ted roisum

Super Bowl Sunday arts: ArtsWatch week in review

The death of actor Ted Roisum, The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, a big Mellon grant, more

Let’s just say that your appetite for Super Bowl pre-game chatter isn’t truly boundless. Just for the record we favor the Seahawks because their logo was derived from a carving in the Burke Museum. From those two sentences alone, you may be able to predict where this going: A deep dive into ArtsWatch stories from the week, our Sunday arts section.

Ted with Vana O'Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet's "Faith Healer."

Ted with Vana O’Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet’s “Faith Healer.”

Bob Hicks remembers the great actor Ted Roisum: The possessor of the single most recognizable vocal instrument in Portland theater, Roisum also had a lively intelligence and generous spirit, and his passing has rocked the city’s theater community. “The voice, it seemed to me, was a magnificent instrument, but only the doorway to an even more remarkable revelation of the soul. Almost always there was something haunting in a Roisum performance, a sense in his interpretations of a character who has seen more deeply into the mysteries of the universe than he might rationally be expected to withstand. He took his audiences to dark and dangerous places.”

In The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents“Dunno,” is a pretty good answer: The “doleful, squicky, thought-provoking, poignant and pathetic” play at Vertigo features a fine performance by Shawna Nordman as Dora in Lukas Barfüs’s juicy satire.

Mellon Foundation gift establishes Creative Exchange Lab at PICA: Thanks to a $500,000 grant, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art will get to curate some creativity experiments in a new residency program.

Eric Isaacson conducts a meeting of music and film: The Mississippi Studios founder has begun his second annual series of movies with strong musical content at the Hollywood Theatre, and Lily Hudson talked to him about the first and future installments.

From Toronto, a preview of the Portland International Film Festival: Erik McClanahan predicts that the best of the Toronto Film Festival will be hits in Portland, too.

Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman and Cristi Miles in "Enter the Night"/Photo Owen Carey

Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman and Cristi Miles in “Enter the Night”/Photo Owen Carey

“Enter the Night” and the dream world of Maria Irene Fornes: Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s encounter with Fornes and “Enter the Night” is richly textured and detailed, episode by episode.

Happy reading, and enjoy the game!


Ted Roisum, 1952-2015: a giant falls

The brilliant longtime Portland actor dies at 62, leaving a distinguished legacy both professional and personal

UPDATE: A memorial celebration of Ted Roisum’s life will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 S.W. Morrison St., Portland. The timing will allow as many theater people as possible to attend without conflicting with performances or rehearsals.


Like a few other giants, Ted Roisum was surprisingly small in person: lean and compact, short, somehow tough and fragile at the same time, with a large and perpetually questioning head that overwhelmed his wiry body.

Yet giant he was, with a voice that rolled like God’s at the creation of the universe and trembled like Job’s in the face of a plague of locusts. On a stage, he simply grew.

Robert Theodore Roisum, one of the finest actors Portland has known, died in a Portland hospice on Thursday, January 29, 2015. He was 62.

Roisum in Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas." Photo: Win Goodbody/Corrib Theatre

Roisum in Conor McPherson’s “St. Nicholas.” Photo: Win Goodbody/Portland Theatre Scene

His longtime friend Louanne Moldovan reported that three weeks ago, experiencing severe abdominal pains, he went to an emergency room, where doctors discovered cancerous tumors throughout his body. He had had a melanoma removed about a year earlier, and neither Ted nor his doctors realized the cancer had metastasized to his lymph system, Moldovan said.

Word spread quickly in the city’s theater circles, where Roisum was held in deep admiration, respect, and, often, a touch of awe. “Today the world lost one of its rare and beautiful souls,” actor Luisa Sermol wrote in a Facebook post. He was, she added, “a man of brilliant mind, passionate talent, and gentle heart.”

Ted was all of that, and more. He did a little bit of film and television work – including small roles in the likes of Mr. Holland’s Opus and the series Under Suspicion and Nowhere Man – but he was a man of the theater, and from the mid-1980s on, mostly on Portland stages. A show with Ted in it was almost automatically an event.

