Samantha Van Der Merwe

Profiles & Conversations 2017

From poets to painters to dancers to actors to musicians, 21 tales from ArtsWatch on the people who make the art and why they do it

Art is a whole lot of things, but at its core it’s about people, and how they see life, and how they make a life, and how they get along or struggle with the mysteries of existence. That includes, of course, the artists themselves, whose stories and skills are central to the premise. In 2017 ArtsWatch’s writers have sat down with a lot of artists – painters, actors, dancers and choreographers, poets, music-makers – and listened as they spun out their tales.

We’ve been able to tell their stories because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation. Just click on the “donate today” button below:

Here are 21 stories from 2017 about Oregon artists and artists who’ve come here to do their work:

 


 

Erik Skinner. Photo: Michael Shay

Eric Skinner’s happy landing

Jan. 18: “On the afternoon that Snowpocalypse struck Portland, Eric Skinner walked into the lobby at BodyVox Dance Center after a morning in the studio and settled easily onto one of the long couches in the corner. As always he looked trim and taut: small but strong and tough, with a body fat index down somewhere around absolute zero. If anyone looks like a dancer, Skinner does. Even in repose he seems all about movement: you get the sense he might spring up suddenly like a Jumping Jack on those long lean muscles and bounce somewhere, anywhere, just for the sake of bouncing.” In January, after 30 years on Portland stages, Skinner was getting ready to retire from BodyVox – but not from dance, he told Bob Hicks.

 


 

Les Watanabe in ‘Sojourn’ by Donald McKayle, Inner City Repertory Company. Photographed by Martha Swope in New York. 1972. Photo courtesy of Les Watanabe

Les Watanabe on Alvin Ailey, Lar Lubovich, Donald McKayle and his life in dance

Jan. 20: In a wide-ranging Q&A interview, Jamuna Chiarini hears a lot of modern-dance history from Watanabe, who was in the thick of it and now teaches at Western Oregon University:

“During Alvin Ailey’s CBS rehearsals, Lar Lubovitch was teaching in the next studio. I ran into him at the drinking fountain. While living in L.A., I had read articles about him in Dance Magazine. So while he was stooped over drinking, I exclaimed, ‘Lar Lubovitch! I’ve read all about you!’

“At that point he stood up facing me wiping his mouth and looking incredulous like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I then asked, ‘Do you ever have auditions? I would love to dance with you.’

“’Are you dancing now?’ he asked.

“’Yes, with Alvin Ailey next door, but it is only for five weeks.’

“’Where do you take class?’ Lar asked. ‘At Maggie Black’s,’ I answered. ‘Good. Let’s meet at her first class. Then you can rush back to rehearsal. See you next week.’”

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New voices of ArtsWatch 2017

A dozen writers have joined the ArtsWatch ranks this year. Find out who they are, and what they're bringing to the cultural mixer.

In one important way it’s been a very good year for Oregon ArtsWatch: We’ve added a lot of good writers to our mix, deepening and broadening our coverage of everything from dance to theater to music to visual arts to literary events and more.

ArtsWatch has been able to add the voices of a dozen new contributors because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation.

In 2018 we hope to add even more fresh voices and perspectives to our continuing engagement with Oregon’s complex and diversified cultural life.

Meet 2017’s new writers, from A to Z (all right; A to W), and sample their work:

 


 

TJ Acena

A Portland essayist and journalist who studied creative writing at Western Washington University, TJ was selected as a 2017 Rising Leader of Color in arts journalism by Theatre Communications Group. He writes about theater and literary events for ArtsWatch, and also contributes to American Theatre Magazine and The Oregonian in addition to literary journals such as Somnambulist and Pacifica Literary Journal. Web: tjacena.com

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Greg Watanabe with Mao on the wall in “Caught.” Photo: Russell J Young

CAUGHT IN A LIE, OR A TRUTH

Acena reviews the installation and performance Caught at Artists Rep, a play that crosses the line between fact and fiction, fake news and real. “If it feels like there’s something I’m not telling you about Caught, you’re right. Don’t take it at face value: There’s a hidden conceit to the show. But discovering that conceit is what makes Caught compelling.”

 


 

Bobby Bermea

 

A leading actor, director, and producer in Portland and elsewhere, Bobby specializes in deeply reported and insightful profiles of theater and other creative people for ArtsWatch. A three-time Drammy Award winner for his work onstage, he’s also the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy, and Rocket Man.

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Spotlight on: Samantha Van Der Merwe and ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’

Myth, story, and a striking visual sense have been the hallmarks of Shaking the Tree's creative force. Now she's taking on a Brecht classic.

