Marty Hughley

 

The other history, laughter included

DeLanna Studi's "And So We Walked" and Larissa FastHorse's "The Thanksgiving Play" showcase the indigenous side of the American story

Holidays, especially those steeped in notions of national identity, breed all manner of rituals. For instance, in The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse, getting its world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre, the character Alicia recalls the family tradition that “came from my mom’s people.” They called it Frozen Turkey Bowling, and the ritual entailed buying an extra frozen bird and rolling it down the driveway to knock over wood blocks.

My prized, personal Thanksgiving tradition, adopted over the past decade, is simply to post the same video again to my Facebook page. It’s an unpolished little clip of the brilliant comedy trio the Apple Sisters performing Pilgrim/Indian Song, their pointed pocket history of white settlement in what came to be these United States. In just a few high-stepping stanzas, the Pilgrims move from beseeching (“Come on, chap, tell a pal: How’d you get that harvest?”) to blunt (“Hey there, Injuns. Get off your land!”), and the grandness of the theft is summed up with a brief but stirringly patriotic coda: “And that’s America!”

Viewed with even a smidgen of equitable perspective, the history of European colonization and expansion is shameful. As S.C. Gwynne puts it, merely in passing, in Empire of the Summer Moon, his book about the rise and fall of the Comanches, “(n)o tribe…ever managed to resist for very long the surge of nascent American civilization with its harquebuses and blunderbusses and muskets and eventually its lethal repeating weapons and its endless stocks of eager, land-greedy settlers, its elegant moral double standards and its complete disregard for native interests.”

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Crazy good on Riverside

The strivers and miscreants in Artists Rep's taut and slippery "Between Riverside and Crazy" crackle and pop with terrific verve

An apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan is the setting and in some ways the crux of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer-winning play Between Riverside and Crazy, currently getting a crackling Adriana Baer-helmed production at Artists Rep.

That geographical marker is important. A large, pre-WWII apartment in that highly desirable section of New York City has a lot of value. For the play’s central character, disgruntled ex-cop Walter “Pops” Washington, it’s his home of several decades, a place where he can shelter his ex-con son Junior and various friends. And, crucially, it’s on an increasingly rare rent-controlled lease. For the landlord, it’s a diamond in the rough, an apartment falling into disrepair but easily worth several times the current rent. And for city and police officials, we quickly learn, the property has turned into leverage in a long legal standoff over compensation for Pops’ being injured in a shooting by another cop.

Kevin Jones, Ben Newman, and Val Landrum in “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Photo: Russell J Young

And yet, something’s a little puzzling about that title, Between Riverside and Crazy. Whatever location that suggests is not a geographical one like “between Riverside and Broadway” or “between Riverside and the Hudson River.” Perhaps, for New Yorkers particularly, the title points to some sort of imagined behavioral terrain, between the posh conventionality a Riverside address connotes and some other, wilder impulses of human character. But who among Guirgis’ assemblage of strivers and miscreants and authority figures here is really “crazy”? There is depression, addiction, anger, and so forth, but there’s no “crazy.”

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Astor’s great and messy quest

In Part 2 of Chris Coleman's sweeping historical drama "Astoria," a rich man's dream runs aground – but not before it reshapes Oregon's fate

In the early years of the 19th century, John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant who’d already become wealthy through the fur trade and Manhattan real estate, gambled big on a grand vision. His plan was to establish an “emporium” near the mouth of the Columbia River — a geographic feature only recently known to Europeans and Eastern settlers — supported by fur-trapping posts along its tributaries. This would allow him to dominate the Pacific Northwest’s vast supply of one of that era’s most valuable resources. His company would then be able to initiate a lucrative global shipping network, trading in not just furs but Chinese tea and European manufactured goods. Flush with early-American idealism, he further hoped to set the stage for a democratic government in the region, a political and cultural sister to the fledgling United States, then still clustered on the continent’s eastern edge.

Jimmy Garcia as Pierre Dorion and Leif Norby as Robert McClellan with members of the cast of “Astoria: Part Two.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

To these ends, Astor, in 1810, sent two expeditionary parties toward the Columbia, one by sea around Cape Horn, the other overland, heading out from St. Louis along the trail blazed a few years earlier by Lewis and Clark. The harrowing, often deadly, adventures of these groups is vividly told in Peter Stark’s 2014 best-seller Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival, and now in Chris Coleman’s sweeping theatrical adaptation for Portland Center Stage. Astoria: Part One premiered last season; Astoria: Part Two is on the boards at The Armory through Feb. 18, with a few bonus performances of the first installment sprinkled through the schedule.

SPOILER ALERT: Astor fails.

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At last, Thom Pain’s back in town

Will Eno's startling, wryly funny, deeply moving play returns with a memorable performance by Todd Van Voris for the new Crave Theatre

At long last, Thom Pain is back in town.

That is to say, Thom Pain (based on nothing), a marvelous, many-faceted monologue by the playwright Will Eno, is running through June 11 at the Shoe Box Theatre, in a smart, spare production featuring the resurgent Portland acting star Todd Van Voris in a performance that’s wryly funny and deeply moving. This is one of those small, theater-lovers’ passion projects that pop up now and again and make for something truly memorable. And this one has been, in a certain way, a long time coming.

