Portland Center Stage prepares to close out 2012-13 season with three major shows

I’m not sure if they planned it this way, but Portland Center Stage is heading into the finishing stretch of their 2012-13 season with a major grand finale.

With three strong shows left in the lineup, several of the season’s heaviest hitters could still be just offstage limbering up, awaiting their entrance. And with material this good, all of them should be popular and critical hits.

First up April 6 – May 5 is the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner CLYBOURNE PARK by the sharp-elbowed and sharper-tongued (and -penned and -keyboarded) American phenom, Bruce Norris.

Norris, who can be prickly in his work (and, apparently, in person), doesn’t have the rosiest outlook on life. “I think we are doomed,” he recently opined in The Telegraph just before one of THREE new plays he has coming out in the next year on the world’s most influential stages (buck up a bit, Brucey!) went into previews at the Royal Court in London.

Norris may have just a wee bit of an attitude. The last thing he is worried about (or wants to avoid?) is giving offense. Portland theatre goers who saw his play THE PAIN AND THE ITCH last year at Third Rail got a taste of Norrisland. In CLYBOURNE PARK, which is perhaps funnier and less gratingly harsh, the brilliant Steppenwolf playwright is back in fine form, instructing his artillery division to rain unrelenting hellfire on upper middle class, complacent liberals. Luckily, we have none of those round these parts. Anyhoo…

If this assault sounds like something you’d rather skip, and instead grab a Salt and Straw ice cream and a spring stroll on the esplanade, know this: the play builds to one of the most explosively funny and outrageous climaxes you’ll ever see on stage. Yup. There’s a reason Norris has three new plays coming out in the next year. The guy can write. So have the ice cream first, then come in and have your hair curled by Norris. Plus spring in Portland just means now it’s light out while it hails.

In CLYBOURNE PARK, a clever framing device follows 50 years in the life of an inner city house in Chicago. And not just any house, but the one the Younger family is going to move into at the end of the seminal 1959 play A RAISIN IN THE SUN by Lorraine Hansberry. Picking up the story from where RAISIN left off, in the first act Norris explores the casual and vicious racism under the surface of a white 1950’s neighborhood as the first black family prepares to move in.

Flash forward 50 years, and the second act, set in 2009, finds a white couple about to buy back the same house in what is now a newly gentrifying part of town. In the intervening years, we learn, the neighborhood fell apart and experienced the usual litany of urban woes familiar from the 1970’s and 1980’s in any major city. Just in case we think we’re lifetimes removed from the racial ugliness of the 50’s and 60’s, Norris probes all the contemporary attitudes and beliefs that are politely ignored, building to a crescendo of – naturally – cathartic, uncontrollable humor.

Next up April 23 – June 16 is what is sure to be one of the events of the season, THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF PORTLAND by the one and only Lauren Weedman. What is there to say about Weedman? Quite a bit. But in a nutshell, when the form at hand is live performance, no one keeps it live like this woman. Drawing on her experiences getting to know Portland a few years back when she was here doing BUST, this show is Weedman, the hyper chic big city dweller and craic slinger, colliding with slow-talking Portland, town of bearded men on stilts, dogs with their own bike helmets, communal patchouli farms, and toy horses chained up to street curbs. THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY TAKE CARE OF. You get the picture.

Is Weedman bringing peace to the Middle East, parting the Red Sea, or helping us find free energy in other galaxies (that also makes you lose weight when you burn it)? No. At least not in the immediate future. But in an age when theatuh all too often sounds like a good chance to catch up on your z’s (especially to the younger set), Weedman brings high wattage star power back to center stage where it belongs. In the small Ellen Bye Studio, it’s gonna be live. In a workshop of the show at JAW last summer, Weedman held a nearly full house on the main stage upstairs in the palm of her hand. So it is ON. Look for some photos of Weedman in rehearsal here soon. The show has been extended twice and should continue to sell out like a banshee.

And finally, on May 28 – June 30, a major (possibly Broadway bound?) musical hits the scene in a world premiere. SOMEWHERE IN TIME comes festooned with big names and talent. I can’t recall the last time Portland saw something like this come to town, but if what’s happening is that PCS is becoming a launch pad for major shows with national ambitions, that is a fantastic development for our faire city and will bring more great opportunities for the home town audience to see the real deal. You can read about the whole enterprise here.

So there it is. For the next three months, Portland’s flagship theatre is going to be be packed with shows you can’t miss.

Unless you have a toy horse somewhere to take care of…