Roisum (left) and Keith Scales in "Greek," 1987

Roisum (left) and Keith Scales in “Greek,” 1987

After a stint at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the early 1980s he came of age in Portland in the ’80s and early ’90s in a series of brilliant performances, including Steven Berkoff’s scabrous Greek, in a legendary production with Vana O’Brien, Keith Scales, and Dee Dee Van Zyl. He had a taste for classic 20th century American dramas: Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses (all three with O’Brien as his wife), Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. He dug deeply into Ibsen in The Master Builder, and Yeats in The Cuchulain Cycle. More than once, he played Lear (including one production that had him playing him not as a king, but as the commissioner of baseball). Such savage roles seemed to wring him dry onstage, and the audience with him, without dipping into histrionics or melodrama: his performances were too true for that.

Roisum’s remarkable, reverberating voice is what struck audiences most immediately. Marty Hughley, reviewing his Lear at Northwest Classical Theatre Company last year for ArtsWatch, wrote that the sound of his voice was “like weathered mahogany. Indignation burns and churns in him like magma. There is bullying and bitterness in this Lear, but also biting wit and touching tenderness, self-pity and self-awareness.”

The voice, it seemed to me, was a magnificent instrument, but only the doorway to an even more remarkable revelation of the soul. Almost always there was something haunting in a Roisum performance, a sense in his interpretations of a character who has seen more deeply into the mysteries of the universe than he might rationally be expected to withstand. He took his audiences to dark and dangerous places. In person he was a gentleman, with an engaging curiosity and flashes of dry humor and, it seemed to me, some of the uncertainties that so often plague exceptionally creative and sensitive people. He had doubts, and the doubts seemed part of what made him brilliant onstage. Always, there were questions. Always, there were shadings. Always, there was a part of himself in whoever he played.

Ted with Vana O'Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet's "Faith Healer."

Ted with Vana O’Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet’s “Faith Healer.”

Ted took a few lighter roles, even swashbuckling in a children’s-theater adaptation of Treasure Island. And he sometimes stepped into musical-theater productions: he had a distinctive sense of rhythm in his voice and movements. But even on the musical-comedy stage he tended toward darker roles – as Jud, for instance, the haunted outsider in Oklahoma! who gives the play the sort of disquieting anchor that Malvolio provides in Twelfth Night. The same was true in comedies. Amid the hijinks of Vitriol and Violets, a play about the Algonquin wits, he broke into a brief, chilling scene as the doomed Bartolomeo Vanzetti of Sacco and Vanzetti infamy.

He also had an eye for the new or unusual, and for the familiar cast in an unusual light. He and David Cromwell starred at Portland Center Stage in the 2003 premiere of Steven Drukman’s post-9/11 comedy Another Fine Mess as a couple of baggy-pants gents, à la Gogo and Didi, creating a backstage world very like the large one beyond the theater – a tour-de-force blending of the sheerly theatrical and the starkly political.

His 1993 show Variations on a Bard, directed by Moldovan, teamed him in scenes from Shakespeare performed to improvisational accompaniment by three jazz musicians. “Certainly, tragedy becomes Roisum, who carries a dignified sadness in his voice and bearing,” I wrote in reviewing the show for the Oregonian. “But lurking below the obvious are the makings of a first-rate comedian – a truly Shakespearean kind of fool, who knows much and makes light to illuminate the dark. With his bold features and elastic expressions, Roisum suggests the duality of the great French actor-mime Jean-Louis Barrault in Children of Paradise, creating peals of laughter while his heart breaks.”

As Lear for Northwest Classical Theatre Company. Photo: Jason Maniccia

As Lear for Northwest Classical Theatre Company. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Certain roles simply resonated with Ted. He played Conor McPherson’s bitter theater critic in St. Nicholas three times: in 1998 for CoHo, in 2002 for Cygnet, and in 2013 for Corrib. Barry Johnson, reviewing the 2013 production for ArtsWatch, wrote of Roisum “leveling his eyes on us from time to time, an edge of self-contempt in his baritone and a tale to keep moving along.” Reviewing the 2002 production for The Oregonian, I observed: “… it’s hard to imagine any actor who can bring life to that spiritual exhaustion better than Roisum. With his deep whiskey voice and sharp cadences he approaches McPherson’s script as if it were music: every note has its meaning, and every note comes clear only in relationship to the notes that come before and after.”

