chris murray

No lie: Corneille’s crackling comedy

David Ives' contemporary "translaptation" of Corneille's 17th century French farce "The Liar" is a kick in the collective pants at Artists Rep

A good, gut-wrenching tragedy is part of the heart and soul of theater, of course, providing proof to those who need it that the theater is a “serious” art form. But there’s good reason the famous visual symbol of the stage includes two masks, one face in anguish and one in peals of laughter: as the great actor Edmund Kean is alleged to have said just before he slipped into eternity, “Dying’s easy. Comedy’s hard.”

Comedy is the head to tragedy’s heart. It can, and does, stir emotions, but it’s an analytical, exterior art form, moving through the brain first and the heart only afterwards. Farce in particular looks at human urges and activities from an analytical perspective, exposing patterns of behavior and often hiding a merciless bleakness behind a mirage of wit. The best farce balances restlessly between hopefulness and cynicism, and is seen these days as often on the TV screen (witness the late, great Frasier) as onstage. Screwball comedy, so old now that we think of it in black-and-white movie tones, was the classically upbeat populist American adaptation of the form.

San Nicolas (left) and Murray: comedy in true and false. Photo: Owen Carey

San Nicolas (left) and Murray: comedy in true and false. Photo: Owen Carey

Heading into summer, theatergoers might well be thirsting for something a little light and lively, but still with a punch. Portlanders going through Alan Ayckbourn or Michael Frayn withdrawal might want to hie themselves over to Artists Repertory Theatre, where the fiercely funny playwright David Ives is keeping the farcical flame alive with his “translaptation” of The Liar, French master Pierre Corneille’s 1644 comedy about an inveterate fibber whose elaborate fabrications get him into hot water, and barely out again before he’s boiled alive.

We’ve seen Ives’s contemporary wit and freewheeling way with iambic pentameter recently in Theatre Vertigo’s ribald, rowdy, and altogether amusing production of his School for Lies, an adaptation of Molière’s 1666 comedy The Misanthrope. Now comes Corneille, a little bit older and a little lesser-known, out to make the case after all these centuries that he’s still Molière than thou.

The Liar is about, well, a liar, a fellow so resolutely devoted to untruth that it’s almost like a religion to him: even when his aim is honorable (or some unreasonable facsimile thereof) he can only approach it through a series of ever more complex and roundabout inventions. At Artists Rep this young master of mendacity, Dorante, is played by babyfaced Chris Murray (adorned in straggly facial hair and a cascade of foppish curls), whose angelic exterior belies a devilish delight in stirring things up.

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Here at the edges of the Western World

Looking for meaning behind the brogue in Artists Rep's laughter-laden 'Playboy'

St. Patrick’s Day puzzles me. One day per year, Irish-Americans and nearly everyone else adopt — enthusiastically, often wildly — the otherwise derogatory ethnic stereotypes of the Irish. And no one thinks anything’s amiss. Unless the bar runs out of green beer.

Imagine, for comparison, Americans of all sorts spending Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of abolition, slugging malt liquor, chomping watermelon and running up to one another shouting “Kiss me, I’m black!”

Then again, there’s something liberating about being able to laugh at ourselves and to let others laugh right along.

Laughs come regularly in The Playboy of the Western World, a century-old Irish classic by John Millington Synge, currently playing at Artists Repertory Theatre. So does a kind of self-mockery elevated to celebration.

From left: Amy Newman, Allen Nause, Chris Murray, Isaac Lamb, Michael Mendelson, Jeb Berrier. Photo: Owen Carey

From left: Amy Newman, Allen Nause, Chris Murray, Isaac Lamb, Michael Mendelson, Jeb Berrier. Photo: Owen Carey

Playboy is the story of Christy Mahon, a poor farmhand who ducks into a pub in a County Mayo hamlet and, meek though he seems at first, sends a jolt throughout the community. The electric charge he brings is his story: that he has killed his father and is on the run from the police. The locals, apparently hungry for any kind of excitement, are thrilled to meet someone brave and brazen enough to commit parricide. And the more positive attention Christy gets, the more flair he puts into his tale, and the more he’s treated like a celebrity. The women fawn, and a competition for him develops between the publican’s tough-minded daughter, called Pegeen, and the sly Widow Quin.

