Bob Hicks

 

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.

Continues…

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/www.blankeye.tv

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

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.

Continues…

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.’”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Bringing back the Babes, and other memories

The lore and legend of Storefront Theatre live on in Portland's theatrical genetic pool – and in a new show at Triangle

By virtue (if that’s the right word) of being old and here for a long time, I’ve come to be considered something of an expert on the storied Storefront Theatre, which shut its doors for good in 1991. In truth, the world’s filled with people who know the Storefront story far better than I do, because they helped create it. I saw it only from the outside, as a spectator and a journalist. The real experts – people like Henk Pander, Wendy Westerwelle, Teddy and Alice Deane, Izetta Smith, Polly and John Zagone, Leigh Clarkgranville (now Aza Cody), Victoria Mercer, Wrick Jones, Rosalie Brandon, Sharon Knorr and a revolt of fellow Angry Housewives, Ross Huffman-Kerr, Susan Stelljes, David Chelsea, Marychris Mass, and a host of others – lived it.

Storefront shut down 24 years ago, longer than the 21 years it existed, and still it’s something of a legend in Portland. That’s the way legends work: one brief string of shining moments, and a long afterlife.

"Babes" at Triangle: a little cheese, a little sleaze. Photo: Triangle Productions

“Babes” at Triangle: a little cheese, a little sleaze. Photo: Triangle Productions

Storefront sprang to life in 1970 as a direct response to the Kent State killings that shocked the nation and kicked fresh life into America’s antiwar movement. Through the years it leaped and sometimes lurched from being a theater company that was also an alternative community (or maybe an alternative community that also did theater) through various phases that reflected its shifting people and accelerating times. It was hip and bawdy and visually robust, an experiment in romantic-utopian anarchy that went through a crisis when its founders split off, and gradually became more conventional as new people moved in, old people moved on, and the lure of moving mainstream in the brand-new Portland Center for the Performing Arts proved irresistible. In a weird way, Storefront got swallowed by its own success – which, ironically, also left the former shoestring operation with a mountain of bills.

Triangle Productions’ Storefront Revue: The Babes Are Back, which runs through May 31, brings back some of the theater’s glory days, in a format loosely based on the old Babes on Burnside burlesques that Storefront produced after abandoning its original space on industrial North Russell Street and moving into a former porno movie house just off of West Burnside Street in Old Town. Assembled by Triangle’s Don Horn after a prodigious amount of research, it’s the latest in his series of shows based on historical adventures and adventurers in Portland, from the flashy night-club impresario Gracie Hansen to Native American jazz legend Jim Pepper, figure-skating melodramatist Tonya Harding, and a reworking of Westerwelle’s Sophie Tucker show, Soph: An Evening with the Last of the Red Hot Mamas, which was originally developed and produced at Storefront. Horn has a lasting affection for Portland’s historical demimonde, the subterranean old creatives who spiced up the good gray river city before the young creatives came to town and put a tattoo on it.

David Swadis and Lisamarie Harrison: two tokes over the line. Photo: Triangle Productions

David Swadis, Lisamarie Harrison: two tokes over the line. Photo: Triangle Productions

I never saw a show on Russell Street, where the legend began. Storefront hit the boards in 1970, and I hit town in 1974, and for my first few years in Portland I was otherwise engaged. Besides, co-founders Tom Hill and Anne Gerety didn’t much cotton to the mainstream press: The Babes Are Back includes the infamous (at least, in journalistic circles) tale of Hill threatening to punch my former colleague Ted Mahar in the nose if he ever stepped inside the theater’s door. Mahar once told me he’d also received a pages-long, angry letter from Gerety. It was handwritten, and as she composed she pressed so hard and furiously on the paper that the back of each sheet looked as if it had been embossed. I did, curiously, see Storefront’s original show, its bawdy, largely nude adaptation of Aristophanes’ antiwar satire Lysistrata, a production celebrated and reviled for the large prosthetic decorated penises that the men in the cast waved around. I was living in Bellingham at the time, finishing my studies at Western Washington State College (now WWU), and was part of a small group trying to come up with ways to respond to the Kent State shootings. One of Gerety’s sons, Chris Condon, was there, too, and told the group his mother had started a theater company in Portland that was doing a radical nude Lysistrata, and he was pretty sure he could get her to bring it north. Great, we said, and up they came. The show was a rousing (and, as longtime Portland actor/teacher/director Ed Collier, who happened to be there, too, reminded me, a rather drunken) success: It caught the spirit of the times.

