Jewish Theatre Collaborative

Song of childhood: Davita’s Harp

In its final production, Jewish Theatre Collaborative creates a sensitive world-premiere adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel

Almost a hundred years ago, a 14-minute song became one of the most celebrated and performed pieces in American culture. It’s a hybrid of classical, jazz, Jewish, Broadway musical, and blues. Rhapsody in Blue begins with what the outsider hears as the cosmopolitan swagger of a clarinet. It’s the tempo of the weary heading home as the city begins to rise: watching maids folding bed sheets, bakers making their dozen, florists setting out for market, the city dressing and undressing itself. On the inside, Rhapsody in Blue is many worlds coming together in a determined shaking-hands sort of way; but the solo always remains, an echo of a secular cantor. The clarinet in George Gershwin’s song is partly joy at being able to sing of sadness, but the very roots sound out an alienation, along with an appreciation of living together. The song became an anthem of urbanity, a tune recognizable, but little understood. It is perhaps the best example of what characterizes Jewish artists and Jewish art in 20th century America: a conversation with identity, tradition, new roots, community, and the individual.

Kayle Lian and Illya Torres-Garner. Photo: Gary Norman

Kayla Lian and Illya Torres-Garner. Photo: Gary Norman

In its seventh and final season the Jewish Theatre Collaborative, along with its director Sacha Reich and Milagro Theatre, where it performs, have put to stage Chaim Potok’s 1985 novel Davita’s Harp. This world-premiere adaptation, which opened Saturday, invokes the great tradition of Yiddish theater: validating the human experience, drawing out the dynamics of identity, questioning and supporting not just Jewish culture, but the broader framework of American experience. Reich and co-writer Jamie M. Rea worked closely with Adena Potok, Chaim Potok’s wife, to develop the script.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: whale of a week

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

The history of art, in a way, is a history of obsession. And who is more obsessed than Captain Ahab, feverish hounder of the great white whale? Herman Melville, perhaps, creator of the novel Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, and thus creator of the monomaniacal Ahab. Or Orson Welles, the mad genius of the cinema, who attempted to latch on to Melville’s harpoon and ride it to obsessive triumph in an unlikely stage adaptation of a novel that might be both untamable and unadaptable. Or, maybe, Scott Palmer, the adventurous artistic director of Bag&Baggage Productions, who’s taken Moby Dick, Rehearsed, Welles’s obsessive adaptation of Melville’s obsessive novel, and brought it to the B&B stage. In his fascinating (and in its own way, obsessive) review of B&B’s production, ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell quotes Palmer on the book that started it all: “Moby-Dick isn’t a novel, it is an entire imaginative world. It is massive, bulky, colossal, terrifying, majestic and ultimately unfathomable. It is the physical representation of one man’s will, one artist’s transcendent vision, an entire internal universe externalized …”

Bag&Baggage's magnificent obsession. Casey Campbell Photography

Bag&Baggage’s magnificent obsession. Casey Campbell Photography

Giant whales and such, as Brett points out, have been something of a communal obsession in Portland lately, from Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s season-long serial [or, the whale] to Portland Story Theater’s The Essex, the Northwest Film Center’s Welles-fest, a reading of excerpts from the novel at Portland’s Mother Foucault’s bookshop, and the musically adventurous AnyWhen Ensemble’s Moby-Dick inspired Boldly Launched Upon the Deep.

And how does this magnificent obsession (or cascade of obsessions) work out? Campbell writes: “Neither Ahab nor Melville nor Welles nor Palmer let the challenges of their tasks daunt them. Ahab caught his prey, but it cost him his life and those of his crew. Melville’s novel was widely regarded as a crazy failure in its time, and its overabundance of non-dramatic material still repels many readers. Welles’s misguided attempt to turn so inward-gazing a novel as Moby-Dick into compelling stage drama amounted to hunting a white whale; as Palmer acknowledged in a pre-show talk, it’s perhaps a good thing that Welles devoted himself to filmmaking rather than playwriting. In nevertheless choosing to stage Welles’s whale folly (in his centennial year), Palmer again plays the white knight, this time trying to save the white whale. Does he catch the object of his obsession in this new production and redeem Welles’s hubristic vision? Like the others, it’s a foredoomed, magnificent failure that, if you can stick with it long enough, you ultimately can’t let go of.”

