Northwest Children’s Theatre

DramaWatch: Aliens in rom-coms

Corrib's "How To Keep an Alien" in review, "Jesus Takes the 'A' Train' and "Crossing Mnisose" opening, children's theater, new seasons

Irish playwright Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep an Alien, which took the best-production award when it premiered at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2014 and is now enjoying its West Coast premiere from Corrib, Portland’s all-Irish theater company, isn’t about flying saucers and little green men. It’s about that other kind of alien – the foreign-born kind, the kind who faces political and sometimes actual walls when trying to move from one nation to another, and who must overcome not only bureaucratic obstacles but also personal ones, the sort we often erect between our desires and our fears.

It’s intriguing, often appealing, and whimsically constructed, like a shifting tower leaning sharply to one side: an odd duck of a play, and I mean it no disrespect when I say it’s a contemporary rom-com, the sort of story that might make a good Hallmark movie if Hallmark movies ever were to recognize the actual and ordinary existence in the world of homosexuality (or, for that matter, the desirability of non-white characters filling any role in a romantic comedy larger than supportive sidekick). I happen to like a good rom-com, and this one has the enormous advantage of being about two lesbians falling in love, but approaching their affair altogether naturally, with no flashing lights of cultural or political importance: just two people going through what people of all sorts all over the world go through every day. The decision to not make a big deal out of the lovers’ gender – to treat it matter-of-factly, as just the way this story goes – is in fact a bigger deal than making a big deal would be.

Amy Katrina Bryan (left) and Sara Hennessy in Corrib Theatre’s “How To Keep an Alien.” Photo: Adam Liberman

In this case the two people overtaken by emotional attraction are Sonia, an Irish actor starring in a historical costume drama that she finds ridiculous, and Kate, the show’s Australian stage manager, who is also, in a meta sort of way, the onstage stage manager of How To Keep an Alien, batting back and forth between the reality of the story and the reality of the production. If this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but usually isn’t.

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DanceWatch Monthly: April dance in full bloom

What's happening in Oregon dance now

“And spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the spirit of love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on earth’s dark breast
Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.” – Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Sensitive Plant

Welcome to DanceWatch for April.

Last year at this time, I was in Japan, and everywhere you looked there were cherry trees with cascading pink flowers, and countless people posing for photos beneath them. In Arashiyama, a district on the outskirts of Kyoto, spring celebrations were in full swing. The Hozu River, which runs from the mountains down into Kyoto, is lined with cherry trees. Large families with young girls dressed in colorful kimonos were strolling in the warm air along the banks, taking pictures under the trees, shopping, eating ice cream, and socializing late into the evening. It was idyllic.

Until that time, I don’t think I had ever experienced spring in quite this way before. The slower pace, the appreciation of nature, of the season, of family and tradition; it was all so beautiful, it made me euphoric.

I offer you this month’s performances as an embodiment of this experience, and of spring. April’s dance performances are full of new life, fresh ideas, and boundless energy. Enjoy!

International and cultural dance styles

Bharatanatyam guru Shubha Dhananjay and  daughters Maya and Mudra channel the divine in “Srinivasa Kalynam.” Photo courtesy of Yashaswini Raghuram.

Srinivasa Kalyanam
Presented by HECSA Portland Balaji Temple
Choreography by Shubha Dhananjay, artistic director of Natyantharanga
4:30 pm April 6
Canby High School, Richard R. Brown Fine Arts Auitorium, 721 SW 4th Ave., Canby

Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance form that originated in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. is known for its grace, elegance, expressiveness, and sculptural poses. Look for all of these in the dance drama Srinivasa Kalyana, which tells the story of Lord Vishnu’s descent to earth to spread love and devotion in the age of Kaliyuga (also known as the age of quarrel). The drama culminates in a royal wedding between Lord Vishnu and Princess Padmavati, and ends with Lord Vishnu taking the form of the deity Venkateshwara. (To read the full story, click here.)

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DramaWatch: the magic (cloth) of the season

Imago and Michael Curry add bonus content to "ZooZoo." Plus: Tobias Andersen vamps, "Mary Poppins" flies again, and Christmas keeps coming.

Imago Theatre has built much of its reputation on an evolving series of family-friendly mask-theater shows such as the ever-popular ZooZoo, which it brings back for another holiday run through Jan. 6. But after decades presenting that show, its much-lauded predecessor Frogz, and the closely related Biglittlethings, Imago co-founders Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle don’t do much with them anymore.

