John Longenbaugh

DramaWatch: Holidays for days!

The week in theater offers more Christmas shows than you can shake a candy cane at!

Outside, the weather has grown cold and crisp, and pretty lights twinkle from the shop windows and houses. Inside, the TV tells us the way to show love is to give someone a $60,000 car topped with a red bow the size of a middle linebacker.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Another way to tell what time of year it is would be to check theater listings. In the summer, outdoor stages turn to Shakespeare, not to plays about the Fourth of July (though any production of the musical 1776 is welcome!), yet winter’s arrival brings show after show about the true (or at least satirized) meaning of Christmas.

So if that’s how it’s going to be, at least it’s good that theater makers are out there trying to create a few new shows to add to the mix.
Last weekend brought three Christmas-themed premieres to the Portland area, and your dutiful DramaWatcher shook off the tryptophan haze enough to make the rounds.

And I’m sorry to report that, for the most part, duty is what it felt like. Not that there was anything unpleasant to endure. After all, nothing typifies holiday theater more than a kind of fiercely determined geniality.

Jennifer Goldsmith’s golden voice brightens the appeal of It Happened One Christmas, a musical revue at Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega.

No matter the season, unpleasantness is out of character at Broadway Rose where “a festive new musical revue” opened, called It Happened One Christmas. The set up is sweet and simple. It’s after hours at a big department store, and Walter, the white-haired security guard (Fred Bishop, avuncular and dignified) makes the rounds to make sure everything is in order. The North Pole display puts him in a nostalgic mood and he sings holiday tunes as he reminisces about a dear, departed wife. Around him, the mannequins come to singing and dancing life, acting out his fantasies and, it seems, their own. And we’re off on an evening of sprightly and assured performances of sprightly and assured arrangements of dozens of Christmas songs, familiar and less so. It’s professional, it’s polished, it’s prosaic.

The show was “written by Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis,” the playbill tells us, but the pair’s main work seems to have been curatorial — selecting (and, in Lewis’ case, arranging) all these songs; there’s just one original tune in the show, a comic come-on called “Beneath the Tree,” given the honey-glazed-ham treatment by Macaulay Culkin/Bryan Adams look-alike Colin Stephen Kane. What strings the songs together is thin thread indeed, brief snatches of dialogue that sometimes sound like they were created by training an AI algorithm on the Hallmark Channel (“Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic or a sentimental old fool, but I still think there’s some good in the world.”).

Ah, but then someone comes along to clean things up. That would be Frances, the store cleaning lady, played by Jennifer Goldsmith, and whenever she’s onstage things are a little brighter, more truly engaging. In a fine cast of singers all around, Goldsmith’s more nuanced phrasing brings a much needed sense of personality and charm.

Lady Brass (Allison Anderson, left) and her daughter Gwendolyn (Katherine Grant-Suttie) prepare for the holidays in The Christmas Case: A Lady Brass Mystery at Chapel Theatre. Photo: Wynne Earle.

At the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, critic-turned-writer/director John Longenbaugh is presenting a Victorian mystery story called The Christmas Case. Perhaps I should disclose right off the handicaps I face in evaluating this one. Subtitled “a Lady Brass Mystery,” his new play is part of an elaborate fictional world that Longenbaugh’s Battleground Productions calls “a multi-platform adventure serial about a family of Victorian science geniuses.” As I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the serial, there might be rich character threads here I’ve missed. Also: It’s a mystery. Why do some people so love this genre? My answer: It’s a mystery.

And despite the title, The Christmas Case is primarily a mystery, in this, er, case, about a huge precious sapphire that disappears suddenly and is presumed stolen. Throw in the ingenue from a fading family, her wealthier suitor, a few assorted character types and a couple of those science geniuses” and you have a story that clips along nicely enough through its obligatory twists and turns. An appearance by Father Christmas occasions a fun discussion of holiday symbolism and ritual and the transnational roots of the Santa Claus myth. But that’s ultimately incidental: Plug a rabbit into that scene instead, and you just as readily could call this The Easter Case. In any case, by the second act I found myself too acutely aware that I didn’t care a bit about “whodunnit” or about the stakes of any of the plot points.

That said, amidst a somewhat uneven cast, Allison Anderson as the super-sleuth Lady Brass and Katherine Grant-Suttie as her junior-detective daughter are compelling, leavening their characters’ haughty bearing with glimmers of impish wit. And the show looks good, thanks to terrific costuming by Portland Opera’s Christine Richardson.

