Tag Archives: Artists Rep

Link: Peter Pan town, all grown up?

By Bob Hicks

Portland, a city at last? It’s just possible that Peter Pan is growing up.

storm_505t25xscLast weekend I saw three plays – the premiere of The Storm in the Barn at Oregon Children’s Theatre; Next to Normal at Artists Rep; and The Bridge, an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, at Cerimon House. The experience led to this post, What if we woke up and found we’re a city?, on Oregon Arts Watch.

In the post, I discover myself wandering amid “an unruly flowering of culture, often in surprising places.” An excerpt:

“It’s easy to poke fun at it, Portlandia-style. And in the not-so-grand Portland tradition it’s still being done on a broken shoestring. To be clear: Portland isn’t New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, despite a lot of hopeful hype. For one thing, those cities actually put their money where their mouths are. Plus, they’re simply bigger, and size does make a difference. Yet there’s little denying: In spite of ourselves, we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution. And the seeds are blowing all over the place.

“Simple fact: It’s impossible for any one person to keep up with all the theater happening in town. Can’t be done. That alone suggests the end of township and the beginning of city status: Cities are places that are too big to be known. In a real city, no matter how well you know it, you’re always also a stranger. And that can be exciting.”


Photo by Owen Carey: Jack Clevenger in “The Storm in the Barn”

Link: a little theater, cradle to grave

By Bob Hicks

Luisa Sermol and Ted Schulz in "Boleros." Photo: Russell YoungI’ve posted Teen to twilight: a theater weekend for the ages at Oregon Arts Watch. It recounts my adventures at the theater over the weekend, when I caught the Jason Robert Brown teen musical 13 at Staged! Musical Theatre, the theater-games comedy Circle Mirror Transformation at Artists Rep, and Jose Rivera’s memory-play Boleros for the Disenchanted at Miracle Theatre.

Somehow, the matter of age kept popping up: eventually it’ll be the death of us. Sound cheerful? Surprisingly, it sort of was. An excerpt:

“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

Link: Shooting stars on Portland stages

Jack Street, Vin Shamby and Chris Murray in "I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi." Photo: Owen Carey

By Bob Hicks

Over at Oregon Arts Watch I’ve posted Ready, aim, fire: on Portland stages, a shot in the dark. It’s an account of my weekend adventures viewing the premieres of Joseph Fisher’s (I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi at Artists Rep and Jason Wells’s The North Plan at Portland Center Stage, plus Allison Moore’s Collapse at Third Rail Rep. Guns were blazin’. Regimes were toppled. A sex addict helped save the day. I even managed to introduce the Victorian poet and critic John Addington Symonds into the mix. Well, why not?


Jake Street, Vin Shambry and Chris Murray in “(I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi.” Photo: Owen Carey

What’s old is new: Wm Shkspr in PDX

  • Portland Shakespeare Project’s Michael Mendelson talks about big casts, big dreams, and the allure of the classics

"The Weird Sisters," Henry Fuseli, 1783. Wikimedia Commons.

By Bob Hicks

Michael Mendelson is sitting at his regular table at Kornblatt’s Delicatessen in Northwest Portland, where he is greeted warmly by name and the waitress checks back on him more often than the line cooks slap classic corned beef and pastrami sandwiches on the busy kitchen’s window. Your regular, Michael? He smiles and nods. Soon his crisp bagel and mound of lox are at hand.

Michael Mendelson, artistic director of the new Portland Shakespeare Project, as Gayev in "The Cherry Orchard" at Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: OwenCarey/2011.After all these years in Portland as one of the city’s best and busiest actors, Mendelson is still an industrial Midwest big city boy in certain inalienable ways, including his appetite for honest-to-god deli food, which you can’t much get around here except at oases like Kornblatt’s and Kenny & Zuke’s. He also stands out in spite of himself for a certain reserved elegance that is common in the neighborhoods of older cities but almost an oddity in loosey goosey Portland. At times Mendelson carries the hint of an Old World gentleman, a man of quietly impeccable business affairs. Here he is, an actor, on his way to the rehearsal hall (he’s playing Gayev in Artists Rep’s current production of The Cherry Orchard), sitting in a deli wearing a tie and dress shirt, perfect-length cuffs buttoned and jacket slung carefully over the adjacent chair. Let other people keep Portland weird. Mendelson will keep it rooted, thank you very much.

