PassinArt

Love & loss in the time of coronavirus

With stages shut down, the work's stopped cold. Bobby Bermea asks his fellow performance artists: Can the fire be relighted post-pandemic?

It’s weird when you wake up one day and realize that everything is different. 

For me, just how different hasn’t fully hit me yet, not even more than a month later. I still feel insulated, like I’m in a bubble where time has become elastic, amorphous. It takes an enormous effort just to intentionally shape the course of a given day. How many times already have I eaten at 11 at night or woken up at 11 in the morning? As violinist Michelle Alany puts it, the struggle is “trying to find some kind of rhythm and structure so I don’t lose the art and creativity.” 

In thirty years as a professional theater artist, I had never rehearsed a show for four weeks only to have it cancelled right before we opened. PassinArt’s Seven Guitars, which was scheduled to open in March, was the first. By that time, I think we’d all seen the handwriting on the wall. I remember the morning the call came that it was over: It felt like I’d woken up in another dimension. It wasn’t the last time I was going to feel that way. 

Since that day I have heard innumerous people describe this moment in history as “crazy” or “surreal” or “like science fiction.” Except, it’s not like science fiction. Face masks. Rubber gloves. Zoom. Science fiction is now real life.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


As I write this, about 37,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, about 420 a day since the first confirmed U.S. case on Jan. 21 (the first known U.S. death came five weeks later, on Feb. 28). That might not seem like much, considering that about 8,000 people die every day in the U.S. But the numbers are rapidly escalating. On April 16 alone, nearly 4,600 people in the U.S. died from coronavirus. That feels different. 

I have one friend who came down with COVID-19. She’s 70 years old and was my first harmonica teacher when I was working on Seven Guitars. She spent two weeks in the hospital. She has nothing but great things to say about the medical professionals who took care of her. But the disease is no joke, and she felt like hell most of the time she was there. While she was in the hospital we stayed in contact via text (talking took too much out of her). One of the times I checked in to see how she was doing, she texted back, “Feeling shitty! Everything pisses me off!” I suspect that anger helped get her through it. She’s home now. A nurse visits her three times a week. Only today she was told that she can go outside if she wears a mask and practices social distancing. It’s an incredible victory. 

Author Bobby Bermea in CoHo Theatre/Beirut Wedding World Theatre Projects’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”: “If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist.” Photo: Owen Carey/2019

When the proverbial feces came into contact with the rotating blades of the proverbial air circulation device, I called my parents and offered to come down to where they live in Southern California. I could do my job at Profile Theatre remotely, and I could help them by buying their groceries and taking care of whatever other needs they might have that took place outside of the house. My parents declined my offer, saying they were perfectly okay. 

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Vision 2020: Connie Carley and Jerry Foster

For almost four decades the leaders of PassinArt have forged a strong and steady path for Black theater in Portland

For nearly 38 years PassinArt: A Theatre Company has been passing down art, culture, and heritage to the ensuing generations. That’s a long time for a theater company, a nickel-and-dime industry at the best of times. There are other organizations, such as Artists Repertory Theatre, that have been around longer and gotten bigger. But usually (except in special cases like Milagro) those companies’ longevity has been carried on by fresh influxes of new faces at different times.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


For PassinArt, Connie Carley and Jerry Foster have been keeping the flame alive this entire time. There have been periodic breaks here and there, some longer than others, but PassinArt always comes back, its vision intact, its mission still at the forefront of its endeavors: making sure that the next generation of Black people in Portland has something solid that belongs to them.“We are responsible,” Foster says, “for the health and the vitality of our community.” Put another way (when speaking about the fact that PassinArt has always paid its artists something), Carly says, “We’ve never been community theater. But we’ve always been about the community.”

A lot has changed over the years, of course. PassinArt has been around since 1982. At the time they were Connie Carley, Clarice Bailey, and Michael Grant. They had their first performance at the Matt Dishman Center in 1983. PassinArt gained its nonprofit status in 1986. Jerry Foster came on board as artistic director in 1995. In those days, they paid for every show out of their own pockets. Board members were expected to act or direct or work backstage or in the front of house. And they never started a project until a good percentage of funding was in hand.

