Philip Cuomo

Not so elementary, my dear Watson

CoHo's triple play about a trio of Watsons and the difficulties of communication and artificial intelligence rings some unusual bells

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, at CoHo Theatre, is not about Sherlock Holmes. His sidekick, Dr. Watson, makes an appearance, but Mr. Holmes himself is absent. And the play, which is sometimes confusing but also swiftly entertaining, is somewhat of a mystery: Will our protagonists get what they need? Will they know they need it?

So, then, you talk into this part? Eric Martin Reid and Sarah Ellis Smith contemplate Bell’s talking machine. Photo: Owen Carey

Directed by CoHo Artistic Director Philip Cuomo, Madeleine George’s Watson Intelligence comprises three stories, each set in a different time period and with a different set of characters, who nevertheless are named the same and played by the same three actors in each era. The stories are connected loosely to each other, at best, even when characters from one period wind up in another. The thread that connects them is the name “Watson” – the man on the other end of the phone when Alexander Graham Bell makes his first phone call; Holmes’s sidekick; and the name of the artificial-intelligence computer that won Jeopardy in 2011.


Electric talk talk talk

Enda Walsh's "The New Electric Ballroom" at Third Rail Rep is a tall tale sailing on a torrent of language

Less than a minute into the opening speech of Enda Walsh’s sort-of comedy The New Electric Ballroom at Third Rail Rep I tucked my pen back into my pocket and gave up on the idea of taking notes: no way could I keep up with this thundering waterfall of words. “By their nature people are talkers,” says the spinster Breda, and talk talk talk they do, phrases tumbling and shooting and skipping and flying until your ears give up and run behind your back to hide. The gift of gab, the Irish call it, though at times you wonder – and I suspect Walsh does, too – if the gift isn’t just as much a curse.

The thing is, everybody talks in Electric Ballroom, but nobody talks with. It’s pretty much all speeches, ingrown toenail sorts of rants, in choreographed turns, and it takes a while to figure out who the choreographer is. At first you think it’s the youngest of the three sisters, Ada (Maureen Porter), who seems to be barking out odd orders like a stage manager under duress. You’re pretty sure it’s not Clara (Diana Kondrat), who speaks in elliptical staccato bursts, and is also the announcer of the obvious: “There’s a lull in the conversation,” she chirps at several pregnant pauses in the verbal onslaught, after some barb or another has landed a little too deep. Eventually the caller of the shots appears to be Breda (Lorraine Bahr), the one with the wicked past, at least in these cloistered and ritually embalmed sisters’ minds. But the truth is, not a one of ’em’s actually participated in life enough to have done anything wicked at all, except in their imaginations, which they use to turn on those torrents of language that become a sort of virtual reality, a made-up life that becomes the only life they really have. Sad’s the word for it, and it’s a word that’s short and not so sweet.

Kondrat (left) with Bahr and Porter: the three sisters. Photo: Owen Carey

Kondrat (left) with Bahr and Porter: the three sisters. Photo: Owen Carey

Walsh is, of course, Irish (Third Rail also produced his play Penelope a few seasons back, which was directed, as Electric Ballroom is, by Philip Cuomo), and this contemporary play takes place in some isolated Irish village, a place with cliffs and docks and a seafood cannery, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and secrets are both open and long-lasting, sometimes for generations. It’s enough to make any escapee from the boonies to a bigger city shudder at the memory, although if you’ve read any of Tana French’s psychological crime novels set on the narrow-minded streets of Dublin, you might also wonder if the difference is all that big.


“Or,” what? a comedy of opposites

Third Rail leaps into Liz Duffy Adams' quizzical neo-Restoration comedy, ricocheting between eithers and ors

Or, the Liz Duffy Adams play that opens Third Rail Repertory’s season, makes good on a promise included in a prologue, delivered here by the ever-engaging Maureen Porter as she enters from the back of the house at Imago Theatre. The brief speech serves to acclimate us to the heightened yet playful language of the play, as well as to hint at the method to Adams’ stylistic madness. The idea, we’re told, is to “ricochet between a dense array of opposites.”

