jerry mouawad

ArtsWatch Weekly: full-tilt boogie

Imago tilts the action in a topsy-turvy Greek classic, Brett Campbell's best music bets, "Jersey Boys" croons into town, new theater & dance

The question echoes down the centuries from the Greek myths and Euripides’ play, which was first set on stage in 431 B.C. and just keeps coming back: was Medea balancing the scales of justice when she murdered her husband’s new wife and her own children, or was she falling off her rocker? People have been arguing the point ever since (Medea shocked its original audience, coming in dead last in that year’s City of Dionysia festival), and the question of teetering out of control remains foremost, right down to Ben Powers’ recent adaptation of Medea for the National Theatre in London.

The ups and downs of rehearsal: Imago’s tilting stage for “Medea.” Imago Theatre photo.

Enter Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, whose own theories of balance reach back to his mentor Jacques Lecoq, the French mime and movement master who advocated a “balance of the stage.” In 1998 Mouawad and Imago took the advice literally, creating a large movable stage, suspended three feet above the floor, that tips and leans as the actors shift position on it. They used it for an acclaimed production of Sartre’s No Exit, in which the constantly shifting balances became a metaphor for the play itself. The show was revived several times and traveled to theaters across the country.

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Those were the good old days

Carol Triffle's human comedy "The Reunion" at Imago plays with nostalgia and longing and the surprise of life as it hits us in the face

Imago Theatre is reviving its production of Carol Triffle’s The Reunion, which premiered in June 2017. It reopens Friday, Jan. 12, and continues for a short run through Jan. 20: ticket and schedule information here. ArtsWatch’s review of the original production, which had the same cast:

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Walking into Imago Theatre on Saturday night to see Carol Triffle’s new play The Reunion was like walking into a hippie pad circa 1969 (yes, I speak from direct experience) on a particularly groovy day. One psychedelically bubbly wall was sporting more peace symbols than a VW camper at the Oregon Country Fair. Donovan was warbling Season of the Witch over the speaker, reminding me in flashback of how snotty the future Nobel Laureate of the Lowlands had been to a singer I liked. No strings of beads were dangling in the doorways, but the stage was aglitter in crepe and saturated color and overdone cheerfulness, as if Triffle had raided The Lippman Company party-supply store with a hundred bucks and an SUV to load the booty into and haul it all off. In other words: perfect.

Party hearty: Sean Bowie, Danielle Vermette, Jerry Mouawad. Photo: Kevin Young

Over the years Triffle’s developed a brittle absurdist comic style that seems deeply rooted in the traditions of mime and clown and slapstick comedy, and at its best can make you laugh out loud while it’s quietly breaking your heart. The Reunion, which runs about a well-paced hour and packs the concise wallop of a good novella, does both – or at least, it did for me. On the surface a Triffle play can feel like an animated jaunt through the Sunday comics, a cartoon landscape inhabited by characters with the oddball normality of the townsfolk in Robert Altman’s Popeye movie. And so it is in The Reunion, where the oddball and laughable and sometimes more than slightly looney settle slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a deep and moving contemplation of the human condition. It’s the sort of thing that good clowns do, this bonding of the foolish and profound, and it makes them essential to the culture.

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‘La Belle’: a beauty of a Beauty

Imago's bold and charming "La Belle: Lost in the Automaton" retells the age-old "Beauty and the Beast" as a steampunk vaudeville (with puppets)

The tale, with its many themes and variations, is hundreds of years old, at least. A woman, an embodiment of purity and innocence, is forced into the company of a frightening Other, something primal, whether animal or spirit, something dark and debased. Yet there is recognition and love, trial and transformation. Hidden natures are revealed. Opposites balance and resolve.

Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve crystallized it in 1740 as La Belle et la Bête. It may be best known by many from Jean Cocteau’s luminous, numinous 1946 film of that same name.  To many more, its image is fixed as a Disney product, 1991’s animated mass-market musical Beauty and the Beast.

