matthew kerrigan

A dozen great reads from 2017

From a Lewis Carroll lark to a rambling Road Dog to a play about a baby to art out of ocean garbage, twelve ArtsWatch stories not to miss

A dance critic walks into an art show. A man and his dog travel the byroads of America. A pop song sinks into a writer’s soul. A jazz pianist walks into the wilderness. A play about a baby strikes a theater reviewer close to home. On the southern Oregon coast, artists make huge sculptures from the detritus that chokes the sea.

We run a lot of stories on a lot of subjects at Oregon ArtsWatch – more than 500 in 2017 alone – and a few stand out simply as stories that want to be told. Put together a good writer and a good subject and chances are you’ll get a memorable tale. Here are a dozen such stories from 2017.



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A look back at a dozen stories from 2017 you won’t want to miss:


Matthew Kerrigan reinterprets Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, with a fleeting attention span ruled by a smartphone.

We’re all mad here … so let’s party

Jan. 31: “What do you do with your existential frustration? If you boil it down into its purest form, you get either despair or rage—which then has to be dealt with. But if you chill it out and mix in some humor, you end up with absurdity. And that can be played with! O Frabjous Day!” A.L. Adams got down in the existential trenches with Shaking the Tree’s We’re All Mad Here, a piece performed and largely conceived by Matthew Kerrigan in homage to the great absurdist Lewis Carroll. “Any drug-addled dodo could dream up a different world, but that wasn’t the crux of Carroll’s vision. Like his forebears Aesop and Chaucer and Jonathan ‘Gulliver’ Swift, Carroll was a satirist as well as a fabulist.”


Shaking the Tree’s ‘Head. Hands. Feet.’: Not so grim fairy tales

There will be blood in Portland theater’s “Tales of Dismemberment” but not all the body parts add up.

As you enter the theater, actors clad in neutral grey courteously greet you, lead you to a basin, and solemnly help you wash your hands. The splashing water provides the only sound in the hushed, neutral-colored space dominated by pale bluish greys — the better to contrast with the blood that will flow in Shaking the Tree theatre’s annual Halloweenish horror show.

Actually, the gore isn’t portrayed realistically but symbolically; Head. Hands. Feet. is by no means a fright fest. In fact, the first half consists of fairy tales, although anyone’s who’s read non-Victorian-sanitized ancient tales knows how really, ah, grim and gory they can be.

They can also seem pretty backward from a 21st century perspective, often punishing characters — particularly females — who transgress social norms. Accordingly, all three devised stories — and the adaptation of a classic Greek play that occupies the show’s second half — to some degree sanitize their models to make them more progressive/feminist/modern and, well, Portland than the originals.

Shaking the Tree Theatre's Head.Hands.Feet.

Shaking the Tree Theatre’s Head.Hands.Feet.

While that updated sensibility may make the stories seem more suitable to today’s audiences, it sometimes also makes them a shade too comfortable, at the expense of the dark reality they caution us about — not too different, ultimately and ironically, than what the Victorians did to those dark stories. It’s almost like thinking the world is like what we saw at the Democratic convention, and just ignoring that other one — the real horror show of last summer. At times, the apparent attempts to bring out more contemporary perspectives on these ancient tales actually undermine the modern moral stance these adaptations are trying to advance.

Nevertheless, as with any production involving the Portland theater power trio of imaginative director Samantha Van Der Merwe, and irresistible actors Beth Thompson and Matthew Kerrigan, you should see Head. Hands. Feet. — though not to be terrified, but to have your terrors cleansed.


Hunter captured by the game

In Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis" at CoHo, Shaking the Tree takes a green look at the thrill of the hunt

It’s the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and in his time, poetry was considered a noble trade. Shakespeare made his mark there first, and most of us know by memory a few of those famous lines: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” In Shakespeare’s century, theater was in large part for the raucous and bawdy, pint-lifting hoi polloi: the commoners. It’s been rumored of late in the papers that the Bard, himself, tried to secure a noble crest for his family, perhaps to hush the naysayers who believed he was little but an upstart with an impressive vocabulary. But, the chalk-complexioned ginger Queen Elizabeth put most of those rumors to rest, and here we are today celebrating his insights on the human condition. It can be argued that despite the success of his politically themed theater, his strongest suit was a deep understanding of the heart.

