Luna Gale

DramaWatch Weekly: Left Hook

Rich Rubin's Portland boxing tale, part of Vanport Mosaic, takes a jab at the city's woozy racial history. Plus the week's openings and closings.

“Let me tell you somethin’, boy. You never know what’s comin’ … and the sooner you learn that, the better off you be!”

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A few years ago, when playwright Rich Rubin approached Damaris Webb about directing some of his work, she chose the play Cottonwood in the Flood because it told a piece of history unfamiliar to her, the fascinating story of the 1948 Vanport flood. Left Hook, another Rubin play that Webb is directing, in a production that opens Thursday night at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, gets closer to a history she knows. Extending the story of the repeated displacement faced by Portland’s black community, Left Hook is set in the 1970s, as urban renewal roils the Albina neighborhood that had absorbed the black Vanport diaspora a quarter century earlier.

Damaris Webb directs Rich Rubin’s play “Left Hook,” running May 24-June 10, as part of Vanport Mosaic. The cast includes Anthony Armstrong, Kenneth Dembo, Jasper Howard, Shareen Jacobs, Tonea Lolin, and James Savannah. Photo: Shawte Sims

Webb, who has chronicled her bi-racial background in a solo show called The Box Marked Black, grew up in the Irvington neighborhood and none of her family was forced to relocate for the major construction projects of the era – Memorial Coliseum, the I-5 freeway, and an abortive expansion plan for Emanuel Hospital. But she recalls that during the development of Left Hook she was shown a photo of the Black Panthers Portland headquarters when it was in the midst of being shut down by city officials. She recognized someone in the photo: her father, who worked for the Portland Development Commission.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Be yourself?

Is there such a thing as "just playing yourself" onstage? What does that mean? Plus, openings, closings, nachos, and a Terrence McNally film

Caroline, or change?

Pretend. Play-acting. Make believe. The actor’s art is a curious challenge: Use your heart and mind, body and soul, to appear to be someone else.

Fine actors do it often. And yet, something in that seeming contradiction at the essence of the art sometimes results in an odd response: “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor, but he only plays himself.”

That’s a bit of off-the-cuff criticism I’ve heard from time to time in talking to Portland theater fans, and I’ve always been puzzled by it. What does such an assertion imply about the nature (or even the definition) of acting? Is “playing yourself” a shortcut to authenticity or a form of cheating? How do you speak someone else’s words and be yourself, anyway?

Sharonlee McLean, “a force of unearthly brilliance” in “Luna Gale.” Photo: Owen Carey

These and other questions came to mind afresh not long ago when I watched Sharonlee McLean as Caroline, an overworked social worker, in Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale, which ended its run at CoHo Theater last weekend. It was another wonderful performance on her part (and from the entire cast, for that matter), but it was her very reliability that reminded me that she’s one of the local performers about whomll I’ve heard that odd opinion: plays herself.

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DramaWatch: Third Rail’s the charm

The lowdown on this week's openings and closings, new seasons on the way, and a blast of a party coming up for Third Rail Rep

“When Third Rail first came on the scene,” says Maureen Porter, “there was little else happening. It was a different scene and a different city.”

So it was, back in 2005 when Third Rail Repertory Theatre — already a couple of years worth of planning meetings into its life as a fledgling company — rocketed onto theatergoers’ radar with an acclaimed production of Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events. An artists’ collaborative that started out as a fully professional Equity company, they were the little guy that could, quickly coming to be considered in the front rank of Portland theaters alongside Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep; significantly smaller in budget and number of productions, but consistently punching above their weight with top-quality work.

Maureen Porter

Not long after Third Rail began to solidify its reputation, I switched from my longtime position at The Oregonian, covering popular music, to writing about theater — an art form about which I knew all too little. (Yes, yes, I know — some things never change.) I quickly fell in love with theater, and Third Rail was (along with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, I suppose I’d have to say Artists Rep) why. The company picked great plays, comedies with devilish bite, dramas with surprising, insightful slants. The acting was consistently arresting, featuring a steady core of talented company members. The direction (in the early years, always by founding artistic director Slayden Scott Yarbrough) showed a scrupulous attention to detail, textual interpretation carried out coherently and cohesively through  all aspects of design and performance. The tremulous containment of Gretchen Corbett as a woman in political danger in A Lesson From Aloes; Porter’s fantastic (literally) bipolar mood swing in The Wonderful World of Dissocia; pretty much every little thing about Enda Walsh’s antic yet high-minded Penelope (a take-off on the Odyssey, set in an abandoned swimming pool)…for several years, it was high point after high point.

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Surviving the Baby Wars

CoHo's "Luna Gale" chronicles a volatile and exhilarating custody battle

There is a moment in CoHo’s astounding new production of Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale when a mother learns a stomach-churning secret about her daughter. Yet she doesn’t scream, shake her first or exclaim that it can’t be true. She simply freezes as still as a photograph.

That is what it feels like watching Luna Gale. Gilman’s story of a brutal custody battle in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, may not be soothing, but in the hands of director Brandon Woolley and his ferociously committed cast, it is spellbinding. Together, they embrace not only Luna Gale‘s power to provoke, but also the fact that it is entertainment in the best and brashest sense of the word—a roller coaster of a play packed with twists that could have made a Sixth Sense-era M. Night Shyamalan howl, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Sharonlee McLean, “a force of unearthly brilliance” in “Luna Gale.” Photo: Owen Carey

The first hairpin narrative turn arrives in the opening scene, where we meet a young couple, Karlie and Peter (Shannon Mastel and Jacob Camp). With her black nail polish, ripped jeans and James Dean-style bellowing, Karlie looks like a teenager fuming in the principal’s office. However, we quickly learn that she and Peter are immersed in all-too-adult crises. Not only are they meth addicts, but they are also in danger of losing their baby daughter Luna to Karlie’s mother, Cindy (Danielle Weathers, who also co-produced the show), an evangelical Christian who hides her vindictive spirit behind touchy-feely declarations like “The thing about Jesus is that he always gets results.”

