DramaWatch: Orwell’s doubleplusgood oldthink

The week in Portland theater features Artists Rep talking totalitarianism in "1984," Fake Radio turning back the clock, Shakespeare in the house, and more.

Here in mid-September, school is back in session, so that means that somewhere some teen is reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lots of teens in lots of places, more than likely. As did so many of us, I read George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel in high school and found it both fascinating and (even though the titular time-frame was yet a few years away then) prescient. 

But, having not revisited the book in more than 40 years, I do not remember the appendix.

“The Principles of Newspeak,” a linguistic essay following the familiar story, serves a central role in 1984, the 2013 stage adaptation that opens Artists Repertory Theatre’s season. Playwrights  Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan use the appendix, which uses the past tense in discussing the totalitarian government and its use of ideologically coercive language, as the basis of a framing device for the stage, presenting a group of people discussing the story from an historical remove. 

“Far from being a shallow postmodern device,” Variety wrote about a 2014 production at London’s Almeida Theater, “this adds a further layer of creepiness to the tale, allowing us to see the nightmare as something not in the future but in the near past.”

Fight the power. Winston Smith (Chris Harder) goes against government in Artists Rep’s stage version of George Orwell’s 1984.

The year 1984 is by now roughly equidistant from the time the novel was published and our present moment. Time and dates aren’t all that essential to Orwell’s social critique, which, like all literary dystopias, is as much descriptive as speculative. Which is another way of underlining the depressingly enduring relevance of the tale. 

“Orwell envisaged that not only would we all have a TV, but we’d have cameras in our rooms and the TVs would be able to see us back,” Macmillan said in an interview a few years ago with Michael Billington of The Guardian. “He also thought that we would be reporting on ourselves, which is now obviously very true with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and the fact that our phones now know exactly where we are and some are even being used to record our heart rate.

“We are all completely self-reporting, which prompted us to switch round the words ‘Big Brother is watching you’ into ‘Big Brother is you watching’, which we’ve incorporated into our script.”

Last week’s DramaWatch erroneously listed Artists Rep’s production among opening shows; the company’s longer slate of previews continues to confuse. Mea culpa. In any case, Friday’s actual opening night — at Imago Theatre because of the wholesale renovations underway at Artists Rep’s downtown home — remains promising, with an exciting cast (led by Chris Harder, Claire Rigsby, Allen Nause and Michael Mendelson) directed by Damaso Rodriguez.


Among the many subgenres of theatrical production, one of the most peculiar, in some senses, is the staged radio-show facsimile. Why bother creating a visual, spatial, physicalized rendition of something originally conceived as aural and disembodied? Well, perhaps because of the central place in American entertainment and culture that radio held for many years. What’s being staged isn’t radio, it’s the tropes and trappings and nostalgic mythos of radio from a certain age (the 1930s and ‘40s, before television stole radio’s lunch).

The Los Angeles company Fake Radio has been making a specialty of presenting old radio scripts (with little bits of improvisation sprinkled here and there) for more than a decade, with a regular cast of actors, voice-over artists and comedians, plus occasional high-profile guest stars (Fred Willard, Dave Foley, Laraine Newman, John Larroquette…). And, according to a press release, these folks have been performing in Portland semi-regularly since 2016. Well, blow me over with a transistor — I never knew! 

Lynne Stewart guest stars with Fake Radio for a recreation of The Maltese Falcon.

In any case,  Lux Radio Theater’s hit 1943 broadcast of The Maltese Falcon gets the Fake Radio treatment, Saturday night at the Old Church downtown and Sunday at the Vault in Hillsboro. Lynne Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” joins as special guest for what offers, in the words of the LA Weekly, “an uncanny sense of a time warp gone horribly right.” 

Generally speaking, a house full of drama is not what you want. But in a city where not just housing space but performing space keeps becoming harder to find, sofas and soliloquies seem to match well. Two small, young Portland companies are opening Shakespeare plays staged — if that’s the right term here — in private homes. Speculative Drama (love that name, by the way) which has been building a reputation for its “immersive” presentations, offers what it calls the “Lake House” Hamlet. A “contemporary lens” on how tragedy can flow from “one person’s inability to make adult choices” sounds like something I should see.
Meanwhile, Enso Theatre Ensemble serves up Much Ado, a “feminist supercut/adaptation” of Much Ado About Nothing, promising “all the drama of a house party…in an actual house.” 

