Bob Hicks

 

ArtsWatch Weekly: happy holidays

In a holiday week, what to catch and what to catch up on after the snowstorm

Let’s keep things short and sweet this week. Tomorrow is the winter solstice, the first day of winter, when the night begins to fade and the day begins to grow. Let there be light on what has been a dark season. In a world turned upside down in so many ways, we are four sundowns from the beginning of Hanukkah, five days from Christmas, six days from the beginning of Kwanzaa, and gloriously close to the fresh slate of a new calendar year. Let there be hope, let there be peace, let there be joy. From ArtsWatch to you, happy holidays.

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“Spring”: as the light grows, can it be far behind? Jacques Flèchemuller, 2016, oil on canvas, 63 x 47 inches, in the exhibition “Love Is a Pink Cake” at PDX Contemporary Art through Dec. 31. Most Portland galleries are open through the month.

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A FEW THINGS STILL HAPPENING, as the bustle slows down – still time to catch up on shows you missed during the snow and ice:

Christmas Revels concludes tonight and tomorrow at St. Mary’s Academy downtown; this year’s edition is Commedia Italiana.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Revel without a Claus

Commedia Christmas, O'Connor & Ives, Nutcracker, Imago's new Belle, Milagro's Posada, more "Messiah," Kurosawa Dreams, and more

This year’s dragon, not red as in the picture here from 2014 but a bright scaly green, was sitting in a little storage corner outside Portland Revels’ offices in the Artists Repertory Theatre creative hub one day last week, waiting patiently for assembly. It was in two pieces: a hind portion stretched over a large backpack, with room for levers, and a gangly top, again with movable parts, which when occupied by puppeteer Shuhe Hawkins will stretch giraffe-like perhaps 12 or 15 feet above the stage. It is a lovely creature all in all, and that fabled dragon-slayer St. George really ought to be ashamed.

Taggin’ with the dragon, in the 2014 Revels. Portland Revels photo

It’s Revels time again – this year’s Christmas Revels runs for eight performances Friday through December 21 at St. Mary’s Academy downtown – and for Bruce Hostetler, newly settled in as artistic director after about five years of working with and directing the annual winter solstice show, that means settling into the hundreds of details at hand while he’s also thinking about bigger things. If you don’t know about Revels – which is in its 22nd year in Portland, and began in 1975 in Cambridge, Massachusetts – it’s a grand and genuinely family get-together of singing, dancing, storytelling, mumming, and playing old-time instruments that is rooted in Celtic customs but regularly roams the earth, making connections with other cultures’ solstice traditions. Santa Claus? That’s somebody else’s tale.

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OOPS. HERE IT IS A WEEK into December, and you’ve still got that shopping stuff to do. You sort of thought this would be the year you bought local – you know, support the place you live in sort of thing – but it’s all a bit confusing, and you’re really not sure where to start.

Hannah Wells 8 x 8-inch artwork in “The Big 500.”

So let us introduce you to The Big 500, an all-local, all-art, low-cost and accessible event produced by “people’s artists” Chris Haberman and Jason Brown and sprawling across the Ford Gallery in the Ford Building, 2505 Southeast 11th Avenue. Now in its ninth year, The Big 500 is actually more than that – 500+ Portland area artists, each creating 8 x 8 inch pieces on wood panels, each piece for sale for $40. More than 5,000 works will be on hand, and besides putting some cash in local artists’ pockets, the event raises money for the Oregon Food Bank, which can put it to extremely good use.

The sale kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday and continues through December 23. It’s a pretty wild scene, with all sorts of stuff at all sorts of levels of accomplishment, and it’s more than a bit of a crap shoot: you might walk in and find ten pieces you absolutely must have for the people on your list, or you might strike out. Either way, the sheer volume of objects is pretty amazing. And what you spend here stays here. You’re welcome.

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Black Nativity: dignity and joy

PassinArt's production of the Langston Hughes gospel cantata is a bright and shining star of the holiday firmament

On Sunday afternoon inside The Greater St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in Northeast Portland, a man led an older woman named Glenda Pullem slowly up the aisle and helped her onto the stage. She stood there firmly, facing the audience, and, in a gliding, roaming, authoritative voice somewhere along the river where gospel, jazz, and blues meet, started to sing: “There’s a leak in this old building.” That’s when the good chill began to build, starting somewhere around my lower back and radiating upward and outward, elevating everything around me. The feeling punched into overdrive when a chorus a dozen-odd voices strong, gathering behind me where I couldn’t see them in the rows between the pews, broke into vibrant, beautifully calibrated, full-volume response. Ah, my nerve ends told me happily. So this is what it’s going to be like.

Langston Hughes's "Black Nativity": a bright and shining star. PassinArt photo

Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity”: a bright and shining star. PassinArt photo

I’d gone to St. Stephen, a small frame church just north of Fremont and a couple of blocks west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to see and hear Black Nativity, a show I’d long been curious about but never seen before. It’s a gospel-music retelling of the nativity story, assembled by the great American poet and writer Langston Hughes, who brought together a lot of traditional songs and a few new ones, took some lines from the King James narrative, and added some of his own sharp, deep poetry to create a version of the story with deep roots in African American culture and a broad, resounding appeal beyond. The miracle, if you will, of his version is that it makes the story feel less like a ritual or a dogma and more like a current event, something happening right now in real time. The hour-plus play, which subtly connects the hardships and determination of the biblical characters with the experiences and spirit of black Americans, is much like a cantata, telling an extended story through music. It debuted Off-Broadway with a cast of 160 singers in 1961, fairly late in the life of Hughes, one of the giants of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Berlin stories: the making of an American legend

Portland Center Stage's "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" sings and tells the story of the outsider who became the deeply driven voice of the nation

For all of the great American songwriter Irving Berlin’s genuine patriotism and genius for tapping the vitality of the nation’s popular spirit, he comes across in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin as something of a dyspeptic old coot.

