Third Rail

Drama Watch: A clown’s tale

"Going Down in Flames" traces a great clown's fall. Plus: critical changes at The New Yorker, what's up on Oregon stages in June.

One of the things about Joan Mankin was, she was always a surprise: always in the moment, rarely the same thing twice, an improvisational spirit whose free-form antics could throw her fellow performers for a loop, delight her audiences, and send her shows spinning into another dimension. So when the sound of a train rumbling down the tracks behind The Headwaters Theatre during a performance of Going Down in Flames on Saturday night broke the action and prompted Joan Schirle, who was playing the late, great American clown Mankin, to break into an ad-lib wisecrack, it was like a side-splitting visitation from beyond: Queenie Moon, upending expectations and stealing the scene again. And the audience cracked up.

Jeff Desautels (left), Joan Schirle as Joan Mankin, and Michael O’Neill in Danny Mankin’s Going Down in Flames at The Headwaters.

Mankin, or Queenie Moon, as her famous clown persona was called, was a shining light of the West Coast new vaudeville/agitprop theater scene that thrived from the 1960s forward, employing old-fashioned theatrical styles for new and often culturally subversive purposes. She worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the physical-theater stalwarts the Dell’Arte Players, as well as a lot of mainstream companies. I remember her best, and most fondly, as a star of the Pickle Family Circus, the wonderful San Francisco-based acrobatic and clowning company whose traveling shows I would seek out whenever they were in rational range, from Grant Park in Northeast Portland to the Southwest Oregon timber town of Coquille.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Summerfest!

CoHo's short-run festival and the Risk/Reward fest put the movement into theater. Also: "Sense and Sensibility," last chance for "Fences."

A year ago, when Sayda Trujillo approached Jessica Wallenfels about directing a solo performance she was developing, she had a particular contribution in mind.

“She did come to me with a very specific ask: ‘I want this to be physically demanding and difficult, and I want your help with that,’” Wallenfels recalls.

Trujillo is hardly a stranger to physicality herself — she teaches voice and movement at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. Nor, for that matter, to solo shows — she’s created three previous ones that have been presented internationally, including at such prestigious theatrical incubators as REDCAT in Los Angeles. But she and Wallenfels have some familiarity with each other as well, having met as undergraduates at California Institute of the Arts and later taught together at California State Summer School of the Arts. Wallenfels, a multi-faceted Portland artist, brought expertise as one of the top theater choreographers in the Northwest.

Sayda Trujillo in her solo show “Right, Up, Left (Definitely Oops!.” She’ll perform “Win the War or Tell Me a Story” at CoHo Summerfest.

The resulting show, Win the War or Tell Me a Story, serves as the kick-off to CoHo Summerfest 2018, beginning Thursday, June 28. It should make a fine introduction, reflecting CoHo Theater’s longstanding interest in solo performance and personal storytelling, yet also hinting at the distinguishing characteristic of this year’s selections, which are more movement-oriented overall.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Left Hook

Rich Rubin's Portland boxing tale, part of Vanport Mosaic, takes a jab at the city's woozy racial history. Plus the week's openings and closings.

“Let me tell you somethin’, boy. You never know what’s comin’ … and the sooner you learn that, the better off you be!”

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A few years ago, when playwright Rich Rubin approached Damaris Webb about directing some of his work, she chose the play Cottonwood in the Flood because it told a piece of history unfamiliar to her, the fascinating story of the 1948 Vanport flood. Left Hook, another Rubin play that Webb is directing, in a production that opens Thursday night at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, gets closer to a history she knows. Extending the story of the repeated displacement faced by Portland’s black community, Left Hook is set in the 1970s, as urban renewal roils the Albina neighborhood that had absorbed the black Vanport diaspora a quarter century earlier.

