Radiant Vermin

Scott Yarbrough’s Radiant Direction

The former Third Rail Rep leader has been unsurpassed at delivering clear, clean productions of affecting, language-rich plays where storytelling is key.

It’s late August and Scott Yarbrough is at the CoHo Theatre in Northwest Portland, getting a play called Radiant Vermin up on its feet. He paces around, watching, occasionally stopping actors Chris Murray and Kelly Godell with suggestions while he tries to figure out the most effective way for them to move about the stage.

Sometimes it’s just about where and how they’re standing: “Chris, I think you need to stand at a little more of an angle to Kelly, there,” he says.

“I’m just trying to, y’know, be in love with her,” Murray explains.

“Yeah, but it’s looking a little pervy.”

Even though blocking is the night’s focus, though, Yarbrough can’t help fine-tuning what already feel like perceptive performances: “That scene has to be about their denial of the atrocity of what they’re doing,” he tells them at one point. “Because if they recognize that, it’s hard for the audience to shift back into compassion for them… It’s a tonal shift. Put that in your hoppers and think about it, and we’ll work it later.”

Shocked by the light: Chris Murray and Kelly Godell in Philip Ridley’s “Radiant Vermin” at CoHo Theater. Photo: Owen Carey

On a break, he points out that this is the same place where, in 2005, he directed his first show in Portland, Recent Tragic Events, which instantly put a new company called Third Rail Repertory Theatre on the local arts map.

“It’s fun to be back in the room.”

Radiant Vermin, about a young couple who find themselves in moral hot water when they’re given a free home to renovate, is a Scott Yarbrough play.

Though, to be clear, it is a play by the British writer Philip Ridley. Yarbrough directed a production of Radiant Vermin that ran in September at CoHo Theatre. But you couldn’t call it a Scott Yarbrough play because he put his own idiosyncratic stamp on it; that’s not the kind of director he is.

Still, it’s very much a Scott Yarbrough play, in that it’s great example of the kind of play that Yarbrough loves — smart, funny, a little dark, language-rich but unpretentious, idea-driven yet with a surprising emotional payoff, aware that comedy and tragedy grew up in the same bedroom. And it’s also the kind of play Yarbrough excels at directing, burrowing into the text for all its challenges and opportunities, bringing something to the stage that’s solid, clear, seemingly lit from within and moving like a living thing itself.

Back at CoHo Theater, where his stellar Portland career began, director Scott Yarbrough works on “Radiant Vermin.” Photo: Owen Carey

“I was really, really pleased — the direction is really tight,” said the veteran Portland actor Michael O’Connell after catching a dress rehearsal. “It kind of felt like, ‘Scott’s back!’”

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DramaWatch: In the wake of words with Will Eno

"Wakey, Wakey" at Portland Playhouse finds humor in matters of life and death; "The Color Purple" keeps it simple; and the new Summit Theatre starts its climb

“People talk about matters of Life and Death. But it’s really just Life, isn’t it. When you think about it.”

So says Guy, the main character in the Will Eno play Wakey, Wakey, which on Saturday opens the 2018-’19 Portland Playhouse season. Guy might or might not be meant as a name, and in any case the fellow is — much like the one referred to only as “Man” in the script of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in August — a stand-in for any or all of us. An Everyguy.

Hello/goodbye: Michael O’Connell as Guy in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Like most of Eno’s Everyguys, who speak their fractured piece directly in monologues such as Title and Deed and Thom Pain (based on nothing), or serve as the bemused center of ensemble pieces such as Middletown, Guy talks about life from a lot of different angles. More than the rest, though, this guy gives the sense that he’s approaching that final, most blunt angle. And still, this being Eno, that angle, too, bends around, again and again, to unexpectedly beautiful glimmers of life.

As he puts it early on, “We’re here to say goodbye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello.”

This should be a terrific way for the Playhouse to say hello to its season, what with Michael O’Connell (who has assayed Eno before to fine effect, in Middletown and The Realistic Joneses, both for Third Rail Rep) starring, joined by Nikki Weaver and directed by Gretchen Corbett. That team is a good bet to find the varied, mingled tones of piercing humor and wry pathos in what is Eno’s gentlest, most warm-hearted script yet.

