Wonderheads makes its local name with “Grim and Fischer”

The mask and physical theater troupe that already wins awards abroad, finally reaches its home base.

Elderly Mrs. Fischer is trying to stay ahead of the law—well, to put it more precisely, the laws of nature. Her number is up. Her time has come. Her ticker is twitching. And Death, in the person of the gray-faced Mr. Grim, is trying to serve her papers. “Grim & Fischer,” then, is the story of an old woman literally dancing with death. Sounds pretty maudlin, huh? And maybe even…mundane? Well, no, actually; it’s thoroughly captivating—and despite its inevitable conclusion, full of little surprises along the way. With layers of laughter, suspense, and sympathy, Wonderheads manages to lighten the topic without trivializing it. The audience roots for Wonderheads’ little old lady with the kind of fervor normally reserved for a favorite sports team.


In this kind of show, wordless and winsome, it’s easy to forget how much technical acumen is at play. Kate Braidwood and Andrew Pheonix both hold MFA’s in Ensemble-Based Physical Theater from Dell’Arte International, a credential they acknowledge as “most curious.” Indeed, the venerated and ancient form of mime holds a narrow niche, complete with its own performance lexicon (for instance, performances aren’t “written” or “directed,” they’re “devised.”) They’re also the show’s mask-makers, melding cartoonish character heads with the minimalist “larval” style popular in European mime training. What’s more, this particular show incorporates no fewer than 150 sound cues (managed by Emily Windler), running the gambit from fart noises to Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2.

Wonderheads’ mask craft is superb, and it has to be. Since each character wears a fixed expression, a given face must be finely calibrated to be “read” multiple ways. Cartoons tend to emote a bit one-note; this is where the “larval” influence may be their ace. Grim, for instance, has a down-drawn mouth that can seem angry or confused—but in its nobler moments, it melts into a sophisticated somberness befitting a distinguished gentleman. His eyebrows, arched not glowering, can look forceful, imperious, or just plain surprised. Mrs. Fischer’s mouth is twisted in a perma-sneer-smile which—amazingly—can look stubborn, wry, sly or sweet. Two more highly-interpreble mugs make an appearance over the course of the show: that of a male nurse (progressive!) and a giddy little gap-toothed girl (irresistible!). The fact that the Wonderheads’ duo can be credited with this perfect preparatory handiwork, brings their presentation to a whole new level.

“I’m almost certain you haven’t heard of us,” remarked Braidwood in her invitation, explaining that the company has been touring nonstop since its inception in 2009, racking up accolades and Best of Fest awards in Ohio, Florida, and Canada, but doing very little to promote in their hometown. This sudden challenge to local art-heads’ knowledge raised interest and stakes, unleashing a slew of “Grim & Fischer” reviews, and overcoming my reluctance based on a bad memory of another masked troupe performing poorly at IFCC in the past. Ultimately waving outside acclaim in Portlanders’ faces proved a shrewd move, and we’ve heard of them now. When it comes to masked movement in Portland, Imago have long—and deservingly—been the top Frogz. In the broader realm of physical theater, aerial collectives already abound, vaudeville variety curation already falls largely to the tireless Wanderlust Circus and Swingtime PDX, and semi-annually, Cirque du Soleil pirouettes through town, bringing clowns at the créme of “Dell’arte” standards. Portland’s physical theater scene, therefore—like its indie rock scene, comedy scene, etc.—may already be at or over capacity to serve local demand.  But generally when true excellence rears its head in any discipline, the key players will scooch over just enough to make room.

“We want the community to get to know our work,” said Braidwood.  We’ve spent so much time on the road touring that we’ve neglected our own hometown; we’ve developed great audiences all over the place…except for here,” By their closing show on Saturday, however, that discrepancy seemed to have resolved; the troupe packed the IFCC and earned a standing ovation. They’ve also begun coordinating a show with Headwaters Theater next summer. Headwaters’ territory, a crossover zone where butoh impresario Mizu Desierto marries madcap whimsy to contemp-art cred, seems a suitable next proving ground for the agile players in that the butoh standard—minimalist, focused habitation of character—is a fit. Thematically, though, “G & F”‘s narrative more closely aligns with tear-jerkers like Hand2Mouth’s “My Mind Is Like An Open Meadow,” and their mask craft with places like—yes, Imago, and their new space-mate Tears of Joy.

