Readers Theatre Rep

DramaWatch: Orwell’s doubleplusgood oldthink

The week in Portland theater features Artists Rep talking totalitarianism in "1984," Fake Radio turning back the clock, Shakespeare in the house, and more.

Here in mid-September, school is back in session, so that means that somewhere some teen is reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lots of teens in lots of places, more than likely. As did so many of us, I read George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel in high school and found it both fascinating and (even though the titular time-frame was yet a few years away then) prescient. 

But, having not revisited the book in more than 40 years, I do not remember the appendix.

“The Principles of Newspeak,” a linguistic essay following the familiar story, serves a central role in 1984, the 2013 stage adaptation that opens Artists Repertory Theatre’s season. Playwrights  Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan use the appendix, which uses the past tense in discussing the totalitarian government and its use of ideologically coercive language, as the basis of a framing device for the stage, presenting a group of people discussing the story from an historical remove. 

“Far from being a shallow postmodern device,” Variety wrote about a 2014 production at London’s Almeida Theater, “this adds a further layer of creepiness to the tale, allowing us to see the nightmare as something not in the future but in the near past.”

Fight the power. Winston Smith (Chris Harder) goes against government in Artists Rep’s stage version of George Orwell’s 1984.

The year 1984 is by now roughly equidistant from the time the novel was published and our present moment. Time and dates aren’t all that essential to Orwell’s social critique, which, like all literary dystopias, is as much descriptive as speculative. Which is another way of underlining the depressingly enduring relevance of the tale. 

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DramaWatch: the naked and the nude

The first two weeks in May bring Portland stages a bundle of shows straddling the territory between the real and the ideal

This Saturday, as it turns out, is World Naked Gardening Day, and don’t worry, neighbors, I’m not taking part: I’m not really much of a gardener. The revelation, however, makes me think of another spot of news I got a few days ago from my friend Gerald Stiebel, in his weekly column Missives From the Art World. Gerald was writing about Monumental, the new show of nude paintings by the 20th and 21st century master Lucian Freud, at Acquavella Gallery in New York, and in it he discusses the fine line between nudity and nakedness:

“The renowned British art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, in his 1956 book, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, made a distinction between the Naked and the Nude, considering the nude as an ideal representation of the naked body. By Clark’s definition Freud’s works are not nudes but might be called naked portraits.

An intimate theater in the flesh: Lucian Freud, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” 1995, private collection, at Acquavella Gallery.

“Freud himself wrote, ‘Being naked has to do with making a more complete portrait; a naked body is somehow more permanent, more factual … when someone is naked there is in effect nothing to be hidden. Not everyone wants to be that honest about themselves; that means I feel an obligation to be equally honest in how I represent them. It is a matter of responsibility. In a way I don’t want the painting to come from me, I want it to come from them. It can be extraordinary how much you can learn from someone by looking very carefully at them without judgment.’”

Hardly anyone would call Freud’s often massive portraits ideals of the human form. They can seem grotesque: hills and vales and fissures and folds of flesh; fantastic landscapes of skin. And yet they hide nothing, at least visually: They exude humility, openness, a sense of natural animal humanness, vulnerable and unguarded.

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Mary McDonald-Lewis knows how to talk.

More importantly, she knows how to teach others how to talk. If you’ve been to more than a few theater productions in Portland, chances are strong that you’ve heard her work, which falls into the category of valuable contributions that ideally you won’t quite notice. As a dialect coach (or “voice & language consultant,” or various other job descriptions) she’s contributed to innumerable shows and trained many more performers.

A skilled voice actor herself, of course, she’s also made an impact locally and nationally as a labor activist. As ArtsWatch tracked her down earlier this week, she was in the midst of packing for a quick trip to Los Angeles to help negotiate a new SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) contract covering voice work for animation.

Mary McDonald-Lewis, a.k.a. “Mary Mac,” is best known as a voice actor and dialect coach, but has a varied role in the theater world.

