cygnet productions

Our grande dame takes a bow

Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol, Part 2 of 2. As she completes "The Humans" and prepares a wedding, a Portland icon gets ready for a big move

In the year 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president elected to a second term in 40 years. The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture. Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a world champion, defeating Gary Kasparov. The Dallas Cowboys won their last Super Bowl. And Luisa Sermol returned from New York to her adopted home, Portland, Oregon.

“We lived in my parents’ basement again — they’re kind of my transitional housing (laughs)– until Rick found some work.” A year or so after she and her then-husband, Rick Waldron, arrived from New York, her daughter, Isabella, was born. In addition to being a new mom, Sermol started looking around and doing outreach work: the Haven Project, pairing underserved teens with professional actors, directors, and writers; Artists Rep’s Actors-to-Go; her continuing work with Portland Actors Conservatory, the training ground for new professional actors. Through this work she started to meet other theater artists in town, such as Lorraine Bahr and Haven founder Gretchen Corbett. Corbett subsequently cast Sermol in her production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Another relationship also facilitated her re-integration into the Portland theater scene, superseding all the others and becoming not just one of Sermol’s most productive artistic partnerships but also among her most enduring friendships: Louanne Moldovan. They had met when Sermol was in town doing Midsummer.

“Oh, I know! Hairdresser!” remembers Moldovan, “That’s how we knew each other. Because I went to the same hairdresser as her, Valerium, unbeknownst to each other. I was in there one day bringing a flyer to one of my shows as I always did, and he said, “Oh my gosh, you have to meet Luisa. She’s an actress and was in New York.”

Sermol concurs. “Louanne pops in and Valerium had wanted me to meet her. She’s handing out all these flyers for The Wild Party and you know Louanne. There’s all this energy.” Moldovan picks up the story: “You know me, I’m like, “Tell me all about yourself! What are you doing! Blah blah blah! And that’s how we first met, was through the hairdresser.”

Luisa Sermol: The grande dame. Photo: Owen Carey

When Sermol returned to Portland, opportunities for an Equity actress in town were not what they are today. But she remembered that Cygnet, a literary theater company, specialized in stage readings, which opened up possibilities. She re-established contact with Moldovan, who ran the company and was all over the idea. “She did the John Sayles piece about the truck drivers that Teddy Roisum was in. That was what we did first. Then we did a holiday show that was a hoot. Lot of funny material and singing and everything.” And the two became fast friends, cemented by going through pregnancy at the same time. “We went through pre-natal yoga together,” says Moldovan. “We went to Ringside and had big steaks together when we were craving protein.” That friendship — and creative partnership — continues to this day. (The day after Sermol’s current show, Artists Rep’s The Humans, closes, Cygnet will do a reading of The Holiday Show, which will feature Sermol, at Tabor Bread.)

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‘The Set-Up’: punch-drunk on stage

Poetry and fancy footwork enter the ring with Cygnet's adaptation of a Jazz Age rhyming narrative about the world of boxing

King Lear rose from his seat at the end of the sharply choreographed brawl that is The Set-Up, looked around the heath, smiled broadly and said, “I love this theater community. People will try anything.”

He was hardly alone. The enthusiasm was contagious Friday night in the seats surrounding Tim Stapleton’s boxing ring of a set in the little warehouse space of Shaking the Tree. Of course, the opening night house was packed with friends of the theater – in this case, Cygnet Productions, which is producing this newly adapted stage version of Joseph Moncure March‘s 1928 free-for-all of an epic poem – but I have the sense that a house full of strangers might have felt much the same. Or maybe not, because a lot of the show’s pleasure is in the way it plays around with theatrical conventions, updating and refreshing approaches that might seem buried in the past, and who better than a theatrical audience to appreciate something like that? Then again, the audience is no dummy. And whether this sort of fight club’s your bottle of liniment oil or not, it’s easy to see the thing packs a pretty good punch and is quick on its feet.

Pansy (Bobby Bermea) gets a breather between rounds after absorbing a beating. Photo: Owen Carey

Pansy (Bobby Bermea) gets a breather between rounds after absorbing a beating. Photo: Owen Carey

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Two queens were one too many in the fearfully dis-united kingdom of 16th century Britain. One, Elizabeth, had decided to return her country to the Protestantism her father Henry VIII had imposed on it. The other, Mary, favored the Catholicism that had reigned before Henry and still prevailed in most of the rest of Europe — including France, where she’d lived since childhood, safe from England’s wrenching back-and-forth religious wars, which left thousands dead with each shift of the political/religious winds.

Lorraine Bahr as Queen Elizabeth I (l) and Luisa Sermol as Mary, Queen of Scots in "Mary Stuart." Photo: Jack Wells.

Lorraine Bahr as Queen Elizabeth I (l) and Luisa Sermol as Mary, Queen of Scots in “Mary Stuart.” Photo: Jack Wells.

Rampant beheadings, massacres and purges in the name of seemingly minor doctrinal differences, terrorism… if all this sounds familiar, it’s because humans are depressingly slow to change our ways. Playwright Peter Oswald understands these parallels, and his adaptation of the great 19th century German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s fictionalized version of the battle between the dueling queens crackles with contemporary vitality, which director Elizabeth Huffman channels into the most powerful theater production I’ve seen this year:  Cygnet Productions and Northwest Classical Theatre’s Mary Stuart.

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