Or you might call it a mash-up. Take an intriguing historical figure — 17th-century poet, playwright and spy Aphra Behn, noted as Britain’s first female professional writer — whip up some suspenseful plot points suggested by a sketchy biography and a tumultuous era, fold in some door-slamming farce, and wrap it all in the frisky wit of Restoration comedy. The combination plays to several of the various strengths that Third Rail has demonstrated over the years, for the thoughtful and the madcap, the silly and sublime, the sociologically resonant and the fancifully theatrical…

Maureen Porter as playwright, spy, and al-around quizzical kid. Photo: Owen Carey

Maureen Porter as playwright, spy, and al-around quizzical kid. Photo: Owen Carey

Or, — the comma purposefully included — is a fitting title. On one level, it’s a pithy snippet from the windy, wishy-washy titles common to Restoration-era plays, their alternative interpretive options hinged by that conjunction. More meaningfully, it alludes to the plethora of possibilities opening up in Aphra’s world. Should she be spy or writer? Kept woman or commissioned artist? Will she love men or women? Will she be rebel or loyalist? And are those she meets what they seem to be, or do words, wardrobes and even histories deceive? Considering the subject, who biographer Janet Todd described as “not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks,” the abundance of questions seems appropriate.

“Ors divide less than they subtly link,” asserts that aforementioned prologue. “We all embody opposites within.” And so Adams doesn’t explore choices so much as she establishes the unity of opposites, as alternatives and deceptions and intentions all turn themselves inside out, to serendipitous effect.

Or she could just be trying to show audiences a good time. The majority of the narrative centers on a single night, in which Behn juggles a budding relationship with a young actress, the amorous interests of King Charles II, and the sudden reappearance of a former lover who may or may not be involved in a Catholic plot to kill Charles, all while trying to meet a dawn deadline to finish a play she fervently hopes will launch a path-breaking career. As directed by Philip Cuomo, the action is brisk without ever feeling unduly frantic, aided by the efficiency of Behn’s rustic plank-floor lodging in Kristeen Crosser’s scenic design and the apparently protean quality of Jessica Bobillot’s costuming. And Portland theater has few pleasures as reliable as Maureen Porter in a lead role; she imbues Behn with an unforced elegance and charm, a silky-strong determination, and a social agility that would serve anyone well in either espionage or theater. Whenever Behn has a choice to make, a balance to strike between competing desires and demands, the glint in Porter’s eyes makes tactical calculation look like the sweetest of human impulses.

Or you might think that Porter doesn’t wind up as the star after all, as one audience member suggested during a post-show discussion last weekend. It’s not (as he seemed to think) that King Charles takes over, narratively or thematically; Behn writes Charles as a rather benign monarch, more a sensualist than a power monger. William Scot, Behn’s back-from-the-dead ex-lover, is a schemer, but a has-been. And Lady Davenant, whose company offers Behn the theatrical opportunity she craves, doesn’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise but only makes a cameo. Yet Damon Kupper embodies all those roles  — especially the matronly motormouth Davenant — with such relish, while never really hamming it up, that he does wind up the show’s most memorable performer.

Newman, Porter, Kupper: Ors come in threes. Photo: Owen Carey

Newman, Porter, Kupper: Ors come in threes. Photo: Owen Carey

Or you could make a case for Amy Newman as the most arresting changeling here. She appears as bearded, gnome-like jailer, and a slightly bow-backed servant woman with a put-upon air, but shines especially as Nell Gwynne, a young woman who dresses like a boy, talks with a cheeky, slangy wit and displays a sexual frankness that underlines Adams’ implicit comparison of the post-Puritan-repression 1660s with the swingin’ 1960s. Porter’s serene surefootedness is essential to ground the enterprise, but it’s the gender-and-costume shape-shifting by Newman and Kupper that provide this production its comedic zip.

Or, to take another view I can support nearly as much, does all the mad dashing in and out of doors add to the ideas Adams is working with, or does it just distract from them? At times it seems just an excuse to do the play with such a small cast, rather than something intrinsic to the material, and it calls extra attention to the manufacture of the entertainment in progress — which, along with a sprinkling of self-referential theater jokes, feels gratuitous. Furthermore, the sense of pure momentum the farcical elements engender actually saps some of the necessary tension from the predicaments the story presents. There’s that plot against the king, but never a sense of mounting danger or any danger at all, really. Behn is suddenly saddled with that ultra-tight deadline, yet there’s no tick-tock anxiety built up around it.

Ors — or at least Or, — not only subtly link but slightly muddle. And the balancing and blending of the heady and the headlong leaves this feeling less substantial than it might have been, though I’m inclined to think that’s due to the writing more than the production itself.

Or maybe I just need to see it again and keep unifying those opposites.