Milagro bills Maya Malan-Gonzalez’ A Xmas Cuento Remix as “not your abuela’s Christmas story,” but it’d be nearer the mark to say it’s not your abuela’s story-delivery system. The bones here are unapologetically Dickensian, complete with a greedy/wealthy villain beset by ghostly dreams of past, present and yet-to-be. But the trappings are contemporary and Latinx, with repeated mentions of the importance of eating tamales on Christmas and varied uses of the term “pendejo.” And it’s a musical, spiced with a loose mixture of high-energy pop arrangements.

As a musical, it’s like getting a pair of lighted socks for Christmas: You grin cheerfully while you yearn for the return counter. The singing is inexpert and uneven, the dancing better but still looks a little forced. In its earnest eagerness to be lively and engaging, the production often races headlong into cheesiness. 

And yet, it’s something of a joy. Milagro stalwart Veronika Nunez plays Dolores Avara, the Scrooge stand-in, a stern striver who understands the American dream only as an individualist proposition, and it’s hard to say which part of the character she shows most affectingly — the closed off miser we first meet, the hurt loner the ghosts reveal to her, or the grateful giver her epiphany creates.

Meanwhile Tricia Castaneda-Guevara provides the emotional contrasts as Dolores’ down-on-her-luck niece, Andres Alacala anchors the ensemble cast with an easygoing warmth, and the whole thing sneaks into your heart and makes you care about these characters — and people like these characters — in a way the weekend’s other shows don’t.
As I filed out of the theater, I heard a voice behind me — I think it was the voice of noted arts patron Ronni Lacroute — offering an opinion on the show I think I’d agree with: “Ridiculously uplifting!”

Opening (brutal Xmas onslaught redux)

Austen-tatious: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley Photo: Russell J Young

Seeking new Christmas fare with an air of familiarity, playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon created this holiday-themed Jane Austen pastiche, a comic sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” blending period elegance and modern wit. Though set at the estate of that novel’s main couple, Lizzy and Darcy, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley centers on the overlooked middle sister, Mary, who has hopes of striking a rom-com match of her own. Portland Center Stage artistic director Marissa Wolf deploys a talent-rich cast, including Lauren Modica, Isaac Lamb, Kailey Rhodes, Josh Weinstein and others.

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Stumptown Stages will try to sing the Dickens out of A Christmas Carol, the Musical, directed and choreographed by Gary Wayne Cash, who also stars as the man you love to hate, Ebenezer Scrooge. 

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If one stock story form won’t do, try two at once! Another example of the strange Christmas/hybrid, Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot puts Sherlock Holmes into wintry whodunnit territory. Kymberli Colbourne directs for Bag & Baggage.

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Fake Radio’s It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really fake, it’s just not really radio. It’s live, it’s theater. And it’s more than just a facsimile of fun.

Second-hand news

As The Nutcracker is for ballet companies in America, so A Christmas Carol is for theaters. American Theatre digs into this shocking scandal (kidding).

Opening (holiday-free edition)

An academic devoted to traditional Scottish folk culture attends a conference on ballads of the country’s border region. But in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, that rather dry-sounding event turns into a dreamlike journey involving a rowdy pub, a fearsome snowstorm, and a devilish stranger. Staged amidst the audience in an immersive, pub-like setting, told in songs and witty couplets, the show is, in the words of the Daily Beast, “satirical, absurd, a literary parlor game, a crazy surf through folkloric history, and a wild and celebratory slice of storytelling-as-art.” This Artists Rep production includes the option to pre-order food and whisky to complete the pub experience. And with stars such as Amy Newman and Darius Pierce, how could you go wrong?

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Feeling put down and bossed around? Your special qualities going unrecognized? Want to set things right? Well, then you’ll likely relate to Matilda, the title character of this award-magnet (Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier, etc.) musical, based on a story by the twistedly whimsical Roald Dahl. In a kid-friendly production from Northwest Children’s Theatre, villainous authority is met with precocious intelligence, kindness, and a touch of telekinesis. 

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Portland Action Theater Ensemble describes Never Too Late Pop-up Escape Room as “a meditation on regret, loss, and healing.” An immersive, puzzle-solving game room sounds more like work than meditation to me, but if the escape-room fad is your idea of fun, here’s a chance to indulge. And if you manage to, well, escape, there’s still William Gibson’s sturdy classic The Miracle Worker, about Helen Keller, at Twilight Theater, and just for this weekend, Profile Theatre presenting “concert stagings” of Ruined and Mother Courage, exploring the interesting juxtaposition of Lynn Nottage and Bertolt Brecht.

