John San Nicolas

Love & loss in the time of coronavirus

With stages shut down, the work's stopped cold. Bobby Bermea asks his fellow performance artists: Can the fire be relighted post-pandemic?

It’s weird when you wake up one day and realize that everything is different. 

For me, just how different hasn’t fully hit me yet, not even more than a month later. I still feel insulated, like I’m in a bubble where time has become elastic, amorphous. It takes an enormous effort just to intentionally shape the course of a given day. How many times already have I eaten at 11 at night or woken up at 11 in the morning? As violinist Michelle Alany puts it, the struggle is “trying to find some kind of rhythm and structure so I don’t lose the art and creativity.” 

In thirty years as a professional theater artist, I had never rehearsed a show for four weeks only to have it cancelled right before we opened. PassinArt’s Seven Guitars, which was scheduled to open in March, was the first. By that time, I think we’d all seen the handwriting on the wall. I remember the morning the call came that it was over: It felt like I’d woken up in another dimension. It wasn’t the last time I was going to feel that way. 

Since that day I have heard innumerous people describe this moment in history as “crazy” or “surreal” or “like science fiction.” Except, it’s not like science fiction. Face masks. Rubber gloves. Zoom. Science fiction is now real life.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


As I write this, about 37,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, about 420 a day since the first confirmed U.S. case on Jan. 21 (the first known U.S. death came five weeks later, on Feb. 28). That might not seem like much, considering that about 8,000 people die every day in the U.S. But the numbers are rapidly escalating. On April 16 alone, nearly 4,600 people in the U.S. died from coronavirus. That feels different. 

I have one friend who came down with COVID-19. She’s 70 years old and was my first harmonica teacher when I was working on Seven Guitars. She spent two weeks in the hospital. She has nothing but great things to say about the medical professionals who took care of her. But the disease is no joke, and she felt like hell most of the time she was there. While she was in the hospital we stayed in contact via text (talking took too much out of her). One of the times I checked in to see how she was doing, she texted back, “Feeling shitty! Everything pisses me off!” I suspect that anger helped get her through it. She’s home now. A nurse visits her three times a week. Only today she was told that she can go outside if she wears a mask and practices social distancing. It’s an incredible victory. 

Author Bobby Bermea in CoHo Theatre/Beirut Wedding World Theatre Projects’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”: “If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist.” Photo: Owen Carey/2019

When the proverbial feces came into contact with the rotating blades of the proverbial air circulation device, I called my parents and offered to come down to where they live in Southern California. I could do my job at Profile Theatre remotely, and I could help them by buying their groceries and taking care of whatever other needs they might have that took place outside of the house. My parents declined my offer, saying they were perfectly okay. 

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Drammys: Where’s the party?

DramaWatch: Attendance dropped and the drama crept behind the scenes at this year's Portland theater awards. What comes next?

Once upon a time I had a dream about the Drammys.

I don’t mean dream as in a sleepytime movie, but rather a hope, a wish, an ideal of a future. When I first began to care about the Drammy Awards, the annual celebration of Portland-area theater was held at the Crystal Ballroom. At one end of the oblong room, outstanding theater work was honored onstage. At the other end, the combination of the entrance and the bar catalyzed a sometimes raucous social scene as friendly acquaintances convened. There was tension between the two elements, with the loud, lubricated chatter from the back sometimes drowning out the official proceedings, but it had the feel of a fabulous party. That feeling continued once the event was done, as the crowd spilled outside into a stream of sidewalk clusters stretching around the block and into Cassidy’s, which suddenly boasted more actors than you could shake a script at. 

Drag clown Carla Rossi was emcee at this year’s Drammy Award ceremony, where attendance was down. Photo: Scotty Fisher/Sleeper Studios

I was writing about theater for The Oregonian, and was thrilled about all the interesting and talented local artists I was encountering. Seeing so many of them all together, as one big, convivial community, celebrating one another and the fine work they’d done over the past season, was exhilarating. 

I figured that excitement should be shared.

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Long, cold, and worth it

Artists Rep's premiere of E.M. Lewis's Antarctic drama "Magellanica" – all five and a half hours of it – tells an epic tale of lives on the edge

Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis’s new show Magellanica opens with a scientist holding a parka and some luggage. “No one ends up in Antarctica by accident,” she says matter-of-factly. It’s true. Those who head deep into the frozen continent do must have strong resolve. The journey is long but those who make it hope for great payoffs.

