‘Taming’ and the Wonder Women

A farce, a satire, a women's play about politics: Mariel Sierra and company talk about producing Lauren Gunderson's "The Taming" at CoHo

Two years ago Donald Trump became president, and whatever else happened, everybody knew the world would never again be the same. Lines were drawn in the sand. The world convulsed in massive protests. People who avoided politics like the plague found themselves looking for any way to get involved, to make a change, to act.

For someone like Mariel Sierra, a theater artist who considers herself an activist within her field, the 2016 election was a moment of self-reckoning. “How do I fix it?” she asked herself. “How do I problem-solve, what is the active thing I can do?” The action turned out to be theater. Nationally renowned playwright Lauren Gunderson waived the fees for the rights to her plays on Jan. 20, 2016 for anyone who wanted to do a staged reading.

“The Taming”: politics, farce, and satire at CoHo.

Sierra had met Gunderson in Portland in 2015, when Profile Theatre had staged a reading of Gunderson’s play The Revolutionists (which is being produced at Artists Rep this season), had been in contact with her via social media, and found she “really liked her work and her voice as an artist.” So when the announcement about waiving the royalties came down, Sierra was ready. “I immediately texted, called, corralled Lauren Bloom Hanover, McKenna Twedt, Katie Watkins and Lindsay Huff and asked them if they wanted to do this with me. I was still working with (Portland director) Asae Dean at the time, so we got the rights through Salt and Sage,” Dean’s production company.

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Kill a painting, save a world

Like Banksy, Portland's Elisabeth Jones Art Center plots to destroy a painting. Unlike Banksy, its goals are global and environmental.

On November 1, the day after Halloween and roughly three weeks after the titillating shredding of the Banksy painting Girl With Balloon during an auction at Sotheby’s in London, a large blue and green painting will be destroyed at the Elisabeth Jones Art Center. The painting, Danger, Little One, features a large pair of bears in the polar lights looming over a small polar bear on a melting ice floe. It faces a grisly ending: It’ll be pierced, jabbed, sanded, attacked with power tools that whine like dentists’ drills, smashed to smithereens.

Banksy see, Banksy do? To be fair, the Portland art center got there first.

“Danger, Little One”: to be terminated November 1.

In early August, two months before The Shredding That Shook The Art World (although Banksy had planned it earlier), the Elisabeth Jones center had destroyed another large painting, Peaceable Kingdom, which also depicted polar bears, these ones swimming happily along with fish and sea mammals in a dream of non-imperiled status. And John Teply, the center’s director, has done this sort of thing before. In the 1980s, in Santa Cruz County, California, he created a 30-foot-long outdoor painting, Wingspread, and then had it bulldozed as onlookers watched, aghast.

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Pacifica Quartet preview: cycling Beethoven

Renowned chamber ensemble's five-concert series offers a rare opportunity to take a deep dive into some of the greatest music ever written

“I’m sorry, I’m getting choked up now,” says Pacifica Quartet violist Mark Holloway. He’s not talking about a recent family tragedy. He’s talking about a long dead composer: Beethoven. And not about his famous symphonies (“da-da-da da!”), but a more intimate side. Over the next week, Holloway and his colleagues will perform all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets in five concerts at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

“I feel so humbled by this music,” Holloway continued after composing himself. Even after playing those chamber music standards for decades, “we all have a deep love for it. Today we were rehearsing Op. 135 and the second violin had one of those magical moments only Beethoven can conjure up and I could see the astonishment on his face.”

Pacifica Quartet plays Beethoven this week. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Holloway and his fellow quartet members aren’t the only listeners who continue to be moved. Composed between 1800, when Beethoven was 30, and 1826, the year before he died, the quartets offer astonishing variety, considering they were all written by one composer for the same four stringed instruments. The first six mostly build on the Classical-era forms established by his teacher Haydn and Mozart. The ever-popular middle period quartets document Beethoven’s evolution from Classical elegance to Romantic passion. His final quartets look beyond Romanticism to a more modern, sometimes uncategorizable sound, and still sound thrillingly futuristic even in the 21st century.

With Beethoven’s 250th birth anniversary approaching, Friends of Chamber Music, which is presenting the Pacifica Beethoven cycle, knew that many listeners would want to get to know — or reacquaint themselves with — Beethoven’s music, explains executive director Pat Zagelow. Experiencing the complete cycle (or even a few portions) live provides an unparalleled opportunity to sample or dive deep into what’s universally considered to be some of the greatest music ever written — undistracted by device notifications and news. FOCM also offers an impressive series of free talks, expert lectures, discussions, master classes and open rehearsals to contextualize and enhance the exploration.

And Pacifica Quartet makes an ideal guide. In previous Oregon appearances, the Grammy-winning foursome have demonstrated not just the highest levels of technical chops but also a rare ability to connect emotionally to audiences without resorting to fake flamboyance. Read Alice Hardesty’s ArtsWatch interview for more on the group and its two-decade history.