Of late Mendelson has been devoting much of his time to a massive new project: the launching of the Portland Shakespeare Project, a summer company that will make its debut July 13-August 7 with the comedy As You Like It, featuring Darius Pierce as Touchstone, Cristi Miles as Rosalind, Melissa Whitney as Celia, and original music by the noted singer/songwriter Mary Kadderly. You might not have heard of PSP (Mendelson is founder and artistic director) but the city’s actors have. More than 175 sent head shots and resumes. Mendelson and staff saw more than 100 in initial audition, called back 42, and finally cast 16 for 21 roles.

Continue reading What’s old is new: Wm Shkspr in PDX

Link: killing cats in Inishmore

Artists Repertory Theatre playbill logo

By Bob Hicks

On Saturday night, Mr. Scatter put on his professional drama-critic hat (it’s a metaphorical hat; it was a blustery evening, so he actually wore a rain jacket with a hood) and went to Artists Repertory Theatre to see Martin McDonagh‘s nasty little comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He means that “nasty little comedy” bit in the nicest possible way: Inishmore is savage and bloody and brutal, and it’s true that more than one cat, in addition to several humans, who seem to deserve it more, comes to a violent end. But it’s also genuinely funny, in that nervous why-am-I-laughing-at-this way.

A brief review ran in Monday morning’s Oregonian, and you can read Mr. Scatter’s much more complete version online here at Oregon Live. He can imagine a more violently scary  production, and he can imagine a more broadly comic one, but he thinks Artists Rep director Jon Kretzu and his cast got the balance about right.

McDonagh is a transgressive writer, dealing in that unruly space between myth and reality: another of his plays, The Pillowman, is about what happens when a writer’s tales of fantasy mayhem seem to be playing themselves out in real life. Like a lot of male playwrights (David Mamet and Neil LaBute come to mind) he’s fascinated with the nature and character of aggression, and his plays can slice both ways, reveling in the stuff as they dissect it. That makes the audience … not complicit, exactly, but responsible for sorting out its own attitudes on the subject.

Then again, that’s a good deal of what theater, or literature, or any art form is about: the beginning of a conversation. In the aggressive male metaphor, the first shot. It’s not just a conversation. The artist sets the terms, and to a significant degree is in charge of the show. But a willing and perceptive audience completes the connection and sets off ripples of meaning, each meaning a little bit different for every individual involved in the encounter.

McDonagh is a terrific storyteller, and he has some fascinating things to say about aggression, which if he’s wary about he also frankly enjoys. He’s got swagger and a bit of a bad-boy reputation, as this year-old story by Foster Kamer in the Village Voice suggests. It relates, among other things, McDonagh’s obscenity-laced threat to beat up fellow Irish playwright Conor McPherson (whose play The Seafarer was a hit for Artists Rep last season) for a perceived insult.

Just so long as he leaves McPherson’s cat alone.

Tracy Letts, the ‘Superior’ actors’ writer

Bill Geisslinger and Vin Shambry in "Superior Donuts" at Artists Rep. Photo: Owen Carey.

By Bob Hicks

When you see the killer-good performances in Artists Repertory Theatre‘s current hit Superior Donuts, remember this: Tracy Letts is an actor. And when actors write plays, they write them with actors in mind.

Letts, the Steppenwolf Theatre stalwart who won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 family drama August: Osage County, has a long history with Artists Rep, which has also produced his plays Bug and Killer Joe and commissioned his adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. In each case, viewers argued about the literary quality of the scripts, but most everyone agreed they made for terrific performances.

Which brings up an interesting point: If a script creates juicy roles, doesn’t that mean it’s a good script? If it gives actors the opportunity to do the things actors do best, is that somehow different from literary quality? Or is performance its own thing?

Continue reading Tracy Letts, the ‘Superior’ actors’ writer

On beyond Twelfth Night: upstaged

"Malvolio and the Countess," 1859. Daniel Maclise (1806-1870), engraved by R. Staines. Wikimedia Commons.

By Bob Hicks

Yes, it’s over. Today is January 6, Epiphany, the day after Twelfth Night, traditional final day of the Christmas season, complete with twelve lords a-leaping and a partridge in a pear tree. Salute them in the rear view mirror, say a fond farewell, and let’s move on.

The diarist Samuel Pepys seemed more than ready to turn his attentions elsewhere on January 6, 1663, when he recorded this among other observations of the day: “So to my brother’s, where Creed and I and my wife dined with Tom, and after dinner to the Duke’s house, and there saw Twelfth Night acted well, though it be but a silly play, and not related at all to the name or day.”

Design by Rachel Ann Lindsay; Typography by Michael Buchino; Art direction by Francesca RestrepoPepys had notoriously little patience for Shakespeare and his fripperies. What might he have thought, then, of Constance Congdon’s adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, with David Margulies as the hypochondriacal Argan? We haven’t seen it (it opens next Friday, January 14, as Portland’s theater Second Season picks up speed) but the whispers blowing in from backstage are that it’s heavy on the flatulence jokes. Ah, the holy trinity of bodily-function comedy: Beavis and Butthead, South Park, Moliere.