Magellanica, which had its world premiere on Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, embraces this ethos with a five-and-a-half hour run time. The question you’re probably asking is, “Does the payoff justify its length?” The answer is a definite yes.

Don’t worry: There are three intermissions and a dinner break.

From left: Vin Shambry, Sara Hennessy, Allen Nause, Michael Mendelson, John San Nicolas, Joshua J. Weinstein, Barbie Wu, Eric Pargac. Photo: Russell J Young

Set in 1986, Magellanica follows five scientists, one cartographer, and two crew members to an international research station at the South Pole, the most inhospitable place on the surface of the earth. Some of them are there to study the newly discovered hole in the ozone layer. Some are there to escape their own pasts. Some are doing both at the same time.

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Family fuss? It’s only human

In the comic drama "The Humans" at Artists Rep, Thanksgiving dinner with the Blakes just might knock the stuffing out of you

Maybe you missed it last year when that big musical about the Founding Fathers was the talk of the Tonys and just about anyplace else you turned. But while Hamilton was sweeping up most of the attention and a bunch of Tony Awards, including best new musical, a much smaller play was making its own mark: Stephen Karam’s family comedy-drama The Humans, which took the award for best new play, plus two more for best performers and one for best set design. If it never broke through as a pop-cultural phenomenon the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit has, The Humans has left its mark, and is likely to be produced many times for many years on many regional stages.

From left: Vana O’Brien (in wheelchair), Quinlan Fitzgerald (partially hidden), John San Nicolas, Luisa Sermol, Val Landrum (partially hidden), Robert Pescovitz. Photo: Russell J Young

On Saturday night it opened on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Stage after a week of preview performances, beating Hamilton to the Portland punch. (A few Portlanders got a first look at The Humans a little over a year ago, when The Reading Parlor performed an engaging and decidedly promising one-night staged reading of it in a little side room at Artists Rep.) The Hamilton road company will settle into Keller Auditorium for a run March 20-April 8 next year, and I can still hear the wails reverberating from frustrated potential ticket buyers who couldn’t get through on the phone lines when advance sales kicked off Nov. 17.

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The hound of the comic thrills

Clackamas Rep romps through Ken Ludwig's spoof of the Sherlock Homes mystery "Hound of the Baskervilles"

The man in the deerstalker hat and his biographer sidekick Dr. Watson live for the thrill of the hunt in Ken Ludwig’s screwball spoof of the most popular of Sherlock Holmes’ tales, Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.

The whodunit of this play, which has just opened at Clackamas Repertory Theatre, is less about the butler, the shady neighbor or estranged relative, but rather the grist that lies in which of the five actors is playing which of the 40 or so characters at any particular time. The cast, directed by David Smith-English, ebbs and flows on and off stage in a contradance with lightning-quick changes into detailed costumes. If it wasn’t for the ease and energetic joy the cast carries as the pace increases over the performance, you might almost think you were at a hockey match, where players often lose a few pounds in sweat per game. The puck doesn’t stop there, as the audience lapses into a meta meta suspension of disbelief and the real laughs kick in. By the end of the play the timing is rapid-fire and off-the-hinges absurd. In one of the final moments two people play three characters locked in an embrace, trading off hats and lines like they live in a 4D funny mirror.

Dennis Kelly and John San Nicolas in Ken Ludwig’s Sherlock Holmes spoof. Photo: Travis Nodurft

This Sherlock Holmes (John San Nicolas) does not wear the long drawn face of a nicotine addict who also likes tight fluffy lines of cocaine to fuel his broad assumptions from few details. Ludwig’s Sherlock is a stable middle-class armchair-professor hired gun who probably in a few decades of literature will inspire a James Bond-type genius, but with the contrast of being unavailably sexy. Dr. Watson (Dennis Kelly) is the detective chasing skirts. Watson, as narrator and chronicler to his trusty flatmate, is also in hot pursuit of female affection and Holmes’s approval at every turn and twist of the plot. His high-cheekbone smile of satisfaction looks to be the result of years of good marks at boarding school.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: all aboard for Eugene

