“You find ways to ritualize sound./To make sound a counterattack to the silence./To make sound an act of aggression/against what lurks in the stillness.”
Those lines are from Anya Pearson’s play Three Love Songs, a masterpiece that emerged from the wreckage of 2020. Pearson writes about experiencing and transcending trauma, and her words captured the achievements of Portland’s theater artists during the past year.
They ritualized sound. They led a counterattack against silence. They made sound an act of aggression against everything—death, suffering, cruelty—that lurked in the stillness.
While a few too many theatrical luminaries used art to try to make sense of COVID-19 (an understandable but perverse response to a profoundly senseless crisis), many more made peace with questions instead of seeking answers. Their work reminded us that it was OK to feel angry, damaged and lost. And that it would be strange if we didn’t.
I’m looking forward to the day when theater no longer means bingeing audio plays and virtual productions in my cluttered office/bedroom. I’m also grateful to the playwrights, actors, directors and craftspeople who rose to the challenges posed by 2020—the artists who refused to let silence and stillness win. Here are some of the standouts.
Best Audio Play: Magellanica, (Artists Repertory Theatre)
In June, the original cast of E.M. Lewis’ five-act Antarctic epic (Sara Hennessy, Michael Mendelson, Allen Nause, Eric Pargac, John San Nicolas, Vin Shambry, Joshua J. Weinstein and Barbie Wu) recorded this audio edition of the play, which Artists Rep staged in 2018. As a Magellanica die-hard, I would have given almost anything to watch them reprise their roles, but getting to hear them retell Lewis’ transcendent tale of six scientists surviving life at the South Pole was a gift.
Best Classical Production: Antigone, (Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative)
Director Patrick Walsh pumped blood into the veins of a dusty classic with this vigorous new version of Sophocles’ tragedy, which was filmed at the Bybee Lakes Hope Center (formerly the never-used Wapato Jail). While the production has been sent to assisted living facilities, prisons, rural schools and shelters, copyright issues have prevented it from being screened for the general public. Hopefully, a day will come when audiences everywhere can experience the blistering power of the clash between Paul Susi’s bellowing Kreon and Ashley Mellinger’s unyielding Antigone.
Best Experimental Production: Aberdeen
For three days in July, Portland indie-rock band Lost Lander livestreamed this story concert starring Matt Sheehy from Corbett, Ore. With its emotionally naked songs and monologues, the event practically begged to be mocked by hipper-than-thou audiences—that was what made it beautiful. Sheehy’s honest musings on grief and love gave the middle finger to toxic masculinity, inviting us to experience every feeling that emanated from his soul.
Best Musical: Daddy Long Legs, (Broadway Rose Theatre Company)
Is it weird to say the pandemic was good for Broadway Rose, creatively speaking? Maybe, but without COVID-19, the Tigard musical theater company might never have filmed this beautifully stripped-down love story. Based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster, Daddy Long Legs starred Malia Tippets and Joe Theissen (who got married at Broadway Rose this year) as Jerusha and Jervis, lovers whose romance crosses class divides.
While Tippets and Theissen were delightful, the production’s breakout star was videographer Mark Daniels. His inventive and intimate camerawork made us feel as if we were not only seeing the performances but experiencing them. He turned Daddy Long Legs into an affirmation that in the age of social distancing, it wasn’t enough for theater to be dynamic. It had to be cinematic.
Best New Play: Three Love Songs, (Portland Center Stage)
As part of the national Play at Home project, Portland Center Stage drafted four playwrights to write plays for quarantined theater lovers to stage at home. The most miraculous part of the series was Anya Pearson’s Three Love Songs, a rush of images, emotions and ideas split into three “tracks”: “A Love Song for Survivors,” “A Love Song for Creatives,” and “A Love Song for Difference.” Perform it if you’re hungry for truth, comfort, invention and hope.
Best Pre-Pandemic Play: The Found Dog Ribbon Dance (CoHo Productions)
Any world in which professional cuddling is a job is seriously starved for intimacy. The Found Dog Ribbon Dance plunged into that tragedy with panache, building a poignant narrative of self-discovery around Beth Thompson’s multilayered performance as a cuddler with festering doubts about her occupation.
In a year when the distance between human beings expanded, the play’s exploration of physical closeness probably became more relevant than playwright Dominic Finocchiaro ever dreamed. His creation has emerged as a testament to the truth that when our species escapes the shadow of COVID-19, we will have to heal old and new wounds alike.