Bob Hicks

 

ArtsWatch Weekly: Solstice!

Here comes summer. Here comes summer art. Take off your shoes, put on your swimsuit, and dive right in.

Raise a glass, if you’re of a mind, to summer, which according to the wise old heads of The Old Farmer’s Almanac officially begins at 9:24 Pacific Daylight Time this evening – Tuesday, June 20. If you’re reading this on the East Coast you’ll need to wait until 12:24 on Wednesday morning for the solstice to kick in.

That makes it high time to start thinking about summer arts, too.

The eclectic Siletz Bay Music Festival in and around Lincoln City on the Oregon coast opens Wednesday with some Mendelssohn and Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and continues through July 4 with concerts ranging from classics to rock violin to swing jazz and cabaret.

Chamber Music Northwest kicks off its summer season in Portland on Monday evening, June 26, with a program of music by Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Amy Beach (plus a little Bach), and continues through July 30. The opener’s a good introduction to this year’s celebration of women composers – and that ties in neatly to Choreography XX, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s swiftly approaching program of free performances June 29-30 in the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheater, featuring works by three women choreographers. For a deeper look, see Jamuna Chiarini’s interview with Helen Simoneau, one of the three, in DanceWatch Weekly.

Falstaff (K. T. Vogt) bemoans his difficulties wooing Mistresses Ford and Page, unaware that he’s speaking to Master Ford (Rex Young) in disguise. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The granddaddy of Oregon summer festivals, Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, continues full steam ahead through October with eleven plays moving in and out of repertory during the season. Sir John Falstaff, that great gross night, makes a big splash, making appearances in all three plays in which he’s a character. For more on that, read Suzi Steffen’s Five questions for the Falstaffs, an interview with festival actors K.T. Vogt and G. Valmont Thomas, who between them cover all of the big guy’s bases.

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Revenge tragedy, political farce

The Public Theatre kills off a Trump-like Julius Caesar, and the outrage flies. What happens when theater and politics clash.

It’s the murder heard ’round the Web. Stab-stab-stab, and the emperor’s dead. Across vast stretches of Blue America, a metaphorical wish has been fulfilled. And lo, a righteous and avenging fury has swept across the nation from stage right, and the shouting heads have shouted ’til they’re blue in the face, and the mighty money spigot has cranked shut. New York’s Public Theatre has done the unthinkable in its Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. It’s dressed up JC to look like Donald Trump, and allowed the assassination to go on (quite explicitly, according to the reviews), and the play to proceed to the perpetrators’ plummet from the heights, felled by the hubris of their own violent act.

The cultural world is unlikely to have a flashier flash point this summer, although considering the political craziness of the moment, all bets are off. A production of a classic play about politics has itself entered the political theater, where the stakes are higher and the action’s vastly more ruthless. It’s at once a tragedy and a farce, on a level that The Public’s director Oskar Eustis might not have anticipated, even though he courted the controversy.

“Murder of Caesar,” Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas, Lower Saxony State Museum, Hanover, Germany

Agitators have rushed the stage and disrupted several performances, loudly shouting canned slogans: “Liberal hate kills!” “Goebbels will be proud!” “The blood of Steve Scalise is on your hands!” (This is the same Steve Scalise, shot at baseball practice by a looney who had also been a Bernie Sanders supporter, who has proudly touted his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.) One such interruption came from an “investigative journalist” and right-wing operator named Laura Loomer, whom up to that point I had had the extreme pleasure of never having heard. “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” she shouted, perhaps in defense of the candidate of the right who suggested that his loyal Second Amendment supporters might have a solution to the distressing outrages of his liberal election opponent. Corporate sponsors Bank of America and Delta Air Lines, aghast at the thought that their feel-good marketing support of free theater in the park might make them targets of a backlash that could cost them business, promptly withdrew their backing – and in the process, created a backlash to the backlash that almost certainly will cost them business. Shakespeare festivals across the country (including Oregon’s in Ashland) that had nothing to do with The Public or its Julius Caesar drew vitriolic complaints and even, in some cases, threats of violence from an aroused right-wing faithful. It all made, if nothing else, for “good TV.”

