Tag Archives: Artists Repertory Theatre

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

Long night’s journey into day

Robyn Nevin, Luke Mullins, Todd Van Voris and William Hurt in "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Photo: Brett Boardman

By Bob Hicks

It was a long, long night, and by daylight its shadows were still playing tricks.

Saturday night’s opening of the eagerly anticipated Long Day’s Journey Into Night was more than a social event, although it was that. The Newmark Theatre was packed to its two-balcony gills. A post-show spread of food and drink sprawled out over two levels of lobby. The chatter was more clamorous than at a free-for-brawl with Alvin and the Chipmunks, and first-nighters arrived resplendent in a liberal smattering of dress-up Hawaiian shirts (Mr. Scatter’s attire), leopard-skin party dresses, silk jackets and loose-neck ties, even though the temperature was in the high 90s — or, by Puddletown standards, dangerously close to the hubs of Hell.

It was also one of those moments of coalescence when a particular piece of art mattered, whether individual people happened to “like” it or not. One way or another, people were thinking, and arguing, about it — some of them, I imagine, into the wee hours of the morning, when they may or may not have been wearing off a Tyrone-size hangover.

Continue reading Long night’s journey into day

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll darn near die

What's holding things up? Jamey Hampton in "BloodyVox." Photo: Michael Shay, Polara Studios

By Bob Hicks

Actors have a parlor trick they like to pull out to amaze and amuse their non-thespian friends. I’m not sure if it has an accepted given name, but I sometimes call it the “laugh-cry game.” It’s simple, really: They cover their faces, start making an odd guttural sound, and challenge you to tell whether they’re laughing or crying. In terms of technique, both actions come out of the same place.

It’s fitting that the art of acting is so often depicted with drawings of the tragic and comic masks, because the comic and tragic are so often barely a whisker’s width separated from each other. Tragedy gets the respect. Comedy gets the love, if often reluctantly. But really, the balance is a lot closer. Remember, Chekhov insisted his mournful plays were comedies.

Robyn Nevin and William Hurt in "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Photo: Brett BoardmanI think of this because the big deal in Puddletown this weekend is Saturday night’s opening of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill‘s imperial American classic, at Artists Repertory Theatre. This production has Serious written all over it. A co-production with Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, it stars occasional Oregonian William Hurt as the destructive Tyrone family patriarch, and it drew sparkling reviews in its recently closed Sydney run. I look forward to it not just because it arrives with stellar recommendations but also because O’Neill was in a very real sense the father of American theater, our first true genius. That he was such a morose son of a bitch was the luck of the draw. France got Moliere, the satiric comedian. England got Shakespeare, the astonishing Everyman. We got Old Bleak House, and few writers have ever done bleak better: O’Neill paints loss in despairingly seductive strokes of love.

Good laughs are nothing to sniff at.

Continue reading You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll darn near die

Long Day’s Journey: It’s boffo in Sydney

The coolest thing about the boffo reviews for the new Australian production of Long Day’s Journey into Night is that it gives Mr. Scatter the chance to type the word “boffo.”

Photo Credit: Jez Smith  The cast of Long Day's Journey Into Night pictured from left: William Hurt, Todd Van Voris, Robyn Nevin, Luke Mullins. Boffo. There it is. He loves that word. It makes him feel so, so … Variety-ish. As in, “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” (improved to the more rat-a-tat “Stix Nix Hix Pix” in the 1942 movie musical Yankee Doodle Dandy.) Please hand Mr. Scatter his wide-brimmed hat with the “Press” card sticking out from the band. He’ll spring for drinks, giggles and gossip at the Cocoanut Grove if you’ll bring him the lowdown for his next juicy Hollywoodland scoop. Wait: Is that Gloria Swanson in the next booth?

In brief: Sydney Theatre Company‘s production of Eugene O’Neill’s harrowing masterpiece has been knocking ’em dead Down Under, as critic John McCallum writes in The Australian. Starring William Hurt, Robyn Nevin, Luke Mullins and Portlander Todd Van Voris, it’s a co-production with Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre. It continues in Sydney through Aug. 1, then comes stateside for its run at Artists Rep Aug. 13-29.

Praising the cast across the board, McCallum calls it “a stunning, absorbing production, full of emotional complexity.” Here’s what he has to say about Van Voris, who plays the sozzled son Jamie:

“Van Voris’s Jamie, rotund and strutting self-confidently at first, has degenerated into an alcoholic wreck by the time he returns at the end from the bars and whorehouses to which he has tried to escape. In a powerful long scene he drunkenly reveals something of his scary true nature. But here too, as well as the hate and selfishness, we can see the love underneath, a love that he has been so assiduously trying to drown in whisky for so long.”

Of more than passing interest: Artists Rep will follow up on Long Day’s Journey with a new production of the rarely revived Ah, Wilderness!, a warmly nostalgic play that’s the closest O’Neill ever came to writing a flat-out comedy. It’ll run Sept. 7-Oct. 10.

Boffo. Boffo. Boffo.

Mr. Scatter just can’t help himself.


