Bob Hicks


All abuzz about the next room

Profile's "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play" brings a little jolt to its Victorian characters' lives

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play has buzzed into town for the second time in the past couple of years, and you know what they say about a good thing: you can’t get too much of it. Nor, in Sarah Ruhl’s witty, brittle, and eventually compassionate 2009 comedy, can the frustrated Victorian wives in the orbit of the stiffly scientific Dr. Givings get too much of the good doctor’s marvelous electrical vibrating machine, which, when applied to certain delicate portions of the body, induces “hysterical paroxysms” that ease stress and bring a youthful flush to the cheek. Daily applications seem advisable. Sometimes, multiple daily applications work best.

Foss Curtis, Beth Thompson and Leif Norby in the next room. Photo: David Kinder

Foss Curtis, Beth Thompson and Leif Norby in the next room. Photo: David Kinder

Profile Theatre’s new production at Artists Rep is crisper and more decidedly shaped than the one that played at Triangle Productions in spring 2013, but both capture the spirit of Ruhl’s appealingly off-center humor: her brain works a little differently from most people’s, gravitating naturally to an off-angle approach to things, and as a result her plays are heady, ticklish, exploratory things, little adventures into outlandish territory that surprise you by ending up somewhere near the center of the heart. Profile is in the midst of its season of Ruhl plays, with In the Next Room following a sterling production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone and leading up to a fall production of Passion Play.

I find myself in a bit of an awkward position in regard to The Vibrator Play, because as much as I admire it and Ruhl, it’s not a play I especially needed to see twice in two years. Other than to note differences in directing and acting styles, I found no hidden insights, no unexplored depths, the second time around: then again, like all of the men in the play, I can be a little dense. It remains a good, solid play, and Profile gives it a good, solid, enjoyable production. Better than solid, really. If at times it seems a little clipped and calculated, that approach makes metaphorical sense, and it leads to a couple of genuine emotional climaxes that are honestly touching: an impulsive kiss that shocks and confuses two people; a stripping-down and starting-over by a husband and wife.

In the Next Room runs the risk of being a one-joke play: Victorian ladies discover vibrators, and like the way they make them feel, even though they don’t seem to make the connection between the treatment and sex. It’s a bit like the Meg Ryan fake-orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally, on continuous loop. And, granted, it’s a good joke. But as Ruhl writes it, and Adriana Baer directs it for Profile, and her sparkling cast acts it, the joke’s a lead-in to some more probing explorations of gender, tenderness, emotional fulfillment, and the dawning of women’s rights. Were the medical profession and their clients of the 1880s as innocent of the vibrator’s sexual implications as the play makes them out to be? I’m not quite old enough to give a first-hand report from the scene, but I have my doubts. Still, I’m more than willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of a well-told tale.

Foss Curtis and Lauren Bloom discuss the mysteries of life. Photo: David Kinder

Foss Curtis and Lauren Bloom discuss the mysteries of life. Photo: David Kinder

At the center of the story is Catherine Givings (Lauren Bloom), wife of the scientifically preoccupied Dr. Givings (Leif Norby) and a woman who is both intensely curious about what goes on behind the closed door of her husband’s treatment room (she keeps hearing strange sounds) and intensely distressed because she can’t get her milk to let down so she can feed her newborn child. Her curiosity leads her into untoward relationships with a couple of the patients: Sabrina Daldry (Foss Curtis), who is married to the genially insufferable Mr. Daldry (Karl Hanover), and Leo Irving (Mattew Kerrigan), a dreamy-eyed artist who is one of the rare male patients to benefit from the wonders of the electrical vibrator, albeit in a different anatomical zone. The little group is completed by Annie (Beth Thompson), Dr. Givens’ efficient nurse, who on occasions when the machine doesn’t seem to be sufficient to the task, expertly applies the old-fashioned manual-manipulation method of stress reduction to the patients; and by the nursemaid Elizabeth (Ashley Nicole Williams), who, a little disconcertingly, given the long history of stereotyping in American culture, is both the only black character in the play and the only one who is Wise to the Ways of Nature (she understands it’s about sex). It’s a good, well-balanced cast, sparked by Bloom’s nervous drive of curiosity and Curtis’s sly hint of humor. Norby, given the unenviable task of playing an eminent man of science who is in emotional matters pretty much an idiot, lets Dr. Givens be the butt of some jokes but also imbues him with a genuine dignity.

Profile’s In the Next Room is quite lovely to look at, with an ornate yet open set by Stephen Dobay and some ravishing period costumes by Sarah Gahagan. And, just because you almost never get to list a credit like this, here’s a credit like this: “Vibrators provided by Alley Repertory Theater in Boise, Idaho.” Alley, thanks for the buzz.


Profile Theatre’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play continues through June 28 on the Morrison Stage of the Artists Repertory Theatre complex. Ticket and schedule information are here.


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‘Mary Poppins’ chimney-sweeps PAMTAs

Portland's eighth musical-theater awards ceremony puts on a rouser of a show; new R&B musical 'Soul Harmony' also scores big

A funny thing happened on the way to the grand wrap-up of the PAMTAs: a helluva show broke out.

The Portland Area Musical Theater Awards ceremony pretty much packed the Dolores Winningstad Theatre to the rafters Monday night, and at times the cheering approached Timbers Army volume. Amid a whole lot of big, grown-up possibilities – Dreamgirls, Parade, She Loves Me, Young Frankenstein, La Cage aux Folles, Carousel, the debut of the new rhythm & blues musical Soul Harmony, and others – that supercalifragilistic bumbershoot-carrying wondernanny Mary Poppins, from Northwest Children’s Theatre, hauled off the biggest chunks of hardware, including the award for best production.

