Chantal DeGroat

Half a bright life: an unfinished tale

The time-fracturing final show in Profile's Tanya Barfield season gets to something powerful and true, and feels like half the story

You could almost consider it a cliche of the contemporary craft of narrative: Every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.

In Kim Rosenstock’s musical Fly by Night, which was given a sparkling production last month at Broadway Rose, time is a plaything, tossed about deftly by a narrator guiding us along the dramatic switchbacks of a year in the lives of three young lovers. But that’s kids’ stuff compared to the chronological legerdemain that Portland native Tanya Barfield gets up to in Bright Half Life, the closing play in Profile Theater’s Barfield-focused 2016 season. Events in the decades-long relationship between Vicky and Erica come at us not in standard forward-motion sequence, not in the reverse-engineered epiphanies of flashbacks, not even in discrete stand-alone scenes. Instead we get a splattering of small moments, an almost free-associative memory tour, as the action ricochets around the years, striking a different point of connection or conflict seemingly every other minute.

DeGroat and Porter: tale as old as (fractured) time. Photo courtesy Profile Theatre

DeGroat and Porter: tale as old as (fractured) time. Photo: David Kinder

The view of coupledom and its inner workings that results is somewhere between prismatic and scattershot, its success dependent in part on how much you relate to the characters and their particular emotional travails, in part on how well you can connect the thematic dots so widely and loosely dispersed.

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‘The Nether’: Virtual damnation

Third Rail's futuristic thriller opens up a Pandora's Box of human ugliness and puts a chill in the air

There’s a chill in the auditorium these days over at Imago Theatre. Some nights that’s due in part to some seasonally overzealous air conditioning, but mostly it’s the subtly creepy atmosphere of the current on-stage production by Third Rail Rep.

The Nether, by Los Angeles playwright Jennifer Haley, is escapist entertainment — at least in a manner of speaking. That is, it’s a play about escapism and the thorny ethical implications of a not-so-implausible future in which technology allows anyone with a valid log-in to become immersed in elaborate, multi-sensory virtual environments, like souped-up Second Life for the souls of the bored, deprived or otherwise damned.

O'Connell and deGroat: a virtual faceoff. Photo: Owen Carey

O’Connell and deGroat: a virtual faceoff. Photo: Owen Carey

It’s the levers of damnation — who controls them, or is even able to see them for what they are — that seem to interest Haley most. Of course the fictive future is the rhetorical present, and Haley’s play ponders current, and in some senses longstanding, questions about the lines between reality and representation, between relationships and transactions, between physical and psychological harms. The rapid advance of technology makes such issues both more present and more confounding. So Haley — a Paula Vogel protege whose horror-flick-styled look at video-game addiction Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom was staged a few years ago by Third Rail’s mentorship program — pushes the tech setting to a point where personal liberty and social responsibility get their feet tangled and push comes to shove.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Bluebeards, villain kings, black art’s soul

The feminine mystique of "Bluebeard's Castle," Shakespeare's "Richard III," the trouble with Tiger Lily, black art and meaning in America

The naked truth about Bluebeard’s Castle, Béla Bartók’s astounding hour-long opera that the Oregon Symphony performed Saturday through Monday nights, is … well, let Elizabeth Schwartz explain it, in her typically erudite program notes:

“Bartók worked on the opera over the summer of 1911, when he and his wife Márta spent their holiday at a Swiss nudist colony near Zurich. [Librettist Béla] Balázs, who visited the colony that summer, noted in his diary how the industrious Bartók would spend hours in the solarium, wearing nothing but sunglasses, as he worked on the score.”

Viktoia Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in "Bluebeard's Castle." Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony

Viktoria Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony

John and Yoko have nothing on that. And in a way, Bartók’s curious compositional strategy made sense: emotional nakedness is essential to the Bluebeard tale as Balázs retold it. The opera has just two singers: the aging, mysteriously private Bluebeard himself, and his new (fourth) bride, Judith, who insists on bringing some sunshine into the castle, and her new marriage, by demanding that Bluebeard open the seven locked doors that hide his secrets. Maybe not the best idea. At a talk Friday night with symphony director Carlos Kalmar, Christopher Mattaliano of Portland Opera, and the Portland Art Museum’s Bran Ferriso (the show’s set included marvelous glass works by Dale Chihuly), stage director Mary Birnbaum talked about Castle as Judith’s quest for knowledge and openness, which Bluebeard is loath to grant, and I’m inclined to agree that it’s really Judith’s story. Contrary to popular opinion, her soul sisters Eve and Pandora seem the heroes of their stories, too, the ones who provide the essential spark of humanness: How can one be fully human without curiosity and the compulsion to learn? Remember: the last bee to escape Pandora’s bonnet was hope.

