Earlier this month I landed in Ashland to see the first five plays of the 2018-19 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, Bill Rauch’s last as artistic director.


The plays under inspection here include:

  • the vastly popular stage version of the John Waters film “Hairspray”
  • Lauren Yee’s instantly (and deservedly) popular “Cambodian Rock Band”
  • an “As You Like It” that preserves the “Shakespeare” in the “Oregon Shakespeare Festival” and also interprets the play in a progressive way
  • the world premiere of long-time festival favorite Octavio Solis’s “Mother Road”
  • and “Between Two Knees,” a seriously pointed sketch comedy by the Native American improv group The 1491s and another world premiere.

Last season I made a similar trip to see a similar batch of new productions, relatively soon after the announcement that Rauch was heading for New York to become the first artistic director of the Perelman Center in New York City. What struck me then was how far the festival had evolved during Rauch’s tenure: “Suddenly, they [the plays] became a sort of emblem of the changes that Rauch has brought to the festival—and to American theater in general—during his run at OSF, which began in 2007.

What changes are we/was I talking about?

Jessica Ko and Roman Zaragoza in director Rosa Joshi’s production of
“As You Like It” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Photo: Jenny Graham.

“Rauch was ahead of the times at OSF, although he was also drawing on important changes initiated by previous artistic directors Henry Woronicz and Libby Appel. From the beginning he explicitly linked the festival to social change, both internally and onstage, embracing diversity, feminism and social justice, well ahead of other regional theater companies and even national equality movements—#blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #occupy. During his tenure accessibility projects flourished, sharpened their focus, and had a real effect on how the festival does business and what it puts onstage.”

This first round of plays in the 2019 season follows and extends the programming developments Rauch began in 2007. The productions themselves retain the high-end production values the festival is known for, and they are populated with persons of color, tell stories about communities the festival (along with most of the rest of American theater) once neglected and have the edgy energy that new plays, new voices, new actors and directors can bring.

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Classical music programs largely consist of endlessly recycled old classics by composers who are (a) European, (b) male, and (c) white. Florence Price is (e) none of the above. The 20th century African American composer does, however, abide by that other common requirement for appearing on classical programs — she’s (d) — dead. 

But today, Price’s music is, against all odds, coming back to life, including Tuesday when Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony performs one of her symphonies. What’s more, Price’s resurrection is inspiring today’s young composers to create new music, and the concert features some of that, too — including a world premiere just composed by a young woman from the Pacific Northwest.

Metropolitan Youth Symphony plays music of Florence Price, Katie Palka and more Tuesday. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Born in Arkansas in 1887, Price studied music at the prestigious New England Conservatory and went on to write hundreds of compositions. Premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, her Symphony No. 1 in E minor was the first symphony by an African-American woman ever to be performed by a major American orchestra. (Read Damien Geter’s ArtsWatch story about Price and other neglected African American composers.)

But Price’s music, like that of so many composers of color in her time, was ignored by most orchestras and seldom played after her death in 1953. When one of her former homes was remodeled in 2009, the attic yielded dozens of unpublished scores, and ignited an ongoing rediscovery of her music.  

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NEA: $1.2 million in Oregon grants

The National Endowment for the Arts delivers 17 grants in Oregon as part of an $80 million round of awards nationally

The National Endowment for the Arts today announced its latest round of grants, more than $80 million across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. jurisdictions. Oregon’s share is $1,219,200 among 17 groups and agencies – more than half to the Oregon Arts Commission, which then makes further grants throughout the state. Funding ranges from hiring a folklorist at the High Desert Museum in Bend to developing a new tribal arts and culture plan in Coos Bay to creating a new work at Eugene Ballet.

The complete Oregon list:

High Desert Museum, Bend:

$45,000 to support a folklorist position at the High Desert Museum.

Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, Coos Bay:

$50,000 to support the development of an arts and culture master plan to establish guidelines for public art and architecture that will celebrate sites of historical significance in Coos Bay, Oregon.

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Keylock company finds its footing

The contemporary dance company stages its first evening-length performance with work by founder Shaun Keylock and two others

Portland’s Shaun Keylock Company staged its first evening-length performance this past weekend at New Expressive Works, offering contemporary pieces that demonstrate the emerging company’s aesthetic and interests, as well as founder/artistic director Shaun Keylock’s curatorial practice, which combines technical rigor with historical references and a queer sensibility.