Jim Vadala and Justine Davis: the beast and the beauty aboard ship. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Perhaps future generations, though, will think of the story and imagine not forests and castles but the grimy engine room of a coal-powered steamship. Their memories will be filled not with Disney’s storybook colors or Cocteau’s poetic cinematic effects but with a more immediate kind of artistic magic: puppets and automatons and actors on a stage.

They’ll think of Imago.

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Imago Theatre’s ‘La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton’

Imaginative version of Beauty and the Beast presented the imaginative Portland theater company's biggest challenge yet

Imago Theatre is at a turning point. For 35 years, Portland’s most original theater company has specialized in making something beautiful out of not much: some masks, some movement, some music, often using no words or sets at all. The result: the long-running, enormously popular mask shows Frogz and ZooZoo, and dozens of other magical theatrical creations.

automaton

“La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton.” Imago photo

But after more than three decades, Imago founders Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad decided the time had to retire those warhorses. Last summer, the couple announced they were selling the former Southeast Portland Masonic lodge that’s long served as Imago’s headquarters, performing and rehearsal space, and prop and costume shop. This weekend, Imago opens its biggest, riskiest venture ever. Given Imago’s flair for dazzling visual imagery and movement, La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton, which runs December 9-January 8, is likely to be a beauty. But for its  creators, it’s been a bit of a beast.

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‘Hughie’ review: Mute beauty

Imago Theatre's straight ahead staging of rarely performed one-act play follows Eugene O'Neill's script to a fault

It is one of those hotels, built in the decade 1900-10 on side streets of the Great White Way sector, which began as respectable second class but soon were forced to deteriorate in order to survive. Following the First World War and Prohibition, it had given up all pretense of respectability, and now is anything a paying guest wants it to be, a third class dump, catering to the catch-as-catch-can trade. But still it does not proper. It has not shared in the Great Hollow Boom of the twenties. The Everlasting Opulence of the New Economic Law has overlooked it.

Those are the opening lines of Eugene O’Neill’s late career play Hughie. But you won’t hear them in Imago Theatre’s entertaining new production, running through September 18, or in most any other, because that evocative writing doesn’t appear in any of the scripted dialogue. What audiences who attend any straight production of O’Neill’s script will experience is essentially an extended monologue, delivered here by one of Oregon’s finest actors, Todd Van Voris.

Sean Doran and Todd Van Voris in Imago's 'Hughie.'

Sean Doran and Todd Van Voris in Imago’s ‘Hughie.’

While many will find this rarity well worth seeing just for what’s onstage, I can’t help feeling that this Hughie is a missed opportunity to fully realize one of American theater’s most oddly powerful theatrical inventions.

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‘The Lady Aoi’ and ‘Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai’: Noh meets noir, kabuki goes to college

Imago Theater’s production of Mishima’s play is a tight, nuanced production involving ancient roots and modern sensibility 

In 2012’s Black LizardImago Theatre director Jerry Mouawad winningly merged the “physical theatre” of his famous teacher, French actor, mime and teacher Jacques Lecoq, with another stylized theatrical form, kabuki. Despite their differences, the combination worked because both forms tell stories through movement, gesture and design more than dialogue and narrative.

The source for that colorful spoof was a Yukio Mishima play drawn from a 1930s Japanese pulp novel that was in turn inspired by American film noir and pulp fiction. As I wrote then, what distinguished that show wasn’t the pulpy story so much as “the clever, layered way the creators combine evocative non-realistic action, movement, scenic and sound design.”

'The Lady Aoi' runs through March 27 at Portland's Imago Theatre. Composite graphic: David Deide.

‘The Lady Aoi’ runs through March 27 at Portland’s Imago Theatre. Composite graphic: David Deide.

That goes double for Mouawad’s second Japanese-tinged production. The Lady Aoi shares with its predecessor a Mishima source (his 1954 modern noh play by that title, which in turn was inspired by a character from the classic millennium-old Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji); dramaturgy by Portland State University Japanese studies professor Lawrence Kominz, who specializes in the study and staging of Japanese theater; touches of humor; the excellent composer John Berendzen; Mouawad’s inimitable scenic sensibility; and even a leading man, the redoubtable Matt DiBiasio.

