Cappella Romana: unexpected sounds

Moving performance of 'All-Night Vigil' sparks a romance with Rachmaninov

Story and photos by FRIDERIKE HEUER

“On second thought, maybe I should go to the concert. Even if it is church music played in a church. Or maybe because it is church music played in a church – time to stretch yourself.”

Thus were my musings after a friend urged me to attend Cappella Romana’s The Vigil this weekend. Am I glad I did. I cannot even remember the last time I had goosebumps like this while listening to live music. Which tells you a) I had never before heard Cappella Romana, b) it was an unusually profound piece of music, sublimely performed all the way through (hard, because it is long and technically quite difficult) and c) I probably don’t go out to concerts often enough.

Cappella Romana performed Rachmaninoff’s ‘All-Night Vigil’ and other Russian Orthodox sacred music at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

And so I sat on a Sunday afternoon in a church attempting to hold back tears and racking my brain trying to remember what I knew about Sergei Rachmaninov, about his choral work All-Night Vigil, op.37 just so the emotions wouldn’t overwhelm me.

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Contemporary dance befriends vaudeville in ‘Some Are Silver’

Lighthearted antics thread through new and vintage pieces by Carlyn Hudson

Carlyn Hudson wants you to have a good night, and her new show, running this Saturday at BodyVox Dance Center, is designed to help you do just that. The pieces in the Portland-based dancer-choreographer’s new program Some Are Silver seamlessly weave together contemporary dance, ballet, and vaudevillian comedy. And the program itself meshes new and old, offering the premieres of three works–The Royal Fireworks!, Façade in B Flat Minor, and I May Be Wrong–alongside six older works.

Hudson is a native New Yorker with a lifelong love for ballet. However after starting training late, at age 13, and witnessing the cutthroat competition of the ballet world, she realized that she wanted more creative control over her output.  My long obsession with ballet gave me the training I needed to articulate ideas using dance as my language,” said Hudson when I spoke with her prior to the show. Perhaps the hyper-perfectionism of ballet helped her find the voice she used to create Some Are Silver. Though it includes classical ballet technique, the program has a more forgiving view of failure: its lighthearted antics and vaudevillian sensibility provide a laugh for the audience and make the performers relatable and likeable.

Carlyn Hudson pairs new and old works in Some Are Silver. Photo courtesy Design by Goats.

To give the content some context, consider the period in which vaudeville flourished in the U.S. It was the turn of the last century: The Wright Brothers had just successfully taken flight, the first World Series was played, the women’s suffrage movement was gaining significant traction, Henry Ford started his motor company, and in theaters across the country, thousands flocked to vaudeville shows. Stringing together comedians, actors, ventriloquists, acrobats, and essentially anyone who could keep the audience’s attention with some slapstick humor, vaudeville provided an escape from a rapidly changing industrialized landscape. An evening of shows typically consisted of 10 to 15 unrelated acts whose sole purpose was to entertain.

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Purple is the color of hard-won joy

Portland Center Stage delivers a jubilant production of "The Color Purple," the musical adapted from Alice Walker's famed novel of struggle and transformation.

The Color Purple looms large in America’s literary (and cinematic) canon. Beloved and controversial, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an African American woman living in the early 1900’s has touched millions. Unsurprisingly, it’s not an easy story. The hardships that the women in the story endure are appalling and it wouldn’t seem like material prime for a musical adaptation. But Marsha Norman did it, staying true to the source material while using the medium to bring the joy and hope of the story to the forefront. Portland Center Stage opens its season with this jubilant experience.

For those unfamiliar with The Color Purple: 14-year-old Celie (Felicia Boswell) lives with her much-loved sister and monstrous father in rural Georgia. Abused and neglected Celie is separated from her sister and given to Mister (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), an abusive widower, to raise his unruly children. As she grows up Celie begins to draw inspiration and strength from other women in her life, especially Mister’s lover Shug (Lana Gordon) a fiercely independent jazz singer.

Drawing on gospel, ragtime, jazz, and blues, the score grounds the musical in its time period and creates an emotional counterpoint to the seriousness of the story. Where there is hardship there is hope. Where there is oppression there is defiance. Celie’s first lesson in independence comes from her daughter-in-law Sofia (Maiesha McQueen), who implores her to stand up for herself in the explosive blues number “Hell No!” This is a high-energy production, but McQueen’s commanding performance takes it to a new level, earning whooping applause from the audience.