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Things get HOT for the holidays

Chris Murray tosses a pitchy log on the Yuletide fire, MORE!

Very occasionally in oh-so-polite Portland arts circles, someone utters an intemperate remark or two. Startling! And then, some infinitessimal number of those very occasional remarks are emailed to a journalist. Oh happy day!

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in “The Aliens”/Third Rail Repertory Theatre

So, yes, Chris Murray (who can be gloriously open about his opinions) sent Alison Hallett (the arts editor of the Mercury, who knows fun when she sees it) an email. ostensibly to explain why he’s starting a new theater company called Whizz-Bang. But it didn’t take Murray long to get himself into full rant (and as Hallett noticed, keyboarding on his phone (!)). You should read the whole thing because the issues it raises are really interesting but also because, yeah, intemperate!

Theatre seems produced largely through fear. Fear of the subscriber, the donor, the audience, the squeaky wheels. In most performance houses in America, it’s an old crowd that patronizes theatre. Portland has a ton of hip seniors who love theatre (thank fucking god), but there can nevertheless be a lack of excitement and funding for live entertainment that doesn’t fall into the standard category of theatre.

Now, I don’t think that the financials of what Murray wants to do actually pencil out, but that doesn’t make his observations about the current state of things wrong.

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If you missed the terrific tenor Nicholas Phan perform this past year in Eugene and/or Portland, here’s a chance to hear him singing a few folk song arrangements by Benjamin Britten.

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David Stabler, the eminence gris of The Oregonian’s arts staff, called up the Oregon Symphony to see how things were going. Maybe he’d heard some of the same rumblings I’d heard. Anyway, the news from the symphony was all good: donations are up, and ticket sales are up $1 million over last year. The only disconcerting note in the story? That these positives “do not point to a balanced budget.” Uh-oh. We’ll be getting into this very DEEPLY in January.

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It’s devoutly hoped that the Oregon Symphony doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the Minnesota Orchestra, where while the musicians are playing, management is “turtling.”

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Its 2010 “Joy to the World” album is probably playing on more stereos at the moment, but a new mini-documentary about the making of Pink Martini’s 2013 “Get Happy” album is up. Storm Large meets Phyllis Diller!

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The New Yorker’s John Lahr, himself a National Treasure, reports on the last show of Dame Edna

Aliens found lurking in the human brain, heart

Third Rail Rep's "The Aliens" probes our dark matter...

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in “The Aliens”/Owen Carey

Toward the end of Annie Baker’s “The Aliens,” Evan makes a call to Nicole, another counselor at music camp he met earlier that summer. She’s a violist, and Evan starts with a little chit-chat about her orchestra and blurts out that he’s smoking, then that a friend of his has died suddenly, and finally that he wants to come to visit her in Boston.

That little speech is why I like “The Aliens” so much. Its psychology is so acute, its understanding of our condition, whipsawed by loss and its close companion desire, mystified by the process of becoming, which seems to require so much dull and self-destructive time in between the flashes of insight.

Conventional theater offers conventional characters, and those characters are nearly always a little more integrated, symbolic, and predictable than people are. That doesn’t mean that they don’t offer a lot of important stuff to us. They do. But they are compressed, simplified, embroiled in problems that have solutions, resolutions. We can learn from them, laugh at them, feel deeply about those problems and even the characters themselves, such is the power of theater. But generally speaking (and I’m painting with a roller not even a broad brush), they don’t describe our lives at its most granular all that well. Maybe because that’s impossible for Observer Effect reasons…

But that’s why I have fallen so hard for “The Aliens.” It doesn’t feel compressed and simplified. It doesn’t offer typical psychological arcs or narrative lines. It begins to pick at our intermittence, our disjointedness, our impulses and our ennui, our memories and convenient fictions. And it makes a compelling play out of them, such is the power of theater.

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Christopher Isherwood, reviewing for the New York Times, compared the two central characters of “The Aliens,” KJ and Jasper, to a slacker version of Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, and he loves it: “Ms. Baker may just have the subtlest way with exposition of anyone writing for the theater today.”

