Talking race: the color of now

An overflow crowd at Imago Theatre delves into Oregon's racial history, race conflicts in America, and the role that art and artists play in the discussion

When the doors finally opened and the long line wandering down the sidewalk began to surge forward, the intimate Imago Theatre began to be overwhelmed by a human tide. Every seat, it seemed, was taken. I don’t recall seeing the theater this packed even in the heyday of Frogz, Imago’s huge and long-running anthropomorphic-animal hit. For that matter, I’d forgotten the place even had a balcony, which on Monday night was packed, as the saying goes, to the rafters. Old people were there, and young people, and the generations between, and this being Portland there were more white people than people of color but the mix was evident. Almost immediately a baby started crying, a sound not usually heard in theaters unless it’s a sound effect for a play. This was a real baby, in real time. “Cool,” said Chantal DeGroat, the actor and moderator for the evening. “Rock ‘n’ roll. Rock. And. Roll. To the families.”

Jones and DeGroat: "What's RACE got to do with it?" Photo: Peter Irby

Jones and DeGroat: “What’s RACE got to do with it?” Photo: Peter Irby

The event was a conversation called “What’s RACE Got To Do With It?,” produced by the group The Color of NOW and hosted by Third Rail Repertory Theatre, which shares the Imago space. Part performance, part talk show and part back-and-forth with the audience, it included a monologue to an unborn child – a child who, given the state of the world and its racial volatility, would remain unborn, an idea derailed – by actor Joseph Gibson, and a little music from Ben Graves, and a long conversation about the nitty gritty of race in America and Oregon in particular with the actor, director, and activist Kevin Jones, artistic director of the August Wilson Red Door Project, an organization whose ambitious goal is to “change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts.”


At Portland Opera, a tale of Russian love lost

The Portland Opera's "Eugene Onegin" successfully time travels without losing its sense of tragedy


The star of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera version of Eugene Onegin is a young Russian gentleman who makes his way through the world without apparent care for anything or anybody beyond his erudite nose. Not his best friend Lensky, and not even the lovely Tatiana. As played by Alexander Elliot in the production by the Portland Opera, he is almost pathologically cold.

Fortunately, the warmth is supplied by Jennifer Forni as Tatiana, whose performance signaled to me that, again, the Portland Opera has put exactly the right artists under the lights.

Forni’s voice has the power and brilliance of a roman candle, and yet is never pushed, always in control. She has the best messa di voce (getting softer and louder on one note) I’ve heard in a long time. And she convincingly brought to life the facets of her teenage angst, brought about attempting to deal with Onegin.

Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) records her love letter to Eugene on her boom box/Photo by Cory Weaver.

Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) records her love letter to Eugene on her boom box/Photo by Cory Weaver.

But then all the singers were well cast. Lead male, baritone Elliot as the eponymous Eugene Onegin, is a chameleon. Last month we heard him in “Sweeney Todd” as Anthony Hope, a part that’s much more a tenor caste. But last night, he was thoroughly a baritone, cutting through the Newmark Hall with the trenchant power of a Husqvarna chain saw. And yet he possesses a velvety timbre when necessary.

Aaron Short as Lensky, Onegin’s poet friend, and Abigail Dock, Tatiana’s sister, Olga, rounded out the more youthful roles. Allison Swensen-Mitchell was Madame Larina, Tatiana and Olga’s mother; Andrea Compton was the beloved Nanny, Filipievna; and Konstantin Kvach was Prince Gremin. This was a sterling cast.


West Side Story: the memory lingers on

Broadway Rose's vibrant production captures the up-to-date thrills and issues of a 60-year-old American musical classic

In 1957 theater critic Walter Kerr wrote this famous opening line: “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.”

West Side Story lost out in awards that year to the equally iconic piece of American pie known as The Music Man, but West Side Story was a nutshell of figures, issues, and culture that would come to dominate the stage and set the bar for what audiences would expect in performances for the next few decades.

