Theater: What if we woke up and found out we’re a city?

Meghan McCandless and John Debkowski (top), Jared Miller and Susannah Mars (bottom) with the band in Artists Rep's "Next to Normal." Photo: Owen Carey

Portland’s a funny town. It thinks too big for its britches, or at least the britches it’s willing to pay for: It likes Brooks Brothers but wants it at a Target price. The city takes pride in constantly overachieving, often on the backs of its achievers. (Why should artists by paid? They do it for the love of it, right?) And just when its bouncing-ball economy thuds down to the floor and deflates again, it does the darnedest things, like voting to actually invest in its cultural future.

No telling at the moment how that library funding vote’s going to go, or whether the city’s schools will ever regain even a rudimentary arts curriculum, or whether the cultural-funding ballot initiative being pushed fast and furiously behind the scenes stands a snowball’s chance in a globally warming hell. But history makes an argument: In the early 1980s, in the midst of a recession quite possibly as bad as this one, at least in Oregon, voters approved a bond measure to build the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. So anything’s possible.

A lot’s changed in the 30-odd years since then, and in terms of performance the arts center’s had something to do with it. First it focused attention on theater and music like never before, and concentrated it downtown: in the short run it probably hurt small companies as audiences and money rushed to support the glamour theater spaces. Later, partly because of the increased attention the Performing Arts Center brought and partly because of the growth of high-tech and creative industries, things spread out – to Northwest, to the East Side, to the ’burbs.

That’s where we find ourselves now: in a city with a center but with an awful lot of the interesting action happening in nooks and crannies scattered all over the place. The highly publicized influx of young creatives (which has included a lot of older creatives, too), maybe coupled with a rotten economy that’s encouraged a lot of bright people to skip the traditional job market and take a chance on what they really want to do, has brought about an unruly flowering of culture, often in surprising places.

It’s easy to poke fun at it, Portlandia-style. And in the not-so-grand Portland tradition it’s still being done on a broken shoestring. To be clear: Portland isn’t New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, despite a lot of hopeful hype. For one thing, those cities actually put their money where their mouths are. Plus, they’re simply bigger, and size does make a difference. Yet there’s little denying: In spite of ourselves, we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution. And the seeds are blowing all over the place.

Simple fact: It’s impossible for any one person to keep up with all the theater happening in town. Can’t be done. That alone suggests the end of township and the beginning of city status: Cities are places that are too big to be known. In a real city, no matter how well you know it, you’re always also a stranger. And that can be exciting.

Over the weekend I went to three plays: The Storm in the Barn, in the little red Winningstad Theatre of the downtown Performing Arts Center; Next to Normal, in Artists Rep’s handsomely minimalist and frugally rehabbed space in downtown’s West End, a part of town that until recently was a mostly forgotten no-man’s land; and a stage adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in a gorgeously refurbished little church building in the Albina Arts District that I hadn’t even known existed, even though I live only about a mile away. I also chatted for a bit with Scott Palmer, whose Bag&Baggage company is thriving in the western suburb of Hillsboro, which, while the central city wasn’t looking, has blossomed into a highly educated and relatively high-income Silicon Forest city inching up toward 100,000 citizens, and is eager to declare its cultural independence.

What I didn’t get to was at least as instructive. At the East Side’s funky and friendly little Hipbone Studio, the always interesting Portland Story Theater kicked off its annual Singlehandedly! Festival of solo works. Portland Center Stage, which used to be in the Performing Arts Center but moved out to its own Armory home in the Pearl District, opened Frank Higgins’ folk-bluesy musical Black Pearl Sings. And Theatre Vertigo’s The American Pilot, defunkt’s Fire Island and Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s Sonnetscape, all shows I’d had some interest in, slipped away unseen … at least, by me. Blink and you’re behind. Blink twice and you’ve missed the parade.

It’s easy to celebrate the energy of this cultural mosaic – which encompasses dance, music (both “popular” and “serious”), visual arts, film, and graphic arts (including comics) as well as theater – without also asking how much of it is actually good. And while it’s true that newcomers often either underestimate or flat-out don’t know the quality of what was being produced when Portland was a quieter arts town, it’s also true that the current exuberance, while sometimes longer on hype than quality, has also raised standards in town. That’s particularly true in the world of musical theater, which has kicked itself into a much more consistently professional gear.

Take Oregon Children’s Theatre’s The Storm in the Barn, the story of a boy named Jack (aren’t the heroes always named Jack?) who isn’t strong but is clever and brave, and who defies and defeats a soul-crushing monster that’s been snatching all the rain. There are some sterling moments of stagecraft in this tall-tale story of the Midwest Dust Bowl days, which is based on a popular graphic novel by Matt Phelan. (The book won the 2010 Scott O’Dell Award, named for the author of the great kids’ book Island of the Blue Dolphins.)