While we may have plowed his sonnets in our younger years for our own romantic endeavors, it is usually the case that today Shakespeare’s poetry probably isn’t in our stack of books. Shaking the Tree, as part of CoHo’s SummerFest series of short-run shows (this one opened Thursday and closes Sunday)  regrows an appreciation of his other, and perhaps, more personal work by way of a staged version of his brilliant poem Venus and Adonis.

Ridenour and Kerrigan, playing games. Photo: Gary Norman

Ridenour and Kerrigan, playing games. Photo: Gary Norman

Rebecca Ridenour’s goddess, Venus, shimmers in a golden gown, barefoot and with braided hair. She comes in with a case of vanity and the feral, celestial aura of a hunter. What she’s hunting, she’s not sure of, but in most cases it would take a male form. Ridenour is a suppressed volcanic wait of hormones. Here begins the triangle of insight by Ridenour, director Samantha Van Der Merwe, and Matthew Kerrigan as Adonis. All three play with Shakespeare’s mock view of how a petulant female chases a closed-hearted male, but both Venus and Adonis surface in the end as losers in a complicated game.


Toy housing market: Ibsen’s Doll

Shaking the Tree's dollhouse-bright production of Ibsen's masterpiece "A Doll's House" brings its issues vividly into the 21st century

Everyone wanted a piece of Henrik Ibsen, for good or bad, after he wrote A Doll’s House: Marxists, Communists, anarchists, feminists, censors. The trend hasn’t ended, and it’s a guffaw that a playwright who wrote about objectifying people had to politely defend his autonomy and privacy. In his way, Ibsen pioneered a path for such future artists as Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and J.D. Salinger to create provocative material and then shut the door to personal access.

Shaking the Tree opens its own door to the secrets of Ibsen’s house. The Portland theater company likes to play, right from the beginning of its handsome and lively new production of his 1879 masterwork: We enter the theater and are in the dollhouse. The molded orange door frame that Nora will exit to the outside world and freedom is the same pathway we pass through to find our seats. There is hardly a stage: it’s an environment, and the only things that separate us from the performers are our seats.

Nikki Weaver as Nora, Jacob Coleman as Torvald. Photo: Gary Norman

Nikki Weaver as Nora, Jacob Coleman as Torvald. Photo: Gary Norman

The breakdown, in brief: Nora Helmer (in this production, the sparkling and generous Nikki Weaver) is a married woman with three children who has a platonic love affair with her husband’s best friend. Torvald, her husband, was ill, and she forged her father’s signature to get a loan. The loan was from a lawyer named Krogstad, a social outcast who had a relationship with Nora’s childhood friend, Kristine, and both are eventually employed by Nora’s husband. Over Christmas, Nora’s self-imposed exile into false happiness is upturned by the realities of corruption, death and change. Once the door is open, there’s no going home: Nora leaves her husband and children to become a full human being, not the shadowy image of who she is supposed to be.


Shaking the Fo: double the fun

Matthew Kerrigan and Shaking the Tree bring a pair of Dario Fo's commedia-inspired solo plays to witty life


Matthew Kerrigan tiptoes onto the stage wearing a silk Japanese robe, stocking cap, and red nose. He’s a lowbrow Arlecchino for our times. He playfully pokes and jabs at the audience, leaving us feeling smarter as we discover his game, but like all commedia dell’arte zanni, we’ve been taken by the naughty clown. There’s something special in Kerrigan’s impish smile, and a simple beauty that a good joke can go back 400 years.

Kerrigan is a one-man show, playing a multitude of characters in Shaking The Tree‘s The Dissenter’s Handbook and Tale of a Tiger (Storia Della Tigre) by the Italian playwright and Nobel laureate Dario Fo.

Matthew Kerrigan, joking with Dario Fo. Photo: Gary Norman

Matthew Kerrigan, joking with Dario Fo. Photo: Gary Norman

Kerrigan is a shape-shifter through these performances, changing his face, voice, and posture from man to woman to deity to wild beast to common thief. He rolls in and out of character as easily as water flowing in a stream. His acting takes us out of our seats, our heads, our daily life, and into the land of fairytales.

