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Preview: Portland Mercury: Theater

Portland Mercury: Theater & Performance

Portland's Most Awesome Weekly Newspaper. Covering Portland news, politics, music, food & drink, comedy, cannabis, film, and arts; plus the most extensive movie times, club calendars, and blogs.

Published: Fri, 15 Dec 2017 00:00:01 -0800

Last Build Date: Fri, 15 Dec 2017 20:15:00 -0800

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“A Dash of Glitter” with Your 401(k)

Wed, 13 Dec 2017 04:00:00 -0800

Portand’s Lillian Karabaic Makes Personal Finance Delightful by Megan Burbank With preachy, unrealistic directives about quitting avocado toast to magically solve all your money problems, the personal finance industry has a well-earned reputation for being dry and irrelevant to people living on all but the biggest budgets. Enter Portland’s Lillian Karabaic. You probably know her as the founder of Pedalpalooza’s now-departed Bowie vs. Prince ride, but Karabaic also hosts a friendly, approachable personal finance podcast, Oh My Dollar! on XRAY.FM, that demystifies money to make it less scary, and comes “with a dash of glitter.” Karabaic’s also dispensing financial wisdom in a forthcoming workbook, Get Your Money Together: Your Purr-fect Finance Workbook, that was successfully funded through Kickstarter at the end of November. Ahead of the book’s printing, Karabaic shared her best practices on everything from the controversial latté factor, to saving, to combining cats with personal finance. On why personal finance needs “a dash of glitter”: “So many people I know are in this situation where they don’t even look at their checking account. They’re just afraid to look at it. The terror of opening it is so big that they put it off and put it off, and it literally never gets better if you’re completely passive with it. So finding a way to make it really accessible—with cats, spandex, and all the things I think are irresistible to a lot of folks in my peer group—is just an attempt to make it a little easier for everyone.” On where traditional personal finance falls short: “I worked in nonprofits, I never made particularly amazing money, and I was so frustrated looking out there for personal finance advice. There seemed to be this really large gap. There’s a fair amount of self-sufficiency budgeting stuff out there that’s focused on people who are trying to get off SNAP or welfare programs like TANIF... and then there’s a lot of stuff that’s focused on what is obviously profitable for financial advisors and financial planners—which are people working in tech, folks that are very financially stable. And then there’s a huge middle sector which almost all my friends fit into... there’s this huge gap in the middle of folks that just aren’t being addressed in the current market, and those are my friends, those are my coworkers. That’s why I started doing this. Because I just couldn’t find anything out there.” On learning how to budget: “My first piece of advice is to start tracking and budgeting your expenses. I mention budgeting every week on the show because I think it’s so important, and I also think people have a really false idea about what budgeting is. This is simply finding a way to keep track of your money that works for you. It doesn’t necessarily mean spreadsheets, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re living on the margins. A lot of people think if you’re on a budget that means you can never have any fun. But it’s the first step to actually having an idea about what’s leaving your hands.” On how to budget if you’re allergic to spreadsheets: “One of the things I recommend to people if they’re going to have a lot of trouble tracking things in granularity is consider the envelope method. [T]hat’s essentially where all your discretionary expenses—everything that doesn’t automatically come out of your account, like rent—are paid for in cash. You withdraw the cash either at the beginning of the week or month, then you literally divide it up into envelopes based on how much you’re going to spend in each category. Once the money runs out in the envelope, you either don’t do that thing anymore, or you have to take money from another envelope.” On the latté factor, the much bandied-about idea that all of one’s financial woes can be solved by no longer buying a daily latté: “The lower your income, the more likely you won’t be helped by [...]

