‘Astoria’: huge notions, big dreams

Chris Coleman's sweeping world premiere at Portland Center Stage is a historical drama about a rich businessman's will to power. Sound familiar?

“These Americans and their dreams.”

That’s the sigh of an old 18th-century European, an Irish grandmother wondering at the propensity of those who migrate to the New World to believe that they can remake their lives into something wholly different, wholly better. It’s quoted almost offhandedly amidst the vast sweep of Astoria: Part One, a play getting its world premiere by Portland Center Stage, but the play is very much about those dreams, in a variety of ways.

Astoria the play is based on the book by Peter Stark, the full title of which — Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival — sketches out its scope. A German immigrant and the son of a butcher, Astor became a wealthy fur trader in New York before hatching a grand plan to control the Columbia River Basin, monopolize the fur supply of the American West, establish a lucrative global trade network and perhaps even launch a sister democracy to mirror the United States on the other side of the continent. Stark combed historical accounts to create an absorbing work of popular history. Now Portland Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman has boldly adapted it into a thoughtful and at times energized stage production.

Members of the Overland Party meeting with Arikara Chiefs. From left: Michael Morrow Hammack as John Reed, Shawn Fagan as Wilson Price Hunt, Brandon Contreras as Pierre Dorion, Christopher Salazar as Le Gauche, Shaun Taylor-Corbett as Les Yeux Gris, Jeremy Aggers as Donald Mackenzie and Benjamin Tissell as Ramsay Crooks. Photo: Jennie Baker

This is broad-stroke storytelling, whisking us across oceans and through vast wilderness, yet it is flecked with lots of human-scale color and detail — boisterous bursts of song and dance, simmering personality conflicts, harrowing survival challenges, bits of bawdy humor. At nearly three hours length, it gets us through just half the tale: Part One ends with a seagoing crew newly arrived at the Oregon Coast and a land expedition lost in the wilds leading from Rocky Mountains into the Snake River Basin. Part Two is scheduled for the 2017-18 PCS season.

No doubt it is entirely coincidental but not irrelevant that Astoria opened on the same day as the recent presidential inauguration. Though it encompasses much else, it is at root about a rich businessman’s will to power.

Astor’s enterprise was an attempt at commercial empire building. Coleman’s account of that attempt is part historical epic, part frontier adventure yarn, and even more than in Stark’s vivid telling, it is an examination of the American democratic experiment and the American national character, both still fledglings in 1810.

Partly that theme comes through in the sharp contrast of leadership styles between Astor’s appointees. William Price Hunt, who heads the Overland Party trekking west to the Columbia from St. Louis, is so mild and accommodating that his dithering becomes dangerous. Captain Jonathan Thorn, in charge of the advance ship bringing men and supplies around Cape Horn, exudes courage and military discipline but is rigid to the point of cruelty. Both men risk losing the trust and support of those around them.

More broadly, Americans are presented here as practical and no-nonsense — a bit flat and humorless, perhaps, compared to the cranky Scots-Canadians and fun-loving Quebecois, but not quite as mercilessly mercantile as the British.

There’s fine work here by a busy ensemble, a cast of 16 taking on several times that many characters, guiding us through the story’s whipsaw movement thanks in part to well-considered work by movement director Christopher Hirsh and dialect coach Mary McDonald-Lewis. Flexibility also comes from Tony Cisek’s scenic design, an arrangement of spikes, beams, ramps, ropes, and grandly sloping walls of wood that allows us to imagine the action on a dock or a mountain, a frigate or a fort.

Amidst all the moving parts, though, some standout characterizations give the piece a human center. Portland stalwart Leif Norby brings equally vivid life to the upright and ambitious Astor with his clipped German accent and to Robinson, a rough and laconic frontiersman with a drawl as backwoods as a coonskin cap. Shawn Fagan, who starred at the Armory last season as the Stage Manager in Our Town, brings out the earnest good nature in William Price Hunt while letting his softness and doubt show through as reasonable caution, not damnable weakness. The lone woman in the cast, DeLanna Studi, a veteran of Oregon Shakespeare Festival stages, brings admirable spine to two very different characters, the well-heeled New York matron Sarah Todd Astor and the half-French/half-Iowa tribe Marie Dorion, who totes toddlers and newborns through the wilderness.

Ben Rosenblatt (left) as Captain Jonathan Thorn, Chris Murray as First Mate Ashton Fox. Photo: Jennie Baker

There are fine turns, too, from Gavin Hoffman as the irascible Duncan McDougall, who’s to run Astor’s great trade emporium once they reach the Columbia; Ben Newman as the fastidious clerk Gabriel Franchere; and Ben Rosenblatt as that troll of the sea, Captain Thorn (whose spectacular comeuppance in Part Two should be reason enough to be excited for next season).

Telling a story of this sort brings with it some unavoidable problems. Facts get in the way of the sleek shape of adventure fiction. Direct exposition is often necessary, but can feel at brief moments like a historical pageant for tourists. And how do you choose what to explain and what to edit out, when texture and clarity always will work against narrative efficiency?

Even so, as both adapter and director, Coleman’s done a fine job at a massive and tricky task, remaking history into theater.

Those artists and their dreams.

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Portland Center Stage’s world premiere of Astoria: Part One has been extended through February 19 at The Armory. Ticket and schedule information here.

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