portland center stage

ArtsWatch’s hit parade 2017

Readers' choice: From a musical fracas to rising stars to a book paradise, a look back on our most read and shared stories of the year

Here at ArtsWatch, it’s flashback time. It’s been a wild year, and the 15 stories that rose to the top level of our most-read list in 2017 aren’t the half of it, by a long shot: In this calendar year alone we’ve published more than 500 stories.

Those stories exist because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation.

Here, back for another look, is an all-star squad of stories that clicked big with our readers in the past 12 months:

 


 

Matthew Halls conducted Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Josh Green.

The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival

In June Tom Manoff, for many years the classical music critic for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, looked at the severe drop in attendance and cutbacks in programming at the premiere Eugene music festival. He summarized: “Thinking ahead, I ask: If this year’s schedule portends the future, can OBF retain its world-class level? My answer is no.” His essay, which got more hits than any other ArtsWatch story in 2017, got under a lot of people’s skin. But it was prescient, leading to …

Bach Fest: The $90,000 solution. This followup that had the year’s second-highest number of clicks: Bob Hicks’s look at the mess behind the surprise firing of Matthew Halls as the festival’s artistic leader and the University of Oregon’s secretive response to all questions about it.

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What are you up to this week? Any family coming to town? What do you eat and not eat these days? And what theater might you and your familial crew wish to see?

At The Armory this weekend, Mojada closes and the holiday spirit gets crackling between A Christmas Memory and Winter Song, a double header that would seem the sentimental alternative to the barn-burning Scrooge-buster Twist Your Dickens. A Christmas Memory revives a Truman Capote short story about a young boy with an unlikely best friend, an elderly female cousin who matches his emotional maturity and assists him in his games and schemes, including their darling caper of secretly making presents for their other relatives. (Say it with me: “Awwwwwww!”)

“Winter Song” at The Armory: Mont Chris Hubbard (left), Merideth Kaye Clark, and Leif Norby. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye, courtesy Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Winter Song is a warmhearted holiday song revue performed by Portland’s premier Joni Mitchell cover artist Meredith Kaye Clarke (Snuggle in and go “Ahhhh.”) This show gets a head start on Dickens, but once both get going, ushers might as well leave signs in the lobby to sort attendees: “Humbugs, main house; saps downstairs.”

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Medea crosses the border

In "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles," The ancient figure of vengeance takes on a more sympathetic role as a desperate illegal immigrant

If you think you know Medea, you probably have yet to see Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles. The play, written by Luis Alfaro, turns the Greek tragedy into an immigration story, and in doing so reimagines the title character as someone much more sympathetic than the Medea of Euripedes’ play, which was first produced in 431 B.C.

This is Portland Center Stage’s 30th season, as Artistic Director Chris Coleman points out in the playbill, so it seems fitting that this production of Mojada from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival would be part of the season. PCS, after all, originally was a Portland extension of Ashland’s OSF.

From left: performers Nancy Rodriguez, VIVIS, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Jahnangel Jimenez, Lakin Valdez) reenact the arduous crossing of the desert from Mexico to the United States. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

“Mojada” – which translates literally to “wet” in Spanish but is used in the play as a racial slur to describe immigrant Medea from Michoacán, Mexico – is about an illegal immigrant family in Los Angeles with a secret (many, in fact). Medea’s husband, Jason (Lakin Valdez) – think Jason of the Argonauts in Greek mythology and the Euripides tragedy, but here pronounced “ha-SONE” – is the ruthless social climber who wanted to leave Mexico in the first place. He brought along his wife, Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela), who uses her magical hands to sew collars for Bloomingdale’s at $8 a pop (Bloomingdale’s turns around and sells them for $120 each, of course); their young son, Acan (Jahnangel Jimenez); and Medea’s longtime mother figure/housekeeper, Tita (VIVIS).

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DramaWatch Weekly: Encore!

What goes around comes around: Portland performances ArtsWatch is happy to see again.

This week, let’s give it up for encore performances, from racially significant statements to heartwarming Christmas traditions. Turns out there are plenty of kinds of performances that make you go, “Hey. Let me see that again.”

The August Wilson Red Door Project’s “Hands Up” returns for two performances.

Here’s a serious one: This weekend, the August Wilson Red Door Project re-presents Hands Up for two nights only at Wieden + Kennedy. This collection of monologues features seven playwrights’ insightful, individual takes on a sadly recurring theme: police violence against Black people. Hands Up plans another (longer/wider) run in 2018, and your support now can help make that happen. Hopefully as the message reverberates, the atrocities that make it so necessary will abate. But even the best theater can only change a few minds at a time, so realistically, this may be the beginning of a long run.

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Train of thought. Stream of consciousness. String of significance.*

This week, I’m free-associating the latest in theater news. Hop on. We’re moving.

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FROGZ is back. (No, I don’t mean “Frogs,” and I don’t mean “are.”)

A.L. Adams

FROGZ, Imago Theatre’s 30ish-year-old world-touring original masterpiece of movement theater rumored to “retire” a couple years ago, will spring back to life this holiday season. A set of wordless vignettes performed in gorgeously realistic animal costumes, FROGZ opens on a trio of frogs trying not to look at each other. Trust me; you’ll love it. (And so do kids.)