Jack Clevenger in "Storm." Photo: Owen Carey

The opening image is a wonderful whipping and whirring of wind, blowing dust like there’s no tomorrow and suggesting that, for a lot of farmers, there really isn’t. And when the Storm King pops out – a towering figure with a menacing mask and a mysterious air – the young audience gets a feeling for the magic that the stage can unleash. But for me the thing really kicks off with a voice – some sweetly keening syllables by Melanie Joy Hall as Ma, alone on the prairie – followed quickly by the rattle and bang of all sorts of struck instruments and implements, from washboard to wrench, in a rhythmic symphony of life on the farm. The music, composed by members of the Portland band Black Prairie (which includes several members of the Decemberists), establishes exactly the kind of Grapes of Wrath cultural footing of richness amid poverty that the tale needs: a sense of making do with what you have, making music from whatever’s available, everyone pitching in. Jack may be the hero, but he comes from somewhere and something.

The stage and costume designs (including a great old farm truck onstage throughout the show) are striking, the acting’s good (Jack Clevenger’s ideal as Jack, and Damon Kupper’s all grit and gristle and knotted-up worry as Pa), and Eric Coble’s adaptation emphasizes the elemental mystery of it all. At times the show seems too elegiac, as if the storm needs to push things along more briskly, and the ending, when Pa finally realizes Jack’s worth, seems abrupt. But in most ways it’s a lovely piece, drawn together by dozens of people from here and not here, too. And why, in 21st century trend-cresting Portland, a play about dirt farmers in drought-stricken 1930s Kansas? Because, dammit. Because we’re made up of millions of stories, some of them true and some of them only factual. Because that’s the way cities do things.

Artists Rep’s Next to Normal is in many ways an exceptional example of contemporary chamber musical theater – a small-scale production with big intentions and a richly satisfying carry-through. Director Jon Kretzu and musical director Rick Lewis are expert tacticians, and the production, although intensely emotional and densely packed, moves fluidly forward with almost serene professionalism.

Megan McCandless, Todd Tschida in "Normal." Photo: Owen Carey

At the show’s center is an almost irresistible element: the wonderful musical-theater star Susannah Mars as a mentally unhinged wife and mother swimming through a sea of pills, paranoia, guilt and electroshock, all while maintaining a canny if mordant sense of humor. And she’s surrounded by a highly skilled supporting cast.

I pretty much agree with Marty Hughley, in his review for The Oregonian, on the show’s strengths and weaknesses. I like the singing more than the songs: Tom Kitt’s pop-rockish score is technically demanding (lots of falsetto) but also a bit generic. And I’m not sure the play (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) gets inside mental illness in the emotionally illuminating way that, for instance, a less “issue”-oriented play like Long Day’s Journey into Night does: The play’s Pulitzer Prize seems to be more a reward for the issues it raises than for its intrinsic dramatic values. I also wonder whether the script doesn’t oversimplify tormented Diana’s mental illness as a sort of historical cause-and-effect born from the great tragedy in her life. But whether Next to Normal is “right” or “wrong” about its subject – that topic can lead to a lot of dead ends – it stimulates a lot of conversation and a lot of thought. That’s a significant achievement. And those performances, from Mars all the way through to newcomer Meghan McCandless as her teen-age daughter: lovely. If it’s Next to Normal you want, I don’t think you’ll find many productions better than this.

Cerimon House’s staged reading of The Bridge, an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, was performed once only – on Sunday afternoon at the Alberta district’s Little Church, a recently renovated small space that has gorgeous clean Scandinavian-feeling lines and is ideal for what was essentially a salon-style event, which fit in an audience of about 55 and felt pleasingly crowded.

Wilder’s novel is a small but brilliant American gem, a deceptively simply story of almost poetic precision, with hardly a wasted word. As simply told as it seems, it drops regularly and deeply into psychological and emotional analysis of its characters, and it’s framed by an unanswerable but essential cosmic question: is life accidental, or planned?

"The Bridge," from left: Gilberto Martin del Campo, Amaya Villazan,
Dawn Lisell, Eva Rotter, Gretchen Rumbaugh, Debbie Hunter,
Sam A. Mowry. Photo: Gary Norman

With so much internal content Bridge might seem an unlikely candidate piece for the theater. But literary adaptation is all the rage (Portland Center Stage’s Anna Karenina is still on the boards) and besides, Wilder is also the creator of three genuine American stage classics: Our Town, The Matchmaker, and The Skin of Our Teeth. It shouldn’t be surprising that some of that dramatic sensibility slips into his fiction as well.

