Kyle Delamarter

‘Well’ & ‘Pebble’: over the edge

Welcome to the well-made play? Profile and Imago go beyond the stylistic borders in new shows by Lisa Kron and Carol Triffle

A good play ought to grab its audience from the very top and take it for a ride. The way it grabs an audience can be as varied as a cowboy crooning from the wings about a beautiful morning (Oklahoma!) or a vengeful ghost skulking around a castle (Hamlet).

Well, Lisa Kron’s quasi-comic onstage argument from Profile Theatre at Portland Playhouse, opens in a well of silence with actor Vana O’Brien snoozing, or pretending to snooze, on a recliner flopped way back to sleeping position – not an action but the anticipation of an action, the tension of action’s absence.

Pebble, Carol Triffle’s new existential riff on melodrama at Imago Theatre, opens with an apocalyptic crash and boom of thunder and lightning, an absurdist clatter thrusting a mental institution, and the audience, into mind-altering darkness.

The openings could scarcely be more different. Yet Well and Pebble are both meta-theatrical shows, self-referential experiences stretching the idea of what dramatic storytelling can be. They’re plunges into pure style and the ways in which we invent ourselves, tugging at the fragile veil between fact and fiction, as we go along.


PEBBLE at IMAGO THEATRE


Triffle’s Pebble, the final play in Imago’s three-show Next Wave Festival (following Jerry Mouawad’s Leonard Cohen Is Dead and a revival of Mouawad’s lyrical fantasia To Fly Again) is both familiar and fresh, a vigorous new exploration of territory Triffle’s shown us before. It’s a place so simple and ordinary that it takes on extra-ordinary dimensions, mundanity transforming like Kafka’s unfortunate Gregor Samsa into a new reality of darkly comic horror and thwarted passion at loose ends.

Kyle Delamarter and Danielle Vermette in Carol Triffle’s Pebble: all in the family. Photo courtesy Imago Theatre

The bursts of thunder and lightning at the beginning set the stylistic tone: Everything’s big, bold, broadly gestural, almost a parody of melodrama and American stage realism – the shell accentuated and the stuffing ripped out. Over decades Triffle and Mouawad have built a theater of seductive spectacle at Imago, most obviously in the company’s glorious costume-and-movement shows like Frogz, in which spoken language is either nonexistent or an afterthought, but also in the individual shows the two have created that use language extensively but usually in a disjointed manner – shards of familiarity broken off and scattered across a landscape that is altered as in an odd and perplexing dream, or a painting by Dalí or Bosch.

In Pebble, the skewed landscape is the interior of a mental institution where an emotionally unkempt woman named Pebble (Danielle Vermette) seems something like a live-in guest at an odd and slightly menacing hotel. A partly finished jigsaw puzzle sits on one table, a deck of cards at another. An easel sits to one side, with a painting of two horses propped on it. Sometimes Pebble dons a smock and picks up a brush. More often she’s making obsessive scrawls on the walls, which are covered with them. Toward the back is a reception area, the domain of Nurse Megan (Megan Skye Hale), who sometimes barks instructions into a microphone and often casts speculative glances at a medical orderly (Jon Farley), who is also the object of advances from Pebble, who’d dearly love to get her itch scratched and doesn’t trust Nurse Megan one bit. Little blue pills are passed from character to character, caretakers and inmates alike – Pebble ended up here because of an unfortunate overdose problem – and everyone prowls around like tigers in a cage. It’s all very homey, in a clinical, creepy way. Then a newcomer shows up: Nick (Kyle Delamarter), who might be Pebble’s brother (he probably is), and might be sane or as loony as everyone else, and whose arrival upsets an already unbalanced apple cart.

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Laughing at the end of the world

Carol Triffle's apocalyptic comedy "Fallout" at Imago is a show of quirky madness with a heap of questions hanging like a mushroom cloud

What is Fallout? I suppose the term “end-of-days comedy” fits. Yet that seems too narrow for a play about war, friendship, sexual awakening and the adverse effects of nuclear ash on human hair. Written and directed by Imago Theatre’s renowned absurdist Carol Triffle, Fallout is a play far grander in scope than the cramped room where it unfolds.

In an era awash with self-important tales of heroines and heroes nobly braving the apocalypse, the idea of Triffle (co-founder of Imago and co-creator of the legendary Frogz) journeying to the end of the world armed with her trademark anarchic wit sounds inviting. Yet despite the healthy amount of chuckling in the audience on the night I saw Fallout, the play struck me as emotionally aloof and scattershot. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a cereal box stuffed with many disparate brands.