Yet though both succeed on the basis of their production rather than their respective stories, the two shows deliver quite different emotional impacts. If the colorful, eventful Black Lizard veered close to 1960s Batman (around the time Mishima wrote his version), the less convoluted, more austere, and ultimately more chilling Lady Aoi is closer to Dark Knight Batman, or even more, early ‘60s Twilight Zone, a haunting modern ghost story that’s a triumph of subtlety and atmosphere.

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Frogz at 35: the mime still boggles

Imago shows off its brilliant menagerie for the hometown crowd before hitting the road again. Next stop: France.

Art Without Boundaries is  the title of an internationally focused history of modern dance by former New York Times dance critic and poet Jack Anderson, and it’s also an excellent description of the long-lived variety show of the imagination Frogz, now in the middle of its home season at Imago Theatre.

Sloth on the loose. (All photos by Jerry Mouawad/Imago Theatre)

Sloths on the loose. (All photos by Jerry Mouawad/Imago Theatre)

The masked theater piece, which is one of the city’s prime performance attractions during winter break, has been crossing all kinds of boundaries – formal, geographical, generational, and cultural – since Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle, Imago’s founders, started it with a single frog 35 years ago.

Today, the cast of characters includes two more frogs, alligators, orbs, a baby, penguins, sloths, paper bags, string, and a cowboy, performed by a troupe of five quick-change artists, with very different training, who are willing to travel the world. Never cute, and never patronizing, Frogz can be hilarious or poignant, satirical or sad, whimsical, or magical. It is family entertainment, to be sure, but with a highly sophisticated edge.

The frog that started it all was born  in 1979, in an untidy two bedroom apartment in Eugene, where Triffle (then Uselman) and Mouawad, who was studying theater at the University of Oregon,  were living together.  “One of the rooms was full of making things,” Mouawad said in an interview in early December.  “We were in our twenties, a lot of stuff came from there, and we eventually had to get a studio.”

Where it all began.

Where it all began.

The couple had met two years before in Portland, in a ballet class being taught by the late Danny Diamond. Diamond’s studio was in the same building as the Richard Hayes Marshall School of Theater Arts, where Marshall taught the methods of Parisian mime Jacques Lecoq. Mouawad was also studying with Marshall, and Triffle, who spent her adolescence in Mt. Angel, getting attention by making her many siblings laugh in the family kitchen, soon got hooked on the Frenchman’s approach to wordless comedy.

Lecoq seldom performed, but was well-known as a great teacher and director. He had invented a system (he was French, after all) that included a number of methods of creating and expressing character without dialogue, using physical improvisation and other movement techniques as well as masks to convey “what lies behind the words.” Actors such as Geoffrey Rush studied with him, but so did architects and psychoanalysts. In the Eighties, Triffle began extensive studies at his school in Paris, assisting him, and following Lecoq’s death in 1999, assisting his son. She is now a certified teacher of the Lecoq methodology.

Juggling fish: doesn't everyone?

Juggling fish: doesn’t everyone?

Mouawad fell in love with theater when he acted in a seventh grade play at the American School in Beirut, hence the drama studies at the U of O. But once he became acquainted with Lecoq’s approach to theater, it made a lot more sense to him than the conventional techniques he was learning there.   He remembered being asked, as a twenty-year-old, to develop the character of a man twice his age, with twice his experience in the world. “That was confusing,” he said. “The world is too complex for a twenty-year old.” What drew him to masked theater and the Lecoq methods was the distillation of the simplest element provided by the mask, and the limited options of how to portray something or someone he was not: a slinky, a polar bear, a baby.

Nevertheless, Frogz in its current, complex incarnation is far from simple to perform. It requires physicality, strength, endurance, visibility, and  something Triffle says you are born with if you have it: comic timing.  “[That] is crucial,” Mouawad said in an interview in early December at Imago Theatre.  “Everything else can be taught.” Rehearsals were about to begin for the current run, and Triffle and cast members Kyle Delamarter and Kaician Jade Kitko were also present for a free-wheeling interview in which laughter overrides the recording of much of what was said. Frogz spends most of its time on tour, circumnavigating the globe, giving 150 performances a year, most recently in this country.

