CULTURE

‘Noises Off’ off as its space is sold

The impending sale of the Venetian Theatre prompts Hillsboro's Bag&Baggage theater to cancel a potential hit – and digs a budget hole

Nothing, it seems, can stop Noises Off, the backstage farce by Michael Frayn that’s been a perennial, and a perennial moneymaker, across the English-speaking world since it opened in 1982.

Unless it’s the real estate market.

Bag&Baggage, the theater company that produces most of its shows in downtown Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, announced today that it’s canceling its season finale, a production of Noises Off at the Venetian.

B&B’s Scott Palmer: “unwilling to risk the future … on a roll of the dice.”

The reason? The performance hall is being sold, and Bag&Baggage, which rents the space, has no guarantee that it will be available this spring. Noises Off is an expensive show to produce, and artistic director Scott Palmer said the company couldn’t take the chance on spending a good deal of money on sets and costumes only to discover that the Venetian wouldn’t be available for performances. Palmer had expected the show to be the biggest money-maker of the season, and having to cancel creates a budget problem for a company that, in its twelve-year history, has always operated in the black.

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Northwest history hits the stage in “Astoria” and “db”

CoHo's "db" experimented wildly with DB Cooper's tale, while Portland Center Stage's "Astoria: Part One" took a traditional trail

By HAILEY BACHRACH

While dramas about American history never went away, I believe that we are now in the midst of a kind of history play renaissance. In the ten years since the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced its intention to commission a cycle of 37 plays about American history, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History was created (and named the OSF-commissioned All The Way one of its first winners), Arena Stage in Washington, DC, has launched a project to create a 25-play American history cycle, and of course, Hamilton happened.

Given the events of the past ten years—not to mention the recent election cycle—it is not entirely surprising that we find ourselves in a moment of reflection about our past and how it has shaped our identity as a country. While Obama’s presidency did not in fact usher in the glorious vision of a post-race America, it does seem to have mainstreamed a conversation about how the picture of our past can be expanded. The current wave of history plays are not only traditional political tragedies about important white men—though those are there, too—but many are also investigations into how our understanding and narration of America’s history can be radically reshaped by previously silenced voices.

For example, the five finalists for the 2017 Edward M. Kennedy Prize are Lisa Loomer’s Roe, about the 26-year-old lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, and the young lesbian she represented, who became known to history as “Jane Roe” (an OSF commission); 24 Hour History of Popular Music, a marathon musical spectacle by prominent queer artist Taylor Mac; Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, focusing on the racial tensions in a factory town in the mid-2000s (OSF commission); Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen, a comedy about how his parents met as refugees from the Vietnam War (which played at OSF); and Indecent by Paula Vogel, about a 1920s Yiddish play that was banned for its depiction of a lesbian relationship (OSF commission). Even the settings of some of these plays feel fresh—rural Arkansas and Reading, Pennsylvania. Traditional visions of America’s history have not only been circumscribed by race and gender, but by geography. How often do we see histories that move beyond the borders of the 13 colonies?

I have long been struck by the fact that none of the plays the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned so far have been set in Oregon or the Pacific Northwest. So I was excited to see that two Portland companies would be filling the gap for the Fertile Ground Festival.

“Astoria: Part One” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Jennie Baker

The epic, sumptuous historical drama of the season is Astoria: Part One at Portland Center Stage (closing this weekend; part two is already scheduled for next year). Based on the nonfiction book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark, the production is adapted and directed by Center Stage’s artistic director Chris Coleman.

And over at CoHo Productions, Tommy Smith’s db, which close earlier this month, tells the (possible) story of Dan Cooper, the still-unidentified skyjacker who diverted a Portland-to-Seattle commuter flight, then jumped out of the plane into the night with his $200,000 ransom strapped to his body. Some of the money later turned up in a river. Neither Cooper nor the rest of the money were ever found, spawning decades of theories about his ultimate fate.

Both are strong showings by their respective companies, and each of the two presents a very different model of the new American history play.

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Out There: Valentine’s Week

This Valentine's Week, you have many outré entertainment options, in various flavors besides vanilla

Out There is a sporadically recurring list of recommended arts events that may not otherwise be on our readers’ radar. Enjoy.

Does somebody love you? Congratulations. Do you love somebody? Lucky you. Do you love yourself? Salud. Regardless, Valentine’s Week is upon us, and unless you’re enticed by the typical Lady-and-Tramp spaghetti-strand-sharing scenario the holiday promotes, you’re going to have to make other, more adventurous plans. Here’s a list of possibilities (with links included) to tickle various fancies. Take your pick.

Asimov Atomsmasher will be one of a slew of burlesque and circus performers at Wanderlust’s Valentine’s Cabaret.

February 8
Pwrhaus Visual Album Release
If you’re looking for some tantric, transcendental foreplay, you may want to catch a Pwrhaus concert. Even the names of bands you could compare their sound to—Flaming Lips, Love and Rockets—are already enough to kindle some lust. What’s more, their newest release of slow, whispery, synth-rich love songs is paired with a set of epic videos wherein an interplanetary wanderer encounters strange species of wild women.*

February 10
Cabaret Boris & Natasha
Iconic contemporary dancer Linda Austin of PerformanceWorks Northwest has an at-least-15-year annual tradition of presenting “some of the most inventive performing artists from the region” under playful branding borrowed from Rocky and Bullwinkle villains. While you never know exactly what to expect, one perennial favorite act is The Boris & Natasha Dancers, an “ever-revolving gang of untrained male dancers.” Meow! Or maybe, rather, ruff.

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Global Voices get a fair hearing

Boom Arts searched the world for an eclectic set of statement plays. Global Voices continues next weekend, and hopefully next year.

