defunkt theatre

ArtsWatch year in theater 2017

From "Astoria" to "The Humans" with a whole lot in between, a month-by-month stroll with ArtsWatch through the year in Oregon theater

From Portland Center Stage’s Astoria: Part I (Part II is streaming around the bend in January, along with an encore run for Part I) to Artists Rep’s The Humans and a slew of holiday shows, it’s been a busy, busy year in Oregon theater.

In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival rolled out another season blending contemporary and classic with a wide-angle world view. And the fine actor G. Valmont Thomas, after spending a season playing Falstaff in all three plays in which the great character appears, died in December from bone cancer, at age 58.

In Hillsboro, Bag&Baggage, which had been temporarily homeless, opened a spiffy new home in a renovated downtown former bank building.

In Portland, the sprawling Fertile Ground festival introduced dozens of new works (and, like Astoria, is gearing up for a fresh new run in January). Chris Coleman, Center Stage’s artistic director for 17 years, announced he would be leaving at the end of this season to take over the theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. TCG, the influential Theatre Communications Group, held its annual conference in Portland. And theater companies large and small produced more plays than The Count could count in a dozen seasons of Sesame Street.


Review: Defunkt’s tense cockfight

A love-and-sex triangle heats up the stage with an edgy blend of energy and desperation


To paraphrase Mark Twain’s comment about Jane Austen, playwright Mike Bartlett would dig up Thornton Wilder and beat him with his own shinbone. Defunkt Theatre is putting on Bartlett’s play Cock through November 15.

Cock is no Our Town. It’s a love triangle – two men and the woman who comes between them – that hammers out dialogue with the intensity of a Beethoven symphony. There’s no moment of rest for the actors or audience: the air is dense and sweet, sparking with visceral lines that swing between love and hate, each of the characters swiveling back and forth between cutting character attacks and brilliant Noel Coward humor. And believe me, the jokes are needed. By the second act the night I saw the show, some members of the audience were visibly shaken, their faces flushed and holding back tears.

Take your corners: It's a cockfight. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Take your corners: It’s a cockfight. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

The play begins with an edgy spat whose purpose is to end in makeup sex. The chaotic dance between the lovers never ends. Clifton Holznagel as Jon and David Bellis-Squires as M fling heated words at each other, with an equal measure of gentleness. Bellis-Squires gives a great performance as a starched-shirt lover, full of kinetic energy and desperation: Jon and M’s relationship wrestles between attachment and bitterness. Both actors establish the character’s strengths and flaws within the first five minutes. They have a power struggle, and just as in real life, it’s pretty ugly. Members of the audience were so engaged, they felt uncomfortable, as if they’d walked into a real room where a real fight was going on. This is Defunkt at its best: intimate, honest, with an emphasis on acting and script.

In formal terms, Cock is what’s known as a well-made play. While the four characters play off each other and complement the plot, all of them are major players: there are no minor ones. Kayla Lian plays W, the woman who enters the picture and turns Jon’s head “right round, like that girl in The Exorcist.” She’s not a foil, but the feminine motif upon which the others respond. Lian is a subtle actress who uses her physical movements and timpani of a voice to great effect.

At its heart, Bartlett’s script is a contemporary conversation about relationships. Can we love whom we want as a person, or does our attraction create a dividing line? It’s a brutal, but successful look into binary gender roles. We in the audience want to know, who will Jon choose? By the end of the play, Holznagel’s Jon is weeping. We want to pick him up and hold him, tell him it’ll be OK.

Veteran Ted Schultz gives Cock an earthy, necessary grounding in Act II. With all the static flying around – attraction, partnership, dreams, the general chaos of infidelity – his staunch presence is welcoming. He plays M’s father and support, which are just as needed by the audience.

Defunkt is a minimalist theater in terms of props, and yet we move in and out of spaces such as subways, living rooms, bedrooms and patios with ease. Director Jon Kretzu makes it easy for us to imagine the spaces, meals, and lives of each of the characters: It’s a great triumph of the imagination. Andrew Klaus Vineyard, sound design and production manager, deftly takes us in and out of the flashback moments back to the plot, and guides us through the narratives as they play out. The play would not come off without his successful work.

After leaving the theater I was a bit worse for wear, but in a good way. Defunkt provides a generous space to reflect and come to terms with ourselves. There aren’t a lot of movies that can do this – only a handful of directors, like Ingmar Bergman, can tear you down to build you up – and we can choose which songs to listen to, but a play like Cock stares us right in the face. No one ever said art had to be pretty, but it can be right and tell the story we need to hear.


Defunkt’s Cock continues through November 15. Ticket and schedule information here.





