Damon Kupper

Berlin Diary: chasing ghosts

Andrea Stolowitz's play about family history and the continuing shadow of the Holocaust is funny, smart, and haunting

Berlin Diary, Andrea Stolowitz’s engrossing and surprisingly funny theatrical detective story that opened Saturday at CoHo Theatre, is a play about memory and loss and the force of history, and about the limitations and possibilities of the theater itself. A deep delve into the Portland playwright’s family history and its intersection with traumatic events in public life, it’s prompted by the discovery in the U.S. National Holocaust Museum archives of a diary her Jewish great-grandfather, Dr. Max Cohnreich, kept in 1939, three years after he had escaped with his immediate family to New York as part of the larger family’s own mini-diaspora, leaving Berlin for Argentina, America, and elsewhere while the getting was still good.

After ignoring this evidence of a possibly altered reality for several years, Stolowitz decided to follow it into its murky past. She spent eight months in Berlin, running down clues hinted at in the diary, trying to understand what happened to her extended family, which lore insisted had been fortunate – everyone got out alive – and trying to discover, in the process, why her family seemed so distant and disassociated from one another, not at all the close happy bosom of a family that Stolowitz wished so fervently it were.

Erin Leddy and Damon Kupper, history detectives. Photo: Owen Carey

What she discovered through many often frustrating interviews and a mass of new information lodged free from city archives shook Stolowitz’s sense of what she thought she knew. It also shook her sense of what others might want to know. “I suppose what’s gone is gone,” an aunt sighs at one point, and yet Stolowitz’s growing conviction is that that’s not true: what’s past is crucial to the present and future; time moves and shapes itself in successive and coexisting tidal waves. Forgetting or denying is an evasion, a burial of the communal self, that broods and bruises.


“Or,” what? a comedy of opposites

Third Rail leaps into Liz Duffy Adams' quizzical neo-Restoration comedy, ricocheting between eithers and ors

Or, the Liz Duffy Adams play that opens Third Rail Repertory’s season, makes good on a promise included in a prologue, delivered here by the ever-engaging Maureen Porter as she enters from the back of the house at Imago Theatre. The brief speech serves to acclimate us to the heightened yet playful language of the play, as well as to hint at the method to Adams’ stylistic madness. The idea, we’re told, is to “ricochet between a dense array of opposites.”

Or you might call it a mash-up. Take an intriguing historical figure — 17th-century poet, playwright and spy Aphra Behn, noted as Britain’s first female professional writer — whip up some suspenseful plot points suggested by a sketchy biography and a tumultuous era, fold in some door-slamming farce, and wrap it all in the frisky wit of Restoration comedy. The combination plays to several of the various strengths that Third Rail has demonstrated over the years, for the thoughtful and the madcap, the silly and sublime, the sociologically resonant and the fancifully theatrical…

Maureen Porter as playwright, spy, and al-around quizzical kid. Photo: Owen Carey

Maureen Porter as playwright, spy, and al-around quizzical kid. Photo: Owen Carey

Or, — the comma purposefully included — is a fitting title. On one level, it’s a pithy snippet from the windy, wishy-washy titles common to Restoration-era plays, their alternative interpretive options hinged by that conjunction. More meaningfully, it alludes to the plethora of possibilities opening up in Aphra’s world. Should she be spy or writer? Kept woman or commissioned artist? Will she love men or women? Will she be rebel or loyalist? And are those she meets what they seem to be, or do words, wardrobes and even histories deceive? Considering the subject, who biographer Janet Todd described as “not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks,” the abundance of questions seems appropriate.

“Ors divide less than they subtly link,” asserts that aforementioned prologue. “We all embody opposites within.” And so Adams doesn’t explore choices so much as she establishes the unity of opposites, as alternatives and deceptions and intentions all turn themselves inside out, to serendipitous effect.

