Todd Van Voris

Theater review: Words from home

In Imago's 'Title and Deed" Todd Van Voris is quizzical edging toward melancholy

At the start of Imago Theatre’s production of Title and Deed, a monologue by Will Eno, the actor Todd Van Voris enters — or not quite. He appears at the curtained doorway between the theater’s main hallway and auditorium, but before he crosses the threshold he hesitates, peering at the audience curiously though not unkindly. Eventually he steps into the stage space, adjusts the lighting with a control board placed downstage left, then after a spell tells us matter-of-factly, “I’m not from here.”

Not just the manner of that entrance but the manner of Van Voris’ entire performance underscores that notion: We’re watching and listening to a man who is with us but not of us. He is present and engaging, but engaged himself in musings and memories of somewhere else. He is familiar yet strange; his life has been unusual, and just like ours. He is away from home. And therefore he is — in a sense that’s not so much directional or aspirational as it is existential — homeward bound, tangled in the ties that bind, no matter where he hangs his hat.

Todd Van Voris gets into the ring with the powerful wordplay of Will Eno’s “Title and Deed” at Imago Theatre, and everyone wins. Photo: Sumi Wu

Home is the putative central theme of the piece, though it’s addressed with the discursive, philosophically comic pointillism that makes Eno’s work so distinctive and so hard to pin down. “Home, where the hat’s hanging and the placenta’s buried,” Van Voris’ nameless character says at one point. That’s just one of the many characteristic Enoisms sprinkled through these 90 minutes — curlicues of pithy observation, droll wordplay, jokey logic, curiously inverted cliches and so on, little windows in which we might glimpse something of the human condition, or at least catch our own reflections glinting off the glass at a new angle: “If you’re half a man — and I can say without bragging that I am…” “(S)tarting out in the world, one foot in the grave and the other in my mouth, and how’s anyone supposed to walk like that?” “I’m describing it (a funeral) from the perspective of the living — which is how we see everything.”

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The actor Todd Van Voris and the director Jerry Mouawad — each, in his way, among Portland’s most distinctive and accomplished theater artists — are working together on a production of Title and Deed, a monologue by the remarkable playwright Will Eno, opening this weekend at Imago Theatre. 
And so, you might want to know, what’s it about? What’s the story?

But it’s useful first to note just how different those two questions are, especially in the case of Eno’s work.“If you tried to say what the narrative is of this, it’s: A guy from somewhere else comes and talks to the audience, and then he stops,” Mouawad deadpans. “But, y’know, most great work is not about the narrative.”

After all, The Cherry Orchard, for instance, isn’t quite about a family dithering until their house gets sold out from under them; the greatness is not in the plot but in the themes, the textures, the subtle illuminations of humanity.

Title and Deed is about, as Mouawad starts to try to encapsulate, “the wonder of language, and the danger of language; and the seeking of home, and going away from home; and mother as home, and going away from that; and…

“Often, with experimental work, if people find themselves confused, I want to just say to them, ‘You can relax. It’s about everything.’”

Just dropping in from somewhere else, the lone character in Will Eno’s “Title and Deed” (Todd Van Voris) has a few things to say about feeling at home. Photo: Sumi Wu.

Perhaps not everything, in this case, but a lot. Eno’s writing doesn’t meander so much as walk in tight circles that slowly expand and change direction and grow thickets of linguistic and emotional inter-connections — something like the melodic and harmonic variations of a piece of Philip Glass music, if such musicality somehow were translated into a cross between avuncular philosophizing and stand-up comedy. Along the way, he touches on many aspects of experience and emotion, glancingly but poignantly.

There is, though, a starting point, at least, a conceptual center, perhaps, to Title and Deed.
“I’m not from here,” the play’s lone character (called, simply, Man) says at the outset. “I guess I never will be. That’s how being from somewhere works.”

As this man from somewhere else (no place is specified in the script, but Eno wrote the piece originally for the Irish actor Conor Lovett to perform in New York) speaks to the audience, he deals with home and away, here and there, and to some extent you and us, in relational terms, tracking contrasts and commonalities that shape our experience of life. And amid Eno’s multivalent whirligigs of language, what can seem at first like offhand indulgences start to feel more like curious koans or gems of insight: “Maybe it’s a little hopeless glimmer of hope that I might somehow, with a change of scenery, change,” he offers at one point. Or:  “My mother said, ‘There, there.’ And, in retrospect, she was probably right.”

