john berendzen

‘Marilyn Monroe vs. Vampires’: Alien nation

Liminal Group's inventive production of R.W. Fassbinder's satirical play uses video to make humans the aliens

They’re all around us. The butcher, the cop, the wife, the mistress, the lover, the rest. All  with their insecurities, their manipulations, their schemes, their betrayals, their hopes, their fears. If you could see and hear them whining, plotting, hoping, even killing… why, it’d be enough to drive someone crazy. Especially if that someone is a visitor from another planet whose first exposure to human beings puts her in the midst of all of the above. You know, an alien like The Man Who Fell to Earth, or Starman, or Ziggy Stardust, or another 1970s character, Phoebe Zeitgeist, an alien sent to our planet to investigate how our society works — still a tough task, as last month’s election revealed.

Liminal Group’s ‘Marilyn Monroe vs. Vampires’ runs through Sunday at Portland’s Disjecta gallery. Photo: Sumi Wu.

Phoebe is the central figure in the famed German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s satirical 1972 play, Marilyn Monroe versus the Vampires, which Portland’s most inventive and, let’s just say it, wonderfully weird theater ensemble, Liminal Group, has adapted into a “360º immersive sci-fi video opera” that runs this weekend at Portland’s Disjecta gallery. Like every Liminal show, it’s a performance experience like no other, and one you won’t forget.


‘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.



Listening to music under a darkened parabolic dome with flickering colored lights and choreographed projected video images isn’t commonly associated with the chamber music tradition. Yet that’s exactly what audiences will experience when listening becomes the melding of new music with modern performance techniques in a Cascadia Composers concert at Eugene’s historic First Christian Church on January 30.

Perceptions of Sound is designed to engage the ears and mind with a variety of acoustic and electroacoustic works presented in surprising and enlightening ways “that both challenges yet entertains,” according to concert organizer Daniel Brugh. “There’s gonna be a few lights of a variety of colors, video, some sound-induced visuals and lots and lots of darkness! This is music experienced in an alternative way.”

John Berendzen plays Robohorn at Cascadia Composers' Perceptions of Sound concert.

John Berendzen plays Robohorn at Cascadia Composers’ Perceptions of Sound concert.

Showcasing the talents and creativity of a host of local and regional composers and performing professionals, this multimedia experience draws connections between different artistic media elevating the act of listening. Several of the works have been adapted for or written specifically to take advantage of the unique space and special acoustic properties of First Christian Church’s parabolic dome.

The program will feature Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet, pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf, soprano Nancy Wood and percussionist Todd Bills among many professional musicians from Eugene and Portland. The ten contributing composers include Eugene’s Paul Safar and Alexander Schwarzkopf along with Portlanders Daniel Brugh, Jennifer Wright, Jeff Winslow, Nicholas Yandell, Susan Alexjander, Ted Clifford, Lisa Ann Marsh, and Vancouver Washington’s Brandon Stewart.

Listen Up!

The evening’s event will open with a musical interlude courtesy of Portland composer and musician John Berendzen and his “Robohorn,” a hybrid electroacoustic instrument developed around a marching mellophone. This unusual DYI horn is fully mobile, self-powered, and allows Berendzen to stroll freely throughout the performance venue with the sound of the instrument being modified by reverberation within the acoustic space. (See: 3 Sisters, a film by Ani Asuncion with Robohorn soundtrack by John Berendzen.)

The concert continues with a diversity of music by Northwest composers who are actively involved in composing today’s classical music. Click the “Hear/Here” links for samples of recent work by each composer.

First Christian Church's parabolic dome provided inspiration for several of the works to be performed there at Cascadia Composers' January 30 concert.

First Christian Church’s parabolic dome provided inspiration for several of the works to be performed there at Cascadia Composers’ January 30 concert.