George Hendricks and Jerry Foster in 2014’s “Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking.” Photo courtesy PassinArt

In the old days, surprisingly (to me, at least) PassinArt wasn’t the only game in town if you wanted to see Black theater. There were also Portland Black Repertory Theatre and Sojourner Truth. BRT was a more classic theater company and Truth specialized in historical works. PassinArt was a combination of both. The three companies would work together to make sure that year ’round, Black people could find themselves on stage if they needed to.

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DramaWatch: Sarah Ruhl’s Almond Joy

"Melancholy Play" is a whimsical reminder that sometimes you feel like a nut. Plus: holiday treats and many helpings of Christmas stuffing.

 “There is a basic emotional spectrum from which we cannot and should not escape, and I believe that depression is in that spectrum, located near not only grief but also love. Indeed I believe that all the strong emotions stand together, and that every one of them is contingent on what we commonly think of as its opposite.”

— from The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

Melancholy Play, by the MacArthur Foundation fellow and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Rurl, is in one sense an hilariously misnamed work. The overall tenor of the piece, far from dour or downbeat, is playful, verging on farcical, with absurdity within its reach. In fact, in its original iteration, circa 2001, it was titled Melancholy Play: a Contemporary Farce. A decade or so later, Ruhl revised the work to incorporate music — for string quartet and piano — by composer Todd Almond, calling for much of the dialogue to be sung, and calling for a new subtitle. This version, Melancholy Play: a Chamber Musical, is the next production from Third Rail Rep, opening Saturday at CoHo Theater.

Sadness never looked so fun: Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play in a Third Rail Rep production at CoHo Theater. Photo: Owen Carey.

However, the play — the musical, whichever — is about melancholy. It concerns a woman named Tilly whose wistful, romantically melancholic affect is so alluring that the folks she encounters — her therapist, her tailor, her hairdresser and so on — fall all over themselves falling in love with her. Until, surrounded by all that love, Tilly has what’s either a sudden recognition or a true transformation: She’s happy.

And, well, that doesn’t go over so well.

Perhaps you’ll consider this a spoiler, but the news is out there: One of Tilly’s admirers is so undone by the change that she, too, changes — into an almond. As the website  DCMetroTheaterArts wrote of a production back east: “Not a metaphorical almond, mind, but an actual small brown nut, carefully displayed on a delicate white pillow. (One review I saw of a college production quite seriously urged people with tree nut allergies not to attend the show).”

Absurdity reached, absurdity grasped.

And yet, this is Sarah Ruhl, in whose theatrical world whimsy counts almost as a tool of philosophical inquiry. Even more so than in such later, celebrated works as The Clean House and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, she’s being thoughtful in a goofy way.

“It’s an odd little concoction,” admits Rebecca Lingafelter, who directs the Third Rail production with what she describes as vaudevillian style of staging and an emphasis on what Ruhl calls the “sincere melodrama” of the piece. 

Lingafelter notes that Ruhl first wrote the play as a graduate student at Brown University — where fellow students and future Third Rail regulars Kerry Ryan and Darius Pierce were involved in its early development. (Ryan performed in it back then and will do so again for Third Rail.) “You can see a lot in it about how she grew later on, some of the styles and the themes that she’d develop,” Lingafelter says. “There’s a lot that she’s exploring and working out that in her later plays she’s simplified and focused in on. And there are some of the fundamentals of who she is as an artist. Something I like about her work is that it can only work in the theater; she understands that we’re in a place of poetry and metaphor. There’s a very theatrical quality to it all that can be really fun.”

Ruhl’s point here, the meaning behind the mad method, is to make a case for an out-of-fashion notion of melancholy, both differentiating it from the much-bemoaned modern ailment, depression, and extolling it as a special kind of emotional sensitivity. 

Tailor-made for love: Leah Yorkston and Nick Ferrucci in Melancholy Play. Photo: Owen Carey.

