Lakewood Theatre

ArtsWatch Weekly: eyeballing the state of the state

Vision 2020, new/old Five Oaks Museum, music of Second Winter, blood sweat & fears at the theater, storm of the (last) century

HERE AT ARTSWATCH WE’RE ENTERING THE 2020s NOT WITH A WHIMPER BUT A BANG. On New Year’s Day we began a series called Vision 2020 – twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the coming decade.

Yulia Arakelyan of Wobbly Dance in a scene from Wobbly’s film Tidal. Photo: Kamala Kingsley

We started planning for this series several months ago, looking for potential voices that are insightful, informed, and sometimes provocative. We wanted to hear not just from the Portland area, but from around Oregon. And we wanted to dig deep. Some of the people we’ve interviewed are well-known artists. Some you might never have heard of. Some work behind the scenes. Some are up-and-coming. Several are from vital communities that have been under-recognized. All are creating significant chapters in the Oregon Story.

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DramaWatch: A family history in black and white

Romance, race and genealogy clash in "Redwood," a world premiere at Portland Center Stage; plus tips for the week in Portland theater.

For the past several years, something called the Kilroy’s List has attempted to shine a light on “un- and underproduced new plays by woman, trans, and non-binary authors” by polling hundreds of professionals in the play-development field. It has proven to be a rich resource. The 2017 list, for example, included Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play (which Artists Rep staged in 2018), Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation (part of the most recent Oregon Shakespeare Festival season) and Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band (also at OSF this year and coming to Portland Center Stage in the spring).

Chip Miller recalls looking at the 2017 list and noticing the play Redwood by Brittany K. Allen. “I thought, ‘I went to school with someone named Brittany Allen. I wonder if it’s the same person.’”

Brittany K. Allen and Nick Ferrucci in the world premiere of Redwood at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Miller grew up in Kansas City, then studied theater at NYU. Deciding against doing “the New York thing” after school, Miller began to look for regional-theater opportunities and quickly landed back home at Kansas City Rep, soon serving as casting director for the play-development department led by Marissa Wolf.
Allen, it turned out, was the same person that Miller had known in New York, and Wolf and Miller soon slotted Redwood into a reading series at KC Rep. Several months later, Wolf headed West to become artistic director at Portland Center Stage — eventually bringing both Miller and Redwood along as well. 

Miller, who joined PCS in April with the title associate producer, directs the world premiere of Redwood, opening Friday on the Armory mainstage. Among the actors: Brittany K. Allen.  

Redwood examines the fallout from modern genealogical testing in the life of an inter-racial couple. Meg Wilson and Drew Tatum have recently moved in together when they find out their relationship goes back further than they’d thought. Undertaking a deep dive into family history, Meg’s uncle Steve Durbin finds the descendants of the family that owned the Durbins during slavery. And yep — it’s the Tatums. Complications ensue. 

It’s a rich premise, providing entry to a host of relevant issues about the growth of DNA testing and online genealogical research, the ongoing legacy of slavery in American life, potential complications in mixed-race relationships, and so on. 

“I think it’s about how the history of oppression would affect a modern-day couple, and how ancient power dynamics…influence the present,” Allen said in a 2017 interview promoting a developmental reading at the Lark in New York. 

However pertinent the play’s social themes, Allen isn’t about to get bogged down in self-seriousness. “I get excited about plays that move and shake and have a lot of glitter and nonsense in them,” she said in that same interview. Sprinkled amid the fraught conversations and family dynamics are hip-hop dance classes, direct address from characters to audience, and even some ancestors appearing out of the ether. 

Chip Miller, associate producer at Portland Center Stage and director of Redwood. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

“She’s found this landscape where the most theatrical moments are when we go inside the minds of the characters,” Miller says, talking in a conference room at the Armory earlier this week.

Miller, 29, speaks of the production and the issues that inform it with an easy fluency. I mention my own cynicism about the value of genealogical DNA testing, about the muddling of biology, culture and personality that its marketing suggests, and the director’s response encapsulates the play’s core question in an intriguing way: “What does this information change? Does a deeper understanding of heritage affect the performance of identity on a daily basis?