America is, of course, a land of magnificent attempts and magnificent failures, which makes this whole thing seem so, well, American. It’s like a magnificent stab at the great American production of the great American adaptation of the great American novel: Who needs perfection when you’ve got a series of obsessions the size of a great white whale?

 


 

Vin Shambry (left), Chantal De Groat, and Chris Harder in "We Are Proud To Presnt ..." Photo: Owen Carey

Vin Shambry (left), Chantal DeGroat, and Chris Harder in “We Are Proud To Present …” Photo: Owen Carey

America is also obsessed with race, and the great stain of its racial history, which continues to trouble and obsess us in everything from policing to housing to job opportunity to our political campaigns, where it is sometimes used like a hidden (or not so hidden) persuader of fear and loathing. ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson delves into this not-so-magnificent American obsession in his review of Artists Rep’s new production of We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Hero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s smart and searing play about race, and our continuing difficulty in talking about it honestly, often even when we have the best of intentions. “We Are Proud to Present is a scorpion of a play,” Johnson writes, “and its tail packs a serious punch made all the more deadly by the light tone of the beginning.”

 


 

Tamisha Guy and Vinson Fraley Jr. in Kyle Abraham’s ‘The Getting’. Courtesy White Bird, © Jerry and Lois Photography All rights reserved http://www.jerryandlois.com

Vinson Fraley Jr. and Tamisha Guy in Kyle Abraham’s ‘The Getting.” Courtesy White Bird, © Jerry and Lois Photography. All rights reserved. http://www.jerryandlois.com

And while we’re on the subject: In Kyle Abraham dances about race, Nim Wunnan writes for ArtsWatch about the dance troupe Abraham.In.Motion’s canny and provocative performance in the White Bird series, a trio of works rooted in hip-hop, modern, and contemporary dance. The show “confidently and gracefully engaged both historical and very immediate issues of race and the individual’s place in this culture,” Wunnan says, and adds: “We start to understand in this work that certain movements and positions are almost exclusive to black bodies in this culture. And we rightly start to feel uncomfortable in our seats, notably when the usually vibrant and fluid [Tamisha] Guy sinks to the floor with a leaden exhaustion, face down, with her hands behind her back in an unmistakable position of submission, of arrest. The one Oscar Grant was in when he was shot point blank in the back.” Grant, in case you’ve lost track amid the the seemingly endless string of “incidents” involving police and black citizens, was slain by a Bay Area Rapid Transit policeman in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland.

 


 

Heath Koerschgen and Danielle Weathers in "Davita's Harp." Photo: Friderike Heuer

Heath Koerschgen and Danielle Weathers in “Davita’s Harp.” Photo: Friderike Heuer

A few things to keep in mind on this week’s calendar:

Davita’s Harp. The Jewish Theatre Collaborative has been preparing all season for this world-premiere adaptation (by Jamie M. Rea and director Sacha Reich) of Chaim Potok’s 1985 novel about a contentious family in the New York of the 1930s, as the world is churning toward disaster. Opens Saturday; through April 9 at Milagro Theatre.

Arvo Pärt and The Ensemble. Justin Graff gets us all in the mood for the notable chamber and vocal group’s weekend performances of the mesmerizing music of Pärt, “one of the world’s greatest living composers.” And in A Pärt Pilgrimage, Graff gets considerably more personal, telling the tale of his journey to Talinn to meet the master, of sharing chocolates,  and a session at the keyboard. All pilgrimages should be so rewarding. The performances: 7 p.m. Saturday at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church; 4 p.m. Sunday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall.

Northwest Dance Project. The Portland ensemble’s newest concert is called Louder Than Words, which might be appropriate, because it’s been raising the roof lately with performances in New York and elsewhere. A new work from the company’s talented resident choreographer, Ihsan Rustem, plus one each from artisitic director Sarah Slipper and Brazilian dancemaker/filmmaker Alex Soares. Newark Theatre, Thursday through Saturday.

 


 

 

ArtsWatch links

 

Wangechi Mutu, “Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors”/Courtesy of PNCA

Wangechi Mutu, “Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors”/Courtesy of PNCA

 

Wangechi Mutu and the revolt of the female form. Grace Kook-Anderson looks at 511 Gallery’s Northwest premiere exhibition of this post-colonial, feminist, New York-via-Nairobi artist. “Mutu’s women are distorted figures, hybrids of animals and natural elements, bodies that are capable of great force,” she writes.