"Mary Poppins" sweeps the night: Sarah Jane Hardy, Chrissy Kelly-Pettit, and John Ellingson Beard,  for Outstanding Production & Director, Female Lead, and Set Design. Photo: David Kinder

“Mary Poppins” sweeps the night: Sarah Jane Hardy, Chrissy Kelly-Pettit, and John Ellingson Beard, for Outstanding Production & Director, Female Lead, and Set Design. Photo: David Kinder

Mary Poppins also took top prizes for lead actress (Chrissy Kelly-Pettit), director (Sarah Jane Hardy), costume design (Mary Rochon), set design (John Ellingson), and a quartet of outstanding young performers (Kaylee Bair, Libby Rouffy, Austin Emmett, Kieran Gettel-Gilmartin). Ellingson, who was also nominated for best actor as the Cockney chimney sweep Bert, fairly popped off the stage with enthusiasm. “I grew up watching Mary Poppins,” he said. “I loved Mary Poppins. I wanted to be Mary Poppins.”

Stumptown Stage’s Soul Harmony was a big winner, too, taking the prize for best original musical. The story of R&B songwriter Deborah Chessler and the hit-making group Sonny Til and the Orioles also took top awards for best original score (Michael Allen Harrison, Alan Berg, Janet Mouser), best original song (The Music Inside, same trio), orchestrations (Harrison), and a special award for outstanding debut performance (De’Sean Dooley, who is Sonny Til’s grandson). Pianist and composer Harrison, in one of his several gracious acceptance speeches, noted the story’s importance in the history of American popular music: “Sonny Til and the Orioles were the bridge between Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.”

"Soul Harmony": from left, Kirk Mouser for Janet Mouser, Alan Berg, Michael Allen Harrison; for Outstanding Original Musical, Score, Song, and Orchestration. Photo: David Kinder

“Soul Harmony”: from left, Kirk Mouser for Janet Mouser, Alan Berg, Michael Allen Harrison; for Outstanding Original Musical, Score, Song, and Orchestration. Photo: David Kinder

Joe Thiessen, resplendent onstage in a bristling bow tie, pulled off an acting double, tying with Drew Harper in Triangle’s Tick, Tick … BOOM! for best leading actor his performance in Pixie Dust’s La Cage aux Folles, and winning the supporting-actor nod outright for Stumptown Stages’ It’s a Wonderful Life.

But for all the suspense about who the winners would be, the hardware almost played second fiddle to the show itself, which for two hours and forty-five minutes was pretty much dazzle-dazzle spectacular. Who would’ve guessed that an awards ceremony could actually be entertaining? And yet, entertaining it was, from Leah Seligman’s opening breathy, broken, crisp and yearning rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Marry Me a Little to the final unveiling of the best-show winner.

Return emcee Darius Pierce, who probably should just get a lifetime contract for this sort of thing, kept things clipping and puckish without being cocky or nasty (Oscar and Tony hosts, take note). And the show was dotted with some knockout musical performances (after all, it’s about musical theater), among them Don Mason’s bluesy, ’50s-cool Down with Love; Dru Rutledge’s lounge-diva country-blues Willow, Weep for Me; Collin Carver’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed anthem from The Book of Mormon; Kelly-Pettit’s Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag) from Mary Poppins; Lauren Steele and Haley Ward’s comic-kickin’ on-the-road duet Freedom; and Dooley and Monica Rodrigues’s stomping-sweet duet on the title number from Soul Harmony. Cassi q Kohl, looking like a punk polka-dot Carmen Miranda, sashayed onstage waving a kazoo, barked “Hit it, Reece,” to pianist Reece Marshburn, who led the sharp onstage trio, and launched into a roof-rattling comic version of Baby, I’ve Got a Screw Loose for You. The youthful ensemble from Northwest Children’s Theatre’s The Jungle Book performed a vivid Indian-inspired dance; the cast from Staged!’s Parade – the Alfred Uhry/Jason Robert Brown musical tale of the 1917 murder trial of in Atlanta of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank that won the important ensemble-acting award – sang a stirring group number; and eloquent remembrances of dancer/choreographer Elizabeth Erickson and the great actor Ted Roisum, both of whom died earlier this year, brought notes of seriousness and purpose to the evening.

Emcee Darius Pierce, with the Reece Marshburn Trio. Photo: David Kinder

Emcee Darius Pierce, with the Reece Marshburn Trio. Photo: David Kinder

Corey Brunish, the longtime Portland actor/singer and, more recently, successful Broadway producer, was on hand at key moments, and surely his Broadway experience had something to do with the evening’s polished and entertaining sheen. He did miss on one thing: He underestimated the size of the crowd, and didn’t print enough programs to go around. At one point he waved his own program from the stage and offered it for ten bucks. Then he reconsidered, and declared he was going to put it on eBay. If the PAMTAs get any more popular, they’ll have to move upstairs next year to the bigger Newmark Theatre – where, for the first time, the larger Drammy Awards ceremony for  Portland theater of all sorts will be held this year, on June 29.

The cast of Staged!'s "Parade": Outstanding Ensemble winners. Photo: David Kinder

The cast of Staged!’s “Parade”: Outstanding Ensemble winners. Photo: David Kinder

This year’s PAMTA winners, with the nominees. Winners, including multiple winners in some categories, are listed in boldface. Additional event photos by David Kinder are here; he grants permission to right-click and save for your personal use:

Outstanding Male Actor in a Lead Role:

Drew Harper, tick, tick….BOOM!, Triangle Productions

Joe Thiessen, La Cage aux Folles

Nartan Woods, The Rocky Horror Show
John Ellingson, Mary Poppins
Evan Howells, Young Frankenstein

Outstanding Female Actor in a Lead Role:

Chrissy Kelly-Pettit, Mary Poppins, Northwest Children’s Theatre

Nattalyee Randall, Dreamgirls
Monica Rodrigues, Soul Harmony
Dru Rutledge, She Loves Me
Cassi Q Kohl, She Loves Me

Outstanding Male Actor in a Supporting Role:

Joe Thiessen, It’s a Wonderful Life, Stumptown Stages

Burl Ross, Young Frankenstein
Eric Little, The Rocky Horror Show
Jonathan Quesenberry, Carousel
Collin Carver, Grease

Outstanding Female Actor in a Supporting Role:

Jennifer Goldsmith, WHODUNIT, Broadway Rose

Claire Rigsby, Grease
Lisa Knox, Young Frankenstein
Emily Sahler, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Annie Kaiser, The Music Man

Outstanding Ensemble:

Parade, Staged!

