Readers Theatre Repertory

ArtsWatch Weekly: let the good times reel

NW Film Center's "Reel Music," plays about D.B. Cooper and Ben Linder and a guy named Fly Guy, atlas art from post-Gutenberg days

“Tradition!” Tevye the milkman barked, and with that emphatic proclamation the song and dance reeled on. The traditions that last the best are the ones that constantly reshape themselves within the structures they’ve set up, and certainly the Northwest Film Center’s Reel Music Festival, which spools into its 34th annual edition on Friday, fits that category. The basic idea is the same as always: pull together a whole bunch of films about music and musicians (documentaries, primarily), but do new ones every year, and let the good times roll. Or reel.

Thelonious Monk with his band in 1959, from “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.” Credit 2016 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith, FilmBuff

This year’s edition, which runs through February 5, kicks off with a foulmouthed film about the Rolling Stones (Robert Frank’s 1972 Cocksucker Blues) that followed the band on tour after the Altamont debacle, and was so raunchy and revealing about the seedier side of rock that it was shelved, and is only rarely seen. Here’s your chance. You might want to pair it with the more genteel, if that’s the right word, The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!, filmed on last year’s Latin American tour. I like the looks of 1957’s The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, filmed by the Life Magazine photographer when he lived and worked in an illegal loft teeming with artists and musicians and house parties and jam sessions in Manhattan’s Flower District during a golden age of jazz; A Poem Is a Naked Person, a cinematic portrait of Leon Russell directed by Maureen Gosling and the great Les Blank that was unreleased for 40 years because Russell, a co-producer, didn’t like it; and Mose Allison: Ever Since I Stole the Blues, Paul Bernays’ portrait of the essence-of-hip pianist and singer who was yet another member of last year’s sizable artists’ march into the final sunset. You, no doubt, will find your own favorites. Check the schedule and put on your toe-tapping shoes. It’s a tradition.

Continues…

Timothy Fodge and Caitlyn Lushington play Orlando and his disguised love interest Rosalind.

Timothy Fodge and Caitlyn Lushington play Orlando and his disguised love interest Rosalind.

When I first determined to check out the “immersive” As You Like It at The Steep and Thorny Way To Heaven, I’m pretty sure I based my expectations entirely on works I’d seen there before. In this private event space, I once attended a fairy-themed vaudevillian variety show with venue co-host Megan Skye Hale emceeing for a kettle-drummer, two masked mimes, two belly dancers and an aerial acrobat. More recently, I also caught a rock revue performed by venue co-host Myrrh Larsen and inspired by Hades and Persephone, where the mythic characters pursued each other through a torrid contemporary dance that started onstage and then rampaged through the audience.

So when I heard the space would host a Shakespeare play, I wondered what we might see: A juggling Touchstone, chanting punchlines between catches? A quick-changing Rosalind, flashing rapidly between a ballgown and a tux? An aerialist Phoebe, dangling just above the shepherd Silvius’s furtive grasp?

As it turns out, Speculative Drama & Susurrations actually plays this production pretty straight and narrow—not too steep or thorny—with what would qualify as a unique and engaging treatment, but not a wild and wacky reimagining. What the play does deliver are some new faces, some fun variations, and an excellent option for date-night Shakespeare comedy. Get the Montage to sculpt you a swan, then walk a couple of blocks to this show.*

The wardrobe is Doc Marten Neo-Victorian. The set is minimal, just a black background, but with a cool catwalk installed along stage right. The blocking is dynamic and often comic, the diction is precise, and the couples’ “meet-cutes” are appropriately funny and fawning.

Orlando is Tim Fodge, a Newberger making a worthy Portland debut. A Kenneth Branagh/Kevin Klein type who looks best in a beard and comports himself with eloquence, pomp and mischief, Fodge probably has a past and is safely assured a future in Shakespeare, but could yet develop more range. Even when he’s exiled from a kingdom and attacked by a lion, we never believe he’s in any danger. Enso Theatre Ensemble’s Caitlin Lunshington as Rosalind is over-the-top adorable, dimpled and enthusiastic and, when necessary, coy and sly. Her best moves include an impressive cartwheel out of Orlando’s arms, and a 1950s “boy adventurer”-style Ganymede, with hands on hips and a twinkle in the eye, a la Davy Crockett or Peter Pan. Megan Skye Hale, also the show’s A.D., plays Rosalind’s cohort Celia with matching gusto.