But enough about Portland Underground Clown Politics. The show itself wins on deft execution and universal theme. All we actually see is Mrs. Fischer reminiscing about her (presumably dead, presumably husband) by fawning over a music box and a camel coat. We see her evading visits from both Grim and her day nurse. We see her gazing with dread on an unopened black envelope, and eventually we see a prolonged and multi-layered confrontation between her and her would-be undertaker. Not all audience members can identify with the character’s old age, but her fear of death is universal—as is her dread of official mail, her annoyance at unwanted visitors, and her sentimental handling of lost-loved-one mementos. The story’s so simple, and in many ways gentle, that I’m tempted to recommend it for all-ages. Though the Grim mask itself may seem demonically horrifying to very young, very sensitive kids, the ultimate takeaway could prove more effective than the usual “my first gerbil” method of acclimating little ones to the idea of mortality. Emily Windler’s pre show “Ta-Da,” a fidgety little girl making adorably failed attempts at a “majic” act, definitively proves Wonderheads has some child-charming, modular festival fodder up its sleeve.

Suffice to say, heads up for more homecomings from this wonderful group.


A. L. Adams also writes 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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Things are getting crowded on Portland’s theater calendar. Expect a very big party Monday night at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, when pretty much every theater geek in town puts on the finery for the 33rd annual Drammy Awards, Portland’s freewheeling version of the Tonys. This year actor Todd Van Voris adds emceeing to his very busy schedule. It’s free (buy your own drinks) and the fun kicks off at 6 p.m. See you there.

Andy Lee-Hillstrom, "The Centering." Photo: Steve Patterson

Andy Lee-Hillstrom, "The Centering." Photo: Steve Patterson

But lately there’s also been a crowd of loneliness – or aloneness, that elemental brand of theater known as the one-person show. Even some “big” shows have been inching this way, such as Portland Center Stage’s sharp-elbowed and appealing look at race and American music, Black Pearl Sings!, an intense two-hander with an occasional third opening the door. In that show, the two principles, Lena Kaminsky and Chavez Ravine, have nowhere to hide – and that emotional bareness, plus Ravine’s killer singing voice, helps make the show fascinating.

A couple of theaters are going whole hog with the slimmed-down show. CoHo Productions has embarked on Solo Summer, a four-show series that’s begun with an extension of The Centering, Steve Patterson and Chris Harder’s surrealistic play about a clown and a political prisoner trying to escape into his own mind. And hard by the railroad tracks in the north stretches of the East Side, The Headwaters Theatre is in the midst of The 1 Festival, whose slogan is “A Festival of Many. A Theme of 1.” It’s nearly over, with a rush of shows today, and I’m very glad that last night I caught the final performance of Eric Hull’s smart and funny The Man With the Empty Room & How Small a Thought.

For people who believe, as I do, that the heart of theater beats in the spaces between the performers, solo shows present a conundrum: with only one performer, where’s the vital mystery in the middle? A good solo show – and both The Centering and Hull’s piece are good ones – neatly bypasses the problem by taking the magic space directly to the audience, which becomes the “other” performer in the play. It’s really not much different from a soliloquy in a Shakespeare play, in which the character isolates himself from the “reality” of the stage and takes his case directly to the audience.  And although a solo show can be extremely traditional, like William Luce’s Emily Dickinson bio The Belle of Amherst, it can also strip away theatrical expectations and be, within the limitations of its solo performer, pretty much anything it wants to be. The form has a liberating, experimental edge.