Broadway Rose is taking on Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins this summer, first with its production of West Side Story, running through July 24, then with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Aug. 2-24. Robbins choreographed and directed West Side Story, which was Sondheim’s Broadway breakthrough show, as lyricist; Leonard Bernstein composed the score. Forum was the first show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.

Austin Arizpe and Kayla Dixon in Broadway Rose's "West Side Story." Photo: Liz Wade

Austin Arizpe and Kayla Dixon in Broadway Rose’s “West Side Story.” Photo: Liz Wade

Director Peggy Taphorn and company have brought this latest West Side Story to life with sparkling energy and freshness, immersing the audience once again in the thrills and charms of a genuine classic. Far from being an antique, this landmark musical is a show whose images and issues are with us every day, and Broadway Rose’s production plays them out with thrilling intensity.


West Side Story is now an American legend that touches almost all of us. It carries its own particular American story, and we have stories about it: every time we see the show again, we bring the stories with us into the theater seats.


Jealousy’s cold dark heart, melting

On the outdoor stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, this season's "Winter’s Tale" bends toward forgiveness, not justice


ASHLAND – A man tells his pregnant wife to hang out with his best friend and make the friend feel welcome enough that he’ll stay longer than his planned nine-month visit. When she does just that, the man gets jealous and tries to have a loyal servant kill the best friend. He imprisons his wife and treats her and their older child (and heir) so badly that the boy dies. The woman has her baby, a girl, in prison. The man puts his wife on trial and treats her so viciously that she also dies. He sends a close advisor/servant with the baby girl on orders that she be exposed on a rock somewhere far away, after which the advisor dies in the most famous stage direction ever written. The ship that brought the advisor and the baby to the place where the baby is to be left to die founders in a storm, with all hands aboard drowning.

Leontes (Eric Steinberg) is tortured by jealous thoughts as his friend Polixenes (James Ryen), son Mamillius (Naomi Nelson) and wife Hermione (Amy Kim Waschke) play in the background. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Leontes (Eric Steinberg) is tortured by jealous thoughts as his friend Polixenes (James Ryen), son Mamillius (Naomi Nelson) and wife Hermione (Amy Kim Waschke) play in the background. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

That’s a summary of the tragic, grim, pre-intermission plot of The Winter’s Tale. This late Shakespearean romance runs through October outside at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” says the young heir to the throne (did I mention the jealous man is a king and his wife a queen?) before he dies, and the first half is indeed chilling. But don’t forget: Summer is coming.


Stormy weather: a ‘Tempest’ erupts

Original Practice Shakespeare takes to the parks with a light squall of a 'Tempest' and 12 other plays performed in a heady improv style

Those no-good dirty scoundrels (now known as actors, but in Shakespeare’s time as players) would often steal word-for-word whole scenes of dialogue from a rival company’s show. Queen Elizabeth had no bureau for copyright affairs, so instead players were given their lines on little “roles,” or scrolls, soon before a play began. That meant no time for them to brush up their Shakespeare, little to no props, and being on their A-game. A player had to keep a good tongue in his head, or a battery of rotten produce and shouts would be hurled at him from the raucous audience. Each person in the cheaper seats spent about a penny a show – one whole day’s wages, so the play had to be good.

Since 2009, Portland’s Original Practice Shakespeare Festival has been staging the Bard in this traditional anarchic manner for free in parks throughout the city. This 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death has the team of actors bringing to life his celebrated words in 21 performances. Players are chosen shortly before the action begins, so each performance is unique and each interpretation of the role is unique. Original Practice Shakespeare wants you, the audience, to go back to “simpler times:” boo, laugh, mock, applaud. Take the attitude of Mr. Shakespeare’s words: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” Throw out all the decorum that your blue-haired grandma worked so diligently to foster in you.