Presented by Yale Union as part of PICA’s Time Based Art festival, The Dope Elf is described as “a series of three unique performances staged within a nomadic installation/film set and simultaneously livestreamed.” OK, cool. The PICA website says that the piece was “(c)ommissioned by LA-based playwright Asher Hartman,” but since Hartman wrote the play, what’s rather more likely is that it was commissioned from him by Yale Union. But anyway… Further description on the site includes such terms as “meta-play,” “slippery points-of-view,” “evading fixed identity,” “unboundedness” and so on, all of which makes me a little leery. But don’t let my aesthetic conservatism keep you from a good time. 

Readers Theatre Repertory continues its long run at the Blackfish Gallery, opening a new season this weekend with a program dubbed Love’s Funny That Way: Five best from “The Best American Short Plays.” If that already sounds like a lot of “best,” the selections — Losing Sight, by Kevin D. Ferguson, Man, Kind, by Don X. Nguyen, There’s No Here Here, by Craig Pospisil, Vertical Constellation with Bomb, by Gwyndion Suilebhan, and Petra by John Yarbrough — will be directed by DramaWatch favorite Mary McDonald-Lewis.

The flattened stage

I can’t speak for you, but I’d much rather that when I was a kid, the Saturday morning fare, instead of the likes of that craptastic Scooby-Doo, had been this:

The best line I read this week

“To be or not to be? There is no other subject about which so much has been written and about which so little has been said.”

— from “The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

MusicWatch Weekly: Everything is popular to someone

"Popular" and "classical" music, from Third Angle to School of Rock

This weekend’s concerts are pretty evenly split between “classical” music and “popular” music, so I think it’s time we talk about how you can tell the difference between them.

Humorist and Florida man Dave Barry discovered a pretty good definition in his son’s encyclopedia:

But we also need to define “classical music.” A little farther on in the World Book, we come to the section on music, which states: “There are two chief kinds of Western music, classical and popular.” Thus we see that “classical music” is defined, technically, as “music that is not popular.” This could be one reason why the “average Joe” does not care for it.

He has a point, sort of, but let’s break this down for real. First let’s dispose of some common half-assed theories. To start, “classical” music isn’t necessarily any more “intelligent” or “sophisticated” or “difficult” than “popular” music, and vice versa for ostensibly poppy characteristics like “accessible” and “simplistic” and “folk-based” and “relevant.” Consider Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, Björk, tUnE-yArDs, Brian Wilson, Imogen Heap, and the damn Beatles for “pop” (this is just off the top of my head–I’m sure you have your own favorites). Consider this bit of inspired Mazzolia and this bit of insipid Mozartiana for the rest.

Consider Caroline Shaw.

The one common charge that comes pretty close to sticking is the one about “elitism.” Musical education, access to “classical” performances, spare time for lessons, money for instruments, etc.–these are all earmarks of privilege. Many of the best classicists of the modern era (from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos to Frank’s Academy of Creative Music to Oregon’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras) have tried to break down those walls, and it’s one of the few things the internet has ameliorated. Yet “classical” at large remains a fairily conservative and meritocratic world.


The Week: Art is where you look

From Eastern Oregon to a paint-out on the coast to queer opera and TBA Fest in Portland to the streets of New York, art is all around us

THE ARTS WORLD MIGHT BE FINANCIALLY FRAGILE, with a tenuous toehold on the economic stepstool, but art and culture are all around us, wherever we look – and certainly, wherever ArtsWatch’s writers look. Carnegie libraries-turned-community-art-centers in Eastern Oregon. Street art and “high” art having a deep-in-the-trenches conversation in New York. Dancers in the woods near Astoria and a landscape paint-off in Cannon Beach. Queer Opera in Portland, a virtuoso theatrical solo turn in Clackamas County, Pavarotti on the radio, contemporary performance art at PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, a great photographer imprinted on the nation’s memory. And really, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of things.

Pendleton Center for the Arts, in a former Carnegie Library. In the
home of the Pendleton Round-Up, Randy Gundlach’s horse statue by
the entrance adds a Western touch. Photo: David Bates


“Queens Girl”: a colorful, complicated coming of age

Rich, evocative writing and Lauren Steele's vibrant performance highlight a winning one-woman play at Clackamas Rep.

Over the course of decades writing about performing arts in Portland, I have come to recognize a certain sort of experience that I refer to as a “black dot show.” This is when I happen to glance around at the audience and notice that I am the black dot amid an auditorium full of white people. As a Portland native, I find these occurrences neither surprising nor uncomfortable. 