Then again, when we meet him (in a clever bit of stagecraft, as the invisible inhabitant of a wheelchair that sits stage right on the Mainstage at Portland Center Stage) he’s a disgruntled centenarian, crushed by the recent loss of his wife of more than sixty years, haunted by the feeling that the popular culture he did so much to help create has passed him by, and, mostly, just tired of life.

Fortunately his younger self, in the person of singer, pianist, playwright, and solo performer Felder, is on hand to speak for him, act as an intermediary between the very private Berlin and his adoring audience, and explain the personal and cultural context of the extraordinary book of roughly 1,500 songs for which the man born Israel Isidore Beilin (or Baline) wrote both music and lyrics, altering forever the landscape of American popular music.

Felder at the keyboard as Berlin. Photo: Eighty Eight Entertainment

Felder at the keyboard as Berlin. Photo: Eighty Eight Entertainment

In Friday night’s opening performance at Center Stage, Felder was a brash and pounding presence, attacking Berlin’s songs with dominating passion and the piano keyboard with emphatic fury, as if he were afraid some fugitive modern reinterpretation might escape and misrepresent Berlin’s original intentions. It seemed apt. Felder’s delivery of this bounty of songs was distinguished by a fidelity to the periods in which the music was composed, reaching back in spirit to the straightforwardness of Berlin’s hero Stephen Foster and for the most part (although he began his career writing tunes for the dance crazes that swept the nation in the early years of the 20th century) avoiding the syncopations of the swing and jazz revolutions that came to represent and in many ways reinvigorate the Great American Songbook. If Berlin’s songs were simple compared to Porter’s or Gershwin’s, they also had the power of directness. They were essentially American statements of optimistic populism, with a potent blend of honest sentimentality and the hard nut of basic truths. They were songs you could hum. Songs you did hum.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: all that glitters, all that glows

A holiday compendium: in dark times, a triumph of artistic light

I read the news today, oh boy. It’s a compulsion begun in childhood with the sports and comics pages of broadsheet newspapers (Duke Snider! Alley Oop!) and expanded, as I grew older, into the full range of world events and a long career inside the sausage factory of the newsgathering game. Rarely has the news looked more bleak or fragile than it does today: who knows where that latest piece of Internet-amplified information came from, or whether it was invented by fierce partisans out of outsourced whole cloth, without a whiff of objectivity or credibility? Truth becomes the loudest voice; the loudest voice becomes the truth. Oh boy, indeed.

Miya Zolkoske and Andrea Whittle (foreground) with ensemble in "A Civil War Christmas." Photo: Owen Carey

Miya Zolkoske and Andrea Whittle (foreground) with ensemble in “A Civil War Christmas.” Photo: Owen Carey

Hardly a time, it would seem, for visions of sugarplums. And yet, as the holidays roar into their inescapable month of triumph (if there’s a “war on Christmas,” its battlefields seem to be in places like Walmart and Macy’s and Amazon) I find myself, once again, comforted by the beauty and ritual of the season’s quiet core. At our house we have our own holiday rituals, including a strict paternal ban on pulling out the Christmas CDs before Thanksgiving, a ruling that is regularly and gleefully broken by the better natures of the household, who know a sucker when they see one. Lately, having once again acquiesced to the inevitable, I’ve been listening to an old favorite, “Christmas in Eastern Europe,” from the Bucharest Madrigal Choir.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: tweet charity

"Hamilton" and Trump's tweets, artists in crisis, new holiday shows, shakeups at Disjecta and Post5, Moses(es) and more

And then he tweeted. The president-elect of these United States is, of course, a thumbmeister of prodigious proclivity, hurling 140-character putdowns and opinions into the Twittersphere with disruptive glee and strategical savvy. It’s a brave new political world out there, and Donald Trump has shown a mastery of its evolving mechanics.

This particular tweet, as most any arts follower knows by now, was a finger-wagging at the cast and creators of the Broadway musical hit Hamilton, a show that Vice President-elect Mike Pence had attended, and where he became the recipient of a post-show plea from the stage to recognize and support the American diversity that the people on the stage represented. It was a highly unusual shout-out, but these are highly unusual times, and Pence, who has a history of hardline opposition to LGBTQ rights (he is even widely believed to have supported shock therapy to “cure” people of their homosexuality, though Snopes.com says that’s not entirely true) seemed a highly unusual attendee at a Broadway musical, an art form suffused with gay culture.

Teddy Roosevelt advocated the "bully pulpit." Donald Trump prefers Twitter.

Teddy Roosevelt advocated the “bully pulpit.” Donald Trump prefers Twitter.

Was the Hamilton cast rude or presumptuous? Maybe, although its spokesman spoke softly and carried only a verbal stick, lecturing in the politest of tones. He implored the audience not to boo Pence, and yet boo it did, which in its own way is intriguing, because a theater full of people who can afford tickets to the highest-priced show on Broadway is hardly a cross-sampling of the downtrodden.

Pence, asked later about the incident, said he wasn’t bothered by it, and the pushback was “what freedom sounds like.”

Trump was not so mild. “The theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” tweeted the man who tosses out insults with abandon and does not apologize.

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