Fo’s pieces, translated into English here by Ed Emery, are often called monologues, but are really more than that: they’re richly woven storytelling, grounded from the perspective of a trained commedia playwright, but one who takes charming images of fables and refashions them for the present day. His humor is spot-on, the kind you tend to get only when your best friend makes a witty aside.

The theater tradition of commedia dell’arte  began in Italy in the 16th century, and is comprised of stock characters who can be tailored to fit what we recognize: the maid, the lord, the fool, the butler. They fall into topsy-turvy messes, because as humans, we are given to natural mistake: falling in love, or being born jealous. The image of Harlequin in his diamond-patterned suit, the tears of Pagliacci, and the stormy relationship of Punch and Judy still have a place in our imagination. Shakespeare loved commedia, and as Oregonians love Shakespeare, we’ve followed suite with our own commedia tradition.

Fo, with his late wife and collaborator Franca Rame, has long been Italy’s court jester, taking on heads of state and the pontifications of Rome. He’s fashioned a 60-year career of making the reverent irreverent through fantastic off-color retellings of historical crimes. Fo’s adventures on stage did not go unnoticed: among his scrapes with powerful institutions, he’s been banned by the papacy, blackballed for 14 years by Italian television, and in the 1960s was consistently banned from entering the United States. In 1973, Rame was the victim of a violent political attack – kidnapped, raped, and beaten – because of their iconoclastic work.

It’s no small thing for Shaking the Tree and Kerrigan to take on Fo. The simple Mark Rothko-inspired set is a good canvas for Kerrigan to show his talent. When approaching Fo’s work, director Samantha Van Der Merwe’s consistent attention to detail, which is typical of Shaking the Tree’s productions, seems particularly necessary, and adds punch. You get a sense that Kerrigan and Van Der Merwe worked hard together to flesh out the stories, but also had fun bringing the characters alive.

Tale of a Tiger (Storia Della Tigre) tells of Remus and Romulus meeting up in Chang Kai-shek’s China. Kerrigan’s physical skills serve him, and the audience, well: he can wistfully turn his mouth into the jaws of a growling tiger, and believably have us checking the corners of our bed when he slips into the crotchety accent of the village grandmother. The story has a moral and a metaphor, but as with most of Fo’s work, the meaning is left up to you. Is the tiger’s tale about salvation, civilization, nature? Or is  it just a good story?

The Dissenter’s Handbook is a relook at the Genesis stories – at how Eve got the shaft – and a surreal take on the Virgin birth. The funniest moments revolve around Mary and the Virgin of Carmine shrine. Two rapacious thieves are out to con Mary. Kerrigan plays her as the iconic blonde in blonde jokes, and his thieves are a Tom and Jerry cartoon,as  if voiced by a hyper Willem Defoe. Kerrigan’s approach to Fo is exactly what’s required: a concrete physicality that is strong and yet malleable enough to become effervescent, to push the edge of the envelope to the point where the joke is made at the expense of our human natures.


The Dissenter’s Handbook and Tale of a Tiger continue at Shaking the Tree through December 26. Ticket and schedule information here.





Fertile Ground review: Finding their way in the storm

The Snowstorm deftly combines music, movement, and more to create magical theater.


Editor’s note:  CoHo ProductionsThe Snowstorm, which closed last weekend after a too-short at Portland’s Coho Theatre, was one of the biggest hits of this year’s Fertile Ground festival, its entire run selling out after the first weekend’s performances. Its unusually rich combination of elements inspired ArtsWatch to cover it with an unusual team approach, using writers experienced in each of its three primary components: veteran Portland concert pianist Maria Choban to discuss the music, dance writer and choreographer Jamuna Chiarini to consider the dance, and Brett Campbell to take a look at the theatrical elements.

In the The Snowstorm, music precedes words from the downbeat. As the audience walks in, a pianist casually tickles the ivories at a grand piano, and the actors mingle and chat with each other among the seats. It’s hard to tell, until the lights cue us, just where the performance ends and reality begins, or is it the other way around? Gradually, the cast members array themselves in chairs on stage in front of us, facing the back of the stage, where we soon understand they’re watching a turn-of-the-century parlor piano recital. We audience members suddenly feel as though we constitute the rear ranks of that stage audience. Both accompanist and audience are in effect onstage.