Todd Van Voris in “Thom Pain (based on nothing).” Photo: Russell J Young

Thom Pain, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005, first showed up in Portland a few years later. Devon Allen of the Portland State University faculty directed her former student, Matt DiBiasio, in the role at a small campus theater. But because of the location, perhaps, and that the production took place amid the busy weeks of the Fertile Ground festival, the show largely was overlooked. I caught it only at the end of the run, but have been forever grateful that Allen talked me into attending. It remains one of the most remarkable performances I’ve seen on a Portland stage  — intense and discomfiting, desperate and controlled, awkward and awe-inspiring. Allen and DiBiasio remounted the show again several months afterward, in November 2008, at a much larger venue, the Kingstad Center in Beaverton, but again, location may have kept it from being as widely seen as it deserved.

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Marjorie, in her prime

Jordan Harrison's futuristic fantasy about the blurry line between people and artificial intelligence gets a sterling run at Artists Rep

Walter has a curious affect, in more ways than one. As he talks with Marjorie, an 85-year-old woman whose mind isn’t what it used to be, he’s gently inquisitive, apparently eager to learn about her and, somewhat paradoxically, about himself as well. As the “Prime” in Jordan Harrison’s stimulating play Marjorie Prime continuing through March 5 at Artists Repertory Theatre, he speaks with an odd mixture of intimacy and detachment, and a patience that seems at first professional, then preternatural. He tells stories in a way that sounds casual yet somehow rote. And when he’s stumped by something, instead of shrugging or saying, “I dunno,” he replies stiffly, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.”

Then too, there’s just something about the way he looks. He’s clean-cut and handsome, yet unremarkably so. That is, until you notice the faint sparkle that shimmers about his plain brown sportcoat and neatly trimmed hair. It’s as though he’s the image of an ideal man, ever-so-slightly pixelated.

O’Brien and Harder: memories lost and gained. Photo: John Rudoff

And though he looks a half-century younger than Marjorie, he’s not just Walter, he’s her Walter, her late husband Walter. Or at least he’s learning to be.

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‘Elliot’: a fertile seed, growing

"A Soldier's Fugue," The opening salvo in Profile Theatre's season of plays by Quiara Alegria Hudes, plants the promise of bigger things

One of the most striking bits of information you’ll encounter if you go to see Profile Theatre’s production of Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue is dropped offhandedly into a program note by artistic director Josh Hecht, who mentions that “there are currently 21.8 million veterans in the United States.” That’s around seven percent of us, as if we’d sent the whole state of Florida, say, off to war — or the entire Northwest plus a chunk of Northern California. Or, to put it in terms that might hit home to 19-year-old Elliot Ortiz, serving in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division, that’s three and a half times the population of greater Philadelphia.

In any case, it’s quite a figure for a nation that thinks of itself as peace-loving, or at least peace-keeping; a peaceful nation ever at war.

Cristi Miles, Anthony Lam (in fatigues), Jimmy Garcia, Anthony Green (far right) in “Elliot.” Photo: David Kinder

The bulk of those veterans still around served in either Iraq, Vietnam or Korea: places — or do we think of them merely as conflicts — that serve as the generational benchmarks for Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play, which was first produced (in a slightly different version) at Portland’s Miracle Theatre in 2005. Inspired by the Iraq War experiences of her own cousin, Hudes presents three generations of men in the same family, examining what they made of their time at war and what that time made of them.

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‘Astoria’: huge notions, big dreams

Chris Coleman's sweeping world premiere at Portland Center Stage is a historical drama about a rich businessman's will to power. Sound familiar?

“These Americans and their dreams.”

That’s the sigh of an old 18th-century European, an Irish grandmother wondering at the propensity of those who migrate to the New World to believe that they can remake their lives into something wholly different, wholly better. It’s quoted almost offhandedly amidst the vast sweep of Astoria: Part One, a play getting its world premiere by Portland Center Stage, but the play is very much about those dreams, in a variety of ways.

Astoria the play is based on the book by Peter Stark, the full title of which — Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival — sketches out its scope. A German immigrant and the son of a butcher, Astor became a wealthy fur trader in New York before hatching a grand plan to control the Columbia River Basin, monopolize the fur supply of the American West, establish a lucrative global trade network and perhaps even launch a sister democracy to mirror the United States on the other side of the continent. Stark combed historical accounts to create an absorbing work of popular history. Now Portland Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman has boldly adapted it into a thoughtful and at times energized stage production.

Members of the Overland Party meeting with Arikara Chiefs. From left: Michael Morrow Hammack as John Reed, Shawn Fagan as Wilson Price Hunt, Brandon Contreras as Pierre Dorion, Christopher Salazar as Le Gauche, Shaun Taylor-Corbett as Les Yeux Gris, Jeremy Aggers as Donald Mackenzie and Benjamin Tissell as Ramsay Crooks. Photo: Jennie Baker

This is broad-stroke storytelling, whisking us across oceans and through vast wilderness, yet it is flecked with lots of human-scale color and detail — boisterous bursts of song and dance, simmering personality conflicts, harrowing survival challenges, bits of bawdy humor. At nearly three hours length, it gets us through just half the tale: Part One ends with a seagoing crew newly arrived at the Oregon Coast and a land expedition lost in the wilds leading from Rocky Mountains into the Snake River Basin. Part Two is scheduled for the 2017-18 PCS season.

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