Philip Cuomo

Live theater’s back in town

ArtsWatch Weekly: In a pandemic era first, Triangle opens a show indoors. Plus: Art in the Pearl, Venice & elsewhere, virtually and "real."

“WE HAVE TO MOVE FORWARD,” Don Horn, who founded Portland’s Triangle Productions more than 30 years ago, said on the phone. “I would rather have the house used than vacant. I think spaces die if they’re not used.”

Somebody had to be first. And in Portland theater, when Triangle opens a 10-performance run of Rick Cleveland’s solo play My Buddy Bill next Thursday, Sept. 10, it’ll be the first time since Covid-19 restrictions shut down theater spaces almost half a year ago that anyone in the greater metro area’s put on a show inside an actual theater space, with a paying audience in the seats. (At least a couple of other companies in Oregon have done live shows, too: Medford’s Collaborative Theatre Projects has been doing indoor radio plays with paying audiences, and Ashland’s Oregon Cabaret Theatre has been doing The Odd Couple.)

Grocery stores, hardwares, and big box stores are open. Restaurants are open, for sidewalk and some indoor seating. Zoos and gardens and aquariums are open. Beaches and hiking trails and camping sites are open, at least many of them, and you can book rooms at motels and vacation getaways. A little bit of outdoor theater and concertizing’s happened. Museums and art galleries have reopened, with restrictions. But live theater, dance, and music have lagged behind, mostly because of strict limits on audience size and spacing inside performance halls, the cost of running shows for the resulting relatively tiny audiences, and the tougher logistics of making tight theater spaces safe enough to use.

Buddy and buddy in the Oval Office. Photo: Barbara Kinney/White House/1997

Triangle’s auditorium, inside The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza on close-in Northeast Sandy Boulevard, ordinarily seats 154 people. Because of a state restriction of 25 people in such a space at a time, the audience for My Buddy Bill will be limited to 23, leaving room for one actor (Joe Healy, playing Rick, the playwright) and one tech person. The bigger the cast and crew, the smaller the allowable audience. In the meantime, Horn and crew are busily getting everything ready so the space can meet multiple safety requirements. “I’ll be spending Friday cleaning everything out of the lobby so we can shampoo,” he said. 

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Portland theater’s little ‘Black Box’

Gary Cole's online play based on his backstage novel about life, love, and revenge on the theater scene scratches an itch in Covid-19 time

“Theater people are strangely compelled to perform their art… regardless of the obstacles placed in their path, by the empty bank accounts, oppressive landlords, and unflattering critics,” the character Ned Prince observes halfway through the opening scene of CoHo Productions’ online play Black Box: Page to Stage.

I nominate pernicious viruses to be added to Ned’s list of obstacles.

But I suppose that would be a bit of an anachronism, since Black Box – written by CoHo co-founder Gary D. Cole and based on his novel of the same name – isn’t set in 2020. Instead, the virtual work looks back, with a rightful amount of nostalgia, to Portland’s past: a portrait of a theater community in an age when people could actually go to the theater.

Critic and board member, setting the scene: James Luster and Marcella Lasch in “Black Box: Page to Stage.” Photo courtesy CoHo Theatre

Black Box is inspired in part by Cole’s time as a theater producer in Portland. “CoHo Theatre is the center of the novel,” Cole says, although the novel’s plot and characters are mainly fictitious.

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DramaWatch: Uncommon Ground

Fresh voices and surprising ideas emerge through the annual Fertile Ground festival of new work, and the theater week stays busy elsewhere, too.

The time has come again for Portland’s annual mid-winter performance bloom. Fertile Ground, “a city-wide festival of new works,” marks its 11th year and features 11 days of world premiere plays, play readings, workshop productions of works in-progress, dance, puppet shows and so forth. Dozens of shows in dozens of places around town, some ticketed, some free, almost all accessible with a $70 festival pass — that “almost” caveat necessary because many shows sell out or at least producers of popular shows fill up the reservations set aside for pass-holders.
In any case, it’s a great time to take time to race around (obeying all traffic codes and etiquette, mind you) and indulge in the cold-weather cornucopia. 

In addition to the basic concept outlined above, you’ll want to consult the 2020 festival guide or its online equivalent to help make choices about what to see. It’s a lot to take in and even after — perhaps especially after — perusing the 24-page guide you’ll have questions. I did. So I called festival director Nicole Lane.

“Who the heck are all these people??”

Well, actually I tried to make the question sound more professionally journalistic than that. I mentioned that in the festival’s early years it featured major productions by big companies such as Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep, but that’s no longer the case. And that projects seems less likely these days to come from the ranks of theater artists and writers whose work we see the rest of the year. But I was really asking who are all these writers and directors and producers I’ve not heard of before.

Fertile Ground festival director Nicole Lane. Photo: courtesy of Fertile Ground.

