“Cosi fan Tutte” review: identity crisis

Seattle Opera's production reveals that Mozart's comic opera is about more than sex

by ANGELA ALLEN

In Seattle Opera’s production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, the stage’s main prop, aside from an inviting pile of mattresses, is a tall mirror. Each character pauses in front of it at some time, checking out his or her current reflection, or identity. The mirror is a throwback symbol in this thoroughly contemporary production, but it says more than a selfie, which catches only a moment and can be edited ad infinitum.

Promoted by the company as “Mozart’s comedy about sex. Sort of,” this Cosi, which closes January 27,  is certainly sort of. In fact, this Jonathan Miller production, staged over and over since the 1995 Covent Garden debut that dressed the cast in Armani instead of period costumes and substituted bikers for Albanians, is about more than sex, bad manners and faithlessness. The opera is usually categorized as buffo, or comic, yet Miller argues in several interviews that a thin line separates comedy from tragedy. This piece is more complex than one running joke of mixed-up identities in the bumbling pursuit of love.

Hanna Hipp (Dorabella), Marjukka Tepponen (Fiordiligi), Kevin Burdette (Don Alfonso), Ben Bliss (Ferrando), and Michael Adams (Guglielmo) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Cosi fan Tutte.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

As that prominent mirror suggests, Cosi is more explicitly about identity rather than sex and lust, claims Miller, the distinguished 83-year-old British playwright/director/author/medical doctor. The more the characters switch roles, the more they try on different people (or clothes and makeup), the more they discover who they are, and the more they learn about about love and life. Cosi’s subtitle is the “School of Love,” after all.

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Rennie Harris, moving pure

The hip-hop dance legend talks about his roots, black dance, and his group Puremovement's four shows this week at White Bird

By RACHAEL CARNES

According to Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris, the three laws of hip-hop culture are “innovation, individuality and creativity.”

“Hip hop comes from the word ‘hippie,’ which means to either open your eyes or re-open your eyes — to be aware,” Harris says.

Kickstarted in the South Bronx as early as ’72 — at jams in parks, schools, community centers and clubs — and led by DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell, Afrika Bambaataa and Pete DJ Jones, the global phenomenon we’ve come to appreciate as hip hop has many progenitors, each adding his or her own original spin to graffiti, deejaying, b-boying and emceeing.

Harris is one of them.

Rennie Harris Puremovement’s “Lifted.” Photo courtesy Brian Mengini

Harris founded his dance company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, in 1992, and in ’96 I spent a week driving Harris and his entourage to outreach events around Seattle. Twenty years later, it’s fun to catch up with him by phone all the way from Japan, where he’s currently in artistic residence.

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Art among the plants: a lament

Across the globe, botanical gardens are luring crowds with sculpture. An artist asks: Is the art undermining the mission of the gardens?

By FRIDERIKE HEUER

What’s wrong with this picture?

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Florida

“Nothing?” the astute observer might reply. “I see some pretty glass in beautiful surroundings. Say, don’t you like Chihuly?”

Let’s try again: What’s wrong with this picture?

San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California

“A version of ‘Is that art, or just something that got tossed in the flower bed’?” the discerning viewer wonders. “Give me some context!”

Context it shall be: Have you set foot into a botanic garden lately? Not a sculpture park, not a designated area for environmental or land art, not a private or semi-private garden, but a botanical garden? I dare you to find one that has not been invaded – or graced, depending on perspective – by frequent, ever-changing sculpture shows. Just try to google “Botanic Garden” and you’ll find a list of famous sculptors for the big ones and less familiar names for all the others, advertised as their new visitor attractions. The gamut runs from celebrated Segals to melancholic simians.

San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California

Atlanta, New York, Denver, Tuscon, Phoenix, to name just a few botanic gardens, have succumbed to the “Wow” factor. As Sabina Carr, Atlanta Botanical Garden’s vice president for marketing, succinctly put it: “Wow, you have to see this.” Ever-changing attractions are aimed at getting people to attend on a recurrent basis.

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Kellen Chasuk: Inventiveness triumphs over gloom

Kellen Chasuk's lively exhibition at Stephanie Chalfas Projects is full of the still lifes of our time

By PAUL MAZIAR

One of my favorite things about art-making, in any medium, is that the initial subject matter can be totally incidental—without prescribed meaning whatsoever—and yet deeper implications are invariably discovered, by both the artist and whomever is there to experience the thing they’ve made. I love the indeterminacy that creativity can entertain, and the comfort to be found in not knowing—for both artist and viewer.

