Jane Unger

Rody trip: Ortega in Prague

Sound designer and composer Rodolfo Ortega gets a surprise bonus for his stellar work on "Magellanica": a trip to the Prague Quadrennial

The curtain falls, the lights go down, a season comes to an end. The artists have done their work, the audiences have received it, the critics have had their say. The awards ceremonies come and go, met — as always — with equal parts elation, pride, anger and derision. As the dust settled on Portland’s 2018-19 theater season at last week’s Drammy Awards ceremony, 5,000 miles away Rodolfo (Rody) Ortega, composer, musician, and sound designer nonpareil, was receiving recognition of a very different sort: He’d been invited to exhibit his work at the Prague Quadrennial.

What’s the Prague Quadrennial? Ortega had the same question when Stephanie Schwartz, a scenic designer he was working beside on E.M. Lewis’ epic Magellanica at Artists Repertory Theatre, where Ortega is a resident artist, suggested he should submit his compositions from that project to the festival.

Rodolfo Ortega, designer deluxe.

 “‘I have no clue what you’re talking about,’” Ortega remembers saying. “I had never heard of the Prague Quadrennial. So, I started doing a little bit of research and basically it’s this showcase of a variety of different artists from the entire planet that are particularly on the technical side of theater. That is, costume design, scenic design, sound and lights and music composition.”

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Brian Doyle and the language of the stage

The late Oregon writer's novel "Mink River" is a sinuous stream of words as music. Can its lush language be adapted for the theater?

Language, says Portland director Jane Unger to explain why she spent two years pursuing the stage rights to Brian Doyle’s loquacious and widely beloved Mink River, a summary-defying novel stuffed with plotlines, descriptions, lists and riffs on everything from the different types of Northwest wood to the nature and location of time.

Language, says Seattle playwright Myra Platt to explain why she agreed, on spec, to adapt a book that features a talking crow, a bear that rescues an injured boy, a seemingly inexhaustible cast of major and minor characters, and even a miscarried fetus riding a river to the sea.

Language, say reviewers on Amazon and GoodReads to explain why a nonfiction writer’s first novel—an episodic, and at times essayistic, attempt to render in prose the moment-by-moment life of an entire coastal Oregon town—thrilled them more than other books.

“Mink River” author Brian Doyle. Photo courtesy Mary Miller Doyle.

Language, said Doyle himself in numerous interviews to explain what he loved most about writing essays and stories. “I sometimes think there is no writer as addicted to music and swing and rhythm and cadence in prose as me,” he once told Ruminate magazine. “I really do want to push prose as close to music as I can, and play with tone and timbre in my work, play with the sinuous riverine lewd amused pop and song of the American language.”

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A swift and savvy ride

Taking Dad on a roller-coaster vacation to Auschwitz: Lisa Kron's "2.5 Minute Ride" at Profile embarks on a funny, searing journey of discovery

Playwright Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride isn’t easy to describe. Jane Unger, who directed the production on the boards at Profile Theatre, doesn’t even try in her “From the Director” notes. She is aiming for the spirit of discovery for audiences, and I respect that. Still, there are a couple of things we should get out of the way about this play and this production:

First, it’s very funny. For this season-opening one-woman show, Profile cast New York actor Allison Mickelson in the role of Lisa, and she is clearly adept at delivering lines with sarcastic humor. Mickelson, who also starred last fall in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home for Portland Center Stage, makes the perfect Lisa, playing her just uptight enough, self-deprecating, and hiding generations of emotions under layers of biting comedy.

Allison Mickelson, laughing into the abyss. Photo: David Kinder

Second, this is a play about family vacations with her aging father. That sounds simple, right? But the two vacations Lisa describes over the course of this 75-minute play are to two difficult places to take an aging father: a roller-coaster theme park and Auschwitz, the concentration camp where her father’s parents both lost their lives. This point is introduced early in the play, so I hope learning it now won’t detract from your sense of discovery while hearing Lisa’s journey unfold.

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Talented. But are they universal?

In the world premiere of Yussef El Guindi's "The Talented Ones" at Artists Rep, flashes of daring, and longing for more

The tomatoes are rinsed, the lasagna’s ready to go, the beers are out. Cindy’s husband is late for dinner, but in The Talented Ones, Yussef El Guindi’s new play that had its world premiere Saturday night at Artists Repertory Theatre, their guest Patrick is more than happy to chat while Cindy finishes the preparations. She confesses a childhood dream, he encourages her, they laugh. There’s a spark there. There’s familiarity in the way the lights come up mid-conversation, the actors munching on real veggies: it’s the kind of everyday platform we’re used to the theater using to catapult us into deeper questions, explorations of ideas that are inevitably billed as universal.

