Bob Hicks

 

Building Mozart’s garden

PSU Opera's designers and artisans create a world onstage for the comic "La Finta Giardiniera." Joe Cantrell tells the tale in photographs.

Photographs by JOE CANTRELL

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 18 years old when his opera La Finta Giardiniera (The Pretend, or Fake, Gardener) debuted at the Salvatortheater in Munich in 1775. When it opens Friday evening at Lincoln Performance Hall in Portland it’ll feature a cast almost as young, made up of singers in the elite Portland State University Opera program. Under the artistic leadership of onetime New York City Opera star Christine Meadows, PSU Opera has become known for its high-quality, relatively low-cost, professionally designed productions.

The latter is definitely true in the case of La Finta Giardiniera, which is double-cast in seven major roles (“the students have grown incredibly through the experience of preparing Finta,” Meadows says) and will have four performances, April 19, 20, 26, and 28. Its design team is stellar: set by Carey Wong, lighting by Peter West, lavish period costumes by Hadley Yoder, wigs and hair (a major task for this period comic opera) by Jessica Carr and Randy Graff respectively, props by Sumi Wu.

Maeve Stier as the servant Serpetta, surrounded by painterly foliage.

Wong’s ravishing set is dominated in many scenes by a landscape painted on its walls and inspired by Wooded Landscape with a Peasant Resting, a bucolic painting by Mozart’s near-contemporary Thomas Gainsborough, perhaps best-known for his portrait The Blue Boy. Other scenes take place in a cave, providing a sharp contrast in mood between bright and colorful and dark and forboding.

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Notre-Dame, beyond disaster

Monday's fire adds history to its flames. We need our history, the map of who we are and where we might be going. Let the rebuilding begin.

WHAT DO WE DO WHEN A CULTURAL TOUCHSTONE GOES UP IN FLAMES? We watch with fascination, and dread, and a sense of helplessness. And then, apparently, we begin to argue. After Monday’s catastrophic fire broke out in the heart of Paris, social media also lit up in flames. Why should we spend hundreds of millions of Euros rebuilding Notre-Dame Cathedral when people are starving/refugees are being locked up/the planet itself is burning up/other disasters or atrocities don’t get the same attention? Why doesn’t the Catholic Church use its own wealth to foot the bill? (The building is actually owned by the French Ministry of Culture; a charity group, the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, raises money for the cathedral’s upkeep.) Some who despise the history and failings of the Church over the centuries suggest we just tear the thing down, and good riddance to bad rubbish.

Yet the sense of loss – the heartbreak, even – in France and around the world is genuine. People who have spent time in the cathedral tumble out their stories, compelled to keep a connection with something they fear might be forever lost. People who haven’t been to the cathedral nevertheless mourn the idea of its loss, of yet another piece of history and remembrance disappearing, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, in the metaphorical sand. And out of this rises a determination: It will be rebuilt. What can be saved, will be saved. What is lost, will be replaced. It won’t be the same. It will be different. But it will endure.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, from the Seine, 2013. Photo: K.B. Dixon

You don’t need to be Catholic, or Christian, or even religious at all, to believe that this is an important thing. Notre-Dame is history, and history is elusive yet essential: It’s the seedbed of our shared culture, the map of how we came to be. This cathedral, which has been built and added on to and tumbled down and rebuilt and somehow shaped into a kind of ungainly grace from its cobbled-together mishmash of styles and centuries, is humbling evidence of the fits and starts and disasters and transformations and triumphs and extreme fragility of our civilization, which in its current state often seems dangling from a swiftly fraying string. As much as it is a religious symbol and a testament to the entwined power of church and state, Notre-Dame is a shrine to beauty. We need such places to remind us of where we’ve been, what we’ve become, what we might yet be – and to provide us with those moments of mystery and deepened awareness and connection and the stopping of time that intimate encounters with great works of art provide.