Taking a couple of separate walks through Plastic Flowers, the new exhibition of Kellen Chasuk’s paintings at Stephanie Chefas Projects through January 27, I find an unmistakable joy in Chasuk’s paintings, an inventiveness. Taken as a whole, the show exemplifies the protean aspects of meaning and experience in contemporary life—related to joy, sorrow, boredom, and anxiety for anyone alive today in these confounding times—and it entertains the concerns and tropes of artists and art history. The readily accessible, familiar passions seen in her tableaus—living, growing things—the bright hues and lighthearted forms, the playful modelling of Kellen’s paint, all of these belie a story of gloom. That’s not quite it—a kind of story opens up, shown in its variation, like life. Here, it’s a relatable gloom, for sure, and given the year we just had, such a lively exhibition is also a triumph.

Elements of Kellen Chasuk’s “Plastic Flowers” exhibition at Stephanie Chefas Projects, through January 27, 2018

Chasuk’s work is palatable in its simplicity and strangeness. You have, on the one hand, all these vivid, humorous interior (i.e., indoors) scenes that show the simplicity of playing around with paint and the rendering of space and form; and on the other, these personal or metaphysical (i.e. the person’s inner life) aspects that are gently implied by the very same means. It’s interesting to me the way that these things become interchangeable, with the possibility of even more depth of meaning through the familiar, simplified forms devoid of pretension, and in many cases even verity.

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Spotlight on: E.M. Lewis and ‘Magellanica’

As Artists Rep embarks on an epic journey to Antarctica, an Oregon playwright talks about the epic journey that brings her tale to the stage

“Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe, one of those early sea-farers, named everything after either his queen or himself. In very, very old maps, the kind with sea monsters at the bottom, of the period immediately following his circumnavigation of the globe, the whole bottom southern hemisphere is called ‘Magellanica’.”

— E.M. Lewis

When you meet E.M. Lewis, you don’t necessarily think “epic.” She’s more like your favorite librarian, excited about every subject you ask for help on, and and nothing makes her happier than when she recommends a book that you enjoy. She’s friendly, bordering on bubbly, and laughs a lot. You wouldn’t necessarily look at E.M. Lewis and think risk-taker, rule-breaker, fire-starter.

But she is.

Once you start talking to her, you feel it. Simmering underneath, barely contained, sometimes so close to the surface she’s almost shaking, is a drive, a passion, an intensity that is pushing her, pushing her, pushing her. “I’m always a person who has lots of pots bubbling on a stove,” she says, and you not only believe her, you’re also struck by how apt a metaphor that is. This relatively quiet woman would, during the course of our conversation, all of a sudden smack the table with authority to punctuate a story or drive home a point. And that’s when you see it. That’s when you feel it. Epic.

E.M. Lewis, author of “Megellanica.” Photo: Russell J Young

Lewis is the author of Magellanica, an ambitious, five-act, five-and-a-half-hour odyssey to the end of the world. In this world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre (it begins previews on Saturday, Jan. 20, opens on Jan. 27, and runs through Feb. 18) eight intrepid trekkers from different nations, different races, and at different stages in their lives’ journeys to the South Pole, ostensibly for science. But for most, if not all of them, the journey is about much more than that. You can be a scientist anywhere. There is a reason why certain people choose to go to the most extreme climate on Earth in their pursuit of knowledge, and that reason can be very, very personal. As Morgan Halsted, Magellanica’s atmospheric scientist, puts it: “No one goes to Antarctica accidentally. … We all have our reasons for being here.” Or, as Lewis says during the course of our conversation: “The more I read about the people who go to Antarctica, the more I began to understand that there are a lot of psychological reasons why people feel the need to go to a place of such great extremity and hardship.” Or, more succinctly: “Sometimes, you need to go far to bring back a piece of yourself.”

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‘The Last Hot Lick’: American quirk

Filmmaker Mahalia Cohen reached back to her Portland roots to make a film based on the life of Portland musician and former Hot Lick Jaime Leopold

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Award-winning director Mahalia Cohen developed The Last Hot Lick while trying to fund another film she had written. “In 2015, for awhile I’d been trying to get a movie made, get funding,” the Portland-born, New York-based filmmaker said about Thinner Than Water. (You can watch the charming visual study she shot for it in Oregon right here.) “Money comes and goes and falls through, so I decided I just wanted to make something and thought about what I could make that would be accessible. I came up with three options, and working with Jaime was one of ‘em.”

“Jaime” is Jaime Leopold: star of The Last Hot Lick, original bass player for cult crossover band Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and for the last several years the primary singer-songwriter behind the local “Folk / Country / Acid Memory” band Jaime Leopold and the Short Stories. Cohen reached back to her Portland roots to make The Last Hot Lick, screening Saturday in the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium as part of Reel Music 35, the Northwest Film Center’s annual celebration of music in film.

