In the early years of the 19th century, John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant who’d already become wealthy through the fur trade and Manhattan real estate, gambled big on a grand vision. His plan was to establish an “emporium” near the mouth of the Columbia River — a geographic feature only recently known to Europeans and Eastern settlers — supported by fur-trapping posts along its tributaries. This would allow him to dominate the Pacific Northwest’s vast supply of one of that era’s most valuable resources. His company would then be able to initiate a lucrative global shipping network, trading in not just furs but Chinese tea and European manufactured goods. Flush with early-American idealism, he further hoped to set the stage for a democratic government in the region, a political and cultural sister to the fledgling United States, then still clustered on the continent’s eastern edge.
To these ends, Astor, in 1810, sent two expeditionary parties toward the Columbia, one by sea around Cape Horn, the other overland, heading out from St. Louis along the trail blazed a few years earlier by Lewis and Clark. The harrowing, often deadly, adventures of these groups is vividly told in Peter Stark’s 2014 best-seller Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival, and now in Chris Coleman’s sweeping theatrical adaptation for Portland Center Stage. Astoria: Part One premiered last season; Astoria: Part Two is on the boards at The Armory through Feb. 18, with a few bonus performances of the first installment sprinkled through the schedule.
SPOILER ALERT: Astor fails.
If this were a piece of historical adventure fiction, the demand for a shapely dramatic arc would leave us with plucky pioneers cheerfully proceeding with the work of Manifest Destiny. But the truth is that Astor’s initial American-run mercantile settlement falls prey to resource depletion, geographical remoteness, uncertain relations with surrounding tribes, and unforeseen geopolitical shifts (namely, the War of 1812). In hindsight, we can see that far too many things would have had to go just right. Astor and his soon-to-be bedraggled hirelings simply could not foresee what we might now call the “unknown knowns.”
But though Astor’s commercial venture on the Columbia runs aground, his loftier dreams of democratic expansion and pan-Pacific trade eventually take flight; it’s his men who hap upon the route that becomes the Oregon Trail, and the rest is, of course, (better-known) history.
Success, don’t ya know, is a matter of expectations. And that principle holds true for the theatrical Astoria, too.
During his long tenure at the helm of Portland Center Stage (which ends at the close of this season, when he leaves for a similar post in Denver), Coleman has distinguished himself as a director and an administrator, but on occasion has shown to be a skillful writer as well, most notably in the 2012 adaptation Shakespeare’s Amazing ‘Cymbeline,’ which improbably yet deftly recast the Bard’s complicated romantic adventure for six actors and a blues pianist/narrator.
Adapting Stark’s book of popular history no doubt presented much greater challenges: locales that ricochet from Manhattan to the Columbia and even to Hawaii, with all manner of treacherous seas and mountain ranges in between; multiple time frames for the sea-going party, the overland party and Astor back East; a large cast of characters with complicated roles and relationships; and most of all, a narrative scope that presents loads of gripping action yet also demands ongoing contextual framing and frequent exposition. There’s just no way this play could deliver what good contemporary theater usually offers: absorbing, fine-grained examination of human emotion and behavior through tightly focused circumstances, yielding poetic allusions to The Way We Live.
Compared to drawing-room realism or more imaginative constructs, Astoria, of necessity, sometimes feels a little stilted, more staged civics lesson than classic “well-made play.” Characters regularly address the audience in formal, almost declamatory tones to set the scenes or fill in bits of the copious narrative. Part Two, taken on its own, can be a bit hard to follow at moments, as the various members of the overland party, scattered by a combination of calamity and piecemeal strategic adjustments, straggle in and out of the story.
Yet there’s so much the piece does so well that it earns admiration for its ambition, affection for its sheer verve, and, yes, patience with its mammoth running time.
Once again in Part Two, the show benefits greatly from Portland stalwart Leif Norby, as convincing in rectitude and urgency as Astor as he is laid-back and backwoods as one of the frontiersmen. Gavin Hoffman shines again as the louche and headstrong Scotsman Duncan McDougall, and in fact nearly everyone in the cast of 17 has fine moments. Shawn Fagan (replaced here by the more steadfast-seeming Douglas Dickerman), who brought such sensitivity to the earnest dithering of overland party leader William Price Hunt, is missed; but there’s fresh pleasure in the work of Rafael Untalan, an addition to Part Two as the friendly, slyly witty Chinook named Concomly. Then there are the estimable contributions of Tony Cisek’s grandly rustic and versatile scenic design, a wealth of colorful costumes by Alex Wren Meadows and Toni-Leslie James, plenty of rousing songs beautifully arranged by Rick Lewis, and half a world of disparate dialects coached to unlikely credibility by Mary McDonald-Lewis.
But what’s most impressive — and like the eventual success of the American Astoria experiment, most resonant in the long term — is the way Coleman has heightened many of the thematic elements embedded in Stark’s historical account.
The remark made early in both installments — that had things not gone quite so, those now living west of the Rockies and north of San Francisco would be Brits or possibly Russians — might seem an only vaguely interesting “what if,” a reminder that in 1810 Manifest Destiny was far from manifest or destined. Yet at times Astoria plays like an examination of the unpredictability of history. At others it seems a broader treatise on the fraught nature of human endeavor and the vagaries of human character.
Threaded through, too, are Coleman’s clear political sensitivities — to the worth and variety of native cultures; to the strength and savvy of the few female characters; to the tensions between Western “settlement ” and a holistic environment … Coleman makes vivid so many themes and implications that the piece might have been called (with a nod to Portland novelist Whitney Otto) How to Make an American Quilt.
But of course, Astoria it is. And well worth a visit.
Astoria: Part Two continues through Feb. 18 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, with a few performances of Astoria: Part One, which premiered a year ago, also available. Ticket and schedule information here.
Read Marty Hughley’s review of Astoria: Part One from January 2017.