Third Rail

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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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?

‘Lungs’: She’s having a baby

Third Rail's two-hander about anxiety, parenthood, and the state of the world updates the conversation on love and life

Anxiety is nothing new for us mortals, but the anxieties of our own Age of Anxiety can seem unprecedented. Third Rail Rep has birthed to the stage a prescient look into 21st century parenthood and its particular anxieties with its production of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, now playing at CoHo Theatre.

Playwright Macmillan hangs with the in-yer-face theater crowd of the U.K. His work shares the painful honesty of the genre, although he handles the audience with a gentler approach than his peers. He’ll shock you, but only because he’s given a line to a character that reveals some fragment of inner dialogue you’ve experienced at one time or another: the kind of inner conversation that if spoken, would lead to both catharsis and shame.

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Pierce and Miles: modern problems. Photo: Owen Carey

Anxieties? Take your pick. In the few days before Third Rail’s Lungs opened, Portland’s air hung with what felt like beads of red mercury, magnifying the sun and sweeping up fine particles of dust. The cityscape seemed to be a postcard from the dystopian future. Bone-dry streets summoned up the smell of dirt and caked urine and a museum of litter; they showed off the city’s haves and have nots with struggling homeless camps dotting the underpasses. Local news reported that Portland’s air quality index was worse than Beijing’s, and the governor declares a state of emergency.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Media Blitzen

A pair of premieres at Center Stage, dance and theater openings, Brett Campbell's weekly music picks, Christopher Rauschenberg & more

It’s a busy weekend at the Armory, where Portland Center Stage hangs its hat: world-premiere opening nights Friday for Wild and Reckless, the new concert/play from the band Blitzen Trapper, and Saturday for Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Both will be playing on the Main Stage, in repertory.

We haven’t (of course) seen either show yet, so we’ll quote the company on what’s up with Wild and Reckless: It “traces the unforgettable tale of two kids on the run, in a futuristic vision of Portland’s past. Evoking a bygone era of Portland, this sci-fi love story features a rock-and-roll score that pairs unreleased songs with favorites from the band’s catalog, including Black River Killer and Astronaut.” And what, precisely, is a futuristic vision of Portland’s past? Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy tossing a coin in spacesuits to name the city? Probably not. But tune in Friday, or anytime through April 30, to find out.

Eric Earley as The Narrator and Leif Norby as The Dealer in “Wild and Reckless.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Lauren Weedman we know a little better from her smart and edgy previous one-woman shows at Center Stage and elsewhere. She could run a clinic on how to grab and hold an audience’s attention: She can be funny, and she can be fierce, and she has the focus of a hawk hunting rabbits in an open field. This newest show, also through April 30, homes in on heartbreak and how to mend it, and arrives with big hair, tight jeans, and a passel of country tunes. Plus, a backup band.

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Let’s see, now, where were we? Big inauguration, American carnage, big threats, bellicose speech. Bigger protest, millions of women, pink hats, sea to shining sea. Twitter wars unabated. Health care on the skids. War on reporters. Alternative facts.

And, oh, yes, tucked away there in the corner: a vow to kill the National Endowment for the Arts. And kill the National Endowment for the Humanities. And “privatize” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which has mostly been privatized already, anyway. Cost-cutting. Getting tough on the budget. Victory for the taxpayers. (NEA 2016 budget: $148 million. NEH 2016 budget: $148 million. Percentage of total federal budget, each: 0.003. CPB 2016 funding via federal government: $445 million. Percentage of total federal budget, all three agencies: less than 0.02. Federal budget 2015 for military marching bands, $437 million. Taxpayer expense to build or renovate National Football League stadiums, past 20 years, mostly through local and regional taxes: more than $7 billion.)

A fiscal conservative or libertarian can make an honest argument for eliminating the NEA and NEH on grounds that they’re simply not an appropriate use of taxpayer funding; culture should be funded privately. Here at ArtsWatch we don’t agree with that analysis. We believe there are many valid reasons for government financial aid to culture, and that the payoffs to taxpayers are many, from economic – in healthy cities, the arts are job and money multipliers – to educational and much more. Historically, consider the continuing dividends of the WPA and other cultural projects underwritten by the federal government during the Great Depression of the 1930s: In Oregon, for instance, Timberline Lodge.