This Christmas, John Waters Wants Riots

Wed, 29 Nov 2017 04:00:00 -0800

The Pope of Trash discusses his favorite holiday. by Ciara Dolan When teenage degenerate Dawn Davenport awakens on Christmas morning to discover her parents didn’t buy her the cha-cha heels she wanted, total anarchy ensues: She cusses them out, stomps on their presents, and knocks the Christmas tree onto her mother, who pleads, “Please, Dawn! Not on Christmas!” That’s how John Waters’ 1974 cult classic Female Trouble begins. Despite the Davenport family’s miserable Christmas, it’s actually Waters’ favorite holiday. He loves it so much that every yuletide season, he tours the country with his hysterical one-man show, A John Waters Christmas. Though beloved for writing and directing campy films like the trailblazing Pink Flamingos (1972) and the more commercially successful Hairspray (1988), Waters has also written six books, most recently Make Trouble, based on his 2015 commencement address at Rhode Island School of Design. “Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before. Is there a better job description than that to aspire to?” he advised that year’s graduating class. “Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully.” John Waters’ work has fucked up our world beautifully, and now he’s coming to fuck up Christmas. I spoke to the pencil-mustachioed Pope of Trash earlier this month, as he was putting the finishing touches on A John Waters Christmas. Prepare for unfiltered musings on dangerous children’s toys, gay reindeer, and “political abuse” whistles. PORTLAND MERCURY: Just a little over a month ’til Christmas, how are you faring? JOHN WATERS: Oh my god. Well, I’ve already written all the upgrades for the show. I haven’t learned them yet, so I’m gonna start doing that Thursday. Of course, you need rewrites, because stuff happens every day now for months... but I’m prepared—I will be. So you’re prepared for your show, but do you feel like you’re prepared for the holiday itself? Well, I come home the day after my tour ends, which is 19 shows in 18 cities in 21 days, and then I have a party for 200 people, and then it’s Christmas Eve, so I go somewhere, then I go [on] Christmas to my family, and then it’s over! [On tour] I see real people that are having Christmas, where I’m having an imitation of Christmas. So it’s bizarre. That’s the only time it seems strange to me. But I still have to buy presents and [send] Christmas cards. I’m signing them now—I send out 2,000, and they’re all hand-signed. Why do you love Christmas so much? It’s extreme. You can be offended! I mean, if you say to some people, “Merry Christmas,” they might say, “Well excuse me, I don’t believe in the virgin birth,” which is a fair thing to answer. That’s why I like the Satanic Temple, you know... [They erect] satanic nativity scenes in state capitols [next to] Christian ones, which I think is hilarious—photographs of children looking confused at each one. I think that’s a healthy debate for a child. We had a John Waters camp this year, and in it they made satanic Christmas decorations and bracelets and stuff. All done with humor, you know. I saw the [Church of Satan] when they had the real one in San Francisco, with Anton LaVey, and it was so hokey that even Jayne Mansfield got tired of it. I thought it was funny, because people would be outraged by it, when it was so obviously a scam. But I have a doll, an Anton LaVey doll, that someone gave me recently. I think they found it at a thrift shop. It was a good find. Do you ever experience post-Christmas letdown? I’m exhausted from it. It’s like making a movie, the Christmas tour—there’s an end in sight. I couldn’t tour like that—I feel sorry for rock and roll bands that have to do that year-round. But I don’t do it in a van. I’m first class on airplanes and a car picks me up, and you know, as long as I can sleep in the hotel when I get there, I’m fine. Because I’m n[...]

Now Entering Psychic Utopia

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 04:00:00 -0800

Hand2Mouth Has Devised a Generous, Subtly Funny Play About Cults by Megan Burbank

“Did I miss something?” a man asked me as I walked out of Hand2Mouth’s Psychic Utopia at New Expressive Works. Whatever the reason for his disruption—genuine confusion? ill-advised flirting?—it cut into the static reverie the play had left me in. My tolerance for male bullshit, though it’s always been low, has of late plummeted to zero, and it’s not often that a performance makes me unequivocally happy and momentarily chilled out.

Had he missed something? Obviously he had.

“Yes,” I said, and walked away.

Before that strange man killed my vibe, I’d been completely wrapped up in Psychic Utopia, which mines Oregon’s history of intentional communities and out ’n’ out cults—we are, after all, the home of Rajneeshpuram—but is less interested in the macabre dealings of Manson family horror than the stories of real people who gave up their lives, their families, and in some cases, their sense of autonomy, to join these experiments in group living. The play is a fictive composite drawn from real-life accounts, depicted with deep nuance, subtle humor, and zero judgment by a skilled ensemble of actors that contains no weak links. Throughout, there is a permeating sense of existential anxiety, of dual longings for community and meaning within secular culture. The material is relatable and vast, but it’s made accessible through light audience interaction, as a sense of trust builds between the viewers and the actors. You also get a warm towel upon entering the performance space, which smells like a spa, so if you don’t walk out happy about that at the very least, I can’t help you!

