Hedwig and the Angry Inch

At PCS, a season for all sorts.

From "Hair" to "Hedwig" to "Emma" and August Wilson's "Gem," a broad range of stories populates Portland Center Stage's 2020-'21 season.

As is the case with pretty much every large theater company in America, Portland Center Stage is trying to broaden the variety of people whose stories are presented in the plays it produces. For the 2020-2021 season, that variety will include long-haired hippies, passionate painters, Latino wrestlers, German rock singers, ancient African-American healers, Asian-American immigrants, bayou brothers, small-town young lovers, and plenty of whatever you want to call Jane Austen’s characters.

PCS recently announced its programming for next season, and there’s something for, well, perhaps not everyone, but for many sorts of folks.

Portland Center Stage will again celebrate the holidays Austen-tatiously with “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Photo: Russell J Young

Looked at another way, the ten productions that will be on offer range from musicals to satires, cultural commentaries to intimate glimpses into history, to whatever you want to call light-hearted adaptations of Jane Austen stories.

Season-ticket renewal is open now, and new season tickets become available Friday, March 13. So here’s a quick look at what’s coming (Note: The dates listed likely refer to the full slate of public performances. Official opening of each production may occur later than the first date indicated here.)

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DramaWatch: “Indecent” proposal

Artists Rep and Profile stage Paula Vogel's play about an infamous episode in theater history. Plus: other openings, closings and theatrical miscellany.

Two women, in love — kissing even! That was controversial stuff a century ago when the Sholem Asch play “God of Vengeance” made its English-language premiere on Broadway. Paula Vogel’s 2017 Tony nominated play Indecent tells the tale of Asch’s iconoclastic approach to the stage, his (originally Yiddish) play’s worldwide success, and the tragic consequences of its travails in America.

A staged reading of God of Vengeance presented last month by Readers Theatre Rep showed how potent its characters and themes remain, as well as what an important step it was in the development of a more modern kind of theater. A recent essay for ArtWatch by Jae Carlsson lauded God of Vengeance, raising it up as an example of a theater aesthetic that’s  “off-kilter,” “naked,” “raw…real…slightly out-of-control,” while posing questions about how Indecent may or may not honor this inspiration. Despite a persistently skeptical tone toward it, Carlsson doesn’t give much indication of having seen the latter play. And though it might well ascribe to the more scrupulously organized psychological approach that Carlsson casually dismisses as “neoclassical,” Indecent is a powerful work in its own right.

Paula Vogel’s Indecent, in a joint production by Artists Rep and Profile Theatre, at Lincoln Hall. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

Co-commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” history-play program (along with Yale Repertory Theatre, where it premiered in 2015), Indecent was staged in Ashland last season, in a production by Shana Cooper that I found both captivating and heartbreaking. The remarkable Linda Alper, a veteran of OSF and Artists Rep, was in that production and serves as a kind of bridge to the Artists Rep/Profile Theatre co-production opening at Lincoln Hall. Here, Alper joins a veritable Portland all-star team, with the likes of Michael Mendelson, Gavin Hoffman, Jamie M. Rea, Joshua Weinstein and David Meyers.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: eyeballing the state of the state

Vision 2020, new/old Five Oaks Museum, music of Second Winter, blood sweat & fears at the theater, storm of the (last) century

HERE AT ARTSWATCH WE’RE ENTERING THE 2020s NOT WITH A WHIMPER BUT A BANG. On New Year’s Day we began a series called Vision 2020 – twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the coming decade.

Yulia Arakelyan of Wobbly Dance in a scene from Wobbly’s film Tidal. Photo: Kamala Kingsley

We started planning for this series several months ago, looking for potential voices that are insightful, informed, and sometimes provocative. We wanted to hear not just from the Portland area, but from around Oregon. And we wanted to dig deep. Some of the people we’ve interviewed are well-known artists. Some you might never have heard of. Some work behind the scenes. Some are up-and-coming. Several are from vital communities that have been under-recognized. All are creating significant chapters in the Oregon Story.

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Long story short: ‘Hedwig’ rocks

20 years in, Triangle's lean and direct production starring Dale Johannes brings a landmark musical back to life

Long story short: Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been around for 20 years, has been staged four times in Portland by Triangle Productions, and its once edgy ideas about gender fluidity, social acceptance and self-actualization now seem pretty unremarkable.

