Bob Hicks


ArtsWatch Weekly: Bluebeards, villain kings, black art’s soul

The feminine mystique of "Bluebeard's Castle," Shakespeare's "Richard III," the trouble with Tiger Lily, black art and meaning in America

The naked truth about Bluebeard’s Castle, Béla Bartók’s astounding hour-long opera that the Oregon Symphony performed Saturday through Monday nights, is … well, let Elizabeth Schwartz explain it, in her typically erudite program notes:

“Bartók worked on the opera over the summer of 1911, when he and his wife Márta spent their holiday at a Swiss nudist colony near Zurich. [Librettist Béla] Balázs, who visited the colony that summer, noted in his diary how the industrious Bartók would spend hours in the solarium, wearing nothing but sunglasses, as he worked on the score.”

Viktoia Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in "Bluebeard's Castle." Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony

Viktoria Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony

John and Yoko have nothing on that. And in a way, Bartók’s curious compositional strategy made sense: emotional nakedness is essential to the Bluebeard tale as Balázs retold it. The opera has just two singers: the aging, mysteriously private Bluebeard himself, and his new (fourth) bride, Judith, who insists on bringing some sunshine into the castle, and her new marriage, by demanding that Bluebeard open the seven locked doors that hide his secrets. Maybe not the best idea. At a talk Friday night with symphony director Carlos Kalmar, Christopher Mattaliano of Portland Opera, and the Portland Art Museum’s Bran Ferriso (the show’s set included marvelous glass works by Dale Chihuly), stage director Mary Birnbaum talked about Castle as Judith’s quest for knowledge and openness, which Bluebeard is loath to grant, and I’m inclined to agree that it’s really Judith’s story. Contrary to popular opinion, her soul sisters Eve and Pandora seem the heroes of their stories, too, the ones who provide the essential spark of humanness: How can one be fully human without curiosity and the compulsion to learn? Remember: the last bee to escape Pandora’s bonnet was hope.


At Upfor, the Soul of Black Art

The gallery's third-anniversary show, curated by collector John Goodwin, digs to the roots of black art in America and contemporary cultural divides

The Soul of Black Art: A Collector’s View, up through October 15 at Upfor Gallery, is a smart, sophisticated show, both socially and aesthetically, and you really don’t want to miss it. For its third anniversary show, Upfor gave over curating duties to the collector John Goodwin, who’s put together a stimulating small exhibit that reverberates with history while also feeling contemporary.

Drawing from his and Michael-Jay Robinson’s own collection and other sources, Goodwin concocts a vibrant mix of paintings, prints, photographs, video, and mixed-media works that probe the black American experience from inside and out, in highly personal and broadly cultural terms. Works by the likes of Romare Bearden, Marion Post-Wolcott, Devan Shimoyama, Andy Warhol, Arvie Smith, Marian Carresquero, and Zig Jackson dance in and around the essence of blackness in America, providing a multiplicity of views that defy political platitudes and easy headlines.

Arvie Smith's "Manumissions," left, and Devan Shimoyama's "Adjusting to the uminous Black." Collection of John Goodwin and Michael-Jay Robinson. Upfor Gallery.

Arvie Smith’s “Manumissions,” left, and Devan Shimoyama’s “Adjusting to the Luminous Black.” Collection of John Goodwin and Michael-Jay Robinson. Upfor Gallery.

Upfor’s exhibit – which coincides with the eagerly awaited opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. – quietly but provocatively sets up the show with a scattering of casually racist pop-cultural objects that were once pretty much everywhere, providing cookie-jar comfort to everyday white lives, and still can be found: jockey lawn statuettes; cheerful fat-lipped ceramic figurines. They help set the stage for one of Warhol’s two pieces in the show, his 1981 screen print Mammy, which fascinatingly plays with and defies the stereotype, lending a kind of quizzical dignity to a comfortably submissive icon of the white imagination. And Arvie Smith’s two big 2006 paintings, collectively titled Manumissions (they could easily fit into his current APEX exhibition, through November 13 at the Portland Art Museum), play on his smart, satiric, almost gleefully horrific view of history: a carnival atmosphere at the scene of a lynching. Check the news, and, if you can stomach them, the spatter of crude anonymous comments below online stories about Black Lives Matter rallies and the latest police shootings of unarmed black men. We really aren’t far removed.


ArtsWatch Weekly: If you build it, they will come (to Hillsboro)

Bag&Baggage takes a big leap, Bluebeard meets Chihuly at the symphony, Renée Fleming wows the crowd, a cat in a hat, the things August Wilson learned

Don’t look now (or do), but while the center of cultural gravity in Portland might still be on the downtown side of the Willamette River, it’s been shifting and expanding. The restaurant crowds started heading for the inner East Side a good fifteen years ago, and theaters escalated the eastward march. Things didn’t stop there. Immigration and population shifts created booming pockets of culture farther out, both east and west: the new Chinatown along the East Side’s 82nd Avenue, a Russian community along Foster Road, several Latino enclaves, a large Indian community in parts of Beaverton and Hillsboro, near the Silicon Forest. Suburbs have grown, and begun to assert their own identities separate from the city core. They’ve built or broadened their own cultural centers, from the nascent Beaverton Center for the Arts to established theater companies like Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Theatre and Tigard’s Broadway Rose.