“We’re always looking for narrative, always looking for meaning,” Miller adds. “This DNA stuff is just a device to tell a different, newer/older story.”

Opening

Halloween is behind us once again, but how’s this for horror: “…from the creators of Les Misérables…”?
OK, I’ll grant you that for many folks that counts as an invitation more than a warning, and in any case the musical Miss Saigon has quite enough of a track record on its own. An updating of the Madame Butterfly template to 1970s Vietnam, the show was a smash in the West End and on Broadway in the 1990s. Now it’s back in a touring version for Broadway Across America, coming to the Keller. 


Earlier this year, when he opened a small performance studio called the 2509 in the daylight basement of his Northeast Portland home, Lewis & Clark College theater professor Stepan Simek established boundaries. “Everything is allowed,” he said with a wry smile, “except amplified music and Bible study.”
And yet now here he is directing a play called The Christians that addresses doctrinal disputes within the community of a suburban megachurch, and reportedly is not satirical but, according to an article in The New York Times, “true to life” and “liturgically precise.” Sounds like a project that might call for a little…Bible study?
Simek describes the Lucas Hnath play, which won the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, as “sort of a ‘chamber play’ (albeit backed by a twenty-five-member church choir).” And while DramaWatch usually doesn’t track school productions, Simek’s track record and his enthusiasm merit an exception. “There are some remarkable student actors’ performances, the choir is rocking, and the play is excellent, really excellent,” he wrote in an email. “It MAKES YOU THINK.” 


Much about the life and genius of William Shakespeare remains mysterious, yet we do know that he didn’t base the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” on personal experience. But so what?  Lakewood Theatre presents Shakespeare in Love, adapted from the 1998 film, which imagines romance as creative  inspiration — and why the Bard isn’t remembered for writing “Romeo and Ethel.” David Sikking directs a cast led by the terrific Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Shakespeare.

The flattened stage

While we might not really know so much about Shakespeare’s love life, Shakespeare’s lovers — that is, the ones he created on the page — we know. And we know they sometimes took some rather odd advice from those around them. Would that more modern psychotherapy been available to them! Perhaps something like this:

Quick hits

Among the questions that face us when contemplating Follies: The Unofficially Best Ever Variety Show, Stephano Iaboni’s recurring physical-comedy showcase: Who or what could make it official? Sid Caesar?

In any case, Iaboni’s guests for the latest installment include Michael O’Neill, who recently toured Palestine as part of Clowns Without Borders.

Kevin meets TED

TEDx Mt. Hood, a localized baby brother of the famed TED talks, takes over the theater at Roosevelt High this Saturday. The hook for theater lovers? Kevin Jones, actor, director and co-founder of the August Wilson Red Door Project, will be among the speakers.  

Closing

Bakkhai at Shaking the Tree. Photo: Meg Nanna.

Bakkhai, a version of the Euripides tragedy adapted and directed here by Shaking the Tree’s Samantha Van Der Merwe, is, in the words of ArtsWatcher Bob Hicks, “a neatly contrived roller-coaster of a show, a smooth and sometimes scary fun ride that starts where it starts and carries on, with no breaks, to its bitter and propulsive end.” With just a few more chances to catch it this weekend, that end feels more bitter still.


Penning a tragi-comedy about something called Acquired Toilet Disease might seem an odd response to the AIDS-related death of a loved one, but for a writer as skilled as Paula Vogel, it worked, with The Baltimore Waltz. Of Profile Theatre’s soon-to-close production, Broadway World’s Krista Garver said “this bizarre, extravagant fantasy was the only fitting way to deal with a grief too deep to bear.”

Best line I read this week

“The poorer practitioners of any craft are often, like clumsy magicians or awkward liars, more revealing than their betters. Even more than the masterpiece, the worst art serves as a crucible in which a period’s superficial veneer is melted away to reveal the bald assumptions, the prevalent ideologies, the crassest commonplaces of the times. Shakespeare is universal; it is with a Thomas Kyd or a Cyril Tourneur that we encounter a true Elizabethan.”

— from The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, by Ted Gioia.


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

DramaWatch: Building a bigger, broader audience

Portland Center Stage's leaders talk about diversity and inclusion on the stage and in the seats; plus, the rundown on a host of theater openings.