THAT SAID, while I have a high threshold for woo-woo exercises, up to and including sustained eye contact with strangers (it’s really not that bad!), if you get squirmy about anything resembling participatory theater, Psychic Utopia may not be the play for you. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Because despite what all manner of needlessly facile and needlessly opaque productions would imply, theater, like therapy, should make you work a little, but not too much. Psychic Utopia hits the sweet spot between two loathsome extremes—it’s generous without being dumb, and complex without being forbidding. It’s a delicate balance Hand2Mouth manages more reliably than any other theater company in Portland, and once you’ve seen it, it’s a joyful experience when you find it again.

So, yes, there are some participatory moments that might feel awkward in this play. But the effort will be worth it. If you want to have the most interesting time possible, go along with them, or risk missing the point altogether.

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Rotating Repertory Makes Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Work Sing

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 04:00:00 -0800

The latest in Profile Theatre’s season dedicated to the playwright is its most ambitious production yet. by Megan Burbank

Rotating repertory—when a theater puts on two different plays on an alternating schedule—is no joke, and Profile Theatre’s latest approach, pairing Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last, is commendably ambitious—actors are double-cast in both plays, and there’s even a dual-purpose set.

Last February, Profile introduced us to Hudes’ Puerto Rican military family in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, and their story continues in these final two installments of her play cycle. Anthony Lam reprises his role as the bubbly, boyish Elliot, a marine who’s returned from Iraq and is now seeking television work. Crystal Ann Muñoz is a new addition to the cast as Yaz, Elliot’s disciplined music professor cousin. Their incongruous dynamic is one of Hudes’ most delightful inventions, and it’s most effective in Water by the Spoonful.

If you can only make it to one play, it should be that one. It’s a Pulitzer winner and a surprisingly touching, tightly focused piece that both fleshes out Elliot’s earlier story and stands on its own. It also stars Julana Torres, one of those actors who can bring warmth and humanity to even the most complex, unlikable characters. Here she’s Odessa, a recovering drug addict who’s been clean for years and now works a menial job and moderates an online forum for fellow addicts. Hudes takes her time with Odessa, positioning her forum participants’ lives as a foil to the main storyline about Elliot and Yaz until both cohere in a way that’s both heartbreaking and narratively satisfying.


Meanwhile, The Happiest Song Plays Last is easily the weakest link in the trilogy. While its predecessors were precisely focused, this play takes on the Arab Spring, healthcare activism, Hollywood, and the Iraq War—it’s just too much paint. It also introduces new characters who never seem quite believable—there’s Shar (Dre Slaman), an Egyptian American actress whose dialogue consists of little aside from dubiously emotive monologues and raving about bath salts, and Ali (Wasim No’Mani), an Iraqi film advisor who basically becomes a human vessel for Elliot’s guilt about the war.

A romantic plot in Yaz’s story is also unconvincing—she decides to enlist her much older neighbor, Agustin, to get her pregnant. While played admirably by Jimmy Garcia (the way he sings “vocal cords” will BREAK YOU), neither this relationship nor the one that all too predictably develops between Elliot and Shar is convincing, especially not when contrasted with the chemistry between Muñoz and Lam. It forms the heart of Profile’s dual production—theatrical evidence that sometimes the closest, most lasting ties are platonic.

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David Kinder

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PICA Brings Steve Doughton’s Rarely Seen Video Work Back to Portland

Wed, 01 Nov 2017 04:00:00 -0700

Holding onto an era in crisis with DELTA (and Aphex Twin). by Robert Ham

Steve Doughton’s 1997 film DELTA isn’t an easy thing to exhibit. It requires a healthy expanse of blank wall, six laserdisc players and projectors, and a multi-channel soundsystem pumping out a mixture of dialogue, ambient noise, and music from British electronic producer Aphex Twin. That’s why many of the people who helped put the film together when it was shot in Portland have never laid eyes on it.

“It’s been 20 years since I’ve even seen it,” Doughton says. “Not that I watch my films very often, but I wondered if I’d ever get a chance to see the film again.”

For eight weeks starting this Saturday, he and anyone else who dares will finally get a chance to enjoy DELTA in its original form as part of an exhibition at the enormous Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) space on Northeast Hancock.