I started following Storefront closely after the company moved to Burnside in 1980. The burlesques were often brilliant: blends of standup, vaudeville, carnival-style burlycue served with a nostalgic wink, topical satire, and terrific songs, mostly written by the talented Teddy Deane, who had come to Portland with the psychedelic folk band Holy Modal Rounders and just stuck around. That’s the format that Horn’s musical at Triangle follows, although not completely: he adds a lot of history, which gives a sense of how the company lived and died but also makes the evening episodic and a bit disjointed. Adding a cabaret-style emcee as a narrator/performer (R. Dee and Huffman-Kerr were naturals in similar roles for Storefront) could help synthesize the history and the show; moving some of the history off the stage and into the program could also tighten things and help the show just be the show. Horn’s cast – led by the sultry earth mama-ish Lisamarie Harrison, whose sass and brass set just the right Storefront tone – sings and performs with verve, and the onstage band, led from the keyboard by John Quesenberry, is a constant and creative presence, underscoring how important Deane was to the success of the original shows.

My memories of Storefront include watching a mouse scamper across the stage during August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (that was nothing compared to the mouse Deane recalls falling out of the ceiling and onto his piano keyboard at Russell Street before skittering away), and the legendary designer/director Ric Young, dressed all in black with silver-white hair and beard, lean and swashbuckling like a pirate of Penzance, strolling through downtown with his retinue of the moment, and a lot of serious plays, like Miguel Piñero’s Short Eyes and Steven Berkoff’s Greek and Romulus Linney’s Holy Ghosts and W.B. Yeats’s astounding Cuchulain Cycle and Young’s A Passion for Fresh Flowers and a gobsmacking version of Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand directed by Kelly Brooks. Shepard had played drums briefly with the Holy Modal Rounders in New York, and for a while, when he was working out of San Francisco, his shows would open at the Magic Theatre there and head up the coast shortly after to Storefront. The Burnside Street space was a step up from Russell, but it could still be sketchy. One afternoon, after I’d been sitting in on a rehearsal for a show starring the late, great Peter Fornara – it was Billy Bishop Goes to War, as I recall – I walked outside and straight into a brawl on the sidewalk. Two guys were going at it, with a crowd around them, urging them on. Then one pulled out a knife. I ducked back into the theater, grabbed the house telephone (this was before cell phones) and called 911. By the time I got back outside, both the crowd and the man with the knife were gone, and the other guy was lying on the sidewalk, bleeding from a wound in his thigh as the cops pulled up. Storefront came by its grit honestly.

Poster for Storefront's original burlesque. Courtesy Don Horn

Poster for Storefront’s original burlesque. Courtesy Don Horn

A friend who saw Triangle’s The Babes Are Back sent me a note afterwards. It’s good to keep the cultural memory of Storefront alive, she wrote. But “it’s equally true that edgy, humorous, original theater ‘like they did in the old days’ is being created anew right now in other theaters — constantly at Action/Adventure, and frequently enough at Post5 (through Cassandra Boice’s Sound & Fury and clown shows).”

Fair enough. Except for Imago and some puppet or dance companies like Tears of Joy and BodyVox, I can’t think of anyone in town who’s doing the astonishing sort of visual theater that Storefront did under the influence of Young and Pander and others. And the stylish, often topical wit of the burlesques, which were closer in spirit to old Saturday Night Live and new The Daily Show than to standard American stage drama, is tough to find in town today. But that old rebellious Storefront spirit has atomized and spread all over town, mutating to fit the changing times. When Storefront finally gave up the ghost in 1991, I wrote that “in today’s theater there are no young radicals. It’s a dutiful, well-trained, may-I-have-a-job-please? generation.” I was wrong. Through exasperation or dismay or a temporary dip in the quality of shows or – who knows? – just a case of the snits, I failed to notice that it was only the tactics, not the core resolve, that had shifted. From Defunkt to Shaking the Tree to Vertigo to PETE and many others, little Storefronts are all over town now, rethinking theater and American culture in their own, contemporary ways. And in another quarter-century, someone will be carrying the torch for them.