Kyle Delamarter: crazy like a fox, or just crazy in a foxhole? Imago Theatre photo

Fallout begins in a bomb shelter that a bumbling drifter named Bobby (Kyle Delamarter) has molded into a relatively cozy home. It’s not immediately clear whether Bobby is hiding from a nuclear war or is simply a reclusive lunatic (a scene where he muses nonsensically about snake bodies encourages the question). Yet he seems to have settled into a routine that consists of playing his out-of-tune guitar, writing in his diary, and dreaming of either going to college or dying (don’t look for logic in his thinking).

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Those were the good old days

Carol Triffle's human comedy "The Reunion" at Imago plays with nostalgia and longing and the surprise of life as it hits us in the face

Imago Theatre is reviving its production of Carol Triffle’s The Reunion, which premiered in June 2017. It reopens Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, and continues for a short run through Jan. 20: ticket and schedule information here. ArtsWatch’s review of the original production, which had the same cast:

*

Walking into Imago Theatre on Saturday night to see Carol Triffle’s new play The Reunion was like walking into a hippie pad circa 1969 (yes, I speak from direct experience) on a particularly groovy day. One psychedelically bubbly wall was sporting more peace symbols than a VW camper at the Oregon Country Fair. Donovan was warbling Season of the Witch over the speaker, reminding me in flashback of how snotty the future Nobel Laureate of the Lowlands had been to a singer I liked. No strings of beads were dangling in the doorways, but the stage was aglitter in crepe and saturated color and overdone cheerfulness, as if Triffle had raided The Lippman Company party-supply store with a hundred bucks and an SUV to load the booty into and haul it all off. In other words: perfect.

Party hearty: Sean Bowie, Danielle Vermette, Jerry Mouawad. Photo: Kevin Young

Over the years Triffle’s developed a brittle absurdist comic style that seems deeply rooted in the traditions of mime and clown and slapstick comedy, and at its best can make you laugh out loud while it’s quietly breaking your heart. The Reunion, which runs about a well-paced hour and packs the concise wallop of a good novella, does both – or at least, it did for me. On the surface a Triffle play can feel like an animated jaunt through the Sunday comics, a cartoon landscape inhabited by characters with the oddball normality of the townsfolk in Robert Altman’s Popeye movie. And so it is in The Reunion, where the oddball and laughable and sometimes more than slightly looney settle slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a deep and moving contemplation of the human condition. It’s the sort of thing that good clowns do, this bonding of the foolish and profound, and it makes them essential to the culture.

Continues…

Those were the good old days

Carol Triffle's human comedy "The Reunion" at Imago plays with nostalgia and longing and the surprise of life as it hits us in the face

Imago Theatre is reviving its production of Carol Triffle’s The Reunion, which premiered in June 2017. It reopens Friday, Jan. 12, and continues for a short run through Jan. 20: ticket and schedule information here. ArtsWatch’s review of the original production, which had the same cast:

*

Walking into Imago Theatre on Saturday night to see Carol Triffle’s new play The Reunion was like walking into a hippie pad circa 1969 (yes, I speak from direct experience) on a particularly groovy day. One psychedelically bubbly wall was sporting more peace symbols than a VW camper at the Oregon Country Fair. Donovan was warbling Season of the Witch over the speaker, reminding me in flashback of how snotty the future Nobel Laureate of the Lowlands had been to a singer I liked. No strings of beads were dangling in the doorways, but the stage was aglitter in crepe and saturated color and overdone cheerfulness, as if Triffle had raided The Lippman Company party-supply store with a hundred bucks and an SUV to load the booty into and haul it all off. In other words: perfect.

Party hearty: Sean Bowie, Danielle Vermette, Jerry Mouawad. Photo: Kevin Young

Over the years Triffle’s developed a brittle absurdist comic style that seems deeply rooted in the traditions of mime and clown and slapstick comedy, and at its best can make you laugh out loud while it’s quietly breaking your heart. The Reunion, which runs about a well-paced hour and packs the concise wallop of a good novella, does both – or at least, it did for me. On the surface a Triffle play can feel like an animated jaunt through the Sunday comics, a cartoon landscape inhabited by characters with the oddball normality of the townsfolk in Robert Altman’s Popeye movie. And so it is in The Reunion, where the oddball and laughable and sometimes more than slightly looney settle slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a deep and moving contemplation of the human condition. It’s the sort of thing that good clowns do, this bonding of the foolish and profound, and it makes them essential to the culture.

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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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