“Fertile Ground has evolved in terms of meeting the needs of Portland artists,” Lane replied. “It was founded upon a very open, non-adjudicated process.”

In the beginning — not coincidentally, she pointed out, when she and festival founder Trisha Mead were working for some of those big theater companies — the big producers were paying attention to the opportunity the fest presented and scheduling new works in conjunction with it. But the overlapping complications of new-play development and season planning make it difficult to keep getting brand new plays produced and also make sure they get staged at such a particular spot on the calendar.
Lane points out that the large companies are “finding ways to be supportive without putting shows in,” such as the panel discussion on IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) that PCS is hosting on the festival’s final day, Feb. 9.

As for the folks who are in the festival, Lane was kind enough not to point out that the fact that I haven’t heard of them probably says more about me than about the artists in question. Instead, she gently reminded me that, ““one of the major tenets of Fertile Ground is producer education and opportunity — developing a new crop of producers alongside the new crop of works and ideas.”

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‘Blue Mountain’: a solicited audient’s response to ‘Philip’s Glass Menagerie’

Workshop performance of this weekend's SummerFest feature intensifies classic play's tragedy and humor by stripping its words to the bone

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

One dark and stormy night in January, I braved Portland’s mild winter weather for an unusual play called, of all preposterous things, Philip’s Glass Menagerie. The triple pun was enough to make me go—a mash-up of Philip Glass (whom I had recently written about) and Tennessee Williams’ famous tale of stifling Southern family love, adapted by Philip Cuomo and performed in CoHo’s black box theater by the CoHo Clown Cohort. (An updated production is playing this weekend at Coho SummerFest. Read Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch preview.)

I knew practically nothing of the play, and I’m not gonna rehash it here. I knew it was a heavy one when I invited a friend and he said, “nah, Glass Menagerie, I’ve seen it once—oof!—once was plenty.” I mentally catalogued it as Deep & Troubling Theater and prepared myself for an evening of soul spilling and “ACTING!” Even with clowns and whatnot, I reasoned, it would probably still be pretty normal theater, right? Nope. What I got was Tennessee Williams stripped to the bone, the bones reassembled like Robert Crumb’s Ezekiel, dancing skeletons in a dark room with little more than a typewriter, a chaise, a couple pieces of fruit, and an inflatable unicorn.

… a play that sometimes seems lighter than air. Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

The result was spectacular. In that January workshop performance—preparation for this weekend’s Summerfest premiere—the four actors performed an interpretation (perhaps “translation” would be more accurate) of Williams’ memory play. The use of Glass’ music was frankly a little gratuitous, snippets from Passages and North Star piped in just for the interstices, barely enough to justify the pun, but I quickly got over that. A little Glass goes a long way, and too much would have detracted from the performance.

The real Glass inspiration was the Einstein on the Beach-like treatment of the text (actually Glass’ collaborator Robert Wilson probably deserves credit for that, but then we would lose the pun). Cuomo’s production stripped away something like 98 percent of Williams’ words, translating all that frustrated, understated, cloistered, closeted angst into the telegraphed language of clowning, like a Borges metastory adapted by Tati. Single words and short phrases, repeated and repeated and repeated again, became the scaffolding for long-form physical comedy, each little twist on the phrase a new revelation of plot or character or theme, each variation both a joke in itself and the punchline to earlier jokes. “I’m going to the movies.” “Come in!” “Blue Mountain.”

This achievement in itself would have been monumental, but then we got into the gender flipping and the serious clowning. Actor-director (and local legend) Isaac Lamb portrayed matriarch Amanda with a larger-than-life vulnerability, deftly maneuvering the character’s various moods: tender and domineering, morose and vulnerable, desperately cheerful, wistfully despairing. Australia-Portland transplant and experienced drag performer Emily Newton amazed me with her series of Gentleman Caller characters, each more ridiculous than the last. Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Tom (that’d be Mr. Williams) was the most overtly clown-like of the bunch, toggling adroitly between traditional mime routines (the bit with the cigarette was particularly good) and the hilariously helpless rage that is the fate of teenage writers everywhere. Sascha Blocker anchored the cast as Laura (Tom’s sister, based on Tennessee’s sister Rose, and don’t go googling her unless you’ve got a few hankies handy). Blocker’s red hair and fragile resilience reminded me above all of Julianne Moore’s star-making performance in Todd Haynes’ Safe, and on the few occasions when her performance turned comedic, she was funnier than anyone else.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Fertile Ground, Playing Favorites

As Portland's sprawling festival of new performance works begins, A.L. Adams picks her best bets (and weaves in a nonfestival highlight, too)

For YEARS, at multiple publications, I used to compile an overview of Fertile Ground titled “Fertile Ground Speaks for Itself,” wherein quips from the scripts submitted by their authors comprised the entire story, and I just formatted it.