Readers Theatre Rep’s Wendy Wilcox plays a stately female version of the banished Duke Senior (timely, with Hillary’s rise), while Jacques (whom recent productions including this one puzzlingly insist on calling “Jay-Queeze,” like some B-list rapper) is portrayed here not as a straight sad sack, but rather a preening and arch gay man flourishing a fan, more in love with the poetry of his own laments than actually aggrieved by them. A few characters, Audrey, Charles, and William, are omitted, with Charles still referenced but never seen onstage and the other two struck completely from the script. Audrey’s omission leaves Touchstone without a lover, giving Jacques’ eager recounting of meeting him a more twitterpated tone. Jacques also seems to take more than an artistic interest in his accompanying troubadour, Amiens—a take that seems new, but also plausibly may hark all the way back to the original Elizabethan all-male-player tradition. “Play me songs all day to soothe my spirit?” Please. That is flirting. Jeff Desautels, who plays both Amiens and Oliver, sports a similar scarf and demeanor in both roles, but cultivates more chemistry with Jacques than with Celia, which piques the imagination. YOCTOtheatre’s Sean Bowie as Touchstone is given less than usual to do, but dispatches it admirably; Caitlynn Didlick, a recurring performer at Steep and Thorny, plays a relatively mild-mannered and understated Phoebe; and PSU theater student London Bauman makes a sympathetic Sylvius.

Though nobody’s spinning from the ceiling, this is a worthwhile spin on Shakespeare comedy As You Like It—and as it happens, I do.

*Because of the space’s status as a private venue, reservations are required.

Fertile Ground reviews: Solo showcases

Single-performer shows highlight Portland's valuable annual new theater works festival

“It takes a great team to create a one-person show,” writes creator/performer Sam Reiter in her program notes to Baba Yaga. The same sentiment was expressed by just about every other writer of the Fertile Ground City-Wide Festival of New Work shows I saw that relied on a single performer to carry the story onstage. Maybe that teamwork — a hallmark of Portland creativity — helps explain why so many were so surprisingly successful. Whether it’s thanks to the author of a book or play adapted into a FG production, the various shows’ directors, designers, or other backstage contributors, these apparent solo vehicles reflect productive creative collaborations.

Baba Yaga

Reiter herself portrays several characters in her triumphant show at Portland’s intimate Headwaters Theatre, using the notorious mythical crone as a narrator who frames several tales, with Reiter deftly shifting roles as easily as she doffs her babushka, sometimes shedding decades of life experience in the process. And even though Baba Yaga is Reiter’s story, crafted over the past couple years during her studies at Lewis & Clark College and Moscow Art Theatre, she does receive abundant assistance from director Caitlin Fisher-Draeger, lighting designer/tech director Corey McCarey, and especially actor/graphic designer/shadow puppeteer Robert Amico, whose silent shadow, projected onto screens, portrays various characters and whose gorgeous designs really enhance the mythological atmosphere.

“Baba Yaga is at once kind and cruel, amoral and material, helpful and hindering,” Reiter writes. “In some stories, she is either good or evil; in others, she is a mixture of both.” Reiter’s announced intention is to somehow reconcile those contradictions in the various portrayals of the infamous character from Slavic mythology — a tough challenge as the legends likely arose from different sources over centuries. And yet Reiter cleverly manages to concoct or discern a plausible character motivation for a complex archetype.

"Baba Yaga." Photo: Trevor Sargent.

“Baba Yaga.” Photo: Trevor Sargent.

To understand all may be, as the saying goes, to forgive all, but in this early incarnation of the show, Reiter may have gone a bit too far in sympathizing with her bloodthirsty protagonist, who comes off as more a relatively benign trickster than a wicked witch capable of the cannibalistic cruelty in some of the tales. Though “there’s always a risk that she will gobble you up,” Reiter’s notes explain, I never felt much risk; I wanted moments with a sharper edge, a little more blood, and maybe a bit less Portland nice in both the action recounted and Reiter’s portrayal. But she’s surely found an original and compelling angle on a complex character and a story that I hope she’ll continue to develop — abetted, of course, by the rest of her excellent creative team.

Dear Committee Members

Readers Theatre Repertory actor David Berkson also plays his character a bit Portland-nicer than the source material in his engaging premiere performance of Dear Committee Members at Portland’s Blackfish Gallery, RTR’s longtime home. Berkson’s own adaptation of Julie Schumacher’s popular *link novel that skewers academic pettiness is an entirely epistolary adventure, in which he reads the letters prolifically generated by a self-styled “cantankerous pariah” English professor (tenured, of course, so he can get away with his sardonic, sometimes vitriolic missives) at a lower-tier university.

This might not sound like a promising set-up for drama, but Berkson’s performance is far more than a straight reading, as Schumacher’s novel is much more than merely a series of satirical jabs — though it is that, too. And it’s not just for veterans of academe’s absurdities and annoyances.

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Nobody leaves Deevy in a suitcase

Readers Theatre Rep revives a fascinating figure from the Irish theater: last chance Saturday night.