All of this is all to the good. So is the fact that the show remains tart and sweet, funny, touching, energetic and a hell of a good time.

Created by librettist John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask (Triangle’s playbill lists both book and lyrics as by Mitchell, but other sources, including the show’s official Broadway website, credit the lyrics to Trask), Hedwig is a rock musical that actually rocks, and this version stars a performer — Dale Johannes — who brings the right balance of punch and polish to the vocals.

Dale Johannes as Hedwig. Triangle Productions photo

Johannes struts his stuff here — or, well, maybe it should be struts her stuff, in this case — as Hedwig Robinson, a commercially underachieving rock singer with a snippy attitude, a sharply delineated backstory and a potent blend of resentment and yearning. Hedwig once was Hansel Schmidt, a boy growing up in East Germany, but in order to pass over to the West has undergone an unsuccessful operation, summed up in the most forceful and memorable chorus here: “Six inches forward and five inches back: I got an angry inch!” So, not quite trans. If this were written today, no doubt there’d be some nongendered, or at least nonbinary, pronouns going on, but in this show’s linguistic frame, Hedwig is a she.

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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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Let’s do the time warp again

Portland's newest, suitably campy onstage "Rocky Horror" reveals itself as … Hedwig's mom from the tough times

Ask even an enthusiast what actually happens in The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show, and you may get a patchy answer. Ask ’em to sing you the songs, though, and you’ll get an earful!

When Rocky Horror premiered in 1973 as a live musical and then burgeoned into a 1975 feature film, no one involved could’ve possibly anticipated its universal appeal or its inexhaustible stamina. The movie defines “cult classic,” drawing droves of loyal fans to weekly midnight screenings, and Portland’s own Clinton Street Theater now boasts having the longest-consecutive-running show in the world, advertising last weekend’s screening as its 36-year anniversary. Never far from its origins as a stage show, Rocky Horror the movie has spontaneously inspired fans in the theater seats to morph into an ad-hoc ensemble cast, dressing the part, dialoguing with actors, and using props on cue. It’s probably safe to say RHPS levels of crowd participation are unparalleled in modern cinema.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewBut you probably know all this—blah blah, blah—and you want to know, “How is Portland’s currently running live Rocky Horror Show?”

You know, it doesn’t disappoint! Produced by Live On Stage and running at the World Trade Center through Nov. 8, it is as excellent as it has to be to satisfy such passionate fans, and the show further favors devotees with a “participation pack” containing all the necessary props (confetti, glow sticks, rubber gloves, etc) for full engagement.

Rocky Promo 3

Nartan Woods as Frank deserves due credit for pulling off a ferociously glamorous approximation of Tim Curry with a bit more “sister” snap; Matt Brown and Leah Seligman are an appropriately silly and sympathetic Brad and Janet; Eric Little is a regal, menacing Riff Raff; Claire Rigsby a simmering Magenta; Lindsay Schramm an effervescent Columbia. Gary Norman narrates with a crackle of old-timey radio, a wisp of Vincent Price, and a trusty Portland-style PBR tallboy in hand. Gabriel Mikalson as the naive Rocky and Darren Hurley as Eddie are, by comparison, just okey-dokey. On Saturday, Eddie’s stage time felt too brief, Rocky’s pauses too long. Dr. Frank N. Furter’s and Rocky’s spoken lines often got lost; whether the fault lay in sound mixing or diction was hard to decipher.

By the way—meow, scratch—this show’s young ensemble cast of phantoms/Transylvanians explodes with energy and drips with attitude! Doubling as actual ushers at the top of the show, they maintain a mood of sneering sleaze with their every glance and pose. And all are stellar singers and dancers. You can’t look away.

Now back to that question most people are bad at answering: What actually happens in Rocky Horror?

In a benevolent recounting, an uptight couple are treated to some cross-dressing pageantry that awakens their sexual awareness. In a sinister—yet technically literal—read, a) we learn that transsexuals are from another planet b) a psychopathic cult leader imprisons and rapes two virgins, and kills and eats a man. So what, exactly, makes that okay…triumphal, even?

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