Mary Mac, as she’s widely known, knows how to talk in the more casual sense as well. That is, she’s a delightful conversationalist — quick-witted, knowledgeable, curious, engaging. We met at an airy Italian joint in her longtime Northeast Portland neighborhood to talk Shakespeare — she’s directing a production of The Tempest at the Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven — but she first spoke enthusiastically about the show’s producers, Megan Skye Hale and Myrrh Larsen, and the creative performance space they’ve nurtured beneath the Hawthorne Bridge.

“They’re kind of one of the young power couples of Portland arts,” she says of Hale (who’ll play Ariel in this production) and Larsen. “They’re both classic and modern at the same time. They have a real fascination with classical work, especially Shakespeare…And they’re very modern in terms of inclusiveness, cross-gender and multi-gender casting, and their overall approach to the work. It’s not politics with them, it’s passion: It’s just the way that art should be made.”

When I mentioned that I’d not been to the Steep and Thorny Way, McDonald-Lewis fairly glowed about it. “You sort of expect Sherlock to emerge from the steam,” she said of its gritty neighborhood near the river. “It’s this dark heart that just runs on love. They are scrappy and they dream big. Some real magic comes off that tiny stage.”

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DramaWatch Weekly: Pop-up City

It's a week for short runs, from Chekhov to Twilight in L.A. – plus full-run shows on Patsy Cline, the Irish Troubles, and a sex crime coverup

Pop-up restaurants. Pop-up bars. Pop-up nightclubs, galleries, boutiques, publishing houses, concerts. We’re living in a pop-up world, so why not pop-up theater?

The traditional method of producing is to start a theater company, announce a season, and run a half-dozen shows for several weeks at a time. That still dominates, especially in the nonprofit theater world.

But more and more, quick-hit shows are spicing up the scene. You might not see reviews of them very often, because they’re in and out, here and gone. But a growing number of  producers and performers are taking advantage of short-run opportunities, and it takes a little scrambling to keep up.

What is the Fertile Ground Festival but a massive series of pop-ups? What about a company like Boom Arts, which exists to bring in a steady stream of political or experimental shows from around the world for very brief runs? What about the several play-reading series in town? And it’s not just small lean groups popping up and down. The two biggest theater companies in town, Portland Center Stage at The Armory and Artists Repertory Theatre, are playing the short-run, special-event game, too.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Out there, the drama is real

From the news to the stage, A.L. Adams' new column gives the lowdown on a week's worth of action on the Portland theater scene

Holy moly, is this week huge! Here we are in the throes of most theaters’ season kickoff with much too much to cover—not to mention TBA. (Just kidding; of course I’ll also mention TBA.)

A.L. Adams

In local season opening news, PHAME’s got a new executive director, Action/Adventure Theater has closed its doors after an epic five-year run, and Readers Theatre Rep just raised their ticket price to a whole $10 (still worth every penny, I’m sure; they’ll read two Arthur Miller plays this weekend).

How about national news? Anything major? Sometimes (actually, constantly) I look at what themes are playing out on Portland stages and think about how much they resonate with real-life events that are actually happening. If I may:

 


 

The Drama Is Real: Shows that hit a nerve with current news

In the news: Last Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a repeal of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that offers protected status to undocumented persons who’ve lived in the US since their childhood. Meanwhile, onstage: Last weekend, Ingenio Milagro, a Milagro Theatre’s playwright development symposium similar to Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival, presented four scripts including Monica Sanchez’s Los Dreamers, the story of “Dreamer” Scoobi.

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In the news: The Oregon Bach Festival is reeling over international backlash after firing their artistic director Matthew Halls in response to an incident one might call “Grit Gate.” The Telegraph reports that Halls was overheard joking with his friend, African-American singer Reginald Mobely, and had made a quip about grits while mimicking a southern accent. Though both Mobely and Halls maintain that the joke was about the South generally rather than a Black stereotype, a white woman who overheard the remark complained to University of Oregon leadership, who summarily relieved Halls of his post. With press outlets in Halls’ native England picking up the story, Grit-Gate seems to have grown into an international incident. Meanwhile, onstage: Hillsboro’s Bag&Baggage opened its season last weekend (in a new space) with Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning into Butter, a drama wherein an African American student at a primarily white college receives hate mail and the school’s administration struggles to react appropriately, arguably making things worse.

