jaw festival

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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ArtsWatch Weekly: Banging the can

David Lang's "Match Girl" opera, JAW snaps open, Chamber Music Northwest's race to the finish, Brian Cox chats, art and science meet

Poor little match girl, and chamber music too: David Lang, cofounder of the effusive Bang On a Can and 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Little Match Girl Passion, is all over the Portland cultural calendar this week.

Damien Geter, Cree Carrico, and Nicole Mitchell in David Lang’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” at Portland Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Portland Opera’s shift to a mainly summer season concludes with a double bill of Lang’s contemporary one-acts Match Girl and The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, opening Friday in the intimate Newmark Theatre. And his music will be on the bill Thursday and Friday at Chamber Music Northwest. Get the lowdown on Lang and his fascinating career from ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell in his profile David Lang: From iconoclast to eminence.

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JAW new works fest: a play-by-play

Snapshots from the 10 works in progress at this summer's festival

In line at Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival, I bumped into a writing colleague. “Are you reviewing this?” I asked him. “Oh, no!” he replied. Rose [Riordan, the festival director] wouldn’t like that!”

Sure enough, as the fest progressed and each show closed with a talkback, Riordan repeatedly stated that it was too early in the playwrights’ process to hear opinions. She asked the inquisitive JAW audience to “put your question in a form that doesn’t reveal your opinion,” and seemed to bristle whenever someone disobeyed, even to give a compliment.

So let’s not call this a review; let’s call it a “re-cap”—of plays still in progress, still in flux. And let’s not call the ideas expressed here “opinions,” but rather “a sense.” ArtsWatch spent all weekend at JAW, catching the four featured plays and the six shorts by Promising Playwrights, and came away with “a sense” of each show. How could we do otherwise?

 

The whole crew of JAW gets some shade at The Armory.

The whole crew of JAW gets some shade at The Armory.

 

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The JAW festival/2013: Intimate, sexy and intense

Two days, four plays and the sense that theater is changing...

Day Two of Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival: Several of the actors from the previous day lounged outside the theater chatting. Playwright Dominic Finocchiaro, the author of Day One’s delightful “complex,” arrived in Brooklyn-nerdy bright turquoise sneakers and that modern haircut that forms a ridge/wedge along the top of the head. And Polaris Dance Theatre performed dances to spoken texts in a totally packed lobby. We cheered, because they really were quite good and they were within whispering distance, if we’d decided to murmur some quiet encouragement to them.

Nearly everyone was dressed informally for our delicious July weather, and we were taking advantage of one of the city’s best arts bargains, which this year involved four brand-spanking new plays, four short curtain raisers by four high-school playwrights, and four lobby shows that took us from hip-hop to gamelan, all for free. So, yes, the audience was happy, and once we settled into the chill of the large Gerding Theater, we were appreciative of our good fortune. Then the work spooled out onstage.

Drew Harper, Renata Friedman, Amir Arison read through Threesome by Yussef El Guindi. Photo by Sarah Mitchell

Drew Harper, Renata Friedman, Amir Arison read through Threesome by Yussef El Guindi. Photo by Sarah Mitchell

I’m about to make some comment about that work, but please, don’t think that I’m in any way “reviewing” it. The four plays on view are in flux, going through the labyrinth that new American plays by playwrights of good pedigree must negotiate to ever see the light of our major American stages. The plays could change; heck, they could disappear or get swallowed into a new version that bears only faint resemblance to what we saw this weekend. And the directors and actors for these readings (they had scripts in hand) were serving those playwrights for now, not the audience.

So, yes, an informal audience and four plays in progress, but that doesn’t mean that things didn’t get intense or that the stakes were low. Anytime an actor enters the stage and tries to make the audience feel that its attention will be rewarded, stakes are high, aren’t they? And these scripts, which each received a couple of weeks of close work in Portland, represent months and years of investment by the playwrights involved. The audience’s appreciation was well-placed.