That was the way he approached his work onstage: like music coming clear as it falls into place with the rest of the score. He was, indeed, a giant. Onstage and in his personal life, he made people care.

“Teddy was my friend, my co-actor and, at one time, my onstage husband,” actor Katherine King wrote on Facebook. “I am very glad that he is no longer suffering, but I am very sad for all of us who will miss him so very much.”

Teddy, rest in peace.







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.


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.


Theater and music under a big, fat Chagall moon

Springtime with "St. Nicholas" at Kell's then 45th Parallel and 3 Leg Torso at Alberta Rose

It drives the ArtsWatch SEO people wild when I combine two separate art “experiences” in one post. Wild I tell you, wild. But I’m determined to smush them together, I’m afraid, just because in my mind they are smushed…

First, I went to Corrib Theatre’s “St. Nicholas,” the new Irish theater company’s first full production. And yes, Kells was a fine spot for a play that has its share of pints. then last night, I went to Alberta Rose to hear 45th Parallel and 3 Leg Torso make a little music in “To Hungary and Beyond.” As 45th Parallel’s Greg Ewer said, his group was taking care of Hungary and 3 Leg was charged with “Beyond.” Which seemed fair enough.

So, nothing in common these two…

“St. Nicholas” by Conor McPherson/Corrib Theatre/Kells Irish Pub

Ted Roisum in "St. Nicholas"/Photo: Win Goodbody for Corrib Theatre

Ted Roisum in “St. Nicholas”/Photo: Win Goodbody for Corrib Theatre

So Tuesday night, I was sitting in the front row for the second night of Corrib Theatre’s production of “St. Nicholas,” my notebook in hand, in case I wanted to dash down an idle thought or two about the show, just for you, dear reader, just for you.

But then, Ted Roisum walked past from the back of the upstairs meeting room at Kell’s Irish Pub, the staging ground for Conor McPherson’s Irish ghost story, and I realized: Oh, THAT play.
Because I’d seen it before, back in 1999, when Roisum had dazzled us the first time with a plunge into McPherson’s spooky script.

And suddenly that dang notebooks became a big red “A”: “St. Nicholas” is not kind to critics. Roisum plays the worst of us in this one-man storytelling excursion, and his saw-toothed attack on himself and his kind, the Dublin journalist, critic or no, is going to draw a little blood, even among the least self-conscious of us, we who don’t have time to shape opinions, just time to have them.

Blood’s good in this case, because after Roisum has eviscerated himself, his profession, his family, the theater, and perhaps humankind itself, he heads for London, ostensibly in pursuit of a particularly fetching actress named Helen to whom he hopes to… apologize? And leave it at that? But first there’s the little matter of William, who just happens to have a taste for blood.

Roisum knows his way around this script (he did it for Cygnet Productions in 2002, also), and he and director Gemma Whelan, Corrib’s artistic director, have kept things simple in the playing area: a mirror (yes, he can see himself: he isn’t THAT far gone), a table and chair that Roisum adjusts from time to time, and Roisum himself, leveling his eyes on us from time to time, an edge of self-contempt in his baritone and a tale to keep moving along.

Bob Hicks, my estimable colleague at The Oregonian, Art Scatter and now ArtsWatch, wrote in 2002 that “St. Nicholas” (in addition to showing off the very fine acting of Roisum) was, among other things, “an astonishingly insightful, surprisingly sympathetic look by a young writer into the spiritual exhaustions of middle age.” The young writer being McPherson himself. I would add that maybe it’s the young writer getting used to the idea that human awareness itself leads to a certain amount of unhappiness, but that unhappiness is a happier condition than the absence of awareness. For a writer of plays that explore the dark side of things (“The Weir,” “The Seafarer”) this was an important thought, when McPherson had it in 1997, when he was in his mid-20s.

