Michael O’Connell

To wake, perhaps to dream

Will Eno's "Wakey Wakey," at Portland Playhouse, ponders life and death but drifts into what feels like nothing so important.

Someone is born, and someone dies.  We know this, of course, as the essential arc of any human life. But we also tend to take particular note of these events when they occur to those around us, as part of the cyclical arc, if you will, of extended families; the way the succession of generations seems to bunch its milestones together, the baby’s arrival hard upon the grandparents passing.

Such is the common — though one shouldn’t say ordinary — life circumstance that inspired playwright Will Eno to write Wakey Wakey, being staged through Oct. 21 at Portland Playhouse under the direction of Gretchen Corbett.

Wordplay of many sorts, sometimes direct and jokey, sometimes remarkably subtle and layered, is a major component of Eno’s writing style, and I’m guessing the title of this play is a play on notions of awakening to the world, being wakeful in it, and being ritually remembered after we’ve left it. Whatever the case, the play itself is a very peculiar sort of last testament.

In Will Eno’s “Wakey Wakey,” Michael O’Connell (front) heads gently into that good night, comforted by Nikki Weaver. Photo: Brud Giles.

Michael O’Connell stars here as Guy (not to be confused with the protagonist of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in Portland this summer; that guy’s called “Man”). When the lights first go up, he’s face down on the floor, clad in pajama bottoms. “Is it now?” he cries out to no one in particular. “I thought I had more time!”

I imagine everyone feels that way, when the time comes that they don’t have much more. But it’s not as if Guy hasn’t had some warning. He’s in such a scrupulously innocuous, inoffensively drab place — pale gray walls with white trim, a wall calendar of scenic photography, a few potted plants on the floor, and several large brown packing boxes — that it couldn’t be much other than an anteroom in a hospital or senior center. Or, as those opening lines suggest, a hospice facility.

Once he’s had a chance to gather himself, put on a bit more clothing and get seated in his wheelchair, he talks directly to the audience. He doesn’t tell us his life story, or make any grand pronouncements, or espouse some sage philosophy. He alludes, early on, to “the secret plans and ideas of people that time ran out on,” and tells us that we’re “here to say goodbye, and maybe hopefully to get better at saying hello.”

He doesn’t get much more specific than that. He thumbs through flash cards, reading prompts from some of them, admitting he can’t recall what he’d intended others to be about. He shows some slides, makes some self-referential comments about the theatrical setting and technical elements, tosses off little aphoristic life lessons and light-and-shadow bon mots (“Time is your friend. And time is your enemy. You can decide which. For awhile.”) He makes asides that work like little mirrors on his own thought process (“A joke would be so funny right now,” he says amid a pause). It’s a Will Eno play, so a linear story or a readily reducible message aren’t the point.

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‘The Flick’ whirs to life

At Third Rail, Annie Baker's long and entertaining drama set in a shabby movie house ripples in the moments of bright light

Avery is something of a cinema savant. Not only is he thoroughly conversant with mainstream movies, always remembering when they were released and which stars shared the screen, but he’s absorbed Truffaut, Bergman and the like. At just 20 years old, he’s watched “the entire Criterion Collection” — nearly 900 mostly arcane art-house titles on DVD. And he’s memorized great chunks of Pulp Fiction, which he argues is the last truly great American film.

Sam, his co-worker, just calls him a snob. Sam’s tastes are — depending on how you see such things — a bit more populist or a bit less discerning. He clearly loves movies too, and relishes talking about them with Avery; he just doesn’t load them with the kind of existential weight and true-believer value judgments that Avery does.

Jonathan Thompson as Avery and Rebecca Ridenour as Rose: flicker and fade. Photo: Owen Carey

And then there’s Rose. She has her favorites, but movies in general just don’t mean much to her anymore, not since she’s been in her current job. Rose and Avery and Sam work at The Flick, a run-down old single-screen movie house.

