stepan simek

Eggnog & Nutcrackers to the 2020 rescue

ArtsWatch Weekly: Holiday shows in the St. Nick of time; making theatrical spirits bright, gallery art, new music, fresh flicks, passages

EGGNOG AND CHRISTMAS MUSIC ARRIVED A FEW WEEKS EARLY at our house, and really, who could blames us? – the quicker we can nudge 2020 toward the door, the sooner we can move on to something a little more promising. The early arrival of eggnog in grocery-store coolers was, I suspect, a calculated move by the dairy industry, which rightly surmised that a lot of people who’ve pretty much had it with this train wreck of a year would like an early start on the holiday season. As for those Christmas CDs (yes, we still listen to CDs), a lot of the greatest music known to humankind was composed for winter celebrations. Even popular holiday songs can feel like old friends and true companions. Winter Wonderland is an eminently hummable and whistleable tune, even if, after a certain number of repetitions, your podmates cry for mercy.

One of the things that goes with the season is The Nutcracker, a Russian tradition that became an American inevitability, performed annually to box-office hallelujahs everywhere from New York City Ballet to Miss Marcie’s Junior Terpsichorean Academy in Little Falls, Oklahoma (if such a training ground for budding balletic talent actually exists). For a stretch of several years it was one of my annual tasks to review the newest incarnation of The Nutcracker in town, an assignment that usually gave me enjoyment in the watching but consternation in the writing: What could I possibly say that was both pertinent and new? One year I found myself lost in description of the one thing that seemed, at that particular performance, most striking: the pleasure on the faces of the flock of star-struck little girls who had rushed down to the orchestra pit during intermission to get a little closer to the magic. Pertinent? On that day it seemed almost the whole point.

Sugar plums with a beat: Portland’5 Centers for the Arts presents a one-night stream Dec. 12 of Decadancetheatre’s live-recorded “Hip Hop Nutcracker,” set in Brooklyn in the 1980s, with Kurtis Blow as emcee. Photo courtesy Jennifer Weber 

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DramaWatch: A family history in black and white

Romance, race and genealogy clash in "Redwood," a world premiere at Portland Center Stage; plus tips for the week in Portland theater.

For the past several years, something called the Kilroy’s List has attempted to shine a light on “un- and underproduced new plays by woman, trans, and non-binary authors” by polling hundreds of professionals in the play-development field. It has proven to be a rich resource. The 2017 list, for example, included Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play (which Artists Rep staged in 2018), Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation (part of the most recent Oregon Shakespeare Festival season) and Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band (also at OSF this year and coming to Portland Center Stage in the spring).

Chip Miller recalls looking at the 2017 list and noticing the play Redwood by Brittany K. Allen. “I thought, ‘I went to school with someone named Brittany Allen. I wonder if it’s the same person.’”

Brittany K. Allen and Nick Ferrucci in the world premiere of Redwood at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Miller grew up in Kansas City, then studied theater at NYU. Deciding against doing “the New York thing” after school, Miller began to look for regional-theater opportunities and quickly landed back home at Kansas City Rep, soon serving as casting director for the play-development department led by Marissa Wolf.
Allen, it turned out, was the same person that Miller had known in New York, and Wolf and Miller soon slotted Redwood into a reading series at KC Rep. Several months later, Wolf headed West to become artistic director at Portland Center Stage — eventually bringing both Miller and Redwood along as well. 

Miller, who joined PCS in April with the title associate producer, directs the world premiere of Redwood, opening Friday on the Armory mainstage. Among the actors: Brittany K. Allen.  

Redwood examines the fallout from modern genealogical testing in the life of an inter-racial couple. Meg Wilson and Drew Tatum have recently moved in together when they find out their relationship goes back further than they’d thought. Undertaking a deep dive into family history, Meg’s uncle Steve Durbin finds the descendants of the family that owned the Durbins during slavery. And yep — it’s the Tatums. Complications ensue. 

It’s a rich premise, providing entry to a host of relevant issues about the growth of DNA testing and online genealogical research, the ongoing legacy of slavery in American life, potential complications in mixed-race relationships, and so on. 

“I think it’s about how the history of oppression would affect a modern-day couple, and how ancient power dynamics…influence the present,” Allen said in a 2017 interview promoting a developmental reading at the Lark in New York. 

However pertinent the play’s social themes, Allen isn’t about to get bogged down in self-seriousness. “I get excited about plays that move and shake and have a lot of glitter and nonsense in them,” she said in that same interview. Sprinkled amid the fraught conversations and family dynamics are hip-hop dance classes, direct address from characters to audience, and even some ancestors appearing out of the ether. 

