jessica wallenfels

MusicWatch Monthly: Fabulous February

Composers, composers, composers! ...and a jazz festival

Classical weekend

This weekend, you can take your pick of classical music concerts: choral, chamber, or orchestral (or all three, if you have the stamina). On the 7th and 8th, Portland Lesbian Choir celebrates the ratification of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women’s right to vote) with their “Born to Celebrate” concert at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The most exciting thing about this concert: a premiere of a new 19th Amendment-themed work commissioned by PLC from Portland composer Joan Szymko, whose music has been a highlight of recent Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers concerts.

Also on the 7th and 8th, at local theater company Bag & Baggage’s cozy Hillsboro venue The Vault, Northwest Piano Trio performs Shostakovich’s second piano trio as the live score for playwright Emily Gregory’s intimate end-of-life play The Undertaking. In this unique collaboration with B&B and director Jessica Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions, the trio will be onstage with the actors. On the 8th at Portland State University, PSU violin-piano duo Tomas Cotik and Chuck Dillard will perform Mozart, Schubert, and Piazzolla–three of the four composers Cotik specializes in (the other, of course, is Bach). And if you already have tickets to Portland Opera’s An American Quartet, don’t forget that it opens this weekend–and if you don’t have tickets yet, you’d better hurry!

Also this weekend, the Oregon Symphony relegates two more living composers to the Fanfare Zone. Their “Pictures at an Exhibition” program (concerts Friday in Salem and Saturday-Monday in Portland) manages to make room for twelve minutes of Missy Mazzoli and thirteen minutes of Gabriella Smith between the half-hour blocks of decomposers Mussorgsky and Paganini. I get that we’re supposed to be grateful to OSO for playing anything at all by living composers and women composers, and we really are grateful that they commissioned a new work from Smith: living composers need to eat! But we’ll never tire of complaining about the Fanfare Zone, and we won’t stop until the ratios are reversed and decomposers have to compete for their token opening spot on concerts dominated by Zwilich concerti and Tower tone poems.

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DramaWatch: Goal-oriented theater at Portland Playhouse

"The Wolves" leads the week in theater with teens and teamwork. Also: the Mueller Report on stage; big buildings and Vertigo; and sensational soloists.

Portland Playhouse’s season-opening production, The Wolves, focuses on the nine teen girls who make up an indoor-soccer team. Which presents an obvious question.
“Is this a rousing, heart-warming, inspirational sports story?,” I ask director Jessica Wallenfels. “Or is it good?”

A disingenuous question, that latter one. Because by all accounts, The Wolves is a terrific play. Written by Sarah DeLappe — apparently her first play to get any notable production — it was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for drama. According to American Theater magazine, it’s one of the Top 10 most-produced plays in the country for the 2019-20 season. Among the many critical huzzahs typed its way, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote of a 2016 Off-Broadway production that it exuded “the scary, exhilarating brightness of raw adolescence.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the most striking playwriting debuts in recent memory, and absolutely not to be missed.”

Kailey Rhodes (foreground) works on ball control in The Wolves at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Wallenfels humors me. “It is inspiring,” she responds. “But not in the usual ways.
“It’s inspiring in the way that it shows a group of girls and insists that their lives, their concerns, their thought processes be considered, in a way that they’re usually not.”

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DramaWatch Weekly: Summerfest!

CoHo's short-run festival and the Risk/Reward fest put the movement into theater. Also: "Sense and Sensibility," last chance for "Fences."

A year ago, when Sayda Trujillo approached Jessica Wallenfels about directing a solo performance she was developing, she had a particular contribution in mind.

“She did come to me with a very specific ask: ‘I want this to be physically demanding and difficult, and I want your help with that,’” Wallenfels recalls.

Trujillo is hardly a stranger to physicality herself — she teaches voice and movement at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. Nor, for that matter, to solo shows — she’s created three previous ones that have been presented internationally, including at such prestigious theatrical incubators as REDCAT in Los Angeles. But she and Wallenfels have some familiarity with each other as well, having met as undergraduates at California Institute of the Arts and later taught together at California State Summer School of the Arts. Wallenfels, a multi-faceted Portland artist, brought expertise as one of the top theater choreographers in the Northwest.

Sayda Trujillo in her solo show “Right, Up, Left (Definitely Oops!.” She’ll perform “Win the War or Tell Me a Story” at CoHo Summerfest.

The resulting show, Win the War or Tell Me a Story, serves as the kick-off to CoHo Summerfest 2018, beginning Thursday, June 28. It should make a fine introduction, reflecting CoHo Theater’s longstanding interest in solo performance and personal storytelling, yet also hinting at the distinguishing characteristic of this year’s selections, which are more movement-oriented overall.

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Painting the town ‘Scarlet’

We're not in the 1600s anymore: Michelle Horgen's marvelous updating of "The Scarlet Letter" adds a modern sensibility (and lots of songs)

Portland Playhouse’s new musical, Scarlet, is no dry historical retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. While that popular 19th-century novel was the source material for playwright Michelle Horgen’s retelling, and it is set in the same puritanical time, this is not your father’s Scarlet Letter.

For starters, this is retold by a woman (Horgen is at least a triple threat, having written book, music, and lyrics) in 21st century America. And Hester Prynne has a lot to say — and, it turns out, sing — that rings as true today as it must have in 1850. Judgment and shaming, after all, have become public, prolific, and painful in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where most people can’t simply escape or go home to hide their embarrassment.