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DramaWatch: Aliens in rom-coms

Corrib's "How To Keep an Alien" in review, "Jesus Takes the 'A' Train' and "Crossing Mnisose" opening, children's theater, new seasons

Irish playwright Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep an Alien, which took the best-production award when it premiered at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2014 and is now enjoying its West Coast premiere from Corrib, Portland’s all-Irish theater company, isn’t about flying saucers and little green men. It’s about that other kind of alien – the foreign-born kind, the kind who faces political and sometimes actual walls when trying to move from one nation to another, and who must overcome not only bureaucratic obstacles but also personal ones, the sort we often erect between our desires and our fears.

It’s intriguing, often appealing, and whimsically constructed, like a shifting tower leaning sharply to one side: an odd duck of a play, and I mean it no disrespect when I say it’s a contemporary rom-com, the sort of story that might make a good Hallmark movie if Hallmark movies ever were to recognize the actual and ordinary existence in the world of homosexuality (or, for that matter, the desirability of non-white characters filling any role in a romantic comedy larger than supportive sidekick). I happen to like a good rom-com, and this one has the enormous advantage of being about two lesbians falling in love, but approaching their affair altogether naturally, with no flashing lights of cultural or political importance: just two people going through what people of all sorts all over the world go through every day. The decision to not make a big deal out of the lovers’ gender – to treat it matter-of-factly, as just the way this story goes – is in fact a bigger deal than making a big deal would be.

Amy Katrina Bryan (left) and Sara Hennessy in Corrib Theatre’s “How To Keep an Alien.” Photo: Adam Liberman

In this case the two people overtaken by emotional attraction are Sonia, an Irish actor starring in a historical costume drama that she finds ridiculous, and Kate, the show’s Australian stage manager, who is also, in a meta sort of way, the onstage stage manager of How To Keep an Alien, batting back and forth between the reality of the story and the reality of the production. If this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but usually isn’t.

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BodyVox dives for pearls

It's a high-risk gamble: Can a group of non-choreographers create a compelling evening of dance? BodyVox decides to find out.

Creativity is a mysterious beast. We try to lasso it and stick it in separate corrals: Writers here. Painters here. Composers here. Actors here. Dancers here. Git along, little dogies, but stay in place. Except creativity can also be a stubborn beast, with a will of its own, and sometimes it just doesn’t cotton to corrals.

That’s the underlying texture of the Pearl Dive Project, BodyVox’s series of short pieces choreographed by people who aren’t choreographers or even dancers, but who’ve distinguished themselves in other creative fields. How might their experiences as novelist, chef, painter, art director, photographer, or filmmaker translate when working with skilled moving bodies in a rehearsal hall and on a stage? What does creativity have in common across disciplines, and how is it specific to a single form of expression?

Brent Luebbert, not quite dead in Sherrie Wolf’s “Elegy.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

The idea’s novel, and risky, and also, in a way, simply a reflection of reality. Creativity does spill over. Victor Hugo and August Strindberg were great writers, and also visual artists of note. Comic actor Jim Carrey paints, provocatively. Albert Einstein played classical violin, by most accounts very well. Even politicians get into the act. Winston Churchill was an amateur painter. Harry Truman played piano. Bill Clinton plays the saxophone. George W. Bush paints.

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Two tales in black & white

John Henry Redwood's "The No Play" at PassinArt and Dael Orlandersmith's "Until the Flood" at Center Stage dig deep into race in America

It’s 1949, in the Jim Crow town of Halifax, North Carolina, and a private atrocity that threatens to destroy a close-knit family is going down.

It’s 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and a white cop shoots and kills a black teen-aged man, setting off a firestorm of rage.

It’s 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a gunman opens fire, killing 17 people. National Rifle Association spokesmen mock surviving students who push hard for stronger gun control, advocating for armed security in the schools instead. NRA membership spikes.

It’s 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and yet another gunman opens fire, murdering 50 people in two mosques. Back in Parkland, two survivors of the high school shooting, still reeling from the trauma, commit suicide. After years of private grief, so does the father of a first-grader killed in the slaughter that took the lives of 14 children and three adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. The word “survivor” becomes complex and fraught with multiple meanings.

The stories of those first two years, 1949 and 2014, are being told onstage in two sterling productions in Portland right now: John Henry Redwood’s family drama The No Play at PassinArt: A Theatre Company, and Dael Orlandersmith’s solo stage docudrama Until the Flood at Portland Center Stage. Both are plays specifically about African-American life and the American original sin of racism. And both, perhaps surprisingly given their subjects, are enthralling in the telling. They’re just good theater, delivering pleasure along with a punch to the emotional gut.