In the meantime, all hail the good old days. In their messy, sprawling, abrasive, pretentious, gorgeous, inventive, utopian, flamboyant way, they really were.

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Storefront Revue: The Babes Are Back continues through May 31 at Triangle Productions; ticket information is here. At 7 p.m. on Friday, May 22, a half-hour before curtain, Bob Hicks will lead an audience talk on Storefront and its history.

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The fragile ghosts of drama past

The premiere of DC Copeland's "The Undiscovered Country" at Defunkt goes vividly into that good night

The ghost of Bertie Brecht wanders the stage of Defunkt Theatre in the premiere of The Undiscovered Country, DC Copeland’s new play about love and pain and the whole damned thing among the addicted and emotionally unmoored seekers of a big American city. Matthew Kern, as a lonely drug dealer named Terry (or, professionally, “Bear”), announces to the audience right at the top that what’s about to happen isn’t reality, it’s a play, and then gives away a few plot points before anything’s happened, and invites anyone who’s uncomfortable about the subject matter to exit the theater, no questions asked. (Of course, nobody does: that deck’s just a little stacked.) All in all, diabolically dialectical.

Sher and Conway: love hurts. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Sher and Conway: love hurts. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Other ghosts are wandering about, too, some of them actual characters in the play. And certainly the shades of Billy Shakespeare and his gloomy Danish prince are crashing the party: Copeland’s title, after all, comes from Hamlet’s lament about the weariness of life, which surely no one would put up with except for “the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” The people in Copeland’s play are continually contemplating that ultimate question, to be or not to be. They fear it, and they love it. It consumes them.

Lingering in the lines like a ghost in the machine is some of the fateful anguish of the musical Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Bohème-in-modern-Manhattan. And, just a little under the surface, I spy the spectre of Chris Marlowe and The Jew of Malta, with its black heart and curdled damn-the-consequences doom: “Thou hast committed fornication: but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.”

In other words: If you’re looking for a night of laughs, keep looking. There is heat on this stage, but it’s a bleak heat, desperate and about to burn out. So you find yourself, if you buy into the play’s closed universe, taking pleasure in the increasingly dire straits the characters place themselves in, and that’s a bit uncomfortable, forcing you outside the action as you dive deeper into it: Brecht’s dialectic in action. The Undiscovered Country has some of the fevered propulsion of revenge tragedy, and the same propensity for melodrama. It’s as if these lost characters in the naked city are caught in a cycle of hopeless fate: no escape.

In a bracingly stripped-down space (smart set by Max Ward, lighting by Peter West, costumes [which take a bit of rumpling] by Annie Ganousis, sound by Andrew Klaus-Vineyard) Copeland & Company dig deeply and fiercely into the action, which involves pill-popping, heavy breathing both straight and gay, a fatal attraction to a weapon or two, and a mournful sense of disconnection, of characters wanting to love but not knowing how. Drugs and other obsessions that spur the action and the downward spiral are displacements in this universe, attempts to plug gaps that just keep getting wider and deeper. Director Paul Angelo creates a fine rhythm out of all of this, taking his time to dig into the moments but never letting the thing lag.

Modica and Kern: cross-purposes. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Modica and Kern: cross-purposes. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Everyone but Kern doubles up on roles, playing characters who are distinct yet swimming in the same dangerous pool. He’s joined by Lauren Modica, in yet another densely focused performance, as a woman reeling after her lover’s death; and Spencer Conway as a guilt-wracked hunk; and newcomer Lynn Sher as a couple of doomed souls taking refuge in drugs and sex (in one role, speaking of ghosts, she’s an actress playing Ophelia to Conway’s Hamlet). A good deal of the show’s pleasure comes from watching these fierce, sometimes funny, sometimes aching performances, which can leave you exasperated (how can their characters do this stuff?) without losing empathy. Sher sometimes slips inside these uncomfortable shoes with such an addled absorption that her voice becomes something like Ophelia’s in her mad-song, a slur of words that almost lose their shape.