For Cynthia Fuhrman, enthusiasm about Portland Center Stage is part of both her job and her nature. Even so, about a year into her tenure as PCS managing director — and three decades after she helped found the company as an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she really is…well…enthusiastic.

“Chris left us in better shape than we’ve ever been in,” she said in a recent interview, referring to longtime artistic director Chris Coleman’s departure earlier this year for a similar post in Denver. “We don’t have any accumulated debt. We have a $3 million mortgage on the building that’s completely manageable; right now, we’re scheduled to pay (it) off in 2029, but that might happen earlier. We have a growing audience. And we have a higher national visibility than we’ve ever had. For all that to be the platform that he hands over to somebody is kind of amazing.”

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s new artistic director, has something to say to her people. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

That somebody is Marissa Wolf, who was hired in August as Coleman’s successor and started her job in the company’s picturesque Armory headquarters on Sept. 15. Not long after Wolf’s arrival, I sat down with her and Fuhrman, in separate interviews, for a forthcoming Artslandia article. That piece focuses on the arc of their careers as women in theater who’ve risen to top leadership positions.

But our conversations also included discussion of PCS and the audience growth that Fuhrman mentioned.

Furhman expounded on the topic in response to a question about what results PCS has seen from a Wallace Foundation grant in 2015, part of a nation-wide audience-building initiative.

“It’s always a question of cause and effect, but we have to give some credit to the Wallace grant,” she said. “Over the past three years our audience has grown, between 4,000 and 6,000 tickets annually. Last year we had 132,000 admissions and three years ago we were at 120,000. The move to the Armory 12 years ago brought down the median age of our audience. When I came back to the theater in 2008 our surveys showed that our median age was around 49. That’s dropped to about 45. A lot of our growth has been in the target age range for the grant, which was 30-45.

“The one thing that’s completely obvious is that a year ago we started this new subscription model for people under 35 called the Armory Card. It’s an idea we stole from Steppenwolf (Theatre in Chicago) — a highly reduced discount ticket on a refillable-card model that unbounds you from a lot of the traditional subscription restrictions. We originally ordered 200 from the card supplier, hoping we could sell those in the first year. We sold 700.

“Another big thing tied to the grant is the Northwest Stories series. We’ve produced one of the commissions, Astoria, and have another this season, Crossing Mnisose, but we’ve branded other shows that have that connection — Oregon Trail, Hold These Truths…Those shows have been selling above average, which is nice, but we found during the artistic-director search that it’s really caught other theaters’ eyes nationally.

“We’ve heard the conversations over the years of regional theaters being homogeneous, all doing the plays that were on Broadway last year. But PCS, over the last several years, has not been doing that as much as other theaters are. And that was noticed. Lots of artistic director candidates said, ‘I love that you are doing plays tied to where you live.’”

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Describing a work of art as “classic” can mean many things, but it usually connotes a sense of durability, of solidity, of wholeness. Those qualities are likely to come in handy for the four theatrical classics currently being run through the modernizing, re-energizing, hybridizing, multi-disciplinary mill of the CoHo Lab.

Continuing to emphasize the development of new work, CoHo Productions has hosted four projects for workshop time during the past two weeks. On Sunday evening it will present excerpts from the four plays in-progress:

Crucible — Philip Cuomo, CoHo’s producing artistic director, flexes his creative artistic muscles with a radical take on the Arthur Miller classic, re-imagined with the help of the CoHo Clown Cohort. Consider it a follow-up to his highly successful comic-yet-poignant clown version of The Glass Menagerie.

 

Scary clowns: A cross-wielding Maureen Porter terrorizes Olivia Weiss in rehearsal for Philip Cuomo’s clowning adaptation of “The Crucible.” Photo: Jessica Dart

House of the Living — director Samantha Shay’s dance-theater interpretation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as “psychosexual grande ballet.”

Girl v Troll (or Dam Things) — A.R. Nicholas (collaborating with a cast that includes such fine actors as Nick Ferrucci and Cecily Overman) braves a troll’s lair, but somehow infuses an internet-age story with the tragic princess Electra as a sort of Greek chorus.