On a second scan of the crowd at Clackamas Repertory Theatre this weekend, I spotted a young family in the back row that tilted the melanin equation a bit, but I already was musing about the company’s choice to stage Queens Girl in the World — a play about black adolescence and identity in early-1960s New York — for what I would guess is the oldest and whitest audience among Portland-area theaters.

Lauren Steele as Jacqueline Marie Butler, navigating the tricky terrain of adolescence and the socio-political changes of the ’60s in “Queens Girl in the World” at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft

I’m not the only person to find the choice surprising. In an unusually personal program note, the playwright, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, recalls her initial inclination to deny Clackamas Rep’s request for performance rights: “I pulled up your website and here’s what I saw: both of you (artistic director David Smith-English and managing director Cyndy Smith-English) are white. Your past theatrical seasons were white. Your theatre is located in a white community. You are outside of the City of Portland. Enough said.” But a follow-up phone call and a chance visit changed her mind.
“I should have remembered that embracing with curiosity, empathy and love the stories of those who look like ‘the other’ is the very definition of the theatrical impulse,” she wrote. “Silly me. How could I have forgotten that the more specific our stories, the more universal their themes?”

From the moment that Lauren Steele steps onstage as 12-year-old Jaqueline Marie Butler, all bright-eyed innocence and pin-point-polite diction, specificity is the hallmark of this terrific production. Written with abundant heart and loads of evocative detail, performed with winning vibrance, Queens Girl draws us in and charms us from the outset, then brings us along on a journey of surprising scope, depth and, yes, universality.

We meet Jacqueline — or Jackie, as she’s mostly called — on the stoop of her family’s two-story detached brick house in a neat but modest part of Queens, serenaded by the roar of planes on their descent to LaGuardia Airport. She comes across as sweet and sheltered. It’s quickly apparent that she’s hard at work, navigating and negotiating a path between the exacting uplift-the-race standards of her parents and the looser culture of the surrounding neighborhood. Her mother is a stickler for propriety, in speech and manners, such a model of Negro grace and bearing that Jackie refers to her not as “Mom” but as “Grace Lofton Butler.” By contrast, Persephone — a neighbor girl who is growing up a bit faster and less inhibited than Jackie — says things such as, “James ain’t feel me up! He jus’ kiss on me lil’ bit.”

It might seem at first that we are in for an engaging, lighthearted coming of age story. Jackie looks forward to confirmation classes at church, because her Grace will let her trade in her kid’s anklets for real stockings. When Grace begins talking tactfully of “womanly cycles,” Jackie is half puzzled, half excited: “Am I getting a bike?!” she wonders. Jackie’s social development briefly gets airborne with her first crush/kiss, then is blown off course when her parents transfer her from PS 124 to a private school in Greenwich Village, where suddenly she’s a black dot. 

All of this is easy to enjoy and easy to relate to, regardless of the racial/cultural specifics — Jackie’s or those of any audience member.

Steele is a wonderfully winning performer, and versatile to boot. (The program lists 13 roles portrayed by Steele, but as is often the case with such shows, this really is a single character telling us a story. While young Jackie vividly recreates the distinctive speech and mannerisms of the people in her life, we see these others strictly from her perspective, which is sometimes sensitive, sometimes broadly comic.) Director Damaris Webb has shaped the production with a sure and easy rhythm and unfussy, solidly supportive design work (Haley Hurita’s projections are especially effective). And Jennings’ writing is studded with descriptive gems: Jackie says her mother has a voice like “twilight-colored taffeta,” sketches an image of her proud West Indian father with his “dimples and brushed mustache,” and swoons at the 15-year-old boy whose recently changed voice sounds like “melting butter in a skillet.”

What ultimately elevates Queens Girl in the World, though, is the “in the world” part. By gradual, graceful, deceptively significant steps, Jennings builds her story (“semi-autobiographical,” according to Webb’s director’s note) outward from that unassuming front stoop, taking in larger ideas and events: the pros and cons of cultural assimilation, gradualism versus radicalism in politics, the tricky relationship of social-justice allies, the complex overlays of racial/economic/ideological identity, the cascading cataclysms of the march on Washington, the Birmingham church bombing, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X.  As she is at the outset, toggling between Persephone’s street vernacular and her mother’s textbook English, through all the growth and change and turmoil and learning Jackie repeatedly finds herself in complicated social dynamics, facing contradictory expectations, having to construct and calibrate an identity that fits herself and her situation.  

In that regard, maybe Jackie’s neither black dot nor black sheep, as much like any of us as different from us — not just a Queens girl in the world, but a chameleon riding a rainbow.

