Portland Actors Conservatory

ArtsWatch year in theater 2017

From "Astoria" to "The Humans" with a whole lot in between, a month-by-month stroll with ArtsWatch through the year in Oregon 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.

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DramaWatch Weekly: A Dickensian Nor’wester and scattered Revels

ArtsWatch forecasts this week's holiday theater weather.

This weather, huh? What’s the forecast for this weekend and beyond?

A.L. Adams

To the southwest, there’ll be scattered Revels, with peak conditions for viewing Nordic Lights, and some precipitation rolling in from the Mediterranean will leave conditions Pericles Wet, while a family drama high pressure front builds up between Morrison and Alder. A Dickensian chill will sweep along the east river bank, building into a twister as it crosses into Northwest and breaking into gales of wry laughter as it heads for the Hils. It will miss Tigard altogether, which will experience mild enough conditions to continue its Holiday Parade already under way. Meanwhile, the Northeast will experience bursts of gospel, and as you head toward Columbia, be on the lookout for flaming radicals.

Dickensian drama is blowing in with the return of Portland Playhouse’s popular “A Christmas Carol” (above), Scott Palmer’s “Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol'” at Bag & Baggage in Hillsboro, Second City’s “Twist Your Dickens” at The Armory, and Phillip J. Berns’s “A Christmas Carol: A One Man Ghost Story.” Photo: Portland Playhouse

As you head Southeast, expect some choppy seas, and an abrupt shift as Utopia closes at Hand2Mouth and a dystopia opens at Theatre Vertigo: Victor Mack will direct José Rivera’s Marisol, a near-contemporary of Angels in America with some similar motifs—mental illness and spiritual warfare between angelic beings—along with some surprisingly ripped-from-current-headlines themes—namely, the struggle of a Puerto Rican woman against an unjust god who is dying and “taking the rest of the universe with him.” Also the frenzied desperation of an urban hellscape where citizens driven into homelessness by debt and personal injury gnash and wail in the streets.

Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity”: a shining star. PassinArt photo/2016

Happy holidays, y’all. Jacob Marley left a message; something about “mankind being our business?” He said he’ll try again—repeatedly throughout our city, then at Vertigo on Christmas week, when Phillip Berns reprises his solo version of the classic.

Imago’s’classic “Frogz” leaps back into the swim. Photo: Imago Theatre

But what were we talking about? Oh yes. The weather. Northwest Children’s Theater will experience spells of magic, to subside by midnight. And tell the kids next weekend’s conditions should be ideal for watching FROGZ. Til then, stay warm, from hands to heart.

ArtsWatch Weekly: Berlin stories

Andrea Stolowitz's "Berlin Diaries," world premiere at the ballet, new on stage, Brett Campbell's music picks, lots of links

The corner of culture, art, and politics is a busy intersection these days, when suddenly each seems to have something significant to say about the others, and so Andrea Stolowitz’s new play Berlin Diary, although it deals with events three-quarters of a century ago, also seems very much of the current moment.

Stolowitz, the Portland playwright and Oregon Book Award winner, spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship retracing the steps of her “lost” Jewish family, those stuck in the archives after her German Jewish great grandfather escaped to New York City in the late 1930s. Shortly after, he began to keep a journal to pass along to his descendants, and it’s that family book that prompted Stolowitz’s sojourn in Berlin and the construction of this play.

Playwright Andrea Stolowitz, creator of “Berlin Diary.”

The past comes forward in recurring waves, touching futures as they unfold. “It’s not easy to get a Berlin audience to laugh at jokes about the Holocaust,” Lily Kelting of NPR Berlin wrote when Berlin Diary premiered there last October. “But American playwright Andrea Stolowitz manages to do just that in her latest premiere at the English Theater Berlin.” Kelting continues: “She says that writing the play has helped her realize that the guilt of surviving the Holocaust was a secret that ultimately tore her family in the States apart — even generations later.”

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Random order: a trick of fate

Steven Dietz's "This Random World" opens up warm and rueful possibilities (and a few questions) at Portland Actors Conservatory

The question, if you really need to ask one, is this: What is the relationship between randomness and fate? Are they simply sides of the same coin, spinning back and forth in a universe in motion, teasing their onlookers with their brief appearances and near-misses, like streaking Halley’s Comets of human comprehension? Is it all coincidence, or none of it? And on a practical level, does it matter at all?

That is the subterranean (or stratospheric) territory of Steven Dietz’s This Random World, which was a hit last year when it premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville and has just opened in its West Coast premiere in a swift and appealing production at Portland Actors Conservatory.