I bring up New Zealand and Parkland and Sandy Hook as well because, although they represent a different sort of trauma – mass murders, not solitary events – they, too, are connected to a sordid history of violence that reaches back to lynchings and slave ships and the ethnic cleansings of indigenous people, forward to migrations and fears of the Other, inward to the itch for infamy. Christchurch was an act of violence aimed specifically at Muslims because they are Muslim, echoing America’s history of white-on-black violence. The tragedy of the past week’s suicides underscores the lasting effects of trauma on those who undergo it. No one escapes unscathed, although many come to terms with it and move on, altered. For many others, the trauma gnaws and shifts and settles in, defining memory and seeping into everyday life, sometimes overwhelming it.

Parkland and Christchurch have their own stories that are being told in their own ways. Remember that they’re linked – it’s all linked – and let’s move on to Halifax and Ferguson and the Portland stage:

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The No Play

“The No Play,” from left: Lydia Fleming, David Meyers, Kobi Flowers, Andrea White, Sami Yacob-Andrus. Photo courtesy PassinArt

The talented John Henry Redwood’s 2001 play is a fiction, although it’s based on a thousand historical realities, and despite the trauma that sets its conflict into motion it’s largely a celebration of strength, mercy, forgiveness, and survival – and, yes, a little vengeance, too. I was going to write that at the story’s heart is the long history of the rape of black women by white men, but that’s not quite right. Rape, and the belief in racial supremacy that breeds it, is the evil of the tale, the thing that violates and poisons and spreads. The play’s heart lies in the ways the victims respond – the strength and even grace of the dispossessed who have been immorally and violently possessed.

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Actor Russ Fast, 1947-2019

A memorial gathering for the Portland stage and film actor will be at Milagro Theatre on Saturday, March 30

Russ Fast, who died Feb. 20 at age 71 after a fight with cancer, left a lot of memories for a lot of people across a lot of areas when he moved on. He was a sometime musician – a drummer and backup singer – and made an early name for himself as a tap-dancer and lip-syncher. He was a man of the theater, performing, by his own count, in 143 productions in Portland, New York, Seattle, and elsewhere. He sometimes made his living as an accomplished voice actor, and worked regularly in film: movies, television, commercials, industrials. He directed, and taught acting. And with his friend, the actor B. Joe Medley, and Jeanne Medley he opened Character Actors, one of the first talent agencies in the Pacific Northwest.

Friends, family, and fans will gather from 2 to 4 p.m. next Saturday, March 30, for a celebration of remembrance in his honor at Milagro Theatre, 525 S.E. Stark St., where he once was “privileged to play my lifelong hero, Pablo Neruda,” in Burning Patience, Antonio Skarmeta’s play about the great Chilean poet. It’s open to all. There’ll be a light potluck, and attendees are encouraged to share memories and stories.

Portland actor Russ Fast in three undated photos.

Russell George Fast was born July 19, 1947, in Pasco, Wash., and moved with his family while he was still in school to Portland. He graduated from Grant High School, then attended the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatrical Arts, toured with the school’s children’s theater, worked with the Hollywood Actor’s Group, and moved back north to work with the Director’s Studio in Seattle.

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DramaWatch: Imago flies again

Plus: New boss in Ashland, Ferguson comes to Center Stage, Portland Playhouse's Crowning glory, a rolling "Jump," Just play "No," and more

What’s up at the theater? Funny you should ask.

Last May a wonderfully peculiar vision flew onto the Portland theater scene, and far too quickly, before all but a few people had had a chance to see it, flew off again. Well, spring’s arrived, and To Fly Again, Jerry Mouawad’s dancerly swan of a play, has landed at Imago Theatre again. It opens Friday for another brief run as part of Imago’s Next Wave Festival, and you should try to catch it before it flies the coop yet again on April 6.

The dusty dancers in Imago’s “To Fly Again.” Photo: Jubel Brosseau

I reviewed last year’s production, which had the same cast as the current one (you can read the full review here), and here’s what I wrote, in part:

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