Adriana Baer

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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Marjorie, in her prime

Jordan Harrison's futuristic fantasy about the blurry line between people and artificial intelligence gets a sterling run at Artists Rep

Walter has a curious affect, in more ways than one. As he talks with Marjorie, an 85-year-old woman whose mind isn’t what it used to be, he’s gently inquisitive, apparently eager to learn about her and, somewhat paradoxically, about himself as well. As the “Prime” in Jordan Harrison’s stimulating play Marjorie Prime continuing through March 5 at Artists Repertory Theatre, he speaks with an odd mixture of intimacy and detachment, and a patience that seems at first professional, then preternatural. He tells stories in a way that sounds casual yet somehow rote. And when he’s stumped by something, instead of shrugging or saying, “I dunno,” he replies stiffly, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.”

Then too, there’s just something about the way he looks. He’s clean-cut and handsome, yet unremarkably so. That is, until you notice the faint sparkle that shimmers about his plain brown sportcoat and neatly trimmed hair. It’s as though he’s the image of an ideal man, ever-so-slightly pixelated.

O’Brien and Harder: memories lost and gained. Photo: John Rudoff

And though he looks a half-century younger than Marjorie, he’s not just Walter, he’s her Walter, her late husband Walter. Or at least he’s learning to be.

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Adriana Baer talks about leaving Profile Theatre

Profile's artistic director heads back to the rehearsal room and leaves her administrative hat behind

The artistic director of an American theater company these days has to wear a lot of different hats: curator, conceptualizer, craftsperson, but also administrator, personnel manager, fundraiser, budget ninja. It isn’t any wonder the job can weigh on a person.

But for Profile Theatre’s Adriana Baer, the problem isn’t the weight, it’s the balance.

“I’m not going to speak for every AD in the world,” she says, “but every AD I’ve ever talked to spends more time, by a huge margin, administrating, fundraising, budgeting, producing—left-brained stuff—than artistically creating.”

Adriana Baer is leaving Profile Theatre./Photo courtesy of Profile

Adriana Baer is leaving Profile Theatre./Photo courtesy of Profile

In a bid to give right-brained stuff more of its due, Baer announced late last month that she’ll be stepping down from the position she took on three and a half years ago when she replaced Profile founding artistic director Jane Unger. After Dec. 31, the 33-year-old plans to “take a few months off to feel what it feels like to be a person in the world,” then she’ll start putting her considerable energy back into freelance directing, teaching and arts advocacy.

She isn’t jumping to a bigger job, and though she expects to pursue work through contacts in San Francisco, Ashland and elsewhere, she has no plans to leave Portland. In fact, she’s going to remain involved with Profile.

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All abuzz about the next room

Profile's "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play" brings a little jolt to its Victorian characters' lives

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play has buzzed into town for the second time in the past couple of years, and you know what they say about a good thing: you can’t get too much of it. Nor, in Sarah Ruhl’s witty, brittle, and eventually compassionate 2009 comedy, can the frustrated Victorian wives in the orbit of the stiffly scientific Dr. Givings get too much of the good doctor’s marvelous electrical vibrating machine, which, when applied to certain delicate portions of the body, induces “hysterical paroxysms” that ease stress and bring a youthful flush to the cheek. Daily applications seem advisable. Sometimes, multiple daily applications work best.

Foss Curtis, Beth Thompson and Leif Norby in the next room. Photo: David Kinder

Foss Curtis, Beth Thompson and Leif Norby in the next room. Photo: David Kinder

Profile Theatre’s new production at Artists Rep is crisper and more decidedly shaped than the one that played at Triangle Productions in spring 2013, but both capture the spirit of Ruhl’s appealingly off-center humor: her brain works a little differently from most people’s, gravitating naturally to an off-angle approach to things, and as a result her plays are heady, ticklish, exploratory things, little adventures into outlandish territory that surprise you by ending up somewhere near the center of the heart. Profile is in the midst of its season of Ruhl plays, with In the Next Room following a sterling production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone and leading up to a fall production of Passion Play.