That’s not the only oddity at the play’s outset. As the music plays, we see the youngest “audience” member start fidgeting, and soon the players start transforming (via the young boy, Pavel’s, imagination and Tony Fuemmler’s arresting masks) from the bourgeoisie of belle époque Veliky Novgorod into dancing wild creatures far more fascinating to a 10-year-old than proper Russian gentry. Already we can tell: this story will be told as much via movement, music and magic as conventional dialogue.

Jamie Rea, Elisha Henig, and Matthew Kerrigan star in The Snowstorm. Photo: GaryNorman

Jamie Rea, Elisha Henig, and Matthew Kerrigan star in The Snowstorm. Photo: GaryNorman

In that opening scene, the accompanist, Eric Nordin, assumes the nonspeaking role of Andres, the touring musician whom the “audience” — that is, the players — have come to hear perform. And although after the recital ends, the parlor gives way to other sets, and we audience members (the real audience, that is, not the performing “audience”) return to our usual role as detached observers, Nordin never leaves the stage. For the next two hours, while the rest of the action happens elsewhere on stage around him, he plays a dozen and a half tunes by Rachmaninoff, the late-Romantic Russian composer whose music fairly bursts with the emotions the upper middle class characters are forbidden by social convention to express — yet are clearly feeling.

Nordin is also The Snowstorm’s scriptwriter and co-creator, with director/choreographer Jessica Wallenfels, and his piano almost becomes a character summoning the past in this story about a father and a middle aged woman who meet at this recital, and who’ve both suffered grievous losses. Via flashbacks to the events of a decade before the play opens, as is common in so many plays and novels these days, we’ll spend the rest of this melodrama (using the term in its original sense) discovering just what past tragedies brought the unfortunate pair to the state we first glimpse them in, and learning how they affected a father’s relationship with his young son, and a woman’s relationship to society. The ultimate outcome of their encounter is pretty predictable, too, but that doesn’t stop this “original fable” from being one of the most enjoyable and fully realized productions we’ve encountered at Portland’s Fertile Ground festival.


Masque of the Red Death review: Partying with Poe

Shaking the Tree Theatre's collaboration with Playwrights West puts a modern twist on classic horror.

Masque of the Red Death begins even before you enter the building, when masked actors greet you, intentionally a little too enthusiastically, at the door, welcoming you to the festivities. The greetings continue as you ascend the stairs to the box office, where you’re handed a fetching, delicately detailed black or white mask of your own and ushered into a large space occupied by a few dozen other masked patrons, mingling with similarly masked actors (so that it’s hard to tell who’s in the show and who’s paying to see it) encouraging us to dance and loosen up, have a good time. It’s like walking into a crowded party filled with vaguely creepy strangers — an ideal Halloween production.

Kerrigan and Thompson in "Masque of the Red Death." Photo: Gary Norman.

Kerrigan and Thompson in “Masque of the Red Death.” Photo: Gary Norman.

That’s the frame director Samantha Van Der Merwe has constructed for Shaking the Tree Theatre’s ingenious collection of eleven episodes written by local Playwrights West authors, all based on stories by the great American writer Edgar Allen Poe. Reminiscent of horror anthology films or TV shows like Rod Serling’s old Night Gallery series, Masque drops us into Poe’s classic 1842 title story, involving a party, a plague, and a prince indifferent to the suffering of the 99%. (The writers shunned overt contemporary references to Ebola and today’s accelerating inequality, but they resonate anyway.) Van Der Merwe cleverly repurposes the original story’s setting — the party happens in several rooms of different colors — to provide the respective venues for each playlet.