Damaris Webb directs Rich Rubin’s play “Left Hook,” running May 24-June 10, as part of Vanport Mosaic. The cast includes Anthony Armstrong, Kenneth Dembo, Jasper Howard, Shareen Jacobs, Tonea Lolin, and James Savannah. Photo: Shawte Sims

Webb, who has chronicled her bi-racial background in a solo show called The Box Marked Black, grew up in the Irvington neighborhood and none of her family was forced to relocate for the major construction projects of the era – Memorial Coliseum, the I-5 freeway, and an abortive expansion plan for Emanuel Hospital. But she recalls that during the development of Left Hook she was shown a photo of the Black Panthers Portland headquarters when it was in the midst of being shut down by city officials. She recognized someone in the photo: her father, who worked for the Portland Development Commission.

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DramaWatch: Third Rail’s the charm

The lowdown on this week's openings and closings, new seasons on the way, and a blast of a party coming up for Third Rail Rep

“When Third Rail first came on the scene,” says Maureen Porter, “there was little else happening. It was a different scene and a different city.”

So it was, back in 2005 when Third Rail Repertory Theatre — already a couple of years worth of planning meetings into its life as a fledgling company — rocketed onto theatergoers’ radar with an acclaimed production of Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events. An artists’ collaborative that started out as a fully professional Equity company, they were the little guy that could, quickly coming to be considered in the front rank of Portland theaters alongside Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep; significantly smaller in budget and number of productions, but consistently punching above their weight with top-quality work.

Maureen Porter

Not long after Third Rail began to solidify its reputation, I switched from my longtime position at The Oregonian, covering popular music, to writing about theater — an art form about which I knew all too little. (Yes, yes, I know — some things never change.) I quickly fell in love with theater, and Third Rail was (along with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, I suppose I’d have to say Artists Rep) why. The company picked great plays, comedies with devilish bite, dramas with surprising, insightful slants. The acting was consistently arresting, featuring a steady core of talented company members. The direction (in the early years, always by founding artistic director Slayden Scott Yarbrough) showed a scrupulous attention to detail, textual interpretation carried out coherently and cohesively through  all aspects of design and performance. The tremulous containment of Gretchen Corbett as a woman in political danger in A Lesson From Aloes; Porter’s fantastic (literally) bipolar mood swing in The Wonderful World of Dissocia; pretty much every little thing about Enda Walsh’s antic yet high-minded Penelope (a take-off on the Odyssey, set in an abandoned swimming pool)…for several years, it was high point after high point.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Hamilton-plus

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway mega-hit grabs the spotlight. But Portland and Ashland stages are overflowing with other top bets, too.

Don’t look now, but the two-ton elephant’s about to plop down in the living room. That’s right: Hamilton, the touring version of the Broadway mega-hit, opens on Tuesday, March 20, in Portland’s Keller Auditorium for 24 performances through April 8, and if you don’t have your tickets yet – well, good luck. That pencils out to 72,000 available seats, and most of them are long gone.

So you’re on the outside looking in: How to score a ticket? Lottery, baby! Every performance will have 40 tickets available for 10 bucks each, and you can hit the lottery line for each show two days in advance, starting Sunday for opening night. Here’s the link. Or, you could go through one of the ticket-resale sites and offer your first-born child, your mother-in-law, and a case of Eyrie 1975 South Block Pinot noir.

Shoba Narayan, Ta’Rea Campbell and Nyla Sostre head for Portland with the “Hamilton” national touring company. Photo © Joan Marcus 2018

Veteran West Coast theater critic Misha Berson saw the company during its Seattle run before its Puddletown engagement and filed this report for ArtsWatch readers. “Hamilton comes at you at 100 miles per hour, a power vehicle running on all cylinders,” she writes. “It’s the theatrical equivalent of IMAX but all human, all live, and with none of the techno-tricks designed to hypnotize and overwhelm. What seduces you here is a group of mostly black actors in velvet breeches and ruffled shirts, singing ‘I’m not throwing away my shot!’ with a visceral intensity you can feel from the balcony, and an array of drifting, be-gowned young women exhorting you to ‘Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now’.”

Go ahead: Mortgage the house. Or you could get lucky in the lottery.

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