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In the news: Hillary Clinton has just released what is sure to be a polarizing book, What Happened, asking exactly that of her 2016 presidential campaign and taking belated jabs at her opponents left and right. Meanwhile, onstage: Hillary Clinton, of all people, will visit Portland on December 12. See Portland’5 for details.

 


 

Mister Theater: feet off the furniture, kid.

Out There: Shows for explorers

Sweep The Leg: A Karate Kid Musical Parody is happening at Mister Theater, which I didn’t even know was a thing. From the address, it looks like Mister is a neighbor of beloved life-drawing lair Hipbone Studios and belly dance hot spot Studio Datura. (I’m sure it means Mister like “man,” but with this heat persisting into next week and these actors karate-kicking up a sweat, the other kind of “mister” couldn’t miss.) 

Back Fence PDX This storytelling showcase regularly presents a solid roster of raconteurs, and this installment includes “Portland’s Funniest Person 2017” Caitlyn Weierhauser, aptly-named web series star Ben Weber, sketch comedy specialist Andrew Harris, cultural competency consultant Bealleka, and retro glam cult novelist Jennifer Robin.

Under The Influence: All Trumped Up Ernie Liloj must be “tired of winning.” After his original musical Under The Influence earned two Drammies in 2015 (Best Original Score and Best Actor in a Musical) he seems to have asked, “What would really put this over the top?” What puts anything over the top? A dollop of Trump, of course. A cast that includes two alums of Post5’s legendary clown shows, Ithica Tell and Jessica Tidd, should feel right at home at the Funhouse Lounge, a venue complete with a themed “clown room.”

 


 

This week at TBA

 Now onward to PICA TBA:17 (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival), whose program I’ve perused and—just as my ArtsWatch colleague Jamuna Chiarini did for dance—I’ve plucked all of the remaining theater works from the schedule and linked them here for your ease. Less easy for me, and I’ll tell you why: this calendar is chockfull of crossover acts, most especially performance artists who infuse their theatrical pieces with varying amounts of original music.

 Are such shows concerts, or are they theater? Yes.

Will all performance artists be required to write their own music from now on? I hope so. Discuss.

 TBA performances this week include several appearances by Saudi artist Sarah Abuabdallah, three Sigourney Weaver Jam Sessions by Manuel Solano, an evening with singer/monologuist Joseph Keckler, the pop song/deadpan storytelling pairing of Half Straddle‘s Ghost Rings, Cvllejerx throwing a Super Tantrum, and the “psychoacoustic” thralls of Sound et Al.

My must-see is longtime Portland music scene fixture Holland Andrews (of Like a Villain, Aan, and Samadams), who, having lately completed an artist residency in Paris, will present collaborative work with Alain Mahé that interprets Dorothée Munyaneza’s interviews of Rawandan rape survivors following the country’s 1994 genocide. Obviously something to scream about, but also worth getting further context from a follow-up conversation; Sunday’s show will be followed by a talkback. For more femme-empowered protest music, check out Retribution, Tanya Tagaq‘s “howling protest” in defense of indigenous and human rights, or party your catharsis out with Demian Dineyazhi‘s Death Dance, a brown/indigenous punk statement that doubles as a “sweaty celebration.”

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Whew! That’s all the drama I have for this week. Hand me my mister.

 


 

With this column, the sharp-witted and sharp-eyed A.L. Adams begins her weekly look at what’s happening on Portland’s theater stages. Look for DramaWatch Weekly every Tuesday.

 

 

 

 

 

ArtsWatch Weekly: Berlin stories

Andrea Stolowitz's "Berlin Diaries," world premiere at the ballet, new on stage, Brett Campbell's music picks, lots of links

The corner of culture, art, and politics is a busy intersection these days, when suddenly each seems to have something significant to say about the others, and so Andrea Stolowitz’s new play Berlin Diary, although it deals with events three-quarters of a century ago, also seems very much of the current moment.