Closing

So much to do! So much to do!
And if you haven’t yet caught Shakespeare in Love at Lakewood or the Hullabaloo Alice in Wonderland, well, there’s more for the priority list.

The flattened stage

Have an hour to escape the seasonal social tumult? Why not spend it with those wonderful gals, the Apple Sisters, as they perform their Holidoozy Christ-mess Spectacular, Live from Hollywoodland!? As they assure us, it’s “sweet and delicious and free of worms!”

The best line I read this week

“The human soul craves for the eternal of which, apart from certain rare mysteries of religion, only love and art can give a glimpse.”

— from The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch 

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

ArtsWatch Good Reads 2018

2018 in Review, Part 9: A Fab 15 of ArtsWatch well-told tales worth a second look

Marc Mohan wonders if it matters that the Oscars are a flop. Martha Ullman West revisits the Big Apple of her youth. John Foyston considers sleek cars and fast motorcycles at the art museum. John Longenbaugh starts a podcast “for some very stupid reasons.” Maria Choban and Brett Campbell relate the fascinating tale of a Sri Lankan engineer determined to build the first Pandol new year’s shrine in America. David Bates dives deep into the strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of. Laura Grimes recalls a day of traffic jams, lost glasses, Ursula K. Le Guin, and … pickles. TJ Acena talks gentrification with performance artist Penny Arcade.

The world’s overflowing with stories, and in 2018 ArtsWatch writers grabbed hold of a bunch worth a second look. Here, for your enjoyment, is a Fab 15 of tales well told.

 


 

The Oscars are dying. So what?

March 9: “This year’s telecast drew record low ratings, down a whopping 20 percent from last year’s already dismal numbers,” Marc Mohan wrote in the wake of this year’s television debacle. “… As someone who religiously watches, and even generally enjoys, Tinseltown’s annual festival of self-love, I find myself, perhaps surprisingly, not the least bit perturbed.

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ArtsWatch’s hit parade 2018

2018 in Review, Part 1: Readers' choice. A look back at Oregon ArtsWatch's most read and shared stories of the year

When we say “hit parade,” that’s what we mean. In the first of a series of stories looking back on the highlights of 2018, these 25 tales were ArtsWatch’s most popular of the year, by the numbers: the most read, or the most shared on social media, or both. From photo features to artist conversations to reviews to personal essays to news stories, these are the pieces that most resounded with you, our readers. These 25 stories amount to roughly two a month, out of more than 50 in the average month: By New Year’s Eve we’ll have published roughly 650 stories, on all sorts of cultural topics, during the 2018 calendar year.

 



Like ArtsWatch? Help us out.

We couldn’t bring you the stories we bring without your support, which is what keeps us going. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit journalism publication, with no pay wall: Everything we publish is free for the reading. We can offer this public service thanks to generous gifts from foundations, public cultural organizations, and you, our readers. As the year draws to a close, please help us keep the stories coming. It’s easy:



 

And now, the 25 of 2018, listed chronologically:

 


 

Legendary jazz drummer Mel Brown. Photo: K.B. Dixon

In the Frame: Eleven Men

Jan. 2: Writer and photographer K.B. Dixon’s photo essay looks graphically at a group of men who have helped shape Portland’s cultural and creative life, among them jazz drummer Mel Brown, the late Claymation pioneer Will Vinton, Powell’s Books owner Michael Powell, gallerist Charles Froelick, and the legendary female impersonator Walter Cole, better known as Darcelle. Dixon would later profile eleven woman cultural leaders, a feature that is also among 2018’s most-read.

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Backstage chat: What Shaw takes

Three actors in Portland Center Stage’s "Major Barbara" detail the challenges of performing the loquacious and provocative playwright

George Bernard Shaw, a quintessential man of the theater, had a very high regard for himself and only occasionally for his actors. (He did fall in love with a couple of his leading ladies, but to no particular delight to either them or him.) As a playwright/producer, he worked as the de facto director of many of his original productions, and was a rigorous taskmaster. His plays required smart actors with fine elocution, realistic craft, and impeccable comic ability.

Shaw, demanding.

And he could be scalding of actors who let him down, as witnessed by this note to the actor Louis Calvert, the original Frank Undershaft in Major Barbara: “I have taken a box for Friday and had a hundredweight of cabbages, dead cats, eggs and gingerbeer bottles stacked in it. Every word you fluff, every speech you unact, I will shy something at you. … You are an imposter, a sluggard, a blockhead, a shirk, a malingerer, and the worst actor that ever lived or ever will live. I will apologize to the public for engaging you: I will tell your mother of you.”

