Stephen Karam

ArtsWatch year in theater 2017

From "Astoria" to "The Humans" with a whole lot in between, a month-by-month stroll with ArtsWatch through the year in Oregon theater

From Portland Center Stage’s Astoria: Part I (Part II is streaming around the bend in January, along with an encore run for Part I) to Artists Rep’s The Humans and a slew of holiday shows, it’s been a busy, busy year in Oregon theater.

In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival rolled out another season blending contemporary and classic with a wide-angle world view. And the fine actor G. Valmont Thomas, after spending a season playing Falstaff in all three plays in which the great character appears, died in December from bone cancer, at age 58.

In Hillsboro, Bag&Baggage, which had been temporarily homeless, opened a spiffy new home in a renovated downtown former bank building.

In Portland, the sprawling Fertile Ground festival introduced dozens of new works (and, like Astoria, is gearing up for a fresh new run in January). Chris Coleman, Center Stage’s artistic director for 17 years, announced he would be leaving at the end of this season to take over the theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. TCG, the influential Theatre Communications Group, held its annual conference in Portland. And theater companies large and small produced more plays than The Count could count in a dozen seasons of Sesame Street.

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Family fuss? It’s only human

In the comic drama "The Humans" at Artists Rep, Thanksgiving dinner with the Blakes just might knock the stuffing out of you

Maybe you missed it last year when that big musical about the Founding Fathers was the talk of the Tonys and just about anyplace else you turned. But while Hamilton was sweeping up most of the attention and a bunch of Tony Awards, including best new musical, a much smaller play was making its own mark: Stephen Karam’s family comedy-drama The Humans, which took the award for best new play, plus two more for best performers and one for best set design. If it never broke through as a pop-cultural phenomenon the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit has, The Humans has left its mark, and is likely to be produced many times for many years on many regional stages.

From left: Vana O’Brien (in wheelchair), Quinlan Fitzgerald (partially hidden), John San Nicolas, Luisa Sermol, Val Landrum (partially hidden), Robert Pescovitz. Photo: Russell J Young

On Saturday night it opened on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Stage after a week of preview performances, beating Hamilton to the Portland punch. (A few Portlanders got a first look at The Humans a little over a year ago, when The Reading Parlor performed an engaging and decidedly promising one-night staged reading of it in a little side room at Artists Rep.) The Hamilton road company will settle into Keller Auditorium for a run March 20-April 8 next year, and I can still hear the wails reverberating from frustrated potential ticket buyers who couldn’t get through on the phone lines when advance sales kicked off Nov. 17.

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First date with the family

At The Reading Parlor, things get messy when the cast meets "The Humans" for the first time. That's part of the fun.

It was a crowded and convivial setting for what Danielle Weathers, organizer of The Reading Parlor, likes to call a “first date with a play.” In a little side room of the Artists Repertory Theatre complex on Sunday night, seven music stands cozied up in a row. On each sat a thick stage script marked heavily with felt pen to denote each performer’s lines. Seven actors then walked in and sat in the seven chairs behind the seven music stands. They were gathering for the first time and getting their first look at this particular script, which on Sunday was for The Humans, Stephen Karam’s funny and quietly wrenching domestic drama that won this year’s best-play Tony and is still going strong in New York. Karam’s play takes place at a family Thanksgiving gathering in Lower Manhattan, and, well, you know how those things can go: familiarity, secrets, surprise.

Weathers and friends have been presenting these free monthly readings for about a year and a half now, moving from venue to venue as opportunity arises. The idea is to give Portland theater people and audiences a first glimpse at new or recent plays that may or may not eventually get full productions in town. (It’s hard to believe that someone won’t snap up The Humans as soon as it’s available.) And when she says “first date,” Weathers means it: The Reading Parlor catches the experience of putting together a production in those first, fragile, erratic, and beguiling moments, when you’re just getting the picture of the thing. “This is going to be messy,” she told the crowd before Sunday’s reading began, “and I encourage that.”

No, this is not the family in "The Humans." But things do get rowdy. Jan Steen, "The Merry Family," 1668, oil on canvas, 43.5 x 55.5 inches, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam / Wikimedia Commons.

No, this is not the family in “The Humans.” But things do get rowdy. Jan Steen, “The Merry Family,” 1668, oil on canvas, 43.5 x 55.5 inches, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam / Wikimedia Commons.

The Reading Parlor is one of several low-cost reading series in town (Readers Theatre Rep does monthly readings of short plays at Blackfish Gallery, and the grand old Portland Civic Theatre Guild has been doing monthly daytime coffee-and-readings for decades, most recently at Triangle Productions’ Sanctuary). It stands out not just because it’s free but also because it’s unrehearsed – about as close to impromptu experience as you can come.

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