Stolowitz, the Portland playwright and Oregon Book Award winner, spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship retracing the steps of her “lost” Jewish family, those stuck in the archives after her German Jewish great grandfather escaped to New York City in the late 1930s. Shortly after, he began to keep a journal to pass along to his descendants, and it’s that family book that prompted Stolowitz’s sojourn in Berlin and the construction of this play.

Playwright Andrea Stolowitz, creator of “Berlin Diary.”

The past comes forward in recurring waves, touching futures as they unfold. “It’s not easy to get a Berlin audience to laugh at jokes about the Holocaust,” Lily Kelting of NPR Berlin wrote when Berlin Diary premiered there last October. “But American playwright Andrea Stolowitz manages to do just that in her latest premiere at the English Theater Berlin.” Kelting continues: “She says that writing the play has helped her realize that the guilt of surviving the Holocaust was a secret that ultimately tore her family in the States apart — even generations later.”

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ArtsWatch Weekly: film fest x 3

Grab your popcorn: PIFF, Portland Black Film Fest, African film fest fill the screens; 10 tips for a busy week onstage; Arvo Pärt, more

Film fanatics, this week is yours: You’ve just hit the trifecta.

The 40th annual Portland International Film Festival opens on Thursday.

The Portland Black Film Festival, featuring films about black life in America, is the newbie of the three, but arrives with some zing. It also opens on Thursday, at the Hollywood Theatre, with Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, and continues through February 22 with 10 features, including Pioneers of African American Cinema. The centerpiece, this Saturday, is the blaxploitation classic Coffy, with action star Pam Grier as special guest.

And the 27th Cascade Festival of African Films, which features films by African filmmakers from the African continent, kicked off on Friday and continues through March 7. It continues a grand tradition of bringing hard-to-find films to town – this year more than 30, including feature films and shorts. Coming up Friday is The Cursed Ones, from Ghana, about a pair of village outcasts accused of witchcraft. Every offering at the Cascade Fest, which takes place at the Cascade campus of Portland Community College, is free.

“I Am Not Your Negro” at PIFF and the Portland Black Film Festival.

PIFF, the granddaddy of the local festivals, continues through February 25 with more than a hundred movies from Afghanistan to Venezuela, in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish. It kicks off Thursday evening with director Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which arrives with a passel of admiring-to-ecstatic reviews and a nomination for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It’ll also be screened February 18 in the Portland Black Film Festival. Based on Remember This House, the final, unfinished novel of the great American writer James Baldwin, it explores “the absurd – and deeply tragic – relationship between the United States and skin color.” Some of the festival films will have broad commercial releases, and some will be available in art houses or on cable. The PIFF screenings will provide your only opportunity to see some others.

Spend a little time going through the schedules for all three festivals, then make your plans.

“The Cursed Ones,” directed by Nana Obirir Yeboah, at the Cascade Festival of African Films.

 

 


 

TEN TIPS FOR A BUSY WEEK ON THE BOARDS:

Pen/man/ship. Portland Playhouse takes on Christina Anderson’s acclaimed play about a ship at sea headed for Liberia in 1896 at a time when the American Colonization Society is campaigning to send African Americans “back” to Africa. Opens Saturday.

Marjorie Prime. Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer finalist has a top-notch cast at Artists Rep: Vana O’Brien, Chris Harder, Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson. It’s science fiction about aging, technology, and memory loss: O’Brien plays an 85-year-old woman whose memories are prompted by an artificial version of her late husband. Opens Saturday.

Swimming While Drowning. Milagro produces the world premiere of Emilio Rodriguez’ play about a gay teen who leaves home and his homophobic father and winds up in an LGBT homeless shelter in Los Angeles. Opens Friday.

His Eye Is on the Sparrow. Maiesha McQueen stars as the great gospel singer Ethel Waters in Larry Parr’s musical biography, performed in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage. Opens Friday.