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‘The Nether’: Virtual damnation

Third Rail's futuristic thriller opens up a Pandora's Box of human ugliness and puts a chill in the air

There’s a chill in the auditorium these days over at Imago Theatre. Some nights that’s due in part to some seasonally overzealous air conditioning, but mostly it’s the subtly creepy atmosphere of the current on-stage production by Third Rail Rep.

The Nether, by Los Angeles playwright Jennifer Haley, is escapist entertainment — at least in a manner of speaking. That is, it’s a play about escapism and the thorny ethical implications of a not-so-implausible future in which technology allows anyone with a valid log-in to become immersed in elaborate, multi-sensory virtual environments, like souped-up Second Life for the souls of the bored, deprived or otherwise damned.

O'Connell and deGroat: a virtual faceoff. Photo: Owen Carey

O’Connell and deGroat: a virtual faceoff. Photo: Owen Carey

It’s the levers of damnation — who controls them, or is even able to see them for what they are — that seem to interest Haley most. Of course the fictive future is the rhetorical present, and Haley’s play ponders current, and in some senses longstanding, questions about the lines between reality and representation, between relationships and transactions, between physical and psychological harms. The rapid advance of technology makes such issues both more present and more confounding. So Haley — a Paula Vogel protege whose horror-flick-styled look at video-game addiction Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom was staged a few years ago by Third Rail’s mentorship program — pushes the tech setting to a point where personal liberty and social responsibility get their feet tangled and push comes to shove.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Bluebeards, villain kings, black art’s soul

The feminine mystique of "Bluebeard's Castle," Shakespeare's "Richard III," the trouble with Tiger Lily, black art and meaning in America

The naked truth about Bluebeard’s Castle, Béla Bartók’s astounding hour-long opera that the Oregon Symphony performed Saturday through Monday nights, is … well, let Elizabeth Schwartz explain it, in her typically erudite program notes:

“Bartók worked on the opera over the summer of 1911, when he and his wife Márta spent their holiday at a Swiss nudist colony near Zurich. [Librettist Béla] Balázs, who visited the colony that summer, noted in his diary how the industrious Bartók would spend hours in the solarium, wearing nothing but sunglasses, as he worked on the score.”

Viktoia Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in "Bluebeard's Castle." Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony

Viktoria Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony

John and Yoko have nothing on that. And in a way, Bartók’s curious compositional strategy made sense: emotional nakedness is essential to the Bluebeard tale as Balázs retold it. The opera has just two singers: the aging, mysteriously private Bluebeard himself, and his new (fourth) bride, Judith, who insists on bringing some sunshine into the castle, and her new marriage, by demanding that Bluebeard open the seven locked doors that hide his secrets. Maybe not the best idea. At a talk Friday night with symphony director Carlos Kalmar, Christopher Mattaliano of Portland Opera, and the Portland Art Museum’s Bran Ferriso (the show’s set included marvelous glass works by Dale Chihuly), stage director Mary Birnbaum talked about Castle as Judith’s quest for knowledge and openness, which Bluebeard is loath to grant, and I’m inclined to agree that it’s really Judith’s story. Contrary to popular opinion, her soul sisters Eve and Pandora seem the heroes of their stories, too, the ones who provide the essential spark of humanness: How can one be fully human without curiosity and the compulsion to learn? Remember: the last bee to escape Pandora’s bonnet was hope.

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The few and far between

Long-haul trucking, short-haul emotions, millennial paranoia and powerhouse acting drive the action in CoHo's "The Few"

We’re in a trailer at the end of a century. Star-crossed lovers meet again, and mourn among the ruins of what could have been. Here, in this not-quite-contemporary castoff of a place, CoHo Productions and co-producers Val Landrum and Brandon Woolley have brought MacArthur Fellowship and Obie award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s The Few to the stage.

