DramaWatch: Two pair and a kicker

In the cards on Portland stages this week: a pair of plays by Native American writers, Chekhov in New Jersey, improv off the Deep End

Sometimes as shows and curtains open and close, a writer flounders for a framing device. I know: Let’s play poker. “Two pair is a poker hand containing two cards of the same rank, two cards of another rank and one card of a third rank (the kicker).” This week in Portland theater deals us just such a hand.

Let’s start (as never) with two comedy-improv-mixed-use-spaces of seemingly equal rank: Siren and Deep End. Siren’s showing Rosie Rose Productions’ The Three Sisters of Weehawken, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Chekhov adaptation plucked from Russia and plopped into a New Jersey town that we can only assume contrasts to Moscow at least as starkly as Chekhov intended when he observed: “In Moscow, you can sit in an enormous restaurant where you don’t know anybody and where nobody knows you, and you don’t feel, all the same, that you’re a stranger. And here, you know everybody and everybody knows you, and you’re a stranger … and a lonely stranger.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: piano playground

Second annual Piano Day highlights a skimpy week in Oregon live music

Spring break may have broken Oregon’s music calendar this week, but there’s still something to celebrate. Portland is celebrating the international Piano Day again. Last year, Portland Piano International brought the worldwide event, which was started by German pianist Nils Frahm (who happens to be coming to Portland this week too!) in 2015, to Oregon for the first time. This year, it’s sponsoring  performances at a half dozen locations in the metro area. Pianists of diverse ages and skill levels signed up to play pianos at each spot, and asked friends to sponsor them, with all funds raised going to support PPI’s valuable education programs. Check the website for the ebony and ivories nearest you.

There’ll be ten — count ’em! — pianos onstage at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall when Michael Allen Harrison’s annual Ten Grands show returns Saturday night. From Portland cops to prodigy pianists and composers to blues and jazz masters  to renowned players like Tom Grant and the founder himself, a parade of pianists will help raise funds for Harrison’s admirable Snowman Foundation and the Play It Forward Program, which helps bring music education and instruments to organizations that serve disadvantaged youth in the Northwest.

Speaking of Frahm, the visionary composer is indeed performing Tuesday at Revolution Hall, but the show’s been sold out for weeks. You can and should check out his latest, splendid album, though, or really any of them.

Nils Frahm is playing in Portland but if you don’t have a ticket already, you can participate in the Piano Day he created. Photo: Alexander Schneider.

You missed out on Hamilton tickets in Portland and Seattle — but you can catch the Hamilton of the ‘70s when A Chorus Line arrives this weekend at Eugene’s Hult Center. The 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama (which also scored nine Tony awards including Best Musical) was the longest running show in Broadway history till that time. ACL set the template for many of the most successful musicals that followed. Marvin Hamlisch’s sparkling score, one of the most memorable ever composed for a musical, still moves the heart, as does the story of 17 veteran dancers auditioning for spots on a Broadway chorus line just before they age out of a tough business.

If Patrick McCulley’s ArtsWatch review of Moon Hooch’s most recent Oregon appearance set your antennae a-quiver, you’ve got another chance to catch the incendiary horn-and-percussion trio on their latest tour, which alights at Portland’s Wonder Ballroom Thursday.

Anglophiles will titter politely at the news that Portland State University faculty baritone Harry Baechtel, the SF Bay-area based historically informed ensemble Sylvestris Quartet, and pianist Michael Seregow will perform early 20th century pastoral settings of English poetry.  Friday’s concert at PSU’s Lincoln Hall includes Ralph Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, a placid 1909 setting of six poems from A. E. Housman’s evocative A Shropshire Lad, and American composer Samuel Barber’s ardent setting of Matthew Arnold’s haunting Dover Beach, plus Eddie Elgar’s a minor Piano Quintet, written in the wake of what was then thought to be the Great War, and of course you can’t play Barber’s chamber music without throwing That Famous Movement from his string quartet.

Finally, Saturday offers a feliz chance to hear a wide range of Brazilian music at the tenth anniversary of the Old Church’s annual Sounds of Brazil PDX show. As always, the focus is on choro, the rootsy Brazilian analog of American jazz, conceived from a different but equally enchanting mix of African, European, and indigenous American influences, typically played on flute, mandolin, clarinet, or violin with various acoustic guitars and pandeiro drum. But the show presents other classic Brazilian sounds, from bossa nova to Brazilian jazz to samba and more), and features several acts, including solo guitar, guitar and mandolin duo, piano and guitar duo, and ensemble.

Got more musical recommendations? Slap those suckers in the comments section below.

Piano Day 2018 from Portland Piano Int’l / SOLO on Vimeo.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

The Mermaid Hour, approaching

Milagro's premiere play about a transgender 12-year-old and her family takes a while to heat up. Once it does, it radiates warmth and light.

A funny thing happened on the way toward intermission Sunday afternoon at The Mermaid Hour, David Valdes Greenwood’s new play at Milagro: I changed my mind. Radically.

I’d been looking forward to Mermaid, part of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” program (see T.J. Acena’s smart background story for ArtsWatch). But for much of the first act it seemed schematic, an argument in the guise of a drama, and I found myself observing rather than feeling – yet another issue play, more interested in the issue than the lives. A relatively progressive couple, Pilar and Bird (Nelda Reyes and Jed Arkley) have a transgender daughter, Violet (Jaryn Lasentia), who is 12 years old and pushing for hormone treatment and falling deeply for her best friend, Jacob (Kai Hynes), who’s gay. Bird’s Mr. Negative, and Pilar’s Mrs. Empathetic, and wrong thinking will be corrected, and lessons will be learned, and as people used to say back when telegrams were a thing, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Jaryn Lasentia as Violet and Michael Cavazos as the mermaid. Photo: Russell J Young

And then the ground began to shift. Things got muddy, and messy, and complicated, and the stick figures took on flesh and blood. And by the first act’s closing scene, in which Lasentia delivers Violet’s raw and tender and beautifully written monologue about being a mermaid – neither one thing nor the other but happiest in that in-between hour when her possibilities seem limitless – I was well and truly hooked.