Dawn Lisell, who also plays the role of the Abbess, created the adaptation, dropping several characters (including Brother Juniper and the actual brothers Esteban and Manuel) but maintaining the novel’s essence, which is observant and knowingly funny and spiritual rather than religious and concerned with the deeply felt smallness of human beings and the role of love amid the unfathomable wonder of existence. The novel’s setup is simple: on a July day in 1714 a bridge outside of Lima in Peru snaps, and five people tumble to their deaths. Who were they, what were their stories, did their lives and deaths hold purpose or did they simply happen?

Lisell maintain’s Wilder’s structure, anchoring the reading with the author’s narrative voice (read brilliantly by Sam A. Mowry) and passing the other major characters around a highly talented cast including Debbie Hunter, Gilberto Martin del Campo, Eva Rotter, Gretchen Rumbaugh and Amaya Villazan. The afternoon was supremely civilized, and by that I don’t mean earnest and dull but intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging. As satisfying as it was, this is a work in progress, and could become very much more as it fleshes out.

Cerimon House is the brainchild of actor/director Randall Stuart, like Lisell and Rumbaugh a veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and he calls it a “sanctuary for the humanities.” In an intriguing way, that seems what Portland itself is trying to become. And it’s doing it in a thousand little ways, in a thousand little corners, sometimes stitching them together so a bigger pattern can be seen.

In the meantime, theater marches on. This week, among others: more storytelling from Singlehandedly; the musical-theater version of Spring Awakening from Live Onstage; Gracie, the world premiere of Don Horn’s musical bio of burlesque entrepeneur Gracie Hansen; Milagro’s Oedipus el Ray. This is the city, and you can’t catch it all.

But you can try.

10 Responses.

  1. Lynne Duddy says:

    Thanks for the mention… much appreciated! Love and kisses, Portland Story Theater

  2. Ronni Lacroute says:

    Very enjoyable editorial about the state of theater in the Portland area. As someone who attempts to partake of all the offerings, I appreciate your comment about Portland now hosting more theater productions than anyone can possible see. I see 2 or 3 shows a week, and that does not come close to the total number of high quality offerings in the area.

  3. Trisha Mead says:

    A sanctuary for the humanities… A refuge for the curious… I LIKE it.

  4. Martha Ullman West says:

    Well now Mr. Hicks, you’ve beaten me to the punch here, although my focus would have been on dance rather than theater. I can’t get to every dance performance in Portland now, never mind theater. I’m an ex-pat New Yorker who’s been voting in Oregon for nigh unto 48 years, painfully close to half a century. During that time, Portland has definitely morphed from a large small town to a real city, where you hear more than one language spoken on the street and you have huge choices about where to grab a cappucino–that beverage didn’t exist here in 1964.
    This is a terrific post, thank you for doing it, and the point about the reluctance to pay artists is extremely well-taken.

  5. Noah says:

    A very thoughtful roundup indeed. Another indicator that this town just brims with good things to see; there is even more to add to the list! -A continued run of the simultaneously staged Brother/Sister Plays at Portland Playhouse. -The closing of Anna Karenina at PCS. -And also the closing of an exciting little show (ahem my own) SOMETHING EPIC/EVERYDAY at Action/Adventure Theater.

  6. redipen says:

    Of course, Mr. Hicks, like Mr. Hughley feel, equally overly confident in critiquing anything deeply invested in ‘pop’ culture – when it comes to the classics, or works invested in the classical tradition, I’ve seen them simply walk out at intermission – knowing they’re literally ‘in over their heads’.

    If there’s anything in this little berg that says “provincial” more than that, I’ve yet to see it.

  7. Bob Hicks says:

    Dear Redipen,

    It’s “burg,” not “berg.”

    • BurgSeattle says:

      Sir, you may be confused between “burg” and “schloss”…because Portland certainly now has a large degree of “aristocracy” that needs to feel protected from the real city dangers of critique, culture, diversity. Such a city rates being called a “burg”*.

      * to explain this comment… “berg” denotes mountain, “burg” describes a fortified town/village, “schloss” is a castle for aristocrats that needs little protection. PS, Bob, don’t be such a word dick.

  8. Barry Johnson says:

    I find this confusing.

    Is Portland a provincial burg (or berg) because its critics aren’t defending the schloss of classical culture?

    Or are the critics inside the schloss, refusing to engage in the street life beyond the moat?

    Mostly, I see them trying to make sense of a creatively messy situation, which is one good way of describing a modern city.

  9. Bob Hicks says:

    BurgSeattle, I’m gonna assume that by “word dick” you mean language detective, right?

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