Review: Defunkt Theatre’s ‘States of Emergency’

Sure, Crimp is twisted and Durang's deranged … but Defunkt doesn't shy from tough shows

Midway through the second act of Defunkt Theatre‘s Fewer Emergencies, Steve Vanderzee’s alone onstage. His voice is as deadpan as cast iron, his face as vacant as a waxwork, and he’s describing a school shooting: “He shoots Child A in the head. He shoots Child B in the head. Child C … flinches away. Flinches away?”

The actor falters, jerks his head, squints, begins his recitation again:

“He shoots Child A in the head. He shoots Child B in the head…”

In my chair, I start to feel unsettled. Have I left the teakettle on? Should I make a run for one of the theater’s three exits? Is my home burning down while I sit here squirming? Damn you, Vanderzee, you’re actually scaring me….

White and Vanderzee in "Fewer Emergencies." Rosemary Ragusa Photography

White and Vanderzee in “Fewer Emergencies.” Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Defunkt’s season-closing suite, States of Emergency, is comprised of two plays in rep: Martin Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies and Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation. Fair warning, Crimp is twisted and Durang’s deranged — and Vanderzee plays a convincing psycho killer in each show. Though Emergency‘s generally suspenseful and Vacation rings comic, the shows are two peas in the same rotten pod. Spoiler alert: humanity’s hideously flawed.

Behind every great homicidal maniac, it seems, there’s a blithely monstrous woman, and each of these plays has one sick mother. Fewer Emergencies‘ “Mummy” (Angela White) and Vacation‘s Mrs. Sizemagraff (Jane Bement Geesman) are so mired in denial and so sozzled on booze and self-congratulation that they’re content to watch their children suffer. “What he’s losing in blood, he’s gaining in confidence!” exudes Mummy, stretching out her arms and grinning gloriously under pained brows to pantomime the time she coaxed her son — freshly shot in the legs — to crawl to her. Mrs. Sizemagraff pauses from preening, drinking, and wooing sexual predators off the street to flip her hand dismissively at her molested daughter Trudy: “She’s worthless! … No, she’s wonderful!” [guzzle, primp, pose]. Happy Mother’s Day, Portland.

Murderers, mothers … and the similarity doesn’t end there. Each show also makes space for the proverbial Peanut Gallery — a handful of generic voices that, for no specific reason, offer their opinions and try to shape the greater story. Both scripts wax particularly poetic about small pleasures (a child’s toys, the sound of the ocean, TV) while ignoring major atrocities (rape, destruction, dismemberment, death). And in both cases — believe it or not — this sensory rhapsody almost sways us against our better judgment. Mother’s right, the voices are appeased, nothing’s wrong, we should just relax and stop screaming.

Fewer Emergencies doesn’t explicitly call for anyone to play specific roles; it’s written in third person with no stage directions or character names, allowing very flexible interpretation.* However, after much workshopping, Defunkt director Jon Kretzu asked White and Vanderzee to embody the characters their lines were describing. Suddenly, what could read as detached postmodern commentary is brought to life as full-blown psychodrama. Subtitled scene breaks and lighting shifts from cool ultraviolet to deep red also help us parse Crimp’s cryptic text into a series of events.

Beyond Mummy and the shooter, the other actors don’t register as characters, per se. More like a chorus in the round, they burst in to clarify whatever Mummy says, contributing a general ethos of speculation and inaccuracy. While we often see an unreliable narrator, we rarely see one vetted for honesty by semi-anonymous agents onstage. It’s vaguely comparable to courtroom drama, but nonetheless a unique conceit. It’s also poetic, causing dialogue to flow into a regular cadence of repeated echoes, pauses, and rejoinders. Eerily, Vanderzee’s monologue progresses with the same halting structure, unaccompanied by “the voices.” “Don’t help me!” he repeatedly snaps, even though no one is. Perhaps he’s killed all of his detractors and interjectors by this point?

The cast confessed in talkback that all these asides, stops, and starts made Emergencies particularly hard to memorize … even hard to connect with artistically until they created secret “backstories” for the fluid supporting roles. Unofficially, they’ve dubbed Lori Sue Hoffman’s character “Pippa” and assigned her her own secret reasons for grilling Mummy with what seem like caseworker questions. They’ve also posed Matthew Kern as Mummy’s protective and somewhat complicit husband. Corey O’Hara**, a wild card who chimes into the dialogue with no apparent story-related character, gets his moment leading a brilliant singalong of a self-penned melody with a banjo. Unfortunately, these tacit character designations intrigue without fulfilling — which means, in effect, they distract. Kern, especially, spits every line with such significance that we’re tricked into thinking we’ll learn more about his character. Since we never do, it’d be better if the Defunkt mainstay and self-confessed Crimp super-fan would lean back and let the story shine.