The bill featured two of Keylock’s pieces as well as work by Seattle’s Jordan
MacIntosh-Hougham and Portland’s Josie Moseley. The last time I saw Keylock’s work was June 2018, when he debuted Calamus for New Expressive Works’ 10th residency cycle. After that residency, Keylock continued to meditate on Calamus—a piece about what he calls “quiet queerness” that draws from Walt Whitman text and World War II-era oral historiesand created a second, more mature iteration of the work for this program.

Kristalyn Gill (from left), Shaun Keylock, Trevor Wilde, Jillian Hobbs, and Liane Burns wig out in Jordan MacIntosh-Hougham’s “Bad! Bad! Bad!” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

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Classical Up Close: intimate circle

Oregon Symphony musicians’ neighborhood pop up performance connects listeners, classics, and performers

By DAVID MACLAINE

Photos by Joe Cantrell

Southeast Portland’s Mt. Scott Presbyterian Church was filling up pretty quickly when I got there for the April 24 performance in the Classical Up Close program. Now in its seventh season, the annual spring series brings Oregon Symphony players to venues around the Portland metro area for chamber music concerts free of the formality of downtown halls, and with free admission too. (Read ArtsWatch’s story about CUC’s origins.)

 I reached my destination a bit early. No problem: the convenient location was no small part of the attraction of this concert. I could use the spare minutes sitting in the sun at a bench in Mt. Scott Park. Children climbed and slid down slides, the sun slid a bit too, and it was time go see what Classical Up Close was all about.

Turns out that “Up Close” is not just a slogan. The church is a pretty cozy venue in the first place, so when MC Christa Wessel let us know that the row of seats at the back of the podium were for fans, not musicians, and implored us to occupy them, I took the plunge, abandoned my place in the more distant pews, and endured a couple of awkward minutes sitting on-stage alone, staring out at the crowd, before others worked up the courage to take that walk up the aisle and join me. By the time the concert was ready to begin children were darting up there too. 

MC Wessel and hornist Joe Berger talk horns from the stage at Classical Up Close.

Six feet away from the players is a pretty choice location for chamber music, and not one I have enjoyed for a while. It has been decades since fans could enjoy the intimate view of Chamber Music Northwest events from the cushions on the floor of the Reed College cafeteria.

From my vantage point on stage I could survey the crowd. It was a better turnout than most free events, and although the gray-haired demographic was still in the majority, we at least fell short of the veto-proof supermajority found at most classical concerts. The presence of children and young parents was a welcome mood booster. 

So too was the insistence by our emcee that this was to be a holiday from conventional concert decorum. Take pictures or tweet if you want, applaud whenever you feel the urge, come and go as you please, and above all, have fun. It was a good test of what I think of as the Choban Theory that classical music is essentially smothered by the people who love it, swaddled in deadly formality, and that the antidote is an audience that feels free to express itself, passionate performers and music that flows from a living source instead of a distant past. On this occasion all those elements came together to provide more evidence that the theory might be true.

Blessinger & Noble
Blessinger & Noble

Bohuslav Martinu is not a serious contender for my personal list of the the Top Forty Classical Composers, but whenever I do stumble across the 20th century Czech composer’s work I always wonder why we don’t hear more of him. His Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, performed by violinist Ron Blessinger and violist Charles Noble, provided not just the back and forth dialogue you tend to expect when two string instruments are asked to play catch without the safety-net of an accompanist, but also an infectious ability to build toward a climax. I began to worry that from my position right behind the players I might become a distraction, as I felt myself swaying and tensing as the music drove toward its payoff. I was too indoctrinated to accept the invitation to applaud between movements, but the audience happily felt no such inhibition.

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‘Well’ & ‘Pebble’: over the edge

Welcome to the well-made play? Profile and Imago go beyond the stylistic borders in new shows by Lisa Kron and Carol Triffle

A good play ought to grab its audience from the very top and take it for a ride. The way it grabs an audience can be as varied as a cowboy crooning from the wings about a beautiful morning (Oklahoma!) or a vengeful ghost skulking around a castle (Hamlet).

Well, Lisa Kron’s quasi-comic onstage argument from Profile Theatre at Portland Playhouse, opens in a well of silence with actor Vana O’Brien snoozing, or pretending to snooze, on a recliner flopped way back to sleeping position – not an action but the anticipation of an action, the tension of action’s absence.

Pebble, Carol Triffle’s new existential riff on melodrama at Imago Theatre, opens with an apocalyptic crash and boom of thunder and lightning, an absurdist clatter thrusting a mental institution, and the audience, into mind-altering darkness.