Reports from TBA 2019: Ligia Lewis

Obfuscation and illegibility in artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis's "Water Will (In Melody)"


As the culminating part of the BLUE RED WHITE trilogy by artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis, Water Will (In Melody) distorts canonical configurations of body and language by taking up the project of illegibility. Presented by PICA’s 17th annual Time Based Arts festival (TBA), Water Will (In Melody) opposes neoliberal progress and dominant categorization, rejecting the physical and conceptual articulations of representation that are projected onto the Black subject in exchange for something dark, something defined outside of whiteness. Lewis, accompanied by Titilayo Adebayo, Dani Brown, and Susanne Sachsse, presents a two-part performance that uses the four figures to investigate individual and collective ability to escape expectation, both of the theater and of themselves. 

While the puppet-like characters contort and twist their plastic and silk dressed bodies against the black stage, swampy sounds of crickets and trickling water fill the spaces between us and them. The scene is set in a way that references the outdoors and exposes the logistical aspects of theatrical production: off-stage is visible, the curtains are slightly too short, and the lighting equipment encroaches on the stage frame.  The mood is still marshy and gothic as if the theater is amidst a southern swamp. 

“Water Will (In Melody)” Photo courtesy of Sarah Marguier and PICA.

As the performance progresses, the women share the stage through choreographed moments that rely heavily on a combination of mime and bodily movements to reference physical anguish and personal pleasure. The dancers fold over themselves and writhe across the stage bumping against one another against  a loop of layered sounds and parts of speech. The corporeal aspects of Water Will are interjected with monologue spanning from excerpts of Grimm’s Fairy Tales during the opening sequence to a lengthy German speech by Sachsse. In the moments where language is foregrounded it is then disrupted, muffled, cut off, or drown out. This interruption is most obvious in a moment when Lewis spoke while she shoved her hand down her mouth, gagging herself in both a sexual and violent manner that made it nearly impossible to understand her. 

The disruption of intelligibility via the hand is a thread continued throughout the performance. The hands, central to mime gesticulation, are used in Water Will to unveil the interiority of the subjects. The palms and fingers of the performers are used to scratch, please, and undo almost as if their insides are begging to escape their predetermined forms. In exposing the exterior (including the audience, the theater, and each other) to their interiors, we could ask who they are performing for and what are we bearing witness to? 

Between the first and second act, there is a brief breakdown in the proceedings. A spotlight floods the four dancers and they begin what feels like pop-princess choreography set to the sound of an uptempo remix of an Enya song. While forming a straight line, the dancers thrust their pelvises, cross their arms with cheerleader energy, and evoke a familiar feeling of  “positivity.” The sterility of the breakdown deeply contrasts the stickiness of Water Will as a whole. On the Saturday iteration of the performance, the audience responded by laughing and clapping in approval of the breach in plot. In this abrupt and concise interlude it is  apparent that the spectators are complicit in the unfolding of the performance. While the material preceding and following this interruption concentrates on the subtle horrors of desire and possibility, this section antagonistically points at the audience and acknowledges them as part of the larger system that wills some to act on those feelings while denying others. 

The crowd is addressed multiple times throughout the performance. During the second act an intense strobe light turns on the audience. The flashing of various patterns of neon white jolt you into position and disrupt the theater experience. This happens again later with a searchlight that roams the theater, stopping briefly on audience members and then continuing on its path. Although this section of the work lasted a mere 2 minutes, the usages of this kind of lighting amplifies the role of the omnipresent voyeur — possibly referencing militarized and colonial surveillance mechanisms that the gender and racialized body is incessantly subjected to. 

“Water Will (In Melody)” Photo courtesy of Sarah Marguier and PICA.

Throughout Water Will, Lewis is central both in place and attention. This disrupts a multitude of established hierarchies of contemporary performance that attempt to flatten Black femmes, uncomplicating their relationship to the theater and to being watched. As Brown, Adebayo, and Sachsse periodically appear and reappear onstage, they emphasize that the theater is an actual theater, there is an unbridgeable gap between the performer and the audience. Lewis, however, challenges the gap by, getting close to the audience and entangling us again and again in her obsessive pattern. As water begins to rain down from behind the curtains, washing over the jerky yet sensual choreography, the performers appear like towels being wrung out — holding form but seeping from the inside as they glide across the stage and ground themselves in pooling puddles. In this section, Lewis’s distorted face and masturbatory gestures have a pulse of their own. On many occasions Lewis’s movements felt like a mashup of Velvet Rope-tour-era Janet Jackson and Kayako from The Grudge

