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ArtsWatch year in theater 2017

December 30, 2017
Culture, Theater

From Portland Center Stage’s Astoria: Part I (Part II is streaming around the bend in January, along with an encore run for Part I) to Artists Rep’s The Humans and a slew of holiday shows, it’s been a busy, busy year in Oregon theater.

In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival rolled out another season blending contemporary and classic with a wide-angle world view. And the fine actor G. Valmont Thomas, after spending a season playing Falstaff in all three plays in which the great character appears, died in December from bone cancer, at age 58.

In Hillsboro, Bag&Baggage, which had been temporarily homeless, opened a spiffy new home in a renovated downtown former bank building.

In Portland, the sprawling Fertile Ground festival introduced dozens of new works (and, like Astoria, is gearing up for a fresh new run in January). Chris Coleman, Center Stage’s artistic director for 17 years, announced he would be leaving at the end of this season to take over the theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. TCG, the influential Theatre Communications Group, held its annual conference in Portland. And theater companies large and small produced more plays than The Count could count in a dozen seasons of Sesame Street.

The crowded Portland scene is a vibrant mix of big and little, traditional and experimental, with a lot of its energy coming from some of its smallest spaces.



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What follows is not a “best of the year” list: We’ll let the Drammys and the PAMTAs, the annual theater award ceremonies, take care of that. (And we’ll let Center Stage and Artists Rep, which in 2017 dropped their participation in the awards, figure it out for themselves.) What’s here is a stroll through the year, January to December, with ArtsWatch’s theater writers as they captured the mood and flavor of the scene:



Shakespeare experiments for modern times

Jan. 17: Hailey Bachrach explored the controversies over the Globe Theatre’s firing in London of its forward-looking artistic director and, in particular, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s controversial Play On! program of modern “translations” of the plays.



Ben Rosenblatt (left) as Captain Jonathan Thorn in “Astoria: Part 1,” Chris Murray as First Mate Ashton Fox. Photo: Jennie Baker

Astoria: huge notions, big dreams

Jan. 24: Chris Coleman’s sweeping world premiere at Portland Center Stage was a historical drama about a rich businessman’s will to power. Sound familiar? Marty Hughley opened his review by quoting an 18th century Irish grandmother: “These Americans and their dreams.”



The Flick whirs to life

Jan. 24: Marty Hughley captured the flickering lights of Annie Baker’s play about the movies, the theater, and life, at Third Rail: “(I)n subtle ways Baker weaves an almost philosophical meditation on the nature, meanings and inherent metaphors of moving pictures.”



Monica Fleetwood as Hester in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “In the Blood.” Photo: Owen Carey

Scarlet letter of the streets

Feb. 12: We championed the sterling performances of a new crop of acting talent at Portland Actors Conservatory in Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood, a play that brings Nathaniel Hawthorne’s star-crossed Hester to the mean streets of a modern city. Parks’ play, Bob Hicks wrote, is “a terrific, audacious, sometimes terrifying piece of writing that sneaks up on you sideways and then delivers a searing, visceral punch.”



“Lydia” at Milagro: Maya Malán González is transcendent as Ceci. (Photo © Russell J Young.)

Lydia: conflicted, and sensational

March 23: Milagro Theatre’s production of Octavio Solis’s magical-realist play about a young woman who soars beyond her twisted body and loss of speech was, in A.L. Adams’ estimation, “vivid and amazing.”



Wild and Reckless drugs and dynamics

April 3: The Portland rock group Blitzen Trapper created a musical play for Portland Center Stage, and A.L. Adams followed it down the rabbit hole: “I’m always baffled that there isn’t more fluidity among art scenes, especially between bands and musical theater performers. But when Blitzen Trapper is in the Armory, you can really feel the audience responding with an alien fascination for ‘rock stars’ that they wouldn’t typically grant to actors, even so-called triple threats’.”



Berlin Diary: chasing ghosts

April 17: We dug deep into the world premiere of Andrea Stolowitz’s “engrossing and surprisingly funny theatrical detective story,” in Bob Hicks’s words,  about family history and the continuing shadow of the Holocaust.



Matt Haynes explains the Pulp Stage

April 18: A.L. Adams entered the twilight zone with the chief nerd of this “scrappy cadre of theater nerds deeply devoted to sci-fi, fantasy and suspense.” Haynes explained: “The big pro of a show in a bar is that you’re essentially conjuring the trip together. People are hanging out, drinking, munching and listening, and before you know it, everybody is transported. That’s the raw magic of theater right there.”