Or, continues through October 10 by Third Rail Rep at its new home space in Imago Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.


‘Belleville’: down & out in Paris

Amy Herzog's stage thriller about modern Ugly Americans in decline gets fine performances from Third Rail, but to what end?

Belleville is something of a head-scratcher, and not because it’s structured like a mystery-thriller. Third Rail Rep’s new production of Amy Herzog’s tense drama, which premiered in 2011 at Yale Rep and opened off-Broadway a year later, has so much going for it: a good director, a fine cast, a simple but smartly playable set by Kristeen Willis Crosser in the intimate CoHo Theatre, a space designed to slash the distance between audience and performers and heat things up. But Belleville, it seems, is just by nature a chilly play.

Lamb and Lingafelter: in love from tip to toe? Photo: Owen Carey

Lamb and Lingafelter: in love from tip to toe? Photo: Owen Carey

The irony of the title is that Belleville isn’t such a beautiful town, if by “beautiful” you mean sweet and safe and predictable. It’s a vibrant, multiracial, working-class district of Paris, the sort of place where people tend to make a life instead of visit on vacation. Abby (Rebecca Lingafelter) and Zack (Isaac Lamb) are doing both, sort of. Young married Americans in their late 20s, they’ve uprooted from New Jersey so that Zack can take a job with Physicians Beyond Borders. Every day he heads in to do vital work on AIDS research, except when he doesn’t. Amy, who’s an actress, starts giving yoga lessons to keep busy and make a little money, but that’s not working out so well, maybe because she’s stopped taking French lessons (her language instructor kept laughing at her accent) and so can’t really communicate with her students. Plus, as the play begins she walks into their apartment and discovers Zack deep in a solo encounter with a porno internet site. This doesn’t help Abby’s mental state, which is already a little off-kilter because she’s gone off her anti-depression meds. And, as things turn out, Zack, who spends an inordinate amount of time with his pot pipe, hasn’t paid the rent in four months, and although Abby doesn’t know it, they’re about to get the heave-ho. So, no: not so beautiful.


Arabian Nights: Post5’s Ensemble Talent Show

Grooming a mutant strain of super-actor.

Don't let this image fool you; PostFive's latest features 16 stars, not 2.

Don’t let this image fool you; PostFive’s latest features 16 stars, not 2.

“Are the girls here for killing?” bellows PostFive fight captain Sam Dinkowitz as actresses tumble onstage for a last-minute run-through of their opening scene. It’s a lurid shadow play behind a red curtain, and Sharyar (Gilberto Martin del Campo) briefly mimes sex and murder with each woman, tossing them all under a curtain where they roll into an expendable heap. Even this intense introduction to “Arabian Nights,” Mary Zimmerman’s redux of the Persian legend of Scheherazade (Nicole Virginia Accuardi) is a little tongue-in-cheek. It would have to be, with a cast that—besides its leads—looks about as Persian as Barbara Eden.

Though the material is relatively frivolous (especially compared to Portland Playhouse’s concurrent Eastern-gazing “Mother Theresa is Dead”) for PostFive’s purposes, the two-hour, 16-actor show that contains multiple stories-within-a-story becomes the perfect vehicle for a young ensemble to trade off SHOWING off. Easy enough to follow, and egalitarian enough with its spotlight, this play gives the troupe as a whole more opportunities than earlier-season offerings “Macbeth” (which revolved around lead actor/artistic director Ty Boice) and “Spectravagasm 2” (which slightly obscured the actors’ talents in a wash of psychedelia, absurdism, and inside humor). Having labored under little scrutiny these past two years, PostFive emerges from its 82nd-Avenue cocoon ripe for acclaim, and “Nights” is its debutante ball.

Cuomo The Clown

My first memory of the show’s director Philip Cuomo was as an actor in Shaking The Tree’s “Little Prince“. Opposite a young actress as the Prince, Cuomo took on most of the show’s supporting roles, including the Prince’s friend the fox and the story’s various planetary inhabitants (each absurdly personifying a school of human philosophy). Seasoned by Imago Theater’s signature movement arts, Cuomo threw himself into each cartoonish caricature, batting at imaginary ear-fleas, wafting around gracefully in a spherical “planet suit,” and switching with ease between exaggerated, comical dialects. “He’s such a CLOWN,” his Portland Actors’ Conservatory protegee Boice has noted—not condescendingly, but reverently. Since that stint in “Prince,” Cuomo has apparently proliferated his gifts to a host of PostFive company members and PAC alums. In “Arabian Nights,” we get a whole roomful of clever clowns, a la Cuomo.