But before I reduce it all to a syllogism or something, I’ll just point out that “St. Nicholas” is hilarious, in a dark way, and that Roisum can still make you squirm.

45th Parallell/3 Leg Torso/Alberta Rose

Gregory Ewer and Courtney Von Drehle/Photo: Jim Leisy

Gregory Ewer and Courtney Von Drehle/Photo: Jim Leisy

The Wednesday night pairing of the contemporary classical ensemble 45th Parallel and the wry humor, musically and otherwise, of 3 Leg Torso was auspicious for lots of reasons, but mostly, I like the idea of merging the fragmented art music audience whenever possible. I sat next to a woman familiar with 45th Parallel who had never heard 3 Leg, though she knew about them, and while I didn’t interview her afterwards, I bet Bela Balogh, Courtney Von Drehle and company converted her to the middle European sound embedded, as Von Drehle suggested, deep in the heart of Southeast Portland.

And I’m pretty sure that the 3 Leg audience found itself in an agreeable place after hearing 45th Parallel’s pulsating, delicious account of Erno Dohnanyi’s Sextet in C Major, which gathered musical thread from the tumultuous middle European soundscape of 1935. Dohnanyi was a Hungary-born pianist, conductor and composer, who shielded his Jewish colleagues from Nazi Hungary (one of his sons was executed by the Nazis for his part in an assassination attempt on Hitler), but who found himself at odds with the Communists who replaced them, emigrating to the U.S. finally in 1948.

The sextet (played by Adam Neiman piano, Sean Osborn clarinet, Joseph Berger horn, Gregory Ewer violin, Adam LaMotte viola, Justin Kagan cello) wanders all over the place musically, from waltzes to jazz, dark to triumphant, with traces faintly Middle Eastern to distinctly High German Classical, a flow of musical ideas that is incredibly demanding on the musicians, much to our delight.

Does the last movement actually sound like a drunken hotel house band trying to play Gershwin, as one critic described it, according to Ewer in his prefatory remarks? Well, maybe so. It certainly changes directions quickly enough, invites the horn and clarinet in at surprising moments, and concludes rather peremptorily. Like that.

Anyway, 45th Parallel wants to record the Dohnanyi along with Beethoven’s septet for its first CD, and they sounded brilliant on Tuesday night, turning and shaping and finding the natural contractions in the music. So, if you want to help them get this rarely recorded music out there, you can jump to their Kickstarter page and make a donation. We’ll wait for you here.

Bela R. Balogh and Gregory Ewer/Jim Leisy

Bela R. Balogh and Gregory Ewer/Jim Leisy

After a bit of stage clearing and set-up (at least three members of the xylophone family, various drums, etc.), 3 Leg charged into its goulash of Romany-tango-klezmer sounds. Balogh’s supercharged violin takes care of the emotional upper registers and Von Drehle’s accordion supplies the coloration, but percussionists Gary Irvine and T.J. Arko keep the xylophone family happy and bouncing and fluid bassist Mike Murphy is an adept soloist as well as indicating the darker side of the universe.

The 3 Leg crowd loves the uptempo numbers best, it seems, but I was drawn to the slowest piece on the program, “According to Chagall,” which made me imagine a 3 Leg suite based on specific Chagall paintings, which might be projected behind the band. Frankly, though I’m sure I’d enjoy the music a lot, I’m sure the stories Balogh and Von Drehle concocted around those paintings would be just as entertaining. The run-up to each song 3 Leg performs includes humorous stories, asides, fiction masquerading as memoir, after all. The music by itself makes you smile, but the stories are most excellent, too.

Ewer joined 3 Leg for a couple of numbers, too, first playing with Balogh and then doing a duet with Von Drehle, Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro in the style of Pugnani, and the peripatetic nature of 45th Parallel’s musical choices is paying off, because he sounded perfectly at home with the pyrotechnical demands on the violin in 3 Leg’s scheme of things. Balogh, after all, makes the instrument practically writhe in his hands.

Oh, and man the moon was big when I left Alberta Rose. A Chagall moon

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