Chip Miller, associate producer at Portland Center Stage and director of Redwood. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

“She’s found this landscape where the most theatrical moments are when we go inside the minds of the characters,” Miller says, talking in a conference room at the Armory earlier this week.

Miller, 29, speaks of the production and the issues that inform it with an easy fluency. I mention my own cynicism about the value of genealogical DNA testing, about the muddling of biology, culture and personality that its marketing suggests, and the director’s response encapsulates the play’s core question in an intriguing way: “What does this information change? Does a deeper understanding of heritage affect the performance of identity on a daily basis?

“We’re always looking for narrative, always looking for meaning,” Miller adds. “This DNA stuff is just a device to tell a different, newer/older story.”

Opening

Halloween is behind us once again, but how’s this for horror: “…from the creators of Les Misérables…”?
OK, I’ll grant you that for many folks that counts as an invitation more than a warning, and in any case the musical Miss Saigon has quite enough of a track record on its own. An updating of the Madame Butterfly template to 1970s Vietnam, the show was a smash in the West End and on Broadway in the 1990s. Now it’s back in a touring version for Broadway Across America, coming to the Keller. 


Earlier this year, when he opened a small performance studio called the 2509 in the daylight basement of his Northeast Portland home, Lewis & Clark College theater professor Stepan Simek established boundaries. “Everything is allowed,” he said with a wry smile, “except amplified music and Bible study.”
And yet now here he is directing a play called The Christians that addresses doctrinal disputes within the community of a suburban megachurch, and reportedly is not satirical but, according to an article in The New York Times, “true to life” and “liturgically precise.” Sounds like a project that might call for a little…Bible study?
Simek describes the Lucas Hnath play, which won the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, as “sort of a ‘chamber play’ (albeit backed by a twenty-five-member church choir).” And while DramaWatch usually doesn’t track school productions, Simek’s track record and his enthusiasm merit an exception. “There are some remarkable student actors’ performances, the choir is rocking, and the play is excellent, really excellent,” he wrote in an email. “It MAKES YOU THINK.” 


Much about the life and genius of William Shakespeare remains mysterious, yet we do know that he didn’t base the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” on personal experience. But so what?  Lakewood Theatre presents Shakespeare in Love, adapted from the 1998 film, which imagines romance as creative  inspiration — and why the Bard isn’t remembered for writing “Romeo and Ethel.” David Sikking directs a cast led by the terrific Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Shakespeare.

The flattened stage

While we might not really know so much about Shakespeare’s love life, Shakespeare’s lovers — that is, the ones he created on the page — we know. And we know they sometimes took some rather odd advice from those around them. Would that more modern psychotherapy been available to them! Perhaps something like this:

Quick hits

Among the questions that face us when contemplating Follies: The Unofficially Best Ever Variety Show, Stephano Iaboni’s recurring physical-comedy showcase: Who or what could make it official? Sid Caesar?

In any case, Iaboni’s guests for the latest installment include Michael O’Neill, who recently toured Palestine as part of Clowns Without Borders.

Kevin meets TED

TEDx Mt. Hood, a localized baby brother of the famed TED talks, takes over the theater at Roosevelt High this Saturday. The hook for theater lovers? Kevin Jones, actor, director and co-founder of the August Wilson Red Door Project, will be among the speakers.  

Closing

Bakkhai at Shaking the Tree. Photo: Meg Nanna.

Bakkhai, a version of the Euripides tragedy adapted and directed here by Shaking the Tree’s Samantha Van Der Merwe, is, in the words of ArtsWatcher Bob Hicks, “a neatly contrived roller-coaster of a show, a smooth and sometimes scary fun ride that starts where it starts and carries on, with no breaks, to its bitter and propulsive end.” With just a few more chances to catch it this weekend, that end feels more bitter still.


Penning a tragi-comedy about something called Acquired Toilet Disease might seem an odd response to the AIDS-related death of a loved one, but for a writer as skilled as Paula Vogel, it worked, with The Baltimore Waltz. Of Profile Theatre’s soon-to-close production, Broadway World’s Krista Garver said “this bizarre, extravagant fantasy was the only fitting way to deal with a grief too deep to bear.”

Best line I read this week

“The poorer practitioners of any craft are often, like clumsy magicians or awkward liars, more revealing than their betters. Even more than the masterpiece, the worst art serves as a crucible in which a period’s superficial veneer is melted away to reveal the bald assumptions, the prevalent ideologies, the crassest commonplaces of the times. Shakespeare is universal; it is with a Thomas Kyd or a Cyril Tourneur that we encounter a true Elizabethan.”

— from The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, by Ted Gioia.


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

DramaWatch: a new place to play

Lewis & Clark prof Stepan Simek opens a small, flexible studio space. Plus: Openings around town and in Fertile Ground.