“Melancholy can be active, yearning, hopeful, nostalgic, sexy even, and offers the possibility of communing with others,” Ruhl wrote in a 2015 foreward to the script. “Melancholy makes us contemplate the inevitable passage of time — the transience of things — and in that sense, it’s not neurotic, but rather part of the human condition.”

Depression she describes as “hermetic, sealed off, inert, hopeless,” worthy of the eradication so many seek. But might we be, she wonders, “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”? Which suggests another question: What to do about those who’ve slipped from hopefully yearning to hermetically sealed? 

“The fundamental theme, for me,” Lingafelter says, “is that she thinks that community is an overlooked way to address isolation and loneliness, to keep people from slipping too far into depression.” 

In its nearly 500 pages about the history, manifestations and treatments of mood disorders, Solomon’s Noonday Demon doesn’t say just where melancholy lands on humanity’s “basic emotional spectrum.” But on its final page, Solomon writes, “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality.”

By which reckoning Ruhl’s Melancholy Play might serve as a grinning middle ground.
 

The flattened stage (Thanks-taking edition)

Thanksgiving is a time of tradition. And for me, there is no tradition more hallowed at this time of year than watching my favorite video clip of the Apple Sisters.
I fell in love with the Apple Sisters in 2008, when the trio performed in the Best of the Best Sketch Fest, which I reviewed for The Oregonian: “Like a crisp, sweet McIntosh with a razor inside, the act is a 1940s radio variety show that revels in its homespun innocence (‘Heck’s bells!,’ one of the sisters exclaims) and cornpone humor (Seedy Apple: ‘You’re so dumb.’ Lusty, busty blonde Cora Apple: ‘I ain’t dumb! I can hear just fine!’), but sneaks in shards of political and sexual commentary. Facing the prospect of joining the war effort, Seedy remarks, ‘We know that war isn’t all raindrops on roses and whites-only drinking fountains.’ And then there are the references to Candy Apple’s mysterious husband, Cheryl (‘It’s not like I’m hiding Cheryl in a closet,’ Candy says.)”

Yet somehow that review neglected to mention their greatest bit, an incisive and hilarious pocket history of North American (re)settlement, “Pilgrim/Indian Song.” 

Opening (Brutal Xmas Onslaught Edition)

A cozy “Carol”: Portland Playhouse has filled houses and warmed hearts for the past several years with its production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: courtesy of Portland Playhouse.

In the early years of Portland Playhouse, artistic director Brian Weaver was the serious-minded sort who didn’t take the rote route of programming a Christmas-themed show at the end of the year. But his brother Michael (or, as I like to call him, Weaver the Younger) argued that there was nothing wrong with giving the people what they like. Eventually Weaver the Elder was won over, and scheduled a production of the most obvious choice possible, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Directed that first time by Cristi Miles, it was a huge hit, boasting such a fidelity to Dickensian virtues that audiences talked of seeing the old familiar play anew. These days, Weaver the Elder  directs the show — an adaptation by Rick Lombardo, with songs by Lombardo and Anna Lackaff — himself, and year after year it’s a reliable seasonal treat. And really, with such performing talents as Michael Mendelson as Scrooge and Ben Tissell as Bob Cratchit, how could it be otherwise?

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This Carol, of course, is known for having multiple personalities. For instance, A Xmas Cuento Remix at Milagro, in which playwright Maya Malán-González gives A Christmas Carol a modern Latinx twist. In this version — which has productions this season in Portland, Cleveland and Chicago as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere program — hip, shapeshifting carolers serve as a mythic chorus, performing remixed Spanish and English Christmas songs, guiding the story and helping a woman named Dolores Avara to learn forgiveness and embrace holiday traditions. Triangle Productions, by contrast, gives the story a bawdy, Victorian music hall treatment, via Scrooge in Rouge, a spoof in which an outbreak of food poisoning reduces the available cast to just three hearty/hardy/foolhardy folk. The resulting requisite crossdressing, quick-change approach should be a comedic blank check for Dave Cole, Jeremy Anderson-Sloan and the always-vibrant Cassi Q. Kohl. (Stumptown Stages also has a more determinedly musical adaptation coming up, but that won’t open until Dec. 5.) 