Sob story: Tallent and Geesman in "Betty." Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Sob story: Tallent and Geesman in “Betty.” Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Betty’s Summer Vacation establishes an atmosphere of lighthearted leisure (beachfront cottage, bathing suits, cute-guy roommates, funny friend) and pours in a grab bag of mingled humor and horror (a cartoonish rapist/flasher in a trench coat, a lovably shy killer, a grown woman who talks to a doll, walls that eavesdrop and laugh at the characters) to lock the audience in stunned uncertainty. There’s no such thing as an appropriate audience reaction to any of the stuff that happens in this show — a fact that’s made even plainer when “the voices” point it out: “We’re very disturbed. We’re not sure we feel like laughter.”

The performances are caricatures, drawn broadly but aptly by character actors. Betty (Allie Pratt) is the “voice of reason,” sharing a vacation rental with her chatty, disturbed friend Trudy (Kelly Tallent), sexually insatiable surfer bro Buck (William Poole), and the quiet, uptight Keith (Vanderzee). They’re soon encroached upon by the cottage owner, Mrs. Sizemagraff (Geesman), who turns out to also be Trudy’s mom. Making herself at home immediately, Mrs. Sizemagraff invites a truly rogue element: Mr. Vanislaw, a flasher she met in the park (Joe Healy) … and … ahem, mayhem ensues.

Steeped in pop-culture reference, the script name-drops its inspirations directly: David Mamet’s Oleanna, Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall, CourtTV, and all of the high-profile trials from contemporary memory — Bobbitt, OJ, Clarence Thomas, you name it. But the closest we get to justice is a living room mock trial, where the increasingly bizarre Mrs. Sizemagraff takes over and both interrogates and defends herself.

Wait…isn’t “mock-CourtTV” redundant? Does a mockery of a mockery of justice work like a double negative in a sentence? Do the two layers of facetiousness cancel each other out to make a noble statement? Hard to say, but Durang thoroughly explores the form. Summer Vacation, I must say, feels long, forcing the audience to persist in its decision to laugh or not laugh at off-color jokes that recur and escalate literally ad nauseam. (“We feel sick. Bluuurrrghhh,” comment the ever-present voices.) This is Durang at his most cynical, and that’s really saying something. However, the show is saved by one major late-breaking surprise, and by Betty’s uncannily vulnerable, charming closing soliloquy.

Defunkt’s States of Emergency diptych is not for sensitive souls with susceptible guts. It comes with trigger warnings galore. Still, there may be some redemption, some catharsis, some context. After all, “no emergencies” would be unrealistic. So we try for fewer … with more wry laughter and dark fascination on the side.


* The same was apparently true for Theatre Vertigo’s Pool (No Water), which, according to director Samantha Van Der Merwe, could also have been done without direct character portrayals…but seemed much richer for them.

** Also a playwright, O’Hara co-wrote and acted in Fertile Ground standout Middle Names.




“The Submission”: shockingly candid, surprisingly forgiving

Defunkt Theatre tells an inflammatory story with (some) sympathy for all sides.

In Defunkt Theatre’s production of “The Submission,” we start off rooting for Danny (Matthew Kern), the playwright-within-a-play. He’s written a script that he believes deserves to be read, picked, and produced by the theater powers that be—and it’s a long shot. But his friend Trevor (Matthew Dieckman) and his boyfriend Pete (Bjorn Anderson) vouch that his script—a story of a black family struggling to get out of the projects—is surprisingly legit, even brilliant and profound. Danny has apparently used a black poverty vernacular to reveal universal truth…but as a white gay man, he starts to worry that he can’t get away with that.

To save his script from the dreaded slush pile, Danny Larson replaces his name with a fake, “black sounding” woman’s name, Shalia Ganatamobe, reasoning that in this context, any black woman’s chances would be better than his own—and that’s…not…fair?

When his submission gets accepted under the new name, he sees that as proof of his presumptions, and he decides to prolong his con. He enlists black actress Emilie (Andrea White) to help him—just til the play can achieve the success he’s certain it deserves. But as Emilie enters his social circle and starts voicing opinions of her OWN, Danny’s possessiveness and prejudice rears its ugly head on many fronts. Gradually the young, idealistic, self-described “very gay” artist reveals his resentment of the theater scene’s informal affirmative action push, reframing reparation as minority privilege and bemoaning the white man’s supposed disadvantage.


