Theatre Diaspora

Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

Continues…

The homesick and the haunted

CoHo Productions' "The Brothers Paranormal" tracks the spirits of the displaced, delivering a masterly blend of social commentary and supernatural horror.

A woman in white appears out of thin air, staring accusingly through her dark bangs. Books break free from a shelf, blasting through the air like missiles. A pillow moves by itself, becoming a silent weapon. Are these occurrences the stuff of delusion? Or is something genuinely spooky afoot?

That’s the mystery of Prince Gomolvilas’ The Brothers Paranormal, which has been brought to creepy and poignant life by director Catherine Ming T’ien Duffly, Coho Productions and MediaRites’ Theatre Diaspora. With captivating characters and fantastically scary supernatural effects, the play grips you like a great horror film, but it succeeds because it cares about both the earthly and the unearthly—the anguish of the living and the dead.

Spooky truth: Thai-American ghostbusters Visarut (Lidet Viravong, foreground) and Max (Samson Syharath) delve into dark realities as The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: Owen Carey.

The titular brothers are Max (Samson Syharath) and Visarut (Lidet Viravong). While Max was born in the United States and Visarut was born in Thailand, they are united in their profession: ghost hunting. Max approaches the job with sneering skepticism, but he sticks with it so he can spend time with his brother and fulfill his credo: “Fake it till you make it.”

The pair’s dubious spirit-detecting abilities are put to the test by Delia (Andrea White) and Felix (Jasper Howard), a couple convinced that their apartment is haunted by a ghost who may be speaking Thai. The brothers sell Delia and Felix a “full-investigation package,” but after they learn that Delia’s family has a history of schizophrenia, Max is convinced that they will find evidence of nothing more than hallucinations.

Yet the apartment is a hotbed of eeriness, a place where sinister white lights abruptly turn on and the fingers of an unseen figure attempt to claw their way through a screen. Some playgoers may try to explain away these images, but The Brothers Paranormal seems to truly believe that ghosts walk among us and that skeptics like Max are fooling themselves (an idea enforced by the revelation that Max’s relationship to the paranormal is more complicated than he claims).

CoHo by candlelight: Delia (Andrea White) and Felix (Jasper Howard) await their fate in The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: Owen Carey.

The Brothers Paranormal is a multifaceted collage of moods and genres. An early scene begins with Felix cheerily telling the story of how Ella Fitzgerald improvised new lyrics for “Mack the Knife” and climaxes with him and Delia fearfully awaiting the ghost’s arrival by candlelight while Max and Visarut catalogue the sounds of the neighborhood (a passing car, a barking dog) in the hope of uncovering traces of a spectral presence. It’s the most frightening moment of the story because it allows you to bask in the glow of anticipation, imagining what horrors may come.

But the play has more to offer than sublime terror. Max, Visarut, Delia and Felix share a sense of profound displacement—the brothers because their family emigrated from Thailand, the couple because Hurricane Katrina forced them to leave New Orleans. Whether or not the ghost is real is beside the point. It symbolizes the isolation each character experiences, the feeling of ghostliness that comes from being away from your homeland.

There’s something deeply moving about seeing this story through the eyes of the two siblings and an African-American wife and husband. The Brothers Paranormal is about being Thai in America (Theatre Diaspora describes itself as Oregon’s only Asian and Pacific Islander theatre company) and the yearnings that transcend cultural boundaries, particularly the hunger to return home (in Max’s case, to a home he has never seen).

The Brothers Paranormal’s greatest strength is the way that it clearly and compassionately lays bare the needs and desires of its characters, which are communicated by everything from Felix’s desperate paean to the apartment (“This is it. This is all we got. This is everything”) to the moment near the end of the play when Max tearfully collapses, overwhelmed by all that he has experienced and lost. As The Brothers Paranormal reminds us, his pain is the pain of many.


On the bridge: American true tales

Theatre Diaspora's "Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project" tells six stories of life from the nonwhite side of the national divide

Shareen Jacobs, performing the opening monologue in Theatre Diaspora’s Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project, takes her audience for a walk on the wild side. The wild side is the sidewalks and streets of Lake Oswego, the small and pretty Portland suburb often cited as Oregon’s safest city to live in, but which, in Josie Seid’s short solo piece Being Me in the Current America, can be very much something else again.

Minutes later, in his own piece See Her Strength, writer/performer Samson Syharath, in the midst of the story of his Laotian-immigrant mother’s fortitude and coming to terms with her new culture and her son’s gayness, lays his head softly for comfort onto Jacobs’ lap. Everything stops: It’s a moment of revelation and grace.

Samson Syharath and Shareen Jacobs in “See Her Strength.” Photo: Alex Haslett

On they roll, these short and telling stories, each its own tale yet all gathering force and strength from their mutuality. Sofia Molina’s firm yet gentle telling of Yasmin Ruvalcaba’s Carmelita, a story of danger and bravery and crossing the Rio Grande to the United States. The tough and sorrowful truth in Dré Slaman’s performance of Heather Raffo’s bone-rattling Lockdown Drills, about slain children and the psychic cost of mass-shooting lockdown drills in America’s schools: “Who grew this boy? This girl?” Shelley B. Shelley’s stubborn, wryly humorous, and sometimes angry performance in Bonnie Ratner and Roberta Hunte’s That Diversity Thing as a black lesbian blue-collar worker who loves her job but not the guff that comes with it: “Twenty years later I still hear that voice. ‘You’re only here because you’re black.’ Or, ‘You’re here because you’re a woman. That’s the only reason you’re here.’” Jane Vogel, in Dmae Roberts’ Harvest, her story of an Asian American woman growing up in rural and mostly white and inhospitable Oregon, and the state and family history of stolen land and incarceration during World War II: “It’s like the harvest was us.”

Continues…

DramaWatch Weekly: Double Chekhov, Ghost Hunters

It's January. Time to shake off that holidays hangover and get on with the shows.

Hello. The holidays are over and now plays can be about anything again. Next week brings Fertile Ground, brimming with homegrown theater offerings of every conceivable topic and timbre. There’ll be almost too much to mention then, so this week by comparison is short to summarize.

For those who can’t wait ’til next week, a couple of plays are opening early that you can Chekhov your list.* Northwest Classical Theatre brings Patrick Walsh’s adaptation of The Three Sisters to its old stomping grounds the Shoebox (with a familiar face from last season’s Playhouse Creatures gracing the cast). I, for one, miss the days when NWCT used to hang their collection of velvet cloaks in the Shoebox’s breezeway. Glad they’re back.

Dainichia Noreault as Irina, Elizabeth Jackson as Masha, Christy Bigelow as Olga in Northwest Classical Theatre Collaboration’s “Three Sisters.” Photo: Gary Norman

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble presents Štĕpán Šimek‘s “visceral, in-your-face” take on Uncle Vanya at Reed College. Expect surprises. (Though in the context of Chekhov, what does that mean? A gun not firing? Who knows?)

Continues…