Hand2Mouth Theatre

DramaWatch: Your no-show of shows

The coronavirus crisis makes a dramatic impact on Portland theater, causing numerous postponements and cancellations.

“The show must go on…unless it shouldn’t.”

That’s the aphoristic take from American Theatre magazine in an assessment of the industry’s response to the current public health crisis. But then, the article headlined “Theatres Stay Open but Make Backup Plans Amid COVID-19 Concerns” was published on Tuesday, March 10. Since then, the NBA has suspended all its games, and the concert companies Live Nation and AEG have suspended tours nationwide. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not hold any public gatherings around the world until further notice. Disneyland is being closed.

The situation is changing fast.

On Wednesday, Oregon governor Kate Brown  announced a temporary ban on gatherings of more than 250 people. Accordingly, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Portland Center Stage have canceled all performances through April 8, and Artists Rep has canceled its fundraising gala, which had been scheduled for this Saturday. Also on Thursday, Hand2Mouth Theatre announced that director Stepan Simek’s production Danse Macabre: The Testament of Francois Villon — which was to have been the featured subject for this column — has been postponed, and tentatively is being rescheduled for June. 

The past grows more distant: Because of social distancing recommended to slow the coronavirus pandemic, theater fans will have to wait until June to see Jean-Luc Boucherot in Danse Macabre: The Testament of Francois Villon. Boucherot and director Štěpán Šimek collaborated on the show about the late-medieval French poet. Photo: Sarah Marguier.

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DramaWatch: Let the big dog play

Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog," to be staged at the Chapel Theatre, has been called the best American play of the past 25 years; plus Hand2Mouth on suicide watch, and a handful of plays running out of time.

“People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold they way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks isn’t big on folding things up neatly. And despite what people may usually like, she serves up they historical shit in a way that earns plaudits and Pulitzers, particularly in the play that contains the above quote, Topdog/Underdog.

When the play opened on Broadway in 2002, the year following its off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theatre, The New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that it ”vibrates with the clamor of big ideas, audaciously and exuberantly expressed” and compared it to Ralph Ellison’s celebrated novel Invisible Man as an examination of “the existential traps of being African-American and male in the United States, the masks that wear the men as well as vice versa.”

LaTevin Alexander and Curtis Maxey Jr. star in “Topdog/Underdog” at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie. Photo: Salim Sanchez

Soon, it had earned a nomination for the best-play Tony Award (it lost to Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) and won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Parks the first black woman so honored. Not too much later, Portland had a production — at Artists Rep in 2003, directed by Antonio Sonera.

Parks’ work hardly has become a regular treat on our local stages. With the exception of some of the short pieces in her mammoth experiment 365 Days/365 Plays and, a couple of years ago, her In the Blood at Portland Actors Conservatory, to my knowledge none of her other plays have been produced here. That drought ends this weekend with the opening of Topdog/Underdog at Milwaukie’s Chapel Theatre, in a Street Scenes production directed by Bobby Bermea and Jamie M. Rea. LaTevin Alexander and Curtis Maxey Jr. star. Bermea, in particular, has been on a hot streak of late, with brilliant performances in Fences at Portland Playhouse this past spring and in Artists Rep’s fall opener Skeleton Crew, fine directing work on Fires in the Mirror for Profile, plus some insightful journalism for (ahem!) Oregon ArtsWatch.

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Third Angle/Hand2Mouth, Bright Moments previews: pop goes classical

Music by Portland pop musicians Elliott Smith and Kelly Pratt meet classical and choral performers in Portland concerts this week

Portlanders of a certain vintage still swoon over the music of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, a leader of Portland’s ‘90s indie-pop insurgency before he moved to LA and died too young just after achieving national fame, not least because of his whispery 1998 performance of Oscar-nominated ballad “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards.

Smith’s renown has steadily grown since his death in 2003. Hand2Mouth Theatre director Jonathan Walters recently heard about a New York show in which classical musicians treated some of Smith’s compositions as so-called “art songs,” and thought: we could totally do something like that in Portland. 

