Portland theater

Family fuss? It’s only human

In the comic drama "The Humans" at Artists Rep, Thanksgiving dinner with the Blakes just might knock the stuffing out of you

Maybe you missed it last year when that big musical about the Founding Fathers was the talk of the Tonys and just about anyplace else you turned. But while Hamilton was sweeping up most of the attention and a bunch of Tony Awards, including best new musical, a much smaller play was making its own mark: Stephen Karam’s family comedy-drama The Humans, which took the award for best new play, plus two more for best performers and one for best set design. If it never broke through as a pop-cultural phenomenon the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit has, The Humans has left its mark, and is likely to be produced many times for many years on many regional stages.

From left: Vana O’Brien (in wheelchair), Quinlan Fitzgerald (partially hidden), John San Nicolas, Luisa Sermol, Val Landrum (partially hidden), Robert Pescovitz. Photo: Russell J Young

On Saturday night it opened on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Stage after a week of preview performances, beating Hamilton to the Portland punch. (A few Portlanders got a first look at The Humans a little over a year ago, when The Reading Parlor performed an engaging and decidedly promising one-night staged reading of it in a little side room at Artists Rep.) The Hamilton road company will settle into Keller Auditorium for a run March 20-April 8 next year, and I can still hear the wails reverberating from frustrated potential ticket buyers who couldn’t get through on the phone lines when advance sales kicked off Nov. 17.

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‘Belfast Girls’: It’s about time

Corrib Theatre's resonant staging of a play about women escaping the Irish Famine rings true amid today's sea change of women's rights

“The time of women is coming.” Uttered by a character early on in Corrib Theatre’s production of Belfast Girls, it sounds like foreshadowing. This is a play, after all, about five women escaping Ireland during the Irish Famine of 1845-1852. They board a ship called the Inchinnan en route to Australia, with hopes of a better life.

What we know, of course, and what the playwright Jaki McCarrick knew when she wrote this play in 2015, was that the time of women is still coming. The statement – and these five fiery female characters – are particularly prescient today, amid a sea change in women’s rights, particularly the right to be free of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. But we all also know that time can’t come soon enough.

The Belfast Girls, from left: Summer Olsson, Hannah Edelson, Tiffany Groben, Brennan Dwyer, Anya Pearson. Photo: Adam Liberman

When Belfast Girls begins, we meet four women escaping Ireland, bonded by a shared dorm quarters on the ship taking them toward their dreams. There is the de facto leader, Judith (Anya Pearson), a well-spoken woman unafraid to speak her mind. She is joined by Ellen (Brenan Dwyer) – “stupid Ellen,” as Judith calls her in the beginning, but we learn there is much more to her than anyone realizes. Hannah (Summer Olsson) – called “fat Hannah” by Judith and her other companions – carries more grief and resilience than anyone should have to muster. Sarah (Hannah Edelson) is the stranger in the group, a country girl – and the only one who was not a street girl in Belfast. Still, she has her reasons to be here, and we’ll learn those soon enough. These four are joined before departure by Molly (Tiffany Groben), a weak and sickly maid from outside of Belfast who has carried on books and more than her share of secrets.

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What are you up to this week? Any family coming to town? What do you eat and not eat these days? And what theater might you and your familial crew wish to see?

At The Armory this weekend, Mojada closes and the holiday spirit gets crackling between A Christmas Memory and Winter Song, a double header that would seem the sentimental alternative to the barn-burning Scrooge-buster Twist Your Dickens. A Christmas Memory revives a Truman Capote short story about a young boy with an unlikely best friend, an elderly female cousin who matches his emotional maturity and assists him in his games and schemes, including their darling caper of secretly making presents for their other relatives. (Say it with me: “Awwwwwww!”)

“Winter Song” at The Armory: Mont Chris Hubbard (left), Merideth Kaye Clark, and Leif Norby. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye, courtesy Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Winter Song is a warmhearted holiday song revue performed by Portland’s premier Joni Mitchell cover artist Meredith Kaye Clarke (Snuggle in and go “Ahhhh.”) This show gets a head start on Dickens, but once both get going, ushers might as well leave signs in the lobby to sort attendees: “Humbugs, main house; saps downstairs.”

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The inner quest for Utopia

Hand2Mouth's "Psychic Utopia," about Oregon utopian movements, brings the search for a "beautiful and bold life" to the audience

A Hand2Mouth ensemble member is kneeling onstage a few feet away from me and makes eye contact. “What have you done to live a more beautiful and bold life?” she asks. I knew this question was coming but I still feel a sense of panic when the fourth wall breaks down. I tell her, and the audience around me, “I allowed myself to be vulnerable.” I don’t elaborate on what that means. She smiles beatifically, repeats my answer, and turns to someone else and asks the same question. This question is at the heart of Hand2Mouth’s new devised show Psychic Utopia.

At first, it’s a little hard to tell what kind of show Psychic Utopia, which is created by the company with collaborating writer Andrea Stolowitz, is going to be. You’re offered warm hand towels on entry and invited to take your shoes off. During the preshow the actors mingle with audience members. I imagine it’s like going to a spiritual retreat.