La Cage aux Folles, Pixie Dust
Dreamgirls, Portland Center Stage
tick, tick…BOOM!, Triangle
The Music Man, Broadway Rose

Outstanding Young Performer:

Kaylee Bair, Mary Poppins
Libby Rouffy, Mary Poppins
Austin Emmett, Mary Poppins
Kieran Gettel-Gilmartin, Mary Poppins

Josiah Bartell, The Music Man
Alexa Kelly Shaheen, Ruthless!

Outstanding Director:

Sarah Jane Hardy, Mary Poppins
Greg Tamblyn, La Cage aux Folles, Pixie Dust Productions

Chris Coleman, Dreamgirls

Paul Angelo, Parade
Tobias Andersen, She Loves Me

Outstanding Choreographer:

Peggy Taphorn, The Music Man, Broadway Rose

Sarah Jane Hardy, Mary Poppins
Anita Menon & Sarah Jane Hardy, The Jungle Book
Jacob Toth, Grease
Laura Hiszcynskiyj, She Loves Me

Outstanding Musical Director:

Jeffrey Childs, The World Goes ‘Round, Broadway Rose

Alan D. Lytle, The Music Man
Cyndy Ramsey-Rier, Young Frankenstein
Rick Lewis, Dreamgirls
Darcy White, The Rocky Horror Show

Outstanding Costume Designer:

Mary Rochon, Mary Poppins

Sydney Roberts, Dreamgirls
Pat Rohrbach, She Loves Me
Shana Targosz, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Darrin J Pufall, The Rocky Horror Show

Outstanding Set Designer:

John Ellingson, Mary Poppins

John Ellingson, The Little Mermaid
G.W. Mercier, Dreamgirls 
Owen Walz, Grease
John Gerth, She Loves Me

Outstanding Light Designer:

Robert M. Wierzel, Dreamgirls

Chris Whitten, Carousel
Carl Faber, Mary Poppins
Kurt Herman, Young Frankenstein
Jeff Woods, She Loves Me

Outstanding Sound Designer:

Casi Pacilio, Dreamgirls

Rodolfo Ortega, Mary Poppins
Duane Rodakowski, La Cage aux Folles
Gordon Romei, Parade
Rory Breshears, The Rocky Horror Show

Outstanding Production:

Mary Poppins, Northwest Children’s Theatre

Dreamgirls, Portland Center Stage
Parade, Staged!
La Cage aux Folles, Pixie Dust
Young Frankenstein, Lakewood

Outstanding Playbill Cover Design:


The Rocky Horror Show, Jim Parker
Grease, Emily Dew
110 in the Shade, Lisa Johnston-Smith
Iolanthe, Rachel Barry-Arquit, Joe Ercegg, Matt Erceg, Larry Larsen

Outstanding Original Orchestrations:

Soul Harmony, Michael Allen Harrison

The Jungle Book, Rodolfo Oretega and Archana Mungara
The Babes are Back!, Jonathan Quesenberry

Best Original Musical:

Soul Harmony, Michael Allen Harrison, Alan Berg, Janet Mouser

The Jungle Book, Anita Menon, Sarah Jane Hardy, Rodolfo Ortega, Archana Mungara
The Little Mermaid, Milo Mowery, Rodolfo Ortega
The Babes are Back!, Donald Horn, Teddy Deane

Best Original Song:

The Music Inside, Michael Allen Harrison, Alan Berg, Janet Mouser

Soul Harmony, Michael Allen Harrison, Alan Berg, Janet Mouser
Don’t Get In That Car, Teddy Deane
Sisters in the Ocean, Rodolfo Ortega

Best Original Score:

Soul Harmony, Michael Allen Harrison, Alan Berg, Janet Mouser

The Little Mermaid, Milo Mowery, Rodolfo Oretga
The Jungle Book, Rodolfo Ortega, Archana Mungara
The Babes are Back!, Teddy Deane

Special Awards:

De’Sean Dooley for Outstanding Debut, in Soul Harmony
Kelly Jung for Breakthrough Performance, in The Little Mermaid
Portland Opera for Nurturing Musical Theatre
Benjamin Scheuer for Outstanding One-Man Show, The Lion


Gods & Heroes, together again

The Portland Art Museum's big new exhibit from the heart of historic Paris recreates the period just before the great artistic revolution

In the beginning were the Greeks.

So, at least, goes the catechism of the École des Beaux-Arts, the famed training ground in Paris for painters, sculptors, architects and planners that set the artistic tone of France for more than two centuries after its establishment in 1648 by Charles Le Brun as the Académie de peinture et de sculpture.

