Dana Green

A new way to ask “what if”

The Armory's latest play "Constellations" makes "the multiverse" more accessible by adding an age-old element, romance.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, but he’s married.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, and he’s available, but he’s not into her.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, and he’s available, and he’s into her, and their relationship begins. What are the odds?

Nick Payne’s Constellations might be a heartwarming rom-com if it weren’t for the play’s extremely unusual setting—a series of parallel universes that contain potentially-infinite variations of the lovers’ story.

The “multiverse,” as it’s often called, is a trending theory of physics that proposes that the reality we’re living in is basically just one in a stack of non-identical, concurrently unfolding copies of reality, wherein different circumstances play out among the same participants. And musing about the multiverse seems to be hot right now. Science broaches the discussion with The Large Hadron Collider in Cern, created to seek the “god particle”; with Schroedinger’s ill-fated feline; and with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Science fiction (or as some scholars rightfully prefer to call it, “speculative fiction” or spec-fic) uses the theory to buoy its overarching “what-ifs”: What if the world were different than it is? What if the world is different than we think?

A sci-fi state of mind is emphasized—nay, maximized—by the set in this production. A giant raised grid of perfectly-spaced squares (think Tron, The Matrix, or even a honeycomb) curves artfully from backdrop to foreground, from ceiling to floor, waterfalling off the front edge of the stage. A few of its squares function as cubbyholes that offer up props (for instance, pairs of shoes) at appropriate moments, then reabsorb any matter the actors throw into them, like so many scrambled eggs materializing from nowhere in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sound, too, is a crucial component. Each new scenario is cued by a sort of “whoosh, clank,” as if the cubbyholes of the grid are being invisibly realigned and locked into place, opening and closing pathways so new stimuli can enter the space.

Dana Greene and Silas Weir Mitchell in “Constelations”: many possibilities. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye

Standing against this epic gridscape symbolizing the universe’s unseen pattern and flow, Marianne and Roland look strikingly small. But gradually, magnetically, they draw us into their sympathies, and hurtle us toward a heartbreaking conclusion that we keep hoping they can somehow—maybe through a glitch in the matrix?—manage to avoid.

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3 hijackers, 25 strangers, no NPCs

CoHo and playwright Tommy Smith's 's D.B. Cooper play "db" delivers the goods

Do you…

  • … have a nostalgic or forensic fascination with D.B. Cooper, an airplane hijacker and bank robber who parachuted from a Portland-based flight to freedom in 1971 and was never found?
  • … think that Mad Men would’ve been pretty two-dimensional without Peggy?
  • … grit your teeth through True Detective‘s plot-holes just to enjoy Matthew McConaghey’s caustic existential rants, and do you yearn to hear that dialogue style in a stronger story?
  • … have a thing for eternal enigmas and alternate realities, like Schrodinger’s Cat, the Mandela Affect, et cetera? Having given up on proving which thing is true, can you just appreciate the permanent uncertainty?
  • … sometimes wish your theater seat would rumble and quake while the lights flash, briefly transforming the play you’re seeing into an amusement park ride?

Then db, onstage now at CoHo Theatre, may be just the play for you!

It’s no coincidence that Tommy Smith and Teddy Bergman’s script for db, and CoHo’s premiere staging of it, both work on so many levels. Inspired by a life-long fascination with the D.B. Cooper legend, Smith and Bergman first developed a heavily-researched three-hour staged reading that fleshed out at least 10 different robbery suspects. With some workshopping, Smith whittled the script down to to a taut 75-minute play that proposes just three versions of the elusive Cooper character: a bipolar businessman who acquired the money to lure himself a wife, an out-of-work Vietnam vet with debts, and a transgender aviator who needed the cash for her surgery.

Duffy Epstein and Dana Green. Photo: Owen Carey

Even once the play was in production, with Isaac Lamb directing, they continued to perfect the writing. Their last revision, Smith revealed at Sunday’s talkback, happened just ten days before opening! While such rigor approaches neurosis, the payoff in this case is great. This heist story, which would easily lend itself to a trite, testosterone-drunk action flick  or a series like Unsolved Mysteries, becomes, with deft and diligent handling, a complex yet compelling piece of theater.

But how?

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Keeping up with the Joneses

Will Eno's Chekhovian comedy at Third Rail hovers in the mortal zone: It's only love, and that is all. Why do they feel the way they do?

There they are, the four of them, up in some little town near the mountains, sitting outside, breathing the crisp air, chattering maybe pointlessly or maybe not, grating on one another’s nerves, watching their lives slowly slip away.

And, yes, it’s a comedy.

