Portland theater review

Better homes and gardens of good and evil

"Radiant Vermin" at CoHo Theater takes an hilarious look at how far folks will go for a few nice things.

In Will Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago Theatre staged last month, that play’s lone character assures us, at one point, that he’s a good person. Then immediately he amends the claim: “Well, not deep down.”

In Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, now on the boards in a darkly, dazzlingly funny production at CoHo Theater, Jill and Ollie tell us right away that they, too, are good people. But they, too, are inclined to offer a caveat:

OLLIE: We hope we are.

JILL: We try to be.

OLLIE: And yet . . . some of the things we’ve done –

Jill and Ollie, it turns out, don’t really know and are only very slightly inclined to think about, who they are deep down. But they’ve encountered someone who sees the kind of people they really are. Even when she’s only just met them, she can tell them about their own formative childhood experiences, how their flat is decorated, or about their favorite place to shop.

As she puts it — so sweetly that there’s no room for creepiness or menace — “Miss Dee knows what Miss Dee knows!”

She also has a little proposition for them.

Miss Dee knows what Miss Dee knows! Diane Kondrat (center) tempts Kelly Godell and Chris Murray in “Radiant Vermin” at CoHo Theater. Photo: Owen Carey.

She’s in charge of a quasi-governmental program called “the Department of Social Regeneration Through the Creation of Dream Homes,” which tries to kick-start the improvement of run-down neighborhoods. And because Jill and Ollie are the right kind of clients — he’s good with his hands and she has “oodles” of taste, plus they’re both “good people” — she will give them a house.

That’s right. Just give it to them. No strings attached. All they have to do is fix the place up.

Wouldn’t you know it, though, what seems at first like no kind of a catch at all — “All repairs and renovations to the property are your responsibility” — turns out to be a doozy.


Shaking the Fo: double the fun

Matthew Kerrigan and Shaking the Tree bring a pair of Dario Fo's commedia-inspired solo plays to witty life


Matthew Kerrigan tiptoes onto the stage wearing a silk Japanese robe, stocking cap, and red nose. He’s a lowbrow Arlecchino for our times. He playfully pokes and jabs at the audience, leaving us feeling smarter as we discover his game, but like all commedia dell’arte zanni, we’ve been taken by the naughty clown. There’s something special in Kerrigan’s impish smile, and a simple beauty that a good joke can go back 400 years.

Kerrigan is a one-man show, playing a multitude of characters in Shaking The Tree‘s The Dissenter’s Handbook and Tale of a Tiger (Storia Della Tigre) by the Italian playwright and Nobel laureate Dario Fo.

Matthew Kerrigan, joking with Dario Fo. Photo: Gary Norman

Matthew Kerrigan, joking with Dario Fo. Photo: Gary Norman

Kerrigan is a shape-shifter through these performances, changing his face, voice, and posture from man to woman to deity to wild beast to common thief. He rolls in and out of character as easily as water flowing in a stream. His acting takes us out of our seats, our heads, our daily life, and into the land of fairytales.

Fo’s pieces, translated into English here by Ed Emery, are often called monologues, but are really more than that: they’re richly woven storytelling, grounded from the perspective of a trained commedia playwright, but one who takes charming images of fables and refashions them for the present day. His humor is spot-on, the kind you tend to get only when your best friend makes a witty aside.

The theater tradition of commedia dell’arte  began in Italy in the 16th century, and is comprised of stock characters who can be tailored to fit what we recognize: the maid, the lord, the fool, the butler. They fall into topsy-turvy messes, because as humans, we are given to natural mistake: falling in love, or being born jealous. The image of Harlequin in his diamond-patterned suit, the tears of Pagliacci, and the stormy relationship of Punch and Judy still have a place in our imagination. Shakespeare loved commedia, and as Oregonians love Shakespeare, we’ve followed suite with our own commedia tradition.

Fo, with his late wife and collaborator Franca Rame, has long been Italy’s court jester, taking on heads of state and the pontifications of Rome. He’s fashioned a 60-year career of making the reverent irreverent through fantastic off-color retellings of historical crimes. Fo’s adventures on stage did not go unnoticed: among his scrapes with powerful institutions, he’s been banned by the papacy, blackballed for 14 years by Italian television, and in the 1960s was consistently banned from entering the United States. In 1973, Rame was the victim of a violent political attack – kidnapped, raped, and beaten – because of their iconoclastic work.

It’s no small thing for Shaking the Tree and Kerrigan to take on Fo. The simple Mark Rothko-inspired set is a good canvas for Kerrigan to show his talent. When approaching Fo’s work, director Samantha Van Der Merwe’s consistent attention to detail, which is typical of Shaking the Tree’s productions, seems particularly necessary, and adds punch. You get a sense that Kerrigan and Van Der Merwe worked hard together to flesh out the stories, but also had fun bringing the characters alive.

Tale of a Tiger (Storia Della Tigre) tells of Remus and Romulus meeting up in Chang Kai-shek’s China. Kerrigan’s physical skills serve him, and the audience, well: he can wistfully turn his mouth into the jaws of a growling tiger, and believably have us checking the corners of our bed when he slips into the crotchety accent of the village grandmother. The story has a moral and a metaphor, but as with most of Fo’s work, the meaning is left up to you. Is the tiger’s tale about salvation, civilization, nature? Or is  it just a good story?

The Dissenter’s Handbook is a relook at the Genesis stories – at how Eve got the shaft – and a surreal take on the Virgin birth. The funniest moments revolve around Mary and the Virgin of Carmine shrine. Two rapacious thieves are out to con Mary. Kerrigan plays her as the iconic blonde in blonde jokes, and his thieves are a Tom and Jerry cartoon,as  if voiced by a hyper Willem Defoe. Kerrigan’s approach to Fo is exactly what’s required: a concrete physicality that is strong and yet malleable enough to become effervescent, to push the edge of the envelope to the point where the joke is made at the expense of our human natures.


The Dissenter’s Handbook and Tale of a Tiger continue at Shaking the Tree through December 26. Ticket and schedule information here.