“I think the piece is really deceptive,” Mouawad says, chatting over lunch during a recent rehearsal break. “When I first started reading it I didn’t think much of it. But it starts to grow on you and then it hits you. And then you see it’s a lot deeper than you’d thought. And it just keeps going. We just keep discovering more in it.”

Todd Van Voris has embodied Will Eno’s monologuistic magic before, in “Thom Pain (based on nothing).” Photo: Russell J Young

“Like with all Eno, there’s something that really resonates with me — I just see myself in there,” says Van Voris, who performed another Eno solo showpiece, Thom Pain (based on nothing) last summer for Crave Theatre. “ And at the same time, it’s this incredible puzzle to work out.”

And so another way to look at the puzzle is to wonder what may come of the experience of spending an hour with Title and Deed.

“In my heart of hearts,” Eno told Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune in 2015, “I’m hoping everyone can find things of real usable feeling.”

Or as Van Voris puts it, “It’s got an underlying sense of hope, overall: That despite all the suffering we go through, we’re going to be OK.”

However we find our way home, whatever story we tell.

Opening

The premise is simple, if (you might think) thoroughly daft: Cast a play, tell each actor chosen what part to play, but don’t tell anyone anything else. Have each actor rehearse a little — individually — with the director. Then just get onstage together for the first time, as the performance progresses, and see what happens.

What happens at the annual production of Anonymous Theatre is a helluva lot of fun, whether it’s a comedy that wobbles amusingly as everyone tries to learn their timing on the fly, or even a remarkably cohesive and credible performance of Macbeth.
 Broad familiarity can be a helpful element, so this year’s show should be especially ripe, with the ever-popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the canvas for this illuminating experiment in theatrical process. For more about the strange magic of Anonymous Theatre, you can read Bennett Campbell Ferguson’s new ArtsWatch feature.

Certainly there’s crossover between what we might call straight theater (text-centered, director-driven, etc.) and the more free-wheeling world of sketch comedy and improvisation. But I’ve not spent much time on that bridge or, frankly, even glancing much at the other side. So I’m unfortunately unable to provide any qualitative handicapping on the Stumptown Improv Festival, which offers 17 different acts over four days at two venues. Rest assured that they’ll all be winging it — but that’s exactly what they’ve prepared for.

The Salem company Theatre 33, based at Willamette University, takes a localized approach to new-play development, focusing on Oregon playwrights and (usually) Oregon-centered stories and themes. It’s latest production, Amanda Transcending, is based on true accounts of the ill treatment of coastal natives in the 1860s and of a modern property owner in Yachats who traces the bloody historical trail across her own land. Rod Ceballos directs, from the play by Connie Bennett.

Triangle Productions’ latest staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one of the most compelling of rock musicals, hasn’t been gone for long, but if you’re already missing its hard-hitting yet tender-hearted approach to gender politics, self-actualization and soul-mate searching, you don’t have long to wait for a brief re-mount later this month. If you can’t wait even that long — and who could blame you, really — you can take the wig down from the shelf, so to speak, yourself: Dave Cole, who leads the onstage band for Triangle, and Kelsey Bentz, who threatens to steal several scenes as Hedwig’s sweet-singing husband Yitzhak, host a Hedwig sing-along at the EastSide Bar and Grill. So what if it’s a Tuesday? Just look up from your vermouth on the rocks and get rockin’.

PassinArt presents a staged reading of Is the Honeymoon Over?, a comedy by Leasharn M. Hopkins that looks at the love through the lens of four couples at varying stages of their marital journeys.

But we can, by George!

“I can’t recall a play that managed to find a tone that offered up yuks and topics as serious as the glories and perils of capitalism, the role of faith in a culture obsessed with money and the havoc wreaked when immense bets are made with other people’s money.”
 — David Segal, a columnist and business reporter for The New York Times, in a July 29 article about The Lehman Trilogy, a play about the history of the famous/infamous Lehman Brothers bank.

Hanley Smith, a good and proper Major Barbara, starred in Coleman’s last show as artistic director at Portland Center Stage/ Photo: Jennie Baker

Portland theater fans (or theater historians anywhere), however, might notice that Segal’s description sounds a lot like Major Barbara, the 1905 George Bernard Shaw play that Portland Center Stage presented a few months ago.

