Bob Hicks

 

NEA and NEH, on the chopping block again

Trump's budget proposal eliminates the national endowments for the arts and humanities, and public broadcasting – but it's not a done deal

“It’s unlikely but not impossible,” I wrote four days ago in the ArtsWatch story A little money for the arts, “that the [National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities], which have been targets of the fiscal and social right almost since they were created in 1965, could end up on the chopping block again. They are pawns in a much larger game, and increasingly, powerful political players are unafraid to sacrifice their pawns in search of bigger victories on the board.”

That was Thursday. Today is Monday. Pass the mustard so I can eat my words: “Unlikely” was a word choice of undue optimism.

In his new federal budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 released today, President Trump has once again called for elimination of both endowments and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, another longtime target of the political right. The 22 agencies targeted in the budget proposal for elimination, according to The Hill, also include the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as programs that help fund low-income and after-school learning centers, several education programs, the Global Climate Change Initiative, and public health programs such as the Chemical Safety Board.

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No fool like an old fool

Milagro rediscovers a long-lost comedy from 18th century Mexico and takes it for a brash and funny 21st century spin in commedia clothing

The masks tease, the movements lurch, the dialogue bursts forth like water from a breached linguistic dam: it takes about ninety bedazzling seconds to realize you’re not in American-realism Kansas anymore. Friday’s opening-night performance at Milagro Theatre of Fermín de Reygadas’ 1789 comedy Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío (it translates, literally, as Tricks for inheriting a nephew to an uncle) is theater that revels in the theatricality of the artificial, wallowing in playful exaggeration and absurd variations on familiar themes.

I’m OK with that. I’m well more than OK with it: I’m delighted by it, and by Milagro’s funny, breezy, rough-and-tumble production. Astucias por heredar has a brusque vigor that feels like a tumble back in time to some theatrical beginnings, to the days of the traveling commedia dell’arte troupes of the 16th century and beyond, with their stock characters, instantly recognizable costumes, and populist appeal. Molière, whose plays Astucias resembles more than a little, added structure and witty verse dialogue and transferred the action to the French upper and aspiring classes. Even some of Shakespeare’s early plays, like The Taming of the Shrew, were influenced by commedia, and the old English Punch & Judy shows were commedia on a puppet platform. The form’s influence lives on in some of our best situation comedies, like the crisply stylized and brilliantly exaggerated Frasier.

Back row, from left: Bibiana Lorenzo Johnston, Marian Méndez. Front, from left: Carlos Adrián Manzano, Vorónika Nuñez, Enrique Andrade, Yan Collazo, Sara Fay Goldman. Photo: Russell J Young

Astucias por heredar has a pretty preposterous, and true, history of its own. Though it’s set in Madrid, it was one of the early plays written in the New World: Reygadas was a Spanish poet, playwright, astronomer and mining specialist (his true bread and butter) who emigrated to Mexico in the 1780s and remained a prominent figure there for the rest of his life. He wrote Astucias in 1789 and submitted it to the censorship board in Mexico City, where, the following year, a Father Ramón de Rincón denied permission for it to be performed, because, well, that’s what censors do (cue the current semi-official campaign in the United States to muzzle the free press). The good priest possibly considered the play dangerous because the rich old uncle is a lecher and a fool; the women and the servants contrive his comeuppance, thus endangering the stability of class and male privilege; severe flirting and bawdy suggestion occur; and, well, you know: it might undermine the Natural Order of Things. In other words, comedy.

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A little money for the arts

Amid a precarious political battle in Congress over the federal budget, Oregon artists and groups get both state and national grants

Government funding for the arts continues to be a political hot potato in the American cultural kitchen – and it continues to survive, if on a considerably leaner diet than is common in European nations, where the arts tend to thought of as a considerably more integral part of the larger culture. If the American fiscal water tap isn’t exactly open full blast, at least it’s still running. And this week, amid a flurry of moves and countermoves on the national budget, it’s filled a couple of pots.

On Wednesday the National Endowment for the Arts announced its latest round of project grants – $25 million nationally, including $412,500 in Oregon and $915,500 in Washington state. And on Thursday, the Oregon Arts Commission, which gets a significant amount of funding from the NEA, announced $59,000 in visual arts fellowships – small but key grants to encourage and develop new work.

That the work of the federal endowment in particular continues to be done is a small victory. Almost immediately after taking office a little more than a year ago President Trump set his sights on the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, as well as funding for public television, vowing to eliminate all federal funding for them. But he and Congress have had other fish to fry, and both endowments have had enough bipartisan support to continue, with the NEA’s at a relatively tiny but important $149.9 million.

Wednesday’s tough-fought spending agreement in the Senate, which bumps the federal government’s nonmilitary spending limit upward by $63 million and $68 million in the next two years, suggests that the endowment budgets will survive again, although a budget battle still looms in the House.

[Bulletin: Sen. Rand Paul’s stand against the increased spending in the budget bill caused the Senate to adjourn late Thursday night without an agreement, forcing at least a short-term government shutdown. The Senate is expected to re-adjourn for a series of votes beginning at 1 a.m. Friday. But this is Washington, D.C., in 2018: anything might happen.]

[Friday morning update: The Senate broke its impasse, the House approved the new spending bill, and the president signed it in the early morning hours, ensuring (among many other things) the arts and humanities endowments’ future for at least two years.]

Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat,” with Jack Willis, Carlo Albán, and K.T. Vogt, was part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” project, which has just received a $70,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’s unlikely but not impossible that the endowments, which have been targets of the fiscal and social right almost since they were created in 1965, could end up on the chopping block again. They are pawns in a much larger game, and increasingly, powerful political players are unafraid to sacrifice their pawns in search of bigger victories on the board.