After the audience members all arrive, the party’s host, Prince Prospero (wittily played by Matthew Kerrigan), takes charge, explaining that we’re all here to be entertained as a relief from the plague raging outside, and we move to our seats. As at any party, some of the encounters turn out more interesting than others. Claire Willett’s static “The Demons Down Under the Sea,” inspired by Poe’s Annabel Lee, dissipates the opening slot’s anticipatory tension; despite the actors’ best efforts, the poem resists drama. But the next scene, Andrew Wardenaar’s version of “The Pit and the Pendulum” ratchets it up again via the most minimal means of all — darkness — using only intermittent low strobe lighting (on Joseph Gibson, who carries the solo role mostly unseen) and a fiendishly clever low-budget method of evoking the scurrying of rats all around the audience. Moving the audience literally into the midst of its laudanum-fueled action raises the claustrophobic tension of Steve Patterson’s ending glimpse of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Such smart directorial touches abound in a production that, though devoid of extensive props and special effects, nevertheless mostly succeeds in immersing us in Poe’s eerie world.

Van Der Merwe’s originality even extends to that usual dead zone, the intermission. Instead of shuffling around the lobby, idly chattering with strangers and sipping coffee, the audience is directed to the wine bar across the street, which admittedly breaks the spell but at least maintains the dark party vibe. Then, light-saber wielding ushers guide them back to Poe’s world for Act 2, which opens with the next installment of Patrick Wohlmut’s framing “Masque.”

Joseph Gibson in "Pit and the Pendulum." Photo: Gary Norman.

Joseph Gibson in “Pit and the Pendulum.” Photo: Gary Norman.

In fact, concept and direction actually prove stronger than Poe’s source material, which seems longer on evocative language and atmosphere than on actual drama. Even the otherwise entertaining adaptations of relatively stronger stories, like Aleks Merilo’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” (in which you can’t tell the doctor from the crazy patients, the inspiration for plenty of 20th century writers) and Matthew Zrebski’s “Tip of the Finger” (from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” though not the whole story) drag. And despite Amanda Cole and Nicole Accuardi ‘s delightful comic turn with Gibson, “The Spectacles” shows why Poe is most remembered for horror rather than humor.

The show excels when it sprinkles 21st century irony and references (Madonna, Led Zeppelin, etc.) over Poe’s overheated 19th century romanticism — most prominently in Kerrigan’s commanding performance as Prospero and as the author himself in Ellen Margolis’ “That Smell,” inspired by Poe’s too-short life. Kerrigan strikes just the right balance between it’s-all-a-joke playful, seductive, and sadistic. His spontaneous banter with the audience flickers in and out of Poe’s world and into our own, keeping his scenes feeling fresh and modern instead of musty macabre antique.

Along with Kerrigan’s triumphant performance, Beth Thompson’s riveting embodiment of death personified is even more impressive considering that she spends the show behind her Death mask. Though the acting is inconsistent, other players — especially Katie Watkins, Joshua J. Weinstein and Andy Lee Hillstrom, who in Debbie Lamedman’s “Pluto” somehow makes you think a mousy milquetoast could be capable of uxoricide and, er, kittycide — turn in some good work in one or more roles.

Granted, the play’s oscillation between past and present sensibilities, between wry, even tongue-in-cheek camp, and horror, sometimes muddles the emotional impact of a given scene. Moreover, sometimes the narratives didn’t quite add up, maybe because omitting exposition kept the pace pounding, and the playwrights assumed that we’d fill in missing details from our memories of the stories. In any case, the more you know (or remember) of the originals, the more you’re likely to enjoy the show. Even the slightly clunky ending of the framing “Masque,” which also wraps up the production, succeeds more in tying up loose ends than providing a taut climax. But it’s Kerrigan’s sly acting and Van Der Merwe’s creative concept that really make this Poe party one of the season’s most memorable productions.

Just as the show begins before you enter the door, it also ends with a shudder after you walk outside, as a spooky figure keeps a promise made at the end, transfixing exiting patrons with a cold, implacable stare as they leave the theater, but not the memory of Poe’s eldritch world, behind.

The sold-out run of Shaking the Tree Theatre’s Masque of the Red Death, which ends November 22, makes a fitting death rattle for the company’s old space as it moves into new digs with its next production. But let’s hope this collaboration between some Oregon’s best playwrights and one of its most inventive theaters lingers even longer. Whether they bring back Poe again, or Lovecraft or Stephen King or even originals by Oregon authors, maybe this party play could become an annual Halloween tradition.

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