The Realistic Joneses, Will Eno’s circuitous and allusive play that opened Friday night at Third Rail Rep, is a sort of Chekhov of the suburbs, or more accurately of the forgotten corners of small-town America, a play of puzzled emotions and ambitions so far lost that they can’t quite be put into words anymore. What was that I wanted to do and be, again, before life interrupted?

All Jones, all the time: Green, O'Connell, Pierce, Ryan. Photo: Owen Carey

All Jones, all the time: Green, O’Connell, Pierce, Ryan. Photo: Owen Carey

As with Chekhov, nothing much happens in The Realistic Joneses, and the world shifts. The play begins with one of those funny-awkward encounters. Bob and Jennifer Jones are sitting outside on their patio chairs, involved in what seems their ordinary game of forced cheerfulness (on her part) and passive aggression (on his) when the clatter of an overturning garbage can sounds offstage and John and Pony burst around the corner, all cheery and bearing a bottle of wine. They’re the new neighbors, and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re the Joneses, too.

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‘Othello’: as the world turns

At Portland Center Stage, the action turns, slowly, on Iago's dime. But does it give no quarter?

During his years at the helm of Portland Center Stage, artistic director Chris Coleman has shown a keen instinct for the striking stage image, and he crafts a couple yet again at the start of his production of Othello, which opened last weekend on the Gerding Theater main stage.

As two characters, Iago and Roderigo, enter at the beginning of the play, a flickering torch held aloft contrasts the darkness and the glowering castle walls of Scott Fyfe’s imposing scenic design. But what their brief dialogue illuminates most is the essential character of Iago, who tells Roderigo forthrightly, “I am not what I am.” Flagbearer to Othello, he is bitter that the general has passed him over for a promotion, and he hints at plans for revenge: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him.”

Gavin Hoffman's Iago, turning events to his own purposes. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Gavin Hoffman’s Iago, turning events to his own purposes. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Turning provides the show’s next visually arresting moment, as that great gray-brown faux-stone edifice behind them begins to rotate, showing interior instead of exterior, and also one of its chief themes. The duplicitous Iago turns to the audience with one face, in openly villainous soliloquies and asides, and to the play’s other characters in another, as the much admired “honest Iago.” His schemes, in turn, turn Othello, curdling his innocent virtue into naive vengefulness and making this play – despite its relatively low kill count compared to some others – the most ethically unsettling of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

That impressive set repeatedly turns this way and that, indicating changes of scene and underlining changes of tone, and providing yet more engaging visuals, as characters stride confidently through arches and along parapets of the moving assemblage. But the more we grow accustomed to the grinding noise of the stage turntable, the more we realize that this handsome yet somewhat stiff production doesn’t deliver the sense of grinding inevitability, the stomach-turning blend of dread and clarity, that makes a truly memorable Othello.

Though Othello, “the Moor of Venice,” gets top billing (it’s his downfall that is the heart of the tragedy, after all), the play’s narrative engine and its real star is Iago, among the greatest villains in all of stage literature.

The part seems an ideal one for Gavin Hoffman, the Portland native who moved back to town a few years ago and has distinguished himself in such productions as Fifth of July with Profile Theatre and Clybourne Park last season at PCS. What augured best for this match was his Drammy-winning turn in The Tripping Point, Shaking the Tree Studio’s marvelous set of liberally reinterpreted fairy tales for the 2012 Fertile Ground festival. In the Matt Zrebski-penned solo vignette To Cape, Hoffman portrayed both the big bad Wolf and Red, in a dialog that occurs while the latter already is in the stomach of the former. Alternately feral and conflicted, innocent and sly, that performance showed an ability to play both sides of a coin, much as the Iago role does.

Daver Morrison as Othello: the mighty, fallen. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Daver Morrison as Othello: the mighty, fallen. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Four years ago at Artists Rep, Todd Van Voris played Iago as a cold calculator able to feign an avuncular warmth and trustworthiness, as a man who understands the codes of social interaction and the emotional levers of behavior precisely because he sees them from such a distance. In 2008 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Dan Donohue’s Iago was an easygoing sociopath, likably relaxed in the company of others, then in private, impishly delighted at his ability to think several steps ahead of everyone else. (Sorry to say, I missed Michael Mendelson’s crack at the part, in Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s 2012 production directed by former Royal Shakespeare Company associate director Bill Alexander.)

