Jen Rowe

Remembering Ernie Casciato

ArtsWatch Weekly: "Ernie had a huge heart and made people feel loved" – in praise of the actor and teacher, dead at 67. Plus: Healing art, stage & screen, more

THE NEWS BEGAN TO TRICKLE IN, AS NEWS SO OFTEN DOES THESE DAYS, on Facebook: Ernie Casciato, the beloved Portland actor and possibly even more beloved teacher, was dead. He died on Sunday, at age 67, after eight months of various illnesses that had had him in and out of the hospital, and the memories – a mix of shock and sadness and deep affection – started pouring in.

“Ernie had a huge heart and made people feel loved. Simple as that,” one former student wrote. “That is a gift he gave without limit.” Another former student wrote: “He made every one of us feel seen.”

The Portland actor and teacher Ernie Casciato lived robustly and enjoyed life. Photo via Facebook

Those of us who didn’t know him in the classroom knew him on the stage, where he was effervescent and a tad outrageous and defiantly dancerly, a man of girth and grace who had the deftest of comic timing. Ernie was a Portlander through and through, a 1972 graduate of La Salle High School, a 1976 grad of the University of Portland, and for 39 years beginning in 1976, the drama teacher back at La Salle – a citizen-artist in the most devoted and inspiring sense. For decades he was ubiquitous on the city’s stages, appearing mostly but not entirely in musicals and comedies, as apt to pop up in a dinner-theater comic murder mystery or in a Neil Simon comedy on a suburban stage as on a mainstream stage such as the old Portland Civic Theatre, where he was a brilliantly funny Mr. Mushnik to the equally brilliant Margie Boulé as Audrey and Randall Stuart as Seymour in a sparkling Little Shop of Horrors.

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Theater for the Ears

Stop. Listen. What's that sound? In the pandemic’s wake, Portland theater companies turn to audio drama.

“Radio is something that has to be believed to be seen.”

That line from an old Twilight Zone episode explains the appeal of not just radio drama, but any theater meant to be heard instead of viewed. And now there’s more to believe in.

Since the pandemic shut down live theater, our screens have filled with streaming videos of previous productions or new creations, many created via Zoom, with actors recording parts from their homes. But even though we’ve been said to be living in a visual age for generations now, maybe screen fatigue has finally pushed us to giving our overtaxed eyes a break. Because another form of streaming theater is enjoying a resurgence — audio dramas.

Vin Shambry records his lines in the audio version of Artists
Repertory Theatre’s Magellanica. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

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A gorgeous fairy tale, in triplicate

CoHo's "This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing" is a theatrical marvel about the adventures of not-so-identical triplets

At the risk of revealing my own ignorance, I must admit I had no idea what I was going to see when I was tapped to review CoHo Productions’ This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing. I hadn’t heard of Finegan Kruckemeyer, the esteemed Australian playwright who has had 84 plays commissioned on five continents and whose works have been translated into eight languages.

These Girls, into the woods and beyond. Photo: Owen Carey

I was even mildly annoyed to see that this play about women was written by a man. “What could he know?” I thought. “What does he have to say on this topic that hasn’t been said before?” Turns out the answer to both question is, “So much.”

This Girl Laughs was first produced in 2011 in Argentina and has been produced dozens of times and received numerous awards since. According to Kruckemeyer’s website, it’s suitable for ages 7 to adult. Which might make one think this is production for children. It is, and it isn’t.

This is a play about children. Or people, I should say, who start out as children – as people often do. And it is about how three specific children – identical triplet girls, who, like most identical twins/triplets/etc., turn out not to be identical at all. It is also about, as CoHo has written, “cakes, battle, sun bathing, world carrying, unpleasant badgers, boring people, dancing, romance, walnuts, and long walks.” This is a fairytale. It is about loss, love, and redemption. It’s an odyssey, a bildungsroman in triplicate, and an epic poem.

But none of these descriptions is wholly true. If you were to read the script for This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing, it would read like a novel, with chapters, in a third-person narrator’s voice. It’s a story about losing everything and finding a way to recover. It’s tragic and hopeful. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious. Kruckemeyer’s website says it can be performed by any number of players, and has been performed by one to 30.

Sharon Mann and Beth Thompson, traveling underseas. Photo: Owen Carey

Because this tale is broad and universal, just like a life (or three), and can be melded and shaped and shifted in magical ways. And what CoHo has done with Kruckemeyer’s beautiful words is capture lightning in a bottle.

With a cast of six fine Portland actors (most of whom I’ve enjoyed watching onstage a time or two or several), and under the deft direction of Tamara Carroll, CoHo’s space transforms from a modest home in the forest where three girls live with their mother and father – “And the girls knew in their hearts that this happiness they felt, living in the forest with that man and that woman, it would never end. … Until one day, it ended” – into a snowy wood, and then into warring villages and into beaches and a lighthouse floating across the sea and a vacated bakery and a Snow White-style fairytale filled with animals and a single young woman living out her life in the forest, and into the most boring town in the world, and into a mansion. …

It’s no small feat to pull all of this off on any stage, particularly a smaller space such as CoHo’s. Kaye Blankenship’s scenic design, Jennifer Lin’s lighting, and Sarah Andrews’ props play a major part in bringing this magic to life – but so does that incredible cast of six.

So, let’s talk about the singular actors who make up that cast: Conor Eifler (Younger Man), Duffy Epstein (Older Man), and Sharon Mann (Older Woman) play a plethora of characters and help narrate the triplets’ journeys. They are all so good that it feels unfair to single any of them out, but Epstein gets the most poignant and trickiest plot points, and he rises to the challenge. Epstein recently outshone a remarkable cast in Profile Theater’s Water by the Spoonful. That he doesn’t do that here is to his credit – he downplays his roles here in service to the greater good.

In a fairy tale, one must take measures: Duffy Epstein, Alex Ramirez de Cruz, Jen Rowe, Beth Thompson. Photo: Owen Carey

And, that greater good is those three girls of the title, the triplets. Carmen, the youngest and the one who “does nothing” (but what a lie that is) is played with sweetness, quiet, and innocence by Alex Ramirez de Cruz. The middle sister, Beatrix, the girl who cries (and does so much more than that) is played with reckless abandon, charisma, and comedic timing by Beth Thompson. And the oldest, Albienne, who laughs (though not as often as you’d think), is brought to life by the remarkable Jen Rowe, a force to be reckoned with at all times, but particularly when she’s wielding a sword in battle or flour in a bakery.

Seeing this triptych of women on the CoHo Stage, you will be struck by how lucky you are (although they have all been on the same stage at least once before, in Portland Playhouse’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in 2012, they didn’t carry that play in the same way). It is not an overstatement to compare casting these three to casting the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern in a television show: Audiences are rarely that lucky.

And yet here we are in 2018 with HBO’s Big Little Lies on our televisions – and, if you are lucky enough to be in Portland right now, This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing onstage at CoHo Theatre.

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This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing continues through March 3 at CoHo Theatre, 2257 N.W. Raleight St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.