The openings could scarcely be more different. Yet Well and Pebble are both meta-theatrical shows, self-referential experiences stretching the idea of what dramatic storytelling can be. They’re plunges into pure style and the ways in which we invent ourselves, tugging at the fragile veil between fact and fiction, as we go along.


PEBBLE at IMAGO THEATRE


Triffle’s Pebble, the final play in Imago’s three-show Next Wave Festival (following Jerry Mouawad’s Leonard Cohen Is Dead and a revival of Mouawad’s lyrical fantasia To Fly Again) is both familiar and fresh, a vigorous new exploration of territory Triffle’s shown us before. It’s a place so simple and ordinary that it takes on extra-ordinary dimensions, mundanity transforming like Kafka’s unfortunate Gregor Samsa into a new reality of darkly comic horror and thwarted passion at loose ends.

Kyle Delamarter and Danielle Vermette in Carol Triffle’s Pebble: all in the family. Photo courtesy Imago Theatre

The bursts of thunder and lightning at the beginning set the stylistic tone: Everything’s big, bold, broadly gestural, almost a parody of melodrama and American stage realism – the shell accentuated and the stuffing ripped out. Over decades Triffle and Mouawad have built a theater of seductive spectacle at Imago, most obviously in the company’s glorious costume-and-movement shows like Frogz, in which spoken language is either nonexistent or an afterthought, but also in the individual shows the two have created that use language extensively but usually in a disjointed manner – shards of familiarity broken off and scattered across a landscape that is altered as in an odd and perplexing dream, or a painting by Dalí or Bosch.

In Pebble, the skewed landscape is the interior of a mental institution where an emotionally unkempt woman named Pebble (Danielle Vermette) seems something like a live-in guest at an odd and slightly menacing hotel. A partly finished jigsaw puzzle sits on one table, a deck of cards at another. An easel sits to one side, with a painting of two horses propped on it. Sometimes Pebble dons a smock and picks up a brush. More often she’s making obsessive scrawls on the walls, which are covered with them. Toward the back is a reception area, the domain of Nurse Megan (Megan Skye Hale), who sometimes barks instructions into a microphone and often casts speculative glances at a medical orderly (Jon Farley), who is also the object of advances from Pebble, who’d dearly love to get her itch scratched and doesn’t trust Nurse Megan one bit. Little blue pills are passed from character to character, caretakers and inmates alike – Pebble ended up here because of an unfortunate overdose problem – and everyone prowls around like tigers in a cage. It’s all very homey, in a clinical, creepy way. Then a newcomer shows up: Nick (Kyle Delamarter), who might be Pebble’s brother (he probably is), and might be sane or as loony as everyone else, and whose arrival upsets an already unbalanced apple cart.

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Coast calendar: Studio tours, exhibits closing, steampunk ahead

Art events this week include a documentary film about art and madness, which may put you in the mood for the upcoming exhibition at the Oregon Coast Aquarium

It’s not happening on the Coast, but you could say it is of the Coast. That’s the opening of an exhibit of poetry and photography by Oregon State University faculty member Joseph Ohmann Krause in The Little Gallery on the OSU campus in Corvallis. Inspired by Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1854-1916), Drawing in the Northern Light combines eight poems with photos, most of them taken on the Oregon Coast.

Oregon State University professor Joseph Ohmann Krause combines his photographs of the Oregon Coast with his poetry in “Drawing in the Northern Light” in The Little Gallery on the OSU campus.
Oregon State University professor Joseph Ohmann Krause combines photographs of the Oregon Coast with poetry in “Drawing in the Northern Light,” a show on the OSU campus.

The idea came to Krause, a French professor, after he happened upon a catalog of Hammershøi’s, said Helen Wilhelm, curator of The Little Gallery.  

“In Hammershøi’s work, a lot of the paintings have to do with an empty room, or you can see beyond into a farther room,” Wilhelm said. “You get the feeling that, yes there are people who live in these rooms, but they just left. There is a sense of mystery, calm. Even a bit of isolation. 

“In Dr. Krause’s photos, there is never a person in them,” she continued. “There may be an empty beach scene, but you get the sense that someone was there earlier. The word ‘absence’ is the major word that comes to mind. The opposite of chaos.”

The opening is 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 4, in 210 Kidder Hall. Someone will be on hand to read the poems, and Wilhelm is hoping to find musicians to play compositions by Danish composer Dieterich Buxtehude, who has also inspired Krause.  “It’s going to be really elegant and lovely,” Wilhelm said.

The show is on view from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays (closed during lunch) May 28 through Sept. 30.

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