“They rehearse all the time and work so hard to have such a high level of artistic integrity and cohesiveness,” Zagelow says. “Even audience members who are not as sophisticated musically love them and don’t know why. I love to watch them — it’s so engaging to see them immersed in this. The music is living through their bodies as they play.”

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A new curator of Native American Art named by the Portland Art Museum

Kathleen Ash-Milby joins the museum's staff in a role that's become increasingly important

The Portland Art Museum has just announced the hiring of a new curator of Native American Art, Kathleen Ash-Milby. Ash-Milby comes to Portland from New York where she has been an associate curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) for nearly 20 years. She is a member of the Navajo Nation and replaces previous curator Deana Darrt, who stepped down in 2016.

At NMAI, Ash-Milby organized, curated, and co-curated many important exhibitions including: Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound (2017), Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist (2015), C. Maxx Stevens: House of Memory (2012), HIDE: Skin as Material and Metaphor (2010), and Off the Map: Landscape in the Native Imagination (2007). In addition to her work at NMAI, Ash-Milby has curated projects internationally and served on the boards of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (2007-2012) and the American Indian Community House (2005-2007).

Kathleen Ash-Milby, the new curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum

Ash-Milby was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and received her M.A. in Native American art history from the University of New Mexico. However, she does have connections to the Northwest as her undergraduate degree is from the University of Washington. She says she is “thrilled to be returning to the Northwest and joining the Portland Art Museum at such an important time in its growth. Portland has such a vibrant community of Native artists and community members, and I’m looking forward to being part of it.”

The Portland community is equally thrilled. Portland artist Lillian Pitt and member of the Native Advisory Board says, “I have known Kathleen since she started working at the National Museum of the American Indian…while the hiring process was lengthy, I am so pleased that Kathleen accepted the job. She will make us all proud.”

The position of curator for Native American Art has been vacant since Deana Dartt left the position in 2016, but the department has remained active. It has received several important grants from, among others, the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and has continued to add new works to its collection. And it recently opened CCNA: Not Fragile, a show of glass art by contemporary Native artists.

Ash-Milby will start at the Portland Art Museum in July 2019.

Vertigo at the crossroads

After 21 years of sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility, the scrappy theater has reinvented itself again

For two decades, Theatre Vertigo has been sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility. It’s developed a reputation for gritty, rough, challenging, neurotic, and hilarious theater – often at the same time. Some of the most thrilling pieces of art on the Portland theater scene have been crafted on the Vertigo stage: Hellcab, Freedomland, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Adding Machine, A Maze, American Pilot, to name just a few. Despite its small size, Theatre Vertigo is also famous for being perhaps Portland’s preeminent theater ensemble, turning its roster over on a routine basis (Vertigo alumni going on to become many of the Portland theater scene’s most prominent names) but staying committed to the ensemble model, eschewing even an artistic director.

But two years ago, Vertigo reached a moment of crisis. The company was known for turnover, yes. But eleven members, for a variety of reasons, all decided to take their leave at once. Of the four who decided to remain, none had been there more than a year. The future of Theatre Vertigo was very much in doubt.

From left: Joel Patrick Durham, Paige Rogers, Jacquelle Davis, Samson Syharath, and London Bauman in “A Map of Virtue,” opening Friday, Oct. 26. KKelly Photography

Now Vertigo is presenting its first mainstage production in more than a year, Erin Courtney’s haunting romance, A Map of Virtue. Just the fact of the production announces two things. One, Theatre Vertigo is still here, and still doing new plays that scare other theater companies away. Two, a new sensibility is now making the call, so that while there is still much that will be the same about Theatre Vertigo, there is still more that is different. Regardless, Vertigo has its sights set on another twenty years.

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Into the “Deathtrap” and back out with the new

Bag & Baggage balances winking humor and murderous intent to make a meta-theatrical classic feel fresh again.

“Nothing recedes like success,” says the fading playwright at the center of Deathtrap. That’s also true of Ira Levin’s famous 1978 play, one of the most successful thrillers in Broadway history, which ran nearly 1800 performances and became a major 1982 movie success starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Yet you don’t see it staged much by professional theaters these days in spite, or because of, the fact that it pioneered many of the meta-theatrical tricks and winking plot twists common in films and plays ever since.

That’s a challenge for anyone producing Deathtrap today: How do you make what was once so thrillingly outre’ feel fresh?

Bag and Baggage Productions, which produced this new version running through October, also faced its own similar challenge: after a decade of increasing success at Hillsboro’s big, old-school Venetian Theatre, could it maintain that track record in its very different, intimate new space across Main Street, the Vault, which demands a different kind of direction and acting?

I won’t give away the ending (or much of the plot) of Deathtrap, but I’ll tell you upfront the answer to those two questions: in surmounting the second challenge, Bag & Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer also solves the first. His new production’s modern directorial sensibility makes a familiar, four-decade old classic feel contemporary again.