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Imago did Medea last season (and ArtsWatch argued over it). The mythic Medea was also the inspiration for Mojada, which opens at The Armory this week. Mojada, an adaptation set in LA, comes to Portland via the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Josefina (Nancy Rodriguez, left) shares a happy moment with Tita (VIVIS) in “Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles.” Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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Meanwhile, Pericles Wet, an adaptation of Pericles, is queued for a world premiere by the Portland Shakespeare Project. Pericles Wet will be staged at Artists Rep, as will Profile Theater’s forthcoming set of plays, Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last. These shows—presented in rep in two senses of the term—open this week. Both are by Profile’s featured 2017 playwright, Quiara Alegría Hudes, and both stories center on Iraq War veterans.

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Expounding on that theme, mid-month Profile will host a reading by local veterans expressing their personal experience, as honed through a Writers Guild workshop. Community Profile: Our City’s Veterans is one-night-only and free.

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Speaking of personal experiences…is also what renowned voice coach Mary McDonald-Lewis, actor/director Pat Janowski, and select other storytellers will be doing at the next Solospeak, titled (no doubt in homage to Elizabeth Warren) Nevertheless, We Persist.

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You know who else persists? ArtsWatch. This week in theater, Maria Choban and Brett Campbell reel over Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ racially overtoned and sardonically misnomered Appropriate. Also, Bob Hicks reviews CoHo’s latest, Year of the Rooster, in which comedy and stagefight standout Sam Dinkowitz plays an actual rooster.

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Remember this one from the actors-as-animals hit parade? Jana Lee Hamblin, John San Nicolas (he’s the shirtless one, paying a chimp), Sarah Lucht, and Joseph Gibson in “Trevor” at Artists Rep. Photo: Owen Carey

Here are some other unforgettable animal performances by Portland actors in recent memory: John San Nicolas as a chimp in Trevor, Nelda Reyes as the titular monster in Feathers and Teeth, The various human stallions of Post5’s Equus and the human horses of A Civil War Christmas…aaand…I’m blanking. Who else? Feel free to shout out your favorite local animal acting in the comments.

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If memory serves, the bird in To Kill a Mockingbird is merely metaphoric, and never appears onstage. Lakewood is mounting the morally potent classic starting this weekend and continuing through mid-December.

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Mockingbirds are renowned for their song. So are the several real-life choirs with whom Third Rail Rep is alternately performing its latest play, David Grieg’s The Events. With a surprisingly harrowing plot for its setting—a choir rehearsal room—this play promises to leave us grappling to “fathom the unfathomable.”

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All right; I must fly, exit, go—and soon, so must Éxodo, Milagro Theatre’s homage to the Day of the Dead. Catch it this weekend or next, or you’ll have to wait until next year, this time.

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*Not a common idiom, but doesn’t it sound like it could be?

Brilliant? Let us list the ways

The one-man show "Every Brilliant Thing" begins with an amiable Isaac Lamb and builds its odd-duck case one good thing at a time

Let the record stipulate that the reviewer is not a fan of audience-participation theater.

Let the record stipulate that Every Brilliant Thing, the one-man show that opened Friday evening in the downstairs Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, is, is fact, an audience-participation play.

Let the record further stipulate that, notwithstanding his biases, the reviewer found himself to be absolutely charmed, and sometimes moved, and often given to outbursts of immoderate laughter. Let the record observe that the reviewer stands corrected, at least this once.

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Isaac Lamb works the crowd. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Every Brilliant Thing – performed with intense likability (if that’s a possible thing) by Isaac Lamb, with the smart and nimble collaboration of director Rose Riordan and some on-the-nose sound design by Casi Pacilio – is an odd duck of a play, but then, sometimes the odd ducks are the interesting ones. Written by Duncan Macmillan and original performer Jonny Donahoe, it debuted in 2013 at the Ludlow Fringe Festival in Shropshire before crossing the Atlantic to New York and beyond. It bears a striking affinity to the sort of theater known as standup comedy, which thrives, among other things, on improvisational give-and-take with the audience. Lamb achieves complicity not by bristling aggressively at the audience, as standups often do, but by sweet-talking them, in gee-shucks conspiratorial tones, into helping him out. And help him out they do, even the ones who feel just a little self-conscious about being suckered in.

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DramaWatch Weekly: A test, a lull, lean prose

On Portland stages, it's a week for "Fun Home," Raymond Carver, catching up with "An Octoroon," and checking the horizon

Let there be more than one female character.

Let them talk to each other.

Let them have a conversation that’s less than 100 percent about men.

A.L. Adams

That’s The Bechdel Test, a set of guidelines Graphic Novelist Alison Bechdel sensibly suggested in 1985 as a way to vet narratives for basic fairness. In my theater reviews, I’ve used it—not because it’s a buzzword, I could give a rip—but because when I find myself already bothered by a 2-D plot, applying this test gives me an impartial reason why. #notallmen. See what I did there? Never mind.

Here’s something extraordinary: Alison Bechdel has an autobiographical musical, Fun Home.

What’s more, it’s won a Tony, and I bet it passes the Test. It opens this week at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Aida Valentine (left), Karsten George (center), and Theo Curl in “Fun Home.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Think-piece brinksmen on Bechdel’s level, those whose theories have become common knowledge, rarely produce their own art. Malcolm Gladwell, for instance, rode “The Tipping Point” to the edge, but not to Broadway. Richard Florida, who championed and later renounced “The Creative Class,” never made a musical about it (arguably, The Music Man scooped him). Yet here comes Alison Bechdel—the mind behind the pen that’s pinpointed exactly what was wrong with so many others’ stories—striding into the spotlight* to answer a dare critics-who-are-also-artists hear daily: “Let’s see you try it.”

Okay. Bam. Tony.

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