Shoebox Theatre

ArtsWatch year in theater 2017

From "Astoria" to "The Humans" with a whole lot in between, a month-by-month stroll with ArtsWatch through the year in Oregon theater

From Portland Center Stage’s Astoria: Part I (Part II is streaming around the bend in January, along with an encore run for Part I) to Artists Rep’s The Humans and a slew of holiday shows, it’s been a busy, busy year in Oregon theater.

In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival rolled out another season blending contemporary and classic with a wide-angle world view. And the fine actor G. Valmont Thomas, after spending a season playing Falstaff in all three plays in which the great character appears, died in December from bone cancer, at age 58.

In Hillsboro, Bag&Baggage, which had been temporarily homeless, opened a spiffy new home in a renovated downtown former bank building.

In Portland, the sprawling Fertile Ground festival introduced dozens of new works (and, like Astoria, is gearing up for a fresh new run in January). Chris Coleman, Center Stage’s artistic director for 17 years, announced he would be leaving at the end of this season to take over the theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. TCG, the influential Theatre Communications Group, held its annual conference in Portland. And theater companies large and small produced more plays than The Count could count in a dozen seasons of Sesame Street.

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Who’s afraid of a casting switch?

Portlander Michael Streeter thought he was going to produce "Virginia Woolf." Edward Albee's Trust said no. Why? Because Streeter had cast a black actor.

Producer Michael Streeter had been planning since November 2016 for his production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, intended to appear at Portland’s Shoebox Theatre in September. There was only one hurdle to clear before officially being granted the rights to perform the play, which he had on hold with theatrical publishers Samuel French: he sent headshots of the cast off to the Albee Estate for approval.

The cast of Woolf consists of four characters: a middle-aged married couple (George and Martha, famously played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film), and a younger married couple (Nick and Honey). On May 15, Streeter got a call from the Albee Estate asking for him to elaborate on his choice of actor for the role of Nick. Streeter had cast a black actor, and was happy to explain why.

As he said to me by email, “This was a color conscious choice, not a colorblind choice. I believe casting Nick as black adds depth to the play. The character is an up and comer. He is ambitious and tolerates a lot of abuse in order to get ahead. I see this as emblematic of African Americans in 1962, the time the play was written. The play is filled with invective from Martha and particularly George towards Nick. With each insult that happens in the play, the audience will wonder, ‘Are George and Martha going to go there re. racial slurs?’”


Playwright Edward Albee, in an undated photo. UH Photographs Collection, 1948-2000/Wikimedia Commons

The Albee Estate was not convinced. They insisted that the actor be fired and the role be recast. Streeter refused. So the estate refused to grant the rights to the show. Streeter, shocked, took to Facebook: “I am furious and dumbfounded. The Edward Albee Estate needs to join the 21st Century. I cast a black actor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Albee Estate called and said I need to fire the black actor and replace him with a white one. I refused, of course. They have withdrawn the rights.”

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Nothing & everything has changed

Vertigo's spot-on take on Caryl Churchill's "Love and Information" churns through the new realities of a data-besotted modern culture

You may forget but

Let me tell you

this: someone in

some future time

will think of us

– Sappho

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Theatre Vertigo, in its little Shoebox Theatre space, is performing Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a play with no stage directions, a dozen actors, 100 parts, and 57 scenes in 90 minutes.

At this second more than 1,900,000 Google searches have been performed today. In 2009, the New York Times reported: “The report suggests the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information in a single day. (Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is only 460,000 words long.) This doesn’t mean we read 100,000 words a day — it means that 100,000 words cross our eyes and ears in a single 24-hour period. That information comes through various channels, including the television, radio, the Web, text messages and video games.”

Kimo Camat, Joe Healy, Shawna Nordman, leaping through the stories. Photo: Gary Norman

Kimo Camat, Joe Healy, Shawna Nordman, leaping through the stories. Photo: Gary Norman

We swim in a sea of fragments of information, sometimes fully afloat, heading to beautiful unimagined shores; at other times forever aching to go back a second before in the wake of violent histories unfolding. This delicate dance would be almost impossible to explain to a person living one hundred years ago. Our need to know, our fear that we have no connections, the intense and elaborate technologies against the reality of our bodies, has created a dramatic debate.