Exterior rendering of the new Bag&Baggage theater in downtown Hillsboro, slated to open in April 2017. Image: Opsis Architects

Exterior rendering of the new Bag&Baggage theater in downtown Hillsboro, slated to open in April 2017. Image: Opsis Architects

While much of Portland Proper wasn’t looking, the onetime farm town of Hillsboro has become a city of more than 100,000 people, many looking for culture without having to trek to downtown Portland. Bag&Baggage theater settled into the suburb’s downtown core eleven years ago, performing sometimes on an outdoor stage and mostly in the Venetian Theatre, an old vaudeville and movie house. A little more than a year ago it bought an old Wells Fargo bank building on Main Street and began the long quest to raise $1.4 million to transform it into a new performance center.

Let Scott Palmer, B&B’s founder and artistic director, pick up the story from there, as quoted in a recent press announcement:


Oh, the horror: devil gets his due

Portland Center Stage trumps the season with a sharp and funny revival of the dark and twisted musical comedy "Little Shop of Horrors"

Maybe you’ve heard this story before. Exotic guy who talks tons of trash shows up out of the blue and fascinates just about everybody with his general weirdness. Schlub of a loser soon learns the guy is scary and dangerous in addition to being an obnoxious loudmouth, but the exotic guy promises the schlub his heart’s desire. So the schlub, after some anxious soul-searching, capitulates and helps the exotic guy on his quest for world domination. People get chomped to pieces in the process.

No, it’s not the story of the Republican Party making its devil’s deal with Donald Trump in pursuit of the Oval Office. It’s the musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors, and the exotic guy is a blood-sucking, singing plant from outer space. The schlub is a hapless clerk named Seymour at a Skid Row floral shop. His heart’s desire is Audrey, his pretty if slightly dim and bedraggled fellow clerk, who’s in an unfortunate relationship with a sadistic dentist. And the Oval Office is … well, a little trim house out in the suburbs, somewhere that’s green.

Nick Cearley as Seymour, with a baby-sized Audrey II. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Nick Cearley as Seymour, with a baby-sized Audrey II. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Little Shop, that evergreen 1983 off-off-Broadway musical based on a 1960 schlock movie filmed in two days by Roger Corman on the not-yet-struck set of another low-budget flick, opened Portland Center Stage’s newest season Friday night, and the good news is, it’s a solid, straightforward, blissfully unconceptualized production of a reliably entertaining show that doesn’t need any embellishment. Director Bill Fennelly doesn’t try to reinvent the thing: he just makes sure it’s polished and paced and, yes, entertaining. If you have a warm spot for Little Shop – I do, and fondly recall, among a lengthy list of Little Shops, a long-ago Portland production starring Randall Stuart as Seymour, Margie Boulé as Audrey, Randy Knee as dentist Orin, and Ernie Casciato as shop owner Mushnik – you’re likely to feel warm and fuzzy all over again. If you’ve never seen Little Shop … well, welcome to the club.


ArtsWatch Weekly: all aboard for Eugene

A Eugene cultural tour, Anne Boleyn's music book, a little shop of horror and a full gallop, monkey business, Yetis, two top art shows, "Hughie," roots music, Alien Boy, guns galore, spirit of '76

There are lots of good reasons to go to Eugene that have nothing to do with Ducks or football. Sure, the presence of the University of Oregon has a lot to do with the quality of things down the valley: two of ArtsWatch’s favorite things, for instance, the Oregon Bach Festival and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, are intimately tied to the university, and a lot of what’s good about Oregon’s new-music scene emanates from the halls and studios of the university’s music department. But the university is far from the only game in town. However you keep your cultural scorecard, Eugene – population roughly 160,000, metro area another 200,000 added to that – consistently hits above its weight.

Here at ArtsWatch we like to keep tabs on what’s happening in the Emerald City, and lately that’s been quite a bit. For starters, check out Gary Ferrington’s Arts Sampler: Eugene by train for a car-free, arts-stuffed weekend, a sort of cultural travelogue for Portlanders looking for a close-to-home adventure. Go ahead, plan an autumn getaway. And if you like, feel free to slip in a football game or a track meet on the side, too.

Portland-bound Amtrak Cascades at Eugene Station.

Portland-bound Amtrak Cascades at Eugene Station.

We’ve also picked up some good features from some top Eugene writers:

— Photographer and arts journalist Bob Keefer, author of the invaluable Eugene Art Talk online journal, has undertaken an almost year-long project of following the development of a new version of The Snow Queen for Eugene Ballet, with a fresh score by Oregon composer Kenji Bunch and choreography by EB’s longtime artistic director, Toni Pimble, who is recognized nationally as a creator of vivid and original ballets. Keefer will write about ten installments leading up to the premiere next spring, and ArtsWatch will reprint them once they’ve debuted on Eugene Art Talk. Here’s Episode 2, focusing on designer Nadya Geras-Carson.