Second Season gets off and running Friday night when Artists Repertory Theatre opens Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts. The cast includes Bill Geisslinger and Linda K. Alper, a couple of top-rank actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, which opens its new season in late February. And the crossovers continue. OSF opens its production of Letts’s biggest hit, August: Osage County, in April. And the festival opens its own version of The Imaginary Invalid — this one adapted by Oded Gross and director Tracy Young, with the excellent David Kelly as Argan — in February.

Continue reading On beyond Twelfth Night: upstaged

Scatter and yon: life in the old stories yet

Gavin Larsen is the wicked Carabosse and Javier Ubell her chief toady in the premiere of Christopher Stowell'sd "The Sleeping Beauty" at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

By Bob Hicks

Scatterers have been sowing their wild oats elsewhere lately, and old topics are coming up new again. A quick update:

Meanwhile, some old friends are knocking on the door again.

  • Susan Banyas‘s fascinating memory play The Hillsboro Story, about a little-known but extremely telling small-town skirmish in the 1950s vanguard of the war for civil rights, returns for a two-week run at Artists Rep beginning Wednesday. The play has been getting lots of attention since we first wrote about it in January of this year, when it debuted in Portland’s Fertile Ground new-works festival, and it looks to have a long life ahead of it — as well it should — in school tours.
  • VOX, Eric Hull’s fascinating “spoken-word chorus” of poetry rearranged as a sort of spoken music, with the language conceived as if it were written as four-part sheet music, returns to Waterbrook Studio for shows October 15-24. Mr. and Mrs. Scatter plan to be there one of those nights. This version is called Achilles’ Alibi, and includes works by, among others, William Butler Yeats, Robert Burns, William Stafford, Ursula K. Le Guin, Michele Glazer, and Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen. We wrote about a night with the VOXites back in April, in the post Poetry off the page, or, the fat lady sings.


Gavin Larsen is the wicked Carabosse and Javier Ubell her chief toady in the premiere of Christopher Stowell’s “The Sleeping Beauty” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

O brave new world that has such lobbies in it!

Alder Street lobby at Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: Jessica Gleason

Mr. Scatter has been inside more theaters over the years than Hamlet’s father’s ghost, and he is sometimes haunted by what he sees — not the plays so much as the spaces themselves.

Actors are a hardy lot. Give ’em a script and they’ll perform almost anywhere, from pond-side amphitheaters (Classic Greek Theater of Oregon) to 100-degree attics (the old Chateau l’Bamm) to the sidewalks of New York (buskers of all sorts, from break-dancers to sword-swallowers to mimes).

There are barns and basements and back rooms. Old churches, old schoolhouses, old movie houses (the fabled Storefront Theatre once moved up in the world into a gritty ex-porn theater, scrubbing away most of the grime and soiled dreams but never quite nuking the cockroaches). Even, now and again, buildings actually built as legit theaters. As often as not, actors and designers are fighting the houses they play in, trying to turn the unlikely into the inevitable. Whole theories of performance have flourished based on the absence or presence of sophisticated theatrical technology.

Sometimes spaces that audiences love are disasters behind the scenes. The 350-seat bandbox that was the Main Stage at the old Portland Civic Theatre unfurled the chorus lines of musical comedies almost into the crowds’ laps, creating an exhilarating closeness that concealed multitudinous booby traps backstage. Audiences loved the intimacy of the old Black Swan at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Actors who had to duck outdoors and race through the rain to make an entrance on the opposite side of the stage weren’t as thrilled.

The New Theatre, Ashland, arranged for "Macbeth" in 2002. Photo: David Cooper/Oregon Shakespeare FestivalA person develops favorites, spaces that somehow work for the kinds of theater presented in them. Spaces that have developed personality. Theaters need to be worked in, like a good pair of slippers. They need to develop their own memory-ghosts friendly and fearsome, and who is Mr. Scatter to deny the devout claims by some practitioners of the craft that a good theater must also have a resident cat?

Some Broadway and West End houses have all of that, although I’m guessing about the cat. The grandly old-fashioned Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, home to what in the West is called the Kirov Ballet, is shabby and imperial and somehow blissfully outside the dictates of time. In Ashland, the Angus Bowmer Theatre and the New Theatre, which replaced the Black Swan as the festival’s black-box space, are extraordinary theatrical machines that work for audiences and performers alike. The Stephen Joseph Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn’s home space in Scarborough, England, is the house that farce built (or maybe the house that built farce). At the Joyce Theatre in New York, all sorts of dance explode from the stage. San Francisco’s original Magic Theatre was more a verb than a noun. The original Empty Space in Seattle, a rickety third-floor walkup hard by the freeway, exuded adventure and discovery.