Make ya wanna holla!: Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd as Harpo and Maiesha McQueen as Sofia in “The Color Purple.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

While The Color Purple centers the lives of African American women and the strength they draw from each other, it’s impossible to ignore the abuse they suffer. Consideration is given to Mister, but only as to how he’s internalized toxic masculinity and his own realization around that. Walker’s novel is unsparing in how it critiqued patriarchy and racism and though this adaptation is pared down Norman keeps this idea at the forefront of the script.

The current national dialogue about racism and sexual assault, cracked open by movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, make this show feel all too timely.

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Milka Djordjevich’s ‘Anthem’: Are we making art, or is it making us?

Milka Djordjevich’s Anthem is characterized by dream-logic and surprise, tempered by the absolute command that the dance requires

By PAUL MAZIAR and JESSICA CERRATO

The dancers enter the theater with stately, measured grace, four women in bright costumes moving in procession, hands and bodies enjoined in a line moving in synchronous time. The dance begins en media res, with a minimalist score pulsing and ticking throughout the performance space—the audience wrapping the wooden dance floor in the tiered setting of an amphitheatre. The slow, deliberate manner of the dancers’ steps culminates with the repetitive opening music; it is dizzying, trance-like, unexpected. The sacred feminine is evoked in pressing gestures to the body: deliberate and rhythmic as music hums and intensifies the unfolding drama, each step and fluid movement leading into another while the dancers begin to interact—lightly slapping each other’s bodies and their own as if in a rite, clapping time.

Milka Djordjevich’s “Anthem,” which was performed at the TBA Festival/Photos courtesy of PICA

Each rhythmic step cycles, morphs, replacing the next set of lithe movements; the dancers interweave and rotate among each other. Soft gestures frame and press: breast, pelvis, buttocks. Hands clap and bodies twist in folkloric momentum—chain dancing, intricate patterns infusing order with wild spirit spiraling outward, from choreography to improvisation, experimentation unraveling into revelry.

Otherwise, it’s an ordinary late Sunday afternoon.

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‘Ann’: sketchy portrait

One-woman show about the feisty Texas governor misses what made Ann Richards great

Holland Taylor’s one-woman tribute, Ann, which Triangle Productions is staging through September 29, brought back memories of a politician I both criticized and admired. I covered Ann Richards and Texas politics during her last term as elected state treasurer and through her successful campaign for governor, writing and editing at Texas’s leading progressive magazine, The Texas Observer, probably best known here as the launching pad and lifelong forum for one of my predecessors, Molly Ivins.

Because I saw a preview performance, I can’t really review Triangle’s production, as star Margie Boule, who’s been getting raves, was understandably still settling into the part. But no production can save a scattered script that fundamentally lacks a story, real conflict (beyond the family drama of who gets paired with whom in the family game of Charades), dramatic structure or tension. It goes on too long and tries to end three times — none satisfactory and the last drearily bathetic, with Richards joining her mom and pop at the great ranch in the sky. The first and only play written by Taylor (an Emmy-winning TV actor best known for her roles in sitcoms Bosom Buddies and Two and a Half Men) to perform herself, it’s more like a character sketch an actor might prepare than an actual drama.

Ann gives us little understanding or even discussion of her life’s work or what motivated her not-politically correct (for most of Texas of her time) liberalism. After an expositional opening scene relaying her history through a college graduation address, Richards spends the next hour or so in a tedious series of phone calls: making travel arrangements, chatting with her old buddy Bill Clinton, micromanaging the family holiday gathering, dealing with reporters, reserving boats for a fishing trip, pondering a stay of execution for a developmentally disabled death row inmate, etc. Taylor’s apparent strategy is to show how Richards juggles the business of state as well as family duties through the multitasking that moms know so well.

“In fact, motherhood is splendid training for politics,” her friend and my colleague Ivins wrote in her obituary in our magazine. “All good mothers know what to do when there’s two kids and one cookie, and all good mothers know what to do when there are two kids in the back seat hitting each other, each one of them claiming the other one started it. All political problems are merely variations of those two situations.”

