Day of the Dead

DramaWatch Weekly: Rumor has it

Day of the Dead, day of the cabaret, day of the All Jane Comedy Festival (plus another episode of YouTubinator)

Is Milagro Theatre downsizing, moving or closing?

A.L. Adams

Nope, says Producing Creative Director Roy Antonio Arauz, but he can see why people are asking. While their annex space, El Zocalo, has been undergoing accessibility upgrades, their boarded-up front windows have been beset by spraypaint and wayward fliers, making them deceptively appear shut-down.

But don’t fret! Portland’s longest-running Latino theater is gearing up as usual for its annual highlight: a Dia de Muertos play that always wraps a new theme around the sacred and sensorially rich traditions of the fall holiday. It opens next week and continues through mid November. ‘Til then, ignore the unfortunate window dressing.

“Exodo,” Milagro Theatre’s 22nd annual Day of the Dead spectacular, opens Oct. 20. Photo: Russell J Young

Here in the ArtsWatch theater department, further rumors abound: that (according to Bobby Bermea) Shaking the Tree’s Samantha Van Der Merwe is a magician, that (via TJ Acena) Artists Rep’s trying to mess with our minds. According to Deann Welker, Lost in Midair is the real deal, and if you ask Bob Hicks, the Portland Civic Theatre Guild has had a lot going on for a long time. Read all about it.

Oh! And even though I missed season 1, I heard Season 2 of Joel Patrick Durham’s horror serial Nesting: Vacancy might be worth looking into. Who was saying that? Oh, right: its actors. Well, maybe they would know. Here at ArtsWatch, Hailey Bachrach is vouching.

Lakewood Theatre’s Cabaret  closes this weekend, looking clean and cheesy in counterpoint to this summer’s Broadway Portland offering, which felt credibly dark and sleazy. (How much realness do you want from strippers and Nazis? It’s negotiable.) One thing fans of this musical ought to stop not knowing, is that downtown Portland has a real-life Kit Kat Club. Mere blocks from the Keller, its existence recently rendered Broadway Portland’s poetic PR pitch “We welcome you to the Kit Kat Club…” downright confusing to high/low arts amphibians like me. Hedging my bets, I attended both events, finding surprising similarities: Each Kit Kat had a glittery, mischievous emcee; each featured winky burlesque and wobbling flesh. In each, the writer was quickly befriended by a sly businessman with a hidden agenda. But at only one of the parallel Kit Kats did I witness dancers doing carnival strongman feats, including The Bed of Nails and The Crushing of One’s Fingers under a Tin Can—and believe it or not, that was on the small stage. All of which is to say: Cabaret the musical closes this weekend at Lakewood, probably sans can-crushing but with plenty of satiny pizazz. Cabaret the concept continues, probably forever.

Now let’s be naughty and play the little game we love, but PR people so often hate: Let’s YouTube search some more performers! In my experience, comedians are the most cool with that anyway, and luckily, this weekend dozens are coming. I’ll race you to the YouTubinator!

First up, searching Amber Ruffin yields a deep trove of video treasure. As a staff writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers she frequently appears in recurring bits like “Amber Says What,” “Amber’s Minute of Fury,” and “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” Here she is recapping the 2016 Olympics in a single word, and here she is flipping her wig in defense of a congresswoman.  And just watch the next twenty or so clips that come up. I did.

Well, shoot. If we do this for all 48 acts from All Jane Comedy Festival, we’ll be at it until it’s over. Just go to these shows. They start tonight.

Laura Sams candidly takes one of 48 slots at the All Jane Comedy Festival Oct. 11-15.





Doing anything Friday night? How about hanging out on 82nd Avenue?

The East Side strip, which runs north-south for many miles, was once considered a barrier of sorts between the city and the sprawl, and also an economic barrier, with a richer urban population to the west and a poorer, semi-rural population to the east. East County didn’t get in the game very much, and when it did, it was often as a political football. 82nd became neon central, home to everything from used car lots to Southeast Asian restaurants to massage parlors – and, increasingly, a rich stew of ethnic and immigrant cultures.

Signs of the times: Sabina Haque's 82nd Avenue.

Signs of the times: Sabina Haque’s 82nd Avenue.

That’s what makes it interesting to Portland artist Sabina Haque, a very good painter and collagist whose work in recent years has moved also toward installation, film, and cultural and cross-cultural projects, including her provocative series on drone warfare in Pakistan, where she grew up.

