Cerimon House

ArtsWatch Weekly: Banging the can

David Lang's "Match Girl" opera, JAW snaps open, Chamber Music Northwest's race to the finish, Brian Cox chats, art and science meet

Poor little match girl, and chamber music too: David Lang, cofounder of the effusive Bang On a Can and 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Little Match Girl Passion, is all over the Portland cultural calendar this week.

Damien Geter, Cree Carrico, and Nicole Mitchell in David Lang’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” at Portland Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Portland Opera’s shift to a mainly summer season concludes with a double bill of Lang’s contemporary one-acts Match Girl and The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, opening Friday in the intimate Newmark Theatre. And his music will be on the bill Thursday and Friday at Chamber Music Northwest. Get the lowdown on Lang and his fascinating career from ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell in his profile David Lang: From iconoclast to eminence.


Today seems a good time to introduce you to one of our newest correspondents, C.S. Eliot. When the movie Kedi: The Cats of Istanbul prowled into town (it’s landed at Cinema 21 after a couple of sold-out screenings at the Portland International Film Festival) we found ourselves looking for just the right sort of writer to respond to the film’s unusual subject matter, a writer with inside knowledge of the peculiarities of the feline world. And C.S. made a poetic plea to speak up.

Well, all right, it was a yowl. C.S., we regret to report, is an imperious sort, given to stark pronouncements and prone to making unseemly demands on the management. Thus, forthwith, C.S.’s first dispatch for us, ‘Kedi’ review: Turkish delight.

The streetwise cats of Istanbul.

To tell the truth, this partnership is a work in progress. We’re not sure C.S. understands the concept of objectivity at all. But C.S. makes no bones about his opinions (he prefers to leave the bones for the dogs), and C.S. will speak out. There’s no stopping him, really, although you can slow him down if you put out a bowl of tuna juice. Let’s stipulate that a good writer is not necessarily a saint.

In the case of Kedi, not only is C.S. an expert on the subject, he also has a talented collaborator, longtime ArtsWatch correspondent Maria Choban. She speaks Cat semi-fluently and is adept at translating the pith of C.S.’s opinions. We see their partnership as vital to our coverage of the next touring production of Cats to hit town (lyrics and original concept by C.S. Eliot’s distant relative T.S.), and to the Puss in Boots scene in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. And if someone in town will please put up a production of the musical Archy & Mehitabel, C.S. likely will be our representative in the reviewer’s box. We’ve tried, but we just can’t seem to come up with a literate cockroach who’ll work for what we can pay.





Companhia Urbana de Dança at White Bird. Photo: Renato Mangolin

Companhia Urbana de Dança. White Bird brings the energetic Brazilian dance troupe to the Newmark Theatre for shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Born in the shanty towns and suburbs of Rio, the company blends hip-hop, urban, and contemporary dance into an Afro-Brazilian stew.


ArtsWatch Weekly: all aboard for Eugene

A Eugene cultural tour, Anne Boleyn's music book, a little shop of horror and a full gallop, monkey business, Yetis, two top art shows, "Hughie," roots music, Alien Boy, guns galore, spirit of '76

There are lots of good reasons to go to Eugene that have nothing to do with Ducks or football. Sure, the presence of the University of Oregon has a lot to do with the quality of things down the valley: two of ArtsWatch’s favorite things, for instance, the Oregon Bach Festival and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, are intimately tied to the university, and a lot of what’s good about Oregon’s new-music scene emanates from the halls and studios of the university’s music department. But the university is far from the only game in town. However you keep your cultural scorecard, Eugene – population roughly 160,000, metro area another 200,000 added to that – consistently hits above its weight.

Here at ArtsWatch we like to keep tabs on what’s happening in the Emerald City, and lately that’s been quite a bit. For starters, check out Gary Ferrington’s Arts Sampler: Eugene by train for a car-free, arts-stuffed weekend, a sort of cultural travelogue for Portlanders looking for a close-to-home adventure. Go ahead, plan an autumn getaway. And if you like, feel free to slip in a football game or a track meet on the side, too.

Portland-bound Amtrak Cascades at Eugene Station.

Portland-bound Amtrak Cascades at Eugene Station.