Originally commissioned for and screened at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York in 1997, the film is an immersive, almost overwhelming collage of color and ideas shot on Super 8 and 16mm and screened to approximate the shape of an airplane (a play on the piece’s title). The core of DELTA concerns the strange life of a young man named Doug who goes to a rave and stages mock surgeries in his living room while his parents are away. Doughton surrounds that center with an array of other characters and images that remain disconnected until a fateful climax when everything culminates into one unforgettable final scene.

Key to bringing this film back into the world is Kristan Kennedy, PICA’s visual art curator. The former New Yorker and longtime champion of Doughton’s work came upon a rough bit of footage from the time DELTA was screened in ’97, and instantly knew she had to bring it to Portland. She’s pairing it with Doomtown, an exhibition of work from artists who were Doughton’s friends and contemporaries, including David Markey and David Wojnarowicz.

“It brings together all of these things in my mind that are both complicated and beautiful about being an artist in the Pacific Northwest and New York,” says Kennedy. “It came out of an underground community that was making work and testing things, while also living in extremely challenging times with the AIDS crisis and all this angst and fear. It feels important right now to hold onto that epoch and witness it again.”

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Nous, On Va Danser Breaks Through the Boys’ Club of Dance

Wed, 25 Oct 2017 04:00:00 -0700

Portland Choreographer Nancy Ellis Takes on Aging and Gender by Megan Burbank When I sit down with Portland dancer and choreographer Nancy Ellis, I already know we have something in common. Though we’ve never met before, we went to the same small women’s college in western Massachusetts 16 years apart, and the first thing we talk about over coffee at Heart on East Burnside is our ballet classes. “I take at BodyVox and the Portland Ballet,” says Ellis. “There’s this core group of people who come all the time, and it’s a really nice community to be part of, because they’re all older women, mostly, and I just feel like older women are where it’s at. I have the most to learn from them. I like the community of it and it does... speak to the work that I’m making.” Ellis’ new dance performance, Nous, On Va Danser, opens this weekend at New Expressive Works on Southeast Belmont. She’s also back in school finishing prerequisites for a physical therapy program—she’s just come from a biology quiz—and she’s a single mom. She’s in the midst of a transitional phase of life for a dancer; after graduating from Smith College, she spent her 20s as a working dancer in New York, balancing a “survival job” in arts fundraising and marketing with performances and rehearsals, but found that her lifestyle didn’t jibe with starting a family. {{image:1}} “I’m dancing, I’m performing, and I’m traveling... and I’m sharing a room with another woman who’s married to someone thousands of miles away” is how she describes the life of an itinerant young dancer. As she got older, says Ellis, “I had less tolerance for the bullshit—like the pay and the hours and the schlepping. I just remember the last year—I had a miscarriage days before I performed for two or three weeks on concrete in the Brooklyn Lyceum.” If you’re wondering, dancing on concrete is exactly as bad for you as it sounds, but it “became a theme” that Ellis was often tasked with performing on concrete. In winter. In New York. “If I were 20 it might not have bothered me so much,” she says. “But at that point I was probably in my mid-30s... I’d just had a miscarriage and [had] to be, like, okay, the show must go on—and I had no idea then that you could actually not perform.” So when her then-husband had to move to Portland for his career, she went with him. She got another fundraising job, this time with dance company White Bird. She had a baby. “But then I wasn’t dancing,” she says. She wouldn’t start performing again until she debuted Nancy’s NANCY, an autobiographical dance piece of her own devising that incorporates elements of theater, and that Ellis has performed at Portland’s Risk/Reward Festival and On the Boards in Seattle. It’s a charming, tragicomic performance in which Ellis recounts her history as a dancer and a person—including the dancing on concrete anecdote. In Ellis’ latest performance, Nancy’s NANCY will be paired with Mid-Me, an exploration of middle age, and Nous, On Va Danser, a new piece that’s strictly movement-based, and examines the ways that art can be an act of resistance amid setbacks both personal (Ellis’ marriage recently ended) and global (Ellis cites journalists’ responses to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris as one source of recent solace). In finally crafting her work, Ellis found herself in the unique position of having grant money of her own for the first time, after raising funds for other artists for much of her career. This newfound financial support allowed her to seize another comparatively rare opportunity: “I realized that I was only working with women—my lighting designer, the woman who’s doing the video editing... the photographer, the marketing person,” she says. She ran with it, even going so far as to on[...]

