Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: Keeping PETE’s ‘I’m in Control’ under control

Director Isabel McTighe and creator/star Elsa Dougherty make sure nothing bad will ever happen. Plus: Portland Revels' "Emerald Odyssey," openings, last chances.

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Lined up at the dumpster in PETE's "I'm in Control Which Means Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen To Me." Photo: Nina Johnson
Lined up at the dumpster in PETE’s “I’m in Control Which Means Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen To Me.” Photo: Nina Johnson

On a warm, damp December evening, Isabel McTighe and Elsa Dougherty are gathered in a sparse, white, overly bright room in the Alberta Abbey, picking away at the details of a new show called I’m In Control Which Means Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen To Me. McTighe, the director, kneels on the floor, in front of a laptop that plays a cool, spare rhythm bed. Dougherty stands at a microphone a couple of yards away, and recites odd, dreamlike, fragmentary stories. 

“I don’t know how to say this, but … I keep having this image of you as a kite – a literal human kite,” one of the stories begins. It sounds like some sort of allusion to connection and separation, perhaps symbolizing two lovers drifting apart. 

Then, suddenly, Dougherty is acting out a conversation with a cigarette-puffing child who dispenses advice in the raspy voice of an outer-borough tough as the two of them sit inside a dumpster. Other moments seem like recurring episodes from a dream about a bizarre spelling bee.

McTighe interrupts periodically to clarify the intent of specific moments, or suggest a movement that will underline some psychological or relationship dynamic. However elliptical the material (and/or the order in which they’re going over it), the two collaborators have an obvious shared shorthand; an interjection such as “This moment feels like the coffeeshop moment” requires no explanation.

Soon a handful of musicians trickle in and the affair turns into a rock band rehearsal, with Dougherty making suggestions about dynamics, drum patterns and so forth, sometimes leaping in excitement when they hit upon the effect she wants.

Creator and performer Elsa Dougherty. Photo: Nina Johnson

Neither the fine-grained textual work nor the tinkering with musical arrangements is adequate prep for when they start to run the show from the top. The band is tight and forceful, but Dougherty lets loose with roaring, wailing energy that can pin you to the wall. The vibe isn’t one of art-school musing, after all but, rather, a punk club mix of confrontation and come-on.

I’m in Control… plays this weekend at CoHo Theater as the second installation of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s PETE Presents. “She’s 110 percent all the time when she’s onstage and that makes her a compelling performer as well as someone terrific to work with,” PETE co-founder Jacob Coleman says of Dougherty. “She’s a person whose vision I believe in, and someone I think more people should be seeing. I’m a huge fan.” 

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PETE Presents exists partly as a platform for work by artists who’ve gone through the Institute for Contemporary Performance, PETE’s 10-month training program in the tools and concepts of today’s avant-garde. Dougherty and McTighe both attended ICP, although in different years, but really have been in the PETE pipeline for a while.

McTighe became a PETE fan while still in high school, having encountered members through a summer program by the arts nonprofit Isinglass, and chose to attend Lewis & Clark College partly because PETE co-founder Rebecca Lingafelter teaches there. Dougherty also attended Lewis & Clark, and in addition to ICP, she and McTighe trained together in a devised-theater workshop at New York’s SITI. 

I’m In Control…has emerged out of various writings by Dougherty and a longtime interest she and McTighe have had in working together.

“I don’t consider myself a playwright,” Dougherty says during a rehearsal break, adding that part of the show’s creation process has been figuring out what bits of her writing fit theatrical presentation or not.

“There is a story threaded throughout, but it doesn’t feel narrative,” McTighe says. “It feels kind of like we’ve been making an album. We had some ideas we were interested in exploring and just kind of moved from there.”

Adds Dougherty, “The very early draft was album-ish, but we’ve tried to make it all one long song.”

Performer Elsa Dougherty (front right) with the band. Photo: Nina Johnson
Performer Elsa Dougherty (front right) with the band. Photo: Nina Johnson

In a stab at categorization, the PETE website calls the show “an alt-rock expressionist concert-play.”

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Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

“She’s singing for about 80 percent of the show,” Coleman comments. “One of her interests in performance is in playing everything really high stakes, so there’s this sustained intensity to it. She has so much energy going out in the first two thirds of the piece that that carries you along on this journey. You get this sense of this person desperately trying to hold onto things. And in the trajectory of the show, that ultimately explodes. She falls apart, and that becomes the story: How do you pick yourself up and keep going?”

When Dougherty and McTighe put together an earlier, shorter version for CoHo Productions’ “Nightlife” series, Coleman was part of a tiny audience in attendance.

“That series was mostly set up for video streaming,” he recalls. “So there was all this equipment in the center of the house and just a few of us squeezed in on the side. Then there’s this full band and Elsa’s pouring it all out on stage, and I just thought, ‘If this were a full house, everyone would just be screaming.’
We think it’s going to be a really electric night of theater for people to see.”

Opening

Portland Revels is a communal affair in many ways. Chorus member Olivia Leap snapped this photo during a rehearsal break of fellow chorus members Kyra Hazilla-Dean, Hannah Rose Rice, AG Angevine and Eden Francis working away in their knitting circle.

“It’s a stormy evening in Kinvarra when an out-of-town stranger walks into the middle of the Móirín’s pub and interrupts the community’s celebration of the Winter Solstice. Móirín decides that with enough Irish singing, dancing, story-telling, and perhaps a Mummers Play, they can make their new friend Irish by the time the sun rises on the shortest day.”

Hmmm. At St. Patrick’s Day, all it takes to be declared Irish is to drink some green beer, but perhaps the naturalization requirements stiffen in cold weather.

