The first wave hits the theater beach

The new theater season gets off to a crackling start in the best of theatrical times

For a few years now, I’ve been arguing that this is the best of times for Portland theater. After a period of risk-averse programming, the city’s companies have come out of their collective shell and pushed themselves and their audiences a lot more. And the collection of talented theater people—both home-grown and transplanted—is unmatched here since I’ve been around and watching (which goes back to the 1979 season, I kid you not).

So that means the actual productions should be better, too, right? As a general proposition?

The fall season is a good time to check it out, and our reviewers have been out there, skeptical as they can be, taking the measure of the first set of openings. And yes, they are coming back happy, even when the play selection for the first production of the season tends to be conservative. One more observation: In this time of collapse for arts writing and reviewing, these reviews show us why having thoughtful critics give their considered descriptions of plays in accessible prose is so important. The focus they give and the connections they make to the world outside the stage pushed my thinking about the plays and the work done here.

Let’s take a look:

Bob Hicks did a great job of collecting and then summarizing the plays and their reviews in our weekly newsletter. To which you should subscribe immediately!

Middletown. Marty Hughley appreciates the odd structure and close-to-life realities of Will Eno’s sweet and witty meditation at Third Rail Rep on the profound and the mundane: “The energies that drive the play are linguistic and conceptual, rather than narrative or conventionally dramatic. Yet amid the low-wattage activity, Eno’s characters speak with such disarming, if often bemused, honesty that deep emotion shines through.”

Mary Patton as Deena Jones (NOT Diana Ross). Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

Mary Patton as Deena Jones (NOT Diana Ross). Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

Dreamgirls. Portland Center Stage pulls out the stops on the splashy musical about a black singing act that reaches for the brass ring of crossover success. As Bob Hicks reports, it’s a Dream Supreme.

La Cage aux Folles. A.L. Adams went to Pixie Dust Productions’ big-hearted drag musical and ran into the city’s legendary drag queen, Darcelle, who loved it so much she cried tears of joy. ““It doesn’t matter how old you are; it’s how you feel about each other,” she says, choking up. “And it’s also so true that (quoting a show lyric) we are what we are!” This undoes me, and now we’re both crying. Though this show preaches most directly to the LGBT chorus line, this mantra reminds us all to self-accept our many facets and present authentically to others, no matter what the reaction.”

Wait Until Dark. Hughley gets locked inside the tight little hothouse of the Shoebox Theatre and discovers a fine paranoia in Northwest Classical Theatre’s taut thriller about a blind and plucky heroine trapped in a basement with a killer on the loose. “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.”

Witchful thinking in Bag & Baggage's "The Crucible"

Witchful thinking in Bag & Baggage’s “The Crucible”/Casey Campbell

The Crucible. Speaking of paranoia, Brett Campbell discovers plenty of it in Arthur Miller’s Salem witch-trial drama, which just finished a sharp production at Bag&Baggage. “Murderous religious fanaticism, surveillance-induced fear and paranoia, anonymity rendered criminal, state authority trumping individual rights and truth, you’re either with us or with the terrorists … it’s all, as Palmer deduced, about fear, and it’s all there in 1953, 1692… and 2014.”

Good People. Hughley discovers a firm spine beneath the laughter in David Lindsay-Abaire’s nuanced comedy at Clackamas Rep. “Good People is about social class in America, certainly, but that subject serves more as frame than a theme, while Lindsay-Abaire provokes thoughts about ambition, identity, loyalty, charity, honesty, choice, responsibility and so on. And while he’s too good a writer to make anyone a paragon on any count, there’s no irony implied in the play’s title.”

Sans Merci. Adams takes in Johnna Adams’ emotion-shaker at Badass, which begins with subtlety and winds up with a gut-punch. “Jahnavi 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.”

Ayanna Berkshire and Chris Harder in "Intimate Apparel" at Artists Rep. © Owen Carey 2014

Ayanna Berkshire and Chris Harder in “Intimate Apparel” at Artists Rep. © Owen Carey 2014

Intimate Apparel. Lynn Nottage’s fine drama about race, love, and lingerie receives a lovely performance at Artists Rep, Hughley reports. “Whenever Esther speaks of how she makes her living, she always says that she makes “intimate apparel.” Never ‘underthings’ or ‘unmentionables’ or any other euphemism. It sounds like a phrase she’s been taught, part marketing, part claim to respectability. But it’s also a phrase that hints at some of the thematic fissures Nottage is delving into: between what’s concealed and what’s revealed; between surfaces and interiors; between apparent and true character; between, you might say, lures and prizes.”

Parade. Hughley goes to tech rehearsal to see the inner workings of Staged!’s excellent production of the Jason Robert Brown & Alfred Uhry musical based on an infamous murder case. ““Those guys are brilliant writers,” Paul Angelo, director of the Staged! production, says of Uhry and Brown. “There’s a vulnerability to these characters that’s right there in the music. The story is a tragedy — for Mary, for Leo, in a sense for that community. But in the midst of all that, there’s all this beauty. In a sense it’s a story of empowerment for Lucille, Leo’s wife, as she goes through this ordeal. In the middle of that shit field, you plant a rose.””

The Piano Lesson. Portland Playhouse has opened its sixth production in August Wilson’s ten-play cycle about African American life in the 20th century, and as Hicks reports, it’s the continuation of a very good thing. “The disagreement is about much more than a piano, of course, although Wilson’s choice of a musical instrument as a stand-in for African-American collective memory seems apt. The tale has similarities to the Biblical story of Esau, the hairy hunter who sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a mess of pottage: It seems foolish in hindsight, but Esau was a practical man, and he was famished, and on a purely physical level, buying a meal was the practical thing to do. These are the questions, it seems, that The Piano Lesson poses. How do African Americans (or anyone, for that matter) move forward without also holding onto their past? Without their shared culture, how can they know who they are? Of what use is the past? If we don’t use it, what have we lost? What tradeoffs are necessary or inevitable to move ahead?”

OK, there’s a new batch coming soon, a second wave. We suggest figuring out a way to catch that one, too. We’ll be providing the play-by-play.


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