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Ch-ch-changes, good and bad

In review: Triangle Productions' "TRANS-formations" and "The Madness of Lady Bright"; Twilight Theater Company's "Antigone"

From the moment Matthew Sunderland steps onstage at The Sanctuary in Donnie’s new play TRANS-formation you sense you’re going to be in for an interesting ride. Sunderland stars as George/Christine in this 70-minute drama about the transsexual pioneer Christine Jorgensen, and the way he wraps himself around the story of this fascinating true-life character is impressive: his clear sharp tenor voice, masculine but not entirely; his body language, so firmly between; his immediate link with the audience, forged by the urgency to tell his tale.

Matthew Sunderland as George/Christine Jorgensen. Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

And what a tale. Donnie (the pen name of Donald Horn, who is also director, scenic and sound designer, and producer through Triangle Productions, the company he founded in 1989) has done his homework and assembled a smart, deeply informed play about Jorgensen, concentrating on the young Army veteran’s decision to undergo sex-change surgery and become a she. It’s a taut tale, with just two other actors, both of whom also are superb: Jacquelle Davis as Jorgensen’s sister Dolly (with a cameo as a schoolteacher with a mean streak) and Mark Pierce as Dr. Christian Hamberger, the Danish endocrinologist who made the transformation happen. Both Dolly and Dr. Hamberger have very human and natural friendships with George/Christine, and that’s crucial to the play’s success. The doctor talks science. George talks feelings. Out of their creative collaboration, Christine is born.

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Artists Rep’s $7 million gift

The "transformational" donation helps clear up the company's financial troubles and secure its future. For others, the impact could be big.

A white knight has arrived at Artists Repertory Theatre, and his or her name is Anonymous. Dámaso Rodríguez, artistic director and interim general manager of Portland’s second-biggest theater company, announced on Friday morning that the company has received a $7 million gift from an anonymous donor. “This transformational gift marks a turning point in our history,” Rodríguez wrote in a letter to supporters and subscribers.

The gift comes at a key point. Artists Rep recently announced plans to sell the lower half of its complex to a developer who would build a 20-story housing and retail tower on the site, which lies between the I-405 freeway loop and the Providence Park soccer stadium in Southwest Portland, just south of West Burnside Street. The once sleepy neighborhood has become a real estate hot spot.

Artists Rep’s current show is the world premiere of E.M. Lewis’s “Magellanica,” set in Antarctica. From left: Vin Shambry, Sara Hennessy, Allen Nause, Michael Mendelson, John San Nicolas, Joshua Weinstein, Barbie Wu, Eric Pargac. Photo: Russell J Young

Artists Rep plans to go through with that sale, Rodríguez said in his letter. “This gift gives us the stability to examine and consider this project from all angles and make the best decisions for Artists Rep throughout the process,” he wrote.

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Fertile Ground: get set, go

On your mark: Portland's festival of new work, with more than 100 offerings, is ready to roar. Grab your tickets: It's a jumble out there.

It was 5:30 on a blustery Thursday evening – still rush hour in The City That Sometimes Works – and Nicole Lane was busy herding cats. Some of the media people were stuck in traffic and still on their way but they’d be there soon, she announced loudly to the litter of playwrights, producers, actors, and assorted theater people caroming about the byways and bar of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Street lobby.

Then Lane, director of the ninth annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Work (this year’s begins Thursday and runs eleven days through January 28, in venues scattered across the city) ticked off the rules for this latest version of the festival’s speed-date-the-media night. Scope out the tables. See who you want to talk to. Get in line. When your turn comes be ready to make your pitch, and be quick about it. When the bell rings, your time’s done: Get up, move on to another table, start all over again. Ding!

Milagro’s “Bi–” has its world premiere at Fertile Ground. Photo: Russell J Young

I don’t know what it was like for the theater people as they hustled through their paces, but for me – one of those media types, with a little oblong table to call my own – it was a little like sitting in front of a wind machine taking wave after wave full force. I looked neither left nor right but straight ahead, only glancing down now and again at the succession of press releases and show cards to get my bearings. Who was this, now? What show? Where? When? Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh they went, a succession of mini-conversations, a jumble of scribbled notes, a scramble of unsorted information.

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A lifeline in troubled times

An energetic "Three Sisters" at Northwest Classical and a "Lifeboat" from disaster at Corrib ride the rough waters of a world out of tune

It’s a clumsy thing, this Three Sisters, chafing and halting and bumping into itself, tripping over its own feet, taking pratfalls, landing on all the discordant notes. And that’s a good thing.

Anton Chekhov’s great play, as it’s being performed in the tight little corners of the Shoe Box Theater by Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative, is all about the clumsiness of the human soul, the way things don’t connect, the abruptness and disconsolation of yearning and desire, the matter of enduring even when life seems unendurable, the way that people seem compelled to snatch unhappiness from happiness’s jaw. Like life itself it’s sometimes funny and sometimes foolish and sometimes heartbreaking, and to get inside such essential truths it takes on a bumptious, jangling rhythm, like a Bartok or Stravinsky or Ornette Coleman score. Things don’t fit – or they do, but not the way you expect – and that’s the glory of it all.

Dainichia Noreault as Irina, Elizabeth Jackson as Masha, Christy Bigelow as Olga in “Three Sisters.” Photo: Gary Norman

This production is Patrick Walsh’s baby — he directs and co-produces and adapted Chekhov’s script — and it’s something of a triumph. Chekhov and his great director Stanislavski used to argue about the nature of his plays. They’re comedies, Chekhov insisted. They’re tragedies, Stanislavski replied. Walsh’s production reveals Three Sisters as something beyond both: funny and tragic and existential to its core; a play beyond summation, an immersion in the chaos of life, a place where love is everything and everything isn’t enough.

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