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If Dickens is an example of the culturally specific elbowing its way into universality, then maybe Black Nativity is on its way there too. Langston Hughes’ spirited re-telling of the Christian nativity story though black gospel singing and “traditional” Christmas carols has both a strong character and a broad appeal — enough so that PassinArt will present the show for a fifth consecutive year.

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Around this time last year, critic-turned-playwright John Longenbaugh — whose Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol did well for Artists Rep earlier this decade — presented a one-night reading of his new play The Christmas Case: A Lady Brass Mystery. Now he’s back at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie with a full production of the story, about a lady detective and her daughter whose quiet country-house Christmas Eve turns instead into the mystery and intrigue of a jewel heist.

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Fred Bishop (left) and Jennifer Goldsmith star in It Happened One Christmas, a new holiday musical revue from Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega.

“Grimbles” sounds like a blend of “Gimbels,” the famed but now-defunct department-store company, and “grumble,” which you might be inclined to do if forced to be in a department store during December. In any case, it’s the name of the store that’s the setting for the story of It Happened One Christmas, a new original musical by Broadway Rose stalwarts Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis. As a cleaning lady and a security guard make their nightly rounds, the magic of Christmas Eve begins to take effect. The too-seldom-seen Jennifer Goldsmith stars as Frances, the cleaner, alongside Fred Bishop as Walter the guard.

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The distinguishing feature of The Hullabaloo! Alice in Wonderland, British-panto-styled offering from the company known as Jane — or at least one thing that makes it stand out — is the price. Tickets are free. (I sometimes think that Portland citizenship should be contingent on whether someone knows who popularized the phrase “Free is a very good price!”) But there’ll be no citizenship tests for these freebies, just email info@janetheater.org to reserve yours.

Closing

One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite bands is the observation in a Husker Du song: “Expectation only means you really think you know what’s coming next — and you don’t.”
So I won’t pretend to really think I know quite what’s coming to the Performance Works NorthWest under the title Funeral for Expectations. Glancing at an email from the show’s creator/performer Julia Brandenberger, I first noticed the phrase “immersive and participatory ceremony of disposition,” and thought, “They’re going to bury the audience?!?”

Er…maybe not. Brandenberger, whose training is in ballet and theology, instead intends to put to rest such things as “struggles with body…toxic judgements and the stresses of achievement culture and perfectionism.”

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La Ruta, Artists Rep’s powerful production of Isaac Gomez’ play about mothers and daughters and the harrowing experiences of those working along the U.S./Mexico border, closes its run on Sunday.

Second-hand news (theater journalism worth reading)

Long ago, early in my time as an arts journalist, I walked into a rock club one night and a friend of mine approached me. “Have you been feeling OK lately,” she asked. “Fine. Why do you ask?,” I replied. “You haven’t been mean to anyone in your column the past few weeks,” she said.
What she meant was that she liked, and missed, the barbed comments I slung at bands I didn’t like. But I found the exchange disheartening. Granted, it was fun to be snarky. My favorite line of mine from that era came as a brief mention of a laughable hair-metal band called Rex and the Rock-Its: “If the worst thing a critic can do to a band is to ignore it entirely, why am I being so nice?” Yet I didn’t I want to be seen as being mean, and I believed that writing criticism was about much more than taking pot shots — or even really about passing judgment.

That incident came to mind while reading recently about the death of John Simon, long a notoriously negative critic for New York Magazine, famous for both his erudition and his viciousness.
As a general matter, criticism has become a toothless monster since Simon’s late-20th-century heyday. But his passing presents an opportunity to consider what criticism can and should — or shouldn’t — do. 

In the obituary at Vulture, New York mag’s culture website, Christopher Bonanos, one of Simon’s later editors, outlines how sharp and colorful Simon’s writing could be, and how egregiously he could stray outside the lines of fair play. Bonanos also closes his piece on an especially apt note: “I don’t think it’s cruel to say this, because John himself would undoubtedly have turned it into a gleeful anecdote: When he had the stroke that killed him, he was at a local dinner theater. Hell of a review.”
American Theatre magazine chipped in with twinned commentaries, one by Michael Feingold, a former critic for the Village Voice, and one by Jack O’Brien, former artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre.

