rose riordan

Brilliant? Let us list the ways

The one-man show "Every Brilliant Thing" begins with an amiable Isaac Lamb and builds its odd-duck case one good thing at a time

Let the record stipulate that the reviewer is not a fan of audience-participation theater.

Let the record stipulate that Every Brilliant Thing, the one-man show that opened Friday evening in the downstairs Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, is, is fact, an audience-participation play.

Let the record further stipulate that, notwithstanding his biases, the reviewer found himself to be absolutely charmed, and sometimes moved, and often given to outbursts of immoderate laughter. Let the record observe that the reviewer stands corrected, at least this once.

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Isaac Lamb works the crowd. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Every Brilliant Thing – performed with intense likability (if that’s a possible thing) by Isaac Lamb, with the smart and nimble collaboration of director Rose Riordan and some on-the-nose sound design by Casi Pacilio – is an odd duck of a play, but then, sometimes the odd ducks are the interesting ones. Written by Duncan Macmillan and original performer Jonny Donahoe, it debuted in 2013 at the Ludlow Fringe Festival in Shropshire before crossing the Atlantic to New York and beyond. It bears a striking affinity to the sort of theater known as standup comedy, which thrives, among other things, on improvisational give-and-take with the audience. Lamb achieves complicity not by bristling aggressively at the audience, as standups often do, but by sweet-talking them, in gee-shucks conspiratorial tones, into helping him out. And help him out they do, even the ones who feel just a little self-conscious about being suckered in.

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‘Our Town’: Through a glass, darkly

Portland Center Stage opens its season with a dark and brooding revival of Thornton Wilder's American classic

It was a dark and stormy night at Portland Center Stage on Friday, which was odd, because the temperature had turned, and the town was heading once again into one of those sunny almost-autumn spells. But the weather above and the weather onstage are often out of sync, and at PCS you could feel the chill. It was opening night, not just of the theater company’s season, but also of the darkest, bleakest Our Town I’ve ever seen.

Our Town, despite its misleading reputation as chirpily sentimental Americana, is a play with a deep morose streak. Or maybe “uncompromising” is a better word. It ends, after all, in a cemeterial halfway house, a sort of Yankee Purgatory, where the shades of those who’ve passed on from the vale of troubles that is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, loiter about the stage, waiting for the infernalities of life on Earth to seep slowly out of their consciousness so they can move on to whatever comes next. No sentimentality in these decomposing souls, or guardian-angeling over those they’ve left behind: just determined quietude, and tamped-down impatience.

Shawn Fagan as the Stage Manager, with the company. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Shawn Fagan as the Stage Manager, with the company. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Director Rose Riordan gets that part in spades. This production seems absolutely eager for the endgame, rushing through the life-is-precious parts so it can get to the life-is-vanity part. The stage, as usual for Our Town, is stark, with nothing much but a couple of ladder-towers and a few chairs (people forget how radical a visual approach this was in 1938, when the play had its premiere). But, unusually, the stage is also pretty much plunged into darkness, illuminated mainly where the specific action is, with everything else fading into a crypt-like dank. If you’re imagining the antiquarian delights of early 20th century Grover’s Corners and its ice cream soda-sipping embrace of the simple joys of living, you’re imagining it through a glass, darkly.

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Bock to the Futura at Center Stage

Adam Bock's "The Typographer's Dream" is fully engaged with the playwright's idiosyncrasies. So is the audience.

Smith. Shepherd. Mason. Miller. Fisher. Brewer. Historically, as such familiar names attest, occupation and identity were inextricably linked.

These days, however, the idea that we are what we do is open to question. A society that values social mobility (in theory, at least) has to make room for occupational mobility, too. And what about those 128 hours per week (in theory, at least) not spent in the office/shop/factory/whatever? Might someone be more inclined to think of himself as a dad than as a database administrator, as a Blazermaniac rather than as a bus driver? The notion that you should make your passion your work, that you should “follow your bliss,” is appealing but often impractical. Not a lot of tomatoes get sorted under that workforce model.

Still, lots of jobs carry with them an assumption that they say something about the interests, the attitudes, the character of the folks who do them. Take, for example, a typographer, a geographer and a stenographer — the three jobs/characters who take the stage in the latest Adam Bock play at Portland Center Stage, The Typographer’s Dream.

