jaw festival

Holmes renovation: a classic twist

At the JAW New Play Fest, playwright Kate Hamill takes her updated Sherlock mystery for a trial spin, and audiences go along for the ride

“Why are you here?” Professor Moriarty asked the audience at the beginning of Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B. “In a bewildering world, why come and see more souls floundering in pain and violence and moral ambiguity?”

Because, he says, “You want solutions.”

Playwright Kate Hamill’s newest work is set in present day and incorporates various plots from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but the pandemic, and the various existential crises it’s engendered, hums in the background. It’s just one of the ways that Hamill updates Holmes and Watson for the 21st century.

Reading “Ms. Holmes” at JAW, from left: Darius Pierce, Claire Rigsby, Andrea White, Treasure Lunan. Photo Courtesy Portland Center Stage

Portland Center Stage held a reading of Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B during its JAW New Play Festival last week. The play, which is in co-development with Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is still in its early stages: The first time Hamill heard it read aloud was three days before the show, and she’s since cut 25 pages from the draft, proving that JAW provides an extraordinary opportunity to see the creative process at work.

“Audiences can come and see the sausage being made,” Hamill said in a post-show Q&A.

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Tim & Samie: A rare partnership

ArtsWatch Weekly: An enduring friendship in art; a new opera leader; Ursula K. Le Guin's stamp of approval; performance & music & more

PORTLAND’S LONG BEEN A MAKERS SORT OF TOWN – a do-it-yourself, homespun, Saturday Market, farmers’ market, craft-centric, street-art, life-as-art kind of place, spinning its populist creativity from handmade craft to handmade food to handmade clothing and jewelry, and reaching its tentacles upward into fine art, whether it’s found in museums or galleries or home studios or among the booths and displays of street fairs. Not unlike the centers of the Arts & Crafts Movement that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s a place that believes art and artisanship fit together in a heightened, rounded, everyday way. As the city and state slowly waken from the pandemic shutdown, people are beginning to gather again – to see things and maybe buy things, and to rekindle the lost pleasure of being together, shoulder to shoulder (or maybe a little more distanced, and maybe still wearing masks) in a public place, simply celebrating the joy of being alive.

Left: “Arizona #2,” Timothy Wayne Stapleton, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 36 inches. Right: “Harmonic Memories,” Timothy Wayne Stapleton and Samie Jo Pfeifer, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 30 inches.

One of those revived gatherings, the Slabtown Makers Market, will be hosting visitors this weekend, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 24-25, at NW Marine Art Works, 2516 N.W. 29th Ave., Portland, a haven of artists studios amid a sprawl of former heavy-industry buildings. More than 40 artists and crafters will be showing and selling their goods, and giving back a little, too: 5 percent of sales will be donated to local nonprofits.

Amid the clayworks and macrame and baked goods and clothing and artworks by the likes of painters Daniel Duford and Chinese American artist Clement Lee, one booth leaps out: the one being operated by Samie Jo Pfeifer, friend and assistant to Tim Stapleton for four years before he died in September 2020 from the effects of ALS, or Lou Gherig’s Disease. Tim was a beloved and multitalented artist in Portland for many years, known in varying circles as a theatrical stage designer of uncommon creativity, a graceful writer whose stories often looped back to his early life in the coal-mining regions of Kentucky, an actor, a teacher at various colleges, and a visual artist whose paintings also regularly took their inspiration from the people and culture of the Coal Belt. You can read much more about Tim and his life in Farewell to the Tangerine Window, Marty Hughley’s heartfelt ArtsWatch memorial to him from last October.