Fire & Meat — writer/director Eve Johnstone looks at the ancient poem Beowulf by way of John Gardner’s perspective-shifting 1971 novel Grendel, employing both feminist analysis and puppetry.

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DramaWatch: two great musicals

This week features openings of two of the best musicals in the past 20 years: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "The Light in the Piazza"

There are those among us who — brace yourself for this — dislike musicals. Perhaps they hate them, with an active, withering passion, but more likely they simply dismiss the form altogether as sentimental or soapy or sappy or just stupid.

Theater folk understand how much craft and care and sheer intelligence of various sorts it takes to make a musical actually work, but anyway … The form’s detractors can find plenty of ammo for their view (Cats, anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc., etc.). A bad musical can be as dreadful as art gets.

And yet.

Do it right and the thrill is magnificent. Do it boldly and creatively, taking the form in new directions, and the overall effect is something that I’d argue is hard to duplicate in any sort of entertainment.

Dale Johannes in Triangle’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Photo: Henry Liu

This week in Portland we get new local productions of two of the most boldly creative, and thrilling musicals of the past 20 years.

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Books on the hoof, love on the run

Lakewood's world premiere adaptation of the 1917 novel "Parnassus on Wheels" takes a literary adventure on a horse-drawn caravan of books

C.S. Whitcomb’s Parnassus on Wheels, which is getting its world premiere production at Lakewood Theatre Company and is an early entry in the Fertile Ground Festival of New Work, is an adaptation of Christopher Morley’s 1917 novel of the same name, a robust comedy of incident that straddles a wavering line between mere whimsy and genuine charm. It’s one of those strange, small, individualistic American literary eccentricities that manages to be both innocent and slyly knowing, the sort of outside-the-loop novel you almost certainly didn’t read in college English class but, once having discovered, most likely recall with a smile of affection. It seems frivolous, escapist, a bit of a lark, and so it is. But it also has surprising depths: a little more meat on its bones and it might be mistaken for something by William Saroyan.

Orion Bradshaw and Amanda Soden hit the road in “Parnassus on Wheels.” Photo: Triumph Photography

Parnassus (named after the sacred mountain above the Oracle of Delphi, a place of mystery and knowledge) is the tale of two middle-aged misfits who slowly find each other through the miracle of books. (Yes, the story comes from a time when Americans believed in the edifying powers of learning and education, things worth supporting with a hard-earned dollar or two).

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Atticus, tried and all too true

Lakewood's sharp and moving "To Kill a Mockingbird" does justice to an American classic that reverberates in a curious time capsule

To Kill a Mockingbird is a cherished time capsule of American literature and culture, a concise and moving statement about childhood, innocence, courage, and race. Its main characters – feisty tomboy Scout Finch, her brother Jem and friend Dill, the mysterious and frightening Boo Radley (much talked about but rarely seen), and above all that towering figure of decency and strength, Atticus Finch – are genuine American icons, up there within shouting distance of Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab and poor besmirched Hester Prynne. Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo and Atticus, of course, are all white Southerners, and it’s telling that the novel’s major black characters – Scout’s substitute-mother cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia, and Tom Robinson, the honest laborer who is falsely but fatally accused of rape – are not nearly so well-etched in the public consciousness.

Mockingbird doubles, maybe triples, in time. Harper Lee’s novel was published to acclaim in 1960, in the midst of the civil rights movement, after Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks’ bus rebellion and the Little Rock desegregation crisis, before the Selma marches and the rise of the Black Panther Party and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was both a repressive and an exciting time, when liberal hopes and expectations, in spite and perhaps in part because of the naked resistance they faced, ran high.

Kate McLellan as Scout, Monica Fleetwood as Calpurnia, Bram Allahdadi as Jem in “Mockingbird.” Lakewood Theatre photo

The novel is set, however, in an earlier time – the early to middle 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, in small-town Alabama, a seat of rigid segregation and no small amount of mob violence. From that viewpoint the actions of Atticus and the lessons Scout learns are truly heroic: resolute stands against the corruption of the place and culture they knew and loved. Tom Robinson loses his life. Scout loses her innocence, but gains something much larger: an understanding of the moral universe, and an emerging ability to cope with its demands.

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