Michelle De Young: heavy going. What happens when a Wagnerian powerhouse of a voice meets an art song in recital? Katie Taylor went to the acclaimed singer’s Friends of Chamber Music concert and found the combination of voice and material sometimes disconcerting.

Oscar nominee Ciro Guerra: an interview. Erik McClanahan talks with the Colombian-born director of the foreign-language nominee Embrace of the Serpent. Bummed that he didn’t haul home an Oscar? “We were kind of relieved we didn’t win,” Guerra said. “There was a favorite going in and it’s great not to be the favorite. It can be a lot of pressure. Even winning can be a lot of pressure. So we just made the best of it and enjoyed it.”

Toxic glory: Heathers: The Musical. Christa Morletti McIntyre takes a look at the ’80s glory that was the cult teen movie, and the new glory of its musical-theater adaptation, which is is getting a slam-bang co-production from Triangle and Staged!

Born to run (and to film): Wim Wenders, continued. Marc Mohan looks at more of the Northwest Film Center’s fascinating series by the German director. This time around: Paris, Texas; Kings of the Road; The American Friend; The State of Things.

In Mulieribus: hours well spent. Bruce Browne celebrates the “happy marriage” at Mt. Angel Abbey of the outstanding choir’s Renaissance music and exquisite projected art from a medieval book of hours.

Last chance: Jacques Rivette’s twelve-hour Out 1. The French New Wave director’s ambitious, audacious, half-a-day opus has rarely been seen in the past forty-five years, but the Northwest Film Center’s been showing it, cut into digestible segments. Marc Mohan pays his respects.

Bullshot Crummond rides again. Lakewood Theatre’s world-premiere production of the latest Crummond comedy, a sequel to a 1970s parody of the old Bullshot Drummond British adventure series, revels in an old-fashioned sort of fun, Christa Morletti McIntyre writes.

Bolai Cao: abundant talent. It was a propitious meeting at Portland Piano International, Jeff Winslow writes – the rising young pianist Bolai Cao performing a new work by the veteran Oregon composer Bryan Johanson, a piece created in homage to Domenico Scarlatti.

Hello, My Name Is Doris: Sally Field talks about her new movie. ArtsWatch’s Marc Mohan chats with the two-time Oscar winner about her latest turn, as a “socially inept, eccentrically clad” office worker who develops a crush on her younger boss. “Some people have called it a love story, but I think it’s a coming of age story,” she says. “The challenge of being a human being is will we open up to every different stage of our life?”

Johanson and Prochaska: media speak. Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message,” Paul Sutinen looks at new shows by veteran painter/printmakers George Johanson and Tom Prochaska and declares the medium does matter.

 

Tom Prochaska, "Hillside Nevada," 2016, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Photo: Dan Kvitka

Tom Prochaska, “Hillside Nevada,” 2016, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Photo: Dan Kvitka

 


 

About ArtsWatch Weekly

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‘A Pigeon and a Boy’ talkback notes

A biblical pigeon hunt and a pro/con character assessment (with spoilers!) for JTC's current play.

Some plays make me laugh. Some make me cry. But the Jewish Theatre Collaborative‘s A Pigeon and a Boy is the first to send me thumbing through the Old Testament for pigeon references.

The play is a “first” in many ways: a world premiere stage adaptation of Meir Shalev’s novel of the same name, adapted in-house by director Sacha Reich and Doren Elias. It’s the culmination of the JTC’s “Page2Stage” season, an immersive book club experience that started last fall with staged readings of the first chapter and continued last month with a series of “footnote” excerpts from Israeli authors.

Nick Ferrucci, Chantal DeGroat, and Sam Dinkowitz briefly portray a group of British tourists, searching the sky for every sort of bird but the titular pigeon. credit: Friderike Heuer

Nick Ferrucci, Chantal DeGroat, and Sam Dinkowitz briefly portray a group of British tourists, searching the sky for every sort of bird but the titular pigeon. credit: Friderike Heuer

As a Johnny-come-lately who’s not (yet) read the novel, I can’t say how well the play serves the original text…but the experience of watching it is undeniably novel-esque. Characters are connected by especially deep familial, romantic, and ideological ties. Specters from the past breathe down the necks of people in the present; sins of fathers are conspicuously visited upon their children; archetypes and icons abound. The story spans a broad scope of time, with two generations elapsing in as many hours—but time can also stand still. At key moments, the actors freeze-frame, narrating flashes of realization. Twice—at the beginning and near the end—a pigeon rises and hangs in the air, book-ending the plot between furtive twin wingbeats like angels flanking the arc of the covenant. The novel begat this play, but parts of the Bible obviously begat the novel. And that’s what sent me on my scriptural pigeon-hunt.

