Vana O’Brien

Radio Hour: What on Earth is Xingu?

Cygnet Productions presents "Xingu," an Edith Wharton radio play adaptation full of literature, lies, and laughter

What do you get when seven professional theater actors sit down at a table directed by long-time stage actor, producer, and playwright Louanne Moldovan – and hit the record button? Xingu: a lively, captivating radio hour with poignant cultural commentary and laughs to boot.

Edith Wharton pictured at her writing desk

Recording a radio hour, however, is not quite that simple. While the performers did record together in-person to replicate the chemistry and excitement of performing onstage, much production, thought, and deliberation went into crafting the perfect radio hour script and final product. Moldovan, Artistic Director of Cygnet Productions and winner of the 2004 Oregon Book Award for Drama, made the choice to switch her company’s theater productions over to radio when the pandemic shuttered all live on-stage theater performances.

“I thought it was an opportune time to create a radio theater ‘division’ of Cygnet. Clearly, I wasn’t alone – many companies jumped on the bandwagon, eager to remain creatively active and keep artists employed,” explained Moldovan over email.

After years as a working actor (Company of Angels Theatre) and co-leading the Women’s Writing Project at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Moldovan moved to Portland, where she continued her career with the Civic Theatre Guild and Artists Repertory Theatre after starting Cygnet Productions as a literary cabaret theater with actor Nyla McCarthy. Typically, Cygnet presents bustling live stage adaptations including a past performance of Xingu, from which many of the radio hour’s voice actors were cast.

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Tough questions, tough answers

Fertile Ground 2021: Lisa Collins' wonderfully revealing "Be Careful What You Ask For" delves into a Portland killing and issues of race

Be Careful What You Ask For opens on a sunbathed backyard deck at the home of a Portland couple. A man (Keith Cable) is reading a newspaper and drinking coffee; a woman (Vana O’Brien) enters holding an iPad. “I love our morning time together,” she says, taking her seat. The morning appears to be the most typical of Portland mornings. But this wonderful and exacting play – written by Lisa Collins, directed by Jennifer Lanier, and opening Monday, Feb. 1, in the online Fertile Ground festival of new works – isn’t content being content. Something is not well, and that something is America.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


The action of the play—essentially a conversation between a married couple—consists of a man and woman trying to articulate what is wrong with the country. The woman, Karen, wants to make the world a better place. Her husband, Jerome, wonders if the world hasn’t done enough for him. At first, the couple struggle to identify the source of their unease. Karen’s goals are vague. “Too many people are dying,” she says. “I want to help.” But she doesn’t say which people are dying, or how she might help. Jerome, meanwhile, acts like he would rather avoid the conversation altogether, and he blames his wife’s surge of altruism on her recent retirement.

About two-thirds of the way into the play, the world comes crashing into their picturesque backyard—or at least, real-life events are discussed. Karen brings up the death of Jason Erik Washington, a Black man who was killed by Portland State University officers in 2018. We realize that this—the disproportionate use of lethal violence wielded against Black Americans by police—is the direction the conversation was headed all along.

Keith Cable and Vana O’Brien in “Be Careful What You Ask For.” Photo: Lisa Collins

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‘Well’ & ‘Pebble’: over the edge

Welcome to the well-made play? Profile and Imago go beyond the stylistic borders in new shows by Lisa Kron and Carol Triffle

A good play ought to grab its audience from the very top and take it for a ride. The way it grabs an audience can be as varied as a cowboy crooning from the wings about a beautiful morning (Oklahoma!) or a vengeful ghost skulking around a castle (Hamlet).

Well, Lisa Kron’s quasi-comic onstage argument from Profile Theatre at Portland Playhouse, opens in a well of silence with actor Vana O’Brien snoozing, or pretending to snooze, on a recliner flopped way back to sleeping position – not an action but the anticipation of an action, the tension of action’s absence.

Pebble, Carol Triffle’s new existential riff on melodrama at Imago Theatre, opens with an apocalyptic crash and boom of thunder and lightning, an absurdist clatter thrusting a mental institution, and the audience, into mind-altering darkness.

The openings could scarcely be more different. Yet Well and Pebble are both meta-theatrical shows, self-referential experiences stretching the idea of what dramatic storytelling can be. They’re plunges into pure style and the ways in which we invent ourselves, tugging at the fragile veil between fact and fiction, as we go along.


PEBBLE at IMAGO THEATRE


Triffle’s Pebble, the final play in Imago’s three-show Next Wave Festival (following Jerry Mouawad’s Leonard Cohen Is Dead and a revival of Mouawad’s lyrical fantasia To Fly Again) is both familiar and fresh, a vigorous new exploration of territory Triffle’s shown us before. It’s a place so simple and ordinary that it takes on extra-ordinary dimensions, mundanity transforming like Kafka’s unfortunate Gregor Samsa into a new reality of darkly comic horror and thwarted passion at loose ends.

Kyle Delamarter and Danielle Vermette in Carol Triffle’s Pebble: all in the family. Photo courtesy Imago Theatre

The bursts of thunder and lightning at the beginning set the stylistic tone: Everything’s big, bold, broadly gestural, almost a parody of melodrama and American stage realism – the shell accentuated and the stuffing ripped out. Over decades Triffle and Mouawad have built a theater of seductive spectacle at Imago, most obviously in the company’s glorious costume-and-movement shows like Frogz, in which spoken language is either nonexistent or an afterthought, but also in the individual shows the two have created that use language extensively but usually in a disjointed manner – shards of familiarity broken off and scattered across a landscape that is altered as in an odd and perplexing dream, or a painting by Dalí or Bosch.

In Pebble, the skewed landscape is the interior of a mental institution where an emotionally unkempt woman named Pebble (Danielle Vermette) seems something like a live-in guest at an odd and slightly menacing hotel. A partly finished jigsaw puzzle sits on one table, a deck of cards at another. An easel sits to one side, with a painting of two horses propped on it. Sometimes Pebble dons a smock and picks up a brush. More often she’s making obsessive scrawls on the walls, which are covered with them. Toward the back is a reception area, the domain of Nurse Megan (Megan Skye Hale), who sometimes barks instructions into a microphone and often casts speculative glances at a medical orderly (Jon Farley), who is also the object of advances from Pebble, who’d dearly love to get her itch scratched and doesn’t trust Nurse Megan one bit. Little blue pills are passed from character to character, caretakers and inmates alike – Pebble ended up here because of an unfortunate overdose problem – and everyone prowls around like tigers in a cage. It’s all very homey, in a clinical, creepy way. Then a newcomer shows up: Nick (Kyle Delamarter), who might be Pebble’s brother (he probably is), and might be sane or as loony as everyone else, and whose arrival upsets an already unbalanced apple cart.

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