Vana O’Brien

Family fuss? It’s only human

In the comic drama "The Humans" at Artists Rep, Thanksgiving dinner with the Blakes just might knock the stuffing out of you

Maybe you missed it last year when that big musical about the Founding Fathers was the talk of the Tonys and just about anyplace else you turned. But while Hamilton was sweeping up most of the attention and a bunch of Tony Awards, including best new musical, a much smaller play was making its own mark: Stephen Karam’s family comedy-drama The Humans, which took the award for best new play, plus two more for best performers and one for best set design. If it never broke through as a pop-cultural phenomenon the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit has, The Humans has left its mark, and is likely to be produced many times for many years on many regional stages.

From left: Vana O’Brien (in wheelchair), Quinlan Fitzgerald (partially hidden), John San Nicolas, Luisa Sermol, Val Landrum (partially hidden), Robert Pescovitz. Photo: Russell J Young

On Saturday night it opened on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Stage after a week of preview performances, beating Hamilton to the Portland punch. (A few Portlanders got a first look at The Humans a little over a year ago, when The Reading Parlor performed an engaging and decidedly promising one-night staged reading of it in a little side room at Artists Rep.) The Hamilton road company will settle into Keller Auditorium for a run March 20-April 8 next year, and I can still hear the wails reverberating from frustrated potential ticket buyers who couldn’t get through on the phone lines when advance sales kicked off Nov. 17.

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Marjorie, in her prime

Jordan Harrison's futuristic fantasy about the blurry line between people and artificial intelligence gets a sterling run at Artists Rep

Walter has a curious affect, in more ways than one. As he talks with Marjorie, an 85-year-old woman whose mind isn’t what it used to be, he’s gently inquisitive, apparently eager to learn about her and, somewhat paradoxically, about himself as well. As the “Prime” in Jordan Harrison’s stimulating play Marjorie Prime continuing through March 5 at Artists Repertory Theatre, he speaks with an odd mixture of intimacy and detachment, and a patience that seems at first professional, then preternatural. He tells stories in a way that sounds casual yet somehow rote. And when he’s stumped by something, instead of shrugging or saying, “I dunno,” he replies stiffly, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.”

Then too, there’s just something about the way he looks. He’s clean-cut and handsome, yet unremarkably so. That is, until you notice the faint sparkle that shimmers about his plain brown sportcoat and neatly trimmed hair. It’s as though he’s the image of an ideal man, ever-so-slightly pixelated.

O’Brien and Harder: memories lost and gained. Photo: John Rudoff

And though he looks a half-century younger than Marjorie, he’s not just Walter, he’s her Walter, her late husband Walter. Or at least he’s learning to be.

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Broomstick’s rhyming ride

Vana O'Brien plays a crone with a tale to tell in Artists Rep's incantatory solo show "Broomstick"

You can build a poem, or even a play, on a rhyming couplet. Stretched somewhere between speaking and singing, it’s also something of an incantation. Keep it going for ninety minutes nonstop, as John Biguenet’s play Broomstick does, and it’s a downright spell.

Broomstick, which opened on Halloween at Artists Repertory Theatre and sweeps around the stage until close to Thanksgiving, is a solo play about a crone living in an herb-strewn cottage somewhere in the deep woods of the American South: a wrinkled, bent, and cackly figure, straddling the gap between Foxfire folklore and the Brothers Grimm.

Vana O'Brien's sweet old lady ...

Vana O’Brien’s sweet old lady …

Portland veteran Vana O’Brien stirs the pot as the witch in question, measuring vials of vengeance, cunning, wit, and memory into the cauldron, which bubbles over with the question: Is she, or isn’t she? An actual witch, that is. O’Brien, and Biguenet, never do say outright, although the answer, if there is one, depends in large part on the answer to yet another question: What’s a witch, anyway?

And the answer to that one spins through a web of collective memory, through fears of the supernatural and the merely eccentric, of castoffs and dabblers in earth-powers, of the line between cunning and off-her-bentwood-rocker: at what point does the different become dangerous?

O’Brien has great fun with this poison-apple granny of a role, holding the stage alone, inviting an invisible visitor to sit down for a cup of tea and a talk about old times. Biguenet’s script iambic-pentameters swiftly along, creating sly twists on Hansel and Gretel and other dark old tales: mere misunderstandings, O’Brien insists, little pots assuming the kettle’s black. Dressed in layers of exotic homespun, she assumes the classic storyteller’s role, spinning away gaily, stopping and starting, linking and forgetting, and gradually, gradually, dropping into dark places, which she then insists are not so dark, no, no, she’s only fooling, only playing a game. Still, we feel, something happened down in those dark places, even if it might not’ve played out exactly the way she says. What’s love got to do with it? Quite a lot, it seems. The words “lost” and “unrequited” suggest themselves.

... with a harrowing history ...

… with a harrowing history …

Artists Rep has poured most of its attention this fall into Cuba Libre, the big new musical playing at the Winningstad Theatre, and you might think Broomstick is the lighter end of the balancing stick, a simple little solo show that can be tossed onstage without a lot of muss or fuss. But one-actor shows are notoriously difficult to pull off, and a lot of care has gone into this one. O’Brien and director Gemma Whelan have worked hard to follow the rhythm and lilt of the language without letting it devolve into singsong, and to rise and fall with the natural flow of the tale. And the show’s a glory to look at, with Kristeen Willis Crosser’s towering, twig-and-vial-decorated set (Amy Katrina Bryan is props master), Gregory Pulver’s trance-like costumes, Ashley Hardy’s cronetastic hair and makeup design, K. Franklin Porter’s fiber art, and Carl Faber’s candle-wattage lighting design. Rodolfo Ortega’s sound design pelts and rattles subtly in the background, closing in on things and moving where the wild thoughts are.

Vengeance may be the lord’s, as the good book says, but cross a line in Broomstick and there’ll be hell to pay. Or O’Brien’s witch, the meter-out of harsh and deeply human judgment and justice. As Nina Simone so eloquently moaned, “I Put a Spell On You.” And, yes, that’s something like a hex.

... and a cutting edge. Photos: Owen Carey

… and a cutting edge. Photos: Owen Carey

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