Khanh Doan, John San Nicolas, and Madeleine Tran in “The Talented Ones.” Photo: Brud Giles

The problem with the idea of “universality” in art has been widely acknowledged: what people generally mean by it is something that is written by and about straight white men. They are the generic, universal mode of drama—everyone else is embellishment, specificity. Artists Rep consistently and admirably resists falling into this trap when marketing its intentionally diverse seasons: The Talented Ones, directed by Jane Unger, is not underlined for its status within the season as An Immigrant Play, but presented as a dark comedy about that most universal of topics (at least in this country, where “universal” and “America” are basically synonyms), the American Dream. This balance between universality and specificity—of being a story about everyone, but also about a narrow slice of human experience—is also one that El Guindi strives to strike within the play itself.

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Broadway Rose's "Hairspray" took home six Drammys, including one for outstanding production. ©2011 ChrisRyanPhoto.com - All Rights Reserved

How many actors does it take to raise the temperature in a room 25 degrees?

If you cast right, just one.

So how hot was it Monday night in the Crystal Ballroom, when a not-quite Cecil B. DeMille cast of hundreds of actors, directors, producers, designers, techies and just plain theater junkies jammed in to party down at  Portland’s 33rd annual Drammy Awards? Pretty darned sweltering. But clearly not, to quote Cole Porter, Too Darn Hot.

As new generations and new theater companies have swept into town over the past few years, the Drammys have taken on an invigorating air of celebration. That’s probably partly because the Drammy board’s decision several years ago to move from a Tony- or Oscar-style single-winner format to multiple awards in each category has removed much of the competitiveness. Sure, there’s disappointment and jealousy and second-guessing: after all, theater folk are only human. But mostly the Drammys are a great big group-hug party. The booze probably doesn’t hurt, either.

There were big winners. Portland Playhouse’s startlingly ambitious The Brother/Sister Plays. Miracle’s Oedipus el Ray. Broadway Rose’s kicky Hairspray. Portland Center Stage’s Oklahoma! Shaking the Tree’s The Tripping Point. And there were happy winners whose shows you might not have heard of. The Quick and Dirty Art Project’s entry might have been The Unseen, but it wasn’t the unheard:  Cameron McFee hauled away hardware for sound design. No doubt everyone in the audience had a favorite that didn’t make the list, but that’s the way the ballgame goes.

This year the Drammy board chose 20 more winners — about 60 — than last, so emcee Todd Van Voris, who under different circumstances might have done something of a stand-up comedy act, kept things clipping along. Acceptance speeches were short and mostly sweet, even though exuberance was clearly in the air. Only one winner, if I recall right, mentioned performing untoward acts on committee members’ bodily parts.

Several speeches were not only gracious but also moving: Susannah Mars’ tribute to her late father, the actor Kenneth Mars, while accepting for actress in a musical in Next to Normal; Victor Mack’s genuine excitement for The Brother/Sister Plays; Luisa Sermol’s exquisite grace in accepting for actress in a lead role in Miracle’s Boleros for the Disenchanted. It was refreshing to hear an out-of-towner — Chavez Ravine, the wonderful costar of Center Stage’s Black Pearl Sings — being so obviously delighted about her experience here. And the terrific, wryly funny playwright Lee Blessing ably set the stage for Jane Unger’s heartfelt observations on the occasion of receiving the special achievement award for her founding and 15 years of running the playwright-centered Profile Theatre.

Here’s a list of the winners, as reported on Oregon Live by The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley, who gives his own observations here.

2012 DRAMMY AWARDS:

Young Performer (2)

Dylan and Bryce Earhart, The Loman Family Picnic (Jewish Theatre Collaborative)

Choreography, Musical (1)

Joel Ferrell, Oklahoma! (Portland Center Stage)

Music Director (2)

Alan Lytle, Wizard of Oz (Pixie Dust Productions)
Rick Lewis, Hairspray (Broadway Rose Theatre Company)

Pit Ensemble (2)

Spring Awakening, Live on Stage
13, Staged!

Musical Actress in a Supporting Role (2)

Marisha Wallace, Oklahoma! (Portland Center Stage)
Meghan McCondless, Next to Normal (Artists Repertory Theatre)

Musical Actor in a Supporting Role (3)

Jarran Muse, Oklahoma! (Portland Center Stage)
Joe Theissen, Wizard of Oz (Pixie Dust Productions)
Todd Tschida, Next to Normal (Artists Repertory Theatre)

Musical Actor in a Lead Role (1)

Dan Murphy, Hairspray (Broadway Rose Theatre Company)

Musical Actress in a Lead Role (3)

Blythe Woodland, Hairspray (Broadway Rose Theatre Company)
Sara Catherine Wheatley, Annie Get Your Gun (Lakewood Theatre Company)
Susannah Mars, Next to Normal (Artists Repertory Theatre)