In the end, Copeland’s play seems something like an emotional group snapshot, with no sense of direction other than down. You don’t know how these characters got to this place in their lives, or how they found one another (except for some recovery programs), or even why they seem to feel there is no future. That’s just the way it is: a mystery. After all, the country’s undiscovered. At least, for now.

*

Defunkt’s world premiere of The Undiscovered Country continues through June 20 in the Backdoor Theatre, behind Common Grounds Coffeehouse, 4321 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. Schedule and ticket information are here.

________________

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A ‘Night’ for the American ages

Milagro's "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" takes a whirlwind dream flight through the untold tales of a nation

If he’d taken NoDoz the whole thing might not have happened. But Juan José, studying feverishly for his American citizenship test, inevitably falls asleep over his stack of books and facts and potential test questions (“Name the original 13 colonies of the United States”). When he falls asleep, he dreams. When he dreams, he dreams a fascinating whirlwind of encounters with people and situations who don’t seem to get mentioned in the textbooks he’s been poring over – or if they’re mentioned, their stories are a little different when they tell them themselves. And some of this stuff is, let’s just say, disturbing.

Holy smokes. Is Juan José going to end up just chucking the whole idea and heading back to Mexico?

Osvaldo Gonzalez, Shelley B. Shelley, Joe Gibson: ordinary heroes. Photo: Russell J Young

Osvaldo Gonzalez, Shelley B. Shelley, Joe Gibson: ordinary heroes. Photo: Russell J Young

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, a swift and scattershot scramble through an alternate but no less real history of the United States, was developed and premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010, and since then has been freed to move about the country, getting little updates and fresh takes along the way. Written by Richard Montoya of the satirical performance troupe Culture Clash, it’s made hay out of its alternate viewpoint, considering history from the bottom up instead of the top down: what does the promise of the Constitution and Bill of Rights mean if you’re an immigrant or a black woman or a labor organizer or an Indian guide like Sacagawea or a black kid like Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman? When a place says “give me your tired, your poor,” what does it really mean?

Now American Night has landed in Portland, appropriately at Milagro Theatre, the city’s center for Latino performance and culture, and it’s been worth the wait. Director Elizabeth Huffman’s production is quick and cartoon-like, a Looney Tunes film reel of a show that plays up the script’s absurdist, caricatured aspects, sometimes at the cost of lingering for greater emotional effect over some of the more serious episodes. But it’s a kaleidoscope of a play, and kaleidoscopes keep on turnin’. The original Ashland production pulled out a lot of technical bells and whistles, and Milagro’s grittier version shows how well the show can do done with more limited resources: Megan Wilkerson’s lighting and set, with its simple lineup of entrances and exits that open and shut like vertical trap doors, make it easy to switch scenes with lightning speed; Sara Ludeman’s costumes and Sharath Patel’s nervously shifting sound design keep things snappy.

American Night is an ensemble play, with Ozvaldo Gonzalez at the center as dreamwalking Juan José and nine actors moving swiftly in and out of dozens of roles as antagonists and spirit guides. Juan José is a go-getter and an escapee, an honest cop in Mexico who got on the wrong side of the system and fled north, leaving behind his pregnant wife, who now has a child he’s never seen. He has his Green Card and is eager to gain citizenship so his family can join him in the U.S. – that’s why he’s working so hard. Gonzalez plays him as something of a wide-eyed innocent, surprised to learn that the armor isn’t always shining on the country he craves to join, but also adept at rolling with the punches.