Rebecca Teran is Hester Prynne in “Scarlet” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

In Horgen’s hands, the story also becomes much more about motherhood—how becoming a mother “shatters your existence” in a “blinding instant” — than it was in the words of Hawthorne. There is an especially heart-wrenching story involving Hester’s friend, Sarah Winthrop, a new character who was not part of Hawthorne’s story, which is set in 17th century Puritan Boston. Dana Green, who plays Sarah, wears her grief for the rest of the play — across a number of years — and will break your heart. It is also more about the sisterhood we share with other women — our friends, our community, even the crazy old lady everyone pretends not to understand.

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Crazy fun with Pete the Cat

Oregon Children's Theatre's musical version of the popular kids' books is bright and tuneful and a treat for kids and adults alike

“That was kind of crazy. Also kind of funny, right?”

– Pete the Cat (Dave Cole), Pete the Cat: The Musical

Pete himself might as well have been reviewing this lively, fun, infectious musical, the latest from the ambitious Oregon Children’s Theatre, running through Feb. 18 in the Newmark Theatre.

To start its 30th season last October, OCT teamed with six other children’s theater companies around the nation to commission and premiere Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt, an adaption of a popular children’s book series by Megan McDonald. This time around, it’s another ambitious children’s book adaptation – Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat tales – that Artistic Director Stan Foote has been trying to bring to the Portland stage since at least 2014. He finally secured rights to put on this musical adaptation, which was commissioned and developed by New York’s Theatreworks USA.

Pete goes to school and breaks the rule. Photo: Owen Carey

While the storyline doesn’t matter all that much – Pete is forced to try out being a housecat for a week when he’s caught by the cat-catcher, and ends up with the Biddles, where he takes on a mission to inspire second-grader Jimmy (17-year-old actor Jackson Wells) to paint something beautiful to pass art class. What matters is the entertainment, and Pete the Cat and company deliver it in spades.

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‘Appropriate’ review: all in the family

University of Portland production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins drama shows love and racism through the generations

by MARIA CHOBAN & BRETT CAMPBELL

Appropriate racism: “I was like, ‘How invisible can I make it?’” – Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Exasperated, Rachel grabs a huge orange photo album, hands it to her young hyperactive son, pushes him to the couch telling him to shut up or else. The huge 2’X2′ orange photo album contains photos of broken necked victims of lynchings. Which Rachel quickly discovers by glancing down at her suddenly quiet kid.

This is not the spoiler.

Two teens descend from upstairs with mason jars of souvenirs: body parts from the lynched victims. All this in an Arkansas plantation house where three siblings and their families combust, cleaning up the estate.

Nor is this the spoiler.

The five-year-old breaks up a full family brawl— by appearing in Klan-wear. The teenage girl tenderly shares her pilfered lynching pics with the cousin she’s crushing on.

Unbelievably, not even all these incidents are the spoiler. The audience is laughing as the horror ratchets. Racism — the gift that keeps on giving. One of us is stifling the guilt and inAppropriateness of our guffaws as Candide meets Whack-A-Mole.

University of Portland staged Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate (2013) October 4 – 8. Enroute to her MFA, director Jessica Wallenfels led her college-student actors through a madcap dark comedy. With wild cartoon exaggerations and furious forward motion, Wallenfels and BJJ gave us a great ride, right up to near the end where the oldest sibling, Toni, suddenly switches gears and delivers an unconvincing paean to her dear, departed daddy.

University of Portland’s ‘Appropriate’ L-R Joe Flory, Kaylie Haas, Sammie VanNorstrand, Pat Johnson, Brandon Chadney, Patrick Holland, Emma Pace, Rebby Foster. Photo: Gary Norman.

Two ArtsWatch writers both enjoyed the show, but for slightly different reasons.

MC: I walked out of the show happily flummoxed, processing the difference between Appropriate (2013) and An Octoroon (2010). This production was wicked fast. BJJ writes furiously and Wallenfels directed her cast to accelerate into and on top of each other.

In contrast, Octoroon’s tedious script (written when BJJ was 26) and Artists Repertory Theatre’s production put me to sleep. This was not due to BJJ’s writing, as “BJJ’s” “therapist” noted on ArtsWatch, but because BJJ relied on copy / pasting too much of a 150-year-old melodrama — The Octoroon (1859) — written by a second rate playwright, Dion Boucicault.

Nevertheless, I loved BJJ’s ability to draw emotion with his own minimal unsentimental lines, particularly in the opening monologue. In fact, it was BJJ’s writing that pushed me to take a chance on a student production to check out how he has evolved as a playwright. Over three years from 2010’s Octoroon (which he wrote when he was 26) to Appropriate (2013), BJJ matured lifetimes.

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Mock’s Crest Productions review: A “Pinafore” for purists

Gilbert and Sullivan's 'HMS Pinafore' profits from strong staging and leading-role performers.

by BRUCE BROWNE

Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and …. Gilbert and Sullivan? Absolutely, yes! Those two set off 135 years ago on the partnership trail that would lead to 14 successful operettas. (Today we might call them musicals, but they’re not!) And some decades later, their American cousins followed suit with their own partnerships. W. S. Gilbert (words) and Arthur Sullivan (music), though, were the first populist duo to mix the vernacular with the operatic and come out with the model of the modern major musical.

Mock’s Crest production of H.M.S. Pinafore was Gilbert and Sullivan at their most traditional, perhaps close to the way one would have seen it in 1878. Costumes, set and actors all hewed closely to the D’Oyly Carte production. Dialogue and lyrics original. No modern references (a la Pirate of Penzance at Portland Opera last year.) Pinafore purists should be proud.

Mock's Crest's HMS Pinafore. Photo: Larry Larsen

Mock’s Crest’s HMS Pinafore. Photo: Larry Larsen

Give three cheers, and one cheer more, for the orchestra, led by Tracey Edson. It was a great band, and stationed in a great place – upstage, behind the actors. Edson kept a swift pace, as the show clocked in at just a little over two hours. Still time for a cool summer ice cream before bed.

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