In Portland, I like the stripped-down intimacy of CoHo Theater, although I avoid the cramped back-row seats, which can crack your knees like they’re wishbones dried in the oven. I’m less fond than a lot of people of Portland Center Stage’s rehab of the old armory building — its industrial-chic public spaces seem a bit self-conscious to me, and I wonder how well they’ll wear — but I love how the building has become a genuine public gathering spot, inviting and important even beyond its main purpose of providing a space for shows. The Dolores Winningstad Theatre, when it’s used right (for budgetary reasons, it rarely is) can be terrific.

The grand interior of the Newmark Theatre. Photo: Portland Center for the Performing ArtsThe Newmark, the Winnie’s bigger sister at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, is sometimes slagged for the distance of its stage, the dryness of its sound, and the nosebleed pitch of its upper balcony. But it feels luxuriant, like a special place for a special occasion, and audiences love it. It re-creates the old-fashioned sense that a theater is someplace out of the ordinary — and that, I’ll argue, is a good thing for a city to preserve in at least a few of its performance spaces.

So imagine how Mr. and Mrs. Scatter felt, a week ago Friday, when they arrived at Artists Repertory Theatre for the opening-night performance of Holidazed, the seasonal comedy by Mark Acito and C.S. Whitcomb. We happened to enter through the Morrison Street lobby, which is a city block and a cascade of stairs above the Alder Street level, where the play was being performed.

The stairs are new. They tie together the two buildings that make up the Artists Rep complex, which sits on a hillside and includes two similar intimate performance spaces, both in three-quarter thrust configuration. The theaters’ size and shape — seating is on a sharp rake, so even the highest seats are close enough to the stage that you can see the sweat on the performers’ upper lips — create the company’s style, which is in-your-face intimacy, with an overlay of white-collar comfort.

Artists Rep has grown slowly and cautiously: It started as a loose actors’ collective in a little upstairs space at the downtown YWCA, and moved with baby steps once it switched its home to what’s now called the West End of downtown, on the west side of the I-405 freeway and within easy yodeling distance of downtown proper, the Pearl District, and old Northwest. Over many years and a few relatively quiet campaigns the company’s expanded and improved its holdings, buying its original space on Alder and adding the Portland Opera’s old headquarters above it on Morrison when the opera moved into its own building near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on the east bank of the Willamette River.

The second building expanded the company’s space to a remarkable 89,000 square feet — a huge amount of real estate for a company of Artists Rep’s size and budget. It allowed the construction of a second stage, which sometimes houses Artists Rep productions and sometimes is rented out to other companies. And it gave Artists Rep ample space to gather its scenic and costume shops and its office and rehearsal spaces in the same complex.

The new staircase at Artists Rep, designed by Opsis Architecture. Photo: Jessica GleasonBut the two buildings always felt like two buildings — until now. Walking through the buzz of the upstairs lobby and looking down the stairwell into the Alder Street lobby below was a startling and heart-leaping experience. All of a sudden, little Artists Rep seemed grown up. The new stairwell — designed by the Portland firm Opsis Architecture, which has been working with Artists Rep through several phases of its expansion — takes what was two things and fuses them into a single, lavishly flowing building.

The photos at top and right give a sense of the skeleton of the united building but not of the way it comes alive when the theaters are in use and two sets of audience are milling about, laughing and gazing and murmuring the way excited groups of people do. The new space (an elevator will be added when finances allow) shoots sound up and down the stairwell, which has the accelerating quality of white-water rapids on a mountain stream. The old cramped Alder lobby is now unfettered, expanded in space and imagination, linking in creative ways to the action in the Morrison lobby upstairs. Suddenly theatergoers are in a space not just to scrunch their shoulders together and wait, but a space where something’s happening.

That’s exciting. And that excitement is bound to have a spillover to the upstairs and downstairs stages themselves (which, in case you’re worried, are well-insulated against the racket in the common spaces). What strange and wonderful ghosts are waiting to be created here?


