Victor Mack

Portland’s August occasions

The great playwright August Wilson takes the spotlight in Red Door's high-school monologues and PassinArt's gala and "Two Trains"

We’re in the middle of August Wilson Week in Portland, which is a very good place to be.

On Friday, PassinArt: A Theatre Company opens the great American playwright’s Two Trains Running at the Interstate Firehouse Center.

On Monday evening before a packed audience in the Newmark Theatre, the August Wilson Red Door Project held its fifth annual high school Monologue Competition, choosing two winners and an alternate to move on to the nationals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway in New York.

On Saturday evening in a ballroom at the DoubleTree by Hilton near Lloyd Center, PassinArt celebrated its annual gala, Sweet Taste of the Arts, with a healthy crowd that included, among many others, Two Trains Running director William Earl Ray and the superb veteran actor J.P. Phillips, who is also riding the trains.

And with just a little patience, the August Wilson celebration extends: On May 2, Portland Playhouse will open its revival of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Fences. It’ll be the seventh of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” of ten plays, each from a different decade of the 20th century, that the Playhouse has presented for Portland audiences – a gratifying and illuminating feat. Those plays – in addition to Two Trains Running and Fences they include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf – constitute one of the great achievements of the American theater, and for that matter, of American literature and culture.

Wilson’s plays are vital historic documents, and they are still urgently current, as a story by Tracy Jan earlier this week in the Washington Post makes clear. Report: No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years, it’s headlined, and it underlines both the disturbing intransigence of America’s racial divide and the continuing need for honest, revealing, compelling stories about ordinary life in all of the nation’s communities.

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Jump for joy: August Wilson monologue winners, from left: third place winner Alyssa Marchant, first place winner Noreena McCleave, second place winner Kai Tomizawa. Wade Owens Photography

Both the August Wilson Monologue Competition and PassinArt’s gala were intensely community events, art growing from the connections among place and people and time. Communities, of course, are both fluid and interlocking, and can be expanded or carried with you when you leave. In Wilson’s case it begins in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the economically teetering but culturally vibrant African American/Jewish/Italian neighborhood where he grew up and where most of his plays are set. But really, it begins further back, on the slave ships, in the fields and plantation houses (his great and mystical character Aunt Ester is 285 years old when we first meet her in Gem of the Ocean, and lasts through several plays and about 60 more years beyond that), along the route of the Great Migration that brought so many emancipated but not fully free African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North, bringing their hopes and songs and stories with them.

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Theater review: Uncle Vanya lets his hair down

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's rousing 'Uncle Vanya' locates the clown in Chekhov

Before Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s smashing version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” takes center stage in this particular review—and it will, I promise, it will—allow me a little digression?

We all come to the theater in various states: physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual. The theater may change one or all of those states (which is exactly what it’s intended to do!), but those states also bleed over into the play we see. At least that’s the way I understand it.

My state of mind entering Reed College’s Performing Arts Center was partly affected by a book. It is among my favorite possessions—a copy of Tolstoy’s extended essay “What Is Art?”, translated by Aylmer Maude in 1930 for the Oxford University Press’s The World’s Classics series. The book is small and deep blue and old—this edition of it was reprinted in 1950—nothing fancy or pretentious, my favorite kind of edition, like the Penguin Classics, say, or Everyman’s Library.

The scenic design for PETE’s “Uncle Vanya” is by Peter Ksander, and lighting is by Miranda k Hardy./Photo by Owen Carey

What makes this book one of my favorites, though, is its provenance. A friend and colleague picked it up at an estate sale, and on the inside cover it is inscribed in a beautiful, calligraphic hand: Lloyd J. Reynolds December 1955. Reynolds, about whom I knew nothing until I moved to Portland, famously taught at Reed College from 1929 until 1969. His subjects included creative writing, art history and the graphic arts, especially calligraphy, and his students included poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, among many others. His successor at Reed, Robert Palladino, carried on the tradition, and one of Palladino’s students was Steve Jobs.

So, I loved that the book had belonged to Reynolds, but better yet, that he had marked the copy of “What Is Art?” with his own annotations, underlinings, and passages he considered particularly pertinent. It is a wonderful book in all ways.

Although I had dipped into it many times previously, I started reading it in earnest over the holidays, and so it was on my mind when I collided with PETE’s “Uncle Vanya.” And Tolstoy affected my experience of Chekhov as a result.

He would almost have to.

