ArtsWatch Weekly: Revel without a Claus

Commedia Christmas, O'Connor & Ives, Nutcracker, Imago's new Belle, Milagro's Posada, more "Messiah," Kurosawa Dreams, and more

This year’s dragon, not red as in the picture here from 2014 but a bright scaly green, was sitting in a little storage corner outside Portland Revels’ offices in the Artists Repertory Theatre creative hub one day last week, waiting patiently for assembly. It was in two pieces: a hind portion stretched over a large backpack, with room for levers, and a gangly top, again with movable parts, which when occupied by puppeteer Shuhe Hawkins will stretch giraffe-like perhaps 12 or 15 feet above the stage. It is a lovely creature all in all, and that fabled dragon-slayer St. George really ought to be ashamed.

Taggin’ with the dragon, in the 2014 Revels. Portland Revels photo

It’s Revels time again – this year’s Christmas Revels runs for eight performances Friday through December 21 at St. Mary’s Academy downtown – and for Bruce Hostetler, newly settled in as artistic director after about five years of working with and directing the annual winter solstice show, that means settling into the hundreds of details at hand while he’s also thinking about bigger things. If you don’t know about Revels – which is in its 22nd year in Portland, and began in 1975 in Cambridge, Massachusetts – it’s a grand and genuinely family get-together of singing, dancing, storytelling, mumming, and playing old-time instruments that is rooted in Celtic customs but regularly roams the earth, making connections with other cultures’ solstice traditions. Santa Claus? That’s somebody else’s tale.


OOPS. HERE IT IS A WEEK into December, and you’ve still got that shopping stuff to do. You sort of thought this would be the year you bought local – you know, support the place you live in sort of thing – but it’s all a bit confusing, and you’re really not sure where to start.

Hannah Wells 8 x 8-inch artwork in “The Big 500.”

So let us introduce you to The Big 500, an all-local, all-art, low-cost and accessible event produced by “people’s artists” Chris Haberman and Jason Brown and sprawling across the Ford Gallery in the Ford Building, 2505 Southeast 11th Avenue. Now in its ninth year, The Big 500 is actually more than that – 500+ Portland area artists, each creating 8 x 8 inch pieces on wood panels, each piece for sale for $40. More than 5,000 works will be on hand, and besides putting some cash in local artists’ pockets, the event raises money for the Oregon Food Bank, which can put it to extremely good use.

The sale kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday and continues through December 23. It’s a pretty wild scene, with all sorts of stuff at all sorts of levels of accomplishment, and it’s more than a bit of a crap shoot: you might walk in and find ten pieces you absolutely must have for the people on your list, or you might strike out. Either way, the sheer volume of objects is pretty amazing. And what you spend here stays here. You’re welcome.


The (sub)Liminal case for Santa

The experimental theater troupe imagines the jolly old elf via e.e. cummings and a character called Death

Santa Claus will never die.

Maybe that’s because of his mythic, iconographic and perhaps spiritual powers (not to mention the commercial weight he throws around). Or maybe, as some will insist, he doesn’t really exist, and therefore isn’t alive in the first place.

In any case, the jolly old elf, or whatever he is (or isn’t), appears to have immortality all sewn up, at least if you note the seasonal theater offerings at this time of each and every year.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewHow much of a lock does he have on the popular imagination and the December events calendar? Get this: Liminal is doing a Christmas show!

Of course, Christmas-themed plays are standard-issue for most theater companies, and since Jesus himself, however joyful, gives off such an ascetic vibe, Santa is the point man of choice for seasonal entertainment. Still, Liminal Santa comes as something of a surprise: Liminal Performance Group isn’t a company in whose company you’d expect to find the big guy. Not the kind of group that has to fill set slots in a subscription season, it mounts productions at irregular intervals, in varied spaces, and has been known for its experimental bent. But even those who live on the fringe like to come in from the cold once in a while.

“We’ve done a lot of experiments with walk-through environments and the like, and we’re kind of interested in going back to a conventional theater style a little bit,” says Liminal’s co-artistic director John Berendzen. “Doing Liminal Presents Gertrude Stein in 2012 was as far as we could get from convention, and that was a very immersive project, and now I just want to go back and see what we can do in the other direction. This will be our second show in a row that’s more or less sit-down straight theater.”

