Lanford Wilson

ArtsWatch Weekly: Thanks again

On a day of sharing, we talk about giving and receiving, and then dig in to Oregon's lavish cultural banquet: the arts beat goes on


TODAY IS A DAY OF GIVING THANKS, HOWEVER YOU CHOOSE TO DO SO. Here at ArtsWatch, some of us are on the road, traveling to visit family. Others have already reached their destinations. Some are hosting dinners or meeting with friends. Some are already busy in their kitchens, chopping and baking and simmering and laughing and preparing for a grand meal. We imagine you’re doing much the same. Some of you might even be busy in soup kitchens or food pantries, helping to cook and serve a good hot meal for people who don’t always get one. Some of you might be in line, waiting. 
 

Childe Hassam, Oregon Stlll Life (detail), 1904, oil on canvas, 25 x 30.25 inches, Portland Art Museum. Gift of Col. C.E.S. Wood in memory of his wife, Nancy Moale Wood. (On view in Belluschi Building; the museum is closed on Thanksgiving Day.)

Oregon is a land of bounty, as Childe Hassam’s delicious painting above from more than a century ago attests. Enjoy, share, and nurture it. Revel in its natural and creative wonders. Be generous. In a time of division and antagonism, help make it a place for everyone. Happy Thanksgiving to you. And thanks for being part of ArtsWatch. We’re here thanks to you.  

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Close up and burning bright

Asylum Theatre reignites Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" with intimate staging and palpable emotion.

In Asylum Theatre’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, everything happens a few feet from your face. In the aptly named Shoebox Theatre, the seats are situated so close to the actors that it almost seems possible to touch each feeling—joy, lust, rage, agony—that bursts free of their bodies. There’s no hiding from the propulsive intensity of their performances, and that’s terrifying.

It’s also exhilarating. Burn This seizes you, jostles you and moves you, frequently daring to break and repair your heart at the same time. Director Don Alder and his cast recognize that Wilson’s play isn’t meant merely to be watched and analyzed—it’s a meditation on love, grief and identity that is meant to be felt, even (and especially) when it’s almost too much.

Feel the burn: Heath Koerschgen and Brianna Ratterman come together through grief in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, staged at the Shoebox by Asylum Theatre. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Asylum has assembled a cast worthy of joining that daunting roster. Brianna Ratterman plays the conceited and traumatized choreographer Anna and Heath Koerschgen plays the furious and irrepressible Pale, who charges into Anna’s world like a bulldozer with the breaks cut.

Burn This begins with an anguished Anna being soothed by her roommate Larry (Michael J. Teufel) and her boyfriend Burton (Jason Maniccia). Anna has just returned from the funeral of her friend Robbie, a dancer who was killed with his partner in a boating accident. Your first instinct is to cry for Anna, but there’s something off-putting about her snide remarks about Robbie’s family and her conversations with Burton, a screenwriter who spends much of the opening scene moaning about the rewriting of a script he wrote called Far Voyager.

Anna and Larry’s Manhattan loft is a static kingdom that begs to be shaken up, and Pale—who is Robbie’s brother—is more than happy to help. In the middle of the night, he bangs on the door, demanding the remainder of his dead sibling’s possessions. Bound by both grief and chemistry, Pale and Anna begin a romance that (depending on your perspective) is either a genuine connection or a destructive intertwining of two damaged souls.

To watch Burn This is to be, in a good way, trapped. You don’t just sit close to the stage—you sit on the same level as the stage. Instead of staring up at a raised platform, you stare straight into the lives of the characters, noticing details that would have been easy to miss in a larger arena, such as Anna lightly touching Pale’s mustache or Pale gently brushing Anna’s hair behind her ear.

Anna initially sees Robbie as a martyred saint and the relatives who were ignorant (deliberately or otherwise) of his work as a dancer and his life as a gay man as callous villains. The reality is more nuanced, and that confuses and terrifies her (“She’s had a very protected life,” Larry tells Burton. “I mean, she’s never had to carry her own passport or plane tickets—she’s not had to make her own way much”).

