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Northbound, looking for theater

With the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's three stages dark until February, what's a play junkie to do?

For starters, check out Off-Bardway staples such as Camelot Theatre in Talent and Oregon Stage Works in Ashland. Once you've done that, don't head for Broadway yet. While Oregon outside the OSF is not usually thought of as a theater-rich environment, you can, with a bit of driving, fill your playbill for a long weekend.

We went in search of a theater fix last weekend, with a Friday night play in Eugene and plays Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Portland (there's worthwhile theater in Salem, too, although none of the plays we chose was there).

Our first stop was at the Lord Leebrick, one of those funky little theaters whose very walls whisper that yes, they've seen some drama.

The company, founded in 1992 by Randy Lord and Chris Leebrick, spent its first few years in a string of storefront locations in downtown Eugene before finding a home in this 70-year-old building on Charnelton Street.

Eugene Weekly readers voted it the best live theater in town eight years running. Artistic director Craig Willis has increased attendance and production values, and the theater is the only one in the state outside Portland and Ashland that is a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the trade organization.

Lord Leebrick is often associated with edgy or off-center works such as "The Pillowman" or "Kimberly Akimbo." We took in "I Am My Own Wife," Doug Wright's weirdly fascinating, non-fiction play about a German transvestite. The play is a good fit.

In the early 1990s Wright approached Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who had been born in 1928 as a boy named Lothar Berfelde, about her/his story. Wright thought that in outliving the century's two most infamous dictatorships, the Nazi and Communist regimes, von Mahlsdorf surely had become an authentic gay hero. But the stuff of heroism is seldom unalloyed, and von Mahlsdorf turned out to be a more complex and ambiguous character than Wright had imagined.

"I Am My Own Wife," which won both the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, is a one-man play, here performed by Vince Camillo under the direction of Mary Unruh. It is a tour de force, requiring a German accent and the creation of some three-dozen parts, most of them fleeting.

Camillo's von Mahlsdorf is controlled, precise and Teutonic, an angular little women in a pinched black dress and scarf and a string of pearls. Her milieu is her amazing world of clocks and other collectibles, including both Victrolas and gramophones (she explains the difference).

Camillo also portrays Wright, a gay playwright living in New York City, and John Marx, a backslapping American who can almost speak German. Camillo jumps back and forth between von Mahlsdorf and the other characters without missing a beat, his body language changing as abruptly as his accent, sometimes in the middle of a breath.

There are two narrative tracks here. The primary one is the life of Charlotte, who first put on a dress in World War II, encouraged by a sympathetic aunt. She wanted to wear women's clothes and survive.

The second track is the story of Wright getting to know Charlotte's story. The obstacle here is that von Mahlsdorf looks less and less like a reliable narrator as time goes on.

"I Am My Own Wife" is an impressionistic patchwork put together from pieces in Wright's notebooks. It's as if he is opening them to his favorite parts and saying to us: see here. Some of what we glimpse is creepy. Charlotte may have been an informer for the Stasi.

Wright himself withholds judgment. The warts and moral ambiguities make Charlotte more complex, and her story more mysterious.

"I Am My Own Wife" is compelling theater, especially for a one-man show. Its chief weakness is that Charlotte's conflicts are, like the wellsprings of poetry in Wordsworth's famous definition ("emotion recollected in tranquility"), in the past. She has little at stake in the play's present, and neither do we. There is an inescapable sense of detachment, much like a feeling you get looking through an old photo album, however fascinating.

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On Saturday, we found our way to Portland Center Stage, which was founded as an upstate arm of Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1988 and became independent in 1994. It moved to its new home in the Gerding Theater about a year ago. It is a big, professional theater presenting nine plays on two stages for the 2007-2008 season.

WARNING: If you Google "portland center stage" you will go to the Google map site, which places the theater at its old location of 1111 SW Broadway, near that street's intersection with Main Street. Do not go there. The theater has moved. It is now in the Gerding at 128 NW 11th Ave.

There is no late seating, and you could miss a play. A PCS spokeswoman said this has happened before. It will no doubt happen again until somebody gets the offending map off Google.

There is a large parking garage across the street, but the streetcar runs along 10th and 11th avenues — it's free and a snap to use.

PCS's seasons are a mix of straight plays and musicals on the Main Stage and the smaller Studio. Coming on the Main Stage Nov. 27 is "A Christmas Carol." Sarah Treem's "A Feminine Ending" opens Feb. 5 at the Studio.

We saw "The Underpants," a 1910 German farce (we had some kind of Teutonic thing going on) by Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin — yes, that Steve Martin. It's in the Studio, and it has buzz around the state.

As the play opens, we understand that a woman's bloomers fell down for a couple of seconds just as the king was passing in a parade. Her husband, a stodgy German bureaucrat, is afraid the resulting notoriety will undermine his comfortable but anonymity-requiring position. Meanwhile, two men whose ardor was sparked by the flash of flesh become suitors of the wife.