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DramaWatch: “Ordinary Days,” “Color” ways and other plays

Isaac Lamb is sweet on the simple -- but moving -- chamber musical he's directing at Broadway Rose; plus other Portland theater news and notes.

Isaac Lamb is among the most versatile, widely accomplished of Portland-area theater artists, but he believes he’s found a particular niche with his work for Broadway Rose. Amid the crowd-pleasing classics, nostalgic tributes and revues, there’s room for what we might call some less obvious fare — “new musicals, stuff that’s been only rarely produced. And they give those to me.”

Though he’s better known as an actor, Lamb has shown his chops as a director at Broadway Rose, most notably with his gorgeous and moving production two years ago of a little-known but marvelously crafted musical called Fly by Night. His latest project there, opening this weekend, is Ordinary Days, by Adam Gwon, which, like Fly by Night, centers on young adults seeking love and self-discovery in New York City.

Ordinary Days tells a different story, but (company founders Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy) thought that it had a kinship with that show,” Lamb say, talking late on a recent night, following a dress rehearsal. “So I wanted to take a stab at it.”

Ordinary rendition: Benjamin Tissell (from left), pianist/music director Eric Nordin, Seth M. Renne, Quinlan Fitzgerald and Kailey Rhodes in “Ordinary Days” at Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega

Lamb also admits that initially he wasn’t overly impressed with the material.

“It felt very simple and sweet, but I didn’t give it a lot of credit at first,” he recalls. “But it snuck up on me. It moved me. Gwon’s whole goal was to show how extraordinary the ordinary really is. Everybody has things going on in their lives that are totally commonplace, but they’re incredibly dramatic to the people experiencing them. An ordinary day can turn extraordinary in the blink of an eye. He sneaks in more deep feeling than you expect.”

The show is essentially a song cycle, nearly sung-through, with minimal spoken text. “It’s similar in feeling to, say, (Jason Robert Brown’s) Songs for a New World, but it tracks as a single narrative.” Peter Marks of the Washington Post wrote of a 2014 production that “Gwon’s 19 songs are…lyrically witty and rich enough in narrative and character detail to power the dual plots of the musical” which “feels like such a fresh alternative to most of the over-produced stuff on Broadway.”

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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.

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DramaWatch: Season’s greetings!

Portland's 2018-'19 theater season kicks into gear at Artists Rep, CoHo and elsewhere; and it's time to experiment with TBA.

We’ve survived the heat. Now comes the harvest.

That is to say, summer is ending soon and the boon of fall arts season is upon us. Unlike, say, baseball, there’s no official Opening Day, but this weekend is as good a time as any to mark the start of the 2018-’19 season. Labor Day has passed and Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland’s second-largest theater company, is getting things underway, as is the small yet vital CoHo. Soon enough, Portland Center Stage, the big player, will begin not just its new season but its new era under recently named artistic director Marissa Wolf.

So, what is it we want out of a theater season — either company by company or considered as a city-wide whole?

To be entertained? OK, sure. Whatever that means. Diversions and delights are great, as far as they go.

But should we be looking for more? The things we might want out of an individual play — insight into something about the human condition, an expansion of empathy for those we may have discounted, a mirror on our own foibles or desires, a call to arms about a cause celebre… — we might get more of out of a smartly programmed season.

Profile Theatre’s focus on particular playwrights lends itself to the accretion of meaning. And I rather like what the small Twilight Theater is in the midst of — a 2018 calendar-year season with plays that examine the interweaving of theater and life, plays within plays and/or about plays and such. But for the most part, especially in a time where the season-subscription model continues to fade from popularity or maybe even plausibility, the big houses seem to value stylistic variety and box-office potential, while small companies mount too few productions to draw out broader themes and ideas.

Perhaps these are musings for a different moment, though. For now, the schedules are set.

So, again: What do we want out of this theater season — not the one out of our stage-nerd utopian dreams, but the one we’re going to get?

Speaking only for myself, I’ll say: Tell me more, please, about life and how to live it.

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