The American experiment is not finished.
That is to say, the attempt in the United States to create a polyglot society, a home for equal opportunity and self-governance, a great nation of immigrants (and, yes, colonizers), the mythic city on a hill made real and lasting … well … we ain’t there yet.
Likely it is in the very nature of such an experiment that it must be an ongoing, unceasing endeavor.
And perhaps so too must any artistic attempt at encapsulation feel inevitably incomplete.
At least that’s the case with The Americans, the latest project from Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, ending its run this weekend. Inspired by the Robert Frank photography book of the same title, PETE’s show is by turns engaging, appealing, puzzling, and frustrating. If we take the show to be an inquiry, of sorts, into what it is to be an American, is it thereby fated to such contradictions?
Before entering the performing space at the Historic Alberta House (formerly Cerimon House), an audience member passes through a hallway in which a small exhibit is hung. There are sample photographs hanging in a corner, strung together like a mobile; yet the images are too small to provide either clarity or impact. A broken, vaguely heart-shaped mirror carries some metaphorical weight. Then further on are small cards with brief statements written on them (“To be an American is to Remember – to hold memories that conflict.” “To be an American is to be blithely unaware of how lucky and privileged you are.” Etc.)
The photos turn out to be more important than their underwhelming presentation suggests. The performance is essentially a work of movement theater, in which a variety of gestures (fingers dancing in air as though typing, fingers to the face in imitation of talking on the phone, the shaking of imaginary dice, and so on) recur. Apparently these gestures were adapted from Frank’s photos. Or at least so I was told by a friend who also saw the show and talked to me about it later. None of this had formed any coherent meaning for me as I watched the show.
In a program note, the show’s directors, Cristi Miles and Olivia Matthews, include a quote from Crystal Pite: “The body knows faster than the mind.” That precept may well work for a modern choreographer of such skill and inventiveness as Pite. And maybe the bodies of the PETE performers here experience a quickening of sorts, but the movement is neither creative and sharply executed enough as non-representational dance, nor clear enough as metaphor in motion to convey much knowing to the audience. (There is, however, some very entertaining gestural work, especially from Andrew Welsh, a performer I’d not seen before, as well as some rather stirring singing by Gerrin Delane Mitchell.)
The show’s clear strengths come in the sound design, by Mark Valadez, that uses, alternately, the scratchy sound of old vinyl LPs and the unpredictable skips of CD glitches to add a dislocating, off-kilter atmosphere to a trove of mid-century jazz classics, and in the all-too-little employed text by (ArtsWatch contributor) Christopher Gonzalez. The words spoken have an intriguing potency, a playful way of leaning into the contradictions inherent in an individual’s way of looking at the world, and in the larger aims of the PETE project: “Am I in danger? I am not in danger. I am pursuing happiness.” “I am, right now, head to toe, covered in shit and blood. You can’t see it because it became my skin.”) At moments, these spoken interjections feel as if they might bring the show’s overall indeterminate nature into sharper relief, but then they disappear for long stretches of movement that play more like generative exercises than finished statements.
Of course, it would be foolish to expect real answers, in dance or otherwise, to something as big and amorphous as the nature of American identity. Nonetheless, I came away from The Americans wanting more of an idea of what PETE thinks the questions are – whether the frame for such questions is historical, sociological, political, demographic or emotional.
Or maybe those sorts of questions are meant to be my own – one American among many – brought into private engagement with the performance, yielding some personal insight?
In which case, this Portland theater experiment is not finished.
Before her career as a playwright, Pearl Cleage worked for a time as press secretary and speechwriter for Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta. That experience undergirds her play What I Learned in Paris, which explores race and gender issues through the lives of characters connected to Jackson’s 1973 campaign. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called it “a sparkling comedy about the personal relationships written between the lines of history” and “a tale of feminist emancipation and love in the time of Stevie Wonder, bell-bottoms and Afros.”
Portland Playhouse, presenting in partnership with Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, where director Lou Bellamy staged the play last spring, brings back two of the company’s favorites in Cycerli Ash and Lester Purry, along with Vinecia Coleman, company stalwart La’Tevin Alexander, and fast-rising star Lauren Steele.
A jukebox musical about a group whose career wasn’t famously tumultuous, Ain’t Too Proud exists to fulfill the primary functions of a jukebox musical with as little fuss as possible: Serve up the hits and the period nostalgia on a platter.