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Before I go on, I have to remind myself that this little concentration of new plays is a very small sample of the universe of new plays fighting to make it to stage out there. It is not necessarily representative. In fact, this set didn’t include any plays by women playwrights, which I consider unfortunate, though a couple of them had excellent women’s roles. But I’m still going to generalize!

Let’s see. Generalization Number One: The contemporary mania for using material we once would have considered personal and private extends to theater. Sexual topics and practices of all sorts popped up in these plays. So did intestinal functions. See? I belong to a generation that employs euphemisms for diarrhea, at least in print, and certainly wouldn’t make a plot point out of it, except in comedies of the broadest sort. OK, now that I’ve typed that I’m remembering a bunch of counter examples (the astronauts trying to hold it in “The Right Stuff”!), especially on the edges of alt.literature back in the day and broad comedies. Anyway, “Threesome” by Yussef El Guindi describes a very unlucky coincidence of sex, curry and lower bowel function.

A lot of the sexual material involved gay characters, but this usually wasn’t a BIG DEAL in the plays. I wouldn’t call them “gay plays,” like the pioneering work of 1980s and ‘90s (Larry Kramer, Terrence McNally, Harvey Fierstein, Martin Sherman, Tony Kushnerm, etc.). In American theater, gayness has been mainstreamed, just as it increasingly is in American life, at least on the coasts. In fact, some of the gay relationships couldn’t be more problematic. I’m thinking of David Lavine’s “The Ocean All Around Us,” which describes the relationship between two orphaned brothers, one significantly older than the other.

The playwrights often played around with gender roles. Is our sex our destiny? To what extent does it define us and our reactions to our circumstances? “Threesome” sketches the tension between an Egyptian couple (well, they mention Cairo a lot anyway), and though the man makes the case that modern capitalism chews up women and men indiscriminately, it’s pretty clear that the sharper teeth are reserved for women. And in David Jacobi’s “Mai Dang Lao,” which is set among a crew of fast food workers, the lives of the women are more distorted than the men’s, though overall maybe it supports the argument of the Arab man in “Threesome.”

Three of the four plays were funny, or at least started out that way. Both “Threesome” and “Mai Dang Lao” were hilarious for their first acts, before u-turning into drama of a most difficult sort, the place where politics becomes personal. The audience made this turn easily, I think, and eventually I went along, though for me maybe “Threesome” was a bit didactic and the collapse and disintegration of the fast-food society in “Mai Dang Lao” seemed sudden.

I haven’t talked as much about Finocchiaro’s “complex,” which started out funny and kept going, through the bloody apocalypse in a New York high-rise, which may or may not have been committed by a seemingly mild new karaoke devotee. The playwright is a Reed grad, and his play is full of witty lines and situations and verbal hijinks, David Ives-like, perhaps? To me, it seemed closest to a date with a theater company, though the rivers of blood are going to be a challenge for the design team!

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All of the playwrights, though, had great credentials, and their command of their material impressed me. Lavine’s play set sail (going backwards, like Pinter’s “Betrayal”) into the darkest of situations. which the playwright concealed for a time within an arson mystery. El Guindi’s begins like a sex farce, with a struggling couple’s attempt to reconcile via the threesome of the title, but once we figure out why they are struggling, the play becomes wrenching. And Jacobi’s “Mai Dang Lao” imagines what happens when a McDonald’s manager is pranked into subjecting an employee to the worst sort of harassment (which actually happened in Kentucky in 2005), though it starts out with a set of funny caricature employees and managers. The language of bureaucracy and cheap psychology is perfect.

Although I enjoyed the plays, I loved the gameness of the actors, their skill, the chemistry they established onstage, even through the most demanding, intimate scenes. I’m thinking of the brothers in “The Ocean All Around Us,” played by Amir Arison and John Magaro; the victim in “Mai Dang Lao,” played by Danielle Purdy; and the couple in “Threesome,” played by Arison and Renata Friedman (though we should also point out Drew Harper’s mostly comic third wheel in the same play). The comedy was especially deft at times: Andy Lee-Hillstrom cracked up the cast in “complex,” Harper did the same to Arison in “Threesome,” and the ensemble comedy of “Mai Dang Lao” gave everyone a shot. We had our laughs at this year’s JAW.