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Halloween Theater! Spooky! Scary!

Wed, 25 Oct 2017 04:00:00 -0700

Nesting: Vacancy makes for a frightening binge-watch. by Suzette Smith Nesting: Vacancy gets the allure of the binge-watch. When I stepped into the Shoebox Theater last Saturday to catch episodes one and two of the new serialized production, I joined an audience packed with people electing to see the show’s entire four-episode arc in a single stretch (not a bad choice for a day with 100 percent projected precipitation). Seats were saved. Seats were taken. A couple obviously on a date had to sit diagonally from one another! There’s a lot going right in Nesting: Vacancy. For the size of the space—and the relative physical agility required to get into some of the corner riser seats—the play really works the Shoebox. The stage design is creepy as hell: a web of wooden boards fixed at eerie angles meant to suggest the rotten planks of an abandoned house. The planks are an homage to the first season of Nesting, when the stage was piled with cardboard moving boxes. I didn’t see the first Nesting season, which debuted in March 2016, so a lot of crossover between the two productions is guesswork—but I did talk to the show’s co-producer, Natalie Heikkinen, to make sure I was getting my themes right. Heikkenen and writer/director/co-producer Joel Patrick Durham have ensured that Vacancy, along with being a heart-pumping thriller, stands on its own as a story—even as it incorporates motifs (and actors) from its first season. There’s a helpful synopsis on the Nesting website which I recommend reading before... at least the third episode. Near the end of the second episode, a blue-framed photograph of three strangers mysteriously appears, and it relates directly to the first season—which had a bad roommate meets Lynchian Mulholland Drive vibe to it. From there, knowing what happened in the first season strikes me as something of a necessity, as shit really hits the creepy hell basement in episodes three and four. Also note that this season of Nesting: Vacancy needs to be seen in order. I can’t imagine the wild fight scenes and dance numbers in the third episode making any sense unless you’ve seen the first two. If the phrase “wild fight scenes and dance numbers” didn’t tip you off, I’ll say it plainly: All the performers in Vacancy are dazzling. The Shoebox’s intimate setting allows for up close, television-style performances (probably adding to the binge-watch feel). Isabella Buckner—who plays a runaway named Sylvia—delivers some impressive small, graceful movements that wouldn’t be visible on a larger stage. Check how she closes a door. It’s so sad! Supporting characters like the annoying, but deeply likable neighbors Judy and Steven (Hannah Edelson and David Bellis-Squires) threaten to steal the spotlight until Ryan (Ty Cozier)—the woman everyone is not-so-secretly in love with—yanks it back. Then younger runaway Cameron (Jacob Camp) loses himself in a fit of anger, and we’re right back to being flippin’ terrified in our pants. I initially felt conflicted, wondering whether some moments when Sylvia and Cameron flash back to their childhood selves were too overstated, but I’ve decided that what’s important is that they’re reading as children, quickly and fluidly, with the only other clue being a subtle lighting change. That’s pretty impressive, and the time-jumps never lost me. As the play unfolds, we wonder if they and their friend Ryan are really being haunted by a spirit, or if they’re actually fighting demons of past episodes. [ Comment on this story ] [ Subscribe to the comments on this story ] [...]

UPRISE Fuses Politics with Choreography

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 04:00:00 -0700

In an uncertain world, rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater keeps moving forward. by April MacKay

Have you ever lit a match and then watched the flame? Like, really watched it? No matter which way you turn the match, or where you hold it, what you do to it, the flame keeps reaching upwards. When presented with the theme of their upcoming performance, UPRISE, the choreographers of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater chose the same focus—to keep looking upward.

Committing to moving forward and seeking change can be difficult in a world where violence and oppression weigh heavily on our hearts and minds—it’s easy to get trapped in hopelessness or anger. But under the artistic direction of Oluyinka Akinjiola, this company chooses to look in another direction. Heavy topics are approached onstage, from the civil rights movement, to Black Lives Matter, to last spring’s hate crime on the MAX.

“We’re not going to shy away from tough issues,” says dancer and choreographer Jamie Minkus. “We find ways to keep momentum, recognizing what we do individually and in our community to be realistic about our past and continue forward.”

