Jim Vadala

‘La Belle’ steams back

Imago Theatre's mechanically marvelous steampunk-vaudeville retelling of "The Beauty and the Beast" returns from the road for a hometown run

It’s a Monday afternoon in early spring, and the road warriors are back in town. “I don’t know,” Jerry Mouawad says, just a trifle wearily. “We’ve probably played a thousand venues across the country.”

That covers a few decades and a few shows, from Whistlestop, Anystate to the New Victory Theatre on Broadway. Mostly, it covers variations over the years of Imago Theatre’s splendid family shows Frogz, Biglittlethings, and ZooZoo, and a little bit of Mouawad’s conceptually radical, tilted-stage production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. And in the past year it’s included Imago’s newest ravishing visual spectacle, La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton.

Jim Vadala, Justine Davis: love in miniature. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

La Belle, which opened at Imago to rapturous reviews in December 2016, has had small East Coast and West Coast tours in the ensuing months, including an engagement in November in Santa Rosa, California, at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, where it was one of the first shows to play in the reopened hall after last year’s devastating wildfires destroyed much of the arts center and surrounding town. Now it’s back for another hometown run, opening Friday at Imago and continuing through April 29. If you haven’t seen it, here’s your chance. If you have, chances are you’ll want to catch it again. As Marty Hughley noted in his ArtsWatch review of the premiere: “Imago’s La Belle is a creature of a rare and wonderful sort, a show you may well want to see over and over again, both to marvel at its graceful mechanics and to soak in its symbolic resonances about the human, animal and spiritual in us all.”

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Theater review: Uncle Vanya lets his hair down

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's rousing 'Uncle Vanya' locates the clown in Chekhov

Before Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s smashing version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” takes center stage in this particular review—and it will, I promise, it will—allow me a little digression?

We all come to the theater in various states: physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual. The theater may change one or all of those states (which is exactly what it’s intended to do!), but those states also bleed over into the play we see. At least that’s the way I understand it.

My state of mind entering Reed College’s Performing Arts Center was partly affected by a book. It is among my favorite possessions—a copy of Tolstoy’s extended essay “What Is Art?”, translated by Aylmer Maude in 1930 for the Oxford University Press’s The World’s Classics series. The book is small and deep blue and old—this edition of it was reprinted in 1950—nothing fancy or pretentious, my favorite kind of edition, like the Penguin Classics, say, or Everyman’s Library.

The scenic design for PETE’s “Uncle Vanya” is by Peter Ksander, and lighting is by Miranda k Hardy./Photo by Owen Carey

What makes this book one of my favorites, though, is its provenance. A friend and colleague picked it up at an estate sale, and on the inside cover it is inscribed in a beautiful, calligraphic hand: Lloyd J. Reynolds December 1955. Reynolds, about whom I knew nothing until I moved to Portland, famously taught at Reed College from 1929 until 1969. His subjects included creative writing, art history and the graphic arts, especially calligraphy, and his students included poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, among many others. His successor at Reed, Robert Palladino, carried on the tradition, and one of Palladino’s students was Steve Jobs.

So, I loved that the book had belonged to Reynolds, but better yet, that he had marked the copy of “What Is Art?” with his own annotations, underlinings, and passages he considered particularly pertinent. It is a wonderful book in all ways.

Although I had dipped into it many times previously, I started reading it in earnest over the holidays, and so it was on my mind when I collided with PETE’s “Uncle Vanya.” And Tolstoy affected my experience of Chekhov as a result.

He would almost have to.

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‘La Belle’: a beauty of a Beauty

Imago's bold and charming "La Belle: Lost in the Automaton" retells the age-old "Beauty and the Beast" as a steampunk vaudeville (with puppets)

The tale, with its many themes and variations, is hundreds of years old, at least. A woman, an embodiment of purity and innocence, is forced into the company of a frightening Other, something primal, whether animal or spirit, something dark and debased. Yet there is recognition and love, trial and transformation. Hidden natures are revealed. Opposites balance and resolve.

Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve crystallized it in 1740 as La Belle et la Bête. It may be best known by many from Jean Cocteau’s luminous, numinous 1946 film of that same name.  To many more, its image is fixed as a Disney product, 1991’s animated mass-market musical Beauty and the Beast.