In search of Utopia, in search of self. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

The beginning of the performance is signaled by the ensemble gathering around a glowing cube and exhaling one long harmonic note together. The actual significance of the preshow and this ritual isn’t as important as what they are doing: Setting the tone for the show. Inviting the audience to engage actively with what they are about to experience.

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Spotlight on Anthony Lam

One actor, one character, three plays: fellow actor Bobby Bermea profiles the star of Quiara Alegría Hudes' war trilogy at Profile Theatre

Anthony Lam has an infectious and generous spirit, and a high motor both as a person and a performer: everything he does, he does with an intense energy. A relatively new actor to the Portland theater scene, he’s a family man – he and his wife, Kimberly, have three kids; Nolan, 7, and the twins, Lilah and Alice, 4. He loves the stage (“That’s what I trained for. I trained on stage. I always knew upon graduation that I was always going to look for work on the stage.”) but the majority of his work, how he pays his bills and supports his family, is in TV and film.

It makes sense. He was born and bred in southern California and he’s TV/movie handsome, the product of Nicaraguan, Chinese and Spanish genes. Though he lost touch with his father, his grandfather was a central figure in his life, and Anthony kept the name Lam to honor him.

Anthony Lam, relaxing offstage. Photo: Bobby Bermea

I met Lam only recently, because he is the lead (along with Crystal Ann Muñoz) of the show I’m currently working on, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize winning Water by the Spoonful, which is running through Nov. 19 in rotating repertory with The Happiest Song Plays Last at Profile Theatre. Water is the middle play in a trilogy – Elliott: A Soldier’s Fugue, Water by the Spoonful and Happiest Song – that follows a Puerto Rican family from north Philadelphia whose fate and fortunes are inextricably tied up in the U.S. military. The men of the family fight the wars. The women protest them and heal the wounds that are the result. Hudes weaves a beautiful, tragic, angry, and funny tapestry of lives, through which the one continuous thread is the character of Elliott Ortiz, who is played by Anthony Lam.

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Medea crosses the border

In "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles," The ancient figure of vengeance takes on a more sympathetic role as a desperate illegal immigrant

If you think you know Medea, you probably have yet to see Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles. The play, written by Luis Alfaro, turns the Greek tragedy into an immigration story, and in doing so reimagines the title character as someone much more sympathetic than the Medea of Euripedes’ play, which was first produced in 431 B.C.

This is Portland Center Stage’s 30th season, as Artistic Director Chris Coleman points out in the playbill, so it seems fitting that this production of Mojada from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival would be part of the season. PCS, after all, originally was a Portland extension of Ashland’s OSF.

From left: performers Nancy Rodriguez, VIVIS, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Jahnangel Jimenez, Lakin Valdez) reenact the arduous crossing of the desert from Mexico to the United States. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

“Mojada” – which translates literally to “wet” in Spanish but is used in the play as a racial slur to describe immigrant Medea from Michoacán, Mexico – is about an illegal immigrant family in Los Angeles with a secret (many, in fact). Medea’s husband, Jason (Lakin Valdez) – think Jason of the Argonauts in Greek mythology and the Euripides tragedy, but here pronounced “ha-SONE” – is the ruthless social climber who wanted to leave Mexico in the first place. He brought along his wife, Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela), who uses her magical hands to sew collars for Bloomingdale’s at $8 a pop (Bloomingdale’s turns around and sells them for $120 each, of course); their young son, Acan (Jahnangel Jimenez); and Medea’s longtime mother figure/housekeeper, Tita (VIVIS).

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Atticus, tried and all too true

Lakewood's sharp and moving "To Kill a Mockingbird" does justice to an American classic that reverberates in a curious time capsule

To Kill a Mockingbird is a cherished time capsule of American literature and culture, a concise and moving statement about childhood, innocence, courage, and race. Its main characters – feisty tomboy Scout Finch, her brother Jem and friend Dill, the mysterious and frightening Boo Radley (much talked about but rarely seen), and above all that towering figure of decency and strength, Atticus Finch – are genuine American icons, up there within shouting distance of Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab and poor besmirched Hester Prynne. Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo and Atticus, of course, are all white Southerners, and it’s telling that the novel’s major black characters – Scout’s substitute-mother cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia, and Tom Robinson, the honest laborer who is falsely but fatally accused of rape – are not nearly so well-etched in the public consciousness.

Mockingbird doubles, maybe triples, in time. Harper Lee’s novel was published to acclaim in 1960, in the midst of the civil rights movement, after Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks’ bus rebellion and the Little Rock desegregation crisis, before the Selma marches and the rise of the Black Panther Party and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was both a repressive and an exciting time, when liberal hopes and expectations, in spite and perhaps in part because of the naked resistance they faced, ran high.

Kate McLellan as Scout, Monica Fleetwood as Calpurnia, Bram Allahdadi as Jem in “Mockingbird.” Lakewood Theatre photo

The novel is set, however, in an earlier time – the early to middle 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, in small-town Alabama, a seat of rigid segregation and no small amount of mob violence. From that viewpoint the actions of Atticus and the lessons Scout learns are truly heroic: resolute stands against the corruption of the place and culture they knew and loved. Tom Robinson loses his life. Scout loses her innocence, but gains something much larger: an understanding of the moral universe, and an emerging ability to cope with its demands.

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