Bob Hicks

 

ArtsWatch Weekly: barking mad

Biting into September's shows, Brett Campbell's music picks, Miss Ethnic Non-Specific, West African drumming & dance, more

Here we are in the Dog Days of Summer, and we pretty much know what the phrase means: that hot and often muggy stretch of August that seems to last forever, when the sun saps energy and the whole world seems to lag. But where did the saying come from?

Maybe from the rising of the dog star, Sirius – a period, as Wikipedia describes it, that “Greek and Roman astrology connected with heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, and bad luck.” Not to mention this week’s Dog Days interloper, the lunar blotting-out of the sun. The story ambles down from Zeus to Achilles, Hector, Seneca, and Pliny, on into the medical lore of the early modern age and even the Age of Reason: The Clavis Calendria of 1813 declares that in the Dog Days “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, Quinto raged with anger, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.”

It’s their time: “Pierrepont Edward Lacy and His Dog, Gun,” attributed to Milton W. Hopkins, 1835-36, oil on canvas, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York

All of which, frankly, has us looking forward to September, which in the cultural world (maybe as a carryover from the traditional school calendar) is the true time of fresh beginnings. Theater seasons begin to kick in. The dance calendar gets busy. The Oregon Symphony gets ready to swing into action again. TBA, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual Time-Based Art festival, overtakes the city Sept. 7-17.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Let there be dark

Music for the Great Eclipse, free at the museum, remembering Katherine Dunn, Brett Campbell's music picks, having babies & more

It might have come to your attention that six days from now, on Monday, August 21, the sun will be temporarily smitten from the sky across the nation, on a path from the Oregon Coast to Charleston, South Carolina. Here at ArtsWatch World Headquarters we had planned to ignore this astronomical anomaly, figuring you’d be hearing plenty about it elsewhere, until we received a note from All Classical Radio.

Wait! Put on your dark glasses!: Antoine Caron (French, 1521 – 1599), “Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers” (also known as “Astronomers Viewing an Eclipse”), 1570s, oil on panel. 36 1/2 × 28 3/8 inches, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The network’s seven Oregon outlets and internet stream, it seems, will be playing an Eclipse Soundtrack from 8 in the morning to noon on the Day of Darkness: little ditties ranging from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (you might recall it from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey) to Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Debussy’s Claire de Lune, and more. The broadcast will hit a high note at 10:19 a.m. – when the eclipse hits totality in Oregon – with the world premiere of The Body of the Moon, a commissioned piece by Desmond Earley, performed by Portland’s Resonance Ensemble, cellist Nancy Ives, percussionist Chris Whyte, and improv vocalist Erick Valle.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Defying disaster

Anonymous Theatre beats the odds, Brett Campbell picks the top music of the week, pick of the weekend fests, Ashland shakes it up, more

It was theater. It was comedy. It was song and dance. And from the reaction of the audience at Monday night’s performance of Urinetown by Anonymous Theatre Company, it was sports all the way. The sold-out crowd in the mainstage auditorium at The Armory clapped and roared and hollered, cheering loudly every time an actor rose from among the audience, shouted out a line of dialogue, and hustled up to the stage to play ball with the rest of the cast. It was edge-of-the-seat stuff, a little like watching game seven of the NBA championships with the outcome still on the line.

Chrisse Roccaro as Penny collars Amelia Morgan-Rothschild as Hope in Anonymous’s “Urinetown.” Photo: Sydney Kennedy

If you were there Monday night – and more than 500 people were – you know what I’m talking about. If you weren’t … well, you just sat out the season. This one’s done and gone. Anonymous is called Anonymous for good reason. In this annual highlight of the theater calendar, none of the actors knows who any of the other actors are until they meet onstage; everyone rehearses in isolation; the culminating performance is a one-and-done: one dangerous shoot-the-moon evening, and that’s all she wrote. In Who’s on first? Anonymously yours, ArtsWatch wrote about the preparations for this year’s show.

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Songs for America, bother from another planet

In review: Irving Berlin's "The Melody Lingers On!" at Clackamas Rep and Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet" at Lakewood

If we really wanted to make America great again, we’d skip all the nonsense about building walls and stoking resentments and keeping out foreigners and just bring back Irving Berlin. Oh, wait: Looks like Clackamas Repertory Theatre’s already done that.

Berlin, who was born in 1888 as Israel Beilin, became an American icon the old-fashioned way: He immigrated to the U.S., from the old Russian Empire. By age 5 he was settled with his family in New York City, and grew up on the Lower East Side when it was cheap and crowded with people from other places, seeking what was once known proudly as “a better life.” He hawked newspapers on the streets and became a singing waiter and started writing songs and had his first big hit on Tin Pan Alley in 1911, when he was 23 – the still familiar Alexander’s Ragtime Band. From there he just kept going and going, through war and peace and the Depression and another war and some boom years and the nation’s evolution from isolationism to internationalism, creating a big slice of the American popular soundtrack from the days of the Charleston through the Broadway musical’s golden age. He died, finally, at age 101, when rock ‘n’ roll had pretty much killed off his kind of music – except, of course, it hasn’t, because it’s with us still.