My fear at JAW is that too many theater fans will show up, and I won’t get in. The crowds weren’t THAT big this year, though they were very healthy. I think if I wanted to introduce someone to the joys of theater, I might start by taking them to the festival. The investment is low (just your time!), things are nice and casual, the audience is responsive and ready, and an education into the process of theater-making is at hand. That’s pretty perfect.

Edgar Meyer/ Photo by Jim Leisy, Chamber Music Northwest

This weekend I resembled the bees in my backyard, nosing around for a little something to take back to the hive, you know, a little Edgar Meyer sweetness at Chamber Music Northwest, a couple of blossoms at the JAW festival, another visit to Dance+ for Part Two.

Unlike the indefatigable bees, though, I’m not intending to build an entire honeycomb from the experience. And here, I’m taking leave of the metaphor altogether, especially because I know next to nothing about bees to begin with nor their alleged indefatigability. For all I know, bees start their days with the best of intentions and then find themselves distracted by less-than-urgent business on the Internet, just as I do! Hey, who DID win that air pistol gold medal?

Where was I? Right. No honeycombs and no more bees. (I am suppressing SO many bee puns right now…)

“The People’s Republic of Portland,” Lauren Weedman, JAW festival: You know the deal with JAW, right? Staged readings of plays-in-progress, which means that anything you see or hear could change or disappear before it hits the stage in a real production. And that means getting too deeply into the scripts is foolhardy, and the actors haven’t had time to develop their characters fully, so questioning a particular characterization doesn’t make sense, either.

That doesn’t mean we can’t write SOMETHING about the shows we see, though, although it’s likely, in Weedman’s case, just to confirm what you probably know already: Lauren Weedman is funny! And her reading was more like a progress report on how her reporting on the topic of Portland is going rather than a first read of a finished monologue. So… how’s she doing?

Lauren Weedman in “Bust” at Portland Center Stage/Owen Carey

Well, hard to say, because “Portlandia” has made this commissioned piece (by Portland Center Stage: the show is set to debut in April) difficult. How much satire can the city sustain? Food jokes, personal enlightenment jokes, gay jokes, stripper jokes? Check, check and check!

Trying to get off the usual merry-go-round of approved Weird Portland destinations (I remember when all we really had in the way of Approved Weird was the Church of Elvis and the Sandy Jug tavern), she wandered into some serious issues. But the problem is that Serious Portland is a lot like everyplace else: We struggle with changes to our neighborhoods that force out one class or race of residents and replaces them with others, for example. Maybe we’re trying to do more about it than most American cities going through similar things, but even so, this isn’t funny. Or maybe it is. I know even less about making comedy than I do about bees. Maybe a “Portland Is Really a Hellhole Just Like Every Other American City” comedy hour would be a laff riot.

Weedman’s got a good eye and ear, though, and as she wanders about, she encounters funny characters and situations.  Compared to her home ground in Indiana (she lives in LA now), the West Coast and Portland must seem optimistic, a place where technology, spiritual questing, the arts, the hand-made and the participatory (democracy, crafting, ‘zining, etc.) intersect in curious, amusing ways. And sometimes even profitable ways (in 2010 Portland’s growth in GDP was close to eight percent, I just heard on the radio). Maybe in her place, that’s the nexus I’d explore, not to make big “statements” about the future or nature of the city (both unknowable, right?) but simply to encounter the stories and characters that might be a little different from Evansville (which used to be the Big City to this western Kentucky boy) or even Indianapolis.

Whatever Weedman comes up with, I’ll be there, though, because she’s smart and engaging. That’s a pretty great start.