Elkos by Susan Alexjander uses unusual microtonal tunings derived from vibrations of the infrared world of the DNA molecule. These original light frequencies, when translated into pitches, create a sonic ‘map’ of this molecular world for the human ear…what one author called “the invisible whispers within,” she writes in a program note. It is a watery and intimate piece that flows in flexible time between a violinist and synthesizer player. The violinist must match the synthesizer’s tunings as best he or she can, but often the rub, or clash, results in interesting vibratory events which take on a life of their own. (Hear/Here)

Inspired by a Deborah Buchanan poem, Lisa Ann Marsh’s Counting Again, Beginning at One will resonate with an array of percussion sounds (vibraphone, orchestral bells, cymbal, wind chimes), piano and soprano. Lighting effects and spatial arrangement and movement of the performers augment the mystery and poignancy of the piece. (Hear/ Here)

Eugene composer and videographer Daniel Heila filmed moving imagery that inspired him based upon the abstract title White Canvas, a piece for piano, bass clarinet and alto flute by Paul Safar. Both Safar’s music and Heila’s accompanying video were purposely composed in isolation from each other, resulting in a “project of chance.” (Hear/Here)


Miracle on 43rd Street and SANTA reviews: Laugh- and thought-provoking holiday alternatives.

Bag & Baggage Productions and Liminal Performance Group offer nontraditional takes on holiday classics.

The holidays can be hellish for arts lovers whose quest for fresh experiences and insights often collide with the seasonal insistence on the familiar. Portland theater companies are responding by creating new holiday traditions. This year’s Bag & Baggage holiday show repeats much of the formula of last year’s It’s a (Somewhat) Wonderful Life: Take an overfamiliar holiday film, pull back the camera a level by framing it as a radio play production, write a new comic story involving the actors who are playing the movie roles — and somehow make it all (a live theater play about a radio play about a movie) work. Director Scott Palmer even recycled the same set (including the division into three zones of sometimes simultaneous action), characters and many of the actors.

But despite the promising setup and some fine acting, last year’s show suffered from “often-clunky expository dialogue and a sketchy script that devotes insufficient attention to dramatizing (verbally or otherwise) the radio actors’ jaded attitudes,” as I wrote in ArtsWatch. “To achieve the density of humor required for true comic combustion, the too-long show needs more slam-bang comic moments … jokes and physical comedy, and less tedious traversal of the familiar original Capra lines, which the audience already knows well enough.”

And that’s exactly what this year’s Miracle on 43rd Street delivers. Shedding much of the holiday cinema classic’s plot development and minimizing exposition (until, unfortunately, the end), Palmer’s sly script leaves hardly any dead spots and packs so much hilarious action into each section of this three-ring circus that there’s always something funny going on. The trick is knowing where to look at a given moment. If everyone’s laughing and you’re not, you’re gazing at the wrong part of the stage. The only real solution is to see it twice. And you should, because Miracle on 43rd Street is the funniest — and most fun — new holiday show I’ve seen in years.

Clara Hillier as Felicity, Gary Strong as Winston, Jeremy Sloan as Gilroy and Jessica Geffen as Lana. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Clara Hillier as Felicity, Gary Strong as Winston, Jeremy Sloan as Gilroy and Jessica Geffen as Lana. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bursting with boob jokes, queen jokes (it’s worth pointing out that the author is proudly gay) and above all corpse jokes, most of the comedy is physical. The new subplot’s hostage situation and the characters’ need to maintain the radio audience’s (though not the theater audience’s) unawareness of it — that is, between their need to tell the familiar story of the movie and the unpredictable chaos going on around it — supplies plentiful comic tension .

You needn’t remember the original film well or at all to enjoy this new seasonal delight, which is extremely loosely based on Lux Radio Theatre’s 1948 live broadcast of Miracle on 34th Street. However, it wouldn’t hurt to have seen a lot of other movies (Airplane!, Weekend at Bernie’s, Young Frankenstein, Bullets Over Broadway, Dr. Strangelove and probably others lost in the avalanche of laughter that accompanied the opening night performance) to catch some of the references that drew the most laughs.