The Greek ideal of beauty, and the great Greek storytelling myths, shaped the French artistic imagination and for a time held it like a vise. You can see it in all its exaggerated glory in Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, the big new traveling exhibition that opened Saturday at the Portland Art Museum. In spite of a number of fine intimate-scaled works, it’s a grand-gesture show, a celebration of swagger among the young artists and their instructors, who for the most part had been students at the École, too.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols, 1752, Oil on canvas, 43 7/8 x 56 1/2 in., École des Beaux- Arts, Paris (PRP 7), Courtesy American Federation of Arts

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols, 1752, Oil on canvas, 43 7/8 x 56 1/2 in., École des Beaux- Arts, Paris (PRP 7), Courtesy American Federation of Arts

From its founding under King Louis XIV, the École’s goal was to create great art; and great art, its leaders believed, was to be achieved only though a strict system of copying, practicing, and submitting to a larger world-view. In a way it was like the old studios of the Renaissance masters, but more codified and larger in scope. Mastery of drawing was paramount, and although realism was the goal, it was an idealized realism, a realism somehow finer than reality and also moralistic, or at least cautionary: during the height of its neoclassical years, art from the École was fairly vibrating with extreme storytelling vigor. Everything was edifying. Everything had meaning beyond the paint or plaster itself. There was, often, an extreme artificiality to this realism, a hypertension of dramatic effect.

The question is, did the classical régime of the École and its dominating influence over the art of its time stunt creativity, or release it? The answer is, yes, and yes. The works in Gods & Heroes represent the French art world before the dam burst – before the aesthetic revolt that began in the early decades of the 1800s with the likes of Delacroix, Turner in England, Millet, Corbet and Corot, and broke wide open with the sensation of the 1863 Salon des Refusés. Soon the art world, unshackled and democratized, was swamped by the avant-gardists of Impressionism, who led in turn to the Post-Impressionists, Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists, Pop Artists, and all the others who have flooded the art landscape in the past century and a half, creating an artistic Sea of Perpetual Change.

In spite of its concentration on the archaic-seeming idealizations and narrative overstatements of what’s now often regarded as a conservative and hyper-controlled moment in art history, Gods and Heroes feels like some perversely revolutionary act. It dares to ask, what was good about what was swept away? How many babies got thrown out when the bathwater got its necessary freshening? After all, this is the stuff that modernism rebelled against, the stuff that was rejected – and yet, it endures. The show may be most interesting for the way it challenges its audience to go beyond its assumptions and prejudices, and explore a world-view that can seem alien. If you let it, it’ll take you down the rabbit hole – a journey that almost always skews perspectives, and usually also broadens them.


Hogarth to Hockney: a rake progresses

A Portland Art Museum exhibit, linked to Portland Opera's production of the Stravinsky opera, looks at design and sensibility across the centuries

A whole lot, and not very much at all, changed in the almost two and a half centuries between 1732 and 1975. You can see the evidence in David Hockney: A Rake’s Progress, a small and pleasing exhibition in the lower-level prints & drawings galleries of the Portland Art Museum.

The exhibition, which runs through August 2 and is timed to coincide with Portland Opera’s production of The Rake’s Progress opening Thursday evening at Keller Auditorium, is three-pronged, consisting of a full set of William Hogarth’s eight 18th century engravings of the cautionary tale, all from the museum’s own collections, and a complete set of Hockney’s 16 etchings on the same subject from 1961-63, plus set and costume models and sketches for Glyndebourne Opera Festival’s celebrated 1975 production that introduced Hockney’s designs. Both sets are on loan from the David Hockney Foundation in Los Angeles.

David Hockney, "The Drinking Scene" from "A Rake's Progress," Plate 4, 1961-63. Collection of the David Hockney Foundation. © David Hockney

David Hockney, “The Drinking Scene” from “A Rake’s Progress,” Plate 4, 1961-63. Collection of the David Hockney Foundation. © David Hockney

The result is a brisk and entertaining mini-course in art history, and a welcome reminder that when theater and the visual arts decide to play together, good things often happen. It’s also the latest in a series of smartly conceived small exhibits overseen in recent years by the museum’s graphic arts curator, Mary Weaver Chapin, including This Is War!, Feast and Famine, and In the Studio: Reflections on Artistic Life, all three drawn mainly from the museum’s own notable collection of prints and drawings. A Rake’s Progress is simpler and more narrowly focused than those shows, but its simplicity is also part of its elegance.

It’s a surprise to realize that Portland Opera’s production of The Rake’s Progress is the first in the company’s half-century of existence. The long delay is a bit of a head-scratcher considering that the work is a notable achievement in the world of post-Puccini opera, with superb bloodlines: music by Igor Stravinsky, libretto by the poet W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, with a premiere production in Vienna in 1951 that starred the legendary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Anne Trulove and Robert Rounseville as Tom Rakewell, the dissolute young rake of the title.

But if Portland Opera’s late out of the gate, it seems to be making up for it, both by using Hockney’s retro-modernist sets and costumes and by breaking out of the silo to collaborate with the art museum. Collaboration’s becoming the name of the game among Portland arts organizations, and it’s a welcome trend.

William Hogarth, "A Rake's Progress," Plate 3: "The Tavern Scene," Engraving, 1735

William Hogarth, “A Rake’s Progress,” Plate 3, “The Tavern Scene,” Engraving, 1735

Hogarth’s original eight paintings, created in 1732 and ’33, hang in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. But the world knows the series best through the black & white engravings completed in 1735, and the museum’s set (these ones struck ca. 1760) represent Hogarth’s moralistic telling of the tale, in which a ne’er-do-well inherits a modest fortune, fritters it away on loose women, strong drink, and gambling dens, and ends his days in an insane asylum.

The Hogarth prints are notable not just for their potent cocktail of sex, sin, and moralizing, but also for their visual detail. Perspectives are mathematically correct – you can count on visual veracity to go with your scandalizing – and the scenes are almost overwhelmingly busy, stuffed with detail, as if a richly observed picaresque novel were unfolding on the sheets of paper. Plate 3, for instance, The Tavern Scene, almost shouts with activity: more than a dozen people in various degrees of sin and sloth, an excess of drapery and clothing (some on, some off), a claustrophobic upholstering of props and incident. The prints were made for intimate, personal enjoyment, like reading a book, and Hogarth rewarded his customers with complex scenes they could visit and revisit in detail. This particular scene takes place in the Rose Tavern, a notorious brothel in Covent Garden, where a drunken Tom is falling deep into dissolution.

