Damaso Rodriguez

Family fuss? It’s only human

In the comic drama "The Humans" at Artists Rep, Thanksgiving dinner with the Blakes just might knock the stuffing out of you

Maybe you missed it last year when that big musical about the Founding Fathers was the talk of the Tonys and just about anyplace else you turned. But while Hamilton was sweeping up most of the attention and a bunch of Tony Awards, including best new musical, a much smaller play was making its own mark: Stephen Karam’s family comedy-drama The Humans, which took the award for best new play, plus two more for best performers and one for best set design. If it never broke through as a pop-cultural phenomenon the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit has, The Humans has left its mark, and is likely to be produced many times for many years on many regional stages.

From left: Vana O’Brien (in wheelchair), Quinlan Fitzgerald (partially hidden), John San Nicolas, Luisa Sermol, Val Landrum (partially hidden), Robert Pescovitz. Photo: Russell J Young

On Saturday night it opened on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Stage after a week of preview performances, beating Hamilton to the Portland punch. (A few Portlanders got a first look at The Humans a little over a year ago, when The Reading Parlor performed an engaging and decidedly promising one-night staged reading of it in a little side room at Artists Rep.) The Hamilton road company will settle into Keller Auditorium for a run March 20-April 8 next year, and I can still hear the wails reverberating from frustrated potential ticket buyers who couldn’t get through on the phone lines when advance sales kicked off Nov. 17.

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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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Feathers and Teeth: monsters win

Artists Rep's challenging, bloody dramedy updates '80s gore flicks with a few laughs, some moral ambiguity, and a twist of kitsch

“What’s the moral of this story?”

Going into Sunday’s talkback, Feathers and Teeth director Dámaso Rodriguez had prepped this and other questions (perhaps to prevent audience meekness from forestalling the conversation? That’s happened before at Artists Rep).

“Trust no one,” someone ventured.

“Leave the pot buried,” suggested another audience member.

Then Rodriguez offered his own take: “Sometimes monsters win.”

This challenging, bloody dramedy by Charise Castro Smith is one of few to depict that literally. There are literal monsters with feathers and teeth, and though we never see them, we’re convinced of their presence by snarls, growls, and the clattering of the lid of the large cooking pot that’s meant to contain them. Much like Little Shop of Horrors‘ Audrey II, these creatures’ carnivorous appetites grow through the course of the story until (spoiler) they’re ready to prey on people. This sinister critter whimsy hearkens back to the plots of many ’80s movies, from Gremlins to Chuckie—as do the puddles of blood that bathe the stage and anoint all characters as somewhat complicit, from The Father’s first red-handed entrance to The Culprit’s final exit, flashing a bloody cold shoulder while walking out the door.

Olson, Pierce, and Hennessy, breaking bread and hearts. Photo: Russell J Young

Aside from the gore, this is a family story of an aspiring stepmother, a sullen teenager, and their conflicted fiancee/father who’s trying to bring them together. Throw in an uptight German Boy Scout neighbor for added character and comedy. Agatha Day Olson plays the teen, Darius Pierce is the dad. Artists Rep mainstay Sara Hennessy plays Carol, and her son Dámaso J. Rodriguez plays the neighbor boy—and that name should sound familiar, because that kid is also director Dámaso Rodriguez’s son. Husband, wife and son all collaborating on this play adds a meta-dynamic of family to the show.

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Monkey business at Artists Rep

In Nick Jones's tick-tock "Trevor," Jon San Nicolas is the most human chimp in town. Laugh, nervously, at your own discretion.

Two scenes:

– On Saturday evening, before opening night of Nick Jones’s sort-of-comedy Trevor at Artists Repertory Theatre, I’m sitting at Gilda’s Italian Restaurant in the Commodore Hotel building, across the street from the theater. I’m here because a Portland Timbers soccer match is beginning soon just down the street at Civic Stadium (I refuse to use the ballpark’s current corporate nom-de-plume), and in order to find parking for less than twenty bucks my wife and I decide to show up early and spend a good deal more to have a nice dinner beforehand. The place is packed with pre-theater folk (Profile Theatre has a show tonight, too), a mob of soccer fans all dressed in green, and presumably a few people who just happened to make reservations for 6 o’clock on this particular Saturday. The din’s incredible, like the high-pitched thrumming of generators at an electrical power station, and the servers are hustling around at warp speed, taking orders, carrying platters, running filled wine glasses upstairs and down. In the open kitchen you can see the cooks moving in an orchestrated whir like the blades on an electric mixer, chop-chop-chop. What stands out is the professional efficiency of the staff, who move quickly and unobtrusively from table to table, checking on the wine, refilling the bread plate or the water glass, whisking away dirty plates, bringing a new fork if needed. On a hectic evening, only by running as a well-rehearsed team can a restaurant staff create the illusion of ease and calm and keep the whole edifice from falling into chaos.

