THEATER

Rick Bartow’s spirit inhabits play premiering in Newport

A Portland writer imagines an encounter between the world-renowned artist and three famous poets from whom he drew inspiration

Fourteen years ago, I was reporting a news story when I encountered a man weed-whacking. His back was turned and he wore a headset meant to protect his hearing. Few things are more awkward — and possibly risky — than approaching a stranger who can’t hear you, can’t see you, and has no idea you are there. I managed to get his attention. He greeted me with a smile and, reaching for my hand, introduced himself: Rick Bartow. He invited me inside the family home, offered me a glass of something cold, and introduced me to his wife and child.

Rick Bartow was photographed in 2015, the year before he died, by K.B. Dixon. From Dixon’s book, “Face to Face: 32 Oregon Artists.”

That’s how I met Bartow, an everyday guy who just happened to be a world-renowned artist. In Newport, it seems everyone has a story about Bartow, who died in 2016 at age 69. He was the guy you saw in the gym, jamming at the local café, perusing the library shelves. He was a member of the Northern California Wiyot Tribe, with close ties to the Siletz tribes of the Oregon Coast. He was kind, generous, straightforward, multi-talented, and possessed a certain instinctive wisdom, both enviable and humbling.

Portland writer Merridawn Duckler says her play, “Rick Bartow: In Spirit,” includes projections, songs, and a little bit of dancing.

That’s the man Portland writer Merridawn Duckler set out to portray in her new play Rick Bartow: In Spirit, which concerns an imaginary encounter between Bartow and three writers who inspired him. The play, directed by Marc Maislen, premieres at the Newport Performing Arts Center Dec. 14-16. Tickets are $20 and $25.

Duckler never met Bartow, but describes herself as a “huge fan always.” The path to writing a play based on Bartow’s art is a one-thing-leads-to-another tale, beginning with her work years ago as a writer for Tom Webb at a Portland arts magazine. Duckler went on to write an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Informer; Webb moved to the coast to manage the Newport Visual Arts Center. Bartow had donated a collection of 17 portraits of acclaimed writers to the Newport Public Library, the drawings were subsequently displayed at the Visual Arts Center, where Duckler’s adaption was performed. The conversation — plays, portraits, artists, shows — began and In Spirit was born.

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Black Nativity: The joy is now

PassinArt's Portland production of Langston Hughes's gospel musical moves up to a bigger church, and keeps the music fresh

Fifty-seven years ago, Langston Hughes, Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade decided the world needed a celebration of Christmas apart from re-runs of It’s A Wonderful Life and myriad adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker in various mediums. What was needed, they surmised, was something with a little color to it, a little extra flavor. What they came up with was an original piece called Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? – traditional Christmas songs done in a gospel style along with other gospel music, all strung together by narration that tells the story of the Nativity. By the time it opened Off-Broadway in 1961 – one of the first Black productions ever to do so – Ailey and Lavallade had left the production over a dispute about the new name, Black Nativity.

Decades later, Black Nativity is still serving its original function of providing something other than the standard, all-white Christmas fare. There is a Black Nativity production going on somewhere in just about every corner of the nation. In Portland, Black Nativity is produced by the longest-running Black theater company in the city, PassinArt.

Almost forty years ago, following much the same impetus as Hughes, Ailey and Lavallade in New York, Connie Carley, Michael Brandt and Clarice Bailey decided to fill a need they saw in the cultural scene of Portland. Together, they created  PassinArt, whose goal is literally to pass the art and culture (and history, knowledge, etc.) of the Black community down from one generation to the next. After a brief period of flux, Carley became the managing director and Jerry Foster became the artistic director. The two have kept PassinArt going ever since. (Last season, their production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running garnered eight finalist nods in the Drammy Awards, including one for Oustanding Production, and took home the prizes for Ensemble and Set Design.)

The 2018 “Black Nativity” cast. Photo courtesy PassinArt

Like Two Trains, many PassinArt productions deal with issues around social justice that face the Black community. For both Carley and Foster, the purpose behind Black Nativity is the same – but different.

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Craft or art? Who cares? HEATWAVE fiber art is amazing

The show at Newberg's Chehalem Cultural Center demonstrates that fabric art is so much more than "just quilts"

I have an embarrassing confession, but that’s actually a good thing, because it goes straight to the heart of an important artistic question that is raised — or perhaps I should say, is powerfully answered — by an exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg.

It’s an occasion for a teachable moment.

“Hot Flash!” A collaboration by Sherri Culver and Mary McLaughlin. Commercial cotton and silk fabrics, threads. Raw edge, fused, machine appliqué; machine quilting; hand embroidery; fabric paint and inks (for eyes). 37 x 35.5 inches. Photo by: Hoddick Photography

HEATWAVE is a themed exhibit produced by High Fiber Diet of the Columbia FiberArts Guild, which has been around for nearly half a century in the Portland area. What I must confess is that when I clicked my way to the page for this exhibition on the center’s website and saw that it’s a show of “art quilts,” I felt … well, a little underwhelmed.