PICTURED: The cast of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” from left: William Hurt, Todd Van Voris, Robyn Nevin, Luke Mullins. Photo: Jez Smith

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.
  • Hair today, gone tomorrow: Ugly on the face of it


    When I was not quite 19 and in fall term of my sophomore year in college I returned home for Thanksgiving dinner, bringing a housemate with me. I’d been growing a beard since beginning of term, two months before.

    At dinner (and beforehand, while bustling over the Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes in the kitchen) my mother kept staring at me oddly, as if something strange was going on and it just wasn’t quite computing. Finally I asked her what was wrong.

    “You have a smudge on the side of your face,” she said.

    She wasn’t kidding. I was crushed. So much for my hirsute abilities — and I heard that line repeated, with guffaws, for the rest of the school year from my turncoat housemate.

    At last Monday’s Drammy Awards I ran into actor Todd Van Voris, who’d been playing Andrey Prozorov, the henpecked brother, in Tracy Letts’ adaptation of Three Sisters at Artists Repertory Theatre, and was sporting a suitably Chekhovian growth.

    “How long until you get to shave?” I asked him.

    “One more week!” he replied enthusiastically.

    Then he added that it never fails: In the dead of winter he’s cast as someone clean-shaven and maybe even bald-pated; once the weather turns warm he’s cast as someone with facial hair in full sprout.

    Apparently he can do full sprout.

    In the movies, of course, you don’t have to grow ’em, although of course you can if you want. If you don’t, makeup will cheerfully slap a facial growth on you. That’s why I liked this post (the photo montage above is just a sneak peek) from The Daily Beast, of the worst movie facial-hair moments. You could adapt this to country-western singers and male perfume and underwear models, too — those guys who have the perfect two-day stubbles around their gorgeously dimpled chins no matter what. John Travolta is a double winner (or double loser) in the Daily Beast sweepstakes, but I’m quite fond of the Jack Black growth, too.

    P.S.: I’ve been wearing a beard for most of the past 40 years. Every now and again someone looks at me and says, “When did you start growing a beard?” I refer them to my mother.

    Bing bong bang: Here comes the weekend

    It’s almost here, and whatcha gonna do? Weekend planning’s SO much more complicated than it used to be, partly because in Portland there are so many more choices than there used to be. So here are a few of many, many possible suggestions:


    Portland Taiko. Copyright Rich Iwasaki/2008PORTLAND TAIKO’S “A TO Z”: That’s not A to Z, the negociant-style Oregon wine blenders. It’s A to Z, Ann to Zack. Portland Taiko‘s first big concert of the year will be a drum-banging stroll down memory lane with Ann Ishimuru and Zack Semke, back for a reunion gig with the company they founded 15 years ago. The repertory for these two shows, at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday in the Fir Acres Theatre at Lewis & Clark College, will be drawn from the troupe’s first decade. Big drums, sweet violin, a rousing, joyful noise. Come join the fun.

    Bias alert: I’m a member of Portland Taiko’s board. Then again, if I didn’t really like what this company does, I wouldn’t be on its board.


    Aurora Chorus“WELL-BEHAVED WOMEN RARELY MAKE HISTORY”: But in Portland, rowdy women make very good music. In two shows Saturday, 4 and 8 p.m. at St. Mary’s Academy Theater, the 100-plus-voice Aurora Chorus will raise the roof with a program celebrating “women in history who boldly colored outside the lines and didn’t care what was written into their permanent records.” Among those ceiling-busters are locals including Portland police chief Rosie Sizer, artist Lillian Pitt, and Gennie Nelson, founder of Sisters of the Road.

    The Aurora Chorus is led by Joan Szymko, who’s been misbehaving her own historical path in Portland and Seattle for many years, creating a rambunctiously engaged musical career that’s also seen her lead the Seattle Women’s Ensemble and the women’s chamber ensemble Viriditas, and act as musical director for the irreverent acrobatic and aerial theater artists of Do Jump! Extremely Physical Theatre. Through a quarter-century or so Szymko has also been a serious and talented choral composer (she has more than 50 octavos in publication), and this spring the American Choral Directors Association chose her as composer for next year’s Raymond W. Brock Commission, a task that’s gone in the past to the likes of Daniel Pinkham, Gian Carlo Menotti, Gwyneth Walker and David Conte. Excellent, if possibly ill-behaved, company.


    TRIPLE-THREAT TICKETS: You’ve got your Third Angle. You’ve got your Third Rail Rep. And you’ve got your Three Sisters. Somewhere in there lies an exceedingly un-square root. Let’s take ’em one at a time:

    Third Angle New Music Ensemble with Jennifer Higdon: As I type I’m listening to a recording that Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger gave me of Philadelphia composer and double Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon‘s Celestial Hymns and Zaka, and I’m liking it a WHOLE lot.

    higdon_pcard_webIt’s jangly, insouciant, nervous, brash yet somehow introspective music. It’s thoroughly American. And it’s accessible, which in this case means not dumbed down but smart and extroverted — speaking, like Gershwin and Copland and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and many others, in a voice that would actually like to be heard by an intelligent general audience. Makes me think of Bartok crossed with Charles Lloyd, maybe because of the clarinet and flute.