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DramaWatch Weekly: A Dickensian Nor’wester and scattered Revels

ArtsWatch forecasts this week's holiday theater weather.

This weather, huh? What’s the forecast for this weekend and beyond?

A.L. Adams

To the southwest, there’ll be scattered Revels, with peak conditions for viewing Nordic Lights, and some precipitation rolling in from the Mediterranean will leave conditions Pericles Wet, while a family drama high pressure front builds up between Morrison and Alder. A Dickensian chill will sweep along the east river bank, building into a twister as it crosses into Northwest and breaking into gales of wry laughter as it heads for the Hils. It will miss Tigard altogether, which will experience mild enough conditions to continue its Holiday Parade already under way. Meanwhile, the Northeast will experience bursts of gospel, and as you head toward Columbia, be on the lookout for flaming radicals.

Dickensian drama is blowing in with the return of Portland Playhouse’s popular “A Christmas Carol” (above), Scott Palmer’s “Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol'” at Bag & Baggage in Hillsboro, Second City’s “Twist Your Dickens” at The Armory, and Phillip J. Berns’s “A Christmas Carol: A One Man Ghost Story.” Photo: Portland Playhouse

As you head Southeast, expect some choppy seas, and an abrupt shift as Utopia closes at Hand2Mouth and a dystopia opens at Theatre Vertigo: Victor Mack will direct José Rivera’s Marisol, a near-contemporary of Angels in America with some similar motifs—mental illness and spiritual warfare between angelic beings—along with some surprisingly ripped-from-current-headlines themes—namely, the struggle of a Puerto Rican woman against an unjust god who is dying and “taking the rest of the universe with him.” Also the frenzied desperation of an urban hellscape where citizens driven into homelessness by debt and personal injury gnash and wail in the streets.

Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity”: a shining star. PassinArt photo/2016

Happy holidays, y’all. Jacob Marley left a message; something about “mankind being our business?” He said he’ll try again—repeatedly throughout our city, then at Vertigo on Christmas week, when Phillip Berns reprises his solo version of the classic.

Imago’s’classic “Frogz” leaps back into the swim. Photo: Imago Theatre

But what were we talking about? Oh yes. The weather. Northwest Children’s Theater will experience spells of magic, to subside by midnight. And tell the kids next weekend’s conditions should be ideal for watching FROGZ. Til then, stay warm, from hands to heart.

Words of loss, words of love

Portland Playhouse's "The Language Archive" deftly dives into the mysteries of language and the subtexts of love

As the guttersnipe turned singing elocutionist Eliza Doolittle put it, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” And as the playwright Julia Cho responds in her nimble, playful, sometimes deeply touching drama The Language Archive, “What is language but an act of faith?”

It must be an act of faith – and as Eliza notes, a frustrating one at that – because, as every writer and every would-be lover knows, words fail us. Constantly. They fail us almost without fail. Words attempt to describe the indescribable, and because it’s indescribable, they can only rudely approximate that thought, that feeling, that thing or chain of events that the speaker is trying to communicate. The heart, the soul, the nub of the thing is always beyond language. And yet the beauty of language is that as it bungles things, it also creates a new reality, a metaphorical parallel universe that becomes the repository of the constantly evolving story of what it means to be that particular kind of social animal we call human. Language is a beautiful map, and only through it can we explain ourselves, as imperfect and misleading as our explanations may be. Without words we are nothing. With words, we are an aspiring mess.

Greg Watanabe, lost in the language of facts. Photo: Brud Giles

Nobody in The Language Archive, which is getting a sweet and crisp and revealingly fragile production directed by Adriana Baer for Portland Playhouse, is more of an aspiring mess than George (Greg Watanabe), a brilliant linguist who studies the world’s lost and disappearing languages – those codes of communication and behavior that define an entire culture and so, in disappearing, represent the catastrophic loss of an entire way of life. What is it about each language that is indefinable, incapable of direct translation, understood fully only by those who speak it, and live it, and therefore know it before it becomes words?

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Scarlet Letter of the streets

Suzan-Lori Parks' "In the Blood" at Portland Actors Conservatory brings Hawthorne's star-crossed Hester to the mean modern streets

The gifted writer Suzan-Lori Parks’ 1999 play In the Blood, which opened over the weekend at Portland Actors Conservatory, is a terrific, audacious, sometimes terrifying piece of writing that sneaks up on you sideways and then delivers a searing, visceral punch. It’s a vivid work of creative imagination with the deep pull of a folk enchantment, an into-the-woods tale where the woods are the tough concrete surfaces of the urban streets.