I arrived very late to the game with The Centering, a Portland phenomenon that began life in 2004 as a collaboration between playwright Patterson and actor Harder. I was aware of it from the beginning and wanted to see it at several stages of its development, but crossed schedules kept me away. So I can’t say how the performance I saw Thursday night, which Harder directed and Andy Lee-Hillstrom performed, differs from earlier incarnations in which Harder performed. But what I saw I liked very much. Lee-Hillstrom brings a beguiling innocence and softness, almost a femininity, that creates a jarring contrast to the emotional and sometimes physical horrors of the play.

In one sense The Centering is an example of the one-person show as bravura performance: the sort of show where you marvel at the dexterity of an actor jumping through theatrical hoops. But it’s also much more than that, because the writing itself is so good.

The Centering was developed in the harsh aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the swift rise of Homeland Security and its heavy hand. Patterson has a long history of exploring the ragged meeting-places of the personal and the political, and he does it brilliantly here, slowly unveiling a kind of domestic horror story about an innocent kid named Davey; his alter-ego circus clown; his mother and early girlfriend; his mentor, who happens to be an Arab clown; and the forces that have conspired to throw him into prison without even a hint of due process. Yet, as Marty Hughley remarks in his astute recent review for The Oregonian, “The Centering is a funny, charming, delightful show – especially for a play about a befuddled political prisoner being beaten and interrogated.” Couldn’t have said it better.

Actor/writer Eric Hull

Actor/writer Eric Hull

The Centering maintains a sharp and sophisticated theatrical structure. Eric Hull’s whimsical outing at The Headwaters is vastly more low-key and not nearly so overtly theatrical, but although it seems scattershot that’s deceptive: Its structure is smart and solid. It begins with a screening of writer-director Todd Korgan’s delightfully oddball and pensively piercing 2001 short film The Man With the Empty Room, in which Hull stars as a lonely fellow in a quaintly antiquated Kafkaesque city who decides to rent his spare room to an equally odd Jamie Tolbert. Shot in black and white, it’s laconic, downplayed, almost empty of action yet contrarily overflowing with a sweet sadness and awareness of shackled emotion.

Once the film’s done, Hull strolls onstage and begins an intimate conversation with the audience that hinges an observation by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life! … If you want to go down deep you do not need to travel far; indeed, you don’t have to leave your most immediate and familiar surroundings.”

Not exactly the stuff of theater, you might think. But then Hull proceeds, as a sort of wiser extension of his character in Korgan’s film, to make it exactly that as he quietly explores the implications of a universe of the small and closely observed. (In a key scene in The Man in the Empty Room, one that silently links the two halves of the Headwaters performance, Hull is sitting in a field, happily observing the grass through a magnifying glass.) With the startling lightness and grace that large men sometimes possess, he dances a solo tango. He writes on a chalkboard. He reads from a journal, then rips out the pages and blends them into open cans of paint. He observes, discusses, compares. He makes wry jokes that meet at the corner of melancholy and happiness. Finally, in a zenlike and unhurried sweep, he paints, swirl after liberating swirl, obliterating and revealing the surface at once. Satisfying stuff, whatever you want to call it. Just look, and let it be.

The final outings of The 1 Festival:

  • Choreographer Luciana Proano’s Chaski, 5 p.m. today, Saturday, June 9.
  • Mark Hayes, Waegook Express, 7 p.m. Saturday, June 9.
  • Contemporary Performance 3, with Aura Fischbeck, Emily Gregory & Alex Ramirez, and the entrancing performance duo WOBBLY (not a solo act, but they speak as one), 9 p.m. Saturday.

CoHo’s Solo Summer schedule

  • The Centering, through June 17.
  • Mormon Redneck Thespian: How to Overcome a Life of Drugs, Abuse, and Being a Redneck, written and performed by Cory Huff. Opening will be short performances by Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, who direct Huff in Mormon Redneck and whose Portland Story Theatre is a hotbed of solo performance. June 21-24.
  • You Belong to Me, by Steven Wolfson, performed by Elizabeth Huffman, June 28-July 1.
  • Irregardless, written and performed by Stacey Hallal, July 5-14.



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