Last year the group surprised theatergoers with a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, bringing a few interpretive liberties to that well-worn yet still valuable classic. This time it’s holiday fare, though from the unusual vantage point of e.e. cummings.

Liminal's Santa clause: Composite photo by Sumi Wu and Leo Daedalus

Liminal’s Santa clause: Composite photo by Sumi Wu and Leo Daedalus

Directed by Berendzen, Liminal Santa primarily consists of cummings’ 1946 one-act play Santa Claus: A Morality. In between its five short scenes, though, Berendzen uses bits of other cummings texts as “knee scenes,” that is, interludes that serve as joints from one main action to the next. The show will be staged at the Backdoor Theatre on Southeast Hawthorne, Thursdays through Sundays, Dec. 4-21.

Get set for what the group is billing as “good clean modernist holiday shenanigans.”

“It has cummings’ odd use of language and sense of the absurd, but it has a sense to it; it’s a plot of ideas,” Berendzen says of the primary text, in which Santa Claus gets advice from — and eventually switches apparent identities with — Death. At the outset, Santa is a bit bedraggled, especially by comparison to Death, who Berendzen describes as “a One-Percenter, a dapper, aristocratic, capitalist daddy.” Santa complains that he has so much to give and no one will take. Death replies that he has so much to take but nobody will give. “We are not living in an age of gifts: This is an age of salesmanship, my friend,” the skeletal man tells the fat man.

“It’s like a contrast of life and death, good and evil, love and cynicism,” Berendzen says.  “You can tell it was written during a time of high optimism about science, and cummings is taking his digs at that outlook. Death tells Santa that what he needs to do is become a knowledge salesman, a scientist. It’s really quite relevant.”

While Santa Claus is the star, Death really is the more intriguing character here. He speaks, sometimes, in lofty verse, as in this description of an unreal world — our’s — where Santa’s gifts aren’t valued:

 Imagine, if you can, a world so blurred

so timid, it would rather starve itself

eternally than run the risk of choking;

so greedy, nothing satisfies its hunger

but always huger quantities of nothing —

a world so lazy that it cannot dream;

so blind, it worships its own ugliness;

a world so false, so trivial, so unso, 

phantoms are solid by comparison.


Yet the gent can sling a little lingo, too, telling Santa at one point, “I’ve got a heavy date with a swell jane up the street.”

“It’s an interesting meeting between high style and a little bit of slumming; it has a kind of bawdy, earthy aspect,” Berendzen says. “It allows us to do the presentational thing, but within that, the characters are very human and real. The text is in iambic pentameter, but it has a really informal quality, which we’re emphasizing.”

That “presentational thing,” in this case, relies mostly on costumes (by Imago Theatre stalwart Sumi Wu) and lighting (by Rory Breshears) in a scenic design that leaves the black box very black — partly, we presume, to make Death feel at home, but more importantly to facilitate a “dimensional video landscape” by Ben Purdy.

“This is, in a way, very much about the theater, about the lights and costumes and the environment that’s created,” says Berendzen, who also has composed music for the show. “It’s like, if you’re going to break the fourth wall you first have to establish the fourth wall. You can’t really do this stylized morality play if you’re not in that (explicitly theatrical) environment.”

Will such theatricality be enough to bridge the gap between Liminal’s avant-garde-ish reputation and the sort of audience that might otherwise go to see yet another version of “A Christmas Carol”? Berendzen isn’t yet sure. He didn’t choose Santa to sell out and cash in on holiday spending, after all, but at the same time he’d like an audience.

“There’ve been times when we’d spend a whole year developing a show and a total of 200 people would see it,” he recalls. “But I am interested in bringing more people to experimental theater, because I think it’s worthwhile and it’s not as difficult to appreciate as they might think.

“But you know, I just sent out an email blast on Black Friday about a Christmas show that’s about the problems of Christmas. So, I’m not blind to the ironies.”




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