Dance+, Part Two, Conduit: I’ve written a couple of times about Dance+. Basically, Conduit (the downtown Portland dance studio non-profit) put out a call for proposals, specifically asking for collaborations between choreographers and other art forms, and a panel of judges selected eight to perform over two weekends, though one of them was scuttled from Part Two (Luciana Proano, “for reasons beyond her control”).

Some brief notes about Part Two? The Friendly Pheromones (Zahra Banzi, Chase Hamilton and Zoe Nelson) collaborated with Wave Clamor Bellow, performing together onstage. The tone was melancholy, by and large. In a sad world, sometimes we humans just form little clumps of support and maybe protection. Unclumped, up and dancing, the Pheromones moved in a satisfying classical modern style, that made the most of Hamilton’s angles, Banzi’s quickness and lightness and Nelson’s athleticism.

Gregg Bielemeier and Keyon Gaskin’s collaboration with composer Philippe Bronchstein was comic, full of quirky little solos and duets, though I hate using the word “quirky” to describe what Bielemeier does—he’s light and comic, like a Klee painting maybe, and Gaskin fit right in, capturing the little arm gestures above the head and little spins that mark Bielemeier’s work generally. Gaskin, though, turns Bielemeier’s shuffles into something altogether “leggier”—and funny in a slightly different way. And yes, there was a little cross-dressing at the end.

Danielle Ross’s “The Loveliest Landscape” is an extended solo with projected slides, strings of lights and flour, which Ross formed into little mounds and then scattered, with music and co-design by Christi Denton. I loved the semi-abstract slides projected onto Conduit’s back wall and mouldings, perfect for situating us in a space and dance that seemed to be trying to tell us something explicit but then pulled back for a more poetic gesture, either movement or visual. And I liked Ross and Denton’s ambition—”The Loveliest Landscape” is complex, various, well-considered.

“The Bachelors,” Caroline V. McGraw, JAW: Before hitting Dance+, I caught this dark comedy, which mostly makes fun of single men and their, um, relationship problems, if you consider breaking the rules about touching in a strip club a relationship problem. Maybe in the broadest sense? Anyway, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for these guys, even the sad-sack ones, which makes it easier to laugh at them.

The cast of Blake DeLong, Darius Pierce and Patrick Alparone seemed to have a good time with the material, and they adeptly located the laughs and drew them out of the audience. If I were giving feedback (and I’m not!), I’d say maybe one of the key turns didn’t seem logical to me (in the psycho-logical sense), but people were laughing around me, so they clearly had no trouble tracking.

 

Edgar Meyer/ Photo by Jim Leisy, Chamber Music Northwest

Edgar Meyer, Chamber Music Northwest: I’ll just say a word or two about Edgar Meyer, whom I interviewed back in 2009 when I was first attempting to work out some things about how classical music could renew itself, become part of a vital, living cultural conversation. Meyer was perfect for this because he’s a walking, breathing, bass-playing fusion project, who can find the heart of the matter in the classical repertoire as well as participate in and compose contemporary music.

And his concert at Kaul Auditorium was a demonstration project (here’s James McQuillen’s review). He started with J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello, which he played on bass, of course, and then moved first to a series of his own compositions (mostly, he also played Jobim) and then, for the encore, to music by his 19-year-old son George, who showed up to play violin alongside his dad. In his own work, the straw of the hoedown and some low-down mountain lonesome mix together, maybe with a little Western swing syncopation sometimes, and he glides up and down the neck of the bass easy as pie, producing sonic effects that make you laugh and also fit perfectly into the songs.

I think what I’ll remember most is the way Meyer paused in between movements of the Bach. He’d gather a breath, sigh, look at us, look heavenward and roll his eyes a little, throw his arm out around the neck of the bass and shake his hands (reminding me somehow of Stanley Laurel, the great Silent Era comedian) and then curl his fingers around the instrument, hunching over it at the same time. Playing a cello solo on the bass? That’s work, man!

And you know what? In the final movement, a gigue, a dance form that originated in the British jig, I thought I overheard the conversation between Bach and Appalachian mountain folk music. Without Meyer, I may not have noticed that.