Scott Yarbrough

Stage sense: the year in theater

2018 in Review, Part 8: ArtsWatch offered varied perspectives on the methods and meanings of theater in Portland, Ashland and elsewhere.

“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us. But you — by which I mean we humans — are under an obligation, or at least a compulsion, to make sense of the universe. That’s easier said than done, of course, even if you’re focusing on a particular little slice of the universe such as theater in Oregon.

The writers and editors of Oregon ArtsWatch try to make sense — and, more crucially, to convey that sense — of the theater scene: what’s being staged, what it’s like, what it means, how it makes us feel, who the artists are and how they approach the work. Of necessity, we mostly try to hammer out that sense show by show and week by week, with the occasional broader overview mixed in. But we hope that amid the vibrant mix of news, reviews, interviews, profiles, features, and the happy/snarky jumble of previews and commentary in the weekly DramaWatch column, readers find that a helpful and sensical bigger picture emerges.

Despite flux in the front office, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival keeps sprinkling magic across the stage, as in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “Snow in Midsummer,” featuring Jessica Ko (from left), Daisuke
Tsuji and Amy Kim Waschke. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

As we look back at ArtsWatch’s first-draft history of 2018 theater, we’ll alight on major news developments, insightful cultural takes and passionate writing worthy of another look.

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People & Conversations 2018

2018 in Review, Part 3: ArtsWatch goes behind the scenes for conversations with 22 creators who talk about their lives and art

By Sarah Kremen-Hicks

Theaters have their curtains. Paintings have their frames. Books have their covers. The act of presentation, of framing, of giving things edges, shifts the subject to the work itself and hides the artist away, if only a little bit. ArtsWatch’s writers have spent the past year seeking out the artists behind the frames and bringing them to you. Here are 22 glimpses behind the curtain from 2018.

 


 

Michael Brophy in his North Portland studio, 2017. Photo: Paul Sutinen

A conversation with Michael Brophy

Jan. 3: Prominent Northwest painter Michael Brophy talks with Paul Sutinen in an interview that begins with being “the kid that drew” and becomes a meditation on medium and viewership:

Where did that lightbulb come on for you to say, ‘OK, I saw all that stuff in London and now I want to go to art school.’

I knew the minute I saw paintings, like in the National Gallery. The scale of things—my mind was blown by the size of things. An artist I don’t think about much, Francis Bacon, there was a room of Bacon’s paintings [at the Tate Gallery] and it terrified me. I didn’t know that art could do that. I had to leave the room. I had a kind of like a panic attack.

I think they call it ‘epiphany.’

Yeah, so after that I just knew what I was going to do. Just as simple as that.

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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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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 Weekly: Be yourself?

Is there such a thing as "just playing yourself" onstage? What does that mean? Plus, openings, closings, nachos, and a Terrence McNally film

Caroline, or change?

Pretend. Play-acting. Make believe. The actor’s art is a curious challenge: Use your heart and mind, body and soul, to appear to be someone else.

Fine actors do it often. And yet, something in that seeming contradiction at the essence of the art sometimes results in an odd response: “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor, but he only plays himself.”

That’s a bit of off-the-cuff criticism I’ve heard from time to time in talking to Portland theater fans, and I’ve always been puzzled by it. What does such an assertion imply about the nature (or even the definition) of acting? Is “playing yourself” a shortcut to authenticity or a form of cheating? How do you speak someone else’s words and be yourself, anyway?

Sharonlee McLean, “a force of unearthly brilliance” in “Luna Gale.” Photo: Owen Carey

These and other questions came to mind afresh not long ago when I watched Sharonlee McLean as Caroline, an overworked social worker, in Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale, which ended its run at CoHo Theater last weekend. It was another wonderful performance on her part (and from the entire cast, for that matter), but it was her very reliability that reminded me that she’s one of the local performers about whomll I’ve heard that odd opinion: plays herself.

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