I find myself in a bit of an awkward position in regard to The Vibrator Play, because as much as I admire it and Ruhl, it’s not a play I especially needed to see twice in two years. Other than to note differences in directing and acting styles, I found no hidden insights, no unexplored depths, the second time around: then again, like all of the men in the play, I can be a little dense. It remains a good, solid play, and Profile gives it a good, solid, enjoyable production. Better than solid, really. If at times it seems a little clipped and calculated, that approach makes metaphorical sense, and it leads to a couple of genuine emotional climaxes that are honestly touching: an impulsive kiss that shocks and confuses two people; a stripping-down and starting-over by a husband and wife.

In the Next Room runs the risk of being a one-joke play: Victorian ladies discover vibrators, and like the way they make them feel, even though they don’t seem to make the connection between the treatment and sex. It’s a bit like the Meg Ryan fake-orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally, on continuous loop. And, granted, it’s a good joke. But as Ruhl writes it, and Adriana Baer directs it for Profile, and her sparkling cast acts it, the joke’s a lead-in to some more probing explorations of gender, tenderness, emotional fulfillment, and the dawning of women’s rights. Were the medical profession and their clients of the 1880s as innocent of the vibrator’s sexual implications as the play makes them out to be? I’m not quite old enough to give a first-hand report from the scene, but I have my doubts. Still, I’m more than willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of a well-told tale.

Foss Curtis and Lauren Bloom discuss the mysteries of life. Photo: David Kinder

Foss Curtis and Lauren Bloom discuss the mysteries of life. Photo: David Kinder

At the center of the story is Catherine Givings (Lauren Bloom), wife of the scientifically preoccupied Dr. Givings (Leif Norby) and a woman who is both intensely curious about what goes on behind the closed door of her husband’s treatment room (she keeps hearing strange sounds) and intensely distressed because she can’t get her milk to let down so she can feed her newborn child. Her curiosity leads her into untoward relationships with a couple of the patients: Sabrina Daldry (Foss Curtis), who is married to the genially insufferable Mr. Daldry (Karl Hanover), and Leo Irving (Mattew Kerrigan), a dreamy-eyed artist who is one of the rare male patients to benefit from the wonders of the electrical vibrator, albeit in a different anatomical zone. The little group is completed by Annie (Beth Thompson), Dr. Givens’ efficient nurse, who on occasions when the machine doesn’t seem to be sufficient to the task, expertly applies the old-fashioned manual-manipulation method of stress reduction to the patients; and by the nursemaid Elizabeth (Ashley Nicole Williams), who, a little disconcertingly, given the long history of stereotyping in American culture, is both the only black character in the play and the only one who is Wise to the Ways of Nature (she understands it’s about sex). It’s a good, well-balanced cast, sparked by Bloom’s nervous drive of curiosity and Curtis’s sly hint of humor. Norby, given the unenviable task of playing an eminent man of science who is in emotional matters pretty much an idiot, lets Dr. Givens be the butt of some jokes but also imbues him with a genuine dignity.

Profile’s In the Next Room is quite lovely to look at, with an ornate yet open set by Stephen Dobay and some ravishing period costumes by Sarah Gahagan. And, just because you almost never get to list a credit like this, here’s a credit like this: “Vibrators provided by Alley Repertory Theater in Boise, Idaho. www.alleyrep.org.” Alley, thanks for the buzz.

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Profile Theatre’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play continues through June 28 on the Morrison Stage of the Artists Repertory Theatre complex. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Review: Shepard’s buried family

Profile's 'Buried Child' cradles meaning between the blanks

Tilden (Tim Blough) toddles onstage like a child, eyes vacantly wandering, arms full of vegetables. His brother Bradley (Garland Lyons) lurches at Tilden and others with a menacing glare. And Dodge (Tobias Anderson) slumps wearily on the couch, gradually dessicating into an unhappy husk. Halie (Jane Fellows) comes and goes from the house, acting pert and chatty, pretending nothing is wrong.

From left: Andersen, Fellows, Lyons. Photo: David Kinder

Tobias Andersen (left) and Garland Lyons. Photo: David Kinder

“Anytime a character makes us wonder, ‘Were they always like that, or did something happen to them?’…I always prefer to think something happened,” explained Buried Child director Adriana Baer in Sunday’s post-performance talkback. “We know Tilden was an all-American, a high acheiver, intelligent…so what did happen? How did Bradley manage to accidentally saw off his own leg with a chainsaw? What happened there?”