The two men show up at the home of the Maskes, Theo (David Watson) and Louise (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse), whose very name suggests something concealed. Each man wants to rent the couple's spare room. There is the rakish poet Versati (Michael Borrelli) and the jealous, hypochondriac of a barber Cohen (John Steinkamp). The latter, in a nod to the anti-Semitism presumed in the Germany of a century ago, tells Theo his name is spelled with a "k." Each man's intention is seduction.

Neither Theo nor Louise puts up any impediment. Theo is oblivious. Louise sees a mad affair as an escape from the drudgery of life as the wife of the preposterously boorish and self-satisfied Theo. She is encouraged in this by her meddlesome neighbor Gertrude (Sharonlee McLean).

The target of Sternheim's rapier is the rising middle class of early 20th century Germany. But Martin has said up front that he's not interested in lampooning the bourgeoisie, which these days, alas, is not the target it once was.

So he has given the play a new spine. "The Underpants" is now a joking look at sexual politics and a meditation on our age's fascination with the 15-minutes-of-fame phenomenon.

The Louise question — will she or won't she? — is less interesting than the Steve Martin question — why did he? If you're going to discard not merely the fat but the play's very sinew, why mess with an adaptation? Why not just make up new characters and write your own play?

"The Underpants" is filled with amusing wordplay and one liners about body parts. "How would you like your weiner?" Louise asks Theo as she cooks. The play is directed by Rose Riordan as a fast-paced farce, and a competent cast keeps it moving. Borrelli's Versati is the funniest part, a cape-swirling, over-the-top rake who always comes up short of the action, choosing to put his quivering quill to paper for verse rather than l'amour.

But "The Underpants" is Louise's story. In the end she fails to get what she wants (a steamy affair) but gets what she needs — a glimpse of (gulp) empowerment. We sense she's discovered the power to make some decisions and will never again be quite so content under Theo's flaccid thumb.

"The Underpants" is a slight thing with more buzz than substance. It would be good "Saturday Night Live" fodder, but is slim fare for an evening at the theater.

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On Sunday we made our way to the CoHo Theater in north Portland. The intimate space is named, like Lord Leebrick, for its two founders, not a fish.

We came to see Donald Margulies' two-woman play "Collected Stories," recently opened for its first time in Portland. Directed by Maureen Towey, the production stars Vana and Eleanor O'Brien. In real life the two are mother and daughter, and the daughter and granddaughter of the movie actor Van Heflin.

I don't know whether the mother-daughter bond helps the actors shape their characters — an older woman writer and her ambitious student. But their inevitable clash brings real heat to the stage.

Ruth (Vana) is a member in good standing of the literati. A renowned short-story writer and teacher, she came from a Jewish family and lived and worked in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. She had a long, strange affair with the poet Delmore Schwartz. In the first scene, she accepts as a student and assistant bright-girl Lisa, who will eventually take some of Ruth's advice all too well.

Lisa's intention is to be a literary star like Ruth. When Ruth's phone rings it's liable to be Norman Mailer or Susan Sontag. One of the first lessons Lisa gets from the difficult Ruth is that nobody will take her seriously if she ends all her sentences with that rising, interrogatory inflection common among young American women. The fact the Lisa quickly drops the annoying affectation signals her iron resolve to get to the top.

As time goes on and Lisa publishes stories and gains confidence, she lets down her hair and takes her shoes off.

The story covers six years set in Ruth's book-lined apartment. Scenic designer Liam Kaas-Lentz, a product of Southern Oregon University here designing his first play, had the luck of a loan of 5,000 books from Powell's in Portland. They cover the stage, amply.

The climax comes as Lisa's first novel turns out to be a betrayal of the women's friendship. In our tell-all age, are their any boundaries left? Margulies has said he was inspired by the real-life plagiarism suit the poet Stephen Spender filed against Donald Leavitt, a much younger writer who stole from Spender's memoirs in a 1993 novel. The issue here is not legal, but ethical. Is your friend's life fair game for your book? Can you claim another's time and milieu as your own? A life, shared in confidence?

Early on, Ruth instructed Lisa to hold nothing back, setting things up. Later she says there are some places you just don't go. "Collected Stories" is not a great play, but it's a provocative one. And the passion the O'Briens bring to it under Towey's tightly wound direction make it an affecting one. You imagine lively dinner table conversations among those who saw it.

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The plays of our weekend were small ones — a one person play, a two-person play and a one-act farce with a small cast. If there's still such a thing as a well-made play, each of these was a bit outside the model. Yet taken as a whole they suggest that live theater in Oregon is not only alive, but innovative and vital.

For those who insist on a horse race, there was no transcendent production here, nor was there a real dog. "Collected Stories," with strong direction, two vivid characters and a painful conflict, was the most compelling production we saw over the weekend.

"I Am My Own Wife," a flawed, quirky, unforgettable oddity, comes in second by a length. "The Underpants" is a slickly produced bit of fluff on a luscious stage, and worth some laughs, but this time out it brings up the rear.

No pun intended.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Louise (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse) assumes Herr Klinglehoff (Michael Fisher-Welsh) has come to rent a room for the same reason so many others have recently — her underpants — in Portland Center Stage's production of Steve Martin's “The Underpants” in the Studio, Gerding Theater at the Armory.