Haque, as artist in residence for the Portland Archives & Records Center, has been digging deeply into the area’s long and complicated history, finding a cultural through-line to match the strip of concrete that divides culture from culture and east from west. From 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday she’ll unveil what she’s created in Annexation & Assimilation: East 82nd Ave, a giant exhibition/event in the 8,000-square-foot APANO/JADE multicultural center at 82nd and Southeast Division Street. The free event will include video projections on 20-foot screens, oral histories, shadow theater, poster installations and more – for some, a rousing introduction to a part of Portland they hardly know; to others, a simple statement of the place they live.


And suddenly it’s October. Among other things – pumpkin patches, Yom Kippur, the World Series, Halloween – that means we’re two days from First Thursday, Portland’s monthly gallery hop of new shows. This week’s visual art calendar is a doozy, from open studios to Warhol with lots between.

A few of the highlights:

James Lavadour Ruby II, 2016 oil on panel 32" x 48"

James Lavadour, “Ruby II,” 2016, oil on panel, 32″ x 48.” PDX Contemporary.

James Lavadour at PDX Contemporary. It’s always a good day when new work by Lavadour, the veteran landscape expressionist from Pendleton, comes to town. This show, called Ledger of Days, furthers his exploration of the land and its mysteries. “A painting is a structure for the extraordinary and informative events of nature that are otherwise invisible,” he writes. “A painting is a model for infinity.” Lavadour is also one of the moving forces behind Pendleton’s innovative and essential Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Watch for what’s coming up.

The new Russo Lee Gallery: 30 years. What you’ve known for years as Laura Russo Gallery is celebrating three decades with a showing of new work by its distinguished stable of artists – and with a new name. The name is a fusion of the gallery’s long tradition and current reality. After founder Laura Russo died in 2010, her longtime employee Martha Lee bought the business and continues to operate it. This show promises to be a statement of sorts, and will have a catalog available.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Day of the Dead

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Suddenly it’s mid-October, and Halloween’s grinning around the corner, as is the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, which counterintuitively livens things up considerably, especially on Portland’s theater scene. This week, Teatro Milagro opens its twentieth annual celebration of the Day of the Dead, this time called La Muerte Baila, for a run through November 8. The talented Rebecca Martinez has put this bilingual show together, and we never know exactly what to expect until we’ve seen it, but this description from Milagro gives a hint: “When a disenchanted muertito refuses to return to the realm of the living, La Muerte must stop her own grumbling and set things straight.” Dancing, comedy, and a tour through “the realms of grief and remembrance”: get on your dancing shoes.


Sofia Tlamatiliztli May-Cuxim, all dressed up for Milagro's La Muerte Baila. Photo: Russell J Young

Sofia Tlamatiliztli May-Cuxim, all dressed up for Milagro’s La Muerte Baila. Photo: Russell J Young

Elsewhere on this week’s theater calendar, we detect something of a, well, theme:

Meanwhile, Post5 Theatre opens a revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, with Cassandra Boice directing and Todd Van Voris leading the cast. But that’s a horse of a different collar.

And speaking of horses, Wayne Harrel’s Remme’s Run – the tale of a wild six-day horseback gallop from Sacramento to Portland in 1855 – opens at CoHo. A.L. Adams reviewed the show’s trial trot at last spring’s Fertile Ground new-plays fest for ArtsWatch.


Shakespeare’s altar ego

Milagro's multilingual historical fiction meets the Bard on his Day of the Deathbed

What do you put on a Dia de los Muertos altar? Candles, claroFlowers, por supuesto. But there’s a place, too, for more surprising stuff. Like a Pez dispenser, say, or a shoe. Anything goes, assuming it means something significant about the dead person being honored, to the living person who put it there. And once it’s placed, it stays. More pieces may be added, but typically, nothing is taken away.

The same principle is at play in Milagro Theatre‘s O Romeo, a much-if-n0t-all-encompassing bilingual homage to Shakespeare that runs through Sunday. It arranges a loving clutter of his plays’ characters around the figure of a dying Bard to perform a pageant of remembrance and reimagination. As O Romeo‘s Shakespeare (Anthony Green) takes to his deathbed, he’s visited by specters from his writings.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewOphelia (Rebecca Ridenour), in a white nightie, hands out herbs and flowers to baffled onlookers. Titania (Tara Hershberger) flits around playing a flute. A composite jester dubbed “Yorick” (Jake Wiest) jokes and tumbles in the irreverent fashion Shakespeare’s fools favor. Lady Macbeth (Danielle Chaves) and Richard III (Enrique E. Andrade) preen haughtily and sing opera while they collude on a sinister scheme to destroy Shakespeare’s writings and exonerate their blighted names. Polonius (Arlena Barnes) pontificates, Hamlet (Heath Hyun-Houghton) broods … and we’re made to understand that one more young joven that Shakespeare deems “Romeo” is actually—in a twist the Bard can’t emotionally process—his nonfictional son Hamnet (Otniel Henig), who died young.