We’ve also picked up some good features from some top Eugene writers:

— Photographer and arts journalist Bob Keefer, author of the invaluable Eugene Art Talk online journal, has undertaken an almost year-long project of following the development of a new version of The Snow Queen for Eugene Ballet, with a fresh score by Oregon composer Kenji Bunch and choreography by EB’s longtime artistic director, Toni Pimble, who is recognized nationally as a creator of vivid and original ballets. Keefer will write about ten installments leading up to the premiere next spring, and ArtsWatch will reprint them once they’ve debuted on Eugene Art Talk. Here’s Episode 2, focusing on designer Nadya Geras-Carson.


Three hands of art: why it matters

None of us owns art. Not even the artists who create it. And yet, we all own it, and it shifts as we shift.

Why art? On Saturday, ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks spoke on this basic question to the national sales meeting of Pomegranate Communications, the Portland-based publisher of fine art books and gifts, at the invitation of vice president and publisher Zoe Katherine (Katie) Burke. Also speaking were Scott A. Shields, associate director and chief curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, and Randall Stuart, founder and director of Portland’s Cerimon House. Hicks’s speech is reprinted below.


When Katie asked me a couple of months ago if I’d be willing to talk with all of you today, I said, Sure, what would you like me to talk about?, and she said she was thinking of a general theme for the day of Why the Arts Are Important.

For a writer, that’s a dream assignment. You can go just about anywhere you want with it. And I will.

Let me start by observing that our culture is schizophrenic on the subject of art.

On one hand, our opera and ballet companies and symphonic orchestras are spiraling toward perpetual poverty and even bankruptcy, victims of high production costs and a shifting culture that just isn’t all that interested in such art forms anymore. The National Endowment for the Arts is a battered political Ping-Pong ball, surviving on what amounts to table scraps from the smorgasbords of Wall Street bonus babies. Theater companies scrape by on the backs of their performers, who are all too often the last and least to be paid, but, hey, the show must go on. And while few visual artists starve or live in actual garrets, a lot are spending more on supplies to stock their garage studios than they make in sales, relying instead on outside jobs or gainfully employed domestic partners.

On the other hand, it’s possible that no culture in history has been as saturated in art as ours is. Culturally and anthropologically, if not always aesthetically, art is everywhere. Movies and television and Facebook and YouTube streams and on-demand delivery systems and probably someday soon little cranial implants that will allow us to simply “think” the feeds we want to see and feel are 24-hour-a-day preoccupations. We use art to keep our hypercapitalistic economic engine humming: ever noticed how often the commercials on TV are more entertaining than the programs they break up? Every time I hear some pop singer mangle The Star-Spangled Banner before a ballgame, I’m reminded of how completely the arts and sports megaliths have merged into one giant entertainmentplex. It’s the fusion of the Homeric tradition and the Roman gladiator ring.

"Echo and Narcissus," John Price Waterhouse, 1903, oil on canvas, 43 x 74.5 inches, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons

“Echo and Narcissus,” John Price Waterhouse, 1903, oil on canvas, 43 x 74.5 inches, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons

You might be thinking, But that’s pop culture, that’s not art. And I agree – partly. Pop culture and art are both built on story. They might fulfill a basic human urge in different ways, but they’re responding to the same desire. And they bleed into each other.

It’s good to remember that the ancient tales of Homer and the other Greeks were popular entertainment as well as a kind of philosophy and religion and science, an attempt to explain the universe and humans’ place within it. The gods were frightful and petty and powerful and they were also great entertainers: people hung on the stories about them the way we hang on reports of the misdeeds of celebrities. We’re suckers for the wayward cavortings of our media stars. How is Miley Cyrus shaking her booty or Kim Kardashian baring hers different from Zeus chasing down Leda for a little roll in the feathers, or Narcissus drowning in a pool of self-idolatry? The Greek heroes and deities were undeniably great and they were also raffish and lowbrow, like Shakespeare after them, and for centuries the Greeks and Shakespeare, along with the stories of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, have been pretty much the base of our high culture, at least in the Western world.

On the third hand, if you’ll grant me the extension of an extra appendage, we also live in an American culture that believes art is equivalent to decorative wallpaper, and therefore irrelevant to what is really important, and thus to be shunted to the peripheries of our lives. In the politicized and obsessive world of education reform, the battle cry is STEM, an acronym that stands for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” No, no, the advocates of arts education retort, we must have STEAM, adding an “A” for “arts,” and I confess I do get a little steamed when I hear the demands for STEM, because I can’t see the point of learning “how” if you’re not also examining “why.” And then I think about Charles Dickens, and his novel Hard Times, and its earnest but misguided headmaster Mr. Gradgrind, who believed that floor carpets should not have images of flowers woven into them because the flowers are not real and so add nothing to the purpose of the rug.