15 surprising Satchmoments

May 9: A.L. Adams did Triangle’s engaging Satchmo at the Waldorf by the numbers. Terry Teachout’s solo play about Louis Armstrong in his twilight years starred Salim Sanchez in all the roles.



Sharonelee McLean and Victor Mack: the Bickersons, in two languages. Photo: Brud Giles

Words of loss, words of love

May 23: Julia Cho’s “nimble, playful, sometimes deeply touching drama” The Language Archive, about a language specialist who all too often fails to discover the essential meanings beyond words, shone at Portland Playhouse.



Deep End Theater: funny without trying

June 2: A.L. Adams got the lowdown on improv vet Domeka Parker’s new company, where performers do much more than just race to the punch line. “This crap-o-la of standing around making jokes is really a very American approach to improv, and it’s sloppy; it’s loveless,” Parker explained—a realization she reached in part after touring to Europe.



TCG and the Tonys

Theater at the intersection

Full Circle: a universe of theater

For a few days in June, when the annual TCG (Theatre Communications Group) conference brought theater people from across the country to town, Portland was the center of the American nonprofit theater universe. ArtsWatch was on hand throughout, with reports from Dmae Roberts, Hailey Bachrach and Bob Hicks that covered hot subjects including diversity, technology, “maker” creativity, giving voice to artists of color, and creative access for performers with disabilities.



Eric Nordin’s ’19 Children Saved’ closed the mini-festival.

Portland Mini Musical Festival: a hoot in the heat

June 24: Brett Campbell sang the praises of this new festival, which presented six new 15-minute musicals by Portland writers, composers, and performers. Campbell: “If the series maintains this debut production’s quality and delight, Portland Mini Musical Festival seems poised to join the ranks of the city’s other valuable local performance incubators like Risk/Reward and Fertile Ground.”



Islamabad, on common ground

June 26: We sat in as a theater troupe from Pakistan’s capital city rehearsed an original play for a series of Oregon performances. “Since 9/11, seventy thousand civilians have been killed in Pakistan in terrorist attacks, the play’s script declares, and those attacks are often aimed at shutting down public spaces. Galleries destroyed, mosques, meeting places. A cricket team playing ‘home’ matches, for safety purposes, in another country. ‘To me,’ this section began, ‘Sufism is to Islam what the spirit is to the body. Take that spirit away and you’re left with a zombie.’

“A woman actor commented: ‘And yesterday there were three blasts.’

“’This is not theoretical, right?’ [director David] Studwell said. ‘This is reality. This is your lives.’”



Romeo and Juliet (Layla & Majnun): fertile fusion

July 31: Brett Campbell brought the word on Bag&Baggage’s mashup of Shakespeare’s play and the ancient Persian epic that helped inspire it: “like the doomed lovers portrayed in both Shakespeare’s play and one of its primary sources, Persian poet Nizami’s half a millennium older epic, Romeo/Layla is a mashup of both stories, not a substitution of one for the other.”



Who’s on first? Anonymously yours

Aug. 4: The mysterious forces behind Anonymous Theatre – the company where none of the actors meets any of the other actors until they get onstage, and nobody knows beforehand who’s even in the show – revealed to us how they put on the musical Urinetown against all odds.



“Henry IV, Part One”: Sir John Falstaff (G. Valmont Thomas) and Peto (Lauren Modica) nurse their wounds after being robbed of the goods they stole. Thomas died of bone cancer late in 2017, a major loss theatrically and to his many friends and fans. Photo: Jenny Graham

Ashland Shakespeare: out of chaos

Aug. 4: Hailey Bachrach plumbed the themes and cross-themes in the four namesake plays on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s2017 season: Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Julius Caesar, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.



Lungs: She’s having a baby

Aug. 8: Christa McIntyre gave ArtsWatch readers perhaps the ultimate take possible on Third Rail’s play about pregnancy.



Bag&Baggage vaults into the future

Sept. 8: Brett Campbell had the lowdown on the innovative Hillsboro theater company’s move into The Vault, a former bank building, after losing its previous home when the building’s owners sold it.



Andrea Vernae (left) and Josie Seid in “An Octoroon.” Photo: Russell J Young

An Octoroon: a punch and a gasp

Sept. 12: TJ Acena’s review got ArtsWatch out front on one of the most provocative productions of the year, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ satirical mashup of race relations in contemporary America and in Dion Boucicault’s 19th century melodrama The Octoroon, passages of which are inserted liberally in the play. Acena wrote: “An Octoroon brings up a lot of questions. Questions about how plays work. Questions about how identity and theater collide. Questions about how much or little our country has changed. But it has no answers to give. Rather, it demands that we not forget these questions. That we remain unsettled, even if we’re laughing.”