Heath Koerschgen’s Pale (foreground) is the bull in the China-shop life of roommates Larry (Michael J. Teufel) and Anna (Brianna Ratterman), in Burn This. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Gradually, Anna begins to recognize that the identities of everyone around her are forever in flux. Pale may be a bully who hurls homophobic slurs, but he is also a tormented brother who irrationally blames himself for Robbie’s death. His signature line—“I’m gonna cry all over your hair”—is the play’s manifesto. Each tear in Burn This is a physical manifestation of the forces that expand the souls and perceptions of Anna and even Burton, whose journey goes far beyond the trials of being one point of a love triangle (despite his apparent heterosexuality, he fondly recalls receiving a blowjob from a man in the snow). 

Just as the events of Burn This disrupt each character’s life viscerally, the play itself leaves you thrillingly unmoored. I’m still mentally replaying its images (from Anna excoriating Pale and Burton while wearing a silky purple bathrobe to Burton holding a screenplay he has written, looking as vulnerable as a little boy clinging to a toy truck), trying to understand them and knowing that I’m not entirely meant to. Stories, Burn This insists, are as undefinable as people. No matter how hard we try to stay dry, to be human is to have tears in your hair.

Ch-ch-changes, good and bad

In review: Triangle Productions' "TRANS-formations" and "The Madness of Lady Bright"; Twilight Theater Company's "Antigone"

From the moment Matthew Sunderland steps onstage at The Sanctuary in Donnie’s new play TRANS-formation you sense you’re going to be in for an interesting ride. Sunderland stars as George/Christine in this 70-minute drama about the transsexual pioneer Christine Jorgensen, and the way he wraps himself around the story of this fascinating true-life character is impressive: his clear sharp tenor voice, masculine but not entirely; his body language, so firmly between; his immediate link with the audience, forged by the urgency to tell his tale.

Matthew Sunderland as George/Christine Jorgensen. Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

And what a tale. Donnie (the pen name of Donald Horn, who is also director, scenic and sound designer, and producer through Triangle Productions, the company he founded in 1989) has done his homework and assembled a smart, deeply informed play about Jorgensen, concentrating on the young Army veteran’s decision to undergo sex-change surgery and become a she. It’s a taut tale, with just two other actors, both of whom also are superb: Jacquelle Davis as Jorgensen’s sister Dolly (with a cameo as a schoolteacher with a mean streak) and Mark Pierce as Dr. Christian Hamberger, the Danish endocrinologist who made the transformation happen. Both Dolly and Dr. Hamberger have very human and natural friendships with George/Christine, and that’s crucial to the play’s success. The doctor talks science. George talks feelings. Out of their creative collaboration, Christine is born.

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Well, Fertile Ground happened, and while I offered a few prognostications, for the first time in many years I didn’t get out to see those shows. Can you please use the comments to tell me, and more importantly each other, what you loved? With a festival that’s so egalitarian by nature, community opinions should hold the most sway anyway.

Now then:

The word around ArtsWatch via our reviewer TJ Acena is that Magellanica, which recreates the feeling of its setting, Antarctica, with a glacially paced 5+ hour runtime, is “worth it.”  I believe it. If I had to pick a group of people to get marooned in the Antarctic wilderness with, I’d actually consider Artists Rep’s company of actors. They’re versatile and compassionate, and they can make fire.

Alisha Menon is the Girl Prince in Northwest Children’s Theatre’s “Chitra.” Photo: David Kinder

Corrib’s all-age-appropriate Lifeboat closes at Northwest Children’s Theater this weekend, making way for Chitra, The Girl Prince, NWCT’s second major collaboration with Indian dance expert Anita Menon (the first being 2015’s Jungle Book). Nice to see Ken Yoshikawa pop up in a kids’ production and what looks like a romantic lead. His earnestness will not be lost on all ages.

What else?

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