Hoffman, by contrast, plays him more as a soldier, a man’s man whose upright posture hides a stunted soul. Hoffman shows a fox-like charm at some moments (smoothly conniving Roderigo under the guise of friendship; playing the mild sycophant to maintain Othello’s trust and the reluctant moralist to plant seeds of doubt in him) and a crocodile’s remorselessness at others (as at the end, when he observes the lethal effects of his handiwork with a smug grin), but overall there’s a kind of gray-toned quality to this portrayal. Psychologically, there’s a good argument for minimizing the difference in Iago’s affect, as Hoffman does here: He feels so justified in his actions that he need not put on much of an act to fool others, nor emphasize his villainy when confessing his schemes to the audience. Dramatically, though, it could use a bit more juice, lest Iago come to seem more disgruntled bureaucrat than grand villain.

Goaded by Iago, soldierly tempers flare. From left: Jared Miller, Timothy Sekk, Chris Harder. Photo: Patrick Weishempel

Goaded by Iago, soldierly tempers flare. From left: Jared Miller, Timothy Sekk, Chris Harder. Photo: Patrick Weishempel

The other performances are a mixed bag. Daver Morrison shows us Othello’s descent in a steadily slumping gait and rising twitchiness, but speaks as though his throat is perpetually clenched. Nikki Coble’s Desdemona is strong in her befuddlement at Othello’s anger and in her pleas for mercy, but in earlier scenes is such a simple sunny innocent that her presence barely registers. Roderigo is a lovestruck sap and a born dupe, but Leif Norby makes him likably so. And there are very good smaller turns by Bill Christ as Desdemona’s angry father, Brabantio, Damon Kupper as a Venetian senator, and Del Lewis as the Duke.

But the finest performance is delivered by recent Portland transplant Dana Green as Iago’s ill-fated wife, Emilia, who comes across as more colorful and credibly multi-dimensional than any other character. She’s funny, cynical, slightly coarse; she’s no saint, but she knows right from wrong and is not entirely shocked yet still genuinely aghast when she recognizes the extent of her husband’s estrangement from such notions. Just weeks ago, Green co-starred with Amy Newman in the taut and powerful drama Gidion’s Knot for Third Rail Rep, yet her look, voice and affect all are so different here that I didn’t recognize her until looking through the playbill much later.

There’s a good chance the rest of the production might catch up with Green. This is a big show, with big emotions, and could well be the kind that will open up over the course of the run, growing more assured and vigorous, looser and more lifelike. Between Fyfe’s set, Susan E. Mickey’s sumptuous costumes, Peter Maradudin’s lighting, and fight scenes sharply choreographed by Kendall Wells, it’s already quite a fine thing to look at. Perhaps, unlike Iago’s schemes, it will all take a turn for the best.

From left: Nikki Coble as Desdemona, Morrison, Jim Vadala and Ricardy Charles Fabre as soldiers, Dana Green as Emilia. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

From left: Nikki Coble as Desdemona, Morrison, Jim Vadala and Ricardy Charles Fabre as soldiers, Dana Green as Emilia. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Fight night: Unraveling ‘Gidion’s Knot’

Boom! Third Rail's new two-hander is like a boxing match in a fifth-grade classroom.

Whatever else a two-hander play happens to be about, it’s almost always about a fight. It could, of course, be about two people united in blissful harmony, but then it wouldn’t be a play, because plays imply action, and action implies conflict.

So let’s place Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ intermissionless hour-and-a-half drama pitting a fifth-grade teacher against an upset mother, inside a metaphorical boxing ring. The fighters land lots of blows, parry quite a few, and show off some fancy footwork. Something primal’s going on, an intellectual bloodlust that gets in your nostrils and stimulates your lower brain. Sock it to her!

Green (top) and Newman. Photo: Owen Carey

Green (top) and Newman. Photo: Owen Carey

Amy Newman as Heather, the teacher, and Dana Green as Corryn, the mom, are good fighters in Third Rail Rep’s new production of Adams’ play, which debuted in 2012 and is a hot property right now on the resident-theater circuit. It’s a pleasure to watch them move around the boxing ring, which at the intimate CoHo Theatre, where Third Rail’s production is being mounted, consists of a brightly decorated schoolroom complete with desks, board displays (the class has been studying ancient mythologies), inspirational statements and pinned-up papers: scenic designer Kristeen Crosser makes you feel as if you’ve walked straight into an after-school parent/teacher conference. Green and Newman are good tacticians, sweet scientists of the acting ring. I admire the skills they and director Michael O’Connell reveal as the fight goes on, especially the way they use long beats, Pinter-like pauses, to ratchet the suspense and play up the emotional undercurrents of what swiftly becomes a horrendously uncomfortable encounter. The writer and performers are adept at turning up the heat and delivering a chill.

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