Smith, McLean, and Tyler: my job, my life. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

McLean, Smith (center), and Tyler: my job, my life. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Bock has had an ongoing creative relationship with PCS (in particular, with associate artistic director Rose Riordan) for the past decade, teaming up for the darkly comic hits The Thugs in 2005 and The Receptionist in 2010, as well as several workshop readings and last season’s strangely unsatisfying family drama, A Small Fire.

The Typographer’s Dream returns to the workplace concerns — the occupational preoccupations, if you will — that drove The Thugs and The Receptionist. Yet seasoned PCS followers might be reminded less of previous Bock plays than of Jordan Harrison’s Futura (workshopped at the 2009 JAW festival, then fully staged in 2011), the first half of which is an extended lecture on the history and nuances of typography.

Harrison used that unconventional expositional device to launch a dystopian socio-political thriller. Here, Bock employs a similar approach — a career-day panel discussion — to matters more mundane yet also more personally profound, asking the question, as a PCS blog post puts it, “Are we defined by our work?”

Speaking of work and workplaces, PCS doesn’t maintain an in-house acting company, but the performers here come close to such status. The reliably wonderful Sharonlee McLean, as the typographer, is in her 22nd production here, the playbill notes. She’s again teamed with Laura Faye Smith, as the geographer, who starred alongside her in both The Thugs and The Receptionist. And Kelsey Tyler is a full-time PCS employee, not as a stenographer but as education & community programs director.

Under Riordan’s scrupulous direction, these three have developed deliciously deft comic timing and sharply drawn characters out of what must have seemed amorphous material on the page. The three characters sit at tables amid Daniel Meeker’s purposefully drab scenic and lighting design and tell us about what their job involves, how they became interested in the field, why it matters, and so on. But they speak in fragments, interrupting one another, following no particular sequence of subject. It’s almost as if they’re deliberately ignoring one another, except for a sense of some underlying competition or animosity, as if they’re jostling with non sequiturs instead of elbows.

At one point, sound designer Scott Thorson tosses in a kind of auditory red herring, a loud clang like an anvil dropped into the guts of a piano. Could it presage the sort of sinister forces that were at work in The Thugs and The Receptionist? Or does it just represent a gut feeling of unease that can undermine a sense of purpose in our daily slog?

Eventually we get a feeling for the fissured friendships among the three, with the help of some flashbacks that give a bit of variety to the proceedings and allow Smith a moment of hilariously awkward drunken dancing. The personal backstories do bring us closer to the issue of how closely these characters (and, by extension, we in the audience) identify with their work.

But that theme, like The Typographer’s Dream as a whole, doesn’t play out conclusively. Instead, the play is most fruitful in its little observations about the ways each of the jobs in question shapes our views of truth. The geographer derides the arbitrary nature of national borders as “a line of ink from a Mont Blanc pen at a high level.” The stenographer emphasizes that his court reporting counts as the legal record of what’s been said, yet goes on at length about the challenges of accuracy. The typographer — appropriately the most eloquent of the trio — gives us gems on the symbolic power of design: “Italics can send the reader tilting into a dream world … A letter can be as narrow as a passage through the woods.” (This is, again, reminiscent of Futura, in which Harrison’s typography historian asserts that “Serifs are nostalgic for the movement of hands no longer capable of making them.”)

That aforementioned blog post notes that The Typographer’s Dream is one of Bock’s favorites, and it’s easy to see why: It’s the work of an artist fully engaged with his own idiosyncrasies. That it also is so engaging for the rest of us is a tribute to a job well done.

Interview: Adam Bock on ‘A Small Fire’

The playwright talks about work and play and brushing up for opening night

This weekend Portland Center Stage opens the contemporary play A Small Fire, wherein main character Emily Bridges, a tough-but-fair construction boss, faces sudden debilitation and must accept care from her taciturn husband and her resentful daughter. The rest of the show becomes an intimate exploration of infirmity, identity, and the senses.

