artists repertory theatre

New voices of ArtsWatch 2017

A dozen writers have joined the ArtsWatch ranks this year. Find out who they are, and what they're bringing to the cultural mixer.

In one important way it’s been a very good year for Oregon ArtsWatch: We’ve added a lot of good writers to our mix, deepening and broadening our coverage of everything from dance to theater to music to visual arts to literary events and more.

ArtsWatch has been able to add the voices of a dozen new contributors because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation.

In 2018 we hope to add even more fresh voices and perspectives to our continuing engagement with Oregon’s complex and diversified cultural life.

Meet 2017’s new writers, from A to Z (all right; A to W), and sample their work:

 


 

TJ Acena

A Portland essayist and journalist who studied creative writing at Western Washington University, TJ was selected as a 2017 Rising Leader of Color in arts journalism by Theatre Communications Group. He writes about theater and literary events for ArtsWatch, and also contributes to American Theatre Magazine and The Oregonian in addition to literary journals such as Somnambulist and Pacifica Literary Journal. Web: tjacena.com

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Greg Watanabe with Mao on the wall in “Caught.” Photo: Russell J Young

CAUGHT IN A LIE, OR A TRUTH

Acena reviews the installation and performance Caught at Artists Rep, a play that crosses the line between fact and fiction, fake news and real. “If it feels like there’s something I’m not telling you about Caught, you’re right. Don’t take it at face value: There’s a hidden conceit to the show. But discovering that conceit is what makes Caught compelling.”

 


 

Bobby Bermea

 

A leading actor, director, and producer in Portland and elsewhere, Bobby specializes in deeply reported and insightful profiles of theater and other creative people for ArtsWatch. A three-time Drammy Award winner for his work onstage, he’s also the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy, and Rocket Man.

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ArtsWatch’s hit parade 2017

Readers' choice: From a musical fracas to rising stars to a book paradise, a look back on our most read and shared stories of the year

Here at ArtsWatch, it’s flashback time. It’s been a wild year, and the 15 stories that rose to the top level of our most-read list in 2017 aren’t the half of it, by a long shot: In this calendar year alone we’ve published more than 500 stories.

Those stories exist because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation.

Here, back for another look, is an all-star squad of stories that clicked big with our readers in the past 12 months:

 


 

Matthew Halls conducted Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Josh Green.

The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival

In June Tom Manoff, for many years the classical music critic for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, looked at the severe drop in attendance and cutbacks in programming at the premiere Eugene music festival. He summarized: “Thinking ahead, I ask: If this year’s schedule portends the future, can OBF retain its world-class level? My answer is no.” His essay, which got more hits than any other ArtsWatch story in 2017, got under a lot of people’s skin. But it was prescient, leading to …

Bach Fest: The $90,000 solution. This followup that had the year’s second-highest number of clicks: Bob Hicks’s look at the mess behind the surprise firing of Matthew Halls as the festival’s artistic leader and the University of Oregon’s secretive response to all questions about it.

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‘An Octoroon’ meta-review: theatrical therapy

Taking a playwright off the stage and putting him on the couch

by MARIA CHOBAN

Editor’s note: After watching Artists Repertory Theatre’s new production of An Octoroon, in which playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins begins with an imaginary conversation with his shrink, we wondered what it might have sounded like if the conversation between psychiatrist and playwright had continued. We imagine it might have gone something like this.

“THERAPIST”:
I think you lost your nerve.

“BJJ”:
Really? Why? Because I went all meta ?

“THERAPIST”:
Having  the playwright appear on stage and talk about writing his play is pretty meta.

“BJJ”:
It distances the audience from the story and allows them to protect themselves emotionally by reminding them that it’s all a fictional construct. I mean, it worked for the Oregon ArtsWatch reviewer.

“THERAPIST”:
And bringing in that tired old device of supplying exposition by having someone talk to a therapist.

“BJJ”:
Like we’re doing right now.

“THERAPIST”:
Yup. You think you were going meta by having a character named BJJ onstage in a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins? I’m gonna go meta on your meta! Now I’m putting both of us in quotes — in my 2017 story about your 2014 play about the original 1859 play (The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault) based on the original 1856 book (The Quadroon by Thomas Mayne Reid).

“BJJ”:
So you’re saying that going meta is OK?

