when she had power from her career outside the home. The world she inhabits now is a posh London apartment with all the latest amenities: a clean, crisp, picture-post-card salute to Crate and Barrel showpieces. The entire play is acted out in the apartment’s kitchen, whose primary tint of white is offset by many light-gold bottles of olive oil. Many homes find their heart in the kitchen, where creating and dishing meals ignite end-of-the-day conversations when families can bond. This kitchen is sterile: the closest things to nourishment it offers are fresh cucumber sandwiches. Hazel and her family are being drawn and quartered. Why, who, and how are the anxieties at play.

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Animal Instinct: Corrib’s ‘Chapatti’

Two geezers, 19 cats, a dog, and a dilemma: Nause and Maddux find life and love (maybe) near the end of the line

To begin with, Dan’s a dog man, even though he’s trying to give away his boon companion for reasons that will become unsettlingly clear. Betty’s a cat woman – you could almost say a crazy old cat lady, given that she’s got nineteen, more or less, prowling around the house, and curiously, no one ever questions how the place smells. Obviously, this is never going to work.

Then again, as they say, opposites attract.

I wouldn’t call Christian O’Reilly’s 2014 play Chapatti the flip side of The Gin Game, exactly, although you could make the case. D.L. Coburn’s oddly Pulitzerized 1976 two-hander, like Chapatti, throws together an older man and an older woman in a situation not entirely in either one’s control, and is a showcase for actors of a certain age, giving them sparkling leading roles rather than confining them to playing old Uncle Fred and Aunt Bea, stuck in the corner with the overstuffed furniture in yet another family drama about the libidos and travails of kids in their twenties or even their forties.

Nause and Maddux: animal instinct. Photo: Owen Carey

Nause and Maddux: animal instinct. Photo: Owen Carey

In that sense Chapatti (the title is the name of Dan’s little bowser, whom we never see on stage, although his presence is felt) and Gin are blood brothers, star vehicles for seasoned performers who know the tricks of the trade. But while The Gin Game grows increasingly nastier – time hasn’t turned resentful Weller into a cuddly bear, and he goes raging into that good card game like an unrepentant attack dog, stripping away the niceties of civilization as he snarls – Chapatti heads in a different direction, toward reconciliation and second chances. It unabashedly wears the trappings of a traditional romantic comedy (geezer meets geezer, geezer and geezer endure complications, geezer gets geezer) but it’s not precisely a sentimental play, because it veers away from the romcom formula, deepening and dropping into disturbing danger zones, and it leaves a great big question at the end, so you can’t say it’s all sunshine to The Gin Game‘s surly storm. But if Chapatti isn’t bubblingly optimistic, it’s generously hopeful, and it provides a lot of fun as it rolls down the tracks on its ninety-minute journey toward whatever its unsettled destination will be.

Continues…

‘The Call’: waiting, fretting, hoping

Profile Theatre opens its season of plays by onetime Portlander Tanya Barfield with a drama about adoption and Africa and the uncertainties of life

When the call finally arrives, it’s not as if Annie’s jumping up and down for joy. She’s been waiting and waiting, and stressing, and having double-triple-quadruple thoughts, and … well, as the Gershwin boys put it, let’s call the whole thing off.

Or not. That’s the problem. Life is full of maybes, and at some point you’ve got to have a solid yes or no. But how do you get there?

The Call, the first play in Profile Theatre’s new Tanya Barfield season, opened Saturday night at the Artists Rep complex, and suggests a season of playful, contemporary, issue-oriented, and curiosity-driven theater to come. It’s part domestic drama, part cultural-conflict theater, part situation comedy, part mystery thriller, and always smart and engaging. And it introduces Portland audiences to one of the city’s own: Barfield grew up here before moving to New York, and went through school at the Metropolitan Learning Center, and has been a Pulitzer nominee, but has never before had one of her plays produced here. Suddenly, an entire season is about to rectify that oversight.

Howard and Soden: the talk before The Call. Photo: David Kinder

Howard and Soden: the talk before The Call. Photo: David Kinder

In The Call, Annie is a woman of a certain age, an artist who’s more or less put off her career because it conflicts with her job at a museum, and who has also put off having a child until, it seems, it’s biologically too late. So she and her husband, Peter, have decided to adopt, and they have a line on a baby about to be born in Arizona, but the young mother seems likely to keep the kid, and so Annie, almost on impulse, decides they should adopt from Africa: so much poverty and sickness, so many orphans, so many needy kids.

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