Bob Hicks, having marked the play’s creative development more closely than I, wrote an excellent review last week for ArtsWatch. If you have yet to see the play, or to read Shalev’s text, by all means head straight to Bob’s review. But if you’re already familiar with the story and crave more biblical and social context, read on. SPOILER ALERT: The following analysis, inspired by opening weekend’s Sunday talkback, unveils surprises from the plot.

“We’d simply like to start the conversation,” explained Reich as she perched on the edge of the stage alongside Kenneth Gordon after the epic play had run its course. “What struck you? What do you wonder about?”

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A pigeon, a boy, a novel night onstage

Jewish Theatre Collaborative's literary drama takes flight into the heart of home

“That novel just came to life for me!” I overheard a fellow theatergoer exclaim happily as I worked through the crowd at Milagro Theatre on Saturday night after the opening performance of the Jewish Theatre Collaborative’s A Pigeon and a Boy.

Well, yes, it did – and in some interesting ways. She might have meant the story itself swept her off her feet. And she might have meant she loved seeing good actors step inside the story and bring its characters into heart-thumping, flesh-and-blood reality.

Muñoz, DeGroat, Dinkowitz: ready to fly. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Muñoz, DeGroat, Dinkowitz: ready to fly. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Both were reasonable responses to JTC’s performance, a world-premiere stage adaptation of the Israeli writer Meir Shalev’s time-hopping novel about a rumpled, aging tour guide in contemporary Israel and the unlikely love story of a pair of young pigeon-handlers during the 1948 war of independence. A Pigeon and a Boy ripples with themes of home and belonging, issues that are intensely potent in Israel and the Middle East. But onstage the tale’s metaphors play second fiddle to a more basic and immediate dramatic impulse: how’s life going to work out for these characters right here in front of my face?

And that strikes me as a good thing.

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Theater notes: mi casa es su casa, and other news

Jewish Theatre moves into Milagro, Badass is Goodass, the boys still matter, CoHo goes Irish

Invasion of the brain snatchers: Badass at Milagro

Invasion of the brain snatchers: Badass at Milagro

 

United we stand. Divided, maybe the curtain falls.

In the wake of February’s announcement of the shutting-down of Southeast Belmont’s Theater! Theatre! building to make room for a tea warehouse, Portland theater companies have been doing more shuffling than a nervous rookie at a Texas Hold ’Em tournament. The city’s East Side has several other theater spaces, some with long histories and reputations for exciting, unpredictable theater. But in many ways Theater! Theatre! was the heart of the East Side scene, and its loss was greeted with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

A few months later, the loss of the little theater center is still keenly felt. But the sudden theater real-estate squeeze has led to an interesting, and oddly promising, result: companies are starting to shack up together.

Profile Theatre quickly found a home on the West Side, where it’ll be in residence in the Artists Repertory Theatre complex. Theatre Vertigo, the other major tenant at Th! Th!, downsized to the shoebox-sized Shoebox Theatre, whose cozy digs it’ll share with the resident Northwest Classical Theatre Company. And as A.L. Adams reported here, Post5 Theatre and Action/Adventure are doing the sleepover thing, and Tears of Joy has announced it’ll be leaving the Portland Center for the Performing Arts and moving into the Imago building in close-in Southeast, thus bringing under one roof two companies that have made their international reputations on puppetry and physical theater.

Latest company to join the real-estate shuffle is the small but adventurous Jewish Theatre Collaborative, another group cast adrift by the Theater! Theatre! shutdown.  JTC has announced it’ll be taking up residence at El Centro Milagro on inner Southeast Stark, home of the Hispanic-centered Miracle Theatre Group. The matchup seems like a good one: Milagro’s Jose Gonzales has been a mentor to JTC’s artistic director, Sasha Reich, who’s also directed mainstage shows at Milagro. And Milagro already has an open-door policy for short-term users, taking the “centro” part of its name seriously. JTC is planning a world-premiere adaptation for next year of Meir Shalev’s novel “A Pigeon and a Boy.”

Eventually it would be a good thing for the East Side to develop a new multiple-stage theater center, maybe even more technically sophisticated, to replace Theater! Theatre! In the meantime, the recent reshuffling is a good reminder that a lot of performance spaces already exist. And spaces should be used: down time is wasted time and wasted money. Audiences have been used to following specific companies and going where they perform. Now maybe they’ll start thinking about going to specific performance halls and seeing who happens to be there on a given night. In a tight economy, it’s not a bad plan.