Credit for the enthusiastic response goes to Palmer’s bustling script, astute direction, and his ebullient cast’s high-energy, nearly exhausting performances. All display the strong chemistry characteristic of B&B’s regular company. Jessica Geffen perkily reprised last year’s role as cheerily clueless Lana North-Berkshire-Whiteside, and this year’s show benefits from more sparing appearances of the shrill Bronx accent and mammary humor that goosed both productions along. Clara Hillier’s Felicity Fay Fitzpatrick upstages almost everyone (as she intends) with outrageous drama queenery and overdramatic gestures. And speaking of queening around, Jeremy Sloan’s Gilroy Gildersleeve’s fey cop gets most of the funniest lines — and deliciously dishes them with Liberace-like camp.

Even though those three turn in some of the funniest physical comedy I’ve seen lately on Oregon stages, it’s no slam at them — or at Gary Sloan, Chase Fulton and Luke Armstrong, who also excel despite their comic opportunities being limited by their roles as straight man or plot device — to note that they’re eclipsed by a dead guy. Branden McFarland’s Peter Paulson, the unfortunate station sound effects guy, spends most of the play growing ever more rigorously mortis, yet nevertheless is the star of the show — with ample assistance from his co-stars. To say more about his role, or the plot itself, would give away too many of the surprises that keep B&B’s Miracle so blessedly brilliant.

In fact, the show’s only drawback is that it ends — not once, but several times, dissipating some of the momentum fueled by the near constant laughter by trying to wrap up too many threads at the end. And as those of us fiddling with ribbons and bows all know, wrapping and unwrapping is the most tiresome part of an otherwise rewarding holiday. But the slight stumble across the finish line hardly negates the hilarity that preceded it. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, whether you go gaga over Santa and the rest of the seasonal ho ho hokum or not, anyone who needs a good laugh at this most solemn/depressing time of year — and don’t we all? — should make the pilgrimage to Hillsboro to catch this Miracle.

Bag & Baggage Productions’ Miracle on 43rd Street runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sunday matinees at 2:00pm at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre. Tickets are available online.

Santa vs. Satan

The holiday season is all about tradition, and since we lumped (no coal implied) last year’s ArtsWatch Bag & Baggage review with a review of Liminal Performance Group’s 2013 show, let’s maintain that tradition. As ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley wrote in his preview, Liminal’s holiday offering repeats last year’s surprising move from the company’s usual avant garde offerings to seemingly more traditional fare. Last year, it was Thornton Wilder’s chestnut Our Town; this year, Santa himself.

But the title character of Liminal’s SANTA (shouldn’t that title be lower case?) is hardly the jolly figure who’s enslaved elves and dragooned reindeer into satiating capitalist consumer cravings. In the riveting opening scene of the great 20th century American poet e.e. cummings’ one act play, we meet him curled near-fetal on the floor of Back Door Theater’s spare set, lamenting that he has so much joy to give, but so few want to take it.

Here, Santa is an allegorical figure representing the spirit of joy and generosity engaged in a classic deal with the devil. Sharply delineated by Leo Daedalus (monocled and top-hatted like Mr. Peanut but not as salty), Death (as cummings calls him) is simultaneously adorable, witty, seductive — yet subtly dangerous, as signaled by his just-a-little-too-rough handling of Santa, whom he’s inveigling into a sneaky switcheroo.  But then, Death slinks to the floor and makes goo-goo eyes at Jeff Marchant, who grabs us immediately with his desperate desire to give happiness, and vulnerably portrays St. Nick evolving through disillusionment, despair, deception, and eventually to something more life affirming.

The fact that we care about them as characters rather than archetypes makes Liminal’s production surprisingly affecting. After all, cummings subtitled his 1946 one-act play A Morality, referencing the highly stylized medieval religious dramas called “morality plays” that enacted the battle of good vs. evil in theatrical terms — and left out the “play” in both subtitle and script.

Jeff Marchant and Leo Daedalus in Liminal's SANTA.

Jeff Marchant and Leo Daedalus in Liminal’s SANTA.

But dramatists from the ancient Greeks to Indonesian shadow puppet theater artists (in epics like the Ramayana and Mahabarata) have shown that allegory doesn’t have to be unbearably pretentious, tedious or didactic, and Liminal’s tight production shows that it can even be relevant. One of the play’s main themes — that humanity’s pursuit of knowledge without understanding brings dire consequences — is at least as pertinent in our own age of drones, NSA techno-spying, GMOs, Google Glassholes, and other technological degradations of humane existence as it was immediately after the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unleashed a few months before cummings wrote his play; the theme was a prime preoccupation of postwar artists and intellectuals of the time.