A Eugene cultural tour, Anne Boleyn's music book, a little shop of horror and a full gallop, monkey business, Yetis, two top art shows, "Hughie," roots music, Alien Boy, guns galore, spirit of '76

There are lots of good reasons to go to Eugene that have nothing to do with Ducks or football. Sure, the presence of the University of Oregon has a lot to do with the quality of things down the valley: two of ArtsWatch’s favorite things, for instance, the Oregon Bach Festival and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, are intimately tied to the university, and a lot of what’s good about Oregon’s new-music scene emanates from the halls and studios of the university’s music department. But the university is far from the only game in town. However you keep your cultural scorecard, Eugene – population roughly 160,000, metro area another 200,000 added to that – consistently hits above its weight.

Here at ArtsWatch we like to keep tabs on what’s happening in the Emerald City, and lately that’s been quite a bit. For starters, check out Gary Ferrington’s Arts Sampler: Eugene by train for a car-free, arts-stuffed weekend, a sort of cultural travelogue for Portlanders looking for a close-to-home adventure. Go ahead, plan an autumn getaway. And if you like, feel free to slip in a football game or a track meet on the side, too.

Portland-bound Amtrak Cascades at Eugene Station.

Portland-bound Amtrak Cascades at Eugene Station.

We’ve also picked up some good features from some top Eugene writers:

— Photographer and arts journalist Bob Keefer, author of the invaluable Eugene Art Talk online journal, has undertaken an almost year-long project of following the development of a new version of The Snow Queen for Eugene Ballet, with a fresh score by Oregon composer Kenji Bunch and choreography by EB’s longtime artistic director, Toni Pimble, who is recognized nationally as a creator of vivid and original ballets. Keefer will write about ten installments leading up to the premiere next spring, and ArtsWatch will reprint them once they’ve debuted on Eugene Art Talk. Here’s Episode 2, focusing on designer Nadya Geras-Carson.

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‘Play’: the play’s the (meta) thing

D.C. Copeland's newest at Shaking the Tree is a spry leap into artifice and reality, a play about the play of making a play

Play, D.C. Copeland’s aptly named and spryly entertaining new play that premiered Thursday evening at Shaking the Tree, playfully underlines a crucial point: in the theater, there is no such thing as realism.

That is, realism isn’t reality. It’s just another style, artificial like all the rest. Characters live and breathe and do what they do at the whim of an invisible hand – not Adam Smith’s elusive economic balancer, but the hand of an unseen character known as the playwright, who may or may not be in control of the impulses that move her to play the pieces of the play the way she does. The playwright, in this case, is the mother of invention, and she has the audacity to openly display the artificiality of her enterprise while at the same time trying to lure the audience into that emotional complicity with the characters that we call, for convenience, “realism.”

Modica (left), Martin, San Nicolas in "Play." Photo: Gary Norman

Modica (left), Martin, San Nicolas in “Play.” Photo: Gary Norman

A few shades of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author are flitting about the stage, although the characters in Play generally tend to consider the author more of a minor irritation than a crucial element of the action. And Copeland’s play dovetails, in intriguing ways, with a couple of other meditations on self-invention and the inherent theatricality of people’s lives that are on the boards in Portland right now: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Portland Shakespeare Project and Much Ado About Nothing at Post5. Viola invents an artificial reality that slowly aligns with “real” reality in Twelfth Night, as much through the power of language as through the foolery of disguise. Beatrice and Benedick trick the tricksters in Much Ado by following the self-deception of their mutual passion to discover it is the key to the very deep truth that their illusion is, in fact, their central truth: in a “real” sense, they’ve created (or perhaps discovered) themselves. In both plays – let’s say all three, because Copeland’s, too, is very much about the mysterious power of language to create and alter and sometimes destroy life – words are the magic that create and sustain existence out of nothingness.