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 Speaking of Milagro, another new company – Badass Theatre, an artist-driven group led by director Antonio Sonera, who has a long history with Milagro – has opened its first show, and it’s a doozy. Jonas Hassen Khemeri’s “Invasion!” is a structurally audacious, politically provocative comedy-drama that tumbles together like a Cubist jigsaw puzzle and packs an emotional wallop even though its story’s as scrambled as the breakfast special at a blue-collar diner. A.L. Adams wrote enthusiastically about the opening here, not mixing her metaphors anywhere near as egregiously as I just did. And the show’s being performed – of course – at Milagro.

The good news is that “Invasion!” is a gutsy play in a fine production that’s a terrific kickoff for the new company. The bad news is that most shows have had lots of empty seats. That’s too bad, because Badass is committed, among other things, to presenting affordable theater, with a promise that no one will ever pay more than $20 for a ticket, and a vow to get people in the doors even if they have no money at all.

My advice: Go see it before it disappears. It runs Thursdays-Sundays through June 29. A four-hander with enough scene and character changes to satisfy a “Greater Tuna” junkie, it shoots straight to the heart of our contemporary fears of the Other, notably others who happen to be Muslim, but the points are broad enough to haul in any number of other Others, too. And actor John San Nicolas absolutely nails an incredible seven-minute culminating monologue that may not be as lengthy or jaw-dropping as the infamously over-the-top monologue in David Hirson’s rhymed-couplet comedy “La Bete” but is more incisive and emotionally moving and crucial to the structure of the play. Words, words, words, as the world tumbles down.

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The Boys, acting to beat the band. Photo: Holly Andres

The Boys, acting to beat the band. Photo: Holly Andres

 

About a week ago I went to see Mart Crowley’s 1968 drama “The Boys in the Band,” partly to see how a play that was so potent in its own time would hold up in our very different times. “Boys” is a bitchfest set at a gay birthday party that’s been crashed by a straight guy, an old college roommate of one of the boys. Premiering the year before the Stonewall Riots, it rocked a theater world that was as gay then behind the scenes as it is now but wasn’t used to seeing gay characters or situations portrayed so openly onstage. “B in the B” was very much a play of its moment, and plays of the moment don’t always have long lives.

Yet I found defunkt theatre’s production, directed by Jon Kretzu in “his/hers” tandem with Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” surprisingly contemporary. It’s a period piece, but a period piece with continuing reverberations. People still keep secrets. People are still afraid to be found out, about any number of things. Homosexuality is vastly more open and accepted than it was in 1968, but opposition can still be furious, from politics to pulpits. For gays and non-gays alike, coming to terms with who and what we are is still a difficult process, fraught with peril. So the boys in the band are exactly who they were in 1968, but also empathetic stand-ins for all sorts of people in 2013. The play’s strengths ­– its sharply drawn characters, its honesty, its emotional brutality counterbalanced with tenderness – are still strong. Its weakness – its fever-pitched melodrama – is still a weakness. Like “As Is” and “The Normal Heart” and “Angels in America,” it’s part of a living history, and it was good to see it again.

In keeping with the opportunistic-performance-space theme, “Boys” is being  performed in a private home on East Burnside Street near Music Millennium, to an audience of just 20 a night. The setting approximates the Manhattan-apartment setting of the play, and the crowd is seated in little folding chairs around the perimeter of the living room, in arm’s length of the revelers. Too bad the room isn’t a little bigger, with armchairs. The show has already been extended and continues through Saturday (June 22), but all remaining performances are sold out.

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 Meanwhile, in Northwest PDX, where Vertigo DIDN’T relocate, the cozy CoHo Theatre space continues its busy summer schedule. Week Two of the Solo Summer! Festival commences with Tonya Jone Miller’s “Threads” June 20-23, followed by a return of Erin Leddy’s much-praised “My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow” June 27-23. And this coming Monday, June 24, the new Corrib Theatre, which specializes in all things Irish and theatrical, will have another reading of Jimmy Murphy’s comic gabfest “The Hen Night Epiphany.” Gemma Whelan directs a promising cast of Laura Faye Smith, Jamie Rea, Nikki Weaver, Vana O’Brien and Jacklyn Maddux.

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