Scenic Design (3)
Tony Cisek, The North Plan (Portland Center Stage)
Daniel Meeker, Red (Portland Center Stage)
Tal Sanders, Locomotion (Oregon Children’s Theatre)

Costume Design (2)

Eyan Candini, Hairspray (Broadway Rose Theatre Company)
Jeff Cone, Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline (Portland Center Stage)

Projection Design (1)

Cameron McFee, The Storm in the Barn (Oregon Children’s Theatre)

Lighting Design (4)

Jerry Mouawad, Zugzwang (Imago Theatre)
Kristeen Willis Crosser, Oedipus el Rey (Miracle Theatre Group)
Don Crossley, The Storm in the Barn (Oregon Children’s Theatre)
Jeff Woods, Locomotion (Oregon Children’s Theatre)

Original Music (1)

Black Prairie, The Storm in the Barn (Oregon Children’s Theatre)

Sound Design (2)

Cameron McFee, The Unseen (The Quick and Dirty Art Project)
Em Gustason, The American Pilot (Theatre Vertigo)

Special Achievement Award

Jane Unger, Profile Theatre Project (Presented by Lee Blessing)

Spotlight Awards

Nicole Gladwin, Stage Manager
Amanda Swinford, Crew
Kay Olsen, Other

Choreography, Play (1)

Rebecca Martinez, The Brother/Sister Plays (Portland Playhouse)

Fight Choreography (2)

Tom Moorman and Kristen Mun, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (Action/Adventure Theatre)
Kristen Mun, Oedipus el Rey (Miracle Theatre Group)

Actor in a Supporting Role (3)

Duffy Epstein, The Pain and the Itch (Third Rail Repertory Theatre)
Tim True, The North Plan (Portland Center Stage)
Shelly Lipkin, Collapse (Third Rail Repertory Theatre)

Actress in a Supporting Role (3)

Dana Millican, King John (Northwest Classical Theatre Company)
Victoria Blake, To Kill a Mockingbird (Public House Theatre Company)
Amy Beth Frankel, The Pain and the Itch (Third Rail Repertory Theatre)

Solo Performance (2)

Gavin Hoffman, To Cope and The Tripping Point (Shaking the Tree Studio)
Andy Lee-Hillstrom, The Centering (Shoe Box Theatre)

Actor in a Lead Role (4)

Nick Ortega, Oedipus el Rey (Miracle Theatre Group)
Damian Thompson, The Brother/Sister Plays (Portland Playhouse)
Mario Calcagno, The American Pilot (Theatre Vertigo)
Bobby Bermea, The Brother/Sister Plays (Portland Playhouse)

Actress in a Lead Role (4)

Chavez Ravine, Black Pearl Sings (Portland Center Stage)
Ramona Lisa, The Brother/Sister Plays (Portland Playhouse)
Dainichia Noreault, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (Action/Adventure Theatre)
Luisa Sermol, Boleros for the Disenchanted (Miracle Theatre Group)

Portland Civic Theatre Guild Awards

Portland Playhouse, Mary Brand Award ($2000)
Defunkt Theatre, Portland Civic Theatre Award ($2500)
Action/Adventure Theatre, Portland Civic Theatre Award ($2500)
Larisa Kramer, Leslie O Fulton Award ($5000)

Original Script (4)

Ellen Margolis, Splasher and The Tipping Point (Shaking the Tree Studio)
Milo Mowery, El Zorrito: The Legend of the Boy Zorro (Northwest Children’s Theatre)
Matthew B. Zrebski, To Cope and The Tripping Point (Shaking the Tree Studio)
Karin Magaldi, Jack and the Bones and The Tripping Point (Shaking the Tree Studio)

Director (4)

Peggy Taphorn, Hairspray (Broadway Rose Theatre Company)
Elizabeth Huffman, Oedipus el Rey (Miracle Theatre Group)
Lava Alapai, Locomotion (Oregon Children’s Theatre)
Victor Mack, The Brother/Sister Plays (Portland Playhouse)

Producer (1)

Samantha Van Der Merwe, The Tripping Point (Shaking the Tree Studio)

Production (3)

Oedipus el Rey, Miracle Theatre Group
Hairspray, Broadway Rose Theatre Company
The Brother/Sister Plays, Portland Playhouse

How did we get inside this weird little circle called the theater, anyway?

With the 33rd Drammy Awards, Portland’s annual celebration of its season of theater, taking over the Crystal Ballroom tonight, it’s a fair question. And on Saturday afternoon, as I sat in the Wieden+Kennedy Atrium for Profile Theatre’s season-ending Playwrights Forum and listened to an affable and obviously very smart guy named Arthur Kopit swap war stories with a distinguished claque of fellow writers and directors, I got a peek at the time the doorway to the circle cracked open for me.

