Portland Story Theater

Drama Watch: A clown’s tale

"Going Down in Flames" traces a great clown's fall. Plus: critical changes at The New Yorker, what's up on Oregon stages in June.

One of the things about Joan Mankin was, she was always a surprise: always in the moment, rarely the same thing twice, an improvisational spirit whose free-form antics could throw her fellow performers for a loop, delight her audiences, and send her shows spinning into another dimension. So when the sound of a train rumbling down the tracks behind The Headwaters Theatre during a performance of Going Down in Flames on Saturday night broke the action and prompted Joan Schirle, who was playing the late, great American clown Mankin, to break into an ad-lib wisecrack, it was like a side-splitting visitation from beyond: Queenie Moon, upending expectations and stealing the scene again. And the audience cracked up.

Jeff Desautels (left), Joan Schirle as Joan Mankin, and Michael O’Neill in Danny Mankin’s Going Down in Flames at The Headwaters.

Mankin, or Queenie Moon, as her famous clown persona was called, was a shining light of the West Coast new vaudeville/agitprop theater scene that thrived from the 1960s forward, employing old-fashioned theatrical styles for new and often culturally subversive purposes. She worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the physical-theater stalwarts the Dell’Arte Players, as well as a lot of mainstream companies. I remember her best, and most fondly, as a star of the Pickle Family Circus, the wonderful San Francisco-based acrobatic and clowning company whose traveling shows I would seek out whenever they were in rational range, from Grant Park in Northeast Portland to the Southwest Oregon timber town of Coquille.

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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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DramaWatch Weekly: home run

Bobby Bermea finds the key to "Fences." Plus: Lady Day at Emerson's, Tim Stapleton's art, bubble-bath theater, openings and closings.

Gabriel, blow your horn!

Portland’s theater makers are a supportive lot, so it was no surprise that several prominent actors were in the audience at Portland Playhouse on the night last week that I went to see the current production of Fences. But I didn’t expect, necessarily, to see Michelle Mariana, Brenda Hubbard and Jeff Gorman – who’d sat together in the front row – clustered on the sidewalk after the show, asking the same question I was asking: “Which door is Bobby going to come out of?”

For my part, I’d come to the show specifically to see what Bobby Bermea and director Lou Bellamy had done with a seemingly small yet, to my mind, crucial role in August Wilson’s most celebrated drama. But I wasn’t the only one to come away powerfully struck by his performance.

(Disclosure: Bermea, in addition to a busy career as an actor and director, is a contributing writer for Oregon ArtsWatch, and he and I served together a few years ago on the Drammy Awards committee.)

Bobby Bermea (left) as Gabriel and Lester Purry as Troy in “Fences.” Photo: Brud Giles

Fences was Wilson’s “I’ll show them” play, the one in which he departed from his usual discursive, multivalent approach and proved he could write a more conventionally structured drama with a singular focus, something more akin to the classic “well-made play.” The story is about the towering, often glowering figure at its center, a former Negro Leagues baseball star named Troy Maxson, and the other characters exist as bodies in his orbit, the narrative’s several lines of tension pulsing between each of them and him, the hub of the wheel. In terms of action, what’s going on is mostly between Troy and his son Cory, who wants to play college football, despite his father’s bitterness about how his own opportunities were limited.  Or between Troy and his wife, Rose, who eventually laments not making the big man leave room for her wants and needs. Or between Troy and his longtime friend Jim Bono, who slips from admiration to concern to sad resignation as his hero self-destructs. Or …

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Urban Tellers’ immigrant tales

A new life in words: Portland Story Theater's immigrant and refugee storytellers weave tales about leaving there and coming here

By ALIA STEARNS

The power of stories is undeniable. Every time period has had a popular form of storytelling at least from the time of Cro-Magnon man, his hands filthy with iron oxide and black manganese after smearing mineral pigments along cave walls to communicate a message, or sitting with his tribe, their faces illuminated by firelight as they traded information.

One night last month at The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland Story Theater’s Urban Tellers series hosted its third installment featuring immigrant and refugee storytellers. (A fourth installment is scheduled for fall 2018.) The evening was powerful and no doubt reshaped how some of the people in the audience view people who fall into those categories.

Preethi Srinivas performing “Pretty Young Thing” at Urban Tellers. Photo: Kelly Nissl

And for some, it might have been surprising. Popular media often frame immigrants and refugees through a generalized trope fraught with heartbreak, loneliness, and rejection. But at The Old Church, that wasn’t the case at all. “It’s just like a regular Urban Tellers show,” Portland Story Theater co-founder Lynne Duddy notes, “except the people happen to be self-identified as first-generation immigrant or refugee.”

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Peril on ice: an Antarctic tragedy

Lawrence Howard's "Polar Opposites: Amundsen, Scott, and the Race for the South Pole" spins a tale of adventure and deadly ambition

As the pre-show jazz band finished up a generous hour-long set at The Old Church on Saturday night and began packing up, Lawrence Howard sidled downstage, took a look at the big prop perched on a stand behind him, and turned to the audience conspiratorially. “I hate it when the map’s upside down,” he observed, and manhandled the thing – a giant representation of Antarctica and its surrounding waters – into proper position. Even way down under, it appears, what’s up is up and what’s down is down.

