The Armory

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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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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‘Fun Home’ review: tragicomic

Loving, audacious musical adaptation brings Alison Bechdel's popular graphic novel family drama to Portland Center Stage

To create a successful adaptation, you need an abundance of two qualities: audacity and love. Cleverness helps (so does money), but those two are the important ones. They keep each other in check: audacity gets you started, helps you make necessary cuts and alterations, empowers the act of (re)creation; love keeps you honest, helps you recognize the essentials, and reminds you of why you’re devoting yourself to another artist’s labors. Audacity drives the process, love guides it. Think of them as the right hand of blessing and the left hand of darkness.

Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s award-winning 2013 adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s also-award-winning 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, playing through October 22 at The Armory, benefitted from an extra helping of both. The source material is as personal and intimate as it gets: the successful cartoonist’s first graphic novel, a memoir revolving around the tumultuous four months bracketed by her own coming out and her closeted father’s suicide, is an auteurishly dense and complex piece of literature. It’s dark, and funny, and deeply literary in the interdisciplinary way that has become the special province of comic books—sorry, “graphic novels”—ever since Will Eisner turned out his magnificent A Contract with God in 1978 and bequeathed his name to the genre’s highest honor. It would make a pretty good movie; it would make an incredible Netflix series.

The cast of “Fun Home” at The Armory. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Instead, Kron and Tesori turned Bechdel’s book into an Off-Broadway musical. It won a bunch of Tonys, went On-Broadway and then on tour, and eventually Portland Center Stage decided to bring it to Portland. I can hardly think of a better home for the sophisticated, queer-themed family drama. I went and saw it the other night on the recommendation of literally every theater person I know, and it did not disappoint. It’s refreshingly brief at 90 minutes; it hits all of the book’s high points and lovingly expresses its central themes and character arcs in surprising ways; the set and costumes and props and other theater accoutrements all look cool; the singing and acting were great, the live band is awesome, and it’s even got a few really catchy tunes. In fact, you should stop reading now and go buy your tickets before the rest of the run sells out.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Bedsheets and Bongos

Start clicking those links: It's time to play The YouTube Theater Research Game

You play, I play, we all on-the-sly play …The YouTube Theater Research Game!

A.L. Adams

Admit it, Kids: When you see that a show is starring So-and-So, or that it’s from Such-and-Such company, you probably can’t slap those names in a search window fast enough. What comes up may or may not be relevant to their latest work. It may or may not be what their PR people would prefer to show you. But it comes up in a flash, and it at least answers a few who-and-whats, and soon you’re making a slightly more informed showgoing decision.

Shall we?

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Rose City Shakespeare actors append “Lysistrata” in rehearsal. Photo: Jeremy Gardels

The Rose City Shakespeare Company’s current offering at Alberta Rose promises “burlesque, aerial dance and giant paper maché dongs,” but all they brought to this rehearsal video were some bedsheets and bongos. Is Lysistrata holding out on us? Ah. Right. I see what they did there.

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I thought maybe serial theater had died off with Action/Adventure…but no [cue Frankenstein organ music]…IT’S ALIIIIVE! In this video, it sounds like Theatre Vertigo is reanimating the form for its October offering, Joel Patrick Durham’s Nesting: Vacancy. Three things I like about this: 1) Joel Patrick Durham’s been acting-about-town and seems to have a steady hand. 2) Watching several episodes of a play is the perfect TV/theater hybrid. 3) The cast has some strong players and seems gung-ho. One caution: Vertigo does not mess around when they cry “horror.” They’ve mounted some horror there before (in their tiny Shoebox Theatre space) that legit made me want to kill or die. Hopefully in this series, the horror will be cut with the hint of comedy that Durham’s general demeanor suggests.

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Triangle’s “Pageant” crowd at Darcelle XV Showplace

Triangle Productions, in cooperation with Darcelle XV, has uploaded a glittering preview video of their current drag-stravagant audience-interactive musical, Pageant. Going a little off-script, here’s a profile of one of the show’s most charismatic queens, Poison Waters.