The 60 minute production ends with Adebayo singing a church hymn while the Lewis, Brown, and Sachsse melt into the darkness of the stage. As the wrestling comes to a halt and water puddles on the stage, Adebayo’s voice sounded as if someone passed her the mic by surprise. Lewis revealed in a recent TBA and PICA sponsored conversation with scholar and curator bart fitzgerald that the song is titled “I Can’t” — playing again with the concept of will and concluding their guttural meditations of escape with rejection of everything that came before. The show closes with language the clearest its been through the entirety of the performance. With no movement or distortion, Water Will (In Melody) asks the audience to listen to what happens after the storm. Eventually the performer turns her back on us, simultaneously acknowledging the audience’s gaze and rendering visible the facade of the theater. In negating the physical gaze and audience expectation, Lewis solidifies Water Will (In Melody) as a mission in obfuscation. 

Ella Ray an art historian, facilitator, and arts-worker whose practice focuses on the Black contemporary art and process. Ella earned a BA in Art History/Critical Theory from Portland State University in 2018 and currently works for the Portland Art Museum and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art doing work around public engagement and decentralizing dominant culture. 

Notes from Eastern Oregon: Art centers keep culture alive

Former Carnegie libraries in Pendleton, La Grande and Baker City house collections ranging from rocks to Lee Marvin's yellow-striped pants.

A road trip to Eastern Oregon late this summer opened my eyes to an error of provincialism on my part. I had regarded Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center as being somehow unique for a small community. Granted, it is one of the largest nonprofit facilities of its kind in Oregon outside of Portland, but it is hardly the only instance of an old building being repurposed to keep arts and culture alive in a small town.

A trip that took us up the Columbia Gorge and into Pendleton, though La Grande, and finally into Baker City yielded a few journalistic snapshots.

The entrance of the Carnegie library that houses the Pendleton Arts Center was designed to resemble the Pazzi Chapel at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. Randy Gundlach’s horse statue lends a western touch. Photo by: David Bates
The entrance of the Carnegie library that houses the Pendleton Center for the Arts was designed to resemble the Pazzi Chapel at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. Randy Gundlach’s horse statue lends a western touch. Photo by: David Bates

The Pendleton Center for the Arts is perched on a hill on the northwest corner of downtown next to the Umatilla River. Like the other art centers we visited in Eastern Oregon, the Pendleton center is a remodeled Carnegie library, this one designed by Portland architect Folger Johnson (1882-1970) and built in 1916 in the style of Italian Renaissance Revival. The entrance was designed to resemble the Pazzi Chapel at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. Near the front steps is an equestrian statue titled Sisters in Spirit by Randy Gundlach, dedicated in October 2004.

On the day I was there, the photographic work of David Webber, an artist/professor from Oklahoma, occupied the main gallery. Trees, gates, fences, sidewalks, and exterior walls were the primary motifs featured in the 15 prints, blown up to enormous size. According to the program, Webber’s “photos confuse the boundaries of their reference and challenge the viewers’ perception of what they are seeing. Superimposing images through layering, he pushes them to varying degrees of density by creating simple composites, fields of color and meshed textures.”


To freely and fully embrace all possibilities

Questions for Queer Opera singers and stage director Rebecca Herman

Queer Opera is nearly upon us. This weekend’s trio of concerts at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theater feature opera scenes and art songs, all given the QO twist, and if you can manage to escape from The Empire these shows’ll rock your socks right off. Queer Opera: Experience is two nights of opera scenes, this Saturday and Sunday; Queer Opera: Song is a Sunday afternoon’s worth of English art songs.

You’ve heard enough from me already, so I thought it was time to let the gang speak for themselves. We spoke by email with stage director Rebecca Herman and four of the singers performing this weekend; their answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

Today’s guests:

  • Rebecca Herman, Opera Stage Director and Producer, she/her.
  • Sam Peters, soprano, they/she. Performing as The Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, Alcindoro in La Bohème, and Mercedes in Carmen.
  • Lisa Neher, mezzo-soprano, she/her. Performing as Idamante in Idomeneo and as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.
  • Lydia O’Brien, mezzo-soprano, she/her. Performing title role in Carmen and Colline in La Bohème; singing “Let Beauty Awake” from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel.
  • Madeline Ross, soprano, she/her. Performing as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro. Singing William Walton’s “Daphne.”

Arts Watch: What is the earliest musical “a-ha” moment you can remember? A song, an album, a concert, a class, a performance, etc. The thing that caught your ear and made you stop and say, “wait a minute, this music thing, I want to do that for real.”