David Hocknew, "Cast Aside," Plate 7A from "TheRake's Progress," Etching. Collection of the David Hockney Foundation. © David Hockney.

David Hockney, “Cast Aside,” Plate 7A from “TheRake’s Progress,” Etching, 1961-63. Collection of the David Hockney Foundation. © David Hockney.

Hockney’s version, in contrast, is loose and gangly, an elegant sketch of a story with a sophisticated-cartoon feel and a mastery of the limited line. It suggests far more than it tells, and it blithely ignores the classical rules of perspective: things float, and it doesn’t really matter. His telling of the tale is inspired by Hogarth’s but based loosely on his own experiences as a young artist arriving in New York from his native England in 1961. As Chapin puts it in her exhibition notes, he “plays the role of the protagonist, as a young gay man navigating the wonders and snares of New York for the first time.” Hockney was still in his mid-20s, and the series makes clear that he already was becoming a major force, a thorough modernist both stylistically and psychologically, but also an artist with a deep understanding of the art that came before his time. Cast Aside, in which a deftly sketched hand tosses an expression-less bust of our hero into a serpent’s mouth, and The Drinking Scene, in which one fellow holds another in a neck-choke as they belly up to a bar, have the sophisticated minimalism of a Saul Steinberg cartoon in The New Yorker, but with a more furtive twist: they arrive with a tiny tug of dread. In the latter 20th century, Hockney didn’t need to make his depictions of moral decay literal, the way Hogarth had. Suggestion was enough.

For both Hogarth and Hockney, I suspect, the idea of telling the shocking tale was more alluring than the moral appended to it, and I imagine the immersion in the sinning that led to the suffering had its appeal. Hockney also had a genuine affection for retelling or reinterpreting old stories in much more intimate forms than the color-saturated paintings of swimming pools and other contemporary scenes for which he’s best known. In 2012 the Maryhill Museum of Art showed a similar historically grounded series, David Hockney: Six Fairy Tales, containing 39 original etchings for a 1970 book of a half-dozen Grimm tales, including such lesser-known stories as Old Rinkrank and The Boy Who Left Home To Learn Fear.

David Hockney, Drop Curtain for “The Rake’s Progress,” 1975–79, Collection of the David Hockney Foundation. © David Hockney

David Hockney, Drop Curtain for “The Rake’s Progress,” 1975–79, Collection of the David Hockney Foundation. © David Hockney

The 25 theater sketches, which include full, three-dimensional scenic designs as well as costume sketches for Tom, Trulove, the mysterious Nick Shadow and others, are small delights of quick invention that document a full-blown, confident visual style for the production of the opera. They can be enjoyed as simple sketches from a master hand, or as blueprints for a fully fleshed production in which the look is as important as the sound.

In designing for Stravinsky’s opera, Hockney joined a long line of talented artists who have enjoyed the stimulus of designing for the theater, often to stunning result. Isamu Noguchi designed Appalachian Spring brilliantly for Martha Graham; Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes hired an all-star lineup of painters to design his sets, including Picasso, Miró, Matisse, Braque, di Chirico, Utrillo, Roualt and Léon Bakst (as well as composers including Stravinsky, Poulenc, Milhaud, Debussy and Satie). More recently, the South African artist William Kentridge created fantastical comic sets and costumes for Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera. And in Portland, the distinguished painter Henk Pander has a long history of designing sets, from the old Storefront Theatre to the Jewish Theatre Collaborative. In a way, it’s natural: artists feeding off of artists, creating more than the sum of their parts. The good news is, Hockney wasn’t alone.

No lie: Corneille’s crackling comedy

David Ives' contemporary "translaptation" of Corneille's 17th century French farce "The Liar" is a kick in the collective pants at Artists Rep

A good, gut-wrenching tragedy is part of the heart and soul of theater, of course, providing proof to those who need it that the theater is a “serious” art form. But there’s good reason the famous visual symbol of the stage includes two masks, one face in anguish and one in peals of laughter: as the great actor Edmund Kean is alleged to have said just before he slipped into eternity, “Dying’s easy. Comedy’s hard.”

Comedy is the head to tragedy’s heart. It can, and does, stir emotions, but it’s an analytical, exterior art form, moving through the brain first and the heart only afterwards. Farce in particular looks at human urges and activities from an analytical perspective, exposing patterns of behavior and often hiding a merciless bleakness behind a mirage of wit. The best farce balances restlessly between hopefulness and cynicism, and is seen these days as often on the TV screen (witness the late, great Frasier) as onstage. Screwball comedy, so old now that we think of it in black-and-white movie tones, was the classically upbeat populist American adaptation of the form.

San Nicolas (left) and Murray: comedy in true and false. Photo: Owen Carey

San Nicolas (left) and Murray: comedy in true and false. Photo: Owen Carey

Heading into summer, theatergoers might well be thirsting for something a little light and lively, but still with a punch. Portlanders going through Alan Ayckbourn or Michael Frayn withdrawal might want to hie themselves over to Artists Repertory Theatre, where the fiercely funny playwright David Ives is keeping the farcical flame alive with his “translaptation” of The Liar, French master Pierre Corneille’s 1644 comedy about an inveterate fibber whose elaborate fabrications get him into hot water, and barely out again before he’s boiled alive.

We’ve seen Ives’s contemporary wit and freewheeling way with iambic pentameter recently in Theatre Vertigo’s ribald, rowdy, and altogether amusing production of his School for Lies, an adaptation of Molière’s 1666 comedy The Misanthrope. Now comes Corneille, a little bit older and a little lesser-known, out to make the case after all these centuries that he’s still Molière than thou.