In the preview phase, PCS ushered the show’s playwright, Adam Bock, into town from New York to surprise the cast and offer final notes. ArtsWatch sat down with Bock at the Armory to get a feel for his style and hear his take on the show’s big themes. As a bonus, Bock also shared his thoughts on director Rose Riordan, his personal experience that inspired the play, and exclusive news about PCS’s 2014-15 season. Welcome to our conversation.

Adam Bock headshot 960x742

The three plays I read in preparation to talk with you—The Receptionist, The Thugs, and of course the one we’re talking about, A Small Fire—all start in the workplace. Is that a preference for you, and if so, what’s the reason for it?

I think it is, sure. I avoid family stories because…then you’re stuck with a sofa, you know what I mean? It can be hard to make the world of the story bigger than the home. If you start there, it can get stuck in that place.

It seems odd to me that a lot of plays DON’T feature the workplace, considering the impact of work on our lives. I guess I can go ahead and say PCS is planning to do another of my plays, The Typographer’s Dream, next year, and in it I decided to say that the psychology of your job becomes your psyche. So the characters in the story are a typographer, a stenographer, and a geographer, and their issues correspond with their jobs. The typographer is caught between art and business; the stenographer can listen but can’t tell his own story; and the geographer has terrible boundaries, because she’s so aware that the lines are constantly shifting.

The workplace shows what roles we find ourselves in, and what happens when they break or change. Also, how we react if we suddenly find ourselves mismatched to our roles.

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Theater review: ‘Mountaintop’ changes channels mid-climb

Portland Center Stage's excellent production runs into a script problem

Natalie Paul and Rodney Hicks in "Mountaintop"/Patrick Weishampel

Natalie Paul and Rodney Hicks in “The Mountaintop”/Patrick Weishampel

If we’re to believe the playwright Katori Hall, Martin Luther King Jr. actually wasn’t happy on the rainy night he spoke at a rally in support of Memphis’ striking black sanitation workers. At least not by the time he got back to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. Instead, King was weary and nervous, fighting a cold, jonesing for cigarettes, and worrying over the wording of the next speech he planned to give.

The close of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, as it came to be known, might have been simply a matter-of-fact nod to the dangers of high-level social activism in that tumultuous time, an attempt to put jittery followers at ease. In fact, Hall, who grew up decades later in Memphis, wrote her play “The Mountaintop” because her mother had been dissuaded from attending the April 3 rally by bomb threats. In the bright hindsight of history, though, it sounds like prescience: The next evening, King was shot to death while standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine.

“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
—Martin Luther King Jr., April 3, 1968

For this reason especially, Hall’s choice to set her play in Room 306, on King’s last night alive, is an intriguing one. He’s back at the motel, where he’s bunking with his best friend, Ralph Abernathy, but Hall endeavors to provide a contrasting voice, so she imagines that while Abernathy has gone off on an errand, a pretty young maid brings coffee to the room and engages King in conversation.

The resulting drama—if that’s the right word—premiered in London in 2009, earned rave reviews and won the Olivier Award (Britain’s equivalent to the Tony) as best new play. It hit Broadway two years ago with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett as stars. And on Friday, a Portland Center Stage production opened a longer-than-usual eight-week run in the Ellyn Bye Studio.

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The scene at the Ellyn Bye Studio Saturday ... was not like this./Wm Hogarth via Wikimedia

On Saturday in the Armory’s Ellyn Bye Studio, we at Oregon Arts Watch held our very first Special Event, “Behind the Curtain: The Art of the Theatre Director.”  Oregon Arts Watch is dedicated to coming up with creative ways to explore the arts and creative ways to present what we discover, and this little experiment seemed to be a good way to combine them both.

OAW board member Gretchen Corbett asked three directors and two actors to  help us, and Gretchen being Gretchen, they agreed. Rose Riordan, the associate artistic director at Portland Center Stage, even helped figure the whole thing out. The other two directors were Brian Weaver, the artistic director of Portland Playhouse, who was opening a production of “Gem of the Ocean” that very night, and Jerry Mouawad, Imago’s co-artistic director, whose “Zugzwang” opened a couple of weeks ago. Riordan, by the way, had just returned from Berkeley, where she’d directed Adam Bock’s “Phaedra,” to critical acclaim.