And the show’s advanced conservatory actors, under the sharp and piercing direction of Victor Mack, pretty much knock it out of the park. They give committed, thoroughly professional, audaciously transgressive performances as they suck the audience into a strange, bleak, tender, and disturbingly enthralling tale.

Monica Fleetwood is Hester in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “In the Blood.” Photo: Owen Carey

It’s a literary allusion, riffing mostly on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and partly on Euripides’ spiritually ravenous Medea, with some Brechtian breakouts for sardonic truth-telling as the action’s taking place. It features a witty, vulnerable, emotionally captivating and very dangerous lead performance by Monica Fleetwood, and superb double-duty acting by a supporting cast of five.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: film fest x 3

Grab your popcorn: PIFF, Portland Black Film Fest, African film fest fill the screens; 10 tips for a busy week onstage; Arvo Pärt, more

Film fanatics, this week is yours: You’ve just hit the trifecta.

The 40th annual Portland International Film Festival opens on Thursday.

The Portland Black Film Festival, featuring films about black life in America, is the newbie of the three, but arrives with some zing. It also opens on Thursday, at the Hollywood Theatre, with Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, and continues through February 22 with 10 features, including Pioneers of African American Cinema. The centerpiece, this Saturday, is the blaxploitation classic Coffy, with action star Pam Grier as special guest.

And the 27th Cascade Festival of African Films, which features films by African filmmakers from the African continent, kicked off on Friday and continues through March 7. It continues a grand tradition of bringing hard-to-find films to town – this year more than 30, including feature films and shorts. Coming up Friday is The Cursed Ones, from Ghana, about a pair of village outcasts accused of witchcraft. Every offering at the Cascade Fest, which takes place at the Cascade campus of Portland Community College, is free.

“I Am Not Your Negro” at PIFF and the Portland Black Film Festival.

PIFF, the granddaddy of the local festivals, continues through February 25 with more than a hundred movies from Afghanistan to Venezuela, in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish. It kicks off Thursday evening with director Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which arrives with a passel of admiring-to-ecstatic reviews and a nomination for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It’ll also be screened February 18 in the Portland Black Film Festival. Based on Remember This House, the final, unfinished novel of the great American writer James Baldwin, it explores “the absurd – and deeply tragic – relationship between the United States and skin color.” Some of the festival films will have broad commercial releases, and some will be available in art houses or on cable. The PIFF screenings will provide your only opportunity to see some others.

Spend a little time going through the schedules for all three festivals, then make your plans.

“The Cursed Ones,” directed by Nana Obirir Yeboah, at the Cascade Festival of African Films.

 

 


 

TEN TIPS FOR A BUSY WEEK ON THE BOARDS:

Pen/man/ship. Portland Playhouse takes on Christina Anderson’s acclaimed play about a ship at sea headed for Liberia in 1896 at a time when the American Colonization Society is campaigning to send African Americans “back” to Africa. Opens Saturday.

Marjorie Prime. Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer finalist has a top-notch cast at Artists Rep: Vana O’Brien, Chris Harder, Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson. It’s science fiction about aging, technology, and memory loss: O’Brien plays an 85-year-old woman whose memories are prompted by an artificial version of her late husband. Opens Saturday.

Swimming While Drowning. Milagro produces the world premiere of Emilio Rodriguez’ play about a gay teen who leaves home and his homophobic father and winds up in an LGBT homeless shelter in Los Angeles. Opens Friday.

His Eye Is on the Sparrow. Maiesha McQueen stars as the great gospel singer Ethel Waters in Larry Parr’s musical biography, performed in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage. Opens Friday.

Trifles/Dutchman. Defunkt brings back a couple of old one-acts with contemporary inclinations: Susan Glaspell’s 1916 Trifles, a play with feminist overtones about a murder in the country; and Amiri Baraka’s 1964 Dutchman, about a young black man and a seductive white woman who meet on a subway. It was Baraka’s last play under his birth name LeRoi Jones, and coincides with his turn toward black nationalism. Opens Friday.

The Pillowman. The new Life in Arts Productions kicks off with Martin McDonaugh’s dark, brutal, chillingly beautiful drama about child murders and storytelling in a totalitarian state. Jamie Rea directs Bobby Bermea and others. Opens Friday at The Headwaters.