And then I realize that I’ve just made an artistic response to counter a utilitarian argument. And isn’t that, in itself, utilitarian in the way the educational reformers seem to believe the arts and humanities are not? That makes me wonder, as things follow: Are such extreme cultural catastrophes as Ferguson and Sandy Hook and the Staten Island chokehold, at their heart,  failures of the imagination? And is it not the imagination that is the wellspring of art?

I believe that if we pay attention, art is everywhere. I believe it happens early and often, and that it doesn’t really happen, though of course it’s made; it simply is. We live it, we breathe it, all the time, and the more we live and breathe it, the more it defines us, the more it becomes a part of us. It is astonishing for its diversity, and for its ability to unite – or if not unite, at least connect. “Only connect!” E.M. Forster famously wrote in his novel Howards End, anticipating both our electronic microchip lifestyles and our need to see ourselves as individuals within a vast human context. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” That, I believe, to put a utilitarian twist on it, is one crucial purpose of art: to help us be whole, as individuals and as a species.


Little occurrences of art inhabit my memories, and I imagine yours, too. As an early grade-schooler in the 1950s I remember going to a neighbor’s house and seeing a portrait of a person I didn’t recognize, hanging in a prominent spot on the wall. “Who’s that?” I asked the woman of the house, the mother of a friend of mine. “That,” she replied solemnly, “is the greatest man in the world.” I was thunderstruck. To think the world’s greatest man was right here, enshrined, in my neighbors’ living room! Later I learned it was a portrait of Dwight Eisenhower, and maybe not art as most people think of it, except that in that household, it served both an artistic and an almost religious function. A few years later I visited another house, as the guest of a very young couple who had recently been married. They proudly, sweetly showed me an embroidered cloth framed on the wall of their tiny living room. In it, the young woman had stitched the words “Home Sweet Home.” And I realized that in that house, that was art, a living relic that echoed the commitment they had made to making a life together. In their household, that embroidery was more valuable, and certainly more personal, than a Jeff Koons sculpture. It connected. It dawned on me that people make art – not just in the ordinary sense of artists crafting objects that we call art, but more elementally and democratically: individual people, no matter what their stations in life, invest objects and ideas with artistic purpose.

I remember, from as far back as I can remember, books. The stories, of course, but also the heft and feel of them, the crinkle of pages, the gentle creasing of the spine, the texture on my fingers as I turned the page.

Arthur Rackham, illustration from "Cinderella," by C.S. Evans; London, W. Heinemann / Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott, 1919.

Arthur Rackham, illustration from “Cinderella,” by C.S. Evans; London, W. Heinemann / Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott, 1919. Wikimedia Commons

And the pictures. So often, the pictures. As a child, when the world was fresh and my perceptions were more vivid than they’ll ever be again, books truly were magical, and much of the magic was transmitted through the pictures, in which an illustrator gave recognizable form to the abstract and wondrous stories that authors transmitted to my mind. Alice followed the rabbit down the hole, and that was novel, but Tenniel gave the image life. I devoured fairy tales, like the wolf I suppose: Perrault, Andersen, the Grimms, the Russians; and great illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen. I recall particularly a set of books that included the old tale of Snow-White and Rose-Red, and which was illustrated with silhouette drawings that created a beautiful, dreadful double world; and many years later, when I first encountered the work of Kara Walker, I responded to her racial and cultural satire but also felt a little shiver at the memory of those childhood images still lurking patiently and indelibly in some small corner of my mind.

There’s a children’s tale I haven’t read, but I’ve seen the movie version which is quite good, called The NeverEnding Story. And the gist as I understand it is that story itself creates the fabric of reality, and that if we allow it to be nibbled away, by the earnest Gradgrinds or more brutal forces such as Stalin or Hitler, who banned certain types of art as “degenerate” and elevated sentimental and propagandistic images in their place, we put ourselves in danger of being swallowed by the void. And not just Stalin and Hitler. The Chinese government has just announced a plan to send wayward artists to the hinterlands to learn from the people and gain a “correct view on art.” The Chinese government also, by the way, recently banned punning in television broadcasts and advertisements: so far, you’re still free to engage in wordplay in the privacy of your own homes. Apparently, the freedom to think playfully leads to disasters like Ai Weiwei. Our own government, learning a lesson from the power that images held to sway opinion during the Vietnam war, does not allow photographers to shoot pictures of body bags or coffins coming home from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. If that’s not official recognition of the power of art, I’m not sure what is. So, we tell and retell and reinvent stories, because through stories we exist. Quite a role for wallpaper.