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Blind injustice: trapped in the basement

The taut little thriller "Wait Until Dark" gets the lockdown treatment in the fittingly claustrophobic Shoebox Theatre

No theater space in Portland is so well disposed to making you feel trapped as the Shoebox Theatre. Not that there’s anything to give the fire marshal pause, but what often is touted as the space’s coziness or intimacy can be turned readily into a sense of confinement.

That quality comes in handy for Wait Until Dark, the noir-ish thriller on the boards there as the season opener from Northwest Classical Theatre Company. The story takes place in a basement apartment in New York, where a woman is conned, pressured, and eventually terrorized by a band of criminals hell-bent on recovering a doll (of all things) they believe has fallen into her possession. However, it’s not the apartment’s dimensions that make things so insular, but that the criminals are watchful and the woman is not only alone, for the most part, but also blind.

Clara Hillier and Kate Thresher: it's all in the touch. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Clara-Liis Hillier and Kate Thresher: it’s all in the touch. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Written by Fredrick Knott, Wait Until Dark premiered on Broadway in 1966 and the following year was turned into a film vehicle for Audrey Hepburn. Here, director Bobby Bermea — who used the Shoebox space so effectively last season in a production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for Theatre Vertigo — works from a recent adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher that moves the story back a couple of decades, acquiring an undercurrent of war-era nervousness.

Between them, Knott and Hatcher have devised a devilishly screw-tightening plot with a wealth of hints and feints and useful details, but the script’s logic wobbles on occasion. Everyone recognizes that Susan, Our Plucky Heroine in Distress, is blind; yet everyone also, despite just meeting her, presumes that she has no sensitivity to light whatsoever. (Apparently she doesn’t, but it’s an odd assumption nonetheless.) Much is made of her heightened hearing, but that sensory advantage seems to come into play only when it would help, not hurt, the playwright’s plotting. There’s also a reference to one of the criminals spotted (by Susan’s bratty teen neighbor) in a van outside; but the description is of him in one of his disguises, at a time when he’d have no reason to be wearing it.

These are picayune matters, of course, but since the play is all about suspense, with nothing of greater thematic interest than how Our Plucky Heroine will find the cleverness and courage to prevail, they can be distractions.

Sam Dinkowitz and Clara Hillier: the cat, the mouse, and the trap. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Sam Dinkowitz and Clara-Liis Hillier: the cat, the mouse, and the trap. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Fortunately, Bermea and his cast give it all a strong sense of momentum and psychological credibility. Tom Mounsey as a thick-witted ex-gumshoe and Heath Koerschgen as a sympathetic Army lieutenant conform to the clear types of their characters without leaving them one-dimensional. Clara-Liis Hillier imbues Susan with a keen curiosity and focus, registering both defiance and abject fear effectively, as well as throwing herself headlong into the most brutally realistic fight choreography you’re likely to see all season. But what a story such as this needs most of all is a compellingly disquieting villain, and the performance of Sam Dinkowitz as the mysterious, mercurial Harry Roat (if that’s really his name) is the key here. Roat proudly acknowledges his own mental derangement and describes his sadism as a matter of principle; what Dinkowitz provides is a sense of resoluteness and drive. He makes you believe he’s the kind of man who likes nothing better than to set a trap.

 

Big Lear, little Lear: when size matters

Bag&Baggage's lean version in a big space and NW Classical's full version in a tiny space tell the long and short of Shakespeare's tale

Nearly a half-century ago, Pete Townshend wrote what must be one of the most frequently quoted of rock-song lyrics: “Hope I die before I get old.” That line has been cited ad nauseam as an uncritical pledge of allegiance to youth, as a self-imposed term limit on hipness. Pay attention to context of the song My Generation, though, and it’s clear that the line implies something else altogether – an ethical standard.

“Things they do look awful c-c-cold/I hope I die before I get old,” it goes, and the meaning is, “Hope I die before I get old and start acting like they do!”