Gonzalez with Garland Lyons as a surprising Klansman. Photo: Russell J Young

Gonzalez with Garland Lyons as a surprising Klansman. Photo: Russell J Young

The ensemble – Enrique E. Andrade, Orion Bradshaw, Michelle Escobar, Joe Gibson, Anthony Green, Heath Hyun Houghton, Garland Lyons, Louanne Moldovan, Shelley B. Shelley, with Adrienne Flagg providing voiceovers – is adept at producing quick sharp caricatures, moving like lightning from Teddy Roosevelt to anti-immigration strongman Sheriff Joe Arpaio to a hilariously caricatured Bob Dylan & Joan Baez to dockworkers angry over immigrants taking scarce jobs. Among the more intriguing tales Montoya tells are those of Viola Pettus (Shelley), a black woman in west Texas who set up a camp to care for victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic, accepting all comers, even Klansmen; of Ralph Lazo, a Mexican- and Irish-American teenager who voluntarily joined his Japanese-American friends in a World War II internment camp; and of Nicholas Trist, Luis Cuevas, and Bernardo Couto, who negotiated the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, possibly saving tens of thousands of lives by ceding much of modern-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah to the United States – the same land now being repopulated by legal and illegal immigrants whose ancestors had been locked out by the signing of the treaty.

Montoya immerses Juan José in the stories beneath the ideals of the history books, introducing him to both heroes and antagonists outside the usual tellings. In a way, he’s preparing Juan José for the citizenship test you wish he’d be able to take: a more nuanced, complete, and less starry-eyed version of the American story. If the play is sometimes angry, it’s never cynical; if it’s instructive, it’s also open-hearted and consistently entertaining. A hard-to-resist charm bubbles along the shifting surface of this alt-history. Join this thing called America, it seems to urge Juan José. Just know what it is you’re joining.

Milagro artistic director Olga Sanchez led a wide-ranging and vigorous talkback after Saturday night’s performance, with playwright Montoya, University of Portland professor Rene Sanchez and Portland State professor Margot Minardi also on the panel. Sanchez likened the play to jazz, a composition with a strong structure allowing for lots of improvisation, and that seems right, both for the play and for the American experiment itself. Minardi talked about the phrase “revisionist history,” which is often used as a slam but which, she points out, gets to the heart of historical investigation: we are constantly shifting and revising, choosing to emphasize those trends and events in the past that shed differing light on the story according to the concerns of the present. And Montoya stressed that Juan José, who is introduced in his dream to a United States with warts as well as promise, is himself an opportunist, seeking a better life for himself and his family: it’s the strength of the immigrant experience.

Heath Hyun Houghton: stylin' in the internment camp. Photo: Russell J Young

Heath Hyun Houghton: stylin’ in the internment camp. Photo: Russell J Young

In the end, American Night is an intriguingly optimistic play, one that takes the country’s toughest blows, gathers its counterbalancing stengths, and emerges stronger. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” Winston Churchill once said, quoting a source no one seems to have been able to nail down. He also said, in a speech in the House of Commons, in 1944: “My idea of (democracy) is that the plain, humble, common man, just the ordinary man who keeps a wife and family, who goes off to fight for his country when it is in trouble, goes to the poll at the appropriate time, and puts his cross on the ballot paper showing the candidate he wishes to be elected to Parliament — that he is the foundation of democracy. And it is also essential to this foundation that this man or woman should do this without fear, and without any form of intimidation or victimization. He marks his ballot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected representatives … together decide what government, or even in times of stress, what form of government they wish to have in their country. If that is democracy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.”

Welcome to America, Juan José. Eyes wide open, you are now a partner in the ever-shifting experiment.

*

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continues through May 23 at Milagro. Ticket and schedule information are here.

Review: All aboard for points past

Portland Opera's splashy revival of Kern & Hammerstein's 'Show Boat' plies the waters of American theater and racial history

Of the three shows generally regarded as having transformed the Broadway musical from glittery variety show to new American storytelling form, Show Boat is the toughest to pin down. Its music, by Jerome Kern, is less organic and complex than George Gershwin’s for Porgy and Bess: though opera companies often adopt it, as they do Porgy, it’s more comfortable as a musical-theater piece, with a great popular-music score dominated by its individual songs and engaging style rather than continuing musical themes. Its story, by Oscar Hammerstein II based on a rambling novel by Edna Ferber, is far more episodic than the more tightly woven book that Hammerstein wrote for Oklahoma!