Art is important because it provokes and challenges and upends attitudes. As I grew older and moved beyond the illustrations to folk and fairy tales, which had their own savagery, I discovered the prints of Kathë Kollwitz, which held a mirror to the brutality of her relatively recent time, and Goya’s grotesque and angry images of war, and the strangely fevered visual creations of Bosch and Blake, and the satires of Daumier and Hogarth, and through them gained a sense of the psychological reality of what we so often confine to the tidy little corner of academia that we call history: such things really happened to actual people. Art preserves and transmits such knowledge. When I look at a painting of village life by Breugel I understand something about those people that I couldn’t understand in any other way. I was going to say that art is a shield against the onslaught of popular culture, which urges us to forget about history and context so we become more pliable to the forces of political and market culture, but that’s not right. Art is more like a flexible, nimble hovercraft that allows us to navigate among the new, making connections and opening fresh vistas and helping us understand pop culture as well as “serious” culture and place them both in perspective.

We live in a time when privacy is dying a very public death, and that’s a matter of serious concern, particularly when we consider that the erosion of individual privacy is occurring at the same time that large organizations are increasing their holds on secrecy. Facebook knows all and sees all about us – or at least it thinks it does; when I look at the ad feeds it sends me on the basis of the personal information it mines, I realize its capabilities are rudimentary and sometimes laughable in the extreme. But whatever Facebook and the National Security Agency know, there is a different kind of privacy, and that is the privacy of the mind; and the mind, in its full sense that includes that emotional state of being we call heart, is the domain of art. The time you spend contemplating a painting, reading a novel, immersing yourself in a piece of music: it’s irreducible to numbers. It can’t be measured. It’s yours. Even if you try to give away its secrets, in the end you can’t, because at the core of the transaction between human being and art is something ultimately unexplainable. That is the precious thing.


Beth Van Hoesen (American, 1926-2010), "Albert's Poppies," 1991, color aquatint, etching, and drypoint, hand colored with watercolor and gouache on moderately thick, moderately textured white wove paper, Gift of the E. Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Adams Trust, © Beth Van Hoesen, 2007.60.379. Portland Art Museum

Beth Van Hoesen (American, 1926-2010), “Albert’s Poppies,” 1991, color aquatint, etching, and drypoint, hand colored with watercolor and gouache on moderately thick, moderately textured white wove paper, Gift of the E. Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Adams Trust, © Beth Van Hoesen, 2007.60.379. Portland Art Museum

An artist of any kind is a witness to the universe, and because the universe is both micro and macro, what she sees can be wide or deep, large or small. The wonder of museums and of books is that they can accommodate both, and the spaces in between as well. I’m working right now on a catalog project on the artist James B. Thompson, whose work is very contemporary but also encompasses ancient archaeological markings from the Iron Age in northern Scotland. In the world of art, the past, present, and future can coexist, and that’s the sort of thing that theoretical physicists also grapple with.

Working on the essays for Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna & Flora, which Pomegranate published in August, I was struck again by how broad a vision Van Hoesen had from such a narrow focus. With her precise images of animals and vegetables and flowers she connects most easily with artists like Dürer and Monet and Audubon, but I also think of her as having a little bit of Emily Dickinson in her soul. She was intensely private, though like Dickinson far from a recluse, and conservative in technique, and like a microbiologist she saw wide by looking closer and closer. Her prints are easy to appreciate, and for people who want to simply glance at them they provide small moments of pleasure; quick reminders of small things in life that are good. Like all good art they deepen the more you look at them, and for me they transcend time. Given their original time and place, in the midst of the ferment of the latter half of the 20th century, they’re conservative images, but over time that doesn’t mean a lot: meanings come and go. Van Hoesen wasn’t consciously an environmentalist, at least so far as I know, but in the American West, where climate change and agricultural habits and human growth are threatening many species, her art and Audubon’s and that of contemporary Western artists like Michael Brophy and Matthew Dennison take on new meanings. Van Hoesen’s insistence on the individuality and vivid personality of animals also takes on fresh meaning in light of one of the 21st century’s emerging social movements, the quest for animal rights to parallel human rights. I doubt that Van Hoesen considered herself part of that movement. But there it is, and there she is.