But we always know that Didi and Gogo are fictional characters, wonderful and fictional, governed by Beckett’s logic and imagination. “The Aliens” is both more specific than Isherwood suggests in the review—I don’t see KJ and Jasper as reducible to “slackers”—and through that specificity, paradoxically enough, makes a leap toward the biggest of generalizations about human consciousness.

I don’t think those specifics are the result of “compassionate, truthful observation,’’ as Isherwood writes, though the wonder of the play is that it seems that way. I don’t think Baker sat at a cafe in some little Vermont town and reported what she saw. I think she excavated a lot more deeply than that and created a world that seems so real, especially in the cozy confines of CoHo Theater, you can touch it.

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Chris Murray and Bryce Earhart in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Rep

Chris Murray and Bryce Earhart in “The Aliens”/Owen Carey

Third Rail Repertory Theatre opened “The Aliens” at CoHo last night, and I liked so many things about the production, it’s hard to know where to begin. Just for starters, I liked Isaac Lamb’s singing and his finger tapping, Chris Murray’s long stares and swift shifts from self-possession to doubt, Bryce Earhart’s phone message and the slump and lean of his walk.

“The Aliens” is set in a little clearing behind a restaurant, the sort of place where employees might go and smoke, take some sun in the lawn chairs, or eat lunch at the picnic table, if it didn’t smell so much from the garbage cans. KJ (Lamb) and Jasper (Murray) hang out there, for reasons never explained. Maybe it’s the last best place.

KJ’s a college dropout, though he seems to know more than average about math, and he has some sort of psychological issue that makes it hard to get any traction in his life. He treats it with both traditional meds and mushrooms and sometimes with alcohol, though that seems to end badly. Jasper dropped out of high school, has girlfriends, reads Charles Bukowski and is nearly finished with his own first novel. Together, they formed a band that had a series of names, and although I personally would have voted for The Frogmen, Baker takes her title from another of the band’s identifiers, The Aliens, taken from the title of Bukowski poem. KJ is 30; I surmised that Jasper was a bit younger.

But these quick capsules of them? They aren’t that useful, because they lead to the very compression that the play undermines. They are an armature and a form of coloration. Baker doesn’t tell their stories; she shows the restless twitches of their minds, sublime and silly, and their efforts to understand what is happening to them, or, really, what is NOT happening to them.

A new employee at the restaurant enters this no man’s land to drop off the garbage and tell KJ and Jasper to scoot. Evan is still in high school, though he’s headed for Bates, a musician who is friendless and uncomfortable with himself and with that brittle self’s place in the world, the kind of kid you feel safe looking past because he seems so harmless. And they become friends of a sort, because despite their sparring and impulsiveness, both Jasper and KJ are warm-hearted, and their stories about themselves and the wisdom they’ve harvested from those stories amaze and inform Evan.

Lamb’s eyes are soft and safe. Murray’s moments of ease and kindness are punctuated with something more definite and pointed. And Evan becomes one of the gang, because with these two, awkwardness isn’t a problem. The only thing that’s important is honest reflection, maybe the only utopian aspect of “The Aliens.” Jasper reads from his novel; Lamb sings an old song of the Frogmen; they share and they enjoy the sharing.

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Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Rep

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in “The Aliens”/Owen Carey

Portland has had a couple of fine productions of Baker plays, Artists Rep’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” and Portland Playhouse’s “Body Awareness.” She’s a young playwright, born in 1981, who grew up in Amherst, Mass., graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and earned an MFA from Brooklyn College. Since graduating she’s been on a steep trajectory, winning various fellowships and getting the kind of early reviews for her plays that a playwright could only dream about.

Both “Body Awareness” and “Circle Mirror Transformation” dealt with “issues”—compassion, love, desire, the place of women, relationships—but they did so deftly, almost gently, with a lot of humor that managed to add to our understanding of what she was exploring not simply to divert us. They were also more conventional than “The Aliens,” in the style of the contemporary American play, with its short, sharp, occasionally oblique episodes.

They weren’t as crunchy as “The Aliens” or as risky. At one point in the second act, which takes a disturbing turn that I won’t go into here, at the beginning of the run, KJ talks to Evan about how, when he was five, he used to say the word “ladder” all day. He couldn’t stop. And one night, his mother (the only mention of his family in the play) came to his bed and held him. She told him he could say “ladder” all he wanted as loud as he wanted, and KJ re-enacts that moment, all the pain in it and all the pain since, maybe the best song of The Frogmen.