He approached Third Angle New Music about collaborating on such a project, and, naturally, the project became much more than mere arrangements. The Portland ensemble enlisted a half dozen rising Brooklyn-identified composers (ringleader Robert Honstein, Jacob Cooper, Christopher Cerrone, Ted Hearne, Scott Wollschleger and LJ White) to transform their Smith faves into bona fide contemporary classical music, ranging from recognizable arrangements to stranger derangements, even some interludes. The composers cabal then conspired on a unifying concept that Walters & Co. transmogrified into a theatrical presentation, complete with choreographed movement, costumes, lighting and more. 

Elliott Smith

“It’s basically one work composed of many works,” explains Third Angle interim artistic director Sarah Tiedemann. “They came up with the feeling of the show and how it ebbs and flows, and choreographed the movement. They had some lighting designs in mind from the get go. It’s not like a process where one thing happened first. Everything was happening simultaneously.”

You can see the results Thursday and Friday at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre when singers Sam Adams, Hannah Penn, Chloe Payne and Daniel Buchanan join Digitus XX Duo keyboardist Maria Garcia, string players Valdine Mishkin and Holland Phillips, and Oregon Symphony clarinetist James Shields in the hour-long performance piece A Fond Farewell. Singer and Smithophile Amit Erez a/k/a The Secret Sea, will open with Smith songs. 

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Fertile Ground Review: Pep Talk

Hand2Mouth shows theater nerds the inspirational side of gym class.

I was never big on gym class. Self-conscious, unfamiliar with sports rules, picked last. It’s amazing how all that floods back when the players of Pep Talk usher us into a gym, sit us on benches, call roll and make us pop on team pinnies. Middle school, we meet again. But, hang on…the pinnies are purple with a sparkly band around the neck. Their logo is a unicorn with a mermaid tail. There’s only one kind, not two. I guess these are the clues that we’re really on Team Theater. So I can stop breathing into this bag.

peptalk

Pep Talk, the latest performance innovation from the ever-inventive Hand2Mouth Theatre, is part of both Fertile Ground and the Risk/Reward Festival this year. You may recognize “Coach Leddy” (Erin Leddy) for her vulnerable and brilliant 2011 solo show My Mind Is Like An Open Meadow. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I saw “Coach Hammond” (Julie Hammond) as the lead dancer in Isaac Lamb’s 2012 viral marriage proposal video, showing a great deal of team spirit. All four “coaches,” including Liz Hayden and Maesie Speer, are Hand2Mouth ensemble members and were in last year’s exhilarating Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart, a partially improvised rock musical that explored many facets of the meaning of love. The troupe toured that show to New York…and came home disappointed.

At a Risk/Reward preview panel discussion, “Coach” Maisie Speer admitted that H2M’s humbling run at New York’s La MaMa was the impetus for Pep Talk. Though the show earned positive review, it was apparently hampered by tech issues and so woefully under-attended that it closed early. “We came back just feeling kind of down,” Speer explained, “and we thought, why not look to the sports world and borrow some of their motivational tactics for theater, to cheer ourselves and everyone else up?”

Why not? No reason. So, decked out in retro Adidas athletic regalia, brandishing whistles and bullhorns and a soccer ball, the coaches call out audience members and each other with equal eagerness and candor—by last names, of course. “Sometimes you drop the ball. What are you gonna do, Kinnamon? That’s RIGHT. Pick it up!” cheers Coach Hammond as the four coaches all work the room in tandem. The managed pandemonium of multiple coaches yelling at multiple players really does feel a lot like gym class.

At other times (just like the darker side of gym class) one person’s really put on the spot. The coaches themselves lead these interactions by example, especially Coach Speer, who serves a self-imposed stint in the penalty box reciting all her faults, and Coach Leddy, who asks an audience member to critique her…well, her form. Leddy’s pointed questions and her silent gaze at this moment in the program are probably the most bracing elements of the whole show. In keeping with prior performances, she’s a master of mere presence and the surreal intimacy it can bring—even if between times she’s bellowing into a bullhorn.