Defunkt lives! And Profile, too

Two new seasons: more Kretzu for defunkt, a fresh start with Sam Shepard for Profile


Defunkt's "The Boys in the Band" is being held over – and its director returns for another twofer next season. Photo: Holly Andres

Defunkt’s “The Boys in the Band” is being held over – and its director returns for another twofer next season. Photo: Holly Andres

It’s almost summer, and almost Drammy time (the annual celebration of the past season’s top theater achievements is this Monday, June 10, at the Crystal Ballroom), which mean that Portland theater companies are shifting into overdrive to get their 2012-13 seasons announced. Latest to peel out of the starting gate is defunkt theatre (yes, it’s all lower case) which is calling its 14th season “Provocations” (yes, with a capital “P”).

And while we’re at it, let’s catch up with Profile Theatre‘s new season, its first in residence at the Artists Rep space after getting kicked out of Southeast Portland’s Theater! Theatre! space (along with Theatre Vertigo, Fuse Theatre, and various part-timers) to make way for a tea warehouse. Profile had already announced it would be doing an all-Sam Shepard season. Now it has the specifics.

Defunkt, in the midst of a hit Jon Kretzu two-fer with its twin productions of Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” and Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” goes back to the well with director Krutzu for another double-header, Martin Krimp’s “Fewer Emergencies” and Christopher Durang’s “Betty’s Summer Vacation.” Defunkt also announced that “B in the B” is being extended, with added shows June 20, 21, and 22.

Here are details from defunkt’s press release. Details of Profile’s Shepard season will follow that:


defunkt theatre’s Season 14: Provocations

“The Submission”     October 11-November 16 2013

by Jeff Talbott directed by Andrew Klaus-Vineyard

 A young struggling white playwright writes a wonderful play about an African American family escaping poverty.  To increase its chances of getting produced he submits the play to a prestigious theater festival under the pseudonym of Shaleeha G’ntamobi. What follows is a searing, no holds barred exploration of racism, homophobia, sexism, affirmative action and hypocrisy in modern America . An electrifying new play from a fresh new voice in American theater, “The Submission” is a Portland Area premiere.


“Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom”  February 14-March 22, 2014

by David Zellnik directed by Paul Angelo

 It’s 1996 and advances in AIDS medications leave a group of men who faced near certain death a sudden, unexpected hope for a future.  Puppy is a writer of pornography with a Marxist slant; an accident has left him confined to a wheelchair but his sexual fantasies know no limit. Sexually frank, hilarious, and deeply moving, this award winning play is a West Coast premiere, and  playwright David Zellnik will be visiting Portland during the run.


STATES OF EMERGENCY: May 9- June 14, 2014

directed by Jon Kretzu

“Fewer Emergencies” by Martin Crimp

in repertory with

“Betty’s Summer Vacation” by Christopher Durang

directed by Jon Kretzu

 Following this season’s hit Herstory/History project, defunkt again collaborates with Jon Kretzu to create two unforgettable evenings of theater by two of modern theater’s most original playwrights, both exploring the 24 hour news cycle of the modern world in which truly everything, even natural and man made disasters is packaged and sold for our consumption.  Funny, dark and incendiary, these two plays provide a fitting end to a season of provocative theater you won’t see anywhere other than defunkt.

Summer Sale: Now through July 1st, get season tickets for a special price of $50.  That is four evenings of world class theater for one great low price.  Visit to take advantage of this limited time offer.


And Profile’s Sam Shepard season, from its recent press release:

“The 2014 Sam Shepard season will include ‘Eyes for Consuela,’ January 15 – February 2, directed by Mikhael Tara Garver; ‘Buried Child,’ May 28 – June 15, directed by Profile Theatre Artistic Director Adriana Baer; ‘A Festival of One Acts,’ Sept. 3 – 8, featuring six plays and six bands over six days; and ‘Kicking A Dead Horse,’ November 5 – 23, also directed by Baer.

Sam Shepard. Photo:

Sam Shepard. Photo:

“In addition, programming through Profile’s expanded In Dialogue Series will accompany the season, including readings of Shepard’s plays and lectures, concerts, and contemporary plays in conversation with Shepard’s body of work. The company will continue its educational outreach programs in fall of 2013 and throughout the 2014 season.

“’We’re crafting a year that will feature some of the most powerful American writing of the stage,’ says Adriana Baer. “The season spans Shepard’s long career, including plays from every decade since the 1960s, and heavy hitters as well as some lesser known pieces. These plays are poetic and dream-like, gritty and mean, surprising in their gentleness and shocking in their familiarity. Sam Shepard is a writer seemingly tailor-made for Portland audiences.’

“Subscriptions for the Sam Shepard season will go on sale September 2013. Single tickets will be available in October. Information is available on”

Because of the venue move, Profile’s new season will begin in January rather than this fall.


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