If that sounds very meta-, well, it is. Like her simpler and much darker The Undiscovered Country, which premiered in May at Defunkt, Play relishes the gamesmanship of theater, and Copeland could hardly hope for a smarter and more vibrant production than she gets in this premiere production, which is directed by John San Nicolas, who also stars in the key role of the Narrator (meta-theatrical plays pretty often have a narrator, so named or not: think Our Town). Some plays are very forgiving: their virtues are so narrative and near the surface that they can survive even mediocre productions. Play is of the more elaborate and particular sort: it’s a loose-jointed yet cunningly structured edifice that everyone involved, from director to performers to designers, must fully comprehend and be in agreement on. In lesser hands, the whole puzzle could fall apart, like amateur Beckett. Play is very much a gamble – that the director and actors will get what’s going on, and that the members of the audience will appreciate having the blueprint created and contradicted and reshaped in front of their eyes.

The illusion of Play is that you can strip the illusion away, revealing all of its working parts, and still leave it intact. The danger is that the audience will see it as mere trickiness, and get bored when the arbitrary wand waves again. It’s very much, though not exclusively, a play for insiders – for artists, who grapple with this issue of reality and illusion every day in their own work; and for avid arts followers, who are fascinated by what it is that artists are about. Except for a couple of points where my attention flagged and I fantasized that I’d dropped in on a grad-school philosophy-of-theater seminar, I was caught up in both the play and the production, appreciating its little twists and plunges and cluster-bombs of comedy and even, though I usually loathe such things, its occasional forays into audience participation (partly, I think, because the audience-participation bits weren’t done earnestly, but with self-deprecating humor: how far can we manipulate you and get away with it?).

From left: Green, Groben, Conway, Modica, Martin, San Nicolas. Photo: Gary Norman

From left: Green, Groben, Conway, Modica, Martin, San Nicolas. Photo: Gary Norman

Play exists at various and shifting levels of reality: the unseen playwright, who is both the most and least important “character”; the omniscient and a little caustic Narrator; the actor playing a playwright, who seems to be pulling the strings except when they sometimes pull her; the characters the actor/playwright creates; even the audience, which is repeatedly exhorted to respond and get involved. The play begins, skippingly, with a character who decides she’s a playwright (bright and bushy Vonessa Martin, as Flan) and a second character (the arch and ferociously funny Lauren Modica, as Lola) who, somewhat arbitrarily, becomes her roommate. Flan declares; Lola prods; Flan scribbles; Lola argues. An extended family springs to life: best friends Grace (Kelly Godell) and Lila (Keiko Green); Grace’s daughter Rosalind (Tiffany Groben), who undergoes an entire life cycle over the play’s intermissionless 80-odd minutes; Grace’s too-good-to-be-true husband (Spencer Conway), who maybe isn’t so good but then again maybe is; and Joshua J. Weinstein as a sort of stagehand/factotum/handy spare part to be comically employed when the situation arises. The characters stumble, under Flan’s arbitrary hand, through episodes ludicrous and touching, comical and tragic, drunken and sober, furtive and open; and at some point the enthusiasm of the process gives way to something more wearing and heavier for the play’s creator to bear. Things happen to the characters that the playwright (the playwright in the play, and maybe the one outside of it, too) regrets but somehow cannot change: some things, she says, just have to be the way they have to be. Creation, as it turns out, is something weightier than just fun and games. Fantasies take on moral and emotional dimension.

As Copeland and her characters shift between action and commentary, commentary and action, director San Nicolas’s actors hover in a territory between avatars and fully fleshed characters, developing emotional shadings despite the playwright’s insistence that they are mere inventions: imperceptibly, they coax the audience into caring about their fates. This, too, is part of the illusion of the theater: It’s what happens every night onstage, only more baldly, almost perversely, stated in Play. And the actors’ deep dives into their characters, that fusion of the real and unreal that makes good fiction feel so very much alive, is crucial to it all.

It’s an exceptionally strong cast: I was taken particularly by Green’s emotionally confused Lila and Modica’s brassy Lola. And San Nicolas’s Narrator is a wonder, ranking with his outstanding work in the likes of Badass Theatre’s Invasion! and Artists Rep’s The Motherfucker with the Hat. He’s a stretchy-elastic, caustic, rueful, show-offish, restrained, unpredictably funny conduit of high-voltage energy, connecting everyone to everyone else. It’s ferocious. Then again, it’s only a play.

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Play, produced at Shaking the Tree by Cracked Nutshell (well, you’ve got to if you’re going to eat the nut), has a limited run of nine performances though August 8. Ticket and schedule information are here.