In the end, none of us owns art, not even the artists who create it, and yet we all own it, and it shifts as we shift, and meanings shift according to who we are at any specific moment in time. And that’s a marvelous thing. I’ve come to appreciate the idea of the mosaic, which is at least partly an Islamic concept, in opposition to the arrow, which I take to mean the Western myth of constant progress toward something new and different. The view of the mosaic is rather one of interlocking pieces, interconnections, a pattern that can’t be seen in its totality from any single spot but which does exist.


I get a little taste of that every day, when I post an image of a historical painting on Facebook with a very short story to go with it, always beginning with the words “Today I Am” and often following with something outrageously made up, and then sit back and watch while people comment on the art and talk with one another, taking something public and making it privately their own, in a public forum.

Jewlensky_ Astonishment

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It’s a small thing, a little daily ritual, and undoubtedly to the eyes of the world’s Thomas Gradgrinds a counterproductive waste of time. But in its small way it enriches lives. Occasionally it might even subtly change them, and even if that’s small, it’s big. The thing is, I never know exactly what’s going to happen when I push that “post” button. It’s beyond my control. That’s the way art works, too. Plan carefully, execute as well as you can, embrace uncertainty, then set your baby free into the world and see how it flies. The results are usually not what you expect. And that unanticipated aspect – the surprise that happens when you simply let go – is really the heart of the thing.

To artists, I urge: keep on making art. To publishers, keep on making books. To marketers, keep on marketing and selling. To the censors, hands off: it’s not yours to decide. To all of us, keep on looking and reading and thinking and listening and learning. This is how we know ourselves. This is who we are.





Meghan McCandless and John Debkowski (top), Jared Miller and Susannah Mars (bottom) with the band in Artists Rep's "Next to Normal." Photo: Owen Carey

Portland’s a funny town. It thinks too big for its britches, or at least the britches it’s willing to pay for: It likes Brooks Brothers but wants it at a Target price. The city takes pride in constantly overachieving, often on the backs of its achievers. (Why should artists by paid? They do it for the love of it, right?) And just when its bouncing-ball economy thuds down to the floor and deflates again, it does the darnedest things, like voting to actually invest in its cultural future.

No telling at the moment how that library funding vote’s going to go, or whether the city’s schools will ever regain even a rudimentary arts curriculum, or whether the cultural-funding ballot initiative being pushed fast and furiously behind the scenes stands a snowball’s chance in a globally warming hell. But history makes an argument: In the early 1980s, in the midst of a recession quite possibly as bad as this one, at least in Oregon, voters approved a bond measure to build the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. So anything’s possible.

A lot’s changed in the 30-odd years since then, and in terms of performance the arts center’s had something to do with it. First it focused attention on theater and music like never before, and concentrated it downtown: in the short run it probably hurt small companies as audiences and money rushed to support the glamour theater spaces. Later, partly because of the increased attention the Performing Arts Center brought and partly because of the growth of high-tech and creative industries, things spread out – to Northwest, to the East Side, to the ’burbs.

That’s where we find ourselves now: in a city with a center but with an awful lot of the interesting action happening in nooks and crannies scattered all over the place. The highly publicized influx of young creatives (which has included a lot of older creatives, too), maybe coupled with a rotten economy that’s encouraged a lot of bright people to skip the traditional job market and take a chance on what they really want to do, has brought about an unruly flowering of culture, often in surprising places.

It’s easy to poke fun at it, Portlandia-style. And in the not-so-grand Portland tradition it’s still being done on a broken shoestring. To be clear: Portland isn’t New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, despite a lot of hopeful hype. For one thing, those cities actually put their money where their mouths are. Plus, they’re simply bigger, and size does make a difference. Yet there’s little denying: In spite of ourselves, we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution. And the seeds are blowing all over the place.

Simple fact: It’s impossible for any one person to keep up with all the theater happening in town. Can’t be done. That alone suggests the end of township and the beginning of city status: Cities are places that are too big to be known. In a real city, no matter how well you know it, you’re always also a stranger. And that can be exciting.