Hannah S. Penn as the secretly mixed-race leading lady Julie, with chorus. Photo: Cory Weaver

Hannah S. Penn as the secretly mixed-race leading lady Julie, with chorus. Photo: Cory Weaver

But Show Boat came first, hitting the Broadway stage in 1927 (Porgy and Bess followed in 1935; Oklahoma! in 1943). It set the template, both in long-form musical storytelling and its willingness to take on serious cultural issues – most notably, America’s post-Reconstruction Jim Crow heritage and its continuing ineptitude in racial matters. In a current atmosphere roiled by flashpoints in Baltimore, Ferguson, and North Charleston on top of longstanding systemic inequities, the racial discussion in Show Boat may seem cautious and outdated. But it was radical for its time, and as Portland Opera’s new production brings home, the show remains much more than a historical curiosity. It deserves its place of honor, even if it also needs to be understood in the context of its original time and place.

Show Boat is many things: a long family drama, a peek behind the doors of seemingly implacable racial attitudes, a tale of love and abandonment and eventual reconciliation. It’s also, as Portland Opera’s revival of the 1994 Harold Prince version makes abundantly clear, a show about show business: a subtle but unmistakable nostalgic parade of American popular-culture styles from the sweeping gestures of the Victorian stage to the hoary jokes and comic dance kicks of vaudeville to the razzmatazz of the Charleston era.

The Opera’s Show Boat, which opened Friday night in the wide-open spaces of Keller Auditorium, isn’t the knockout audiences might’ve hoped for. Its long first act can drag, the episodic second act inevitably gets a little sketchy, the mix of operatic and musical-theater singing styles can be a little jarring, and the expanse of the Keller, which is much too big for this epic yet also intimate show, makes both the voices and the acting seem distant: the show, in English, uses supertitles, and at least from the first balcony below the overhang, they were helpful verging on necessary. But even more goes right, including a smart and sassy performance by former company resident artist Lindsay Ohse, whose career is beginning to blossom, as romantic lead Magnolia. This Show Boat emerges as a satisfying, involving, and often slyly funny show, even if it doesn’t sweep you off your feet.

Arthur Woodley, as Joe, delivers "Ol' Man River." Photo: Cory Weaver

Arthur Woodley, as Joe, delivers “Ol’ Man River.” Photo: Cory Weaver

Part of what makes it work is director and co-choreographer (with Becky Timms) Ray Roderick’s subtle emphasis on the story’s showbiz setting. Roderick and scenic designer James Youmans smartly place the orchestra not in the pit but upstage, as if it were the house band on the Cotton Blossom, the riverboat that plies the Mississippi, bringing traveling shows to Natchez and points north and south. The orchestra helps fill the Keller’s wide stage, providing a sense of celebration and an illusion of fullness to Youman’s minimalist, mobile set, which relies on lighting and projections to insinuate time and place. It also pushes most of the action downstage, closer to the audience, which is a good thing in the cavernous Keller, where voices can become hopelessly muffled as singers move farther to the back. At key points Youmans provides a small rolling stage on the larger main stage, creating a sly theatrical echo chamber, like a Shakespearean play-within-a-play: characters in the play, who are show people, move in and out of the mini-stage, where, in the guise of the melodratic characters they play in the riverboat shows, they ham it up mightily before stepping back onto the larger stage and resuming a more realistic, if still presentational, acting style. It’s like a little rolling history of American stage fashion, from the days of Dion Boucicault to the flapper age; a theatrical nostalgia to go along with the cultural nostalgia of the play itself, which steeps itself in the culture of the postbellum South even as it roundly criticizes it.

It’s fascinating how the musical’s show culture blends into the play’s approach to race. In the end, Show Boat is important not so much for what it says about race in America – no profound insights here – as for the fact that, in its time and place as a big-budget Broadway show, it took on the gnarly questions of race at all. Show Boat gives its major black characters (the boat hand Joe, his boat-cook wife Queenie, the mixed-race star performer Julie) reduced opportunities and strictly controlled roles in the riverboat culture, where they are expected to support and defer: the evocations of Mammy culture are strong. Yet the show folk also are presented as looser and more liberal on racial matters than the towns they visit and the audiences they entertain. The boat is a little artists’ colony, bound to the rules and attitudes of the land but subverting them as much as possible, a little semi-independent vessel bobbing toward the future. Yes, Cap’n Andy has to cut Julie and her white husband Steve loose after her mixed-race status is revealed in Mississippi, where mixed marriage is a prison offense. But the people of the Cotton Blossom conspire in a ruse to at least let Julie and Steve slip away free and together, outside the reach of the law.