The trailer is an off-the-cuff irritation of cheap floral print wallpaper, a child’s search for comfort with the long-time fleecing of design. It’s not rare: there’s a whole slate of American aesthetic in the Walmarts, Targets, and Tuesday Mornings that reproduce designs almost ad hoc, but without the energy of the originals. The rub, the real issue, comes down to not having any time. Our great American sage, Benjamin Franklin did not write his Poor Richard’s Almanac without bearing in mind that time and money are always in equal competition. While The Few barely shows the anxiety and paranoia surrounding the end of 1999 with the feared computer collapse of a system we barely understood, it captures the way in which time is fleeting between people. The ’90s was a hyper decade, when analog became digital, and the play asks as an undercurrent: if our historians, cultural, art, history can barely keep up with the new paper trail, what happens with our emotional history? That backwater, the mystery that inflects a meaning into the facts: where do the minutes of our soul confessions go, as time makes its mean parade?

Landrum, Sohigian, O'Connell: the few, the proud, the long haul. Photo: Gary Norman

Landrum, Sohigian, O’Connell: the few, the proud, the long haul. Photo: Gary Norman

The Few features a powerhouse of Portland talent in acting, direction and all of the behind-the-scenes work that makes a play. The plot is simple: an old lover returns, only to find out you can never go home.

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Keeping up with the Joneses

Will Eno's Chekhovian comedy at Third Rail hovers in the mortal zone: It's only love, and that is all. Why do they feel the way they do?

There they are, the four of them, up in some little town near the mountains, sitting outside, breathing the crisp air, chattering maybe pointlessly or maybe not, grating on one another’s nerves, watching their lives slowly slip away.

And, yes, it’s a comedy.

The Realistic Joneses, Will Eno’s circuitous and allusive play that opened Friday night at Third Rail Rep, is a sort of Chekhov of the suburbs, or more accurately of the forgotten corners of small-town America, a play of puzzled emotions and ambitions so far lost that they can’t quite be put into words anymore. What was that I wanted to do and be, again, before life interrupted?

All Jones, all the time: Green, O'Connell, Pierce, Ryan. Photo: Owen Carey

All Jones, all the time: Green, O’Connell, Pierce, Ryan. Photo: Owen Carey

As with Chekhov, nothing much happens in The Realistic Joneses, and the world shifts. The play begins with one of those funny-awkward encounters. Bob and Jennifer Jones are sitting outside on their patio chairs, involved in what seems their ordinary game of forced cheerfulness (on her part) and passive aggression (on his) when the clatter of an overturning garbage can sounds offstage and John and Pony burst around the corner, all cheery and bearing a bottle of wine. They’re the new neighbors, and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re the Joneses, too.

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Let the ‘Night’ light shine

Conor McPherson's 'The Night Alive' at Third Rail: amid a shambles, a triumph of an anti-Pinter play

There’s a bad guy, a barging-in stranger, who swings a mean and brutish hammer. There’s a woman of unkempt virtue, which of course means there are men of unkempt virtue, too. Squalor, booze, little dodges and petty thefts, things that just seem to happen, abruptly, because that’s the way life is on the seedier side of the great economic divide. And dark laughter at extreme deeds performed and witnessed in head-slapping, matter-of-fact ways.

No, it’s not a Harold Pinter play. Irish playwright Conor McPherson, whose scruffily romantic drama The Night Alive has just opened in a sparkling, intensely intimate and satisfying production by Third Rail Rep, no doubt knows his Pinter well. You can tell from the leaps and elisions and question marks and absurd juxtapositions, and by that odd theatrical sense that, even if you’re not quite sure what’s happening or why, the thing is shaped the way it ought to be: this is its story, and it’s sticking to it.

Kupper (left) and O'Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

Kupper (left) and O’Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

But something very unPinterlike is also going on in The Night Alive, and for lack of a better word I’ll just call it grace. McPherson’s characters, for all their flaws and foolishness, are moral strivers, yearning to become their better selves. That posits that there is a better self, something beyond the purely animal and self-preservative, and that achieving it is both worthy and possible. This is not territory that Pinter treads. In McPherson’s world, unlike Pinter’s, something lies beyond.

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