“THERAPIST”:
Can be. It’s like any other dramatic or literary device. It depends on how well you do it. Whether or not it connects.

“BJJ”:
Well, did it?

“THERAPIST”:
Not really. But your opening monologue sure did.

Joseph Gibson as BJJ in Artists Repertory Theater’s ‘An Octoroon’
Photo: Russell J. Young.

“BJJ”:
You liked my monologue?

“THERAPIST”:
I liked how you, a black playwright, immediately made me, a white female, feel the low grade depression you were dealing with. You turned it into a universal that connected . . . At least with me.

 

THERAPIST:
What makes you happy?

BJJ:
I don’t know.

THERAPIST:
Really? Nothing makes you happy?

BJJ:
Not really.

THERAPIST:
What about work? Doesn’t the theater make you happy?

BJJ:
I mean . . . Some of it. Not all of it.

THERAPIST:
So you’re not excited about your work?

BJJ:
I mean I’m not not excited.

 

“THERAPIST”:
Too bad that —

“BJJ”:
What?

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‘An Octoroon’: a punch and a gasp

Review: Whiteface, blackface, redface, a slap in the face: Artists Rep's season opener enters the race wars and laughs at the unlaughable

At the top of Act 4 in An Octoroon the show breaks down. Literally. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who has written himself into this satirical melodrama, turns to the audience and says, “So I think I fucked up.” Metatheatrical shows, especially shows where the playwright is a character, can come across as clumsy and self-indulgent. But Artist’s Repertory Theatre’s production completely embraces the Jacobs-Jenkins script, starting off the company’s season with a smart show that packs a lot of punch.

An Octoroon is a satire of the classic 19th century show The Octoroon, written in 1859 by Dion Boucicault, and follows the original plot closely. Boucicault’s script follows star-crossed lovers George and Zoe in the antebellum South. Zoe is one-eighth black, and so their love can never be. At the time of its production The Octoroon provoked a national discussion around slavery. But unless you’ve studied theater you’ve probably never heard of it, because there is no way a company could get away with producing this show today. The plot is overly contrived. Zoe is the classic “tragic woman of color” who has no future because a white artist cannot imagine a future for her, and George is a “benevolent slaveholder.”

Joseph Gibson, in whiteface, lamenting cruel fate as a “benevolent” slaveowner in love with a octoroon (Alex Ramirez de Cruz, background). Photo: Russell J Young

It’s a story prime for satire.

Also, no one who owned slaves was benevolent.

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The importance of being Earnestine

Artists Rep's all-woman cast of "Earnest" rides the currents of Oscar Wilde's arch comedy without rippling the gender waves

“A little sincerity is a dangerous thing,” the painted lettering at the edge of the stage in Artists Repertory Theatre’s spritzy new production of The Importance of Being Earnest reads, “and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

The quote gets to the heart of Oscar Wilde’s enduring appeal: his wit, his archness, his talent to titillate, his sly defiance of received morality and social conventions, his eager embrace of artificiality as the sane person’s antidote to the grinding boredom of the merely real. Earnest was a smash when it opened in London in 1895, and it also led indirectly to Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency (code words for “homosexual acts”) and two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol, a scandal that did much to assure his place in history and also largely ruined his life. In a 21st century culture far less cloistered than late Victorian England’s the play no longer really shocks, if it ever truly did. But it continues to be enormously popular for its brilliant structure and bubbling wit.

Woman power, from left: Rhodes, Alper, Muñoz, Berkshire. Photo: David Kinder

Or is our current culture less cloistered? In another dimension Artists Rep might’ve called this production, which features an all-female cast, The Importance of Being Earnestine. And in light of the Edward Albee estate’s recent case of the heebie-jeebies over Portland producer Michael Streeter’s proposal to cast a black actor, Damien Geter, as Nick in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the estate denied production rights unless the role was recast with a white actor, which Streeter refused to do), an all-woman Earnest might seem fraught with cultural implications heavier than the play can bear. But Earnest isn’t Virginia, and Wilde isn’t the Albee estate, and the artistic culture, if not always the political one, has largely moved on from controversies that once seemed to matter very much. Although Algernon, Jack, Reverend Chasuble, both manservants, and every interpolation of the elusive Ernest are played at Artists Rep by women actors, the show doesn’t come off as Gender-bender Earnest or any other sort of a “statement” production. On the contrary, it’s very straightforward and traditional-feeling: Just do the play and let it bubble along, working its magic. Director Michael Mendelson hasn’t changed a word in the script, at least as far as I could tell, and he’s given the show a fluid buoyancy, an almost musical flow, that allows the play’s caprices to slide easily forward and carry the audience mostly happily with them.