Meredith Kaye Clark in “The Melody Lingers On!” Photo: Sam Ortega

The proof of that particular pudding, if you need proof, is onstage at Clackamas Rep, where the upbeat and winning revue of Berlin tunes The Melody Lingers On! opened over the weekend and continues through August 27. A mostly bright selection of almost fifty of Berlin’s roughly 1,500 songs presented by a snappy cast in a sharp-looking production, it’s a brightly rhythmic show of song and dance about a composer who made people feel good about being part of America, no matter where they might have come from or where they stood in the national pecking order. Berlin could be dark, but even then he was dark in an enthralling way; mostly he wrote catchy, hummable, optimistic songs that helped project the myth of a can-do country and a people on the rise.

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Who’s on first? Anonymously yours

On Monday at The Armory, the company that does not know each other meets onstage for the musical "Urinetown." Expect the unexpected.

Sitting down for coffee one morning last week with Darius Pierce and Elizabeth Young, I found myself asking questions about nothing. Not nothing, actually: no one. No twenty ones, as it turned out, those twenty being the cast and chorus of the musical satire Urinetown: The Musical, which opens – and closes – on Monday at The Armory.

Pierce knows the identity of these twenty elusive entertainers, but in this he is pretty much alone in the universe. And he’s not spilling. So, a little like medieval philosophers discussing dancing angels and the load-bearing capacity of the heads of pins, we were talking about what we did not know and could not see, though we were convinced of the reality behind the mystery.

How could this be? The name of the production company, Anonymous Theatre Company, provides a clue. The quixotic mission of Anonymous is to produce one play a year, for one night only, in which nobody in the cast knows who the other actors are until they meet them, during the performance, onstage. All of the actors sit with the audience, in street clothes, until it’s time to make their first entrance. Then they rise from their seats, and are revealed. Can’t tell the players without a scorecard? At Anonymous, the scorecard doesn’t help a bit. As Kerry Ryan, one of the company’s founders, puts it, “The audience gets to see the story happening as if it is happening for the first time … because it actually is happening for the first time.”

The crowd at an Anonymous Theatre show. You can show the audience. The actors are a closely guarded secret.

In the communal world of the theater, an art form whose essence is collaboration, this approach is about as counterintuitive as driving from Chicago to San Francisco to get to New York. Even solo shows aren’t done in isolation. Designers, director, stage manager, running crew, music director and choreographer if it’s a musical, and others are involved intimately in the process.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: ice, ice, baby

Your guide to staying culturally cool while the heat wave shimmers

As Cole Porter put it in his musical comedy Kiss Me, Kate, it’s Too Darn Hot. Maybe not quite, in the words of another musical-theater chestnut, 110 in the Shade. But, well, shading perilously close to it. How hot is it? So hot that the Northwest Film Center’s breezy Top Down: Rooftop Cinema series, which usually screens al fresco atop the parking garage of the Hotel DeLuxe, is moving indoors this week to the cool and comfy Whitsell Auditorium of the Portland Art Museum. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne will be heating up the screen, but not the air temp, on Thursday evening in the 1937 screwball comedy classic The Awful Truth. Museums, as you know, are carefully temperature-controlled to protect the artwork from the elements. Just chill.

As a public service on this hottest week of the year, ArtsWatch Weekly brings you this cooling image by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, “The Sea of Ice” or “The Polar Sea.” We will not mention the painting’s third alternate title, “The Wreck of Hope,” which refers to the ship crashed among the floes, not the rising temperature. 1823/24. oil on canvas, 50 x 38.1 inches, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany.

 


 

COMING UP THIS WEEK:

First Thursday. Portland’s monthly gallery walk is this week, with most openings on Thursday and a few scattered on other days. Among the many exhibitions opening, we have an eye on veteran historical illusionist Sherrie Wolf’s new show Postcards from Paris, which includes paintings of postcards of paintings in still life settings, at Russo Lee; Sara Siestreem’s new show of paintings equidistant, at Augen; Butters Gallery’s 29th anniversary group exhibit; and Blackfish Gallery’s We the People, a “participatory installation” by thirty Blackfish artists and others.

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Play it, Sam: remembering Shepard

The legendary American playwright and actor, dead at 73, changed the way we thought about theater

“I hate endings. Just detest them,” Sam Shepard once said. “… The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”

When word broke on Monday morning that Shepard had died last Thursday, revolving toward some fresh beginning amid the great unknown, it was like a rolling thunderclap breaking over a dry terrain. We don’t expect our geniuses to just end – what sort of resolution is that? – and in a way they don’t. They live on as they play inside our souls and minds, and Shepard surely will do that. He was 73 years old and had had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Sam Shepard in the movie “Steel Magnolias.” Photo: Rastar Films © 1989

A lot of people will remember Shepard as an iconic movie actor seemingly carved from the American hills and soil, and his work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and the astronaut movie The Right Stuff, among other films, is memorable He also wrote the screenplay for the terrific movie Paris, Texas. But for me, and many others, his true genius was as a playwright.

A whole new generation of writers dominates the American stage now, many of them women and writers of color, reflecting the excitement and challenges and vivid possibilities of a rapidly changing culture. But  Shepard remains a genuine radical who changed the way we thought about theater. Beginning as a wild and free-form outside voice, he matured into a central chronicler of the culture, reinhabiting the mainstream of the American theater in the tradition established by Eugene O’Neill but doing it in his own voice and on his own terms, without losing his outsider edge.

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