By understanding and sensing the motion of the human body, the dancers have fine-tuned their awareness to produce movements that speak clearly on these topics. Characters and attitudes are vivid—shown not only through pantomime but also a strong progression of shapes and sultry, soulful interludes. There are many traditional and contemporary influences from African dance forms, some hip-hop stylings, and stepping—which, if you’re not familiar with it, is a form of percussive dance and sound creation in which a dancer employs their whole body. It’s not just like creating a drum out of the body—it’s like making a synthesizer (complete with light show). Step has roots in historically Black colleges and fraternities and sororities as a community building ritual. Choreographer Michael Galen expertly weaves stepping into his work to build a sense of community between his characters (and they look really awesome doing it).

The multiracial ensemble has gathered their voices and experiences to craft an evening that is perfectly balanced between entertainment and introspection. Once the stage lights rise up, I’m sure you will be left inspired and hopeful.

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At Shaking the Tree, Anti-Fascist Theater Is Relevant Again

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 04:00:00 -0700

It’s alive and well in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Megan Burbank I wasn’t particularly psyched for Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Shaking the Tree. But as usual, Samantha van der Merwe’s set design and directorial work produced a singularly weird vision that—amazingly—made me forget the runtime (it’s three hours long), with assists from a capable ensemble of actors, a story that raises questions of justice and communal property, and a script that makes SO MUCH FUN of heartless rich people. Brecht based his play on the Chinese story of a peasant woman who rescues a rich couple’s child when they abandon him. Transferred to Georgia (the country, not the state), Brecht’s version centers on a kitchen maid, Grusha (Samie Pfeifer), who saves the child of wealthy parents when they forget him on their way out of town, on the run from an SS-like group called the Ironshirts. Also, the entire first scene is a framing device about a land dispute, and Grusha’s story is essentially a metaphor for how property should be distributed fairly, a message conveyed through an almost-fantastical world of poverty, destructive social conventions, and corrupt government officials. In this sense, it’s very close to the world we live in. {{image:1}} Still with me? Maybe not, and that’s fine! Brecht is a hard sell, and even the play knows it—during an extended bit of physical comedy in a protracted courtroom sequence, ensemble member Heath Koerschgen admonishes his fellow actors for wasting time: “Holy shit! You know this is a three-hour play.... It’s like a thesis project.” It’s a self-referential moment that had already been borne out by my fellow audience members: There were six newly empty seats after intermission. The college students sitting next to me were audibly bored. Those still in the bathroom line at 7:29 had been curtly informed of the play’s “strict 7:30 start time.” The audience’s mood was one of people who’d been expecting an evening of leisure and instead found themselves conscripted into a grad school poetics lecture. But the difference between studying Brecht and seeing Brecht is huge. I’ve attended that poetics lecture; it left me generally wary. I’ve always viewed Brecht as the outer limit of theater, a figure of forbidding complexity beloved by only the most pretentious among us. But The Caucasian Chalk Circle isn’t dry, nor is it performatively, gratingly opaque. It’s accessible, with good-natured, occasionally unhinged humor and a clear, simple underlying sense of morality—sometimes, people with bad intentions do the right thing, even if it’s by accident. No character embodies this very human duality better than Azdak (Clifton Holznagel), the corrupt, drunken judge who makes absurd rulings, wheels around his courtroom sitting on a law book, and yet plays a pivotal role in the play’s unexpectedly cheerful conclusion. Though some of the singing goes too long (yes, there is singing), and the utility of the play’s framing sequence was lost on me, I left oddly refreshed. It probably seems sad that antifascist theater feels so relevant again, and it is. At the same time, Brecht’s complex morals—that even bad people stumble on goodness sometimes, if only out of stupidity; that good parenting and material wealth are two different things; that we have a responsibility to our communities to use land appropriately and wisely—conveyed a funny, clear-eyed optimism that I was grateful to have witnessed, and that made me think more about the current world than the one onstage, which was, you know, Brecht’s intention. If you’re up for The Caucasian Chalk Circle, you’ll be rewarded for sticking it out. But get th[...]

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Don’t Get Caught

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 04:00:00 -0700

Artists Rep’s new play has a super dumb Secret. by Suzette Smith

Caught, the performance piece/play/mindfuck currently running at Artists Repertory Theatre, is a little better if you don’t know its secrets. So if you’re planning to see it regardless of this review, don’t read any further. I was asked not to spoil it, but ma’m, I aim to.