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Talented. But are they universal?

In the world premiere of Yussef El Guindi's "The Talented Ones" at Artists Rep, flashes of daring, and longing for more

The tomatoes are rinsed, the lasagna’s ready to go, the beers are out. Cindy’s husband is late for dinner, but in The Talented Ones, Yussef El Guindi’s new play that had its world premiere Saturday night at Artists Repertory Theatre, their guest Patrick is more than happy to chat while Cindy finishes the preparations. She confesses a childhood dream, he encourages her, they laugh. There’s a spark there. There’s familiarity in the way the lights come up mid-conversation, the actors munching on real veggies: it’s the kind of everyday platform we’re used to the theater using to catapult us into deeper questions, explorations of ideas that are inevitably billed as universal.

Khanh Doan, John San Nicolas, and Madeleine Tran in “The Talented Ones.” Photo: Brud Giles

The problem with the idea of “universality” in art has been widely acknowledged: what people generally mean by it is something that is written by and about straight white men. They are the generic, universal mode of drama—everyone else is embellishment, specificity. Artists Rep consistently and admirably resists falling into this trap when marketing its intentionally diverse seasons: The Talented Ones, directed by Jane Unger, is not underlined for its status within the season as An Immigrant Play, but presented as a dark comedy about that most universal of topics (at least in this country, where “universal” and “America” are basically synonyms), the American Dream. This balance between universality and specificity—of being a story about everyone, but also about a narrow slice of human experience—is also one that El Guindi strives to strike within the play itself.

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Can we all get along? Rodney King’s story for our times

Actor/playwright Roger Guenveur Smith talks about his show about the man whose videotaped 1991 beating shifted the story of race and police brutality in America

Artists Repertory Theatre is hosting Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man play Rodney King, about the “first reality TV star” whose beating by police in 1991 was captured on videotape and led to a public outage that echoes down to the age of cell phone videos and the ongoing national controversy over policing and racial violence. The Artists Rep performances April 21-23 will be Smith’s last onstage before the release on April 28 of Spike Lee’s film version on HBO.

Rodney King is one of several culturally or politically provocative pieces to hit Portland stages since last November’s national elections, heralding an increased activism in the theater.

– Triangle Productions is opening Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall on Thursday, April 20, as part of a “rolling world premiere” at theaters across the country. The author of The Kentucky Cycle and the Lyndon B. Johnson plays All the Way and The Great Society that premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before moving on to acclaim on Broadway began writing Building the Wall “in a white hot fury” last October as the presidential race was tightening up. Lee Williams has written an excellent interview with Shenkkan for The Oregonian.

– Last weekend, partly in response to a wave of anti-immigration policies, Portland Story Theater presented two evenings in its Urban Tellers series of short personal stories by immigrants from Argentina, Somalia, Iran, Indonesia, Mexico, and Denmark, and has plans for a similar program in the fall.

– And PassinArt: A Theatre Company has just concluded its run of Marcus Gardley’s moving Gospel of Lovingkindness, a play that probes the causes of a random murder in the black community and the lives it tears apart. Director Jerry Foster says he’d like to have the show tour in schools.

Smith, the author and performer of Rodney King, agreed to answer a few questions from ArtsWatch via email about his play, his career, and the culture that’s helped shape both. Here’s what he has to say:

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Roger Guenveur Smith as Rodney King. Photo: Patti McGuire

Bob Hicks: People remember the car chase and the brutal beatings and the famous quote, “Can we all get along?” I’m not sure how many also remember that the police were mostly acquitted by an almost-all-white jury in Simi Valley, or that the whole thing was a key factor in the pressure leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Does Rodney King focus on that series of events, or does it also follow King’s life in the years after?

Roger Guenveur Smith: Rodney King is an intimate meditation on a life lived and lost, revealing a boy and a man and a man in a myth.
 The high speed chase of March 1991 comes to an abrupt halt in June 2012. Along the way there is a beating, and a trial, and a riot, the immense weight of which takes Mr. King to the bottom of his backyard swimming pool.

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