Best line I read this week

“A therapist asked her what she wanted to do, and she blurted out, to her surprise, ‘Be a playwright.’ She discovered that she was studying Shakespeare only because she secretly wanted to write plays herself. ‘It was like being a veterinarian who says, “I want to be a dog!”’”
— from a profile of Young Jean Lee, by Parul Sehgal, in The New York Times magazine.

Closing

Experience Theatre Project’s commedia-leaning Shakespeare adaptation The Taming and the Shrew ends its summer travels at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton; Lakewood’s production of the musical
Chess gets down to its last moves, and the sexy mystery Venus in Fur bundles up its things at Twilight Theater.

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

Sense & Sensibility, deftly matched

Suddenly the Dashwood sisters are all over Oregon. Clackamas Rep is on the boards with its version of Jane Austen's lively and enduring tale.

The problem, as so often in the novels of Jane Austen, is entailment, that peculiar institution among the British of willing estates only to the male heirs of the line, leaving the women bereft, or at least forced to move to modest cottages in the countryside. The problem, further, is how to deal with such reduced circumstances (and indeed, with the vagaries of life): by leading with the head, or the heart, or some creative combination of the two. The anticipation, of both head and heart, is to achieve a state of marital happiness that, in a troubled and troublesome world, will also suffice in the economic realm. Money might not buy happiness, but it does provide stability, and stability is that soil in which true romance and contentment of the soul can grow and prosper.

Sam Levi as Edward Ferrars, Kailey Rhodes as Elinor Dashwood in Clackamas Rep’s “Sense and Sensibility.” Photo: Sam Ortega

So welcome to the Dashwood sisters, central figures in Miss Austen’s 1813 novel Sense and Sensibility (which was published at first anonymously, under the moniker “By a Lady”). When we meet them, in Clackamas Repertory Theatre’s new production of Kate Hamill’s episodic stage adaptation, their father has just died, leaving his estate to John, his weakling son from his first marriage, who is led about by the nose by his shrewish and selfish wife Fanny, who persuades John that his father’s deathbed instruction to him that he provide for his half-sisters and their mother doesn’t really mean what it seems. And so the sisters – sensible Elinor and romantic Marianne, primarily, but also younger Margaret and their mother, who quietly copes – find themselves tossed out of their manorial home and onto the mercies of Mrs. Dashwood’s distant relative Sir John Middleton, who proves himself an amiable and generous fellow and helps them settle in to a pleasant but modest cottage, where the girls’ prospects, nevertheless, are severely reduced: to put it bluntly, no fortune, no fortunate match.

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Todd Van Voris, flying solo

The whodunit 'The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey' is a one-man show

Todd Van Voris has many strengths as an actor: emotional depth and versatility, a knack for the telling gestural detail, that essential ability to appear centered in a particular character in a particular moment. All of those skills come into play in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, the multi-faceted and surprisingly moving solo show he’s performing these days for Triangle Productions. But there’s a reason he’s been called by the nickname Todd Van Voice. The most readily noticeable of his gifts is his vocal instrument, a strong yet flexible baritone, warm and weighty; not the bold, burled mahogany of, say, the late, great Portland actor Ted Roisum, perhaps, but unmistakably resonant and masculine.

Such a voice presents a challenge, oddly enough, in Absolute Brightness, which was originated three years ago by the writer/actor James Lecesne, based on his own young-adult novel from 2008.

Todd Van Voris’s many-splendored shoes. Photo courtesy Triangle Productions

In its theatrical form, the story follows hard-boiled New Jersey police detective Chuck DeSantis on the trail of Leonard, a missing 14-year-old boy. As things move from seemingly frivolous to grim to life-affirming (and morally instructive, natch), we meet a colorful assortment of characters — from Chuck’s loud-mouthed colleague to Leonard’s vain and harried de facto stepmother, Ellen (Leonard is her “brother’s ex-girlfriend’s son”), to his self-consciously British acting teacher to his nervous teenage peers from school, to ladies from the hair salon where he helped out.

And, as we said, solo show. So Van Voris is charged with bringing all of this disparate crew to life.

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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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