Not to give too much away, but you will hear Chariots of Fire. You will see Mother Theresa (of all people). You’ll be treated to a word-for-word recitation of Al Davis’s most inspirational speech to the Oakland Raiders before a Super Bowl win (all the more pertinent on the day I saw the show: last Sunday). You’ll watch a “halftime show.” You’ll chant a cheer. And even if the gym environment has always made you feel like a fish out of water, you’ll be rooting for the unicorn mermaids—your team.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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The stage adapts to the strange world of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’

A new production of Ursula K. Le Guin's great novel will get you thinking about sex and gender...

I just finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” for the first time in decades, spurred by the new production by Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre, which opened on Saturday. It’s amazing. The planet Le Guin created brims with the possibility of stories and plots because its structure is so strong and dense with detail, observation, carefully constructed cultural practices, geology, history. She could have spooled out dozens of plots without exhausting her planet or her reader.

And then, just as we’re starting to understand this whole kemmering business, it all ends. Le Guin had other planets and times to visit.

For the uninitiated, kemmering is the sexual practice of the humans on the planet Gethen. Those humans are neutral, sexually speaking, for most of their 26-day cycle, and then when they enter the kemmer state, they can be either male or female, depending on which side of them emerges with their partner in their three days or so of coupling. I don’t think anyone works during a kemmering period. And some people have a kemmer partner for life; some just head over to a kemmer house and encounter others who are in the same excited state. Oh, and a Gethen can both sire and bear a child, depending…

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When Le Guin wrote the novel in 1969, she was ahead of the curve on gender issues back here on Planet Earth. People were coming to grips with the idea that sexuality was more like a spectrum joining male and female, and that nearly all of us weren’t “purely” either one or the other. Pressed, I’d say that we never fully embraced that idea, primarily because the culture constantly divides us into one or the other, though sexual mores have changed since then.

The gender exploration is what I mostly remembered about the novel, when I sat down with it this week. But its so much more than that. The stranger, the journey, the authoritarian society v. the country that seems more like a family quarrel than a nation, the impact of a harsh climate on culture, power, relationships with “truth,” customs of reserve and revelation, mystical practices, an encounter with aliens.

Le Guin could have written around this creation forever. She didn’t, which leaves us with so much imaginative space to fill ourselves, which is even more fun now, I found, than back in the day.

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Julie Hammond and Damian Thompson in "The Left Hand of Darkness"/Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre

Julie Hammond and Damian Thompson in “The Left Hand of Darkness”/Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre

A production of a play is a “reading” of the script by the director, players and designers—a practical analysis. A script based on “The Left Hand of Darkness,” this one by John Schmor and Hand2Mouth artistic director Jonathan Walters (who also directed this production), is a “reading” of the novel—a practical analysis that leads to its conversion to a theater script. We can judge it a couple of ways, if we’re inclined to judgment and humans tend to be. We can decide whether or not its reading opens up the text in interesting ways for us, for example. Or we can base our judgment on how sturdy a platform it creates for the interpreters who are going to read this script. And then we can make a judgment about that interpretation, if we want.

The primary advantage a novelist has over a playwright? Space and time and the reader’s imagination. So, Le Guin talks a LOT about kemmering: she explains it in anthropological terms and then gives examples over the course of the novel. As a reader, I can picture this intercourse as, gulp, intimately as I choose. “The Left Hand of Darkness” has a lot of talk about sex in it, sex consummated and sex repressed, without ever becoming the least bit specific about it.

It has just as much “winter”: Gethen is a very cold planet, sub-arctic at its warmest, and Le Guin never lets us forget it. Usefully, her main character, Ai Genley, is an envoy from the confederation of human-controlled planets, the first to attempt an alliance with Gethen, a stranger who is puzzled by the hermaphroditic aspect of kemmer and who shivers in the cold. He’s always explaining things to us, sometimes at length.