“Oh,” I thought. “Quilts.” A bias that I wasn’t really conscious of was triggered, one perhaps based on distant, faded memories of being bored as a child while my mom took forever in a fabric store. I was mildly disappointed that this exhibition in the Parrish Gallery was just quilts — not painting, or sculpture. Not, well, art.

Sheryl LeBlanc’s “Fire in the Log Yard.” Disperse dyed polyesters, silk chiffon, trupunto. 29.5 x 32.5 inches. “Like a storage of ordinance, I have often wondered what a fire in a full log yard would look like on an extremely hot and dry day … perhaps during a severe drought, when the logs have not been recently sprayed with water.” Photo by: David Bates

Then I went and saw it.

I’ve seen it three or four times now, marching in on each occasion to look specifically at that exhibition, to spend a few more minutes with this piece or that. I am repeatedly drawn to the intense crimson, yellow, and green in Diane English’s Remembrance, which uses the imagery of blooming poppies as a “symbol of remembering those who have passed in the heat of wars.” Sheryl LeBlanc’s Fire in the Log Yard is, quite simply, one of the most extraordinary images I’ve seen in any medium recently.

Detail from “Fire in the Log Yard.” Photo by: Jon Christopher Meyers

The work is astonishing and beautiful and, occasionally, mysterious. One afternoon mid-November I had my 9-year-old son with me. Anything but bored, he ran around the Parrish Gallery, exclaiming, “Look at this one, Daddy!” Then, darting around a corner, “Look at this one!”

Back at home, I dived into a study of the Arts and Crafts movement and, specifically, an inquiry into what I quickly came to regard as an artificial and mostly semantic divide between art and craft, this idea that the two are somehow separate, that “craft” does not rise to the level of “art”. When I suggested to an ArtsWatch editor that he dispatch someone with a deeper background in visual arts to cover the show, which runs through Jan. 5, he kindly advised, basically, I do my job.

“I think there’s some explaining to be done about how people approach it, how it fits into the world of ‘fine’ art, which so often treats it like a stepchild,” he said. He pointed to the historically sexist and even classist attitude about this — one that I, perhaps, had at some level internalized, one that was surely at the root of my “Oh … quilts?” moment. Fabric and other non-painting and sculptural forms are too often seen, somewhat dismissively, he added, as “women’s art” or “folk art.” Or a “craft.”

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From ‘Hands Up’ to ‘Cop Out’

Red Door follows its show about racial profiling and police violence against African Americans with a deep delve into the cops' own lives

Two years ago the August Wilson Red Door Project started its run of Hands Up, and it made the rest of Portland theater seem damn near frivolous. It was bare-bones theater, as fundamental as it gets. Set, pictures of victims of police shootings strung along the back wall – and maybe a chair. Lights up, lights down. Costumes, everyday clothes. Sound, at a minimum. An actor walks to the middle of the stage and tells the truth. That was it. No flash, no dazzle, no spectacle. Not even illusion. Hands Up was as direct and resonant an experience as an audience was likely to encounter. In a starkly secular society, Hands Up’s frank illumination of a national conversation felt like church for people who don’t go to church and the news for people who don’t watch the news. Real life was put on stage and there wasn’t a metaphor or a symbol in sight. These were burning headlines given living, breathing life.

A collection of seven monologues by seven different playwrights performed by seven different actors, Hands Up explored the fears and anxieties of the Black community around racial profiling and police violence against African-Americans. In the two years since, Hands Up has been seen by more than six thousand Oregonians and had some 60 performances in various sites around the state. But the numbers don’t tell the entire Hands Up story. More than a play, it was an event, a town hall meeting, a public testimonial, and an opportunity to bear witness.

Kevin Jones. Photo: Owen Carey

This weekend the Red Door Project follows up the eminently powerful Hands Up with an original piece of its own devising, Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & BlueCop Out follows the formula of Hands Up. It’s a collection of monologues built around the stories of real people – in this case, cops. Kevin Jones, artistic director of the Red Door Project and director of Cop Out (Damaris Webb and Phil Johnson are co-directors), insists that the piece is not a rebuttal to Hands Up or a “defense” of cops. What Cop Out is, he says, is an “opportunity for healing”: “We felt that we had polarized on one side, that being the experience of the African-American. We felt that there was an important part of the story that needed to be told. The idea being that many in the public saw the police as a monolithic entity comprised of equal parts power. I thought it was time to recognize that these were human beings. And by telling their stories we could help humanize them.”

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“Ye think sin in the beginning full sweet,

Which in the end causeth thy soul to weep,

When the body lieth in clay.”

— from The Summoning of Everyman: a treatise how the high father of heaven sendeth death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world and is in manner of a moral play.