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Good with people, reluctantly

David Harrower's contemporary two-hander "Good With People" does fascinating personal battle in Our Shoes Are Red's hands

Portland is a town where good theater happens in little spaces. Not just small Equity houses like Artists Rep and Portland Center Stage’s black box Ellyn Bye Studio, but holes-in-the-wall and carved-out places like defunkt, the Shoe Box, and Shaking the Tree, spaces where a good old-fashioned Shakespeare history or a big-scale Broadway musical might have more people onstage than seats in the house. And right now, in something of a popup production, you can find good theater in the little Performance Works NW, off of Southeast Foster Road, where one evening late last week roughly thirty people came close to filling the available seats and two people prowled the stage.

Evan (Matt DiBiasio) lands back home, bringing his baggage with him. Photo: Devon Allen

Those two actors were Devon Allen and Matt DiBiasio, for their occasional producing company Our Shoes Are Red/The Performance Lab, and they were performing the Scottish playwright David Harrower’s 2010 character drama Good With People. Allen is Helen Hughes, who works in a small hotel  called the Seaview near a loch in the town of Helensburgh, Scotland, on the north shore of the Firth of Clyde. DiBiasio is Evan Bold, a traveler with a past, and the only guest we see in the course of the hour-long play.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Sweet Lou

A Lou Harrison celebration, invasion of the theater hatchers, Jewish museum's new home, shrinking Bach Fest, more

It’s been a busy seven days in Portland and Oregon, with all sorts of notable cultural events going on. The Astoria Music Festival, after an opening recital Sunday by Metropolitan Opera star and Northwest favorite (she grew up in Centralia, Wash.) Angela Meade, is in full swing. Portland Opera continues its latest foray into musical-theater waters with Man of La Mancha (two more performances, Thursday and Saturday in Keller Auditorium).

Among the past week’s many other highlights:

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Detail from Russian artist Grisha Bruskin’s tapestry series “ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory,” opening exhibit of the Oregon Jewish Museum in its new home. Photo: Oregon ArtsWatch

JEWISH MUSEUM’S BIG MOVE. The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education opened its doors in its new, much bigger, home in a prime gallery row location, the former space of the late lamented Museum of Contemporary Craft. Its new home opens up fresh possibilities for OJMCHE. You can read our take: A bigger, bolder Jewish Museum.

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Theater notes: TCG and the Tonys

The national theater scene parties down in Portland. Oregonians grab the hardware at the Tonys. The Drammys and PAMTAs are on the way.

The bright-red-lettered lanyards bobbed and weaved and scooted around the lobbies and meeting rooms and stairwells and elevator shafts of the downtown Portland Hilton and Duniway hotels for four days last week, swinging in perpetual motion from hundreds of chests as conventioneers at the Theatre Communications Group‘s annual national conference scurried around the place like cattle on the brink of a stampede. TCG, a sort of think tank and clearing house for the people who run and work in theater companies across the nation (among many other things, it publishes American Theatre magazine, the bible of the nonprofit theater biz), was in town from Wednesday through Saturday, taking in the sights, seeing Portland shows, meeting and greeting and eating and gossiping, and gathering in small and large groups to hash out the issues of the day. Those ranged from matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion – the conference’s major themes – to such crucial behind-the-curtain issues as raising money, adapting to new technologies, producing in small or isolated markets, and how to create or refine a brand.