Any actor who performs Shaw has sympathy for Calvert, because the plays contain some of the wordiest dialogue that’s ever taken to the stage. (His prefaces to the plays are often even longer.) Written at a time when both comedies and dramas were five-act, two-intermission affairs, Shaw’s plays, uncut, can easily tip into four- and five-hour long evenings. Thanks to edits, the current production at Portland Center Stage of Major Barbara, his 1905 play about a young female officer in the Salvation Army, runs a trim two and a half hours.

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Watching Readings

Playreadings and staged readings are endemic in theater. But do audiences really enjoy watching them?

Fertile Ground is springing up about us again, and Portland’s theatrical venues are filled with performances—dance, original drama, comedy, even a couple of premiere musicals, all there to delight audiences.

And then there are the playreadings.

The festival is heavy with new works, and that means that there’s a large dose of play readings and staged readings. The differentiation between the two forms is that you don’t expect more from a reading than some actors, chairs and music stands, while a staged reading can vary from a couple of simple props or costume pieces to some fairly elaborate blocking and tech—which can be indistinguishable from a workshop, which are also featured at Fertile Ground. (This is what happens when artists try to label their own work.)

Both playreadings and staged readings are generally seen as part of the natural trajectory of a script leaving the page and climbing the ladder to a regional theater premiere.

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New voices of ArtsWatch 2017

A dozen writers have joined the ArtsWatch ranks this year. Find out who they are, and what they're bringing to the cultural mixer.

In one important way it’s been a very good year for Oregon ArtsWatch: We’ve added a lot of good writers to our mix, deepening and broadening our coverage of everything from dance to theater to music to visual arts to literary events and more.

ArtsWatch has been able to add the voices of a dozen new contributors because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation.

In 2018 we hope to add even more fresh voices and perspectives to our continuing engagement with Oregon’s complex and diversified cultural life.

Meet 2017’s new writers, from A to Z (all right; A to W), and sample their work:

 


 

TJ Acena

A Portland essayist and journalist who studied creative writing at Western Washington University, TJ was selected as a 2017 Rising Leader of Color in arts journalism by Theatre Communications Group. He writes about theater and literary events for ArtsWatch, and also contributes to American Theatre Magazine and The Oregonian in addition to literary journals such as Somnambulist and Pacifica Literary Journal. Web: tjacena.com

READ:

Greg Watanabe with Mao on the wall in “Caught.” Photo: Russell J Young

CAUGHT IN A LIE, OR A TRUTH

Acena reviews the installation and performance Caught at Artists Rep, a play that crosses the line between fact and fiction, fake news and real. “If it feels like there’s something I’m not telling you about Caught, you’re right. Don’t take it at face value: There’s a hidden conceit to the show. But discovering that conceit is what makes Caught compelling.”

 


 

Bobby Bermea

 

A leading actor, director, and producer in Portland and elsewhere, Bobby specializes in deeply reported and insightful profiles of theater and other creative people for ArtsWatch. A three-time Drammy Award winner for his work onstage, he’s also the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy, and Rocket Man.

READ:

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‘Pericles Wet’: a tale for tough times

Portland Shakespeare Project's premiere of Ellen Margolis's adaptation of "Pericles" takes a rough-and-tumble journey through a perilous world

By JOHN LONGENBAUGH

Shakespeare’s plays spin in and out of social relevance. At times of war and upheaval, the histories and political dramas like Coriolanus and Julius Caesar call to us, while the ritualistic restoration of order in the comedies is best suited to relatively calm times. So what plays are best suited to an age where the sociopolitical reality, not to put too fine a point on it, is a god-awful mess?

Ellen Margolis

I might nominate Pericles for the honor, and in particular an adaptation entitled Pericles Wet by Portland playwright Ellen Margolis. “I think Pericles  might be starting to have its moment,” she says. And though her adaptation began two years ago as a Proscenium Live! project, in our moment of feckless leaders, sexual malfeasance and the “Me, Too,” movement, it’s hard to disagree.

Like our times, the text of the original Pericles is a mess. It was unpublished in the First Folio and only available in a later Quarto edition, and scholars aren’t even sure if the play is Shakespeare’s at all, though the consensus is that somewhere between half and a third of the play is his, with the most likely collaborator an innkeeper and middling playwright named George Wilkins. What’s more, the text is filled with errors, signs of a sloppy printing, and most likely a text re-created from the failing memories of original actors, not an actual script. To create a stageable Pericles directors often cut and reassemble the Quarto text, drawing liberally from a prose version of the same story published by Wilkins after the play’s success.

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