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Finally, let’s misbehave and watch a video that PR people would deem flagrantly off-topic, but I’d say permanently pertains to the career of Portland actor Isaac Lamb. Lamb stars in Every Brilliant Thing, which opens at The Armory this Friday, but never mind that. He also perma-stars on the internet as a trailblazer of The Lip Sync Performance Proposal. Enjoy.

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Oh! And ICYMI:

Barry Johnson caught Imago’s take on Raymond Carver, Human Noise, which runs one more weekend, and Brett Campbell got the last word on Bag&Baggage’s Spinning Into Butter, which just closed.

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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Who’s on first? Anonymously yours

On Monday at The Armory, the company that does not know each other meets onstage for the musical "Urinetown." Expect the unexpected.

Sitting down for coffee one morning last week with Darius Pierce and Elizabeth Young, I found myself asking questions about nothing. Not nothing, actually: no one. No twenty ones, as it turned out, those twenty being the cast and chorus of the musical satire Urinetown: The Musical, which opens – and closes – on Monday at The Armory.

Pierce knows the identity of these twenty elusive entertainers, but in this he is pretty much alone in the universe. And he’s not spilling. So, a little like medieval philosophers discussing dancing angels and the load-bearing capacity of the heads of pins, we were talking about what we did not know and could not see, though we were convinced of the reality behind the mystery.

How could this be? The name of the production company, Anonymous Theatre Company, provides a clue. The quixotic mission of Anonymous is to produce one play a year, for one night only, in which nobody in the cast knows who the other actors are until they meet them, during the performance, onstage. All of the actors sit with the audience, in street clothes, until it’s time to make their first entrance. Then they rise from their seats, and are revealed. Can’t tell the players without a scorecard? At Anonymous, the scorecard doesn’t help a bit. As Kerry Ryan, one of the company’s founders, puts it, “The audience gets to see the story happening as if it is happening for the first time … because it actually is happening for the first time.”

The crowd at an Anonymous Theatre show. You can show the audience. The actors are a closely guarded secret.

In the communal world of the theater, an art form whose essence is collaboration, this approach is about as counterintuitive as driving from Chicago to San Francisco to get to New York. Even solo shows aren’t done in isolation. Designers, director, stage manager, running crew, music director and choreographer if it’s a musical, and others are involved intimately in the process.

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Mary’s Wedding: a retro refuge

The Armory's darling Canadian romance echoes some classics and charms the family crowd

First love. First kiss. First horseback ride. First World War. When everything’s fresh and innocent and new, it seems like it’s all going to work out fine. We can never go back to those times. Or, pretty please, can we?

Portland Center Stage’s Mary’s Wedding—the first full-length play by playwright Stephen Massicotte—is an idealistic retelling of a small-town romance turned long-distance correspondence, reimagined after the fact as a wistful dream punctured by gunfire. Mary (Lexi Lapp) is a prim, gorgeous, feminine English rose who “dreams of flowers and little babies,” and Charlie (Alex J. Gould), though he modestly refers to himself as a “dirty farm boy,” is more like a handsome clean-shaven Canadian Disney prince. They meet at the outskirts of their families’ respective farms while sheltering in a barn during a rainstorm. They notice each other’s loveliness as they share a horse ride home, and they begin a courtship.

The mating game: Lexi Lapp as Mary and Alex J. Gould as Charlie. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

This is an easy show to enjoy, but a hard one to review without sounding like a condescending cynic—largely because so many elements within Massicotte’s script invite comparison to pre-existing classics. L.M. Montgomery’s characters (chiefly Anne of Green Gables) recited Tennyson very much like Massicotte’s Mary, right down to their shared favorite title, The Lady of Shalott. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town characters were as small-town innocent and romance-prone as Mary and Charlie. Also, the spirits of Wilder’s dearly departed remained free to reinhabit scenes from their pasts, their afterlife neither hell nor heaven but a liminal state of observing from a vantage point physically near to where they lived and died until they gradually detached from life at their own pace. Massicotte borrows this view, too. One line, “Run, Charlie!” even evokes Forrest Gump, and scenes of war-wounded emit fainter echoes of the same.

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