Caught starts out strongly enough by breaking Artists Repertory Theatre’s usual boundaries, combining the exhibition space of the Geezer Gallery in the lobby with half the Morrison Stage, which has been transformed into a continuation of the gallery show. At the entrance, there’s a confrontational living statue—an actor dressed as Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, bobbing his hand like a lucky cat figurine. The visage of Mao recurs throughout the installation, culminating in a peg board where people dutifully push little United States flags into Mao’s portrait. It’s a curious scene to witness, as a predominantly white theatergoing audience pushes little American flags into a foreign dictator’s face—like a Stanford Prison Experiment for cultural sensitivity. They encouraged us in our worst behavior and we followed without resistance.


Playwright Christopher Chen wrote Caught to exist first as a visual art exhibition, then as a performance piece, then as a play, and finally as a lie that the audience is asked to perpetuate. My main problem with Caught is not the fake story we were asked to propagate—that the performance was a talk by dissident artist Lin Bo—but that the whole affair is tedious and patronizing. Having watched two hours of bad Chinese accents (intentionally, I have no doubt) and bad portrayals of New Yorker journalists (intentional, I have no doubt) I was unsure of what the play was saying other than, “Are you stupid enough to continue this chain letter-style lie-fest?”

Inspired by the factual controversy surrounding Mike Daisey’s 2012 monologue piece The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Caught seeks to shame its audience into being more wary of believing what they’re told. It then asks them to unlearn that lesson and lie to their friends about the performance now that they are—wink, wink—in on the conspiracy. There was nothing in Caught to hold onto other than dishonesty, suspicion, and the sighs of the elderly man sitting next to me. For me, the last straw was the play’s final line, which, at curtain call, informs everyone that Caught was inspired by phrases smuggled from an imprisoned Chinese dissident named Yu Rong before he died. That’s a lie, of course. It’s all a lie.

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Don’t Walk Out of An Octoroon

Wed, 20 Sep 2017 04:00:00 -0700

Or you’ll miss the unsettling brilliance of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. by Megan Burbank

If you’re not familiar with the content of Artists Repertory Theatre’s An Octoroon, the spare set and opening monologue may have you convinced you’re in for a staid solo show. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

While at times a necessarily difficult performance to watch—it’s about slavery, and the racist history of theater, and drunk white playwrights stereotyping Native Americans, and some of the most racist shit you’ll see anywhere—An Octoroon is unfailingly smart and full of deceptive humor that doesn’t seem like it should work at all, but it does. Just when you think you’ve got a read on what the play is trying to do, it punches you in the face with an image you can’t unsee. There are moments from the performance I attended that were still burnt into my memory days later, which is how you know playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins succeeded in his aim of addressing the potential connection between “the illusion of suffering versus actual suffering.”


That’s a lofty goal, carried out here in a self-aware world where Jacobs-Jenkins’ stage proxy (Joseph Gibson), a struggling African-American playwright, attempts to produce a version of Dion Boucicoult’s real-life play The Octoroon, which premiered in 1859 and whose central conflict stems from one character being secretly part-Black—one-eighth, hence the title. Jacobs-Jenkins’ script lampoons this source material with a game cast, who populate what the show notes actually specify must be “an empty, unfortunate-looking theatre & the plantation Terrebonne in Louisiana” with absurd, upsetting pronouncements and melodrama for the play’s duration.

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The absurdity is just as important as the seriousness, and in fact, the play’s combination of humor with images from one of America’s most hateful chapters in history is what gives it its unsettling power. It’s hard not to stay engaged, even at moments when wanting to walk out might be understandable. (There were two walkouts at the show I attended.) But I got attached to Jenkins’ characters—even the truly awful ones, which of course is only possible thanks to the layers of artifice and self-aware humor in the actors’ portrayals of even the worst people.

Addressing race in theater—an art form too often dominated by white people in both its creation and its consumption—is an important task in any political moment, and this is one of the best treatments of it I’ve seen in recent memory. Fair warning: An Octoroon contains no shortage of offending images—there is actual blackface, and an extremely racist portrayal of a Native American—but it does so in a way that always feels urgent and appropriately mocking of racists themselves, and that feeds into a larger goal of shedding light on what suffering looks like, and how and why we cause it. And besides, if you go to the theater to feel comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.

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