    What’s more, from everything I’ve heard and read, Higdon’s a delightful person, exactly the sort of public ambassador that contemporary classical music (I know; that sounds like an oxymoron. Can you think of a better way to say it?) needs. This concert, with Higdon on hand and Third Angle playing music by her and some of her talented former composition students, is at 7:30 p.m. Friday in The Old Church. Should be a barn-burner.

    Fabuloso at Third Rail Rep: I caught this last Saturday on its opening weekend, and it’s an odd little duck of a play, with just the right quack to put its appeal over. John Kolvenbach‘s closely cropped comedy is about two couples — one staid and settled; the other impossibly improvisational — who somehow wind up sharing a one-bedroom apartment. It’s about growing up but not giving in, and maybe even about deciding to have children, and in spite of its extremities it’s a sweet domestic little waterfowl when you get down to it.

    Fine performances by Third Rail regulars Stephanie Gaslin, Philip Cuomo and Valerie Stevens, and a true bell-ringer of exuberantly controlled excess by Tim True. Tim gets the juicy parts, but there’s not a touch of self-indulgence in what he does: The show would fall flat if he didn’t stay in tune with the other three instead of winging off into the wilderness on his own. Once again from Third Rail and director Slayden Scott Yarbrough, a model of ensemble theater. Things start almost itchy-slow, but that’s part of the geography of the play, which soon enough goes bang-bang-bang. It’s worth catching, and you have through May 31 to do it.

    Three Sisters at Artists Rep: In one corner, Anton Chekhov, subtle and masterful progenitor of contemporary drama. In the other corner, Tracy Letts, brash Steppenwolf rabble-rouser and Tony- and Pulitzer-winning author of August: Osage County.

    How does Letts handle Chekhov in this world-premiere translation? “This Three Sisters starts as a drama about quiet desolation, then takes the quiet behind the barn and shoots it,” Aaron Mesh writes in Willamette Week.

    Not sure what that means, but it sure makes me want to see the show and find out. It keeps brawling through June 14 at Artists Rep.


    THE HUNCHBACK OF MANTUA: Better known as Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi‘s operatic potboiler from 1851 that’s fabled for the nefarious duke’s lilting La Donna e Mobile, which everyone knows and comparatively few realize comes from Rigoletto. (Nor do most people know it’s one of the most flippantly sexist pop tunes ever written, but then, that’s the duke: What a guy. If you’re sensitive, it’s best not to understand Italian — or to read the supertitles.)

    Portland Opera‘s current production, which ends with performances Thursday and Saturday evenings at Keller Auditorium, is straightforward and traditional and, despite a problem here and there, a welcome affirmation of what a gorgeous score Verdi wrote. Good, solid drama, too: The three hours muscle their way through with no flabbiness. In theater and opera, if you’ve got a hump or a limp or a big nose you tend not to get happy endings. Think Quasimodo, Rigoletto, Cyrano, Richard III. Well, there is Tiny Tim. But he can’t sing, and Rigoletto can. Huge difference.

    I caught last Friday’s opening night performance and fell in love, once again, with the score. David Stabler’s positive-with-reservations review in The Oregonian seemed spot-on.  Two more chances to soak in that glorious sound.


    Late scatter: All hail the Devil and Rudolph Valentino

    Tobias Andersen, Bill Geisslinger, Todd Van Voris, The Seafarer

    What with arts politics and scratchy throat and other everyday interruptions I’ve avoided actually writing about any art since talking about Portland Opera’s The Turn of the Screw and the finale of the Fertile Ground new-plays festival a couple of weeks ago.

    But I don’t want Artists Repertory Theatre‘s brilliant version of The Seafarer and Opera Theater Oregon‘s campy but gorgeous Camille/La Traviata to get any farther in the rear view mirror without picking up my virtual pen. Both shows have ended their runs, which turns this into something more of an afterglow than what’s sometimes known in the biz as a “money review.”

    Still, darned near everything in The Seafarer was pretty much right on the money, beginning with Irishman Conor McPherson‘s multiply layered script and extending to Allen Nause’s precise yet lively direction of one of the best ensemble casts you’re likely to see in a long while.

    McPherson broke on the scene in 1999 with The Weir, when he was still in his late 20s, and although he’s become a leading voice in contemporary theater he’s something of a classicist: The Seafarer, which was first produced in 2006, is an old-fashioned play in a lot of good ways.
    It revels in language (the way McPherson lobs curses is much funnier and, dare I say, humanitarian than the way Mamet usually does). It’s a “well-made play,” a form that’s fallen out of fashion but has historical staying power. It plays with checks and balances and dramatic weight, encouraging you to shift your view now and again about who the “central” character in this cosmic-showdown drama really is. It’s — hold your breath here — entertaining, a basic value that all too often gets lost in the name of cultural relevance and Art.

    Continue reading Late scatter: All hail the Devil and Rudolph Valentino