Jim Vadala and Justine Davis: the beast and the beauty aboard ship. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Perhaps future generations, though, will think of the story and imagine not forests and castles but the grimy engine room of a coal-powered steamship. Their memories will be filled not with Disney’s storybook colors or Cocteau’s poetic cinematic effects but with a more immediate kind of artistic magic: puppets and automatons and actors on a stage.

They’ll think of Imago.

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Love’s Labour’s Lost: on Post5’s uncertain future

The scrappy theater company hits a crossroads, with no artistic leadership, the loss of its nonprofit status, and no shows in the immediate future

From its beginnings in 2011, Post5 Theatre has had its fingers on a vital part of Portland’s pulse. The often packed houses have swayed between a rowdy fellowship and an emotional entourage, depending on the comedy or tragedy on stage. And it’s done it at bargain ticket prices, allowing it to develop a younger and broader audience than many of the city’s higher-budget companies.

Now all of that is endangered, and the company’s survival is in question: there will be no new productions at least through the first few months of 2017. The leadership triumvirate of artistic directors Paul Angelo, Rusty Tennant and Patrick Walsh resigned early this month after announcing the company had lost its Sellwood district home and revealing that it had also lost its vital 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which is crucial for fundraising and tax purposes. The company’s board expects Post5 to regain its nonprofit standing. But even with that, it now faces the difficulty and expense of finding a new performing space in a tight real-estate market. And it has no artistic leadership.

Bill Cain's "Equivocation," directed by Paul Angelo and featuring Todd Van Voris (left) and Keith Cable, was a hit for Post5 in September 2015. Russell J Young photo

Bill Cain’s “Equivocation,” directed by Paul Angelo and featuring Todd Van Voris (left) and Keith Cable, was a hit for Post5 in September 2015. Russell J Young photo

Earlier this year in an interview with Willamette Week, Angelo, Tennant and Walsh commented on the changes taking place at Post5 under their leadership after months of silence to the press and ticket buyers. The trio’s artistic direction was a departure from that of founders Ty and Cassandra Boice, who had come to embody what the company was about. Ty was a handsome leading man and deft comic actor with a devoted following. Cassandra was a smart and canny director with deep comic chops. Together they worked long and hard and set the tone for what became known as a scrappy, creatively populist company that was counted on for, among other things, smooth and accessibly populist Shakespeare productions. When they left, Post5’s image and reality seemed bound to change.

The new leadership group told Willamette Week that the next productions’ budgets would be conservative, but they hoped to create more sophisticated and edgier approaches to plays. The artistic directors also mentioned they’d been dealing with a few unexpected struggles, but felt they were now contained. As one of them told WW, “Every theater here is one big mistake from going under.”

After seven productions in the current season, the trio tendered their resignations on Nov. 1. Things were not, to put it mildly, as they had expected. With three months of back rent due, Post5 was about to lose its space. Angelo directed his last play there, Coyote on a Fence. The Post5 board members hustled to find spaces for their final production of the season, company member Philip J. Berns’ unique spin on A Christmas Carol. As of today, Nov. 21, the company’s website lists the play as part of its season, but the ticket link says “there are no current dates or times.”

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Stupid Kids stand out

Oh, those kids: The OUTWright Theater Festival brings back a 1991 coming-out drama inspired by "Rebel Without a Cause"

It could be said that modern drama is a footnote to Hamlet: one man up against the world. In the late John C. Russell’s 1991 play Stupid Kids, a teenager who nicknames himself Neechee is a candidate to be just such a loner.

Post5 is celebrating the OUTWright Theater Festival with the festival’s feature production of Stupid Kids, a play whose narrative moves in and out of a plot and characters that suggest the famed teenage angst-noir classic Rebel Without a Cause, with a hindsight fantasy of coming out in the ’90s and coming out ahead.

"Stupid Kids": rebels looking for a cause. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

“Stupid Kids”: rebels looking for a cause. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

The celluloid icon Jim Stark, made famous in Rebel by the young James Dean, had a soft-looking physique, long hair for the time, and a pouty lip. Underneath his neat red package was a nihilism that rejected the hero worship of WWII vets and their boxed-up world obsessed with stability. Many generations of distrusting youths adopted his look, sneer, and sexiness. But maybe they forgot the end of the film, where Jim goes home and the implication is he’s ready to tow his dad’s line. There’s a tension between Jim and his friend Plato, and Hollywood rumors have propagated that Dean and Sal Mineo, who played Plato, were lovers. Stupid Kids takes the retro obsession of the ’90s with the past, but instead of delivering a Saul Bass-illustrated pays de cocagne, a land of luxury, the play reaches a step ahead.