The idea was to give these three directors 45 minutes or so to explore a scene from “Fire Island,” a Charles Mee play, a love scene between two characters.  Actors Laura Faye Smith and Sean McGrath agreed to run this gauntlet. At the end, we hoped, the audience (us!) might have a better idea of how theater “works,” how directors and actors talk to each other and attempt to get to the bottom of a scene. And theater people being theater people, I expected this to be pretty fun to watch, too.

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Jupiter: big planet or failed star?

After Day One of Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival, everyone seemed to have the routine down: We gathered 15 minutes or so before show time, lined up in the lobby of the Armory Building (and sometimes outside onto the sidewalk), and then relatively quickly made our way inside. The 4 p.m. start time was a little tricky — the Armory’s cafe seemed pretty busy because we could take a warm, caffeinated beverage into the theater, which I know from personal experience.

I had already seen an earlier incarnation of Patrick Wohlmut’s “Continuum,” which opened Day Two of the JAW festival’s “Made in Oregon” weekend. I’d even written a bit about it, so I thought I knew what to expect. But the actors were different, Wohlmut had made some changes since 2009 and honestly, my memory is just not that good, though I did recall the basics.

“Continuum” is the result of a commission from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds new plays that have a scientific or technological theme or characters, and it does have doses of science and math, specifically astrophysics. Wohlmut got the idea for his main character from one of his college astronomy professors, a smart man, Wohlmut says, who had burned out on the academic life. The professor offered the idea to the class that some scientists believe Jupiter was a failed star. After a little research, Wohlmut discovered that this notion had been disproven by a space probe five years earlier, and when I talked to him Sunday, he was still a little outraged at this.

Patrick Wohlmut sees stars.

So, yes, a scientist interested in Jupiter’s “starhood” is right in the middle of “Continuum.” But this scientist knows he’s wrong and presses on with the theory. Weirdly, another failed academic, a former math prodigy, has singled out the professor for a scam, and pretty soon their pasts and presents start to entwine. The action unfolds in a series of head-to-head conversations between the scam artist, now in prison, and the scientist, trying to get some sort of revenge. But what’s really at stake are those complicated psychological histories. Flashbacks figure prominently and the scene cuts come fast and furious. As director Stan Foote said, “It’s a piece for an intelligent audience.” Which is fortunately what he got, of course!

“Continuum” is slated for a full production by the Playwrights West collective (Wohlmut is a founding member) once funding can be secured. In the meantime, he sees some things he wants to work on before rehearsals start, maybe some time in 2012, if things work out. But he and Foote were pleased with the response of the JAW audience, which seemed to track the play’s jumps without problems, even without the benefit of design clues.

Brian Kettler (who as a 14-year-old performed in a Portland Center Stage production of “A Christmas Story”) offered that audience a little trickery of his own in “Personal,” a parody of celebrity culture that seemed straightforward enough to start with and then took a hard turn toward the darker side of things. It’s a comedy, mostly, until then with send-ups of celebrity “journalists,” teen stars, their producers and their fans. Oh, and their “bad-boy” boyfriends.

Brian Kettler sees stars, too.

I especially loved the idea that teen-age fans of a particular TV show would need to go into rehab when the star of the show disappears before the last episode. Delicious on lots of levels. But I don’t want to go into the plot too much because those plot twists are central to the experience.

And remember the ground rules from yesterday: All of the JAW shows are in the development process. They will change. Although the actors who are reading them have had a few rehearsals to work out a tiny bit of stage business, these readings just give the playwrights (and the audiences) a general idea of what works and what doesn’t. For example, Wohlmut said that his particular cast this time around deepened his idea of what was possible for his characters.

All of that is just to say that I’m avoiding final judgments of the work. At this point, though, I can say that I would enjoy seeing full productions of any of the four plays in “Made in Oregon,” which is a sign that festival director Rose Riordan and her reading committee did a good job.

I’d offer one more round of applause — to the actors.  Portland’s acting community populated these readings, and without exception, as individuals and ensembles, they rose to the challenge of those short rehearsals and brand new material.  They are just as central to the fun of the festival for the audience (among whom I count myself) as the new plays themselves.

The festival kicks back into gear on Thursday for four more days featuring plays by national playwrights. Those will be in the Armory’s smaller theater, so reservations are necessary.