The plot twists won’t let you rest: Bag&Baggage Productions presents “Deathtrap” at the Vault Theater in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography

Deathtrap was an early leader in the now-familiar meta-theater subgenre — it’s a play about playwriting. Sidney, a once successful playwright, needs to revive his career. Clifford, a student he’s mentored, wants to jumpstart his own with a promising script he brings to Sidney’s leafy Connecticut suburban home. Sidney’s wealthy wife Myra, while eager to help Sidney return to acclaim, has her doubts about both writers. Their neighbor Helga, a Dutch pop psychic, and Sidney’s lawyer Porter, seemingly innocuous, both play crucial roles in the twisty plotlines. Homicide and humor happen.

That’s enough plot summary, because though Deathtrap is one of those modern mysteries where the audience knows whodunnit, we’re still constantly surprised and delighted by what happens next. That ironic balance between comical and criminal helped make Deathtrap a breakthrough in its day. A production can easily lean too far one way or the other. Make it too slapstick and lose the power of the murder mystery that compels audience interest. Play it too straight and it’s just another dated puzzler without the satirical delight Levin provides in playing with our expectations.

Stage director Palmer is a past master at navigating that fine line between realism and exaggeration, especially in B&B’s entertaining comedies. But doing so in the Vault’s intimate confines demands a much subtler approach. A master of misdirection (in the good, non-hyphenated sense!), Palmer accentuates the sense of unease with expert little touches — a sidelong glance here, a raised eyebrow there, slightly melodramatic music and light cues — that create an atmosphere of what might be called wry ominousness. We’re nervous and chuckling, surprised and knowing, all at the same time. It’s a Deathtrap for the post-Simpsons generation that plays off the fact that the script’s pioneering self-awareness is now common currency in all kinds of entertainment. And the nuances that make it work would have been lost on the distant Venetian Theatre stage. In a post-show talkback, Palmer revealed that he’s wanted to direct Deathtrap here for ages, but knew it wouldn’t work in the oversized Venetian. It’s a small-scale triumph in the Vault.

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PSU Chamber Choir: connection through competition

A participant in the award-winning choir's trip to a major competition in Argentina finds that the most rewarding musical moments don't always happen onstage

by AARON RICHARDSON

The Portland State University Chamber Choir made it to San Juan, Argentina for the San Juan Canta International Choral Competition and Festival from August 16-20. I sang bass in the choir, and as much as we enjoyed the competition, for me, the best part of the experience didn’t actually happen onstage.

The Portland State Chamber Choir, led by Ethan Sperry, has won awards both nationally and internationally in its 43 year history. Last year, we placed first in the Bali International Choral Festival in Indonesia. That was an unforgettable experience because there were over 150 choirs creating amazing music together, and we were the singers who took home the gold.

This summer was the first time the choir had ever competed in South America. One of our previous grad students and section leaders grew up in Argentina, and her mother was a conductor of the host choir at the event, named Coro Arturo Beruti. We were all looking forward to sharing the music that we worked so hard on with other choirs from around the world.

Warming Up

Before the competition, we took a tour of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.The city has so many music houses it looked like they were on almost every block of downtown. To prepare us for the competition, we first at one of the oldest and most famous opera house in South America, called Teatro Colón in downtown Buenos Aires on August 13. When we looked up in the music hall we performed in, we saw chandeliers twenty feet high, filling the room with light, and vibrant paintings on the ceiling, as well as the walls. The main stage faced thirty rows of seating, set up as an oval with all chairs leaning towards the stage, resulting in the sound surrounding listeners from every angle. Many famous singers have performed on the main stage since its opening in 1908. To be given that opportunity to sing in the main hall is one that I will never forget.

PSU Chamber Choir tearing it up in San Juan, Argentina.

We arrived at the competition in San Juan, Argentina on August 15 for the opening ceremony. The main hall at the Auditorio Juan Victoria consisted of a state with eight built in risers and a pipe organ behind the stage. At the opening ceremony, each of the ten groups sang one piece each as an introduction.That way, we were able to see how each choir performed and then to mingle afterward.

The next day, for the start of the festival, we had a concert featuring the choirs that weren’t competing called the Friendship Concert. The highlight for me was a Vocal Jazz Choir from Mexico named Vox Populi Project, who effortlessly used a variety of techniques to make their voices sound like different instruments like trumpet, sax, trombone. They sang pieces from Duke Ellington, Enrique Segarra and more, including an a capella rendition of Beyonce’s “Love on Top.” They looked like they were having a blast on stage, and put everyone at ease and relaxed for the competition the next day.

Competition and Communication

The competition day was filled with a lot of music, workshops and lectures from conductors and composers. While we were competing, we had the chance to talk with members of the other choirs. Though we were the only choir from the United States, many of us were able to communicate well with the others, since most of them were university students and could speak English. We also had a couple of students who spoke Spanish, so there was barely any communication barrier throughout the competition.

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