It was a bit of a jolt, to tell the truth, because I’d pretty much forgotten about it. But there it was, in the lanky form of Kopit, whose wonderful play Wings kicked Profile into being 15 years ago and who will always be, in my mind, the author of the play with the best damned title in the English-speaking world, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad.

Arthur Kopit, dangerous man.

At the time I was a college kid, a sophomore or maybe a junior, and although I was deeply involved in the arts between overtime sessions with my double major – protesting the Vietnam War and drinking deeply from Dionysus’ cup – theater didn’t much enter the equation. My arts were mostly writing and music. I was immersed in jazz and folk music and, thanks to a couple of Leontyne Price albums, a bit of opera. Beat-up old string bass in tow, I gigged all over town. I knew painters and even got involved in a “happening,” helping to transform into a work of art a house that was about to be torn down: one brief shining moment of expressionistic crawl-through glory before it met its doom.

And then I signed up for a speech class, which was being offered through the theater department instead of the English department, and I met a girl who was, as she declared a little breathlessly, an actress, and as one thing led to another I found myself hanging out with the cast and crew of the show she was working on: yes, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. And the people were frankly kind of nuts but also smart and a lot of fun.

The infatuation didn’t last long. I can’t remember the girl’s name. Her father happened to teach at the university, and her parents loved me: They’d invite me over for dinner, and apparently approved of my table manners and ability to carry on a semblance of an adult conversation. But as happens so often with college flirtations, the fever broke quickly and easily, without leaving any damage. The actress and I realized we didn’t really have much in common, and wandered amiably off our separate ways.

Oh Dad, however, stayed with me: Kopit never knew, but he’d planted a seed. A few years later, after stumbling from this to that to a few other things and landing at a good-sized daily newspaper, I found myself inexplicably sitting in a dark room, scratching notes on a little pad. And despite the title of that Kopit comedy, I wasn’t feeling a bit sad. Strange as it was, and even sitting on the other side of the action, the place felt like home.

This side or that, we all take our own curious journeys into this darkened little circle of realities and illusions. As one of Saturday’s panelists said (I wasn’t taking notes, and don’t remember which), as long as there are kids who don’t fit in, they will find each other, and create theaters. Which is as good a reason as any to head on down to the Crystal Ballroom tonight and have a party.

 *

Profile’s Playwrights Forum panelists were a distinguished lot, and their reminiscences were insightful and a lot of fun. One of them, Lee Blessing, happens to be one of my favorite contemporary playwrights. A long-ago Reedie, he’ll be at tonight’s Drammys to present a special award to Jane Unger, who founded the playwright-centered Profile and is retiring.

Blessing and Kopit were joined by Constance Congdon, author of the play with the second-best damned title in the English-speaking world, Tales of the Lost Formicans. And directors Marshall Mason – founder of New York’s fabled Circle Rep – and Circle Rep alum Daniel Irvine were on hand to talk about that company’s close working relationship with playwrights, especially the late Lanford Wilson, whose plays Profile has been celebrating this season. Lue Morgan Douthit, the erudite literary and dramaturgy director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, moderated.

Mason and Irvine celebrated Circle Rep’s highly unusual practice of including playwrights as full company members involved in every step of developing a work for the stage: as someone commented, it was the way Shakespeare worked. Blessing, Congdon and Kopit talked about the more usual way that American playwrights work, which is mostly in isolation with occasional drop-ins on festivals and producing companies.

All spoke to the essential mystery that is the theater, the way that characters in a good play take over the writing, and Kopit, in response to a question about how he entered college as an engineering major and exited as a playwright, noted that the mysteries still need a solid structure. Congdon commented hilariously on the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, and plaintively about the perverse transgressions of daily newspaper reviewers. I happened to be sitting next to Marty Hughley, and thought it was a good thing she didn’t know we were there, or she might have hopped down from the stage and bopped us over the shoulders with an umbrella.

It was fitting that the forum celebrated Unger’s theatrical stamp on the city and her passing of the baton (Adriana Baer replaces her as Profile’s artistic director), because the panelists represented an old guard that not so very long ago made up the American theater’s brave new world. It was refreshing to hear how young they’ve managed to stay and how open they’ve remained.

The truth about theater (about any art, really) is that it shifts as you shift. Unlike a mathematical equation, it’s unmeasurable. Because an act of theater isn’t complete without an audience, and every audience member is unique, you and I and the person three seats over truly never do see the same play. Beyond that, if you return to a production a week later, you’ve changed, and the actors have changed, so the play has shifted, too. This isn’t cause for alarm. It simply means we’re alive, and possibly even paying attention. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, So it goes.