The Liar is about, well, a liar, a fellow so resolutely devoted to untruth that it’s almost like a religion to him: even when his aim is honorable (or some unreasonable facsimile thereof) he can only approach it through a series of ever more complex and roundabout inventions. At Artists Rep this young master of mendacity, Dorante, is played by babyfaced Chris Murray (adorned in straggly facial hair and a cascade of foppish curls), whose angelic exterior belies a devilish delight in stirring things up.


A good rain on a Grimm parade

Misunderstandings, not monsters: Center Stage's "Three Days of Rain," with two stars of the hit television series "Grimm," is witty and elegant

No midnight maulings or supernatural terrors this time around. Richard Greenberg’s drama Three Days of Rain, which spotlights two stars of the made-in-Portland television hit Grimm, has its monsters, but they’re ordinary, human-sized monsters, vulnerable and malleable and made of misunderstandings.

And, yes, just to get That Question out of the way: Silas Weir Mitchell and Sasha Roiz are much better than all right onstage. They give nuanced, playful, assured performances, easily filling the main-stage space at Portland Center Stage, and work seamlessly with stage veteran Lisa Datz, who is quite brilliant in a pair of crucial and contrasting roles.

Datz and Roiz: something's breaking up here. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/

Datz and Roiz: something’s breaking up. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/

The casting of Mitchell (the excitable, wolf-like Monroe on Grimm) and Roiz (the smoldering Captain Renard) is less stunt casting than just good casting. Yes, you can see hints of their television personalities. But they’re creating specific personalities based on the characters Greenberg wrote, and they’re doing it very well. The Grimm connection in a Grimm-crazy town gives the whole thing a little extra buzz. But if you’d never seen an episode, you’d still likely enjoy these performances.

I’m betting you’ll like the play, too, which premiered in 1997 and is witty and sad and star-crossed and elegant. It’s not a big play: this is not Greek tragedy, and it’s not Chekhovian, though that sort of blunted Russian domesticity comes a little closer to the mark. Smart and insightful and humane, it has a rueful American quality, hopeful in spite of itself. In the allusive way it deals with family relations it reminds me, a bit, of Richard Nelson’s cycle of Apple Family plays, which Third Rail Rep began to produce and unfortunately had to cut short halfway through the series.


Indian painting: past as prologue

Maryhill Museum's "American Indian Painting: Twentieth-Century Masters" captures a transition in time

The Maryhill Museum of Art, that beguiling concrete-castle oddity sitting high on a desert cliff about 110 miles east of Portland on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, is a seasonal pleasure in the Pacific Northwest. And this is the season. Isolated and subject to bitter winter weather, it operates from mid-March through mid-November, and picks up visitors briskly as the warm summer months approach.

Its collections are an eccentric and shrewdly varied crazy quilt, from Rodin sculptures to Eastern Orthodox icons, American Realist paintings, dazzling carved chess sets, film clips and posters of the celebrated bohemian dancer Loïe Fuller, French fashion theatrical tableaux from immediately after World War II, and ornate furniture designed by Marie, queen of Romania, who, along with dancer Fuller and San Francisco socialite Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, helped establish the museum in the grand home of their friend Sam Hill. Hill, a genuine Northwest character on whose vast unrealized estate the museum stands, was a visionary builder of roads and public landmarks, including the nearby Stonehenge replica, which movingly commemorates soldiers from the area who were killed in World War I, and the Peace Arch, which links the United States and Canada at Blaine, Washington, and Surrey, British Columbia. He abandoned his never-lived-in castle above the Columbia when his dreams of establishing a Quaker farming community on his 5,300 acres there crumbled.

Allan C. Houser (Chiricahua Apache, 1914-1994), "Bufflo Hunt," 1952, gouache on illustration board, 17.25 x 26.5 inches.

Allan C. Houser (Chiricahua Apache, 1914-1994), “Bufflo Hunt,” 1952, gouache on illustration board, 17.25 x 26.5 inches.

The Rodins get a lot of the attention, but in many ways Maryhill’s small but significant collection of traditional Native American implements, clothing, and artwork is at least as important an attraction. The collection’s strength is work from the surrounding Plateau region, but it also includes fine pieces from the Arctic to the Eastern Woodlands and territories between, and the museum often augments its permanent collections with temporary exhibitions of traditional and contemporary work.

That makes Maryhill a fitting place to host the modest yet intriguing current show American Indian Painting: Twentieth-Century Masters, which continues through July 15. Twentieth-Century Masters and two small supporting exhibits offer the museum’s visitors an excellent opportunity to consider the history and shifting status of Indians in America – a tale that all too often is considered a story of the past, but which is very much alive and still being created.

Drawn from the collection of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the exhibit includes watercolors, tempera, and other works by transitional painters from the Plains and Southwest, mostly from the 1930s through the early ’70s. The word “Masters” in the title is a stretch, but sounds better than “Transitional Figures,” which these painters largely were. The show’s Plains artists in particular link the tradition of 19th and early 20th century ledger art – brisk, active images of hunting, battle, and other subjects drawn or painted on sheets of lined accounting ledger books, and themselves transitions from earlier traditional painting on buffalo and other hides – and the sophisticated variety of contemporary Native American art.

The story told in Twentieth-Century Masters is partly a tale of the shifting tides of assimilation and “otherness,” and white expectations for Indian art. From the beginning of contact white and Indian cultures traded goods and ideas – the great give-and-take of Pendleton design and the enthusiastic adoption by Indian artisans of Eastern European manufactured beads are just two small results of the process. The artists in this exhibit were responding partly to romanticized ideas about Indian life and culture, as Maryhill curator Steven L. Grafe writes in his essay for the exhibit: “At both the University of Oklahoma and the Santa Fe Indian School, romantically inclined educators had encouraged young Indian artists to find and preserve the primitive and the unspoiled, and to remain untaught. They encouraged their students to produce works that they believed looked uniquely ‘Indian.’ Lakota artist Oscar Howe (1915-1983) responded to this regimen in 1958, when he wrote, ‘There is much more to Indian Art, than pretty, stylized pictures … Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian always has been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only The White Man knows what is best for him?’”

