PUTTING DULL THEATER UNDER THE AX: Michael, Nikki and Brian Weaver. IMAGE: Christine Taylor
Like a lot of crazy ideas, Portland Playhouse, the city's newest and most promising theater company, was born at Christmastime. In 2007, brothers Brian and Michael Weaver and Brian's fiancée at the time, Nikki, were standing around the woodpile at the home of Michael and Brian's parents in Harrisonburg, Va., griping about everything they disliked about contemporary theater—stuffiness, pretension—and how they would do things differently. Filled with righteous fire, Michael threw down the gauntlet. "I said, 'Let's make a commitment here, today, at this woodpile, to sell everything we own and start our own theater company.'"
Michael, 31, is not an actor by profession; he's a businessman. At the time of the woodpile incident, he was working for the family's utility-construction firm. Nikki, 26, and Brian, 34, are both actors. Born in Los Angeles, Nikki made her debut in the 1994 video for the Stone Temple Pilots' "Vasoline" before moving to Australia at age 11 and back to the U.S. in 2005 to work at Shakespeare Company in Lenox, Mass. Brian has performed all over the country, from Seattle to Massachusetts, and was in the midst of a grueling MFA program at Brandeis University. And the program was getting him down.
"I think I should tell you both that I really hate theater right now," he said. Michael was concerned. "As a manager, that's not the sort of thing you want to hear from your lead employee," he says.
Despite the concerns, they stayed committed. Nikki and Brian married in 2008, and in September the three moved across the country, rented a house in North Portland and immediately started looking for a performance venue.
Why Portland? Why would anyone drop everything and move to a city with high unemployment, anemic funding for the arts and a shortage of suitable performance spaces? The Weavers give three reasons: money (the rent is cheap), family (they have cousins in the area) and scenery (they're outdoorsy). "If we were going to do this," Michael says, "why not choose somewhere we all want to live?"
After much hunting for a home ("We almost performed at a carpet warehouse," Brian says. "It was a shady sort of deal."), Portland Playhouse landed in a converted church at the corner of Northeast 6th Avenue and Prescott Street, home to a Waldorf school and online-books dealer by day, and set about to converting it into a theater by night.
Or a sort-of theater, anyway. The space, a small, sunken room with rows of couches along two sides, doesn't look terribly promising. But the company's first production, Gina Gionfriddo's After Ashley, earned positive press from every paper in town last November. So did Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius, in March. And its April production of Charles Mee's bobrauschenbergamerica, a delightful visual pastiche of unconnected vignettes, got raves. Almost unbelievably for a new company, Portland Playhouse finished its first season in the black.
The company's friendly modesty has much to do with its success. The couches, while unexpected, are pleasant. During the show, the audience may eat popcorn and, thanks to a sponsorship from MacTarnahan's, drink beer. This is all part of the Weavers' efforts to make the experience of theatergoing less miserable. "Even if the show is mediocre," Michael says, "at least you can be comfortable and have a beer."
The shows have been better than mediocre, and Portland Playhouse's offerings this fall aren't modest. The season begins in October with Seattle playwright Steven Dietz's Fiction, a drama of diaries and marital deceit starring Gretchen Corbett and David Seitz (and coinciding with Artists Rep's production of Dietz's latest, Becky's New Car, Sept. 22-Oct. 25), and continues in November with Bingo With the Indians, a foulmouthed comedy by Adam Rapp about desperate theater types who sink to theft to finance their efforts. (In June, Rapp's brother, Anthony, joined the company for a one-night reading of a play after performing Rent at Keller Auditorium.)
Portland Playhouse intends to stick around and grow, drawing inspiration from the success of Third Rail Rep. "We don't need to be Portland Center Stage or Artists Rep, but we'd like to be a premier theater in Portland," Brian says. "We want to be widely accessible. We want to stay in North and Northeast Portland." A professional theater north of Broadway? We'll take it.
Two years ago Our Shoes Are Red/The Performance Lab produced Will Eno's bizarro monologue,
It was well received thanks to the work of director Devon Allen and actor Matt DiBiasio, both of whom will perform in the company's second production.
by British playwright Howard Barker, is inspired by the legend of St. Ursula, a third-century British princess who forwent marriage to unintentionally lead 11,000 virgins to their deaths at the hands of the Huns. In Barker's version, a mother superior pursues an illicit relationship with a young prince over the objections of her students. She deals with them.
Every year since 2006, Chris Coleman has kicked off the season at Portland Center Stage with a big American musical. This year's, Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same name, a flashy story of three families in turn-of-the-century America, is really big. The original Broadway production had a cast of 49, a $10 million budget and glitzy set trappings, including fireworks and a working Model T. It's safe to say PCS's version will be somewhat more modest, but
has a great score and should, if the company can restrain its cornier impulses, be a hell of a show.
Jerry Mouawad revives his vertiginous take on Sartre's hellish tragedy (spoiler: Hell is other people), in which the three unfortunate souls are trapped on a 16-square-foot platform suspended 3 feet in the air from a single point. Every time Garcin, Inès and Estelle move, the literal balance of power shifts as the edges of the stage rise and fall. The concept, which premiered at Imago Theatre in 1998, makes a fascinating show out of Sartre's not-so-great script—a directorial coup. This time the existential set is mounted by a quartet of local favorites: Maureen Porter, JoAnn Johnson, Tim True and Bryce Flint-Somerville.
August: Osage County
Broadway Across America takes a break from presenting flashy, brainless musicals with Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-, Tony- and everything else-winning black comedy about a terribly dysfunctional Oklahoma family terrorized by its pill-popping matriarch. Estelle Parsons, the Oscar-winning actress who inherited the role of the venomous grandmother from Deanna Dunagan in the recently closed Broadway run, heads up the unhappy household for the national tour.
Absolutely do not miss the show lauded by just about every critic in New York as the best show of 2008.