Over the weekend I went to three plays: The Storm in the Barn, in the little red Winningstad Theatre of the downtown Performing Arts Center; Next to Normal, in Artists Rep’s handsomely minimalist and frugally rehabbed space in downtown’s West End, a part of town that until recently was a mostly forgotten no-man’s land; and a stage adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in a gorgeously refurbished little church building in the Albina Arts District that I hadn’t even known existed, even though I live only about a mile away. I also chatted for a bit with Scott Palmer, whose Bag&Baggage company is thriving in the western suburb of Hillsboro, which, while the central city wasn’t looking, has blossomed into a highly educated and relatively high-income Silicon Forest city inching up toward 100,000 citizens, and is eager to declare its cultural independence.

What I didn’t get to was at least as instructive. At the East Side’s funky and friendly little Hipbone Studio, the always interesting Portland Story Theater kicked off its annual Singlehandedly! Festival of solo works. Portland Center Stage, which used to be in the Performing Arts Center but moved out to its own Armory home in the Pearl District, opened Frank Higgins’ folk-bluesy musical Black Pearl Sings. And Theatre Vertigo’s The American Pilot, defunkt’s Fire Island and Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s Sonnetscape, all shows I’d had some interest in, slipped away unseen … at least, by me. Blink and you’re behind. Blink twice and you’ve missed the parade.

It’s easy to celebrate the energy of this cultural mosaic – which encompasses dance, music (both “popular” and “serious”), visual arts, film, and graphic arts (including comics) as well as theater – without also asking how much of it is actually good. And while it’s true that newcomers often either underestimate or flat-out don’t know the quality of what was being produced when Portland was a quieter arts town, it’s also true that the current exuberance, while sometimes longer on hype than quality, has also raised standards in town. That’s particularly true in the world of musical theater, which has kicked itself into a much more consistently professional gear.

Take Oregon Children’s Theatre’s The Storm in the Barn, the story of a boy named Jack (aren’t the heroes always named Jack?) who isn’t strong but is clever and brave, and who defies and defeats a soul-crushing monster that’s been snatching all the rain. There are some sterling moments of stagecraft in this tall-tale story of the Midwest Dust Bowl days, which is based on a popular graphic novel by Matt Phelan. (The book won the 2010 Scott O’Dell Award, named for the author of the great kids’ book Island of the Blue Dolphins.)


Jack Clevenger in "Storm." Photo: Owen Carey

The opening image is a wonderful whipping and whirring of wind, blowing dust like there’s no tomorrow and suggesting that, for a lot of farmers, there really isn’t. And when the Storm King pops out – a towering figure with a menacing mask and a mysterious air – the young audience gets a feeling for the magic that the stage can unleash. But for me the thing really kicks off with a voice – some sweetly keening syllables by Melanie Joy Hall as Ma, alone on the prairie – followed quickly by the rattle and bang of all sorts of struck instruments and implements, from washboard to wrench, in a rhythmic symphony of life on the farm. The music, composed by members of the Portland band Black Prairie (which includes several members of the Decemberists), establishes exactly the kind of Grapes of Wrath cultural footing of richness amid poverty that the tale needs: a sense of making do with what you have, making music from whatever’s available, everyone pitching in. Jack may be the hero, but he comes from somewhere and something.

The stage and costume designs (including a great old farm truck onstage throughout the show) are striking, the acting’s good (Jack Clevenger’s ideal as Jack, and Damon Kupper’s all grit and gristle and knotted-up worry as Pa), and Eric Coble’s adaptation emphasizes the elemental mystery of it all. At times the show seems too elegiac, as if the storm needs to push things along more briskly, and the ending, when Pa finally realizes Jack’s worth, seems abrupt. But in most ways it’s a lovely piece, drawn together by dozens of people from here and not here, too. And why, in 21st century trend-cresting Portland, a play about dirt farmers in drought-stricken 1930s Kansas? Because, dammit. Because we’re made up of millions of stories, some of them true and some of them only factual. Because that’s the way cities do things.

Artists Rep’s Next to Normal is in many ways an exceptional example of contemporary chamber musical theater – a small-scale production with big intentions and a richly satisfying carry-through. Director Jon Kretzu and musical director Rick Lewis are expert tacticians, and the production, although intensely emotional and densely packed, moves fluidly forward with almost serene professionalism.

