To Fly Again

DramaWatch: Imago flies again

Plus: New boss in Ashland, Ferguson comes to Center Stage, Portland Playhouse's Crowning glory, a rolling "Jump," Just play "No," and more

What’s up at the theater? Funny you should ask.

Last May a wonderfully peculiar vision flew onto the Portland theater scene, and far too quickly, before all but a few people had had a chance to see it, flew off again. Well, spring’s arrived, and To Fly Again, Jerry Mouawad’s dancerly swan of a play, has landed at Imago Theatre again. It opens Friday for another brief run as part of Imago’s Next Wave Festival, and you should try to catch it before it flies the coop yet again on April 6.

The dusty dancers in Imago’s “To Fly Again.” Photo: Jubel Brosseau

I reviewed last year’s production, which had the same cast as the current one (you can read the full review here), and here’s what I wrote, in part:

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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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Flying, like Godot

"To Fly Again," Jerry Mouawad's brilliant new riff on Beckett, just opened at Imago. Now it's about to close. Catch it while you can.

Walking into Imago Theatre’s Southeast Portland performance space to see To Fly Again, Jerry Mouawad’s verbally nimble, visually wonderful and profoundly light-hearted new show, you enter a strange yet familiar landscape, a rolling plain of sand like a beach’s or a desert’s, a wilderness broken only by a single tree. Quite like that place where Didi and Gogo hang out, waiting and waiting for Godot.

This is no accident. “I cast four actors who had a ‘clown state’ somewhere inside them,” Mouawad told ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley a few days before the show opened. “I think I’ve flushed out their clowns.” He elaborated: “I thought, ‘Yes, clowns should do Beckett.’ However, I didn’t want to do Beckett. I like Beckett but I wanted something with less of a down quality.”

The family, huddling: from left, Mullaney, Ottosen, Holder, Woods. Photo: Jubel Brosseau

So, not Waiting for Godot, but a variant, an homage, an elaboration, a playful riff that is funny and oddly touching on its own, and funnier and more touching the more you know about Beckett and Godot. The action, such as it is, centers on a quartet of oddball characters, a sort of wandering family-by-default, known as Stink Bomb, Tater, Togo, and Bob (Mark Mullaney, the divinely hesitant Stephanie Woods, Nathaniel Holder and Jake Ottoson, respectively). They do and say the sorts of things that wandering families-by-default in Beckett plays tend to do and say, although Mouawad has given their terse dialogue his own knowing, tongue-in-cheek twists. Their snatches of conversation are proto-Beckettian, coming from nowhere, meaning nothing or everything, and delivered with a deadpan Sad Sack seriousness that, taken with the shambling baggy-pants quality of the whole affair, are frightfully funny:

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DramaWatch: Fences & Frogs

The week on stage features an August Wilson classic, a revival of a children's hit, Salt, Swans, Clowns, labor struggles, Todd Van Voris solo

Portland Playhouse has emerged over the past decade as one of the city’s top theaters for a variety of reasons: energetic young leadership, an invitingly casual atmosphere, and early sponsorship that resulted in free beer.

But you might think of it as The House That August Wilson Built. After all, it was a 2010 production of Wilson’s Radio Golf that first amplified the buzz about the young company beyond theater cognoscenti. Since then the Playhouse has had repeated success with Wilson’s majestic depictions of hardscrabble lives in the predominantly African American Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Lester Purry stars as former baseball hero Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s “Fences.” Portland Playhouse photo

The production of Fences opening this weekend is the seventh of Wilson’s epic century cycle of plays to be staged by Portland Playhouse. The story of an ex-baseball star toiling as a garbage man, it deals with the challenges of identity and self-respect for black people in the 1950s. It’s Wilson’s greatest hit, a Pulitzer and Tony winner (and a Denzel vehicle), so Wilson fans won’t want to miss it, and neither should those who don’t yet know the joy. Much more conventionally structured than his other, more discursively poetic works, this is an ideal introduction to Wilson’s enduring themes and settings.

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