Leopold, right, with Short Stories.

Leopold plays Jack Willits, a 60-something singer-storyteller playing “a never-ending tour of small gigs in Eastern Oregon,” which sounds pretty great to me and just about right for the founder of Portland’s favorite “American QuirkTM” band. Short Stories vocalist Jennifer Smieja evokes The Muse as a mystery woman Willits puts his hopes in, and both will perform at the screening. Director Cohen will be in attendance to talk about her film with Smieja and Leopold, whom she’s known since childhood.

Mahalia Cohen: Natural Filmmaker

Cohen got her start as a filmmaker right here, not just in Portland but at NWFC. “I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker from a very early age,” she recalls. “I started saying I wanted to be a director when I was about 10, and I took my first classes at Northwest Film Center when I was 13.”

In 1998 Cohen left Portland for New York City and film school. “I loved the nature and the landscape in Oregon growing up, but had a real feeling that I wanted to get away, go to New York, someplace bigger,” she remembers. “[Oregon] became embedded in my imagination and my artistic life; even though I’ve lived away half my life, it’s grown in importance. It’s always been there. It’s in my brain.” One of the various scripts she has in development takes place in ‘90s Portland, although Cohen notes that it “couldn’t be shot in Portland anymore, [because] the Portland of the ‘90s doesn’t exist anymore.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: sizzlers and swashbucklers

A new new music festival erupts in Oregon, plus chamber music and live film scores enliven this week's concert scene

A hot new source of contemporary music has ignited in Oregon. Although, given the incendiary events of the summer and fall, its name might be a tad, er, heated for a West Coast music fest, Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival, which runs January 20-February 2 in Eugene, Portland and Seattle (with additional West Coast cities intended next year), includes major new music voices including daring New York cellist Ashley Bathgate, City of Tomorrow wind quintet, NYC’s Sandbox Percussion Quartet, and more. Saturday’s concert at Portland’s Old Church concert hall features Eugene’s own Delgani String Quartet, the state’s finest chamber ensemble, performing Portland native Lou Harrison’s majestic String Quartet Set, influenced by medieval Western European and Turkish music, among others; a quartet by the great 20th century avant garde composer György Ligeti; and a new composition by recent University of Oregon graduate Benjamin Krause, which you can read all about in Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch story. The busy Delganis also play Ligeti and Beethoven Sunday at Salem’s Prince of Peace Episcopal Church and next weekend in Eugene.

Delgani String Quartet performs in Portland and Salem.

On Monday at the Old Church and Tuesday at Eugene’s New Zone Gallery, Boston flutist Orlando Cela plays music by fellow flutist and contemporary American composer Robert Dick, the great Argentine nuevo tango composer Astor  Piazzolla, and more. Tuesday’s concert at the Old Church brings one of the most talked about younger contemporary classical ensembles, Boston’s Hub New Music, which plays music by Oregon-born, Wisconsin-based composer David Drexler, the premiere of a new half hour piece by Robert Honstein, and a composition by erstwhile Seattleite Laura Kaminsky, whose music we last encountered in Portland  a couple years back. We’ll tell you all about the remaining concerts in this exciting new series created by Cascadia Composer and new Portlander Scott Anthony Shell in upcoming MusicWatches.

Portland Mini Musical Festival returns to Fertile Ground this weekend.

Speaking of new artistic creations, as you’ve been reading all over ArtsWatch, one of Oregon’ most valuable artistic incubators, the annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, is back, and at least one of those, Mini Musicals 2018, running thrice at Portland’s Winningstad Theatre this weekend, is of special interest to music fans like all of you. We sure liked last year’s edition.

Last weekend, the Oregon Symphony gave a dazzling performance of Stravinsky’s immortal The Rite of Spring accompanied by newly created visuals tailored to the century old music. (Stay tuned for our review.) This weekend, it reverses the process. Although neither Keith Richards nor Johnny Depp is scheduled to appear, the Oregon Symphony and Pacific Youth Choir play Hans Zimmer’s score to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to accompany a screening of the film.

Douglas Fairbanks swashes his buckles in “The Mark of Zorro,” accompanied by musicians from Vancouver Symphony.

More swashbuckling original music accompanies the Vancouver Symphony’s Chamber Music Series screening of Douglas Fairbanks’s spectacular adventure flick The Mark of Zorro Sunday at Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre. The original score by Colorado based composer/conductor/silent film score specialist Rodney Sauer features members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Check MusicWatch next week for info about an even more exciting silent film score screening and live performance.

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