Archie Blackowl (Southern Cheyenne, 1911-1992), "Love Call," c. 1970, tempera on mat board, 19.5 x 14.5 inches.

Archie Blackowl (Southern Cheyenne, 1911-1992), “Love Call,” c. 1970, tempera on mat board, 19.5 x 14.5 inches.

There is, in fact, considerable variety of approach in the show’s paintings, from the vigorous, muscular action of Chiricahua Apache painter Allan C. Hauser’s 1952 gouache Buffalo Hunt and Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma’s mane-flying 1952 watercolor Three Wild Horses to the stylized, flat geometrics of Southern Cheyenne artist Archie Blackowl’s 1970 tempera painting Love Call, which plops a pair of traditional human figures on a vibrantly reduced field of color. Navajo artist Harrison Begay’s sweet domestic scene Navajo Maidens, c. 1970, and his 1952 watercolor The Weavers are nicely rendered, deceptively simple illustrations. Cree artist Acee Blue Eagle’s c. 1950s Woman and Deer shows a delicate approach to line reminiscent of 18th and 19th century Asian Indian paintings. Other paintings – including Cherokee/Potawatomi artist Franklin Gritts’s c. 1938 Cherokee Corn Stalk Shoot, with a pair of contestants waiting their turns as a third leans his back into bow-pulling position, and Muscogee Creek/Seminole artist Fred Beaver’s clean-lined and formally energetic 1974 gouache Creek Stomp Dance – portray rituals of tribal life.

A few pieces in Twentieth-Century Masters break free from the illustrative mold, remaining figurative but in a much more stylized and leaning-to-abstract way. Chippewa artist Patrick DesJarlait’s boldly contoured 1970 painting The Catch, depicting a man and woman stringing newly caught fish for drying, has a modern muralistic feel, like a Diego Rivera, although it’s only 25 inches wide (which nevertheless makes it one of the larger pieces in this intimately scaled show). A pair of New Mexico paintings – the c. 1950 Eagles and Rabbit (Symbols Used on Altars), by Joe Hilario Herrera of Cochiti Pueblo, and the 1970 Symbols of the Southwest, by Anthony Edward “Tony” Da of San Ildefonso Pueblo – are excitingly stylized and geometric, blending traditional patterns with modern abstract approaches to space. Compared with the show’s more traditionally pictorial pieces, they’ve come a long way, indeed.

Patrick DesJarlait (Chippewa, 1921-1973), "The Catch," 1970, tempera on paper, 19.75 x 25 inches.

Patrick DesJarlait (Chippewa, 1921-1973), “The Catch,” 1970, tempera on paper, 19.75 x 25 inches.

The story of American Indian Painting remains largely a rural, reservation tale, a depiction of the lives and legends of a people essentially apart. That was not entirely true then, of course, and is less true now. As reality tends to be, the actual story is much more complex. Drive out of Portland to Maryhill and you’re driving into Indian country. But you’re driving out of Indian country, too. More than two-thirds of Native Americans now live in urban areas, including about 30,000 in the Portland metropolitan area and another 9,000 across the river in Clark County, Washington. Of Oregon’s not quite 4 million people, about 102,000 identify themselves as fully or partly native – more than the populations of boom towns Hillsboro or Bend.

Still, as you roll out of the wet side and toward the desert, it seems more like Indian country, or at least the Indian country of the American popular imagination that so many of the paintings in Twentieth-Century Masters reflect: wide and dry, with undulating hills and big open spaces. And it’s still there. Go a little farther east and you get to Pendleton and the Umatilla reservation; a little south and you enter the massive Warm Springs reservation; a little north and you’re in Yakama territory. Just a whistle downriver to the west – you can see the spot from Maryhill – you’ll have passed Celilo, where in 1957 the backwaters from the newly opened The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo Falls, which had been a fertile fishing ground and major meeting and trading place for the people of the Columbia for as much as 15,000 years. Here is where you get into the Plateau region, a vast territory beginning on the eastern shank of the Cascades and stretching from British Columbia to Northern California, on east to Idaho and Montana.

Anthony Edward "Tony" Da (San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1940-2008), "Symbols of the Southwest," 1970, tempera on paper, 19.5 x 14.75 inches.

Anthony Edward “Tony” Da (San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1940-2008), “Symbols of the Southwest,” 1970, tempera on paper, 19.5 x 14.75 inches.

Some great traditional art, from basketry to beading, is still being made in these long stretches of land. But in the 21st century its creators are aware that it is traditional, and they are far from untouched by modern life. Native American artists in the Pacific Northwest today are also artists in the world at large. As comfortable with European art history and the trends of the contemporary art world as they are with the patterns and traditions of their tribal affiliations, artists such as Wendy Red Star, James Lavadour, Sara Siestreem, Joe Fedderson, Lillian Pitt, Rick Bartow (whose major retrospective Things You Know But Cannot Explain continues through August 8 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene), Gail Tremblay, and Marie Watt are creating sophisticated work that’s among the region’s most exciting and challenging. Their art can be conceptual and abstract or pictorial or decorative at once, drawing from traditional themes but reinterpreting them in light of contemporary methods and cultural realities.

The artists in Twentieth-Century Masters helped pave the way. Grafe concludes his essay on the exhibition with this: “A new generation of painters brought rapid change and in 1971, in his Indian Painters and White Patrons, J.J. Brody observed that ‘easel painting was a White art medium; it was given to the Indians; and the result for fifty years was meek acceptance. Now the Indians have taken it … The taking has resulted in a vital, expressive, sometimes un-pretty, sometimes polemical, and always stylistically varied art. The forms might be quite un-Indian but they merely reflect radical changes in the purpose of Indian art.’”