Would that Goneril and Regan, those sharper-than-serpent-toothed sisters in King Lear, had adopted that attitude. The old man decides to kick back in royal retirement, and no sooner has he handed over his land and power than the daughters are surpassing him at self-serving callousness and caprice.

Maybe it’s just coincidence that it’s the youngest of Lear’s daughters, Cordelia, who shows a spirit of loving kindness and honesty. Then again, Dad always liked her best. Until, of course, she’s a bit too honest for her own good.

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Kevin Connell is Lear at Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography

Kevin Connell is Lear at Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography

So begins one of the most famous family feuds in all of the theatrical canon. The oft-told tale is onstage again in the Portland area, in two very different versions:  a radically revised yet historically rooted adaptation by Bag & Baggage, and a surefootedly faithful rendition by Northwest Classical Theatre Company.

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Jekyll and Hyde-ing in a closet.

Theatre Vertigo's fall chiller in the Shoebox Theatre gets deliciously intimate with evil.

Mr. Hyde (Heath Koerschgen) holds Elizabeth (Karen Wennstrom) in his evil thrall.

Mr. Hyde (Heath Koerschgen) holds Elizabeth (Karen Wennstrom) in his evil thrall.

Unfortunately, we can’t all be Dr. Jekyll.
Unfortunately, we CAN all be Mr. Hyde.

That’s one way to interpret Jeffrey Hatcher’s bold adaptation of the classic  Robert Louis Stevenson story.

In this version, rather than pitting the two main characters in a fair fight, one Jekyll confronts (count them) as many as six Hydes at a time. Sometimes they lurk, lunge, and sneer from the shadows; sometimes they rush the stage as a gang, each in a top hat, brandishing a cane. Sometimes there’s only one, an alpha Hyde that commands all the betas. And occasionally, a “respectable” character will stop mid-sentence, don a hat and crack into a sudden apparition of the fiend, just as abruptly doffing  hat and Hyde to resume business as usual. This is spooky to say the least. Hyde could be anywhere. Jekyll never knows.

Theatre Vertigo‘s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (like Artists Rep’s “Foxfinder“) is a sparse, expressionist Halloween holdover timed to scare the demons out of your system before the heartwarming holidays. It’s a welcome reminder of the rich monster-v-man discourse that informs modern (ahem) efforts like “Grimm,” and it’s Victorian detective delicacy is sure to tempt the same audiences who turned out for Artists Rep’s Sherlock Holmes/Christmas show these last three winters (2010-12).

“Jekyll and Hyde” is also Vertigo’s season-opener, and the company’s first staging in the Shoebox Theatre, a temporary home since its longer-term digs at Belmont’s Theatre! Theater! closed last spring. The name “Shoebox” rings true; the space is tiny, hardly more than a wide hallway with audience on both sides. Perhaps in this case, a constraint has proven a blessing.

Vertigo’s brand is consistently edgy and adventurous, but the company’s spatial discipline waxes and wanes. Last fall, “Mother Courage and Her Children” was deemed “impeccable,” but by spring, “Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls” was looking sloppy. Now in a space where missteps literally mean stepping on toes, Vertigo’s movement and timing is again on-point. They navigate the diciest of entrances and exits with ease, plus a series of magic-show-style misdirections and handoffs that bring multiple Hydes to life.

When they’re NOT personifying Jekyll’s murderous id, the various actors play the good doctor’s servant, colleagues, and solicitor. In their eloquent Victorian manner, they puzzle over the spectral monster in their midst, marveling at his grisly crimes. But they’re reluctant to name the doctor as a suspect until they absolutely have to. Here, again, they’ve risen to a major technical challenge: their various British accents, from Cockney to Scottish to Queen’s, are nearly perfect, rivaling if not outshining “Foxfinder.”

Heath Koerschgen’s role as the primary or alpha Hyde is dead opposite from his recent heroic turn as Marc Antony in Post5’s “Caesar.” Nevertheless, his face and voice are unflinchingly fiendish even under close scrutiny in the small space, his large size domineering the other characters, especially his lover Elizabeth (Karen Wennstrom) who keeps pace with her own credible expressions of humility and terror. Doctor Jekyll (Mario Calcagno) is less a foil to Hyde than a reluctant sidekick, complicit and defensive, sweating out his support despite growing concerns. For him, Hyde seems foremost a source of wonder, with horror on the side.