“We don’t really work those shows,” Mouawad says. “We have video to refer to, and a bunch of really seasoned performers who’ve been touring the material, so they put the show back together, get it on its feet, and then Carol and I will just come in and fine tune things.”

That approach seems to work, as the ingeniously anthropomorphized animals and other creatures of ZooZoo continue to brim with recognizable life and relatable humor. But it’s not as if Mouawad and Triffle are sitting around resting on their fluffy, fabricated, polar-bear-sized laurels.

“The Magic Cloth,” shown with “ZooZoo” at Imago Theatre. Photo: courtesy of Imago Theatre.

This run of ZooZoo will include a special bonus feature — “The Magic Cloth,” a new Imago vignette created in collaboration with the master production designer Michael Curry, a Portlander famed for his puppetry, costuming and other work for Broadway’s The Lion King, Cirque du Soleil and others.

“It’s very simple,” Mouawad says of the new piece, taking a brief break from tech rehearsals. “A boy and his sister are out playing with their dog. They discover a small black box, and out of it comes a red cloth about six-feet square. It moves magically and it’s mysterious and makes them laugh. It’s clown theater with stage-magic puppetry.”

Simple, of course, is hard to do well. Perhaps that’s especially true for theater predicated largely on design and movement, such as “The Magic Cloth” and the various other mask and costume vignettes in ZooZoo. “This six-minute piece is as much work as any of my other plays, maybe more,” Mouawad says.

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We are in a play (for as long as it takes)!

At NW Children's Theatre, a musical adaptation of Mo Willem's popular kids stories will keep little ones engaged well after parents might not be.

Northwest Children’s Theatre’s production of Elephant & Piggie’s We are in a Play! is as silly as you might expect. It is, after all, based on the popular Elephant and Piggie children’s books by Mo Willems, in particular, “We are in a Book!”

The concept of the book is that the elephant and the piggie realize they are in a book and they get very excited that they can make the reader say whatever they want. This delights kids, because there is magic in the book characters controlling Mom or Dad.

John Ellingson and Joellen Sweeney in “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play.” Photo: Northwest Children’s Theatre.

There is magic on stage, too, in this musical, with script and lyrics by Willems himself and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. There are clever costumes designed by Mary Eggers, which turn humans into an elephant and a pig (plus a dog, a penguin, and three squirrels) while allowing us to still see the humans inside them. The simple set designed by John Ellingson at first looks like little more than a shiny game-show backdrop, but proves to be much more useful than that.

This sixty-minute musical is packed full of songs. There are ten musical numbers across a variety of genres – from operatic ballad to love songs to classics to even one with a kazoo – give this production for the very youngest audiences the credibility of a full-blown musical. And Willems’ script, of course, is chock-full of funny one-liners for the kids, with a little added for the grownups (after all, moms and dads have to attend the play with their little ones, so they might as well enjoy it). So we get: “Elephants cannot dance. … Animal Planet even made a documentary about it.”

And NWCT has cast six terrific actors to play the animals in this imaginary land, particularly Joellen Sweeney as a perfectly cheerful and naïve Piggie and John Ellingson as the doofy and worrying Elephant, Gerald. Both stars sing, dance, and provide plenty of pratfalls and belly-laughs.

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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.

‘Chitra’: tale as old as time

NW Children's Theatre's enchanting "Chitra: The Girl Prince" spins a 5,000-year-old, up-to-date tale of dance and legendary adventure

You may not have heard of Northwest Children’s Theater’s latest, Chitra: The Girl Prince, but the tale has been around a long time – as the narrators, the gods Madan (Heath Hyun Houghton) and Vasant (Sudipta Majumdar), explain during the setup. “This story is like 5,000 years old,” says Madan.

The title character’s full name is Chitrangadha – which was the name of the dance-drama written in 1892 by Rabindranath Tagore, based on the ancient legend. It came to NWCT through the passion of Artistic Director Sarah Jane Hardy and her co-director and co-choreographer for this play, Anita Menon. They worked closely with first-time playwright Avantika Shankar, who adapted the ancient tale for NWCT audiences.

“Chitra: The Girl Prince”: dancing, adventure, and an ancient tale. Photo: David Kinder

While the time and place of the play and its origins are far away from Portland, the story – about a young woman torn between love and success – resonates today, when girls and women still find themselves choosing between traditional expectations and their own ambitions and desires.

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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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