Raven Skyriver (American, b. 1982), Tyee, 2014, off-hand sculpted glass, 19” x 5” x 32”; Photo by KP Studios.

Raven Skyriver (American, b. 1982), Tyee, 2014, off-hand sculpted glass, 19” x 5” x 32”; Photo by KP Studios.

Another, smaller, special exhibition at Maryhill, Tlingit artist Raven Skyriver’s Submerge, indicates one of the many directions that contemporary Native American artists have taken. Skyriver, still in his mid-30s, grew up on Lopez Island, one of the more sparsely populated of the larger San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. He turned early and easily to glass-blowing, a form that combines art and craft, ancient technique and contemporary ideas. He studied in Venice, the center of European glass art, then moved on to the American epicenter of the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, and began working with modern master William Morris, where he learned the techniques of sculptured glass. Much of what he does now is sculpted sea creatures: octopus, frog, sea otter, whale, salmon, halibut, trout. The pieces in this small show, all of fish, have a sleek serenity and a kind of dulled surface sheen that is a quiet counterpoint to Chihuly exuberance. There’s a dignity to these forms: each is encased in a glass vitrine in a hallway of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Gorge canyon. They seem natural here, floating in their own element. Submerge continues through the season, until November 15.


F.A. Young (American, 1862–1922), Warm Springs Indian Women on Horseback, 1902; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

F.A. Young (American, 1862–1922), Warm Springs Indian Women on Horseback, 1902; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

A third special exhibition, also up through November 15, continues the museum’s ongoing interest in the history and art of its surrounding territory. Native Peoples of The Dalles Region, which lines a hallway leading to the museum’s education area and café, consists of photographs of tribal members in nearby Wasco County, Oregon, taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many are in the Edward Curtis tradition, though taken by local photographers; a few are less obviously posed. Some subjects are in ceremonial dress. The images are historically fascinating, and raise some of the questions that the paintings in Twentieth-Century Masters also do: to what extent are they images of the people as they wanted to be seen, and to what extent are they the result of a romanticizing white eye? The answer isn’t clear, and probably isn’t simple. Yet, they represent a people who are invisible to much of mainstream American society. And being seen is an important step.


These three interlinked exhibits are easy to take in on a single visit, and still have time for the Rodins or the chess sets or whatever else strikes your fancy. Despite its new-wing expansion in 2012, the museum doesn’t have a lot of space for temporary exhibitions, and it takes some ingenuity to present them well. In this case, their placement encourages a little wandering, which in almost any museum is its own reward. Executive Director Colleen Schafroth says that long-range plans include moving the permanent American Indian collection to the top floor and moving the Theatre de la Mode fashion exhibit to the current Native American space in the rotunda down the hall from the Rodins. That’ll put the Native American collection close to the main gallery for temporary shows.

Plaza, Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing, with original museum building behind. On the hills are some of the windmills that help support Maryhill financially. Foreground: Alisa Looney (Portland, Ore.), "Roll & Play," 2007, powder-coated and flame cut mild steel, 36" x 75" x 48". Gift of the North Star Foundation, 2008.06.001. Photography Scott Thompson

Plaza, Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing, with original museum building behind. On the hills are some of the windmills that help support Maryhill financially. Foreground: Alisa Looney (Portland, Ore.), “Roll & Play,” 2007, powder-coated and flame cut mild steel, 36″ x 75″ x 48″. Gift of the North Star Foundation, 2008.06.001. Photography Scott Thompson

Any shifting at Maryhill is done on a tight budget. The museum has an annual operating budget of about $1.2-$1.3 million, and covers about 70 percent of it from earnings, including leasing of its large land holdings for ranching and wind-farming. The rest comes from donations and grants. As with any cultural organization, running Maryhill is a matter of delicate and strategic balances, working lean and getting the most from what’s available.

The museum’s isolation is both an asset and a drawback, and part of the challenge is making it more asset than drawback. For urban visitors, a great deal of the pleasure of a trip to Maryhill is the trip itself. It’s a comfortable spin though dramatically changing countryside, with dozens of possible side excursions and longcuts. I like to cut off of I-84 at the little town of Mosier, just east of Hood River, for instance, and take the winding old highway through the hills into The Dalles, where I can get back onto the freeway again. Sometimes I jog north of Maryhill, past the farm town of Goldendale, to the forestside St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery, where I can step into the nun-operated bakery and shop and wander the aisles looking at reliquaries and personal icons for sale, check out the CDs for the latest from the excllent Portland choir Cappella Romana and other masters of old religious music, and pick up a quick Greek lunch or a few pastries to go. Maryhill is a popular day-trip destination for urbanites, especially from the Portland area, but people tend to go once a year. Closer communities are much smaller, and even though the area is developing a bigger cultural touring base (the large Maryhill Winery, with its series of popular concerts by the Gorge, is just up the road), the tourism economy is still in its infancy, and there’s a lot of mileage between cultural destinations.

The museum’s 2012 expansion did a great job of easing the building’s overstuffed-attic feel, but it didn’t add a huge amount of gallery space, and more gallery space might allow for more temporary exhibits, which could create more frequent visits, the way the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for instance, attracts repeat visitors through its rotating productions. Might a small new building on the museum’s expansive grounds, dedicated perhaps to revolving temporary exhibitions of contemporary Northwest art, Indian and otherwise, someday boost traffic to Maryhill and help make it a more regular destination for urban travelers? The numbers, of course, would have to crunch, and as far as I know, no such plan is on the table: just keeping things going is challenging enough.

Then again, Sam Hill always thought big. And the east end of the Gorge is bound to become a more thriving destination. Can Maryhill anticipate the future in smart, active ways, and slice itself a bigger piece of the cultural pie? Can culture, itself, help counteract the economic isolation of the rural Northwest as jobs and money flow to the cities? Tune in next decade.


Read more from Bob Hicks >>

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