let a hundred flowers bloom

This month onstage: hypocrites, senior sex, other twice-told tales

Suddenly, Portland's stages are an echo chamber. But it's an INTERESTING echo chamber.

Say, is there an echo in here? And by “here,” I mean in Portland theater, specifically current/closing plays that I’ve recently seen: Portland Center Stage’s A Small Fire, Artists Rep’s The Motherfucker with the Hat, Post5’s Tartuffe and Spectravagasm, Shaking The Tree’s One Flea Spare, Defunkt’s Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom, and Triangle’s Next Fall.

David Bodin and Kayla Lian in "One Flea Spare." Photo: Shaking the Tree.

David Bodin and Kayla Lian in “One Flea Spare.” Photo: Shaking the Tree.

Staying well clear of cliché, these shows have been delving into a lot of relevant themes that you don’t see every day on the stage. And unless I need my eyes adjusted, I’ve been seeing double. Just for fun, with some (mostly) late-run spoilers, here’s a short list of motifs that recur at least twice:

Senior Sex

In at least two productions, One Flea Spare and A Small Fire, senior citizens climax on stage. (Seniorgasm?) In both instances, the late-life lovers have suffered a loss of sensation, and use sex to reconnect, which brings us to…

Sensory Deprivation

One Flea Spare, Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom, and A Small Fire each introduces us to a character who can’t feel like he/she used to. In Flea, the loss is due to scar tissue sustained in a fire. In Fire, a rare nerve disorder robs a character’s senses one at a time. (And, no, oddly enough, I didn’t get those titles crossed.) In Flowers, HIV meds hypersensitize a character’s skin to the point where he can’t stand to be touched.

Bible Bangers

These exaggerated characters have swooped into the current plays like a sweet chariot. In Tartuffe, they abound as the title character and his enablers. In Next Fall, they’re praying for the recovery of their openly Christian, secretly gay son. In Spectravagasm, they’re the subject of spoof, and in Hat, a different bible—the AA recovery one—stands in for the other good book. Which brings us to…


Tartuffe and Hat each shows us supposed right-living mentors who backstab their protegees. In Next Fall, there’s another twist: a religious zealot backstabs himself, alternately accepting beliefs that do not condone his lifestyle, and practicing a lifestyle that’s not supported by his beliefs.

Matthew Kern and Andrew Bray in "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom" at defunct. Photo: Heather Viera Keeling

Matthew Kern and Andrew Bray in “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” at defunct. Photo: Heather Viera Keeling

The Gay Community

Both Next Fall and Flowers center on committed long-term monogomous gay couples, and while Flowers hits a community hot button, HIV, Fall humanizes its pair with an everyman situation. Gay or straight, we can all be put down by a hard bump to the head.

Hispanic Bi

This is a great run for switch-hitters from south of the border. In both Hat and Flowers, we’re introduced to a discreet, half-closeted, het-married “Maricón.” In Flowers, a roguish shoe salesman warns his “blanquito” that he limits dalliances with men to “two times” to evade discovery by his pregnant wife. In Hat, the main character’s gay cousin is tired of being called effeminate and eager to show how tough he is (as tough as Van Damme, apparently) in a fight. But other than that, these characters are so similar they could almost trade plays.

Looking back, this has generally been a high-stakes, agony-and-ecstasy-filled fleet of dramas, with razor’s edges and gnashing teeth…and a few good laughs interspersed. It’s showed us challenging stuff—and then, just in case we missed it, showed it again.


A. L. Adams also writes the 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
Support Oregon ArtsWatch!




Love and Mao in the miracle days

Defunkt's 'Hundred Flowers' finds romantic comedy and complications as a plague floats away

Let a hundred flowers bloom, Chairman Mao said.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself, Franklin D. Roosevelt said.

Don’t trust the flowers. They might be snakes, waiting to bite you on the butt, Puppy said.


Bray and Kern: best friends. Photo: Heather Keeling

Bray and Kern: best friends. Photo: Heather Keeling

Maybe you’re not familiar with the wit and wisdom of the people’s philosopher Puppy. He’s a smart-talking paraplegic author of gay Marxist porn, the unlikely and clingingly adorable central character in David Zellnik’s equally unlikely and charming post-AIDS romantic comedy Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, which is getting a winsome, sexy, and emotionally perceptive performance at defunkt theatre. A wheelchair-bound Matthew Kern, wheedling and wisecracking and alternately acting the wise guy and the yearning fool, becomes the fulcrum of the tale, which is about what happens when you’ve been living under a death sentence and it’s suddenly lifted.

Strictly speaking, Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom isn’t a post-AIDS play, because AIDS and HIV are still with us. But they’re vastly different from what they once were, and Zellnik’s play is set at the dawning of what seemed at the time an almost unbelievable new age. It takes place in the mid-1990s, when protease inhibitors began to tame the effects of HIV and suddenly offered a new lease on life to millions of people who had been facing almost certain wasting-away and premature death. In gay communities, it was a giddy and almost magical time, and maybe even a little fearful: Where do we go? What do we do?

Puppy, for one, is hopeful but wary. Better the devil you know, perhaps, and he sees in the promise of HIV drugs an ironic connection to Chairman Mao’s “hundred flowers” campaign. In 1956, the same year that the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Uprising, Mao seemed to take an opposite, more benevolent, tack in China. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he proclaimed: let a multitude of ideas loose to contend in an open intellectual and political market.

For a while, Chinese citizens took him up on his offer. Then Mao cracked down, arresting dissidents who had spoken out and sending many of them to forced labor camps. As he later bragged, he had “enticed the snakes out of their caves.”

The snakes in Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom seem mainly in the mind, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. The play’s romance strikes off in several directions, but centers on the partnership of Jake (Andrew Bray) and Samson (Steve Vanderzee), who had been resigned to dying together but now, thanks to drug treatment, are becoming healthy again. The trouble is, Samson has some troublesome side effects and spends a lot of time on the road; and Jake’s in a torpor, semi-paralyzed emotionally and unable to get up and do much of anything: he still can’t quite believe he’s not dying. Add Chip Sherman to the mix in several roles – most notably as a sexy shoe salesman who insists he’s straight but likes to fool around with guys – and the action becomes desperate, funny, and surprisingly moving. Protease inhibitors might be miracle drugs, but they’re not miracle workers. When you come back to life, you also come back to its many complications.

Zellnik wrote A Hundred Flowers in 2001, and even now its setup seems a little daring, a little dancing-on-skeletons, with a smart sense of the complicating fear and pain underlying the liberation. It’s a warm play, ultimately, a feel-good sort of story, but with enough nuance and emotional shadings to give it real impact. The cast’s quite winning, and the talented director Paul Angelo keeps the actors on their toes, nimbly navigating the rapids of sentiment, sheer comedy, sly raunch, and genuine emotion. Nothing to fear but fear itself. And fear has fangs.


Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom continues through March 22 at defunkt, in the little Back Door Theatre behind Common Grounds coffee shop at 4319 Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Ticket and schedule information is here.


Read more from Bob Hicks >>

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!


Oregon ArtsWatch Archives