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DramaWatch Weekly: ‘Major’ news

A Shavian comedy at Center Stage, a baby in peril at CoHo, Peter Pan at NW Children's Theatre, shocks at Artists Rep, Triangle's new season

She is the very model of a modern Major Barbara.

Sorry, wrong Brit classic. Let’s try again.

Major Barbara, by the legendary British wit and armchair socialist George Bernard Shaw (not by Gilbert & Sullivan), is a play of ideas – big ones, as was Shaw’s wont – about the State of Society and How It Should or Should Not Be Run. Major Barbara Undershaft toils ceaselessly for the Salvation Army to uplift those in need. Her father, Andrew Undershaft, works just as hard to pile up money – in his case, by manufacturing and selling munitions. When he then plans to give some of that money to charitable causes, things, well, blow up. Can good causes accept gifts from bad sources? Can bad money do good things? The horror!

Charles Leggett as Andrew Undershaft in “Major Barbara” at The Armory. Photo: Jennie Baker

In the nonprofit world, this is an ever-present question, and the answer is usually (though not always) “We’ll take that money; thanks.” Shaw being Shaw, the question is delivered with more than a dash of switchbacks and wit – plus a fiancé or two. After several preview performances, Major Barbara opens Friday night on the Main Stage of Portland Center Stage at The Armory, and continues through May 13. Besides providing an increasingly rare chance to see a full-out professional production of a Shaw play, it’s special because this will be the final opening night at PCS for Chris Coleman, who’s been the company’s artistic director for many years and is leaving to take a similar post in Denver.

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REBECCA GILMAN IS KNOWN is known for writing socially and politically provocative plays such as Spinning into Butter, which puts its spin on political correctness on college campuses, and Luna Gale, her latest to hit town, appears to follow a similar path. It opens Friday (through May 12) at CoHo Theatre, with a cast including Sharonlee McLean, Danielle Weathers, Kelsey Tyler and others under Brandon Woolley’s direction, and digs into issues of child services, parents’ rights, and adoption. Luna Gale is the infant; the parents are teens under court order to undergo meth rehab; the mother’s born-again mother wants to adopt, against her own daughter’s wishes; and the caseworker’s in the middle of it all.

Sharonlee McLean in “Luna Gale” at CoHo. Photo: Gary Norman

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NORTHWEST CHILDREN’S THEATRE is ending its 25th anniversary season up in the air, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s reviving its popular 2012 production of Peter Pan, a fresh take with a new book by Milo Mowery and a new score by Rodolfo Ortega. Ryder Thompson is Peter, Grace Molloy is Wendy, Andrés Alcalá is Captain Hook, and Kevin Michael Moore is Smee. Flying by Foy, of course, will be on hand to keep things airborne. Opens Saturday; through May 20.

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IT’S BEEN 75 YEARS SINCE this musical fable about farmers and ranchers in the American Midlands rocked the Broadway world, and a fresh take on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical Oklahoma! joins the rep at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland this week. Whatever else artistic director Bill Rauch’s revival does, it’s going to be topical, with same-sex lead couples. Plus, of course, those songs. Oklahoma! will join Othello, Sense and Sensibility, Destiny of Desire, Henry V, and the world premiere of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta in the rep, with Romeo and Juliet, The Book of Will, and Love’s Labor’s Lost opening on the outdoor stage in mid-June, and The Way the Mountain Moved (by Idris Goodman; commissioned by the festival and also a world premiere) and Snow in Midsummer opening later in the season.

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NATURAL SHOCKS, Lauren Gunderson’s new one-woman play about gun violence, will have a staged reading at 7:30 p.m. Friday on the Alder Stage at Artists Rep, on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shootings. It’s free, but you need to reserve a seat, and any donations will go to the organizations March for Our Lives and Everytown for Gun Safety. Lauren Bloom Hanover will perform, and Kisha Jarrett will direct. Gunderson is also the author of Artists Rep’s next full-run show, I and You, opening May 20.

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ANOTHER NEW SEASON: Triangle Productions has joined the recent crowd of companies announcing their 2018-19 seasons. The six-show season opens in September with Holland Taylor’s Ann, about the late and legendary Texas governor Ann Richards. It’ll star Margie Boulé, and that seems like a good pairing of smart, talented and witty women. In November and December it’s Who’s Holiday, starring Daria (Bad Dates, Judy’s Scary Christmas) and written by Matthew Lombardo (Looped!). In February 2019, Helen Raptis stars in I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers. No, it’s not about the Donner Party. Mengers was a fabled Hollywood agent with A-list clients. Dirt, no doubt, will be dished. March brings Straight, by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola, followed in May by Love, Loss, and What I Wore, an evening of monologues and ensemble pieces by the fabulously funny Ephron sisters, Nora and Delia. The season concludes in June 2019 with Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride, about a guy who gets fired as an Elvis impersonator and then discovers a drag show’s taking his slot.