“Hey, everybody. Don’t be so crazy in life. Like, you may think all that ‘craziness’ is great initially because it’s really fun but, when you die, you may regret all that fun, because — though we honestly don’t know what happens when you die — we have this hunch that you could wind up someplace which is objectively worse than this one — and let’s call that ‘Hell,’ this state of eternal, unfathomable suffering. And this craziness, let’s call it ‘sin’ — this ‘sin,’ or at least too much of it, is our idea of how you wind up there. We think.”

— from Everybody, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Everybody dies.

Oh, so sorry! I forgot to say “Spoiler alert!”

Because when I say “Everybody dies,” I don’t mean — only — that anyone who reads this column will die (because that sounds rather threatening, and I actually love readers), or that all humans eventually will die (at least it seems that way so far). I mean that Everybody, the title character of the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Everybody, which opens Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, dies.

Facing Death with (varying degrees of) dignity: Ted Rooney (as Death, at left), John San Nicolas, Andrea Vernae, Barbie Wu, Michael Mendelson and Sara Hennessy in “Everybody” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder

Everybody follows a similar template, albeit with a much breezier, funnier tone and a less doctrinaire path through the philosophical questions involved. Compared with the tricky satire of racial representations in An Octoroon, Everybody should be controversy free; but it presents a different kind of challenge: How do you cast somebody — anybody — to portray Everybody?

The clever, if complicated, solution that Jacobs-Jenkins employs addresses the issue of representation — not choosing a white male or any single type to stand in for all of us — but also the randomness of death. Out of a 10-person cast, five of the actors play varying roles, with an onstage lottery early in each show determining who will perform the role of Everybody, who will be Friendship, Kinship and so on. This means that those five actors have had to learn and rehearse five roles and be ready to drop into any of them at a moment’s notice — and that they (and the audience) have 120 potential combinations.

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Penny Arcade, back in town

The performance artist, a hit in Portland a year ago, brings her gentrification show and a pair of new works for a three-day Boom Arts run

Ruth Wikler first met Penny Arcade in Melbourne, Australia, in 2016 where Arcade was participating in a panel on political theater. “We got to talking and I learned that she had never performed in Portland despite touring for five decades,” says Wikler, producer and curator of the presenting company Boom Arts. “I offered to rectify that!” She was thrilled to get the legendary performance artist to Portland the next season.

Watching the audience reactions to Arcade’s February 2018 show Longing Lasts Longer, a critique of New York’s gentrification, Wikler knew that Portland hadn’t gotten enough of the Arcade. “Sometimes we see audiences leaping to their feet for standing ovations the minute the show ends, night after night,” says Wikler. “That’s when we realize that the one- or two-weekend run we planned just wasn’t enough.” So Wikler has asked Arcade back this season for an “encore performance.”

Penny Arcade, in a Boom Arts performance in February. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The last artist Boom Arts brought back was dancer/acrobat/comedian Adrienne Truscott, in 2016. “The pleasure for me as a curator making that kind of invitation to an artist was that it signaled an evolution in our presenter/artist relationship, in which I could engage with her oeuvre, her body of work, not just with the show with which she had had significant touring success,” says Wikler. “Our invitation to Penny is very similar. It’s an invitation for her to evolve with us; it’s a gesture of faith, support, and championship.”


BOOM ARTS: THE SEASON: 3


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DramaWatch: Holiday Edition!

Christmas Carols, radio plays and parodies dominate the seasonal-theater calendar.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! If you’re into that sort of thing.

Tradition holds that the next few weeks will be dominated by Christmas cheer — and likely by Christmas hype, Christmas stress, and when it comes to the world of theater, Christmas cliche.

What starts in autumn as a theater season wrestling with big themes of life and society suddenly turns into a procession of simplistic celebrations of sentiment and/or frivolity.

Then again, cliches become cliches for a reason. Imbue the right ones with a little action and they become ritual, tradition. Wrap them in sturdy narrative and they become chestnuts, even classics.

So never mind my jaundiced, churlish, runaway-Catholic’s view. Holiday-season theater offerings abound, for those who want to unwind from shopping, entertain family, or get a refresher course in some of those seasonal ideals. Here’s your DramaWatch Christmas theater menu:

Tim Blough (in cap) at the center of “A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol” at Broadway Rose. Photo by Sam Ortega.

By my count, no less than a half-dozen productions in the Portland area this season are based around Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and/or old-timey radio broadcasts. Perhaps each represents a particular period of potent nostalgia, a century apart — the early Victorian era that’s done so much to shape our romanticized holiday images, and the Great Depression and World War II, evoking memories of social unity carrying us through hardship. In any case, the two periods meet at Broadway Rose in A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol, in which a broadcast of the Dickens tale is undermined by so many minor mishaps that the cast takes to riffing on the story in the style of (the then-new genre) film noir. Tim Blough, Joe Theissen and Malia Tippets are among the notable talents involved.

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