Kristin Barrett (left) and Tyharra Cozier in “This Random World.” PAC photo

The beauty of a good Dietz play is that it can explore such theoretical issues with both feet on the ground. Because he concentrates on structure, language, and character – that solid three-legged stool of the well-crafted play – the theme rises gently, tickling instead of pounding, like a wisp of afterthought that’s been carefully planted. And Dietz doesn’t answer his questions, which might help explain why, for all his regional-theater success, he’s never had a play on Broadway. He simply picks them up for closer inspection, and invites the audience in.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: and all that jazz

Portland Jazz Festival joins the parade of arts festivals in town; a new "Swan Lake" flies at Oregon Ballet

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Festival Town. (And Valentine’s Day. Don’t forget Valentine’s Day.) Three film celebrations – the Portland Black Film Festival, the Cascadia Festival of African Films, and the big-kahuna 40th annual Portland International Film Festival – are still spooling out stories on screens around town.

And on Thursday the PDX Jazz Festival 2017 roars into action with a packed program through February 26 arranged loosely around an homage to jazz centurions Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Buddy Rich, each born in 1917. Things kick off Thursday with a blast of Branford Marsalis, a thump of bass virtuoso Thundercat, and more, and the festival continues with the likes of the fabulous Heath Brothers, The Yellowjackets, and more. It’s not all old-style and it’s not all new, but a healthy-looking blend of tradition and exploration.

ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell offers tips for this week’s shows, beginning with Thursday’s Marsalis quartet appearance “with the great jazz singer Kurt Elling, Maria Schneider’s orchestra and Ralph Peterson’s trio in separate shows Friday, the hip jazz-rock fusion band Kneebody and the old-school all-star band The Cookers on Saturday. On Sunday, you have a choice of pop jazzers the Yellowjackets with Mike Stern, avant jazz guitar deity James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, or rising piano star Aminca Claudine Myers (or see all three!).”

2017 PDX Jazz Fest honoree Dizzy Gillespie, at Deauville, France, July 1991. Photo: Roland Godefroy/Wikimedia Commons

In his preview PDX Jazz Festival: Signs of Life, Campbell sets the table more completely, talking about the state of jazz in Portland and internationally. Here’s just a taste of what he has to say:

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Scarlet Letter of the streets

Suzan-Lori Parks' "In the Blood" at Portland Actors Conservatory brings Hawthorne's star-crossed Hester to the mean modern streets

The gifted writer Suzan-Lori Parks’ 1999 play In the Blood, which opened over the weekend at Portland Actors Conservatory, is a terrific, audacious, sometimes terrifying piece of writing that sneaks up on you sideways and then delivers a searing, visceral punch. It’s a vivid work of creative imagination with the deep pull of a folk enchantment, an into-the-woods tale where the woods are the tough concrete surfaces of the urban streets.

And the show’s advanced conservatory actors, under the sharp and piercing direction of Victor Mack, pretty much knock it out of the park. They give committed, thoroughly professional, audaciously transgressive performances as they suck the audience into a strange, bleak, tender, and disturbingly enthralling tale.

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

It’s a literary allusion, riffing mostly on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and partly on Euripides’ spiritually ravenous Medea, with some Brechtian breakouts for sardonic truth-telling as the action’s taking place. It features a witty, vulnerable, emotionally captivating and very dangerous lead performance by Monica Fleetwood, and superb double-duty acting by a supporting cast of five.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: film fest x 3

Grab your popcorn: PIFF, Portland Black Film Fest, African film fest fill the screens; 10 tips for a busy week onstage; Arvo Pärt, more

Film fanatics, this week is yours: You’ve just hit the trifecta.

The 40th annual Portland International Film Festival opens on Thursday.

The Portland Black Film Festival, featuring films about black life in America, is the newbie of the three, but arrives with some zing. It also opens on Thursday, at the Hollywood Theatre, with Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, and continues through February 22 with 10 features, including Pioneers of African American Cinema. The centerpiece, this Saturday, is the blaxploitation classic Coffy, with action star Pam Grier as special guest.

And the 27th Cascade Festival of African Films, which features films by African filmmakers from the African continent, kicked off on Friday and continues through March 7. It continues a grand tradition of bringing hard-to-find films to town – this year more than 30, including feature films and shorts. Coming up Friday is The Cursed Ones, from Ghana, about a pair of village outcasts accused of witchcraft. Every offering at the Cascade Fest, which takes place at the Cascade campus of Portland Community College, is free.

“I Am Not Your Negro” at PIFF and the Portland Black Film Festival.

PIFF, the granddaddy of the local festivals, continues through February 25 with more than a hundred movies from Afghanistan to Venezuela, in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish. It kicks off Thursday evening with director Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which arrives with a passel of admiring-to-ecstatic reviews and a nomination for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It’ll also be screened February 18 in the Portland Black Film Festival. Based on Remember This House, the final, unfinished novel of the great American writer James Baldwin, it explores “the absurd – and deeply tragic – relationship between the United States and skin color.” Some of the festival films will have broad commercial releases, and some will be available in art houses or on cable. The PIFF screenings will provide your only opportunity to see some others.

Spend a little time going through the schedules for all three festivals, then make your plans.

“The Cursed Ones,” directed by Nana Obirir Yeboah, at the Cascade Festival of African Films.