Hamblin, San Nicolas, Luch, Gibson: couch potatoes and more. Photo: Owen Carey

Hamblin, San Nicolas, Lucht, Gibson: couch potatoes and more. Photo: Owen Carey

– On Sunday morning, as I sit down at my kitchen nook to begin to write this piece, a sonic boom sounds from the dining room behind me, and a blur of black fur, ears bent back like paper-airplane wings, streaks to the back of the house. On the dining room floor is a potted plant, messily unpotted – ceramic shards are scattered like little poison darts around the room. Dirt is blanketing the rug, burrowing beneath it, unaccountably splattered on windows and sills seemingly a safe distance from the scene of the crime.

I mention these two occurrences because (a) the success of Artists Rep’s Trevor is extraordinarily tied to the skills of its running crew, who have an unbelievable mess to set up and then clean up nightly and must run the show with the precision of a madcap farce, although that’s not precisely what Trevor is; and (b) if a five-pound, five-month-old kitten can inflict this much damage in a dining room, how much more havoc can a 150-pound grown chimpanzee create if let out on the loose?

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Making American theater 1940s again

Reviews: Center Stage's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Artists Rep's "The Skin of Our Teeth" revive 1940s classics. Surprise: they're contemporary, too.

“Stella!” the woolly mammoth roars, and the American culture of the 1940s escapes into the 21st century by the skin of its teeth. Surprisingly, it feels right at home.

Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre opened the final shows of their current seasons over the weekend with classic pieces that bookend that strange and transformative decade of American history. Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (at Artists Rep) opened on Broadway in October 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (at Center Stage) opened in December 1947, as the nation and the world were still getting used to the war’s end and trying to establish some new sort of normalcy.

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

By far the more optimistic play is the one actually created in wartime, Wilder’s audacious comic overview of humankind’s stumbling progress from its beginnings. The Skin of Our Teeth is something of a rallying cry in bleak times, a promise that even when we take five steps backward, we usually manage to make them up and take a tentative sixth step forward. A Streetcar Named Desire is steeped in the realities that settle in after the crisis has been overcome, and the sense of progress that seemed to sustain us seems suddenly to have been illusory, a curdled dream: how quickly we are wired to forget. Restless for Utopia now and embittered that it doesn’t magically appear, we make ourselves miserable. It is part of Williams’ genius that the misery he creates is so attractive.

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‘The Sound of a Voice’ and ‘Cuba Libre’: Music for theater

Theatre Diaspora and Artists Repertory Theatre productions show the power -- and limitations -- of music in theater.

As if Oregon didn’t have enough music performances in the overabundance of concerts happening onstage this fall, music is also a big part of the state’s theater scene, from currently playing musicals like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and 42nd Street, to Portland Playhouse’s hip hop play How We Got On, a pair of musicals at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and many more — including the lavishly produced Cuba Libre at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre and the bare bones staged reading of The Sound of a Voice, which concludes its two-performance run at Portland Center Stage on Saturday.

Music is the first thing we experience in Theatre Diaspora’s staged reading of David Henry Hwang’s 1983 playlet. Even before we hear the sound of a voice. Larry Tyrell takes the compact stage at the Armory’s intimate Ellyn Bye Theater and plays the bamboo Japanese flute. Along with last Saturday’s lowering clouds, the haunting shakuhachi and spare set (merely a cloth-draped folding rice paper screen and a bowl of yellow chrysanthemums) created just the right suspended, otherworldly mood for this 45-minute fable.

Given the prominence of music in this play’s plot, it also shouldn’t surprise anyone that Hwang turned it into a short opera with music by Philip Glass, with whom he later collaborated on the science fiction chamber opera 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, the first show of his I ever saw, back in 1988. The Tony- and Obie-award winning Hwang knows from music, having co-created many operas and Broadway musicals and being most famous for a show with an obvious operatic connection, M. Butterfly.

Chisao Hata and Larry Toda star in 'The Sound of a Voice.' Photo: Naomi Hawthorne.

Chisao Hata and Larry Toda star in ‘The Sound of a Voice.’ Photo: Naomi Hawthorne.

This show begins with a lone, unnamed traveler arriving at a remote forest cabin in what’s evidently pre-industrial Japan, since it’s described as a two day horse ride from the nearest village. He’s greeted by its sole inhabitant, a woman (also never named) who offers him a room for the night before he continues on his journey the next day. In the morning, she encourages him to stay longer, he helps with some chores, they get to know each other, but not too much, as he’s mysteriously evasive about his past and she doesn’t much more specific about hers. Gradually we learn that his evasion is partly motivated by deception about the real reason for his appearance. As we learn more about the pair, and they about each other, conflicts emerge, and eventually a confrontation erupts — though not just with each other, but rather with their own inner contradictions.

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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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