“Auteur Anne Bogart has a saying:’become the editor’. That’s what I tried to do with these guys,” the director explains, recalling how he challenged the cast to break into small groups and “make their own” camel, boat, and even elephant through acrobatic collaboration. The best innovations went into the show, eliminating the need for some cumbersome props. Other personal PostFive touches include an original score (part Arabesque, part vaudevillian) written and performed by Chris Beatty and Sarah Peters with some ensemble sing-alongs.”The script didn’t come with a score, so we figured ‘Why not make one?'” says Cuomo.

The Young Bloods Are Coming

A few weeks ago, a short Mercury profile of PostFive artistic director Ty Boice met an angry snapback from Mercury reader “Juliette,” who decried the rise of “new theater companies” in Portland when perfectly good ones had existed already. She suggested “an exposé” of the movement (implying that it might unearth a New Theater Company Conspiracy). At the time, I laughed and dismissed her fear. But in light of new collectives’ latest efforts, a few more “Juliettes” may go on metaphorical suicide watch.

Between PostFive and Action/Adventure (who tend to share some personnel), I perceive, if not a conspiracy, at least a renaissance. Shoebox-sized spaces filling up with audience that’s over 10 and under 50. Tireless physicality and an ebullient sense of humor. These two newish companies are reminding me (in a way their PDX predecessors didn’t) of Victoria, BC in the early 90’s, where I first learned what small theater was supposed to be: meritocratic, accessible, adventurous and tireless. There’s a sense (especially among the somewhat rent-relieved denizens of Milepost5) that these actors live lean enough to transcend workaday concerns and commit completely to their disorienting artistic processes. I would not be surprised if they literally roll around in a pile all night until a scene’s pieces fall into place. These guys don’t seem like baristas reading a role; they’re actors who eat and sleep on their theater floor.

Subcultures, Converge!

If there IS a small theater renaissance—and you’re welcome to debate it— it was most likely fed by a network of tributaries from other peaking performance subcultures. Around PDX Pop, indie rock’s gradually crested. At Helium, Curious, and Bridgetown, comedy has burgeoned. With Wanderlust, burlesque, and to a certain extent Imago Theatre, vaudeville and mime/movement have boomed. And over at Portland Playhouse, small theater finally forged past-due inroads into cultural diversity. It was only a matter of time before upstart theaters reaped some spillover from these eclectic and overflowing talent wells—and PostFive courts just such an interdisciplinary infusion.
Jessica Anselmo, Cassandra Schwanke, Beth Summers and Sascha Blocker do a few bellydance moves. Choreographer Chip Sherman leads a series of elegant, mysterious mudras. The group sings along competently to much of the score, Glenn McCumber’s ululating tenor especially transcends. The cast’s general mastery of dialect outshines Portland Playhouse, and their stage-fighting is tighter and angrier than Artist Rep’s. Seemingly eager to expand their comedy chops, too, the theater’s even hosting a post-play standup showcase. Under the dual vision of young buck Boice and old pro Cuomo, and breathing deep draughts of Portland’s performative air, PostFive may be germinating a new hybrid super-strain of mutant actors who sing, joke, prat-fall, guitar-play, bellydance, and can subsist with a shared kitchen out on 82nd. They’re as hearty and apocalypse-ready as cockroaches. Look out.

As theater companies that multi-task are growing, the ones that have long stuck to their guns (with all due respect, Profile, Vertigo, CoHo) are forced to re-tool and compete in a suddenly fuller pool. Juliettes, don’t fret. It’s nobody’s fault, just a natural adaptation. With our town’s Portlandia tourist influx, eventually everyone will get a bigger audience.

A room for improvement.

PostFive’s actors shine so brightly, they ALMOST blur out their surroundings: a bright turquoise Disney’s-Aladdin-ish stage dressing that’s less Bedouiun than bedroom-set. The backdrop, when dimly lit, is passable, but the teal pillars in the foreground and the bulgy draping of silken saris (a dorm-roomish attempt to hide exposed venting and drainpipes) are, forgive the term, “fugly.” Less would be more. Better would be more. But this level of craft does a discredit. Hopefully some pinch-hitting set-subduers will jump in and release this play from its tacky trappings mid-run.

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