Interlude. Six dances by six choreographers, danced by six company members of PDX Contemporary Ballet, all in the intimate space of CoHo Theatre. Friday-Sunday.

Missed Connections and Other Love Stories. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Readers Theatre Rep brings readings of three short plays that offer a rueful look at love: David Ives’s Sure Thing, Peter Barry’s Sex with a Mathematician, and Brooke Berman’s Defusion. Friday-Saturday, Blackfish Gallery.

Cabaret Boris & Natasha. The latest edition in this adventurous series at Performance Works NW features dancers Mike Barber and Subashini Ganesan, oboist Catherine Lee, PETE’s Amber Whitehall in a piece “made of hungriness and failure,” and more. Friday-Saturday.

In the Blood. Victor Mack directs Suzan-Lori Parks’s contemporary adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, focusing on a woman with five “illegitimate” children who’s trying to break out of poverty. Opens Friday at Portland Actors Conservatory.

 


 

Composer Arvo Pärt

A WHOLE LOT OF PÄRT. The Portland choir Cappella Romana is undertaking an Arvo Pärt Festival that kicks into high gear Thursday through Sunday, featuring the music of the Estonian composer who is perhaps the most-performed living composer in the world. Oregonians have some deep connections with Pärt and his music, and ArtsWatch writers have taken note:

When Oregon met Arvo. Brett Campbell tells the extraordinary tale of Pärt’s 1993 agreement to compose a new work for the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene – a partnership that almost fell apart in a crisis of confidence, and ended in triumph the following year: “The ovation went on for a full 15 minutes, until, amazingly, the shy Pärt himself leapt up to the stage, a beatific smile beaming from the dark cloud of his beard, then embraced [conductor Helmuth] Rilling and the singers in turn.”

Arvo Pärt Festival: spirituality in sound. Daniel Heila explores the “holy minimalism” of Pärt’s devotional music: “The Eastern Orthodox composer’s departure from modernism was marked by an intense reexamination of all that he knew about music and an exploration and embracing of its sacred history.”

A Pärt pilgrimage. Oregon music student Justin Graff recalls his journey to Estonia to meet his musical hero and what he found, and shared, down a long rural road.

 

 


 

ArtsWatch links

 

Theater for Barbarians. Maria Choban gets on her ancestral Greek and goes to a bunch of Greek plays around town. They tell her more about contemporary America than ancient Greece, she writes: where’s the raw, wild passion?

Kill the NEA? What it might mean. The new presidential administration is taking aim at the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We consider what might happen if both federal agencies actually get the ax.

Fertile Ground reviews: Young Bloods. Brett Campbell takes in Broken Planetarium’s Atlantis and Orphic’s Iphigenia 3.0 and discovers theater made by and for a bold new generation.

Global Voices get a fair hearing. A.L. Adams drops in on the first weekend of Boom Arts’ mini-festival of readings of international plays (it concludes this weekend). The upshot? “Global Voices” is all over the map – and that’s a good thing.

Cappella Romana: choral conundrum. Bruce Browne, reviewing the choir’s performance of Finnish composer  Einojuhani Rautavaara’s All Night Vigil (Vigilia), argues that this music from the 1970s deserves much wider attention. And he praises guest basso Glenn Miller: “He is so modest and self-deprecating, you wouldn’t know his capabilities, except his vocal quality is that of the voice of God.”

 


 

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‘Blue Door’: truth & consequences

Profile's taut production of Tanya Barfield's drama of a black man in conflict with his soul brings back the ghosts of pain and opportunity

In the dark, the sounds of African drumming and a loud, exultant chant ring out. Lights up, and the dialogue begins. “Divorce!” the actor Victor Mack declares, rolling and spitting the word in bafflement, savage humor, and contempt. What follows in Blue Door, which opened Saturday night at Profile Theatre, is close to two hours of dramatic exploration of what divorce means – not only or even mostly the divorce of Mack’s character, Lewis, from his wife, but of Lewis’s attempted divorce from his own black identity and cultural history.

Seth Rue in "Blue Door." Photo: David Kinder

Seth Rue in “Blue Door.” Photo: David Kinder

Blue Door, the second full production in Profile’s season of plays by Portland native Tanya Barfield, takes a big leap forward by trimming its sails. Its issues are larger and deeper than those in the season’s appealing but sprawling first production, The Call, but the focus is much tighter: Just Mack and fellow actor Seth Rue, who plays a variety of characters in Lewis’s long family story, are onstage.

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