But there’s much more to this move than a courteous philosophical/economic disagreement. The move to defund the NEA has a long and embattled history, dating at least to the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and ’90s, when a resurgent right-wing political movement convinced that artists were mostly a pack of degenerate liberals discovered that attacking the arts was a splendid red-meat issue for its base. They didn’t succeed in killing off the national endowments, but they did weaken them. The new administration seems to think it can finally finish them off. That would weaken state agencies such as the Oregon Arts Commission, which gets funding from the NEA, and in turn weaken arts organizations across the state, which get money from the OAC and, often more importantly, a stamp of approval that helps them raise private donations. Killing the endowments would be a rash move that would save hardly anything in the national budget and cause deep mischief to the nation’s well-being. It strikes us as petty and vindictive and, frankly, foolish.

It’s also a reach that might fail. Republicans like culture, too, and understand its value, and often support it generously. Traditionally, that has included Republican politicians. Will they fall in line with the new administration, or will they quietly scuttle its gambit? Keep your eye on this thing. We will, too.

 


 

Duffy Epstein and Dana Green in the premiere of the D.B. Cooper play “db.” Photo: Owen Carey

THE FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL, Portland’s sprawling celebration of new works in theater, dance, solo performance, circus arts, musical theater, comedy, and other things that ordinarily happen on a stage, continues through January 29. ArtsWatch writers have been out and about, writing their impressions. You can catch up with some of them below:

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‘The Flick’ whirs to life

At Third Rail, Annie Baker's long and entertaining drama set in a shabby movie house ripples in the moments of bright light

Avery is something of a cinema savant. Not only is he thoroughly conversant with mainstream movies, always remembering when they were released and which stars shared the screen, but he’s absorbed Truffaut, Bergman and the like. At just 20 years old, he’s watched “the entire Criterion Collection” — nearly 900 mostly arcane art-house titles on DVD. And he’s memorized great chunks of Pulp Fiction, which he argues is the last truly great American film.

Sam, his co-worker, just calls him a snob. Sam’s tastes are — depending on how you see such things — a bit more populist or a bit less discerning. He clearly loves movies too, and relishes talking about them with Avery; he just doesn’t load them with the kind of existential weight and true-believer value judgments that Avery does.

Jonathan Thompson as Avery and Rebecca Ridenour as Rose: flicker and fade. Photo: Owen Carey

And then there’s Rose. She has her favorites, but movies in general just don’t mean much to her anymore, not since she’s been in her current job. Rose and Avery and Sam work at The Flick, a run-down old single-screen movie house.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: let’s start over

A new year, a fresh start: Oregon gets set for a cultural revival in January and 2017

We’ve got that nasty old 2016 in our rear-view mirror now, and as our newest Nobel Laureate for Literature once warbled, Don’t look back. Nothing to see there. Or too much to contemplate. Sure, sure: what happens in 2017 will build on what happened in 2016, which built on what happened in 2015, and on and on down the line. But right now, let’s look ahead.

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TRADITIONALLY, JANUARY IS IN THE MIDDLE of the artistic season and also the beginning of what’s called “The Second Season” – a chance to buckle down after the holidays and reinvigorate. Here are a few things, big and small, coming up this month to keep your eye on:

Kara Walker (American, born 1969), “The Emancipation Approximation (Scene 18),” 1999–2000, courtesy the artist. Part of “Constructing Identity” opening Jan. 28 at the Portland Art Museum.

Fertile Ground 2017. This is one of the biggies, made up of all sorts of “smalls.” Begun as an annual festival in 2009, it’s blossomed into one of the biggest, most sprawling, and most intriguingly unpredictable events on Portland’s cultural calendar. For eleven days, in venues scattered across the city, dozens of new performance works by Portland artists will take the stage: plays, dances, solo shows, puppet shows, interactive shows, musicals, more. Shows will range from the biggest companies to indie pop-ups, and from full-blown world premieres to workshops and readings. Trying to keep up is bound to leave you breathless. Jan. 19-29.

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