Spitfire Irish playwright Teresa Deevy (1894-1963) didn’t have it so easy. She was struck deaf before she ever started writing professionally, and then, after a brief rise to acclaim, her work was struck down by Irish censorship laws. Her scripts, stashed in her native Waterford “in a green suitcase under the bed in the spare room,” were only recently unearthed by Jonathan Bank at New York’s Mint Theater, and quickly snapped up by local Ire-o-phile, dialect coach, and director Mary “Mac” McDonald-Lewis for a short run with Readers Theatre Repertory, an undersung gem of the staged reading format since 2001.

Teresa Deevy. Photo:  IrishCentral.com

Teresa Deevy. Photo: IrishCentral.com

Last night and tonight – Saturday, March 22 – at Blackfish Gallery, RTR hosts The Belle of Waterford: Discovering Teresa Deevy, a flight of three blocked, rehearsed staged readings: Holiday House, Strange Birth, and In Search of Valour. While each has a distinct flavor, the three do present a through-theme: bravery — not in its oft-lauded applications in business or battle, but in its subtler, social contexts; the bravery to face someone you’d rather shun, or to make romantic overtures and risk rejection.

Holiday House

High-strung Hetty Mackey (Megan Skye Hale) and her warm, easygoing mother (Chrisse Roccaro) prepare a summer home for a potentially tense month-long family reunion. Doris (Sarah Hennessy), her sister-in-law by way of her brother Neil (Josh Weinstein), was originally engaged to her other brother, Derek (Ted deChatelet), and the pair haven’t spoken since the switch. Meanwhile, Derek’s rebound wife Jil (Foss Curtis) will also vacation with the group. Doris, furtive and regretful, wants Derek back. Neil, a bit of a dandy, has detached his affections and fallen “in love with his car.” Jil is catty and defensive toward Doris, whom she sees (rightly?) as a threat, and she’s clingy and resentful of her husband Derek for putting her in this situation. Derek, meanwhile, is playing it cool, lightly ribbing his ex and waving off his wife’s concerns. But a partner switch is thickly foreshadowed….

Strange Birth

A pragmatic, bright receptionist and mail handler for a small boarding house, Sarah Meade (Curtis) knows everyone’s business. She knows that Mrs. Taylor (Chris Sheilds) is expecting a visit from her long-lost son, that Mr. Bassett (Weinstein) is depressed that he hasn’t heard from his would-be sweetheart, that Mrs. Stims (Rocarro) has two new letters … the contents of which she’s suddenly snappy about, despite having confided in Sarah in the past (so it must be bad news). Though intimately acquainted with others’ affairs, Sarah is apparently alienated from her own, failing to consciously process her obvious crush on the postman, Bill Carowyn (Thomas Slater), until he presents her with a letter addressed to “Mrs. Carowyn,” referencing his wish to marry her. She balks: “All the people in this house are sufferin’ because of love.” But the newly ebullient Mrs. Taylor begs to differ: “Life is worth livin’ in contrast”—meaning painful moments are justified by joyful ones.

In Search of Valor

Young domestic Ellie Irwin (Lissie Huff) is exhausted by the dull company of her pious mistress Mrs. Maher (Roccaro), and entertains herself with escapist fantasies spun from a local parish production of Coriolanis. She dreams not only of epic battles from the Shakespeare story, but also of the storied life of the play’s lead actress, a Miss Carlotta Berk, who went on to a brief stint on the London stage, then ended her life by drinking poison. So taken is Ellie with this story, she extends her worship to Berk’s surviving family, the Glitterons, and presses their maid Stasia (Shields) for thrilling details about their private lives. Meanwhile, as rumors swirl of a madman on the loose, Jack the Scalp, Ellie secretly roots for him; even a violent attack may relieve her of boredom. The Glitterons (Hennessy and deChatelet) eventually come looking for their maid, and upon meeting them, Ellie is bitterly underwhelmed by how normal and cowardly they seem. Even when Jack the Scalp (Weinstein) does happen to invade the home, he fails to live up to Ellie’s dreams of a brave renegade. After chasing him away, she exclaims, “There is no man livin’ now. Small wonder a woman would take poison.”

*

Which came first — Deevy’s disdain for characters who can’t take the heat, or her censors’ rulings that her scripts were too hot for the stage? Either way, an argument was waged, and Deevy’s plays and potential audiences were the short-term losers. Fortunately, good literature outlives both its writers and its censors, and calls for bravery ring true in any age.

*

RTR’s next event after this evening’s reading at Blackfish Gallery will be April’s “Zell-stock,” featuring the works of Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom playwright David Zellnik. The company also has a few Deevy anthologies available for sale ($15).

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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
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