Interestingly, it’s the fellow critic who registers disappointment and disapproval, while the theater artist presents a case for the defense.

The best line I read this week

“Love is the last and secret name of all the virtues.”

— from A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch


It’s Thanksgiving, so I’ll give thanks for Barry Johnson, one of the Northwest’s very finest thinkers and writers about the arts, for creating Oregon ArtsWatch and providing a chance for a former daily-paper hack like me to keep writing.

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

Two tales in black & white

John Henry Redwood's "The No Play" at PassinArt and Dael Orlandersmith's "Until the Flood" at Center Stage dig deep into race in America

It’s 1949, in the Jim Crow town of Halifax, North Carolina, and a private atrocity that threatens to destroy a close-knit family is going down.

It’s 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and a white cop shoots and kills a black teen-aged man, setting off a firestorm of rage.

It’s 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a gunman opens fire, killing 17 people. National Rifle Association spokesmen mock surviving students who push hard for stronger gun control, advocating for armed security in the schools instead. NRA membership spikes.

It’s 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and yet another gunman opens fire, murdering 50 people in two mosques. Back in Parkland, two survivors of the high school shooting, still reeling from the trauma, commit suicide. After years of private grief, so does the father of a first-grader killed in the slaughter that took the lives of 14 children and three adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. The word “survivor” becomes complex and fraught with multiple meanings.

The stories of those first two years, 1949 and 2014, are being told onstage in two sterling productions in Portland right now: John Henry Redwood’s family drama The No Play at PassinArt: A Theatre Company, and Dael Orlandersmith’s solo stage docudrama Until the Flood at Portland Center Stage. Both are plays specifically about African-American life and the American original sin of racism. And both, perhaps surprisingly given their subjects, are enthralling in the telling. They’re just good theater, delivering pleasure along with a punch to the emotional gut.

I bring up New Zealand and Parkland and Sandy Hook as well because, although they represent a different sort of trauma – mass murders, not solitary events – they, too, are connected to a sordid history of violence that reaches back to lynchings and slave ships and the ethnic cleansings of indigenous people, forward to migrations and fears of the Other, inward to the itch for infamy. Christchurch was an act of violence aimed specifically at Muslims because they are Muslim, echoing America’s history of white-on-black violence. The tragedy of the past week’s suicides underscores the lasting effects of trauma on those who undergo it. No one escapes unscathed, although many come to terms with it and move on, altered. For many others, the trauma gnaws and shifts and settles in, defining memory and seeping into everyday life, sometimes overwhelming it.

Parkland and Christchurch have their own stories that are being told in their own ways. Remember that they’re linked – it’s all linked – and let’s move on to Halifax and Ferguson and the Portland stage:

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The No Play

“The No Play,” from left: Lydia Fleming, David Meyers, Kobi Flowers, Andrea White, Sami Yacob-Andrus. Photo courtesy PassinArt

The talented John Henry Redwood’s 2001 play is a fiction, although it’s based on a thousand historical realities, and despite the trauma that sets its conflict into motion it’s largely a celebration of strength, mercy, forgiveness, and survival – and, yes, a little vengeance, too. I was going to write that at the story’s heart is the long history of the rape of black women by white men, but that’s not quite right. Rape, and the belief in racial supremacy that breeds it, is the evil of the tale, the thing that violates and poisons and spreads. The play’s heart lies in the ways the victims respond – the strength and even grace of the dispossessed who have been immorally and violently possessed.

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DramaWatch: Imago flies again

Plus: New boss in Ashland, Ferguson comes to Center Stage, Portland Playhouse's Crowning glory, a rolling "Jump," Just play "No," and more

What’s up at the theater? Funny you should ask.