Delamarter seems to have passed his 2002 audition because of what Mouawad called “crazy behavior” before he even went up on stage, where he was challenged to “not be funny.” He was an animator at the time, and was taken into the company to perform in Biglittlethings, one of three incarnations of what my grandson calls the “animal show,”  (ZooZoo was the third). Delamarter has performed in all three, as well as in such experimental works as Backs Like That, Splat and Beaux Arts Club.  The family shows provide the bread and butter that sustain the more (much more) experimental pieces.

Ah, the things that Paper can do.

Ah, the things that Paper can do.

Delamarter has spent twelve years touring with the show in all its permutations, and what he had to say about audience reaction confirms the observations of cultural anthropologists that body language, as much as other forms of social behavior including spoken language, reveals cultural differences, even in different parts of the United States.  Frogz had a six-week run in Boston some years ago at the American Repertory Theater, before Mouawad’s unsettling version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was performed there. When it came time for the audience participation in the penguins’ game of musical chairs, in which the birds go into the audience, “no one would give us a seat,” Delamarter recalled. This was not as frustrating, however, as a recent performance in Amman, Jordan, where despite being shown a presenter-created video of how to behave in the theater that included instructions about turning off cell phones, the kids (and the adults) ruined the black-light finale by taking pictures with their devices, using the flash, and also tried to see how it all worked by shining their flashlights.

On the whole, “the show translates well because there is no [spoken] language,” Delamarter said. Wherever it’s performed,  “they like it as much as families do anywhere. We did another show for immigrants, and there was no problem.” Kayla Scrivner, production stage manager, who traveled to Egypt and Jordan with Frogz on its previous tour to the region, points out that the less affluent audiences are better behaved: in Egypt, the company did a show for kids who had no cell phones, and the kids were completely attentive to the goings-on.

Some baby!

Some baby!

In this country, audience response often has something to do with the venue and the size of the city.  In small towns, audiences tend to be more receptive because they don’t see much live theater.  When the company recently performed in Crockett, Texas, Delamarter reported, it was greeted by a wall of sound that resembled the welcome the Beatles used to get more than forty years ago. This reminded Mouawad of being in Asia in the Eighties, performing in the Orb mask, and having sixty kids attack him when he came offstage. Onstage, he “could communicate with a theater of 2000 people in Taipei, but I couldn’t ask any of them to get me a cup of coffee.” Or stop attacking him. No matter where they perform, they “carry the masks,” as Lecoq put it, so well and so convincingly that children in particular think inanimate objects like orbs and string are alive; that fighting, cheating penguins are real; that lizards very scary; and polar bears are never to be attacked.

Kitko, a tap dancer by training, joined Imago in 2010 to perform in Stage Left Lost. The first challenge to “carrying the mask,” he says, is the way it limits your vision. “You can’t see what you would like to be able to see, but you get used to it quickly. You have to know that the performers are going to be where you want them to be at the right times; trust them to be out of your way.” A number of tricks help with this: stage floors are marked, so when an Orb, say, is looking down, it knows where it is; and there are sound cues that are inaudible to the viewers.

Windbags, blowing up some beauty.

Windbags, blowing up some beauty.

In general terms, says Mouawad, to “carry the mask means to perform it. You don’t manipulate it, you don’t have complete power; in some ways you’re collaborating [with it]. The sightlines can make you feel completely isolated from the world around you, but you’re still communicating through the mask.”

Kitko, Delamarter, Jonathan Godsey, Pratik Motwani and Tera Nova Zarra (the only woman in the cast) will be working their masked magic at Imago Theatre through January 4.  Their next stop is France, home of Lecoq technique. Catch them while you can: they won’t return for another year.

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Twenty performances of Frogz remain. Check here for times, prices, and reservations.

 
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