Trifles/Dutchman. Defunkt brings back a couple of old one-acts with contemporary inclinations: Susan Glaspell’s 1916 Trifles, a play with feminist overtones about a murder in the country; and Amiri Baraka’s 1964 Dutchman, about a young black man and a seductive white woman who meet on a subway. It was Baraka’s last play under his birth name LeRoi Jones, and coincides with his turn toward black nationalism. Opens Friday.

The Pillowman. The new Life in Arts Productions kicks off with Martin McDonaugh’s dark, brutal, chillingly beautiful drama about child murders and storytelling in a totalitarian state. Jamie Rea directs Bobby Bermea and others. Opens Friday at The Headwaters.

Interlude. Six dances by six choreographers, danced by six company members of PDX Contemporary Ballet, all in the intimate space of CoHo Theatre. Friday-Sunday.

Missed Connections and Other Love Stories. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Readers Theatre Rep brings readings of three short plays that offer a rueful look at love: David Ives’s Sure Thing, Peter Barry’s Sex with a Mathematician, and Brooke Berman’s Defusion. Friday-Saturday, Blackfish Gallery.

Cabaret Boris & Natasha. The latest edition in this adventurous series at Performance Works NW features dancers Mike Barber and Subashini Ganesan, oboist Catherine Lee, PETE’s Amber Whitehall in a piece “made of hungriness and failure,” and more. Friday-Saturday.

In the Blood. Victor Mack directs Suzan-Lori Parks’s contemporary adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, focusing on a woman with five “illegitimate” children who’s trying to break out of poverty. Opens Friday at Portland Actors Conservatory.

 


 

Composer Arvo Pärt

A WHOLE LOT OF PÄRT. The Portland choir Cappella Romana is undertaking an Arvo Pärt Festival that kicks into high gear Thursday through Sunday, featuring the music of the Estonian composer who is perhaps the most-performed living composer in the world. Oregonians have some deep connections with Pärt and his music, and ArtsWatch writers have taken note:

When Oregon met Arvo. Brett Campbell tells the extraordinary tale of Pärt’s 1993 agreement to compose a new work for the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene – a partnership that almost fell apart in a crisis of confidence, and ended in triumph the following year: “The ovation went on for a full 15 minutes, until, amazingly, the shy Pärt himself leapt up to the stage, a beatific smile beaming from the dark cloud of his beard, then embraced [conductor Helmuth] Rilling and the singers in turn.”

Arvo Pärt Festival: spirituality in sound. Daniel Heila explores the “holy minimalism” of Pärt’s devotional music: “The Eastern Orthodox composer’s departure from modernism was marked by an intense reexamination of all that he knew about music and an exploration and embracing of its sacred history.”

A Pärt pilgrimage. Oregon music student Justin Graff recalls his journey to Estonia to meet his musical hero and what he found, and shared, down a long rural road.

 

 


 

ArtsWatch links

 

Theater for Barbarians. Maria Choban gets on her ancestral Greek and goes to a bunch of Greek plays around town. They tell her more about contemporary America than ancient Greece, she writes: where’s the raw, wild passion?

Kill the NEA? What it might mean. The new presidential administration is taking aim at the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We consider what might happen if both federal agencies actually get the ax.

Fertile Ground reviews: Young Bloods. Brett Campbell takes in Broken Planetarium’s Atlantis and Orphic’s Iphigenia 3.0 and discovers theater made by and for a bold new generation.

Global Voices get a fair hearing. A.L. Adams drops in on the first weekend of Boom Arts’ mini-festival of readings of international plays (it concludes this weekend). The upshot? “Global Voices” is all over the map – and that’s a good thing.

Cappella Romana: choral conundrum. Bruce Browne, reviewing the choir’s performance of Finnish composer  Einojuhani Rautavaara’s All Night Vigil (Vigilia), argues that this music from the 1970s deserves much wider attention. And he praises guest basso Glenn Miller: “He is so modest and self-deprecating, you wouldn’t know his capabilities, except his vocal quality is that of the voice of God.”

 


 

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