But when the hits are those of Motown’s perennial powerhouse the Temptations, and the period nostalgia is for slick suits, close harmonies and sharply choreographed dancing of 1960s soul at its apex, who are we to complain? Plus, it can’t hurt to have the book written by the fine playwright Dominique Morisseau. See Misha Berson’s recollections of the time and place in her ArtsWatch piece The Temptations, Motown and me.
Want more insight into the Motown milieu? On Feb. 8, Portland jazz favorite Mel Brown offers an insider’s perspective in From Stumptown to Motown and Back Again, an onstage conversation, with fellow drummer Tim DuRoche, about his time touring with some of the Detroit label’s legendary artists.
Speaking of jukebox musicals, Triangle Productions’ Don Horn directs (and designs sets and costumes for) Me and Tammy, his tribute to the country music icon Tammy Wynette. Part of the draw, again, is a storehouse of justly familiar tunes, but Horn also employs a novel premise: Shortly after her death, Wynette appears to a drag impersonator and consoles him about the sad news of her passing so that he can help keep her memory alive onstage.
If there’s any place to find an audience for a play inspired by a dream of giant beavers, I suppose Oregon is the place. Okinum, presented by Boom Arts at Portland Opera’s Hampton Opera Center, is the work of Canadian multi-disciplinary artist Émilie Monnet, who has described the shows origins this way: “Basically, a beaver the size of a bear comes in and visits me … I have dreamt it three times over more than 10 years. I really wanted to decipher this dream and understand what the words are and what the dream means.” Or, as Boom Arts clarifies, “Monnet takes the audience on journeys through history and generational experiences; the dream world and the waking world; human consciousness and the perspective of beavers.”
Not pulling its punches from the title on down, Ronald Reagan Murdered My Mentors, a play by C. Julian Jimenez, chronicles the “struggles to navigate queer life after the AIDS epidemic obliterated an entire generation of Queer male role models,” as Fuse Theatre Ensemble puts it. James R. Dixon directs.
Third Rail Rep hosts a weekend’s worth of “live-captured” productions – shown as live simulcasts in many places but as digital recordings here because of time-zone differences – from the National Theatre in London. First up is Straight Line Crazy, David Hare’s examination of the New York urban planner and power broker Robert Moses, starring Ralph Fiennes. Then it’s on to a couple of plays by some guy called Shakespeare – the comedy Much Ado About Nothing directed by Simon Godwin, and the battlefield glories of Henry V in a staging from the Donmar Warehouse that stars Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington.
First, the good news: There’s Sondheim!
In other news: Les Misérables.
But then, that’s just the first reaction from your ever-opinionated DramaWatcher. Part of the point of the Broadway in Portland series is to serve a variety of theatrical tastes – as the just-announced 2023-’24 season will.
Actually, if we’re talking news here and not just opinion, the lead is that the season opens, in July, with the hot pop-historical mash-up of SIX, a Tony-winning musical that presents the six wives of Henry VIII in concert, competing for audience sympathy as they recount their mistreatment by the famously mercurial king.
Also on the schedule: Tina – the Tina Turner Musical, Les Miz, The Lion King, Beetlejuice, and Annie, then finally a turn for the more substantive next summer with Conor McPherson’s Bob Dylan tapestry Girl From the North Country and the recent gender-flipped iteration of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
Over the past decade, Lava Alapai has developed into one of the stronger freelance theater directors in Portland, creating shows for Artists Rep (most memorably a crackerjack production of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon), Oregon Children’s Theatre, Portland Center Stage and others. Now her career takes a step forward with the announcement of her new gig as Artists Rep’s associate artistic director.
The idea here is to set up more steps. Alapai’s appointment is a “one-year artistic leadership residency,” as the company’s website describes it, and is “intended to prepare ART’s Black artists to lead an arts organization of comparable size” as part of an ongoing program of mentorship and support called DNA: Oxygen.
The flattened stage
The best line I read this week
“When I was a child, I could spend all day at Shining Time Station, the fictive train depot with its own eponymous TV show, where Thomas the Tank Engine and all his plate-faced locomotive friends worked and lived. To my undeveloped brain, each episode seemed like a beautiful daydream, in which an orderly, magical, trance-inducing universe ticked on under bluebird skies…How could I possibly have imagined that, decades later, I would get lost in obscure corners of the Internet where people interpret the show—at length—as a depiction of a premodern corporate-totalitarian dystopia?”
– Jia Tolentino, in a 2017 piece for The New Yorker.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.