It's a multilingual, time-shifting whirl. Photo: Russell J Young

It’s a multilingual, time-shifting whirl. Photo: Russell J Young

Meanwhile, in Milagro’s adjacent Zócalo Community Space, visitors can browse a collection of themed altars designed by local artists from Latino collective FusionArte. A community memorial altar is filled with photos of the recently passed—some installed with the piece, some added since by visitors. A children’s altar, called Holy Innocents, is adorned with toys and a little bank where, as a token, one could leave a coin. And then there’s Shakespeare’s altar, where a skeleton decked out in Elizabethan garb reclines amid red roses on a rollable gurney.

“Even though he’s dead, we just keep rolling him out,” quipped Milagro artist, host and docent Vincente Guzman-Orozco to a patron, an apt comment for a show that essentially reanimates the Bard to play with him. The show, like an altar, is a monument of remembrance, full of an array of representations that are open to interpretation. It differs from a historical retelling in the same way that the items on a day-of-the-dead altar differ from the artifacts in a museum exhibit.

O Romeo‘s biggest fictional flourishes are giving him a Jewish/Spanish house servant named Rifke (Sofia May-Cuxim), and imagining that his final masterpiece-in-progress was a play set in “the new world” that’s since become Mexico. Shakespeare’s spectral characters perform a condensed version of this pretend play, complete with Aztec feather headdresses, within the second act. Aesthetically, it’s exciting. Historically, of course, it’s fast and loose.

This practice of casting real-life historical figures as themselves in a fictitious narrative has obvious pros and cons. It risks rewriting or distorting public perception of history, yet it endeavors to enliven history’s great personalities in a way that renews contemporary audiences’ otherwise flagging interest. The theory is, if you enjoy a historical figure’s persona as interpreted in an entertaining fictional context, you may be able to transfer that enjoyment to the (otherwise dry) process of learning that figure’s actual history.

How often it pans out that way is impossible to say. For instance, how many teens-at-heart who enjoyed Freud and Socrates in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure went on to research their philosophies, versus how many simply giggled and picked up the boys’ bad habit of pronouncing Socrates “So crates?” And how many viewers of the Oscar-winning 1998 film Shakespeare in Love understood it as fiction, versus leaving the theater half-believing that Shakespeare had an affair with Gwyneth Paltrow? For my part, when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna—similar to O Romeo in that it describes famous historical figures Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera through the eyes of their fictitious house servant—I did feel its intended effect: History brought to life. Humanity brought to legends. I might even go back and read the referenced history. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself.

The Complete Works Project’s plea to all local theater companies to put on Bard-centric shows caught Milagro at a convenient moment, as the theater sought a theme for its longstanding annual Dia de los Muertos pageant. A pairing of the two ideas seemed natural to devisor/director Olga Sanchez, and she spent about seven weeks developing it with the cast. Though O Romeo, as a newly devised piece, doesn’t help Complete Works meet its quota of plays penned by Shakespeare, it’s definitely (ahem) “in the spirit” of the effort.

Speaking of spirits … though apparently unintentional, O Romeo‘s parallels to Dickens’ Christmas Carol are nearly impossible to ignore. An elderly man, hardened by life’s losses, has a long lucid dream in his bedchamber, where he’s visited by a succession of spirits who ply him to new understandings. This trebles the show’s seasonal relevance to cover the current Shakespeare push, the just-ended Day of the Dead, and the upcoming Christmas.

Like many of Milagro’s shows over the years, O Romeo gives Spanish-speaking and bilingual audiences more for their money than only-English speakers. (In the past couple of years, Milagro has begun projecting translations during some, but not all, shows. This one doesn’t have ’em.) Rifke’s asides and jokes often earn a laugh in her native tongue without being repeated in English. According to the largely bilingual cast, modern Spanish speakers actually have an advantage over their English-only contemporaries when it comes to appreciating translations of Shakespeare. “Spanish has remained more consistent since Shakespeare’s time, while English has changed more,” explained actor Sofia May-Cuxim during a talkback. “So what we hear in translations of Shakespeare, is closer to what we’re still saying in Spanish.”

But—also signature Milagro—the show is dreamy and impressionistic enough that it doesn’t require complete comprehension for general enjoyment. Its best moments are musical, mysterious, or both. The ensemble sings beautifully and plays Amir Shirazi’s arrangements and originals adeptly, and dual leads Green and May-Cuxim conjure poignant emotion—spine-tingling and near tears—at key moments in the story. Language may be left-brained, but this pageantry and sentiment feels right.

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