Last May a wonderfully peculiar vision flew onto the Portland theater scene, and far too quickly, before all but a few people had had a chance to see it, flew off again. Well, spring’s arrived, and To Fly Again, Jerry Mouawad’s dancerly swan of a play, has landed at Imago Theatre again. It opens Friday for another brief run as part of Imago’s Next Wave Festival, and you should try to catch it before it flies the coop yet again on April 6.

The dusty dancers in Imago’s “To Fly Again.” Photo: Jubel Brosseau

I reviewed last year’s production, which had the same cast as the current one (you can read the full review here), and here’s what I wrote, in part:

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Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

As the new-works festival gets ready for its tenth annual run, a horde of writers and performers check out the media (and vice versa)

And lo, on the third day of the New Year, a great clamor fell upon the multitude, and the dread Pealing of the Four Minutes rang out, and the people scurried from line to line, taking their spots in the sun, pitching their pitches, eager to be heard. And a mighty clatter and confusion arose, accompanied by press releases and business cards, and then the next wave burst, and the pieces shuffled yet again. And the creator of it all smiled, and said, “That’s good!”

It’s true. On January 3, in the upstairs lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, producers, performers, directors, and writers of shows in Portland’s 10th annual Fertile Ground festival of new works met with members of the press, pressing them, as it were, with quick-hit details on their shows and why the media members should really, truly see and publicize them. Once again Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane was stage-managing this frenzy of what she calls “media speed-dating,” cracking the whip – or, more accurately, blowing a harmonica – to keep things moving swiftly along. What sometimes seemed like bedlam actually had a drill-sergeant efficiency: Line up in front of a press member sitting at a table. Take your turn. Make your pitch. You get four minutes. The mouth harp shrieks. You move on to another line, and someone takes your place.

The Fertile Ground speed-dating crowd. ArtsWatch’s contingent is tucked discreetly toward the back, hidden behind more dashing daters. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

This year, ArtsWatch’s contingency in the hot seats consisted of me and Marty Hughley, our theater editor and chief theater columnist. We made a deal beforehand. Marty would get the lay of the land, find out what’s out there, use his brief talks to help strategize our coverage, including which full productions to review. I would do my best to simply report the evening as it occurred from my table. And Bobby Bermea, who wasn’t at date night (sensible man), would tackle the festival from the inside, talking about the stages of some of the shows, and talking with artists about the process of creation. 

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Black Nativity: The joy is now

PassinArt's Portland production of Langston Hughes's gospel musical moves up to a bigger church, and keeps the music fresh

Fifty-seven years ago, Langston Hughes, Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade decided the world needed a celebration of Christmas apart from re-runs of It’s A Wonderful Life and myriad adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker in various mediums. What was needed, they surmised, was something with a little color to it, a little extra flavor. What they came up with was an original piece called Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? – traditional Christmas songs done in a gospel style along with other gospel music, all strung together by narration that tells the story of the Nativity. By the time it opened Off-Broadway in 1961 – one of the first Black productions ever to do so – Ailey and Lavallade had left the production over a dispute about the new name, Black Nativity.

Decades later, Black Nativity is still serving its original function of providing something other than the standard, all-white Christmas fare. There is a Black Nativity production going on somewhere in just about every corner of the nation. In Portland, Black Nativity is produced by the longest-running Black theater company in the city, PassinArt.

Almost forty years ago, following much the same impetus as Hughes, Ailey and Lavallade in New York, Connie Carley, Michael Brandt and Clarice Bailey decided to fill a need they saw in the cultural scene of Portland. Together, they created  PassinArt, whose goal is literally to pass the art and culture (and history, knowledge, etc.) of the Black community down from one generation to the next. After a brief period of flux, Carley became the managing director and Jerry Foster became the artistic director. The two have kept PassinArt going ever since. (Last season, their production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running garnered eight finalist nods in the Drammy Awards, including one for Oustanding Production, and took home the prizes for Ensemble and Set Design.)

The 2018 “Black Nativity” cast. Photo courtesy PassinArt

Like Two Trains, many PassinArt productions deal with issues around social justice that face the Black community. For both Carley and Foster, the purpose behind Black Nativity is the same – but different.

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