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Bleak and bristling: Post5’s ‘Lear’

Led by Tobias Andersen's perfectly balanced imbalanced king, a strong cast gets the new-look company's newest season off to a flying start

Over the last 55 years, King Lear has been staged more times than in the first 355 years after it was written. Much of the interest in Lear was revived by Peter Brooks’s 1971 film adaptation, which took a haunting look into politics, conflict, rivalry, and homelessness, and revealed an almost unbearable wasteland of emotion in the face of growing old. Before this landmark black-and-white film, Lear was, for the most part, too bleak for audiences in its original form. The ending was altered after Shakespeare’s death with a centuries-early Hollywood happy ending. No more of that.

Like the play itself, Post5 has been changing, but it still begins its new season with the Bard – and with a Lear to remember.

Tobias Andersen as Lear: a rage upon the heath. Post5 Theatre photo

Tobias Andersen as Lear: a rage upon the heath. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Tobias Andersen delivers his King Lear with a perfect balance of anger, regret, confusion, delirium, and torment. It takes stamina to bring this alive on stage. Andersen works into the monumental role with an even pacing that swings to a crescendo at the most important and famous of scenes, along with a few that are the focus of Post5’s production. He begins as an upright, square-shouldered regent. In the opening scene, when he asks his daughters who loves him the most, Andersen is severe with his demands. He has no grasp on the dominoes that begin to fall rapidly out of place. Andersen plays Lear as the real-life Celtic pagan king would have looked at the world, a victim of the fickle gods and circumstance. His descent into madness is less anxiety-provoking about how it will happen, and more the experience of watching a superb veteran actor unweave the tapestry of Lear’s mind.

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Skulduggery in high places

Post5's 'Equivocation' captures the humor of Shagspeare's tussle with the king, if not always the depth

As English secretary of state under King James I, Sir Robert Cecil was a well-informed man. So well informed that although he wasn’t a theatergoer, he knew who among London’s early-17th-century playwrights was writing work that would endure. As Cecil says to William Shakespeare in the Bill Cain play Equivocation, which opened last weekend at Post5 Theatre, “People will still be performing your plays in 50 years!”

These days that really would be a lofty achievement for a playwright. But Cain’s play, first produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009, might have that kind of staying power.

Rebecca Ridenour and Keith Cable: the quality of mercy, sometimes strained. Photo: Russell J Young

Rebecca Ridenour and Keith Cable: the quality of mercy, sometimes strained. Photo: Russell J Young

Honoring it with the 2010 Steinberg/ATCA Award for the best play to premiere outside of New York City, the American Theatre Critics Association called it a “fantasy-comedy-drama about Shakespeare, Jacobean skulduggery, bigotry and the relationship of art to government and artists’ personal responsibility to truth.” That is to say, there’s a lot to it.

The fantasy comes in the form of the play’s central conceit – Cecil commissioning a reluctant Shakespeare to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, a recently foiled attempt to blow up Parliament, kill the Protestant King and return England to Catholicism – and a revisionist/speculative approach to the history of that “skullduggery.” The comedy comes from a barrelful of jokes about the Bard’s works and the collaborative tumult of a theater troupe (“If we can get through his comedies-don’t-have-to-be-funny period,” the actors gripe while slogging through a King Lear rehearsal, “we can get through this.”) And the drama has multiple nodes, most notably Shakespeare’s doubts about the government account of the plot and his fears of making a misstep amid the sectarian landmines of the time: the choice, as he puts it, to “lie or die.”

Amid all this, Cain also weaves in an ethical treatise on truth-telling (“If a dishonest man has formed the question, there will be no honest answer. Answer the question beneath the question”), a critique about the acquisition and uses of power, and the emotional tug of multiple layers of family dynamics.

