Sans Merci

Our grande dame takes a bow

Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol, Part 2 of 2. As she completes "The Humans" and prepares a wedding, a Portland icon gets ready for a big move

In the year 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president elected to a second term in 40 years. The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture. Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a world champion, defeating Gary Kasparov. The Dallas Cowboys won their last Super Bowl. And Luisa Sermol returned from New York to her adopted home, Portland, Oregon.

“We lived in my parents’ basement again — they’re kind of my transitional housing (laughs)– until Rick found some work.” A year or so after she and her then-husband, Rick Waldron, arrived from New York, her daughter, Isabella, was born. In addition to being a new mom, Sermol started looking around and doing outreach work: the Haven Project, pairing underserved teens with professional actors, directors, and writers; Artists Rep’s Actors-to-Go; her continuing work with Portland Actors Conservatory, the training ground for new professional actors. Through this work she started to meet other theater artists in town, such as Lorraine Bahr and Haven founder Gretchen Corbett. Corbett subsequently cast Sermol in her production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Another relationship also facilitated her re-integration into the Portland theater scene, superseding all the others and becoming not just one of Sermol’s most productive artistic partnerships but also among her most enduring friendships: Louanne Moldovan. They had met when Sermol was in town doing Midsummer.

“Oh, I know! Hairdresser!” remembers Moldovan, “That’s how we knew each other. Because I went to the same hairdresser as her, Valerium, unbeknownst to each other. I was in there one day bringing a flyer to one of my shows as I always did, and he said, “Oh my gosh, you have to meet Luisa. She’s an actress and was in New York.”

Sermol concurs. “Louanne pops in and Valerium had wanted me to meet her. She’s handing out all these flyers for The Wild Party and you know Louanne. There’s all this energy.” Moldovan picks up the story: “You know me, I’m like, “Tell me all about yourself! What are you doing! Blah blah blah! And that’s how we first met, was through the hairdresser.”

Luisa Sermol: The grande dame. Photo: Owen Carey

When Sermol returned to Portland, opportunities for an Equity actress in town were not what they are today. But she remembered that Cygnet, a literary theater company, specialized in stage readings, which opened up possibilities. She re-established contact with Moldovan, who ran the company and was all over the idea. “She did the John Sayles piece about the truck drivers that Teddy Roisum was in. That was what we did first. Then we did a holiday show that was a hoot. Lot of funny material and singing and everything.” And the two became fast friends, cemented by going through pregnancy at the same time. “We went through pre-natal yoga together,” says Moldovan. “We went to Ringside and had big steaks together when we were craving protein.” That friendship — and creative partnership — continues to this day. (The day after Sermol’s current show, Artists Rep’s The Humans, closes, Cygnet will do a reading of The Holiday Show, which will feature Sermol, at Tabor Bread.)


Sans Merci: subtlety, then a gut-punch

Johnna Adams' 'Sans Merci' restrains its emotional mother-load until the very (bitter) end. Just wait.

The sound of the rain envelops the house. The weight of things hinted-at but unsaid hovers in the air between two women in a living room. One of them, the hostess, lumbers around slowly with the help of a cane. The other, the guest, basically just awkwardly perches on the couch. Everything about the start of Sans Merci is muted, muffled, encumbered—and for Badass Theatre Company director Antonion Sonera, that’s new.


Elizabeth (Luisa Sermol) and Kelly (Jessica Tidd) fight through their grief over the loss of a daughter and friend in ‘Sans Merci.’

“Wait. From the same director who closed Milagro’s last season with Learn To Be Latina?” you rightly ask, “Chock full of profane racial slurs and rollicking with sexy ‘fly girls?’ And who then revived Badass’s truly badass Invasion in the same space?” Yup, the very same. But don’t worry; they’ll get to the gut-punch.

Originally, Badass artistic director Antonio Sonera admitted at the talkback, they were going for another Johnna Adams script, Gideon’s Knot. Her agent sold them on Merci when Sonera realized the bereaved mother role, Elizabeth, would be a perfect vehicle for company co-founder and Portland theater vet Luisa Sermol. Sermol—last seen in Corrib’s Hen Night Epiphany, another prolonged, fraught all-woman conversation—is a vessel capable of holding oceans of dramatic tension before spilling over…which is exactly what Sans Merci demands. Wait for the flood. Wait for it.

Elizabeth’s hobbled hostess, Kelly, is played by Jessica Tidd—last seen as Ophelia in Post5’s Hamlet. In that role, she made puzzling choices that seemed to echo the kooky, “adorkable” Zooey Deschanel. She’s much more compelling in this lesbian activist role. She radiates humility and empathy, and moves fluently in the “aw-shucks” nonthreatening body language that tall women, and women with strong convictions, sadly find they have to affect to get along. She’s trying to be nice. But she believes. So. Strongly…!

The absent party that dominates these two women’s thoughts is Elizabeth’s daughter and Kelly’s former more-than-roommate, Tracy, who has died tragically in a voluntourist trip to Columbia gone horribly wrong (and, incidentally, ripped from real headlines). Jahnavi Caldwell-Green gets comparatively few lines in this role, and for a long time, we don’t see her at all. Eventually, she’s revealed in the flesh (both figuratively and literally) in a series of flashbacks. Caldwell-Green embodies the apple-cheeked little sweetheart both her mother and friend want to remember, but when the scenes call for more, man does she deliver. This won’t surprise those who caught her at Action/Adventure during the Fertile Ground Festival, but let it caution everyone else: don’t be lulled by her cuteness. The torrent is coming.

Strong players in rightful roles fortify a show that could otherwise too easily be broken. Very little action happens on that rainy afternoon; they’re mostly reminiscing and arguing while frankly over-quoting Keats as they gradually circle closer and closer to the visceral center of their heartbreak. What we’re watching is the way Elizabeth and Kelly process their mutual loss, not just of their daughter and friend, but of their respective worldviews, each shattered by the circumstances of her death. Turns out, in her final moments Tracy faced her own crisis of faith. Wait for it.

Sans Merci runs through October 11, Thurs-Sat 7:30, Sun 2pm.


A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

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