Or she could just be trying to show audiences a good time. The majority of the narrative centers on a single night, in which Behn juggles a budding relationship with a young actress, the amorous interests of King Charles II, and the sudden reappearance of a former lover who may or may not be involved in a Catholic plot to kill Charles, all while trying to meet a dawn deadline to finish a play she fervently hopes will launch a path-breaking career. As directed by Philip Cuomo, the action is brisk without ever feeling unduly frantic, aided by the efficiency of Behn’s rustic plank-floor lodging in Kristeen Crosser’s scenic design and the apparently protean quality of Jessica Bobillot’s costuming. And Portland theater has few pleasures as reliable as Maureen Porter in a lead role; she imbues Behn with an unforced elegance and charm, a silky-strong determination, and a social agility that would serve anyone well in either espionage or theater. Whenever Behn has a choice to make, a balance to strike between competing desires and demands, the glint in Porter’s eyes makes tactical calculation look like the sweetest of human impulses.

Or you might think that Porter doesn’t wind up as the star after all, as one audience member suggested during a post-show discussion last weekend. It’s not (as he seemed to think) that King Charles takes over, narratively or thematically; Behn writes Charles as a rather benign monarch, more a sensualist than a power monger. William Scot, Behn’s back-from-the-dead ex-lover, is a schemer, but a has-been. And Lady Davenant, whose company offers Behn the theatrical opportunity she craves, doesn’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise but only makes a cameo. Yet Damon Kupper embodies all those roles  — especially the matronly motormouth Davenant — with such relish, while never really hamming it up, that he does wind up the show’s most memorable performer.

Newman, Porter, Kupper: Ors come in threes. Photo: Owen Carey

Newman, Porter, Kupper: Ors come in threes. Photo: Owen Carey

Or you could make a case for Amy Newman as the most arresting changeling here. She appears as bearded, gnome-like jailer, and a slightly bow-backed servant woman with a put-upon air, but shines especially as Nell Gwynne, a young woman who dresses like a boy, talks with a cheeky, slangy wit and displays a sexual frankness that underlines Adams’ implicit comparison of the post-Puritan-repression 1660s with the swingin’ 1960s. Porter’s serene surefootedness is essential to ground the enterprise, but it’s the gender-and-costume shape-shifting by Newman and Kupper that provide this production its comedic zip.

Or, to take another view I can support nearly as much, does all the mad dashing in and out of doors add to the ideas Adams is working with, or does it just distract from them? At times it seems just an excuse to do the play with such a small cast, rather than something intrinsic to the material, and it calls extra attention to the manufacture of the entertainment in progress — which, along with a sprinkling of self-referential theater jokes, feels gratuitous. Furthermore, the sense of pure momentum the farcical elements engender actually saps some of the necessary tension from the predicaments the story presents. There’s that plot against the king, but never a sense of mounting danger or any danger at all, really. Behn is suddenly saddled with that ultra-tight deadline, yet there’s no tick-tock anxiety built up around it.

Ors — or at least Or, — not only subtly link but slightly muddle. And the balancing and blending of the heady and the headlong leaves this feeling less substantial than it might have been, though I’m inclined to think that’s due to the writing more than the production itself.

Or maybe I just need to see it again and keep unifying those opposites.


Or, continues through October 10 by Third Rail Rep at its new home space in Imago Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.


Let the ‘Night’ light shine

Conor McPherson's 'The Night Alive' at Third Rail: amid a shambles, a triumph of an anti-Pinter play

There’s a bad guy, a barging-in stranger, who swings a mean and brutish hammer. There’s a woman of unkempt virtue, which of course means there are men of unkempt virtue, too. Squalor, booze, little dodges and petty thefts, things that just seem to happen, abruptly, because that’s the way life is on the seedier side of the great economic divide. And dark laughter at extreme deeds performed and witnessed in head-slapping, matter-of-fact ways.

No, it’s not a Harold Pinter play. Irish playwright Conor McPherson, whose scruffily romantic drama The Night Alive has just opened in a sparkling, intensely intimate and satisfying production by Third Rail Rep, no doubt knows his Pinter well. You can tell from the leaps and elisions and question marks and absurd juxtapositions, and by that odd theatrical sense that, even if you’re not quite sure what’s happening or why, the thing is shaped the way it ought to be: this is its story, and it’s sticking to it.