Monkey business at Artists Rep

In Nick Jones's tick-tock "Trevor," Jon San Nicolas is the most human chimp in town. Laugh, nervously, at your own discretion.

Two scenes:

– On Saturday evening, before opening night of Nick Jones’s sort-of-comedy Trevor at Artists Repertory Theatre, I’m sitting at Gilda’s Italian Restaurant in the Commodore Hotel building, across the street from the theater. I’m here because a Portland Timbers soccer match is beginning soon just down the street at Civic Stadium (I refuse to use the ballpark’s current corporate nom-de-plume), and in order to find parking for less than twenty bucks my wife and I decide to show up early and spend a good deal more to have a nice dinner beforehand. The place is packed with pre-theater folk (Profile Theatre has a show tonight, too), a mob of soccer fans all dressed in green, and presumably a few people who just happened to make reservations for 6 o’clock on this particular Saturday. The din’s incredible, like the high-pitched thrumming of generators at an electrical power station, and the servers are hustling around at warp speed, taking orders, carrying platters, running filled wine glasses upstairs and down. In the open kitchen you can see the cooks moving in an orchestrated whir like the blades on an electric mixer, chop-chop-chop. What stands out is the professional efficiency of the staff, who move quickly and unobtrusively from table to table, checking on the wine, refilling the bread plate or the water glass, whisking away dirty plates, bringing a new fork if needed. On a hectic evening, only by running as a well-rehearsed team can a restaurant staff create the illusion of ease and calm and keep the whole edifice from falling into chaos.

Hamblin, San Nicolas, Luch, Gibson: couch potatoes and more. Photo: Owen Carey

Hamblin, San Nicolas, Lucht, Gibson: couch potatoes and more. Photo: Owen Carey

– On Sunday morning, as I sit down at my kitchen nook to begin to write this piece, a sonic boom sounds from the dining room behind me, and a blur of black fur, ears bent back like paper-airplane wings, streaks to the back of the house. On the dining room floor is a potted plant, messily unpotted – ceramic shards are scattered like little poison darts around the room. Dirt is blanketing the rug, burrowing beneath it, unaccountably splattered on windows and sills seemingly a safe distance from the scene of the crime.

I mention these two occurrences because (a) the success of Artists Rep’s Trevor is extraordinarily tied to the skills of its running crew, who have an unbelievable mess to set up and then clean up nightly and must run the show with the precision of a madcap farce, although that’s not precisely what Trevor is; and (b) if a five-pound, five-month-old kitten can inflict this much damage in a dining room, how much more havoc can a 150-pound grown chimpanzee create if let out on the loose?


ArtsWatch Weekly: TBA time, a passel of plays

TBA time, a passel of plays, an enchantment in Edinburgh, a new "Snow Queen," links: the week that was, the week that's coming up

What happens when a revolution becomes a regularly scheduled event? When PICA, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, started its TBA fest fourteen years ago it felt like a bracing broadside, a refreshing slap across the face to the city’s art scene as usual. “TBA” stood then, as it does now, for “time-based art,” a fancy way of saying art in real time, art by the clock: performance, whether dance or theater or music or monologue or performance art or anything slipping through the cracks of standard categories.

The idea wasn’t new. Portland State University had run a successful international performance festival for several years, and between 1972 and 1987 the legendary PCVA, the Portland Center for the Visual Arts, made performance a major part of its mission. TBA picked up the idea, aimed for the outer circles and exploratory corners of the national and international performance world, and brought it all home. TBA quickly became the hot ticket, the party everybody had to be at, the talk of the town.

Meg Wolfe's PICA-commissioned "New Faithful Disco," playing TBA Saturday and Sunday in the Winningstad Theatre. Photo: Steve Gunther/REDCAT

Meg Wolfe’s PICA-commissioned “New Faithful Disco,” playing TBA Saturday and Sunday in the Winningstad Theatre. Photo: Steve Gunther/REDCAT

Now, TBA is an institution, an august organizer of the avante-garde. Every fall it arrives and spreads its tentacles across the city, creating an avant-garde hothouse for a week and a half and then disappearing again until the next year. It’s not just performance: visual art has been part of the mix for a long time. And locals are mixed liberally (or radically) into a brew of controlled pandemonium and surprise. This year’s festival opens Thursday and runs pretty much nonstop through Sunday, September 18. A lot of the action will be at PICA at Hancock, PICA’s new Near East Side permanent digs at 15 Northeast Hancock Street. Check the schedule, and also take a look at Jamuna Chiarini’s DanceWatch Weekly, which includes a good rundown on the festival’s many dance options. Fill out your dance card soon: some of these shows are going to sell out early.


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