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Oregon Symphony review: engaging the elements of drama

Abetted by two choirs and four soloists, the orchestra’s performance of Verdi’s mighty ‘Requiem’ attained near perfection — with a single omission 

by BRUCE BROWNE

An academic analysis of the Verdi Requiem reveals the brilliance with which one of the great romantic musical dramatists set text and music for the ultimate dramatic impact. It’s all there. No brainer…let it ride…can’t improve on perfection. Right.

Not so in this series opening performance from this Oregon Symphony. Not from the Portland Symphonic Choir and Adelphian Choir of University of Puget Sound. Not from the four soloists. And not from Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony. This performance respected the performers, the composition and the audience by focusing every note, every moment, from the very beginning. Total engagement.

Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony, Portland Symphonic Choir, Adelphian Choir and soloists in Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Requiem.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Perfection started at the top. The Requiem’s simple opening elements — the first orchestral notes, a descending a-minor triad; the first choral line, simple open fifths on “Requiem” — floated down as if not from the stage but from the heavens. It was just one of the many precious pianissimo (soft) moments throughout the performance. And it was because of those moments that later, the powerful, ominous moments sounded even more profound. Heavens! The booming “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) scared the Hall out of us – twice! Kalmar exploited this element of tension and then brought it home with exquisite timing/rhythm.

The Requiem runs 80-90 minutes constructed in several “movements” that can break the chain of drama. Or not, as in this uninterrupted interpretation of Carlos Kalmar, who lowered his baton only once in the entire work. The emotional state was maintained by all, including the four soloists who stood ready for every passage.

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Dance review: Katie Scherman at BodyVox

Katie Scherman's retrospective at BodyVox includes the world premiere "To Have It All," which continues her investigation of the lives of contemporary women

The title of Katie Scherman’s new dance, the last piece in her retrospective concert at BodyVox this weekend, is To Have It All, and reading through Scherman’s bio, your first thought might be, hey, she does have it all! Multiple degrees, an ongoing list of repertoire work and companies she’s danced with, guest artist residencies, her 2009 Princess Grace Award, the multiple commissions that have taken her around the world—performing, teaching, and creating.

The first work takes us back to 2014, with a duet titled Assez, created while she was at the University of Oregon. For those of you who haven’t brushed up on your high school French lessons or checked in on your Duolingo app recently, the word simply means “enough.” Performed by Scherman and San Francisco-based artist Alyssa Puleo, Assez was enough and more. After a few minutes of movement ruminations, Scherman was the first to speak, saying, “I remember when you told me I was beautiful.”

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‘Hamilton’ in Portland: Historic!

The national company of Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking, dazzling Broadway musical lights up the Keller. Got your ticket?

The audience erupted in cheers Wednesday evening as the lights went down in Keller Auditorium and we were instructed to turn off our cellphones. The anticipation was palpable in that moment. I realized, Oh my god. I’m about to see Hamilton.

If you’re not familiar with Hamilton – in which case, welcome to our arts blog, I’m not sure how you got here – it’s a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. If you’re struggling to remember who Alexander Hamilton was, he’s one of the founding fathers, most famous for promoting the U.S. Constitution and setting up our financial system.

Hamilton was incredibly well-received by critics and audiences when it opened in 2015, and has quickly become a cultural touchstone. How did Miranda make a musical about one of the lesser-known founding fathers such a success?

By putting it together in ways people wouldn’t expect.

Joseph Morales and Marcus Choi in “Hamilton.” Photo © Joan Marcus 2018

Miranda makes it clear from the start of the show that this won’t be like any other musical you’d normally see. The opening number, Alexander Hamilton, builds slowly with the cast rapping the history of Hamilton’s youth while adding layers of more traditional musical harmonies before ending in an enormous crescendo.

Wednesday’s Portland audience really lost their minds after that.

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Surviving Richard? She is fierce

Enso's all-female adaptation of Shakespeare's "Richard III" is ambitious and innovative and ripples with a disturbing question: Why, Lady Anne?

“A woman who speaks out survives.” So says Margaret of Anjou in She Is Fierce, a play not by Shakespeare. Margaret of Anjou is portrayed with ferocity by Sam Reiter in Enso Theatre Ensemble’s production at Shoebox Theatre.

Bitter irony lies at the heart of that statement, as spoken by the mother of Edward, Prince of Wales (killed by Richard III in the fifteenth century), in a modern-day retelling of Richard III from an all-female perspective, with Lady Anne of York at the center.

We all know what happens to Lady Anne, after all, in Shakespeare’s version of events: She dies miserably, married to the man who killed her husband.

Paige Rogers as the Duchess of York in “She Is Fierce.” Photo: Dylan Wiggins

In this production at Enso, originally produced by the Netherlands’ Het Vijfde Bedrijf (The Fifth Act) and adapted from the work of Dutch playwrights Maaike Bergstra and Annemarie de Bruijn, the women take center stage. There are four characters: In addition to Sam Bangs, the Lady Anne who introduces us to the play – in fact, invites us in from the exhibit in the lobby, also known as Lady Anne’s Gallery of Secrets – they are:

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