Kupper (left) and O'Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

Kupper (left) and O’Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

But something very unPinterlike is also going on in The Night Alive, and for lack of a better word I’ll just call it grace. McPherson’s characters, for all their flaws and foolishness, are moral strivers, yearning to become their better selves. That posits that there is a better self, something beyond the purely animal and self-preservative, and that achieving it is both worthy and possible. This is not territory that Pinter treads. In McPherson’s world, unlike Pinter’s, something lies beyond.


Bedraggled, grubby, and beautiful

Third Rail's 'Beauty Queen of Leenane' revels in McDonagh's great, grim humor

When first we hear the phrase “the beauty queen of Leenane” in Martin McDonagh’s mid-1990s play of that name, the moment is rich with irony and ambiguity. By this point we’ve spent some time with Maureen, seen how trapped she is in a bitterly dysfunctional relationship with her mother, how bedraggled she is by her thankless toil and loveless life, how she yearns for some romantic completion beyond the mere few kisses she’s had in her 40 years.

But then there is Pato Dooley, in her kitchen late one night, joshing and flirting, making his intentions clear.

Trying to explain why he’d never before shown an interest in her, Pato says he’d always thought who was he to approach “the beauty queen of Leenane.”

At this point in the grubby-looking but brilliantly executed Third Rail Rep production that opened last Friday in the Winningstad Theatre, actress Maureen Porter’s face registers a perfect mixture of surprise, pleasure, disbelief, caution and suspicion. Is he being facetious and mean? Or is he the answer to a life of pain and longing?

Kupper and Porter: a surprise romance. Photo: Owen Carey

Kupper and Porter: a surprise romance. Photo: Owen Carey

Neither, as it turns out. Pato is sincere, seeking a salve to his own loneliness. But, unsurprisingly, this fledgling romance faces an impediment.


Corrib Theatre’s Irish Immersion

The burgeoning company's recent staged readings cover the “gift of gab," the curse of “The Troubles,” and the nation's obsession with football.

Before we talk about Corrib Theatre (which of course we will, at length) can I test you with a trivia question?

Why does one kiss the Blarney Stone?

“For luck,” you say?

No no no no no.

You kiss the Stone to get “the gift of gab”—which allows you to spin your good, or ill, or abysmal luck into such transcendent phrases of poetry that you end up enjoying it either way.

Damon Kupper poses for 'A Night in November.' Photo by Owen Carey.

Damon Kupper poses for ‘A Night in November.’ Photo by Owen Carey.

Of course, different cultures hold different oral traditions; some state the fewest and truest words, some spit the angriest and strongest. But generally not the Irish. They favor a kind of lyrical loquaciousness, saying the same thing in different words over and over, verse-chorus-verse, glorying in metaphor and syllabic structures that lilt like the trill of a penny-whistle. Once they get going, it’s impossible to stop them; it’s as though they have nowhere else to be.

Corrib Theatre (pronounced “CAR-rub”) was formed last year under the artistic direction of theater educator and director Gemma Whalen. It’s a company without a brick-and-mortar headquarters that presents staged readings of contemporary Irish plays at different locations around the city. In these no-frills shows, there’s nothing to distract from the actors’ expression and the plays’ Blarney-kissed cadence—delivered, of course, in appropriate brogue.

Sebastian Barry’s Tales of Ballycumber, Corrib’s first offering of 2014, was read a few weeks ago at the Lumber Room by a five-member cast (Todd Van Voris, Karl Hanover, Luisa Sermol, Rolland Walsh, and Annabel Cantor). Staged as a series of two-person conversations, the play makes a perfect crash course in the “gift of gab.”

First, the teenage Evans (Walsh) visits with his neighbor Nicholas (Hanover) over tea. After he leaves, we’re told he turns up in a frosty field, mortally wounded. His father Andrew (Van Voris) confronts Nicholas at his home, then retreats to attend further to his still-dying son. Nicholas’s sister Tania (Sermol) swings by to update her brother on the boy’s condition and the village’s response, and finally, Nicholas receives visitations from two ghosts: the newly-departed Evans and a well-known local preteen cancer casualty (Cantor).

