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Theater: A crowd of singular sensations

By Bob Hicks
June 9, 2012
Featured, Theater

Things are getting crowded on Portland’s theater calendar. Expect a very big party Monday night at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, when pretty much every theater geek in town puts on the finery for the 33rd annual Drammy Awards, Portland’s freewheeling version of the Tonys. This year actor Todd Van Voris adds emceeing to his very busy schedule. It’s free (buy your own drinks) and the fun kicks off at 6 p.m. See you there.

Andy Lee-Hillstrom, "The Centering." Photo: Steve Patterson

Andy Lee-Hillstrom, "The Centering." Photo: Steve Patterson

But lately there’s also been a crowd of loneliness – or aloneness, that elemental brand of theater known as the one-person show. Even some “big” shows have been inching this way, such as Portland Center Stage’s sharp-elbowed and appealing look at race and American music, Black Pearl Sings!, an intense two-hander with an occasional third opening the door. In that show, the two principles, Lena Kaminsky and Chavez Ravine, have nowhere to hide – and that emotional bareness, plus Ravine’s killer singing voice, helps make the show fascinating.

A couple of theaters are going whole hog with the slimmed-down show. CoHo Productions has embarked on Solo Summer, a four-show series that’s begun with an extension of The Centering, Steve Patterson and Chris Harder’s surrealistic play about a clown and a political prisoner trying to escape into his own mind. And hard by the railroad tracks in the north stretches of the East Side, The Headwaters Theatre is in the midst of The 1 Festival, whose slogan is “A Festival of Many. A Theme of 1.” It’s nearly over, with a rush of shows today, and I’m very glad that last night I caught the final performance of Eric Hull’s smart and funny The Man With the Empty Room & How Small a Thought.

For people who believe, as I do, that the heart of theater beats in the spaces between the performers, solo shows present a conundrum: with only one performer, where’s the vital mystery in the middle? A good solo show – and both The Centering and Hull’s piece are good ones – neatly bypasses the problem by taking the magic space directly to the audience, which becomes the “other” performer in the play. It’s really not much different from a soliloquy in a Shakespeare play, in which the character isolates himself from the “reality” of the stage and takes his case directly to the audience.  And although a solo show can be extremely traditional, like William Luce’s Emily Dickinson bio The Belle of Amherst, it can also strip away theatrical expectations and be, within the limitations of its solo performer, pretty much anything it wants to be. The form has a liberating, experimental edge.

I arrived very late to the game with The Centering, a Portland phenomenon that began life in 2004 as a collaboration between playwright Patterson and actor Harder. I was aware of it from the beginning and wanted to see it at several stages of its development, but crossed schedules kept me away. So I can’t say how the performance I saw Thursday night, which Harder directed and Andy Lee-Hillstrom performed, differs from earlier incarnations in which Harder performed. But what I saw I liked very much. Lee-Hillstrom brings a beguiling innocence and softness, almost a femininity, that creates a jarring contrast to the emotional and sometimes physical horrors of the play.

In one sense The Centering is an example of the one-person show as bravura performance: the sort of show where you marvel at the dexterity of an actor jumping through theatrical hoops. But it’s also much more than that, because the writing itself is so good.

The Centering was developed in the harsh aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the swift rise of Homeland Security and its heavy hand. Patterson has a long history of exploring the ragged meeting-places of the personal and the political, and he does it brilliantly here, slowly unveiling a kind of domestic horror story about an innocent kid named Davey; his alter-ego circus clown; his mother and early girlfriend; his mentor, who happens to be an Arab clown; and the forces that have conspired to throw him into prison without even a hint of due process. Yet, as Marty Hughley remarks in his astute recent review for The Oregonian, “The Centering is a funny, charming, delightful show – especially for a play about a befuddled political prisoner being beaten and interrogated.” Couldn’t have said it better.

Actor/writer Eric Hull

Actor/writer Eric Hull

The Centering maintains a sharp and sophisticated theatrical structure. Eric Hull’s whimsical outing at The Headwaters is vastly more low-key and not nearly so overtly theatrical, but although it seems scattershot that’s deceptive: Its structure is smart and solid. It begins with a screening of writer-director Todd Korgan’s delightfully oddball and pensively piercing 2001 short film The Man With the Empty Room, in which Hull stars as a lonely fellow in a quaintly antiquated Kafkaesque city who decides to rent his spare room to an equally odd Jamie Tolbert. Shot in black and white, it’s laconic, downplayed, almost empty of action yet contrarily overflowing with a sweet sadness and awareness of shackled emotion.

Once the film’s done, Hull strolls onstage and begins an intimate conversation with the audience that hinges an observation by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life! … If you want to go down deep you do not need to travel far; indeed, you don’t have to leave your most immediate and familiar surroundings.”

Not exactly the stuff of theater, you might think. But then Hull proceeds, as a sort of wiser extension of his character in Korgan’s film, to make it exactly that as he quietly explores the implications of a universe of the small and closely observed. (In a key scene in The Man in the Empty Room, one that silently links the two halves of the Headwaters performance, Hull is sitting in a field, happily observing the grass through a magnifying glass.) With the startling lightness and grace that large men sometimes possess, he dances a solo tango. He writes on a chalkboard. He reads from a journal, then rips out the pages and blends them into open cans of paint. He observes, discusses, compares. He makes wry jokes that meet at the corner of melancholy and happiness. Finally, in a zenlike and unhurried sweep, he paints, swirl after liberating swirl, obliterating and revealing the surface at once. Satisfying stuff, whatever you want to call it. Just look, and let it be.

The final outings of The 1 Festival:

  • Choreographer Luciana Proano’s Chaski, 5 p.m. today, Saturday, June 9.
  • Mark Hayes, Waegook Express, 7 p.m. Saturday, June 9.
  • Contemporary Performance 3, with Aura Fischbeck, Emily Gregory & Alex Ramirez, and the entrancing performance duo WOBBLY (not a solo act, but they speak as one), 9 p.m. Saturday.

CoHo’s Solo Summer schedule

  • The Centering, through June 17.
  • Mormon Redneck Thespian: How to Overcome a Life of Drugs, Abuse, and Being a Redneck, written and performed by Cory Huff. Opening will be short performances by Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, who direct Huff in Mormon Redneck and whose Portland Story Theatre is a hotbed of solo performance. June 21-24.
  • You Belong to Me, by Steven Wolfson, performed by Elizabeth Huffman, June 28-July 1.
  • Irregardless, written and performed by Stacey Hallal, July 5-14.



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