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Vertigo goes dark and complex

The company that's "the David Lynch of Portland theater" strikes up its 22nd season with a broodingly funny world premiere

Theatre Vertigo has spent the last twenty-two years deftly, sometimes recklessly, spelunking through the dark underbelly of 21st century America. The company’s body of work from Hellcab to Poona the F*** Dog to 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan to Hunter Gatherers has provided a road map through the neuroses and psychoses of a society crazy enough to make Donald Trump the most powerful man in the world, and it’d done it with incisive intelligence and a dogged resolve to never take itself too seriously. Humor is as much a part of the company’s thematic oeuvre as its willingness to walk on the edge of madness. It’s the David Lynch of Portland theater, approaching the madness and mayhem underneath the shopping malls and manicured lawns of contemporary American culture not just with fascination but also with compassion and even affection.

The play that opens Vertigo’s twenty-second season Saturday at the Shoebox Theater, Dominic Finocchiaro’s complex, is right in its wheelhouse. It’s funny, lyrical and not for the faint of heart. At times it feels like all of American pop culture of the past forty years appears, from pop music to reality shows to serial killers (one of the leads is even named Jeffrey – just sayin’), is referred to or makes an appearance in complex. It’s like a nightmare that doesn’t terrify you but leaves you profoundly disturbed. You laughed but you’re not sorry you’re awake. It’s a natural fit for Vertigo.

Life in the complex? It’s complex. Theatre Vertigo photo

Which is all the more interesting because Vertigo, despite the many years of changing roster and sensibilities, has made its bones doing the plays that the larger companies just won’t do. complex, however, received its first professional workshop at Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival some six years ago.

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DramaWatch: a friendship in song

Meredith Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis launch a show at CoHo. Plus: JAW weekend, new in Ashland, 100 fires this time, last call.

“And remember your main relationship to everything you bring is that you’re gonna have to carry it, so choose wisely.”

That sounds like a good bit of practical travel advice. But because it is a line from a play, it also has other meanings, greater resonances within a story, and perhaps within the lives of those who come to see that story unfold onstage. 

Meredith Kaye Clark (left) and Katherine Murphy Lewis: in Tonight Nothing, a friendship to unpack. Photo: Steve Brian

In Tonight Nothing, by Merideth Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis, one of the characters, called K, is prone to packing up and heading off — to find adventure, to find herself, to escape some disappointment or other, vague or acute. Yet she is loathe to choose, to leave things behind, whether that’s a stuffed animal, an electric wok or something less tangible, something she’ll have to carry not in her backpack but in her heart or her psyche. 

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DramaWatch: Third Rail’s the charm

The lowdown on this week's openings and closings, new seasons on the way, and a blast of a party coming up for Third Rail Rep

“When Third Rail first came on the scene,” says Maureen Porter, “there was little else happening. It was a different scene and a different city.”

So it was, back in 2005 when Third Rail Repertory Theatre — already a couple of years worth of planning meetings into its life as a fledgling company — rocketed onto theatergoers’ radar with an acclaimed production of Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events. An artists’ collaborative that started out as a fully professional Equity company, they were the little guy that could, quickly coming to be considered in the front rank of Portland theaters alongside Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep; significantly smaller in budget and number of productions, but consistently punching above their weight with top-quality work.

Maureen Porter

Not long after Third Rail began to solidify its reputation, I switched from my longtime position at The Oregonian, covering popular music, to writing about theater — an art form about which I knew all too little. (Yes, yes, I know — some things never change.) I quickly fell in love with theater, and Third Rail was (along with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, I suppose I’d have to say Artists Rep) why. The company picked great plays, comedies with devilish bite, dramas with surprising, insightful slants. The acting was consistently arresting, featuring a steady core of talented company members. The direction (in the early years, always by founding artistic director Slayden Scott Yarbrough) showed a scrupulous attention to detail, textual interpretation carried out coherently and cohesively through  all aspects of design and performance. The tremulous containment of Gretchen Corbett as a woman in political danger in A Lesson From Aloes; Porter’s fantastic (literally) bipolar mood swing in The Wonderful World of Dissocia; pretty much every little thing about Enda Walsh’s antic yet high-minded Penelope (a take-off on the Odyssey, set in an abandoned swimming pool)…for several years, it was high point after high point.

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