Lamb is transcendent in this moment, pushing himself and us many beats and decibels past what we’d consider appropriate. I wanted him to stop. I didn’t want him to stop. Director Tim True has a sense about these risky moments, and it will come as no surprise to those who’ve seen him perform himself to hear that he never underplays them, never glides past them, encourages the actors to take the leap.

The silences are long in “The Aliens,” too, as long as Pinter or Beckett, not that I’m making any direct comparisons. And I have no idea if this is just another experiment by a young playwright or something more programmatic, the attempt to bring our current insight into our psychology and its fragmentary nature, to the stage.

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Do real young men talk this way, think this way, joke this way, grieve this way, dream this way? The implication of Isherwood’s review three years ago (which, by the way, I think is really a good one) is that they do, and that Baker caught them in the act somehow.

I have no idea. Which young men? Pressed, I’d say that I don’t think any particular three young men would manifest this particular set of neuronal responses, I guess. But that’s not the point. What I recognize is the pattern (or maybe the lack of a pattern). How Murray’s Jasper can brood in the most profound way about his lost girlfriend one moment and flip into another mode the next, charming and dry and engaging. How we can almost see the wheels spinning inside Earhart’s head as his Evan contemplates the information he’s receiving, the behavior he is observing.

Recognizing the pattern, I’m willing to follow the particulars wherever they might lead, such is the power of theater.

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Chris Murray, foreground, and Joe Bolenbaugh in "Animals and Plants"

By Devin McCarthy

Recently, I saw the show “Animals and Plants” by Adam Rapp at Coho Productions, a show that is by turns hilarious and strange (especially in the second act).

Chris Murray plays Burris, a man with far to much energy for the cramped motel room trying to contain him. Joe Bolenbaugh plays Dantley, Burris’ partner, who seems more comfortable  stretched out on the bed waiting for something to happen. The smart dialog between the two is one of the highlights of  Rapp’s script. As they talk, Burris works out, using nunchucks, a shake weight, and a thighmaster (among other things), either to release some of his pent up energy or  to prepare for the event to come — a little drug deal.

Burris and Dantley seem totally stuck in this place, until Burris leaves for a bit while Dantley sleeps. And when he awakes, in the second half of the play, he finds he’s been joined by Cassandra, played by Nikki Weaver, a woman with her own strange sensibilities and a homicidal boyfriend. The show asks its audience to take a bizarre and hilarious journey, cramped inside that shabby motel room, where words and images and stories are flying almost as fast as the blizzard outside the door.

After seeing the show, I wanted to find out more about the production. “Animals and Plants” was co-produced by CoHo Productions and Chris Murray (last year they also collaborated on a trimmed down adaptation of “Hamlet”). CoHo is a unique  production company that invites local theater artists to propose projects to co-produce. Co-producers are responsible for all the artistic and technical aspects of a show, while CoHo supplies the theater itself and administrative,  marketing and revenue support.

Murray is a Portland-based actor. He is a member of Actor’s Equity (the theater actors guild) and a company member of Third Rail Repertory Theatre. He has performed in theaters throughout Portland and won a Drammy Award in 2006 for his portrayal of Shane in Artist Repertory Theatre’s Take Me Out.  Murray acts professionally full-time (though he supplements his downtime by teaching theater to teens).

I sat down with him to talk about “Animals and Plants,” theater in Portland and how he finds working as an actor here.

You have worked as an actor all over Portland: Artist Repertory Theatre, Portland Center Stage, Profile and you are a company member at Third Rail. How is producing a show different from acting? What’s drawing you to producing rather than just acting in other people’s shows?

The reason that I am producing is because Portland is a small market. It is hard to be dependent on casting directors for my livelihood and for my artistic creativity. Basically, there are just not enough roles for me as a union guy in town (though I have been really fortunate to get a bunch). I think there comes a point in time when you just have to start taking matters into your own hands and making theater happen, as opposed to waiting for the phone to ring, because as an actor that is what if feels like a lot.

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