 

 


 

TEN TIPS FOR A BUSY WEEK ON THE BOARDS:

Pen/man/ship. Portland Playhouse takes on Christina Anderson’s acclaimed play about a ship at sea headed for Liberia in 1896 at a time when the American Colonization Society is campaigning to send African Americans “back” to Africa. Opens Saturday.

Marjorie Prime. Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer finalist has a top-notch cast at Artists Rep: Vana O’Brien, Chris Harder, Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson. It’s science fiction about aging, technology, and memory loss: O’Brien plays an 85-year-old woman whose memories are prompted by an artificial version of her late husband. Opens Saturday.

Swimming While Drowning. Milagro produces the world premiere of Emilio Rodriguez’ play about a gay teen who leaves home and his homophobic father and winds up in an LGBT homeless shelter in Los Angeles. Opens Friday.

His Eye Is on the Sparrow. Maiesha McQueen stars as the great gospel singer Ethel Waters in Larry Parr’s musical biography, performed in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage. Opens Friday.

Trifles/Dutchman. Defunkt brings back a couple of old one-acts with contemporary inclinations: Susan Glaspell’s 1916 Trifles, a play with feminist overtones about a murder in the country; and Amiri Baraka’s 1964 Dutchman, about a young black man and a seductive white woman who meet on a subway. It was Baraka’s last play under his birth name LeRoi Jones, and coincides with his turn toward black nationalism. Opens Friday.

The Pillowman. The new Life in Arts Productions kicks off with Martin McDonaugh’s dark, brutal, chillingly beautiful drama about child murders and storytelling in a totalitarian state. Jamie Rea directs Bobby Bermea and others. Opens Friday at The Headwaters.

Interlude. Six dances by six choreographers, danced by six company members of PDX Contemporary Ballet, all in the intimate space of CoHo Theatre. Friday-Sunday.

Missed Connections and Other Love Stories. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Readers Theatre Rep brings readings of three short plays that offer a rueful look at love: David Ives’s Sure Thing, Peter Barry’s Sex with a Mathematician, and Brooke Berman’s Defusion. Friday-Saturday, Blackfish Gallery.

Cabaret Boris & Natasha. The latest edition in this adventurous series at Performance Works NW features dancers Mike Barber and Subashini Ganesan, oboist Catherine Lee, PETE’s Amber Whitehall in a piece “made of hungriness and failure,” and more. Friday-Saturday.

In the Blood. Victor Mack directs Suzan-Lori Parks’s contemporary adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, focusing on a woman with five “illegitimate” children who’s trying to break out of poverty. Opens Friday at Portland Actors Conservatory.

 


 

Composer Arvo Pärt

A WHOLE LOT OF PÄRT. The Portland choir Cappella Romana is undertaking an Arvo Pärt Festival that kicks into high gear Thursday through Sunday, featuring the music of the Estonian composer who is perhaps the most-performed living composer in the world. Oregonians have some deep connections with Pärt and his music, and ArtsWatch writers have taken note:

When Oregon met Arvo. Brett Campbell tells the extraordinary tale of Pärt’s 1993 agreement to compose a new work for the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene – a partnership that almost fell apart in a crisis of confidence, and ended in triumph the following year: “The ovation went on for a full 15 minutes, until, amazingly, the shy Pärt himself leapt up to the stage, a beatific smile beaming from the dark cloud of his beard, then embraced [conductor Helmuth] Rilling and the singers in turn.”

Arvo Pärt Festival: spirituality in sound. Daniel Heila explores the “holy minimalism” of Pärt’s devotional music: “The Eastern Orthodox composer’s departure from modernism was marked by an intense reexamination of all that he knew about music and an exploration and embracing of its sacred history.”

A Pärt pilgrimage. Oregon music student Justin Graff recalls his journey to Estonia to meet his musical hero and what he found, and shared, down a long rural road.

 

 


 

ArtsWatch links

 

Theater for Barbarians. Maria Choban gets on her ancestral Greek and goes to a bunch of Greek plays around town. They tell her more about contemporary America than ancient Greece, she writes: where’s the raw, wild passion?

Kill the NEA? What it might mean. The new presidential administration is taking aim at the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We consider what might happen if both federal agencies actually get the ax.

Fertile Ground reviews: Young Bloods. Brett Campbell takes in Broken Planetarium’s Atlantis and Orphic’s Iphigenia 3.0 and discovers theater made by and for a bold new generation.

Global Voices get a fair hearing. A.L. Adams drops in on the first weekend of Boom Arts’ mini-festival of readings of international plays (it concludes this weekend). The upshot? “Global Voices” is all over the map – and that’s a good thing.

Cappella Romana: choral conundrum. Bruce Browne, reviewing the choir’s performance of Finnish composer  Einojuhani Rautavaara’s All Night Vigil (Vigilia), argues that this music from the 1970s deserves much wider attention. And he praises guest basso Glenn Miller: “He is so modest and self-deprecating, you wouldn’t know his capabilities, except his vocal quality is that of the voice of God.”

 


 

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