Wizarding in the park: Michael Streeter as in impromptu Caliban. Photo: Christa Morletti McIntyre

Wizarding in the park: Michael Streeter as in impromptu Caliban. Photo: Christa Morletti McIntyre

Sunday’s staging of Shakespeare’s late play the Tempest was held, in great complement to the troupe, at Cathedral Park. In OPS tradition a prompter aids the players, and for this performance the role was filled by Andrew Bray. The prompter follows the script (in the case someone loses their lines), sound effects personnel, and stage directions on the fly. Elizabethan theaters didn’t employ costume designers: instead, the players wore the most expensive (their pocket books could buy) fashions of the time. Original Practice Shakespeare adds to the informality by inviting the audience to participate with a kaleidoscope of costumes. This performance’s Prospero, played by Michael Streeter, wore a faux Kapa Hawaiian shirt and a student-of-Montessori preschool wizard hat, but the fashion disaster only added to elevating his deliveries. He’s a shipwrecked magician on some island, after all.


Preview: ‘Onegin’ with a Gen X twist

Stage director Kevin Newbury talks about his new "Eugene Onegin," set amid the crumbling of the Soviet era, for Portland Opera

Last August opera director Kevin Newbury flew from his home in New York to meet with the Portland Opera creative team to brainstorm for Eugene Onegin, the Tchaikovsky dramatic opera that will open Friday in the Newmark Theatre. As part of the life of a contemporary opera director, Newbury has spent his career jetting around the country working with houses in St. Louis, the famed Santa Fe Opera, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Boston, to name just a few, including Portland Opera for its well-received West Coast premiere of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei in 2012. Newbury is well-composed, youthful, tack-sharp, passionate about his work. He speaks in a gentle voice with a well-thought-out command of opera, his place in it, and where he’d like to see the oft-embattled art form go.

Ilya Repin, "Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's Duel," 1899, watercolor, white lead and India ink on paper, Pushkin Museum, Moscow/Wikimedia Commons

Ilya Repin, “Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s Duel,” 1899, watercolor, white lead and India ink on paper, Pushkin Museum, Moscow/Wikimedia Commons

In 2010 he staged a traditional production of Onegin in St. Louis, delicately counterbalancing its romantic pastoralism and the slightly intimidating cosmopolitan worlds that the two main characters, Tatiana and Eugene, navigate. Critics and audiences raved about it, calling it a well-directed traditional performance that celebrated the soprano and musical drama of Tchaikovsky.


Hunter captured by the game

In Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis" at CoHo, Shaking the Tree takes a green look at the thrill of the hunt

It’s the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and in his time, poetry was considered a noble trade. Shakespeare made his mark there first, and most of us know by memory a few of those famous lines: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” In Shakespeare’s century, theater was in large part for the raucous and bawdy, pint-lifting hoi polloi: the commoners. It’s been rumored of late in the papers that the Bard, himself, tried to secure a noble crest for his family, perhaps to hush the naysayers who believed he was little but an upstart with an impressive vocabulary. But, the chalk-complexioned ginger Queen Elizabeth put most of those rumors to rest, and here we are today celebrating his insights on the human condition. It can be argued that despite the success of his politically themed theater, his strongest suit was a deep understanding of the heart.

While we may have plowed his sonnets in our younger years for our own romantic endeavors, it is usually the case that today Shakespeare’s poetry probably isn’t in our stack of books. Shaking the Tree, as part of CoHo’s SummerFest series of short-run shows (this one opened Thursday and closes Sunday)  regrows an appreciation of his other, and perhaps, more personal work by way of a staged version of his brilliant poem Venus and Adonis.

Ridenour and Kerrigan, playing games. Photo: Gary Norman

Ridenour and Kerrigan, playing games. Photo: Gary Norman

Rebecca Ridenour’s goddess, Venus, shimmers in a golden gown, barefoot and with braided hair. She comes in with a case of vanity and the feral, celestial aura of a hunter. What she’s hunting, she’s not sure of, but in most cases it would take a male form. Ridenour is a suppressed volcanic wait of hormones. Here begins the triangle of insight by Ridenour, director Samantha Van Der Merwe, and Matthew Kerrigan as Adonis. All three play with Shakespeare’s mock view of how a petulant female chases a closed-hearted male, but both Venus and Adonis surface in the end as losers in a complicated game.


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