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Talking race: the color of now

An overflow crowd at Imago Theatre delves into Oregon's racial history, race conflicts in America, and the role that art and artists play in the discussion

When the doors finally opened and the long line wandering down the sidewalk began to surge forward, the intimate Imago Theatre began to be overwhelmed by a human tide. Every seat, it seemed, was taken. I don’t recall seeing the theater this packed even in the heyday of Frogz, Imago’s huge and long-running anthropomorphic-animal hit. For that matter, I’d forgotten the place even had a balcony, which on Monday night was packed, as the saying goes, to the rafters. Old people were there, and young people, and the generations between, and this being Portland there were more white people than people of color but the mix was evident. Almost immediately a baby started crying, a sound not usually heard in theaters unless it’s a sound effect for a play. This was a real baby, in real time. “Cool,” said Chantal DeGroat, the actor and moderator for the evening. “Rock ‘n’ roll. Rock. And. Roll. To the families.”

Jones and DeGroat: "What's RACE got to do with it?" Photo: Peter Irby

Jones and DeGroat: “What’s RACE got to do with it?” Photo: Peter Irby

The event was a conversation called “What’s RACE Got To Do With It?,” produced by the group The Color of NOW and hosted by Third Rail Repertory Theatre, which shares the Imago space. Part performance, part talk show and part back-and-forth with the audience, it included a monologue to an unborn child – a child who, given the state of the world and its racial volatility, would remain unborn, an idea derailed – by actor Joseph Gibson, and a little music from Ben Graves, and a long conversation about the nitty gritty of race in America and Oregon in particular with the actor, director, and activist Kevin Jones, artistic director of the August Wilson Red Door Project, an organization whose ambitious goal is to “change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts.”

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‘The Call’: waiting, fretting, hoping

Profile Theatre opens its season of plays by onetime Portlander Tanya Barfield with a drama about adoption and Africa and the uncertainties of life

When the call finally arrives, it’s not as if Annie’s jumping up and down for joy. She’s been waiting and waiting, and stressing, and having double-triple-quadruple thoughts, and … well, as the Gershwin boys put it, let’s call the whole thing off.

Or not. That’s the problem. Life is full of maybes, and at some point you’ve got to have a solid yes or no. But how do you get there?

The Call, the first play in Profile Theatre’s new Tanya Barfield season, opened Saturday night at the Artists Rep complex, and suggests a season of playful, contemporary, issue-oriented, and curiosity-driven theater to come. It’s part domestic drama, part cultural-conflict theater, part situation comedy, part mystery thriller, and always smart and engaging. And it introduces Portland audiences to one of the city’s own: Barfield grew up here before moving to New York, and went through school at the Metropolitan Learning Center, and has been a Pulitzer nominee, but has never before had one of her plays produced here. Suddenly, an entire season is about to rectify that oversight.

Howard and Soden: the talk before The Call. Photo: David Kinder

Howard and Soden: the talk before The Call. Photo: David Kinder

In The Call, Annie is a woman of a certain age, an artist who’s more or less put off her career because it conflicts with her job at a museum, and who has also put off having a child until, it seems, it’s biologically too late. So she and her husband, Peter, have decided to adopt, and they have a line on a baby about to be born in Arizona, but the young mother seems likely to keep the kid, and so Annie, almost on impulse, decides they should adopt from Africa: so much poverty and sickness, so many orphans, so many needy kids.

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‘Belleville’: down & out in Paris

Amy Herzog's stage thriller about modern Ugly Americans in decline gets fine performances from Third Rail, but to what end?

Belleville is something of a head-scratcher, and not because it’s structured like a mystery-thriller. Third Rail Rep’s new production of Amy Herzog’s tense drama, which premiered in 2011 at Yale Rep and opened off-Broadway a year later, has so much going for it: a good director, a fine cast, a simple but smartly playable set by Kristeen Willis Crosser in the intimate CoHo Theatre, a space designed to slash the distance between audience and performers and heat things up. But Belleville, it seems, is just by nature a chilly play.

Lamb and Lingafelter: in love from tip to toe? Photo: Owen Carey

Lamb and Lingafelter: in love from tip to toe? Photo: Owen Carey

The irony of the title is that Belleville isn’t such a beautiful town, if by “beautiful” you mean sweet and safe and predictable. It’s a vibrant, multiracial, working-class district of Paris, the sort of place where people tend to make a life instead of visit on vacation. Abby (Rebecca Lingafelter) and Zack (Isaac Lamb) are doing both, sort of. Young married Americans in their late 20s, they’ve uprooted from New Jersey so that Zack can take a job with Physicians Beyond Borders. Every day he heads in to do vital work on AIDS research, except when he doesn’t. Amy, who’s an actress, starts giving yoga lessons to keep busy and make a little money, but that’s not working out so well, maybe because she’s stopped taking French lessons (her language instructor kept laughing at her accent) and so can’t really communicate with her students. Plus, as the play begins she walks into their apartment and discovers Zack deep in a solo encounter with a porno internet site. This doesn’t help Abby’s mental state, which is already a little off-kilter because she’s gone off her anti-depression meds. And, as things turn out, Zack, who spends an inordinate amount of time with his pot pipe, hasn’t paid the rent in four months, and although Abby doesn’t know it, they’re about to get the heave-ho. So, no: not so beautiful.

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