In any case, that Celtification process described above is the loose narrative framework for Emerald Odyssey, this year’s version of the annual Midwinter Revels, presented by Portland Revels. A celebration of folkloric ritual and communal warmth, the Revels are a beloved, decades-old tradition in town, made even more welcoming this time around by the casting of the delightful Mikki Lipsey as that friendly publican, Móirín.

Weekender

Shalanda Sims’ World Stage Theatre, in Southeast Portland, brightens the season with an ensemble-devised show called Christmas Songs, Stories & Such, consisting of music, sketch comedy and … such. 

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Meanwhile, in Newport, The Christmas Show from Red Octopus Theatre includes the comedy Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some).

One night only

Paul Susi (center) and cellist/composer Anna Fritz performing “An Iliad” on tour at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Northeast Portland. Photo courtesy Columbia River Correctional Institution staff.
Paul Susi (center) and cellist/composer Anna Fritz performing “An Iliad” on tour at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Northeast Portland. Photo courtesy Columbia River Correctional Institution staff.

This past summer, Paul Susi and Bobby Bermea battled it out onstage in Salt & Sage’s production of Macbeth. Of course, their compelling Macduff/Macbeth duel was the result of close collaboration and sympathetic artistic outlooks.

In a more recent example of their teamwork, Bemea – in his role as one of ArtsWatch’s most valuable contributors –  focused on an ongoing Susi project: presenting An Iliad, the Denis O’Hare/Lisa Peterson adaptation of Homer’s classic, most often to audiences in prisons around the state. (Portland Center Stage, some longtime fans may recall, produced a powerful version in 2010).

Susi and cellist/composer Anna Fritz will perform the piece, directed by Patrick Walsh, Saturday at Past Lives Gallery. As Susi tells Bermea, “It’s about how do you approach the totality of this epic poem in a way that still connects with our humanity.”

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PHAME, the fine and performing arts academy serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, takes up the spirit of old-time radio as a vehicle for music, comedy and dance in the Ring-A-Ding-Ding Radio Winter Concert.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

What worked for radio worked for TV, too – once upon a time, anyway. It’s a Tony Starlight Christmas gives an affectionate nod to the golden age of TV variety shows, with the swingin’ entertainer, bandleader and former club owner joined by guest vocalists Barbara Ayars and Thea Enos.

Closing

Ilya deTorres and Annie Trevisan in “Taking Care of Animals.” Photo: Scott Alan Thompson
Ilya deTorres and Annie Trevisan in “Taking Care of Animals.” Photo: Scott Alan Thompson

Though we included Taking Care of Animals, a terrific premier at 21ten Theatre, amid the “closing” segment of last week’s column, the company extended the run, giving you just a couple more chances to see this funny yet dramatically riveting story of a storm of the century and, just maybe, a change of the guard.

There are only so many shopping days left before Christmas – but who cares? You can buy stuff any time.

What time is running out on is the bounty of shows – mostly Christmas-themed, but not all – on stages around the state right now: the Irving Berlin-fueled musical treat Holiday Inn at Lakewood; at Bag & Baggage, the raunchy romp Who’s Holiday!the movie-loving musical rom-com Christmas in Christmasville at Twilight Theatre; Bridgetown Conservatory’s “fractured holiday operetta” Ludlow Ladd: The Poor Little Orphan Boy; Annie, Jr., by Northwest Children’s Theatre’s youth company, Catalyst; the Jane Austen-inspired Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley at HART in Hillsboro; the wintry romantic vignettes of Almost, Maine at Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater; and, on the Southern Oregon Coast, Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella by the Chetco Pelican Players.

Second-hand news

“Though Jews had been an integral part of mainstream theater for decades — creating, presenting, teaching and consuming it — and had found in it the ultimate and most enduring expression of their artistry, seldom was the product Jewish on the surface.”

So writes the critic Jesse Green of The New York Times, in a recent, wide-ranging essay headlined “How Jewish people built the American theater as we know it.” In a time of heightened concerns about anti-Semitism in this country and elsewhere, it’s a thought-provoking look at identity, representation, assimilation and acceptance as they play out in both cultural products and society at large. 

Bradley Cooper, playing Leonard Bernstein with a prosthetic nose, in "Maestro." Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.
Bradley Cooper, playing Leonard Bernstein with a prosthetic nose, in “Maestro.” Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

Green examines the controversy over the prosthetic nose that Bradley Cooper used in his portrayal of Leonard Bernstein; the centrality of Jewish practitioners in the promulgation of Method Acting; the artistic ramifications of the “identitarian sea change” in American culture; and much else. But central to the story is the balancing act of how, and how much, Jewishness should be expressed.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

 “Waffling over the expression of identity is probably inherent to all American minority experiences, but it is especially central to, and problematic for, Jewish art, which is often specifically about that waffling and takes its argumentative shape from it, too,” Green writes. “But if this ‘see me/don’t see me’ dichotomy has roots as deep as the history of Jews in the American theater, reflecting the age-old conflict of writing for everyone while still being seen for yourself, it was nonetheless shocking to hear, in 2023, what one Broadway insider told me: ‘Mostly we keep quiet because if we talk, they ship us on the trains.’”

The flattened stage

Isn’t this cute, isn’t this true?

Song of the week

The best line I read this week

“Dogs, like all weak and sentimental characters, are highly susceptible to suggestion. … They have been quite willing to learn foolish tricks and run pointless errands, forfeiting their dignity and diffusing their personalities, until the average dog today is a sorry creature, functioning adequately neither as a guest in the house nor a servant. 

“Cats, on the other hand, have character and independence. They are realists, and they understand perfectly their position in domestic life, which is decorative and nothing else. Cats don’t work, and I suspect they look on dogs, who do, as scum.” 

Wolcott Gibbs, in The New Yorker, 1934

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

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Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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