The first conversation of the sequence is the longest, and deceptively mundane. Lonely bachelor Nicholas Farquahar chews young Evans’ ear at length, his run-on sentences ranging from sprightly pastoral imagery (the jackdaws, the daffodils) to grave village gossip (Patsy’s brother killed himself) to paranormal sightings (a specter once appeared in Nicholas’s car) to religious prejudices (you can’t trust a Catholic). Evans counters by rhapsodizing about his crush on a blue-eyed girl and sharing “facts,” like “Elvis’s great-great-great-great grandfather was born in Hacketstown.” Within this prattle leap little grace-notes of foreboding: memories of a tuberculosis epidemic that wiped out most of the town, mention of two suicides, Nicholas’s farm falling to ruin, even fights and deaths among his property’s birds.

When Evans’ father Andrew (Van Voris) arrives, he demands to know what Nicholas and his son talked about just before Evans’ (possibly self-inflicted) injury. Flummoxed, Nicholas insists that it was just idle chatter, and the audience—having heard it—has to agree. Sure, Evans was mooning over a girl, but it seemed ordinary enough for a teen. Much of Andrew’s and Nicholas’s talk is a meta-conversation that points up the, urm, curse of gab: how can you be sure something you said didn’t inadvertently cause calamity?

The source of Evans’ wounds remains a mystery until his ghost reveals the truth. But in the meantime, Andrew talks of regional conflict (shootings in Dublin) and shares memories of Evans as a child piquing his parental anxieties. Then Nicholas and his sister Tanya argue over which of their parents was must abusive and share memories of a village child-molester. Tanya and the girl ghost both describe Ballycumber’s uncanny compulsion to decorate young people’s deathbeds in football (soccer) paraphernalia. The discussions are so expansive, so detailed, and so stream-of-consciousness, hearing them has the effect of one long camera shot panning through the town, in and out cottage windows, over frosty green hills. In the tradition of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, a thousand words are worth a picture.

Marie Jones’ A Night in November, a one-man show starring Damon Kupper, opened last weekend at Kell’s Irish Pub…and soundly checks the prior title’s romanticized depiction of the Irish as eloquent, wistful tea-sippers in quaint townships. This show, in contrast, profiles men of action. Sponsored very appropriately by the Timbers, it critically examines the country’s culture of competition, both on and off the football (soccer) pitch. The Irish are preparing to play the Italians in the World Cup, while paramilitary forces from the UDA (Protestants) and the IRA (Catholics) battle in the streets. Humble dole clerk and football fan Kenneth McCallister (Kupper) attends a Belfast game and watches in shock as Protestant fans—including his father-in-law—burst into sectarian slurs, taunting Catholics about a recent massacre and essentially making sport of The Troubles.

A Night in November amplifies the rumblings of unrest from Tales of Ballycumber to an out-loud shout. We hear much more about Catholic/Protestant bigotry, unemployment, and violence. We’re shown drunken carousing and hints of hooliganism. While these aspects of Irish identity touch Ballycumber, too, we’re shown that they absolutely rack far-north Belfast. “Every day,” remarks Kenneth, “I check under the car for explosive devices.”

Kupper achieves no small feat in this role. At times, he plays multiple characters bandying short lines back and forth faster than soccer passes (“Where?” “There.” “Where?” “There!”) Spatially, he’s also on the spot, weaving left and looking right, then vice-versa, to give the impression of a dynamic interaction. As if that weren’t enough, he’s speaking a (partly) different language—to the extent that the program contains a glossary. “Billy Boys” are Protestants and “Feens” and “Taigs” are unkind words for Catholics. Other unique terms—like “crack” to mean a lively scene—aren’t listed and must be discerned through context clues. We certainly get to see Kupper sweat, but to be fair, that nervous energy suits his primary character, Kenneth.

Ballycumber and November are both contemporary Irish works, but the former feels timeless while the latter is relatively current, set in ’93-’94 and referencing organizations that continue activity to this day. While Ballycumber‘s Nicholas fixates on philosophy and nature, November‘s Kenneth makes sense of the world within the trappings of modern society: the car, the stadium, the airport…the country club, the city, the office, the national news. As Kupper brings Kenneth to life, November pulls us into the foreign-but-familiar Irish present—complete with suggestions on how to improve the future.


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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