But the multitasking takes up most of the play. My date, who’s not from Texas, was mystified by what was at stake, why it mattered, and/or what obstacles and choices Richards faced. Such context is crucial to Taylor’s goal: imparting a sense of Richards’s character.

Originally subtitled “an affectionate portrait,” Ann comes off as shallow fangirl worship, unworthy of Richards’s substantive achievements political and personal. The script, which Taylor intended to praise Richards, winds up burying her greatness in trivialities. Instead of the powerful political leader she actually was, we get the kind of wisecracking celebrity she might have looked like from Hollywood. 

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Shoring up Toledo’s Centennial Celebration Mural

Nature has taken its toll on the 13-year-old public artwork commemorating 100 years of the city's history

This seems to be the season for kids and art — a topic that naturally came up earlier this month when the Newport Performing Arts Center celebrated its 30th anniversary. Talk of old times (and new) called to mind for many all the students of dance, music and theater who benefited from the PAC. I’m no expert, but it seems obvious that art opens doors, expands horizons and stretches imaginations. Art, like kids themselves, is about possibility — for everyone.

Thirteen years ago, then Toledo Mayor Sharon Brandstiter saw the possibility for honoring Toledo’s 100 years of history by creating a public work of art. Lawrence Adrian, the artistic director and founder of the Oregon Coast Children’s Theatre and Oregon Coast Children’s Center for the Arts, designed the project and lead the charge to build it. Local residents and companies pitched in, raising something over $10,000 for the project, Adrian said. Students from every school in Toledo had the opportunity to share their creative spirit in what would become the largest mosaic mural in the state.

The Centennial Celebration Mural stretches 96 feet long and stands more than 15 feet high on a stepped retaining wall at the Toledo City Hall parking lot. The design was inspired by more than 100 photos from a century-plus of Toledo history.

The mosaics of the Toledo Centennial Celebration Mural record memorable events of the city’s past 100 years, such as the 1970 filming of scenes for “Sometimes a Great Notion,” based on Ken Kesey’s novel. Photo courtesy: Oregon Coast Children’s Theater and Oregon Coast Children’s Center for the Arts

“One great aspect of the project was meeting many of the people pictured on the mural, or the children or grandchildren of those same individuals,” Adrian said. The mural and the community support it garnered were among reasons Adrian moved the OCCT/OCCCA from Lincoln City to Toledo, he said.

But the years have taken their toll on the mosaic mural. Mud, rocks and debris fall from above, chipping and otherwise damaging tiles. There’s been some vandalism, too, Adrian said. But mostly the problems come from nature — albeit exacerbated by folks climbing on the structure.

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More than a feeling of “Ordinary Days”

Subtle emotions bloom in the Broadway Rose production of the touching Adam Gwon musical about city dwellers seeking connection.

Feelings can be sneaky things.

For instance, as I sat through the Broadway Rose production of Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days, the first tear that came coursing down the side of my nose took me entirely by surprise. Nothing tragic or especially melancholy had happened onstage, nor for that matter had the show reached any moment of sweetly happy release. I do recall feeling a tightening high in my chest, but in retrospect I can’t say whether that came before or after I had to wipe my eye. Clearly I was feeling something, but exactly what or why wasn’t immediately obvious.

Ordinary Dayswhich plays through Oct. 14 at the Broadway Rose New Stage in Tigard, isn’t what you’d call a tearjerker. It’s bright, energetic, poppy, full of cute, wry observations and offhand humor. But its take on the quotidian challenges facing four young New Yorkers builds a subtle strength — through both the accretion of tiny narrative details and the inevitable tensions of characters seeking connections — until deep, multifaceted feelings come pushing through the surface simplicity.

Moving and touching: “Ordinary Days” features Benjamin Tissell (left) as Jason and Kailey Rhodes as Claire, a young couple trying to unpack what’s in the way of a better connection. Photo: Sam Ortega.

That surface is appealing in its own right. The show consists of almost entirely of 20 songs that introduce us to the four characters — all trying to find themselves and their futures in the big city — and sketch the arc of their relationships over a brief but impactful time, perhaps a week or two. Gwon’s tunes sound a bit too much alike after a while, either nervously upbeat or twinklingly reflective, but they’re catchy, never saccharine, and the lyrics are loaded with clever rhymes that somehow still feel conversational.

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