Teen to twilight: a theater weekend for the ages

"13" and feeling it, on the chorus line. Photo: Staged! Musical Theatre

A funny thing happened on the way to the theater over the weekend. I couldn’t figure out what age I was in.

I don’t mean age as in Paleozoic or Golden or Romantic. I mean age as in 13 or 35 or 64.

The theater isn’t as audience-straitjacketed as television, which jumps through marketing hoops in which one 24-year-old viewer is worth two 48-year-olds or twelve 72-year-olds, but it does have its chronological categories – or silos, if you prefer. Theatrically speaking, small-r romance is delivered obsessively or nostalgically, depending on the target audience, and beyond the occasional no-neck monster down Big Daddy way, children pretty much don’t exist.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my weekend of theatergoing reflected a culture in which, against every effort of the demographic packaging machine, various age groups actually meet and mingle. Or at least, think about what it might be like to be somewhere else along the timeline of life.

In 13, Jason Robert Brown’s bright and quirky all-teen musical at Staged! Musical Theatre, the mingling is mostly in absentia: a bunch of kids are trying to figure out who they are and what it means to be reaching toward adulthood. It’s not Lord of the Flies – to varying degrees the kids have a sense of what being civilized means, and are pretty focused on growing up – but the kids are also largely cut off from much adult help or hindrance in the process.

At first and maybe even second glance, 13 is purely a teen musical, a logical successor to Grease and Hairspray and Fame. Like those three, it’s appealing partly for its look at genuine teenage uncertainty and partly for its musical and pop-cultural nostalgia. You can enter this show in a number of ways, one of which is, “I’m a kid and I feel what you’re going through,” another of which is, “Oh, yeah, I remember that!”

The show’s book, by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, is light but not vapid, touching down on cliques and outcasts and budding hormones and the pressure to be popular and gabby old uncle Polonius’s standby, being true to yourself. Evan Goldman (Daniel Martin), a not-quite-13-year-old Jewish kid from New York City, the coolest city on the planet, finds his world overturned when his parents divorce and he suddenly moves with his mom to the fictional town of Appleton, Indiana, “the lamest place in the world.”

Plus, his bar mitzvah’s coming up, and he knows no one. His life might be over!

You don’t expect a show like this, with its all-teen cast (and its mostly-teen band, several from the Portland School of Rock) to be professionally polished, but director Paul Angelo and musical director Andrew Bray, drawing from some of the best young talent across the city, have given 13 a surprising sheen. The kids provide a terrific jolt of energy and some heard-earned precision, some of which surely derives from the sharp work of choreographer Erin Shannon.

And while the singing ranges from adequate to very good, it’s uniformly believable: the actors know how to sell the emotional underpinnings to Brown’s smooth songs. His score is bright, witty, pop-savvy, neatly balanced between Top 40 radio and Broadway tradition, with a lot of three-minute payoffs and immediate hooks. It’s throwback pop – no hiphop here – and basically happy, a score that smoothly surfs the seam between generations.

A few standouts from the cast: Martin as Evan, the gefilte fish out of water who’s trying to swim with the Indiana catfish; Annabel Cantor as his oddball sidekick and possible soulmate Patrice; Evan Shely as Archie, the kid on crutches who plays his predicament for laughs instead of tears; vocally gutsy Olivia Klugman as scheming bad girl/cheerleader Lucy; Hogan Fritz as Brett, the cool but dim quarterback; Caroline Haroldson as Kendra, the prettiest girl in school.

You’ve seen variations on all of these characters before, but 13 mixes them up with a smart blend of earnestness and humor, and the cast here makes it all work. I walked out of the theater glad I’d seen the show and encouraged for the future of the city’s theater scene. That’s a pretty good payoff. (One question, though. Has anyone anywhere ever thought of making the jock and the cheerleader the complex leading characters instead of the dim-bulb butts of the joke? Or is this sort of show all about the revenge of the nerds?)

Staged! is performing 13 at The Sanctuary @ Sandy Plaza, producer Don Horn’s new hangout on close-in Northeast Sandy Boulevard, a handy location close to most parts of town and in a developing performance district: Oregon Children’s Theatre has moved its offices and studios just up the street, and Hipbone Studio is a clavicle and a couple of vertebrae away.

13 may be a stock teen comedy, but it’s also very much about growing up: after all, a bar mitzvah marks a boy’s passage into manhood. Jose Rivera’s Boleros for the Disenchanted, at Miracle Theatre, picks up chronologically a little after 13 ends and breaks the age barriers right down the spine. It hurtles its characters directly into the romance and perils of youth and then pushes them on to the regrets and consolations of old age, leaving all of the muddled middle areas implied. The kid in 13 might think his life’s over. For old Flora and Eusebio in Boleros, it almost is.

Luisa Sermol and Ted Schulz in "Boleros." Photo: Russell Young

Rivera is the author of such stage hits as Marisol and References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot and screenwriter of the Oscar-nominated The Motorcycle Diaries and the upcoming film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. With 2008’s Boleros he’s created a delicate, almost brittle memory piece – in its first act, of life in poor small-town Puerto Rico in the early 1950s; in its second act, which takes place four decades later, of the attenuated American immigrant dream and the difficulties of enduring when one’s cultural roots have been sliced through. The play is partly Rivera’s fictional tribute to his own mother, and although it has the linguistic fruitiness of magical realism that’s not really what it is: its only nod to magical realism, a purported visitation by a soothsaying angel, is played for laughs.

