‘Up the Fall’: The lion, the witches and the wardrobe

PHAME’s first musical showcases hidden theater talent.


“The actor does not need to “become” the character. The phrase, in fact, has no meaning. There is no character. There are only lines upon a page. They are lines of dialogue meant to be said by the actor. When he or she says them simply, in an attempt to achieve an object more or less like that suggested by the author, the audience sees an illusion of a character upon the stage.” (True & False, by David Mamet, p. 112)

In PHAME Academy’s Up the Fall, Melissa Halstead’s acting is David Mamet-clean. Here is a natural. She opens her mouth and the phrasing is simple, perfect. Her Tortoise — a wise father figure of a seemingly doomed world — avoids histrionics, caresses and cajoles his children with believable endearments like “dear” (she’s too young to use “dear” so convincingly) and serenely commands the stage like Helen Mirren.

8816: Tortoise (Melissa Halstead) leads a bank of Birds on their fantastical journey in rehearsal for PHAME's "Up the Fall." Photo: Sarah Law Photography.

Tortoise (Melissa Halstead) leads a bank of Birds on their fantastical journey in rehearsal for PHAME’s “Up the Fall.” Photo: Sarah Law Photography.

Halstead’s breakout performance was my favorite part of UtF, a show performed PHAME-style, by actors with a broad range of disabilities. This production at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, which closes August 29, marked its first foray with an inclusive cast — those with and without developmental disabilities.

Also impressive were University of Portland student Jacob Orr’s frenetic Ratatoskr – the squirrel messenger (an adorable juxtaposition of the Ice Age acorn thieving varmint, Scratt, and Max Headroom) and Eliza Jensen’s Diana — a level-headed teenager in a wheelchair who constantly negotiates for freedom from her overprotective hovering mother, in the end accepting “there’s no place like home.” Jensen’s assertiveness, overdone with strident explosive retaliations at her mother, was tempered with wistful asides when she just wanted to be alone with her birds.

The story: Another Realm is a paradise kept in balance by a trio of folkloric characters, each in charge of the moon, the wind, the harp (of harmony). The blind daughters of Tortoise fight to wrest power and nearly succeed. Jealous because an earthling was adopted by their father, they passive-aggressively react instead of believing that daddy still has enough room to love all of them. Yet another earthling, Diana, enters the hermetically sealed Another Realm to help right the balance of power. A nice touch — birds die off in both realms, Diana’s Earth realm experiencing the disappearance of the birds as a consequence of poisoning in Another Realm.

I have no idea how the cast endured a script that lacked tension or cohesion or simple logic (not to mention charm). Oregon’s own Ursula Le Guin details the difficulties of creating drama in a world we can make up, even as we (she) go along. This ain’t drama. Drama is when characters make choices every step of the way, forcing other characters to make choices in response. Yes, Diana chooses to take a leap into the unknown world. Yes, she chooses to confront the witches, though it’s not really clear why. For me it all seemed like deus ex machina — the rules of that universe seem to be made up as the playwright needed them. When Diana’s presence is supposed to change things, it doesn’t happen for any reason organic to what we know of her character, but just because Tortoise says so.

The rest of the cast dealt admirably with a script so weak it needs an archetypal spider to narrate and gesticulate (presumably to hold our attention although I still fell asleep) a story that includes a Jaguar, three blind mice… er, witch sisters, who sometimes see even without their magic eye and sometime can’t (with no logical reason), and a portal into Another Realm, a door with no handle which somehow let Scratt… er, Ratatoskr the squirrel, and Diana back in to Narnia or Oz or Discworld.

A climactic moment in PHAME's "Up the Fall," in which Tortoise (Melissa Halstead) supports her daughter Ord (Anne-Marie Plass) in confronting the evil Grae Sisters. Photo: Sarah Law Photography.

A climactic moment in PHAME’s “Up the Fall,” in which Tortoise (Melissa Halstead) supports her daughter Ord (Anne-Marie Plass) in confronting the evil Grae Sisters. Photo: Sarah Law Photography.

With the disabled, confident actors on stage, I craved strong supportive music. And while I appreciated using music by a local female singer songwriter for the score (performed by a guitar/keyboard/fiddle trio), I found Laura Gibson’s timid please-take-care-of-me style antithetical to Halstead and Jensen’s strength. What I craved was another local like take-no-prisoners Sleater Kinney. A New Wave would have made a pretty good anthem for this show.

Let’s destroy a room with this love
We can drain out all the power, power
Steal from the makers who had made us
Leave them nothing to devour, devour
Well I am raw material
Make me plastic, make me fuel
I can be, I can be
I can be all

No one here is taking notice
No outline will ever hold us
It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me
Eyes are the only witness
Die to prove we ever lived this
Invent our own kind of obscurity

Gibson’s music (the Portland-turned-New York singer didn’t perform) lacked development — a one-leitmotif pony — but then the script provided no character development beyond a spider who left me confused about whether she was overacting for children’s theater, or filling in the blanks to a Joseph Campbell catastrophe; three sisters who modeled themselves on Margaret Hamilton; and a pastiche of usual suspects from folkloric mythology, portrayed by actors so bereft of intelligent dialogue they resorted to overacting in desperation.

Among the production’s positives: spare stage and sparse costuming (green shirt and top for Tortoise, black shirt and trousers for Jaguar, yellow capes for birds), making this an easily portable show to take to schools; artful amplification on Tortoise’s voice that lent it Godly benevolent authority; Jaguar’s long blond mane, which made me smile when he was introduced. Director Matt Zrebski mostly kept the pace moving, although for me it could have been even faster as the talky narration nearly sent me to a dream realm several times.

If Debbie Lamedman’s script is re-written, taking out the arch-academic language in the narration, and restructuring the plot so that I really felt Another Realm was in danger of annihilation and Diana’s choice to save it really did risk her life (and that I cared), Up the Fall might make a great show for young audiences, especially with the broad acting and archetypal characters. Alas, I saw few children in the audience the afternoon I attended.

But for all its first-try, first-run flaws, PHAME’s inaugural attempt at an original musical accomplished its primary goal: thrusting deserving talent in front of a broader audience and (I hope) into Oregon’s mainstream talent pool. I discovered the magic of Melissa Halstead’s simple, clean, strong delivery and I’ll look for her name in any upcoming production, hoping to see her in regular theater roles in other companies. I thank PHAME for taking a chance on commissioning a homegrown original production other than their traditional American musicals, as it piqued my attention enough to get me to this production, the first I’ve seen from this Portland-based academy.

Toward the end of the show, a crucial scene features a group effort that propels one character up a waterfall to his goal despite the countervailing currents — a nice metaphor for PHAME’s efforts to get Oregon professional theater companies (not one of which includes actors who experience developmental disabilities on their stages) to consider and take seriously artists who experience disability for the full range of their programming, especially in roles like Tortoise, which doesn’t require a disabled actor. I hope Up the Fall vaults at least one relatively unknown Oregon artist to the next level.

PHAME Academy’s Up the Fall runs August 22-29 at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison. Tickets are available online and at 503.241.8268 or boxoffice@artistsrep.org

Portland musician Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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