Last weekend, Boom Arts launched its first-ever Global Voices Lab for International Plays in Translation, a staged reading series that the company hopes to make annual. In defiance of the hugely overblown storm warnings, a small but earnest audience clustered into Lincoln Hall’s Studio Theater for a reading of Elfriede Jelinek’s Jackie on Friday; then a marathon on Saturday consisting of Joned Suryatmoko’s Picnic, Sedef Ecer’s At The Periphery, and Luis Alberto Leon Bacigulpo’s The Captive. An encore performance of Jackie on Sunday kicked off at the Super Bowl-friendly but otherwise unusually early hour of 11:30 a.m. (with complementary coffee and bagels).

Next weekend will bring a different selection, Lara Foot’s Fishers of Hope and Zainabu Jallo’s Onions Make Us Cry, at a different venue, the PCC Cascade campus. Wisely, Boom has chosen to present the two African plays alongside the Cascade Festival of African Films.

So how is it?

Illuminating. Diverse. Challenging to many Portlanders’ current body of knowledge and range of experience … which is to say, worthwhile.

“These are perspectives that are rarely expressed on Portland stages,” says Boom curator/producer Ruth Wikler-Luker. “These plays allow us to plop ourselves into different cultural contexts.”

“The Captive,” by Luis Alberto León Bacigalupo, with Patricia Alvitez and Romeo Recinos. Photo: Blanca Forzan

When planning Global Voices, Wikler-Luker curated via connections rather than submissions, reaching out to her network of theater producers around the world to get recommendations and find works that spoke to her. She wanted the works to be distinct from one another in tone and theme. She wanted each to feel timely. And most importantly, she wanted to choose plays that make their own statement about the world.

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Kill the NEA? What it might mean

The new administration wants to kill federal arts and cultural funding. That would squeeze every corner of the country, including Oregon.

One thing about the new administration: It’s moving at lightning speed. And it’s doing pretty much what the new president said it would. So while all the firings and hirings and executive orders and pipeline reboots and refugee get-the-boots swirl around us, it makes sense to believe that the administration wasn’t kidding when it targeted the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and federal backing of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the garbage dump. Expect the effort to begin soon, while the administration still has its congressional party votes mostly in line. And expect potential allies in Congress to be engaged in other, bigger fights.

Which is not to say the shutdowns are a done deal. Down-in-the-trenches activism matters. There’s always the chance that these relatively small targets will get lost in the shuffle. And there’s always the chance that the effort to kill them will be weak, while the administration aims most of its firepower at bigger issues, and enough congressional Republicans will see casting a vote to protect a couple of small-potatoes programs as a handy way to show they are independent. On the other hand, these national cultural programs have long been targets of the Republican right, which could see this as its best moment to just get rid of them.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” with actor Jeena Yi, was funded partly by the National Endowment for the Arts. Photo: Jenny Graham

So it’s prudent to start to think about what life without the NEA and NEH might be like. (Most of the CPB’s budget is already independent, and it could probably make up most of what it stands to lose from private donors.) The New York Times’s Graham Bowley has a good rundown on the federal picture in his piece What If Trump Really Does End Money for the Arts? And Bob Keefer of Eugene Weekly takes a look at possible consequences in Oregon in his piece Trump Endangers NEA Funding for Local Arts. (Oregon Arts Commission leaders were meeting Thursday to decide what to say publicly and how to say it.)

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… and oddly, as a pitched political battle sweeps the nation, life goes on. How will the arts world respond to the extraordinary events of the day? How, if at all, will this most divisive and pugilistic of administrations respond to the world of art? Shoes could drop at any moment: the administration has already stated its intent to kill the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, and to end federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While Nero threatens to cut off the fiddles, here are a few highlights of what’s going on in and around town.

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IT’S FIRST THURSDAY this week, when many galleries open their new monthly shows, so visual art is on our minds. The Portland Art Museum has opened Rodin: The Human Experience, a major show of 52 bronzes, and Constructing Identity, an important overview of historical and contemporary work by African American artists.

Louis Bunce, “Apple”, 1968. Oil on canvas. 41” x 48”//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

And the invaluable Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem has opened Louis Bunce: Dialogue with Modernism, a retrospective on the late Oregon artist, who Paul Sutinen, in his ArtsWatch review of the show, identifies as a key figure in the city’s cultural life, the catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art. “It is an important show,” Sutinen declares. “It is a great show. It is accompanied by a monograph on Bunce by Roger Hull. It is important. It is great.” And then he explains why. See the sort of thing that the Savonarolas of the federal purse are eager to upend.

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‘We’re All Mad Here’…so let’s party

Shaking The Tree's fresh take on Lewis Carroll applies his lessons to our times, and it's a huge relief.

What do you do with your existential frustration?

If you boil it down into its purest form, you get either despair or rage—which then has to be dealt with.

But if you chill it out and mix in some humor, you end up with absurdity. And that can be played with! O Frabjous Day!

From last weekend to this, I took in two plays that both sprang from the same premise: our modern world warps us.

Matthew Kerrigan reinterprets Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, with a fleeting attention span ruled by a smartphone.

 

“Well, then, it’s hopeless. We should end it all,” Matthew Zrebski’s Carnivora bleakly bemoans.

“Ah! Then we might as well party!” Shaking The Tree’s We’re All Mad Here exclaims.

Mind you, those aren’t direct quotes, just the sentiments I took away—what I imagine the plays might say if they were people. Oh, wait—one of them pretty much is. We’re All Mad Here is, if not exclusively, at least predominantly conceived and performed by Matthew Kerrigan, in homage to Alice In Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.

And why is Carroll’s work so timeless? Any drug-addled dodo could dream up a different world, but that wasn’t the crux of Carroll’s vision. Like his forebears Aesop and Chaucer and Jonathan “Gulliver” Swift, Carroll was a satirist as well as a fabulist.

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