That explication and repetition, theme and variation, transferred to the stage would have the audience squirming uncomfortably for several hours. So, yes, compression.

l’ve gone this long without a plot recap. Do you need one at this point? I admit that I do. Envoy Ai arrives on Gethen as the first ambassador of the Ekumen, a confederation of 83 planets and the nations on them. Gethen has been spotted and “probed” a bit, but Ai is the first deliberate contact. His mission is to convince Karhide, where he lands first, to form an alliance with the Encomium, which as the name suggests is a benevolent organization. He lands in the middle of border dispute between the clans of Karhide and the bureaucrats of Orgoreyn, and he misunderstands a lot of what’s going on around him, specifically with regard to Prime Minister Estraven. Pretty soon both he and Estraven are on the outs in Karhide and then out of the frying pan and into the fire of Orgoreyn.

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I thought that Schmor and Walters analyzed “The Left Hand of Darkness” respectfully and well. They had some stage “fun” with the top bureaucrats of Orgoreyn and the mad king of Karhide: The cast made the leadership of Orgoreyn bureaucracy (I love how close it is to Oregon) seem like the 17th century French court, wackily expressive and guileful at the same time, and Lorraine Bahr plays the king of Karhide, who doesn’t SO mad in the novel, with a dark battiness.

And without the time and space to develop the culture as fully as the novel does, they suggested it with songs. I liked both of these choices: some things work BETTER on stage than the page, and an adaptation ought to take advantage of those things. I thought the song and movement could have been better, though I know that sort of thing can take a huge amount of rehearsal time.

I’m thinking of Hand2Mouth’s “Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart” here, which I thought was truly first-rate in this regard. But I saw it at the end of its run and after it had been two years in the making. I couldn’t help thinking what “The Left Hand of Darkness” would have been like after a performance process like that one.

I wished that Schmor and Walters had pushed the characterizations of the envoy Ai and his counterpart on Gethen Estraven a little more. They hewed close to the novel with them, very straightforward, and there’s room for more exploration. Ai is relatively young (suspended animation of some sort allows him to space travel) and that suggests some ways to take him, for example. And Estraven’s life has already been wracked with loss when Ai meets him (I’m using the male pronoun as Ai does in the novel), and maybe that’s a starting point for that character? I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud.

This isn’t to disparage the actors in those roles, Damian Thompson as Genly Ai and Allison Tigard as Estraven, because they do excellent work carrying us through the story. Their best moment was their closest, when they come close to entering kemmer together (or kemmering or whatever the proper term would be), and in fact, that’s the best example of the sexual part of the Gethenian cycle in the play.

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I’ve mentioned that Gethen is cold. Ai is always complaining about it, and the epic journey at the end of the book is over a giant glacier field, the Ice. That’s almost impossible to convey on stage, especially if the theater is quite warm, as Portland Playhouse was on Saturday. Ice, you say? How about a little for my forehead and neck.

Epic is hard to pull off, of course, but this production manages, mostly by clearing the stage and using props wisely. We move from place to place in our minds, just as we would in Shakespeare’s scene-jumping plays, notably “Antony and Cleopatra.” So is “androgynous.” What do people without specific gender identities look like and how would conventionally gendered humans play them? The production mixes men and women together covered by heavy clothing, and that seems to do it, and Tigard as Estraven is quite successful somehow.

The cast mixes Hand2Mouth regulars (Matt Dieckman, Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Jeb Pearson) with Portland Playhousers (Thompson, Bahr, Jason Rouse), and they work together seamlessly, each playing a number of different roles.

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So, should you read the novel before you see the play as I did? Well, I’m always in favor of a little preparation, I suppose. It helps to keep things straight right from the beginning. On the other hand, the play seems clear enough without this aid. My case for reading is simply that the pleasures of these characters, this story and the delicious details are a joy to repeat.

As I read, I found myself thinking about the issues Le Guin raises: the global view of the outsider who knows so much about so many other worlds but can still get confused in the maze of the particular; Le Guin’s interest in mystical practices (future telling, mind-to-mind communication) and religion; what “gender” really means; and lots of other things. And then the play underscored them, one way or another.

I enjoyed the narrative imperative of the play—to tell the story economically. At something like 2.5 hours, maybe it’s a little long on a warm evening, though much more cutting would have meant a “reconception” of the novel. That’s not something I’m against necessarily, but with Le Guin herself in the audience and the novel close to hand, I preferred the longer take. Maybe you will, too.