Every year in the Rose City, a Shaking the Tree production is one of the most hotly anticipated events of the theatrical season. Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s founder, artistic director, and primary engine, has built a sterling reputation for work that is visually striking, thematically powerful and dramaturgically daring. She is perhaps our most adept magician, with an eclectic and facile command of the theatrical vocabulary. Her singular visual sense is part and parcel of her storytelling oeuvre. She has a knack for making simple choices that feel audacious. Van Der Merwe’s special gift is knowing the one specific detail that will alight the audience’s imagination, and make its members her intimates in the act of creation.

Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s driving creative force. Photo: Dmae Roberts

Now, Van Der Merwe has turned her attention to one of her most ambitious projects yet: Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which opened in her company’s Southeast Portland warehouse space October 6 and continues through November 4. At first glance Brecht, the famed modernist and “epic theater” proponent, would seem an uneasy fit for Van Der Merwe’s particular brand of spell-casting. But if you look a little deeper, the pairing of the two disparate sensibilities seems almost inevitable.

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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.

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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.

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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

By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE

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.

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

 

 

 

 

Capturing the conscience of Tennessee Williams

Shaking the Tree's revival of 'Suddenly, Last Summer' offers a glimpse inside an outsider's mind

By CHRISTA McINTYRE

Rocked in the cradle by the demons of his Southern birth, Tennessee Williams was a man of his age and place. Shouldering that burden with Truman Capote and others of his era, he adopted a visceral masculinity polished with an effete sophistication. In a time when being openly homosexual was likely to have you expelled from society physically, psychologically and emotionally, Williams and his generation set a standard of untouchable worldliness, creating a gentility from which they could write, dance or paint beyond the circumvention of accepted gender identity. He was like an Orpheus, torn apart not by the Bacchanal, but rather by the inner sadness of his alienated standing.

Suddenly, a story gets told. Photo: Gary Norman

Suddenly, a story gets told. Photo: Gary Norman

While much and little has changed for gay civil rights, at the center of Williams’ work we experience the lost man. He writes in contrasts, from the humid, chthonic overgrowth of a personal garden to the bone-dry burning seaside. As his characters stand outside of temporary destinations, their mental and emotional lives pay a heavy cost for stoicism. If his characters were more honest, more open, more at liberty, we would have no play.

Shaking the Tree Theatre & Studio, which has just opened a revival of Williams’ 1958 one-act drama Suddenly, Last Summer, is an intimate playhouse, and its size and careful use of space are good matches for the savvy of the company’s audience. The actors, and director/set designer Samantha Van Der Merwe, often break the fourth wall: a character might appear off the side curtain nearing a hallway, but the direction draws you in as a participant experiencing a play. A respectful easiness in performance welcomes dabblers, lovers, and masters of the spoken word.

The set for Suddenly, Last Summer matches the contrasts within Williams’ play: an ornate rattan floral sitting room against a starch-white handmade paper forest of flowers and vines. Lights skip seamlessly off of the dead poet Sebastian’s jungle in greens and purples that match his mother’s antiquated lace dress. The sound of birds pitch against silent pauses and accentuate the dense overgrowth.

Suddenly, Last Summer is a series of confessional monologues anchored between aggressive interruptions. The members of a disingenuous Louisiana upper middle class family are set to save their reputations, bank accounts, futures, sanity, and egos after the unexpected death of the center of their universe, Sebastian Venable, a reclusive dandy who spends his life planning for vacations abroad, where he acquires and sometimes pays for one-time-a-year love. It is in his secret life and charm that his mother and later his cousin, Catherine, become entangled in his web of orchestrated hedonism.

Shaking The Tree captures the static, polarizing history and figures in Suddenly, Last Summer and presents the psychic front lines of knowing, but not saying, the truth. The opening minutes are uncomfortable and forced, capturing the foundation of presumed mores. As the play continues and more of the cast fills the stage, we become engrossed in solving the riddles we wish to be solved in real time.

Beth Thompson, as cousin Catherine Holly, mirrors the fortitude and despair of a prisoner of Bedlam. She matches, one on one, Jacklyn Maddux as Violet Venable, Sebastian’s mother. They are the two characters who display a complexity of personality, dueling off the one-sided attrition of the lesser sycophants. Steve Vanderzee is the perfect repressed and over-pressed young Southern man,  torn between apron strings and self delusion.

Van Der Merwe has done an exceptional job of assembling theatrical elements, using lighting, sound, and image to explore the inner stories and lives into which we get a glimpse. Each of us has been an outsider at one point in our lives. The great axis upon which good artistic work rests is finding the universal thread in the  current dilemma. Shaking The Tree gives Williams a new approach to see that invisible line.

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Suddenly, Last Summer continues through May 2 at Shaking the Tree. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Christa McIntyre is a Pacific Northwest freelance journalist, a lover, a fighter, mother, chef of sandwiches and occasional back seat canoe paddler.

 

 
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