It is, after all, a lowercase-f fringe festival, an uncurated and welcoming workshop space where indeed the pieces DO “speak for themselves.” But now I’m in grad school. And my time to listen is limited. If I go at all, I’ll have to be pre-selective. Hence, I find myself (for the first time) inclined to speak up for particular festival participants whom I’ve already observed doing good work. If your time is limited like mine, here’s my short list of “good risks.”

Nikki Weaver and friends, piecing things together for “Weaving Women Together.” Portland Playhouse photo

Aubrey Jessen’s appeared in many plays at Action/Adventure, portraying everything from a superhero action star to a breathlessly anxious secretary. I didn’t catch her playwrighting debut, Hawthorne, but a Drammy nod suggests it was deft. A speech therapist by trade, Jessen seems even in her improvs like a master of metacognition, with a keen awareness of thoughts-about-thoughts and an aw-shucks persona that makes such musings accessible. I’d deem it worth seeing what she does in Velvet.  It’s a double-header with Autumn Buck’s Sable in the Forest. Phillip Berns—last seen carrying A Christmas Carol solo—is directing Velvet. I could say a lot about Berns, but my opinionated aunt side would rather just pat your arm and exclaim, “He’s very good!”

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Not so elementary, my dear Watson

CoHo's triple play about a trio of Watsons and the difficulties of communication and artificial intelligence rings some unusual bells

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, at CoHo Theatre, is not about Sherlock Holmes. His sidekick, Dr. Watson, makes an appearance, but Mr. Holmes himself is absent. And the play, which is sometimes confusing but also swiftly entertaining, is somewhat of a mystery: Will our protagonists get what they need? Will they know they need it?

So, then, you talk into this part? Eric Martin Reid and Sarah Ellis Smith contemplate Bell’s talking machine. Photo: Owen Carey

Directed by CoHo Artistic Director Philip Cuomo, Madeleine George’s Watson Intelligence comprises three stories, each set in a different time period and with a different set of characters, who nevertheless are named the same and played by the same three actors in each era. The stories are connected loosely to each other, at best, even when characters from one period wind up in another. The thread that connects them is the name “Watson” – the man on the other end of the phone when Alexander Graham Bell makes his first phone call; Holmes’s sidekick; and the name of the artificial-intelligence computer that won Jeopardy in 2011.

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Electric talk talk talk

Enda Walsh's "The New Electric Ballroom" at Third Rail Rep is a tall tale sailing on a torrent of language

Less than a minute into the opening speech of Enda Walsh’s sort-of comedy The New Electric Ballroom at Third Rail Rep I tucked my pen back into my pocket and gave up on the idea of taking notes: no way could I keep up with this thundering waterfall of words. “By their nature people are talkers,” says the spinster Breda, and talk talk talk they do, phrases tumbling and shooting and skipping and flying until your ears give up and run behind your back to hide. The gift of gab, the Irish call it, though at times you wonder – and I suspect Walsh does, too – if the gift isn’t just as much a curse.

The thing is, everybody talks in Electric Ballroom, but nobody talks with. It’s pretty much all speeches, ingrown toenail sorts of rants, in choreographed turns, and it takes a while to figure out who the choreographer is. At first you think it’s the youngest of the three sisters, Ada (Maureen Porter), who seems to be barking out odd orders like a stage manager under duress. You’re pretty sure it’s not Clara (Diana Kondrat), who speaks in elliptical staccato bursts, and is also the announcer of the obvious: “There’s a lull in the conversation,” she chirps at several pregnant pauses in the verbal onslaught, after some barb or another has landed a little too deep. Eventually the caller of the shots appears to be Breda (Lorraine Bahr), the one with the wicked past, at least in these cloistered and ritually embalmed sisters’ minds. But the truth is, not a one of ’em’s actually participated in life enough to have done anything wicked at all, except in their imaginations, which they use to turn on those torrents of language that become a sort of virtual reality, a made-up life that becomes the only life they really have. Sad’s the word for it, and it’s a word that’s short and not so sweet.

Kondrat (left) with Bahr and Porter: the three sisters. Photo: Owen Carey

Kondrat (left) with Bahr and Porter: the three sisters. Photo: Owen Carey

Walsh is, of course, Irish (Third Rail also produced his play Penelope a few seasons back, which was directed, as Electric Ballroom is, by Philip Cuomo), and this contemporary play takes place in some isolated Irish village, a place with cliffs and docks and a seafood cannery, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and secrets are both open and long-lasting, sometimes for generations. It’s enough to make any escapee from the boonies to a bigger city shudder at the memory, although if you’ve read any of Tana French’s psychological crime novels set on the narrow-minded streets of Dublin, you might also wonder if the difference is all that big.

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