Roderick and his mixed cast of operatic and musical-theater singers do a generally fine job with the songs, and create some vivid scenes along the story’s picaresque journey. Ohse is nicely matched by the tall and dashing Liam Bonner as Gaylord Ravenal, the riverboat gambler who steals Magnolia’s heart. Bonner’s operatic singing style can seem a bit out of synch with the show’s more generally musical-theater approach to the songs, but dramatically, he gets to the fatal attraction of Ravenal’s odd blend of charm, honor, and weakness. Arthur Woodley, as Joe, rises grandly to the challenges of Ol’ Man River, and Angela Renée Simpson, as Queenie, eloquently states an underlying theme with the bluesy Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round. Megan Misslin as the show boat trouper Ellie May has great fun with the witty Life Upon the Wicked Stage, and resident-artist alum Hannah S. Penn, as the misfortunate Julie, brings an effective sad edge to her acting performance and a gritty weariness to the romantic ballad Bill. (There is a key moment in the second act when Julie makes a great sacrifice, and the scene is a rare slip-up in the staging, flying by so swiftly that you hardly notice it.)

Allen Nause and Susannah Mars as Cap'n Andy and Parthy Ann: bickering mates. Photo: Cory Weaver

Allen Nause and Susannah Mars as Cap’n Andy and Parthy Ann: bickering mates. Photo: Cory Weaver

Stage stalwarts Allen Nause and Susannah Mars are especially effective as Cap’n Andy and his parsimonious wife, Parthy Ann, who inexplicably disapproves of virtually every aspect of the life she’s chosen to lead. On Why Do I Love You they provide an illuminating demonstration of how good actors approach a song: Mars, a star of the musical-theater stage, with her deep understanding of the emotions inside the lyrics; Nause, not known as a vocalist, with a veteran actor’s instinctive feel for the rhythmic and dramatic nature of a song. Nause also brings down the house twice in grand comic style: first, in his one-man performance of the rest of a riverboat show after his star’s been knocked out of commission; second, when he ditches Parthy Ann on New Year’s Eve in Chicago and wanders in grand insobriety into the revels at the Trocadero nightclub. In a way, though Show Boat is mainly Magnolia’s story, Cap’n Andy is the thread that ties it all together, and Nause knows how to sew.

With additional songs like Make Believe, You Are Love, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, and the borrowed After the Ball, Show Boat is a treasury of great American song. Portland Opera seems to be committed to producing a musical-theater piece every season – 2016, the debut of its reinvention as a summer festival company, will bring Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – and the opera is also the local presenter of the Broadway Across America series of touring musicals.

It’ll be interesting to see how those twin approaches to the art of the musical play out: a fresh look at classics in the opera-season slot, perhaps, while BAA continues to provide new stuff (and perennials like Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera, both haunting the Keller soon). Imported or domestic, musical theater seems to be flourishing in Oregon. It’s become a staple under Bill Rauch’s leadership at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and under Chris Coleman’s leadership at Portland Center Stage. Smaller companies such as Oregon Festival of American Music, Broadway Rose, Staged!, Clackamas Rep, Lakewood, and Stumptown provide regular infusions.

The presence of that culture underscores the importance of how Portland Opera chooses its projects, and how well it pulls them off: it’s not the only game in town, and its choices have to be canny, aimed not only at the box office but also at refreshing and interpreting important moments in the history of the form. Show Boat seems to fit that bill. But the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium remains a serious impediment. From an artistic point of view, the city badly needs a new mid-sized theater, something between the Keller and the 870-seat Newmark: a hall of 1,400 to as high of 2,400 (if it’s well-designed for comparative intimacy) seats that could be shared by opera, ballet, and perhaps some other users. Politically and economically, the time for such a project doesn’t seem right, and wishful thinking won’t make it so. But the stakeholders should keep their eyes on the prize. It’ll never happen if it isn’t dreamed first.

*

Portland Opera’s Show Boat repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 3; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 5; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 7; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 9. Ticket information is here.

*

Mark Mandel’s review of Show Boat for The Oregonian is here.

 


 
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