It’s unusual to write a play in which the main characters age 40 years between acts, and not everyone has thought the structure works: Boleros has divided critics and audiences alike. I rather like it, because I think Rivera tips his hand to the future in the first act and implies the past in the second: If the audience pays attention it understands a good deal of what’s left unsaid about those middle years. The play has some brawling, funny, and even scary moments ­– it covers some big territory, from the corrosive effects of machismo to the alternately quiet and angry desperation of immigrant life – yet it’s also, almost in a Chekhovian sense, a play of suggestion. It has political undercurrents, surely, or at least a deep awareness of large cultural shifts. But it’s mainly about how those shifts impact the private lives of ordinary people, and how, sometimes, extraordinary ordinary people endure and marginally succeed.

When we meet Flora in director Antonio Sonera’s sweetly calibrated production she’s a pretty young woman (Kylie Clarke Johnson) engaged to the wrong guy (CarlosAlexis Cruz, whose shining moment is his comically disingenuous defense of sexual straying as simple biological inevitability: “Do you ask a tiger not to stalk the antelope?”). When a gentler man in uniform (Logan Loughmiller) slowly courts her,  Flora believes her happiness is secured.

Forty years later we see what’s become of them, and although their latter-day life  has its moments its not an entirely pretty sight: stuck in a small apartment in Alabama, Flora taking care of everything (with a little help from God) and her husband Eusebio bed-bound, his legs lopped off from a losing battle with diabetes. It’s here, in the fierce and crackling interplay between veteran actors Luisa Sermol and Ted Schulz (who play Flora’s parents in the first act), that Miracle’s Boleros truly shines. It’s a cat-clawing, resigned, bedeviled, betraying, tortuous knot of a marriage that Sermol and Schulz reveal to be also somehow deeply affectionate and enduring – a reality, in its way, more astonishing than the romantic fantasy of their youth. They love, they hate, they are. This is life, and sure it’s bad. But isn’t it also so much better than it might have been?

All six actors (Nicole Accuardi brightly plays young Flora’s flirtatious cousin in the first act and, in the second, an eager young bride) get to take a crack at the conundrum of time: how can the young imagine the foreign territory of old age; how can so much have slipped away from the old? Watching Sermol rise to a passion, or Schulz live large from the tiny terrain of his bed, you understand that age is a trickster and a mystery, and that good acting can give us glimpses of its depths.

Good acting and the vagaries of age also make their mark on director Allen Nause’s production of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation at Artists Rep, an odd but affecting little backstage comedy in which a motley crew ranging from 16 to maybe 60 gathers in a small-town creative drama class and tries to create a cohesive group from a wildly divergent set of experiences. Marty Hughley and Arts Watch ubermeister Barry Johnson have already written perceptively about the show, here and here.

The temptation to dip into the comically ridiculous with this script must be strong. Baker’s theater games call to mind the hilarious parody of est therapy in Semi-Tough, and Morales’s lament from A Chorus Line: “I dug right down to the bottom of my soul/ And cried… /’Cause I felt nothing.” Yet thanks to a brilliant final scene and some sensitive acting and directing, it comes across mostly as sweet and touching.

Again, age has something to do with it. At the play’s, and the acting group’s, fulcrum is Theresa (Val Landrum), the sensual and available 35-year-old who is too old to be young and too young to be old. She’s flanked by 16-year-old Lauren (Danielle Purdy), 48-year-old Shultz (Jason Glick), and the older couple of James (Richard Elmore) and Marty, who leads the class (Beth Harper). To all of them, and without particularly trying to be, Theresa is like honey to flies. Each views her from a vantage determined partly by age. And once they all get their feet unstuck, their lives have changed.

Another thing about age and experience: it’s good to see Elmore, the excellent Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran, and Harper, a fine actress who doesn’t perform often because she’s busy running Portland Actors Conservatory, get a chance to work together and create some of the chemistry that makes Sermol and Schulz such a good team in Boleros. Since the Ashland festival cut its producing ties to Portland Center Stage many years ago the sort of exchange between the two theater towns that should be frequent and routine hasn’t happened much, and when it has, it’s been largely because Nause, Artists Rep’s producing artistic director and a festival actor from decades ago, has invited some of his old friends up to play. His ties to the Ashland old guard have brought the likes of Linda Alper, Bill Geisslinger and Denis Arndt to the Artists Rep stage, as well as onetime Ashland actor William Hurt, and the cross-fertilization has been mostly terrific. Hurt’s a loner, in his own category. For the rest, it’s been a pleasure to see how well they’ve knit themselves into their shows, becoming integral parts of the same fabric.

Nause has reached a certain age, and will retire next year. How Artists Rep replaces him could be the most important question the city’s theater scene will face in the next several years. The Ashland connection is just one small part of that, although it’s significant: without Nause’s presence, will the north-south pipeline run dry?

Age matters. And doesn’t time fly when we’re having fun?

Beth Harper, Val Landrum (center) and Richard Elmore in "Circle Mirror." Photo: Owen Carey

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