Stepan Simek is a professor of theater at Lewis & Clark College, a director, and an accomplished theatrical adapter and translator. Now he’s also a real estate developer.

Well, in a manner of speaking. Simek recently opened a small studio space for “actors, directors, musicians, singers, teachers, coaches, and anybody who may need a beautiful, affordable, flexible, and warm place to rehearse, teach classes, do small performances, concerts, readings, meetings, pop-ups, auditions, and whatever else may strike your creative need or fancy.” Or, as he put it during an open-house event earlier this month, “Everything is allowed, except amplified music and Bible study.”

The 2509 is a new studio space in Northeast Portland, open for rehearsals, performances and other creative uses. Photo: courtesy of Stepan Simek.

The place, a handsome 600-square-foot daylight basement, is named after its street address, 2509 NE Clackamas St., in a part of Portland known as Sullivan’s Gulch. Simek hopes it will help, in whatever small way, with the general space crunch afflicting so many Portland artists. But that wasn’t the project’s original purpose.

At first, Simek was setting out to repair his house’s crumbling foundation, which would require raising it on jacks. He and his wife Esther Saulle-Simek, a musician, decided to have a lower-level addition built as an apartment, or what’s known these days as an “accessory dwelling unit.” But the construction process turned out to be more than twice as long, and more than twice as expensive, as originally planned. Eventually they reasoned that they’d stand a better chance of recouping their costs with piecemeal rentals, even at low rates.

Still, though, the 2509 has a homey feel, with a gas stove along one wall opposite a small wet bar. It has a full bathroom and curtained-off area at the back that can be used as a bedroom for visiting artists. A grid attached to the middle of the ceiling holds a small LED lighting system, double-paned windows minimize sound for the surrounding residential neighborhood, and there’s room to seat an audience of 50 or so.

Already Hand2Mouth Theatre has used the 2509 for rehearsals, the renowned Portland actor Michael O’Connell has used it to teach classes, and Orchestra of the Moon — a band that includes Saulle-Simek and plays what it calls “early music for modern times” — performs there this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Simek hopes the place will stay busy. (Reservations can be made by email: simek@lclark.edu) After repeating his line about it being open to everything but amplified music and Bible study, he says simply, “I want it to feel alive. I want life!”

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DramaWatch Weekly: story dance

Dancer Andrea Parson teams with story shaper Susan Banyas to tell tales at CoHo Summerfest; Chekhov rides again; a twist on "Shrew"

“I’ve always been interested in theater,” says Andrea Parson, “but I’ve always been on the outskirts of it, because I’m a ‘dancer,’ not an ‘actor.’”
You can practically hear the air quotes as she speaks, conscious of the arts-discipline silos that so often shape the perceptions others have of artists but not the visions they have of themselves. Then again, the emphasis hardly is misplaced: Parson well and truly is a dancer. Winner of the highly prestigious Princess Grace Award for Dance in 2010, she’s been a frequently featured company member with NW Dance Project for several years. But she hasn’t been content to stay at home in the “dancer” silo.

Andrea Parson, telling stories. Photo: Fuschia Lin

A few years ago, for instance, she studied clowning, in a workshop taught by CoHo Productions’ producing artistic director Philip Cuomo. Now, she’s bringing a show of her own to CoHo’s Summerfest 2018. Finding Soul: a Constellation of Stories is a dance-theater hybrid co-directed by Parson and Susan Banyas, featuring Parson, Megan Dawn and Stephanie Schaaf, each performing an amalgam of movement and text, image-making and emotional expression, personal memory and family history.

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DramaWatch: Chekhov, Drammys

Tragic? Comic? Something else? A grand gathering looks at Chekhov in the 21st century. Plus: It's Drammy Awards time Monday at The Armory.

For eons, the theatrical arts, apparently lacking a good graphic designer, have been identified by the twinned masks of comedy and tragedy, the facial features mirthfully upturned in one, curdled in anguish in the other. But what’s the mask for the great plays of Anton Chekhov? What would be the simply rendered, universally recognized expressions for the simultaneously absurd and poignant, for naive hopes unfulfilled, for chronic indecision, for the silly or mundane moments of daily life, for madcap despair, for the noble decayed into the buffoonish, for the demise of an era and a way of life…?

Perhaps no other playwright save Shakespeare has been so enduringly intriguing, rewarding and confounding to audiences across the world as Chekhov, whose four major plays are considered masterpieces by innumerable people who cannot much agree on their nature or meaning. There’s been conflict right from the start, with the playwright insisting his works were comedies, while the director Konstantin Stanislavski brought them great renown as doleful dramas.

Osip Braz, “Portrait of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov,” 1898, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Wikimedia Commons

And that was in Russia around the turn of the 20th century. What’s to be made of these plays in the here and now?

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