Amid all this staunch Victoriana, director Bobby Bermea can’t resist one pop horror motif: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The eerie, echoey voice-over that gives the show’s opening warnings is a dead ringer for the one in Jackson’s horror record, even dissipating into the same evil laughter. The reference resurfaces when several Hydes perform synchronized spasms through green smoke and strobes, their movements jerky, regimented and asymmetrical like the King of Pop’s choreo. It’s a surprising device, especially in a small room, but amazingly manages to stay suspenseful, not silly.

Another risky move—coed cast playing nearly all male—also comes off without a hitch here thanks to Kerry Ryan and Brooke Calcagno’s studied habitation of masculine identity. As Utterson and Lanyon respectively, and dually as Hyde, their assumed male affectations aren’t the focus, but rather a natural byproduct of their characters’ presumption of authority. Act like you own and know everything while wearing a suit, and maleness is sufficiently implied. Unfortunate, perhaps, but they man up and leverage the device’s simplicity in their favor.

Is it my imagination, or are intermissions going out of style? “Jekyll and Hyde,” like “Foxfinder,” is around 90 minutes straight, no breaks. Both titles, however, have good reason: they need a captive audience to ratchet up the tension. There’s considerable disbelief to suspend in both shows’ premises…they can’t give us a moment to second-think. “Jekyll and Hyde” particularly, in its small space, gives the illusion of intimacy, like a single-file carnival ride or a “seven minutes in heaven” retreat into a dark party closet. Everybody knows that once you open the door, the spell is broken.

Overall, this “Jekyll and Hyde” is extremely deft, and even though the story’s familiar, the experience of seeing it here feels unique. It’s a chance to intimately reacquaint not only with Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterwork, but with a small company that seems to be tightening and energizing like a coiled copper spring. The Shoebox quickly becomes a full house, and this show rattles the room to its edges. Meanwhile, the many Hydes pose a chilling threat from all sides: will they kill, or corrupt you?

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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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It’s a classic: Vertigo stays east

The displaced company joins NW Classical Theatre in the little Shoebox space

Robert Wyllie, Paige Jones & Matthew Kerrigan in “Mother Courage.”/Theatre Vertigo

Robert Wyllie, Paige Jones & Matthew Kerrigan in “Mother Courage.”/Theatre Vertigo

Theatre Vertigo is staying on the East Side.

Vertigo, one of three Portland theater companies losing their home later this spring at the Theater! Theater! Building on Southeast Belmont, will move in with Northwest Classical Theatre Company in the little Shoebox Theatre at 2710 S.E. 10th Ave. Profile Theatre, which is also losing its lease on Belmont, had already announced it will share the Artists Rep space in downtown’s West End. The third company, Fuse, hasn’t yet announced its plans.

Vertigo made its announcement Monday night during its annual benefit auction and season announcement party. And staying on the east side of the Willamette played a role in the company’s decision. “We are committed to this community,” board president Joe Shallenburger said in a prepared statement. “It is our priority to provide cutting edge, professional, and affordable theater in this part of the city.”

Early scuttlebutt had Vertigo headed for the CoHo Theater in Northwest Portland, but that talk shifted. Now Vertigo will be in partnership with NWCT in the tiny Shoebox space, and will keep its roots in Southeast. Both companies expect the move, but not the collaboration, to be temporary. They are already exploring options for eventually developing a larger arts center together on the East Side. Vertigo will add Sunday performances to its Thursday-Saturday schedule to help make up for the Shoebox’s smaller capacity.

Vertigo’s final show on Belmont will be Naomi Iizuka’s “Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls,” opening May 10. It’ll produce its annual Anonymous Theatre—this year, Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth”—on Aug. 12 at the Gerding Theatre in the Armory.

Then it’ll open its 2013-14 season in the fall at the Shoebox. It announced a three-show season: Jeffrey Hatcher’s new adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”; Craig Jessen’s “The End of Sex”; and, pending rights, David Ives’ new farce “The School for Lies.”

 
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