Yet cummings also acknowledges the danger of reflexively rejecting knowledge, portraying humanity (here called the Crowd and spiritedly represented by Alex Reagan, costumed and behaving as a soccer yob) as a greedy, vindictive, dangerously unthinking mob, easily bamboozled by pseudo-science spouting hucksters, kind of a societal id. The story (which cummings wrote shortly after reuniting with his own daughter, from whom he’d been separated for decades) ultimately is more about the value of family love, embodied as the Child (Delilah Fox), as a bulwark against the ignorance of those who allow greed to eclipse knowledge and those who fail to leaven it with wisdom.

Along with engaging acting, Liminal enriches cummings’s dry, enigmatic “morality” with well chosen if minimal costumes (by Sumi Wu), lighting (Rory Breshears) and video landscape (Ben Purdy). Director John Berendzen adroitly combines them with other cummings texts from the 1920s interpolated between Santa Claus’s five scenes (some sung beguilingly by Carla Grant, who arrestingly plays the unfortunately underdeveloped character cummings called Woman) plus his own subtly ominous score and sound design.

The result: a production that adds up to more than an intellectual interaction — something like Santa meets Samuel Beckett. The hour-long running time affords us the opportunity to reflect on its heady ideas without growing tedious. To swipe the tagline from Daedalus’s The Late Now, it’s the thinking mammal’s Christmas show, and along with Bag & Baggage’s very different Miracle, a rewarding holiday alternative for Oregon theater lovers.

Liminal Performance Group’s SANTA runs Thursdays through Sundays, Dec. 4–21, at southeast Portland’s Backdoor Theatre. Tickets are available online.

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Emilyi Poltorak's Alpha Beta will be performed at Classical Revolution PDX's Muse:Forward salon on Sunday.

Emyli Poltorak’s Alpha Beta will be performed at Muse:Forward on Sunday.


We are cursed to live in interesting times. Last year Portland witnessed a pretty dramatic growth spurt in successful informal accessible (yet high quality) local contemporary classical music events spurred on by local composers through organizations like ClassicalRevolutionPDX and Piano!PushPlay! Severe growing pains ensued, from a few members of the traditional classical music community within CRPDX becoming enraged to the point of a near-coup which ultimately resulted in a complete board-of-directors turnover, to suffocatingly huge crowds in performing spaces not designed for such.

The nearly ousted executive director of CRPDX, Christopher Corbell, himself a composer, found a neat solution. In early 2014 he created another organization, Muse:Forward, to continue nurturing the community of burgeoning composers/music creatives and the performers who wanted to hear and play their works, to defuse the anger of the CRPDX traditionalists and to alleviate the crowding at one of its monthly classical jam venues, northeast Portland cafe The Waypost.

Finally, an unobstructed open mic chamber-music-jam setting for music created by local living Portlanders, M:F differs from formal presenters such as Cascadia Composers or Third Angle New Music’s “New Ideas in Music” event because it happens monthly and it is not curated. Anyone can participate provided their thumb- or mud-wrestling skills can muscle them onto the stage.

Going beyond the parameters (whatever those are) of classical music (whatever that is), Corbell is inviting “more cross-fertilization among experimentalists, composers, improvisers, sound designers, electronic music makers and other performing artists.” This mash-up debuts at The Waypost, on Sunday, May 18 at 7 pm. Of course those like me who want to just listen, talk with the creators and performers, quaff a beer or two and eat carnitas tacos are also welcome.

The first hour will feature music by composers John Berendzen, a four time winner of Portland Drama Critics’ Circle awards for sound design who’s composed music for Portland’s Liminal Performance Group, and Emyli Poltorak, the young Portland State student star whose angry Alpha Beta was one of the highlights at Cascadia Composers Crazy Jane concert last November. The rest of the night is a free-for-all open mic, reserved for newly created local music, followed (or preceded) by audience/creator/performer kibbitzing.


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