Megan McCandless, Todd Tschida in "Normal." Photo: Owen Carey

At the show’s center is an almost irresistible element: the wonderful musical-theater star Susannah Mars as a mentally unhinged wife and mother swimming through a sea of pills, paranoia, guilt and electroshock, all while maintaining a canny if mordant sense of humor. And she’s surrounded by a highly skilled supporting cast.

I pretty much agree with Marty Hughley, in his review for The Oregonian, on the show’s strengths and weaknesses. I like the singing more than the songs: Tom Kitt’s pop-rockish score is technically demanding (lots of falsetto) but also a bit generic. And I’m not sure the play (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) gets inside mental illness in the emotionally illuminating way that, for instance, a less “issue”-oriented play like Long Day’s Journey into Night does: The play’s Pulitzer Prize seems to be more a reward for the issues it raises than for its intrinsic dramatic values. I also wonder whether the script doesn’t oversimplify tormented Diana’s mental illness as a sort of historical cause-and-effect born from the great tragedy in her life. But whether Next to Normal is “right” or “wrong” about its subject – that topic can lead to a lot of dead ends – it stimulates a lot of conversation and a lot of thought. That’s a significant achievement. And those performances, from Mars all the way through to newcomer Meghan McCandless as her teen-age daughter: lovely. If it’s Next to Normal you want, I don’t think you’ll find many productions better than this.

Cerimon House’s staged reading of The Bridge, an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, was performed once only – on Sunday afternoon at the Alberta district’s Little Church, a recently renovated small space that has gorgeous clean Scandinavian-feeling lines and is ideal for what was essentially a salon-style event, which fit in an audience of about 55 and felt pleasingly crowded.

Wilder’s novel is a small but brilliant American gem, a deceptively simply story of almost poetic precision, with hardly a wasted word. As simply told as it seems, it drops regularly and deeply into psychological and emotional analysis of its characters, and it’s framed by an unanswerable but essential cosmic question: is life accidental, or planned?

"The Bridge," from left: Gilberto Martin del Campo, Amaya Villazan,
Dawn Lisell, Eva Rotter, Gretchen Rumbaugh, Debbie Hunter,
Sam A. Mowry. Photo: Gary Norman

With so much internal content Bridge might seem an unlikely candidate piece for the theater. But literary adaptation is all the rage (Portland Center Stage’s Anna Karenina is still on the boards) and besides, Wilder is also the creator of three genuine American stage classics: Our Town, The Matchmaker, and The Skin of Our Teeth. It shouldn’t be surprising that some of that dramatic sensibility slips into his fiction as well.

Dawn Lisell, who also plays the role of the Abbess, created the adaptation, dropping several characters (including Brother Juniper and the actual brothers Esteban and Manuel) but maintaining the novel’s essence, which is observant and knowingly funny and spiritual rather than religious and concerned with the deeply felt smallness of human beings and the role of love amid the unfathomable wonder of existence. The novel’s setup is simple: on a July day in 1714 a bridge outside of Lima in Peru snaps, and five people tumble to their deaths. Who were they, what were their stories, did their lives and deaths hold purpose or did they simply happen?

Lisell maintain’s Wilder’s structure, anchoring the reading with the author’s narrative voice (read brilliantly by Sam A. Mowry) and passing the other major characters around a highly talented cast including Debbie Hunter, Gilberto Martin del Campo, Eva Rotter, Gretchen Rumbaugh and Amaya Villazan. The afternoon was supremely civilized, and by that I don’t mean earnest and dull but intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging. As satisfying as it was, this is a work in progress, and could become very much more as it fleshes out.

Cerimon House is the brainchild of actor/director Randall Stuart, like Lisell and Rumbaugh a veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and he calls it a “sanctuary for the humanities.” In an intriguing way, that seems what Portland itself is trying to become. And it’s doing it in a thousand little ways, in a thousand little corners, sometimes stitching them together so a bigger pattern can be seen.

In the meantime, theater marches on. This week, among others: more storytelling from Singlehandedly; the musical-theater version of Spring Awakening from Live Onstage; Gracie, the world premiere of Don Horn’s musical bio of burlesque entrepeneur Gracie Hansen; Milagro’s Oedipus el Ray. This is the city, and you can’t catch it all.

But you can try.

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