PHOTOS, from top:

  • Artists Rep’s new Alder Street lobby and stairwell to the Morrison Street level, designed by Opsis Architecture. Photo: Jessica Gleason.
  • The New Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, configured for a 2002 production of “Macbeth.” Photo: David Cooper.
  • Interior of the Newmark Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. Photo: PCPA.
  • Another view of the stairwell linking the two buildings of the Artists Rep complex. Photo: Jessica Gleason.
  • Saturday scatter: too little time, too much to do

    Josh Kornbuth brings a contemporary edge to Ben Franklin. Photo: Owen Carey

    Josh Kornbluth bringing a dash of deceptive comedy to Founding Father Ben Franklin in his solo show in Portland Center Stage’s basement. Photo: Owen Carey

    We have truly entered fall, and it’s not just the fireplace weather that tips me off. The sad truth is, suddenly Portland’s jumping with things to do, and Mr. and Mrs. Scatter just can’t jump high or fast enough.

    We’ll miss the great Mikhail Baryshnikov and dancing partner, Ana Laguna, and we feel very bad about that. Our friend and cohort Martha Ullman West filed this terrific review of the White Bird show in this morning’s Oregonian.

    Just last night we missed several one-time-only musical opportunities: the Portland Jazz Orchestra‘s Buddy Rich show; Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya; the promising-looking Paris Guitar Duo; Portland Vocal Consort‘s evening of Handel and Haydn.


    We did see monologuist Josh Kornbluth’s opening-night performance of Ben Franklin: Unplugged in the intimate basement space at Portland Center Stage, and given that you can’t see everything, it was a pretty good choice. Kornbluth and Ben will be playing the basement stage through Nov. 22, and I hope they get a good, packed run.

    Kornbluth seems a little bit like a more extroverted, less dyspeptic Wally Shawn. He plays the nebbish role to the hilt, borrowing freely from Borscht Belt comic history and the vein of intellectual New York Jewish-radical neorosis that Woody Allen mines so freely. Starting with comic traditions that have served entertainers as diverse as Mort Sahl, Buddy Hackett and Neil Simon so well, he transforms them into a seemingly free-flowing riff that eventually doubles back on itself and makes structural sense.

    To hear Kornbluth tell it, he became interested in old Ben when he looked into the mirror one day, inspected his receding hairline, and realized he’d come to look like the Founding Father. So why not do a show about him?

    Like a lot of successful one-person shows, Ben Franklin: Unplugged takes its audience on a dual journey: one into the psyche and obsessions of the performer himself, the second into the performer’s discoveries about his external subject — in this case, Ben.

    The link is fathers and sons: Kornbluth’s unresolved relationship with his own father, who died when Kornbluth was in college, and Franklin’s tortured relationship with his illegitimate but favored son William, who seemed the apple of his eye until the two took opposite sides on the issue of the Revolutionary War: the father the unrepentant radical, the son the extreme and sometimes ruthless loyalist.

    Along the way Kornbluth creates a marvelous supporting character in the aged, accidental scholar Claude and unearths little pieces of fascinating biography in search of “my own Ben Franklin.” The wry blend of famous-man biography and obscure-entertainer autobiography makes for an engaging evening.


    Other stuff to keep you eyes on:

    La Boheme. Tonight is the final performance of Portland Opera‘s lively, fresh and winning production of the Puccini favorite, which Art Scatter wrote about here.

    A Chorus Line. Musical-theater history at Stumptown Stages. How does this groundbreaking backstage show hold up after 34 years? Mr. Scatter will be there tonight to find out.

    The Trip to Bountiful. Profile Theatre kicks off its season of plays by Horton Foote, who died last spring just shy of his 93rd birthday and who is perhaps best-known for his superb screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Becky’s New Car. Steven Dietz’s comedy opened last week at Artists Rep, but I haven’t caught it. I like Dietz, though: He’s been turning out good, well-shaped plays for regional theaters for many years.

    A Country Doctor. Somehow Defunkt Theatre‘s season opener slipped past me. I don’t know this play — it’s an interpretation of the Kafka story — but it’s by Len Jenkin, another writer who’s always worth a shot.

    Jon Kimura Parker and the Oregon Symphony. Pianist Parker performs Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and the orchestra plays Bartok’s Divertimento for string and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1 in what could be a bell-ringer of a season-opening concert series Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Symphony violist Charles Noble, on his music blog Daily Observations, was enthusiastic about rehearsals.

    Haochen Zhang. This year’s Van Cliburn winner plays Ravel, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt and Mason Bates in a Portland Piano International performance at 4 p.m. Sunday in the Newmark.

    San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble. Don’t know this touring group, but the program of Latin American sacred music sounds intriguing. 7:30 Saturday at University of Portland‘s Buckley Center, 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Salem.

    Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. The Southwest troupe performs pop-savvy Twyla Tharp’s Sue’s Leg at a White Bird performance Wednesday in the Schnitz.