Regan Linton with Joseph Anthony Foronda in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2015 production of “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Time.” Photo: Jenny Graham

Out of dozens of possibilities on Friday afternoon, I wandered at random into a large room where a breakout session titled “Creative Access: Accommodations for Professional Performers with Disabilities” was going on. It was crowded: a lot of people were interested in the issue. This wasn’t about wheelchair access or seating arrangements for audience members, though those are important matters. It was about, are theater companies creating roles for blind or deaf or limited-mobility actors, and what do those performers need to do their jobs, and what challenges do they face in auditioning, and are there stairs to deal with backstage or bathrooms that aren’t upstairs or downstairs, and if a performer is dyslexic can she get a copy of the script early for auditioning, or if he’s visually impaired can you supply a reader, and is there a dressing room on stage level, and if not, what can you do to create a temporary one? “When I roll into a room,” the veteran actor Regan Linton said, “I’m trying to get across not only that  I’m the best person for the role, but also that I’m a human being who deserves to live.” She laughed to ease the sting, but the point was made.

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Those were the good old days

Carol Triffle's human comedy "The Reunion" at Imago plays with nostalgia and longing and the surprise of life as it hits us in the face

Walking into Imago Theatre on Saturday night to see Carol Triffle’s new play The Reunion was like walking into a hippie pad circa 1969 (yes, I speak from direct experience) on a particularly groovy day. One psychedelically bubbly wall was sporting more peace symbols than a VW camper at the Oregon Country Fair. Donovan was warbling Season of the Witch over the speaker, reminding me in flashback of how snotty the future Nobel Laureate of the Lowlands had been to a singer I liked. No strings of beads were dangling in the doorways, but the stage was aglitter in crepe and saturated color and overdone cheerfulness, as if Triffle had raided The Lippman Company party-supply store with a hundred bucks and an SUV to load the booty into and haul it all off. In other words: perfect.

Party hearty: Sean Bowie, Danielle Vermette, Jerry Mouawad. Photo: Kevin Young

Over the years Triffle’s developed a brittle absurdist comic style that seems deeply rooted in the traditions of mime and clown and slapstick comedy, and at its best can make you laugh out loud while it’s quietly breaking your heart. The Reunion, which runs about a well-paced hour and packs the concise wallop of a good novella, does both – or at least, it did for me. On the surface a Triffle play can feel like an animated jaunt through the Sunday comics, a cartoon landscape inhabited by characters with the oddball normality of the townsfolk in Robert Altman’s Popeye movie. And so it is in The Reunion, where the oddball and laughable and sometimes more than slightly looney settle slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a deep and moving contemplation of the human condition. It’s the sort of thing that good clowns do, this bonding of the foolish and profound, and it makes them essential to the culture.

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A bigger, bolder Jewish Museum

The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education takes over the old craft museum space with a broadened vision and a vibrant Russian art show

In a crowded second-floor gallery at the corner of Northwest Davis Street and Park Avenue, the joint was jumpin’. Television cameras whirred in the new home of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, a small jewel of a museum location that had been sitting vacant for many months. Reporters cornered curators and scribbled notes. Early birds wandered up and down the stairs of the 15,000-square-foot space’s two stories. The Russian artist Grisha Bruskin, outfitted in black from his close-cut coil of hair to his sleek sneakers, was talking about his new exhibit, ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory, which was spread like a giant quilt across the main-floor gallery below. Preparations for Sunday’s free public grand opening were in full swing, and the mood was jubilant.

Bruce Guenther, curator of inaugural exhibition, and Judy Margles, director of Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Photo: Palma Corral

It was Wednesday in the prime Pearl District space, which had been home to the Museum of Contemporary Craft until that museum was abruptly shut down by the board of the Pacific Northwest College of Art more than a year ago, shocking both the city and a tightknit national craft art scene that had considered MoCC a pacesetting institution. After several months of hammering, sawing, painting, and reshaping spaces, it’s been reborn as the new home of the Jewish museum, which has moved from a space half its size and far less strategically located. Judy Margles, the museum’s longtime director, addressed the preview-day crowd. The designers took a bow. Bruce Guenther, the former chief curator of the Portland Art Museum who is curating the museum’s first season of exhibitions, introduced Bruskin, whose ALEFBET he praised as taking “its place with the tapestry masterworks.” And if the bubbly wasn’t flowing (it was a Wednesday morning, after all) the coffee was: Suddenly a space that had housed an important cultural center that had died before its time seemed alive with hope and possibilities again.

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