Indeed, what happens before, and around, and behind the scenes we actually see is the crux of Sam Shepard’s eerie 1979 Pulitzer winner Buried Child. What’s onstage, meanwhile, is often inexplicable. Why doesn’t the family patriarch recognize his supposed grandson Vince (Ty Hewitt) when he comes for a surprise visit? Why doesn’t his supposed father, Tilden, give him the time of day? WHAT HAPPENED?

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Long and winding road: Profile’s “Mecca” is ultimately a rewarding trip

OSF veteran Eileen DeSandre points the way to freedom in Profile's Athol Fugard season

Eileen DeSandre in Profile Theater's The Road to Mecca. Photo: Jamie Bosworth.

Eileen DeSandre in Profile Theater’s The Road to Mecca. Photo: Jamie Bosworth.

“Can I speak a little now?” asks Miss Helen about midway in Act II of Profile Theater’s intimate new production of “The Road to Mecca.”

The diminutive, elderly South African woman has heretofore spent most of Athol Fugard’s 1988 play absorbing the pleadings, harangues, and fulminations of the other two characters, who want her to be what they imagine. Marius, the minister of the small town where she was born and lived her long life, beseeches Helen to give up her ramshackle house and eccentric, solitary life (since the death of her husband 15 years earlier) and move into a church-sponsored retirement home. It’s out of concern for her safety, he insists, but Marius—and the blinkered yet compassionate community he represents—harbors other motives, one of them not revealed till near the end.

Miss Helen’s young friend Elsa, a bitter, 31-year-old feminist schoolteacher visiting from the big city (Capetown), admires Helen’s oddball sculptures (which have drawn stones from local children and scorn from their conformist parents) and independent, self-actualized artistic lifestyle. As we discover, she, too, has other, personal reasons for urging the older woman to resist the community’s urgings to give up her  life and home.

With all this backstory needing to be conveyed in sometimes tedious expository dialogue, we’re halfway down the road to Mecca before Helen gets to say what she wants—and why. And that’s where Profile’s production really takes off.

***

Inspired by the story of Helen Martins (1897-1976), an artist who lived in Fugard’s South African region and created The Owl House, now a national monument, the play explores the perennial struggle between social conformity and artistic freedom, not to mention issues of elder independence vs. safety, feminism vs. patriarchy, religion vs. individuality and more, even obliquely touching (more briefly than usual for Fugard) on cultural tensions not only between South Africa’s whites and non-whites but also between English and Afrikaaner settlers.

With so many big ideas to convey, the dense script poses challenges for the actors who have to flesh out these archetypes. Despite a few opening night accent lapses, all three actors delivered precise, sometimes potent diction. Director Adriana Baer’s decision to counter the script’s leaden first-act pacing with crisp, rapid fire fusillades is understandable, but Elsa’s (Amanda Soden) steely, unvarying vocal tempo and inflection eventually grew grating and made my ears glaze over. The dialogue needs room to breathe, especially in moments that clearly suggest a mid-monologue change of direction. By the time her character gets her cathartic moment in the second act, it felt forced and unpersuasive, though Soden otherwise does a nice job of suggesting Elsa’s hidden vulnerability beneath the flint.

David Bodin makes Marius a surprisingly sympathetic foil, hinting at the complex passions underlying his compassionate facade. But what really makes “The Road to Mecca” worth the journey is Eileen DeSandre’s Helen. Once Fugard gives the frail pariah her chance to express her own desires, repressed for decades by her marriage and stifling small-town narrow-mindedness, the familiar Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran really captures the gentle, off centeredness of a visionary artist who really just wants to be free to create her version of beauty.

Wisely refraining from showing Helen’s controversial alfresco sculptures themselves, Alan Schwanke’s cleverly cluttered, evocative interior set suggests the artist’s vision as effectively as DeSandre’s wide-eyed, almost distracted sense of wonder. Like Elsa’s dusty 12-hour drive to Helen’s home, and the latter’s own life journey, the audience’s road to her Mecca must endure its longeurs and rough patches, but the destination makes the trip a rewarding one. It’s a reminder of how the power of art can help us transcend conflicts and constraints that might otherwise paralyze us.

 
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