Lawrence Howard tells a tale of Antarctica. Photo: Kimmie Fadem

Then Howard, the co-founder of Portland Story Theater who is known as “The Armchair Adventurer” for his own long yarns of historical derring-do, pitched right into his tale, Polar Opposites: Amundsen, Scott, and the Race for the South Pole. Most but not all of Howard’s adventure tales are set against the challenges of the Arctic or Antarctic (he’s also recounted the stories of the Victorian Englishman John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was hanged three times and lived to tell the tale; and of the 1820 sinking of the whaler The Essex, a disaster that inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick), and Polar Opposites takes him back to familiar formidable southern territory. A tale Howard first told in 2011, on the centennial of the events it recounts, it’s the story of the competing expeditions in late 1911 and early 1912 of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and the British expeditionary leader Robert Falcon Scott to be the first humans to set foot on the geographic South Pole.

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Sitting in the packed audience at the Fremont Theater last Thursday night for Portland Story Theater’s latest Urban Tellers show was both exhilarating and disheartening. Exhilarating because this was the latest chapter in Urban Tellers’ illuminating series of tales told by immigrants in and around Portland. Disheartening because this was the next-to-last Urban Tellers show ever in this little jewel of a space on Northeast Fremont Avenue in the Sabin/Alameda/Irvington overlap.

The following night’s repeat performance would be the end. Both houses were sold out. That made no difference: The Fremont is shutting down Nov. 12, and for Portland Story Theater, this was the abrupt end of a regular monthly gig. Matthew Singer wrote about the shutdown in Willamette Week, telling an all too familiar tale. “The basic circumstances are that we just ran out of money,” co-owner David Shur told him. Shur also noted that attempts to soundproof the space to appease other tenants of the building proved too costly.

Rodrigo Aguirre, Ruiyuan Gao (center) and Marisol Batioja-Kreuzer in the final Urban Tellers at the Fremont Theater. Photo: Kelly Nissl

The Fremont was used mainly as a music space, becoming one of several halls that helped fill the gap for jazz shows after the legendary Jimmy Mak’s shut down early this year. But it was home to Portland Story Theater and a few other more theatrical presenters, too, including puppeteer Penny Walter’s daytime Penny’s Puppets family shows and the old-time radio theatrics of Tesla City Stories, whose live shows are presented as if in a radio studio, sound effects included. Penny’s Puppets has its final show at the Fremont this Friday, Nov. 10. Tesla bids its adieu to the Fremont with a show the following evening, Nov. 11.

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Can we all get along? Rodney King’s story for our times

Actor/playwright Roger Guenveur Smith talks about his show about the man whose videotaped 1991 beating shifted the story of race and police brutality in America

Artists Repertory Theatre is hosting Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man play Rodney King, about the “first reality TV star” whose beating by police in 1991 was captured on videotape and led to a public outage that echoes down to the age of cell phone videos and the ongoing national controversy over policing and racial violence. The Artists Rep performances April 21-23 will be Smith’s last onstage before the release on April 28 of Spike Lee’s film version on HBO.

Rodney King is one of several culturally or politically provocative pieces to hit Portland stages since last November’s national elections, heralding an increased activism in the theater.

– Triangle Productions is opening Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall on Thursday, April 20, as part of a “rolling world premiere” at theaters across the country. The author of The Kentucky Cycle and the Lyndon B. Johnson plays All the Way and The Great Society that premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before moving on to acclaim on Broadway began writing Building the Wall “in a white hot fury” last October as the presidential race was tightening up. Lee Williams has written an excellent interview with Shenkkan for The Oregonian.

– Last weekend, partly in response to a wave of anti-immigration policies, Portland Story Theater presented two evenings in its Urban Tellers series of short personal stories by immigrants from Argentina, Somalia, Iran, Indonesia, Mexico, and Denmark, and has plans for a similar program in the fall.

– And PassinArt: A Theatre Company has just concluded its run of Marcus Gardley’s moving Gospel of Lovingkindness, a play that probes the causes of a random murder in the black community and the lives it tears apart. Director Jerry Foster says he’d like to have the show tour in schools.

Smith, the author and performer of Rodney King, agreed to answer a few questions from ArtsWatch via email about his play, his career, and the culture that’s helped shape both. Here’s what he has to say:

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Roger Guenveur Smith as Rodney King. Photo: Patti McGuire

Bob Hicks: People remember the car chase and the brutal beatings and the famous quote, “Can we all get along?” I’m not sure how many also remember that the police were mostly acquitted by an almost-all-white jury in Simi Valley, or that the whole thing was a key factor in the pressure leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Does Rodney King focus on that series of events, or does it also follow King’s life in the years after?

Roger Guenveur Smith: Rodney King is an intimate meditation on a life lived and lost, revealing a boy and a man and a man in a myth.
 The high speed chase of March 1991 comes to an abrupt halt in June 2012. Along the way there is a beating, and a trial, and a riot, the immense weight of which takes Mr. King to the bottom of his backyard swimming pool.

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