Todd Van Voris (left) and Keith Cable, parsing consciences and kings. Photo: Russell J Young

Todd Van Voris (left) and Keith Cable, parsing consciences and kings. Photo: Russell J Young

Narratively and thematically, it’s an awful lot to blend and balance. “My kingdom for a red pen!” objected Washington Post critic Peter Marks when the OSF production was remounted in 2011 at Arena Stage.

Add in that it also requires its cast of six to cover a wide range of roles in dizzying (and often not discrete) succession, and Equivocation is a bear of a script to tackle. For Post5, a young company blessed with more pluck than resources, it counts as a remarkably ambitious choice.

Under Paul Angelo’s spirited direction, the Post5 Equivocation very nearly manages a grasp to match that reach. It is brisk, engaging, and funny enough that the night I saw it the couple behind me laughed so loudly I feared they might perforate an eardrum. At the same time it effectively brings out many of the threads of philosophical inquiry and political allegory that give the work its heft, as well as the feeling of fellowship and goodwill that give it some heart.

And yet, a certain vital tension is lacking.

That might not be entirely a matter of the production. When the play opened in April 2009, American use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the “War on Terror” was a matter of intense public debate, and the parallels with Cecil’s brutal treatment of his Catholic enemies gave Equivocation a sense of both chilling dread and riveting relevance. Only a couple of years later, at the Arena Stage remount, torture references didn’t seem to ring as loudly amid the fugue of themes. (Not surprisingly, the D.C. audience tended to respond most strongly to the explicitly political – such as when Cecil lambastes Shakespeare for demonizing Richard III despite the fact that he’d balanced the budget.) If anything keeps Equivocation from the American stage canon, it might be that its moral outrage on this issue will feel dated, or insufficiently immediate.

It isn’t just a matter of topicality, however. Dramatically speaking, much of the engine of Cain’s story is the dangerous predicament that Shakespeare (Shagspeare, as he’s called here, or Shag for short) finds himself in: Cecil is as much bone-breaker as king-maker, as ruthless as he is powerful, and a mere playwright ought not dare to displease him. For Shag, it’s a conflict between artistic instinct and survival instinct. And despite some vividly grim work from departing artistic director Ty Boice as a bloodied and shaken torture victim, this production doesn’t tighten the screws enough.

Shag watches as the king's thugs torture a political enemy (Ty Boice). Photo: Russell J Young

Shag watches as the king’s thugs torture a political enemy (Ty Boice). Photo: Russell J Young

The real Robert Cecil was small, so much so that his king called him “my little beagle”; so is Matthew Smith, who plays the role here, and by no means badly but mildly. What’s missing is Cecil’s imposing psychological stature, the frightful power of a tireless, mechanistic intellect wed to a wounded animal of an ego. Smith’s Cecil explains, insinuates, occasionally threatens; but he doesn’t push, pull and intimidate, seduce, trip and ensnare. He shouldn’t just defend Richard III, he should emulate him.

Keith Cable’s Shagspeare too often registers outward concern and inner conflict alike with a strained stare. When he announces, “Now I’m frightened,” in the midst of a prison visit, we wonder what took him so long; disquieting things have happened, but his face hasn’t registered his growing recognition. On the other hand, Cable seems to ease into more nuanced expression by Act II and is strong throughout in conveying the bottled-up guilt and grief that hampers his relationship with his daughter, Judith (played by Rebecca Ridenour with a mix of cynicism and stoicism that somehow comes out as loveliness).

As important as the Shag/Cecil interplay is, Equivocation relies on its ensemble work. Here the production benefits from Jim Vadala’s deft comic touch in a variety of roles, and most especially from the presence of Todd Van Voris, a new Post5 company member but for years one of the city’s great stage talents. As Richard, the de facto leader of Shakespeare’s theater troupe, and as the Jesuit Father Henry Garnet, Van Voris creates powerful, well-realized characters that ground and energize any scene they’re in.

Credit also should go to Angelo for keeping the complex plot and shifting characters clear. Some Act I moments could use more deliberate pacing as we get used to Cain’s slippery approach to point of view, and surely Dan Brusich’s lighting design would’ve delineated space even more effectively in a more thoroughly equipped house. But these are quibbles.

Finally, let’s not equivocate on this: Equivocation is a play built to last.

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Equivocation continues through October 4 at Post5 Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert Street, Portland. Ticket and schedule information are here.