Amelia Earhart (and puppets, too)

Oct. 2: DeAnn Welker took a gander as Northwest Children’s Theater’s Starlings took flight with a new musical about women heroes of the sky. “If you can give up on the notion of a strict Earhart biography and let your funny bone be tickled, you and the child theatergoers in your life are going to love this one.”



Tuesdays at the Theatre Guild

Oct. 4: Bob Hicks dropped in on one of the longest-running shows in town, the Portland Civic Theatre Guild’s monthly coffee-and-a-play-reading sessions, and discovered a scene of civilized conviviality (plus a little Neil Simon). “(I)t would be unwise to underestimate this crowd and its proceedings. They may not be in the market for the latest exhibitions from the seething swamps of contemporary performance art, but they know their theater (many of them have been, and some continue to be, on the stage), and the pleasures to be had in communing with a style of playfulness that might not be the height of fashion but has not lost its charm. It’s quite easy, and enjoyable, to slip into the spirit of the thing.”



Theater to feed your TV jones

Oct. 11: In the tiny Shoebox Theatre, Joel Patrick Durham’s multi-part Nesting played out like a mini-series or a binge-watching fest. Hailey Bachrach wrote: “Energized by the audience response to his runner-up pilot, Durham (who I met when we worked together with the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival) decided to self-produce Nesting … in 2016, along with co-producer Natalie Heikkenen. The response to that was sufficiently enthusiastic that Durham and Heikkenen were inspired to pull another leaf from the television playbook, and come back with something not many plays get: a second season.”



Tabitha Trosen as The Actress, Gary Powell as The Professor. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

The significance of Insignificance

Oct. 15: Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio meet in a hotel room. ArtsWatch looks for the meanings in Defunkt Theatre’s search for meanings in a 1982 play. “For a show about so many big ideas,” TJ Acena wrote, “and its sense of how small we are, the production often struggles to capture that sense of scope, but hits the mark a few times. … And director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard manages to evoke the apocalyptic sense of doom at the end of the show that leaves the audience unsettled as they walk out.”



A stage for veterans’ stories

Nov. 9: Purple Heart recipient and Iraq War veteran Sean Davis wrote about an eight-month writing program for vets in collaboration with Profile Theatre’s productions of Quiana Alegría Hudes’ “Elliot trilogy”: Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue; Water by the Spoonful; and The Happiest Song Plays Last. “I jumped at the chance [to take part] because I knew from experience that art has the potential to help veterans who may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress,” Davis wrote. “A car bomb in Taji, Iraq, cut my tour short and sent me home on a stretcher. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, anger issues, recurring nightmares, and broken emotions, I fell into a deep depression. Art is what saved me, and since then, I’ve tried to help other veterans by introducing them to painting, poetry, writing, operas, stage plays, and more.”



Jason (Lakin Valdez) and his son Acan (Jahnangel Jimenez). Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Medea crosses the border

Nov. 13: Portland Center Stage’s co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival of Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, moved the classic story to the center of America’s immigration turmoil. “I won’t spoil the ending – though if you know the Medea story, you will likely expect what’s coming,” DeAnn Welker wrote. “But Alfaro’s play, along with the nimble, fast-paced direction of Juliette Carrillo, and especially Zuniga Varela’s performance in the title role, make this Medea more complicated, sympathetic, and real than any figure of Greek tragedy can hope to be.”



The inner quest for Utopia

Nov. 21: Hand2Mouth’s Psychic Utopia began with the idea of Utopian movements in Oregon, and took it from there. “A Hand2Mouth ensemble member is kneeling onstage a few feet away from me and makes eye contact,” TJ Acena wrote. “ ‘What have you done to live a more beautiful and bold life?’ she asks. I knew this question was coming but I still feel a sense of panic when the fourth wall breaks down. I tell her, and the audience around me, ‘I allowed myself to be vulnerable.’ I don’t elaborate on what that means. She smiles beatifically, repeats my answer, and turns to someone else and asks the same question. This question is at the heart of Hand2Mouth’s new devised show Psychic Utopia.”



Family fuss? It’s only human

Nov. 28: In Stephen Karam’s multiple Tony-winning comic drama The Humans at Artists Rep, Thanskgiving dinner with the Blakes might just have knocked the stuffing out of you. “The play’s title is apt because what Karam’s getting at, really, is the perverse and quickening capacity inherent in the human animal to stumble and twist things out of shape and mess up love, and endure the pain, and try somehow to make the love live again,” Bob Hicks wrote. “Even the best among us fall short: It’s what humans do. Even the closest among us fight that intimacy, reach out for independence, gasp for air, betray and are betrayed.”




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