All Classical Radio James Depreist

DramaWatch: Girl from Dylan Country

The Broadway tour of the Bob Dylan musical "Girl from the North Country" comes to Portland. Also: Openings in Portland and Ashland; Seattle theaters sing the budget blues.

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Sharaé Moultrie in “Girl from the North Country,” with songs by Bob Dylan. The Broadway tour plays June 18-23 in Portland. Photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

… and the headliner for this week’s theater news is: Bob Dylan?

Yes, Bob Dylan, he who was once Zimmerman, who built a career by watering the folk roots of Woody Guthrie, hung with Joan Baez and Johnny Cash, sang earnestly as if his voice were being scraped over a rough patch of road, became a counterculture superstar who moved from basement coffee bars to giant outdoor arenas, walked a tightwire between defiant outsider and trend-setting insider, wrote some of the greatest popular songs of the 20th century, and won, for his songwriting skills, the Nobel Prize for literature, upsetting traditional English departments across the land.

Broadway Across America brings the Dylan musical Girl from the North Country to Portland’s Keller Auditorium for a run opening Tuesday, June 18, and continuing through June 23, and this is not Guys and Dolls or Les Miz or even Sweeney Todd (the latter of which will kick off Portland Center Stage’s 2024-25 season in the fall).

The terrific Irish playwright Conor McPherson (The Weir, Shining City, The Seafarer) has taken 20-odd Dylan songs — among them Like a Rolling Stone, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, Lay Lady Lay, All Along the Watchtower, and the title tune — and created a story set in the chill north of Minnesota in the depths of the Depression in 1934.

The plot involves a threatened bank foreclosure, a pregnant unmarried daughter, a widow awaiting her inheritance, a Bible salesman, a boxer, and more twists than a tornado whirling its way to Oz. You could write song about it.

North Country, which premiered at The Old Vic in London in 2017 and wound its way to Broadway three years later, has had consistently good reviews. Variety, for instance, declared it a “loving homage with a neat turn of phrase and a tang in the air. When people sing, it’s as if they pop the bonnets of their brains and let us look inside.”

Opening this week

Ian Paul Sieren (left) and Toby Gollihar, authors/stars of “Blue Roses.” Photo: MJ Diaz

The writing and performing team of Ian Paul Sieren and Toby Gollihar is back in the saddle again, this time with a new “dark comedy” called Blue Roses, which opens Friday, June 14, in Southeast Portland’s congenial little performing spot Performance Works Northwest. It’s always interesting to see what Gollihar and Sieren, who operate as Spring 4th Productions, have been up to lately. They have a puckish simpatico onstage, and write for each other with a ton of familiarity: They’re approaching 20 plays as writers and performers together.

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Their shows have come with such intriguing titles as Real People. Not Actors; Dearly Departed; and the epically monickered Men in Comfortable Pants at the Hi-falutin’ Pomegranate Hotel. Their works tend to be comedies, but comedies with a little bite.

Blue Roses, Gollihar notes, tells the tale of a fractured family and … well, a spot of magic: “It turns out some objects can, in fact, grant wishes. … But what if you had no idea you were even making the casual wishes that would change the course of life’s events?”

Blue Roses plays a short run, June 14-16 and 21-23. Reservations: (503) 819-0818.

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Beginning Friday, June 14, Blinking Eye Theatre takes flight with The Seagull, Anton Chekhov’s great Russian classic about art, romanticism, youth, age, and Symbolism with a capital “S” for “Seagull,” in a translation by the superb British playwright Michael Frayn. While working on his new play Chekhov famously described it in a letter: “It’s a comedy, there are three women’s parts, six men’s, four acts, landscapes (view over a lake); a great deal of conversation about literature, little action, tons of love.”

Blinking Eye’s production will run June 14-30 at North Portland’s Twilight Theater. It anticipates Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s A Seagull, a new play that draws on Portlander Štĕpán Šimek’s translation of Chekhov’s The Seagull and the writing of PETE company member Chris Gonzalez, and that will run June 27-July 13 in Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio as a co-presentation with PCS.

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Tesla City Stories, which for the past 10 years has been re-creating the sound and feel of golden-age radio comedy and drama live on stage, does its last show until fall on Friday, June 14. As the company puts it: “straight outta 1944. Laughs, chills, romance, danger, eats, beverages, live Foley/sound/FX, 1940s live music, prizes, audience participation.” What else? Only the shadow knows.

Summer in Shakespeare town

Amy Kim Waschke and Al Espinosa in “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photo: Jenny Graham

Ashland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival welcome almost-summer with the addition of three plays in this season’s repertory. The indie-rock musical Lizard Boy opened Tuesday in the festival’s intimate Thomas Theatre. And after a couple of weeks of preview performances a pair of big shows on the festival’s largest stage, the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre, are ready for their official opening nights. A stage adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre opens Friday, June 14, and Shakespeare’s blissful comedy Much Ado About Nothing opens Saturday, June 15.

See the calendar of this year’s nine-production season here.

Still going strong in Holdover City

From left: Michael Feldman, Dana Green, Netty McKenzie and Delphon “DJ” Curtis Jr. in “Matilda the Musical” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Ela Roman

Meanwhile, keep your eye on a few currently running shows that still have a lot of life in them:

Matilda the Musical: Last fall Portland Playhouse had a hit with this musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel Matilda, and early this month the company brought it back for a fresh run through June 30. See Darleen Ortega’s review of the original run here.

Clyde’s: Lynne Nottage’s comedy-with-a-sting about a diner with a staff of ex-cons and a boss from at least Heck, if not the Other Place, has been enjoying a rousing run at Portland Center Stage, where it continues through June 30.

our orange sky: Profile Theatre’s world premiere of its third play by Christopher Oscar Peña in the past two seasons concludes its short run at Imago Theatre on Sunday, June 16.

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In Seattle, deep cuts and a plan to merge

On Monday of this week Gemma Wilson of The Seattle Times reported that Seattle Rep, the city’s biggest theater company, is eliminating 17 staff positions over the next several months, including four of its five-member artistic staff, sparing only Artistic Director Dámaso Rodríguez, the former artistic leader of Portland’s Artists Rep, who joined Seattle Rep a year ago. Combining some jobs and some new hires will result in a net loss of 13 staff members.

The company’s subscriptions are stuck below half of pre-pandemic levels, Wilson reported, and the Rep is facing an $800,000 shortfall in subscriptions and fundraising for the fiscal year ending June 30. Cuts and a draw from reserves, the company told Wilson, are projected to trim the operating-budget deficit to $335,000.

Seattle Rep has been a pillar of West Coast theater for decades, and the news is something of a shocker. Yet it’s no secret that the past four years have been tough on theater and other performing companies across the nation. Pandemic shutdowns upset the commercial theaters: Broadway is slowly pulling itself out of the doldrums as visitors begin to return to New York, and touring Broadway musicals are picking up steam.

But the nonprofit theater world that dominates in most U.S. cities is still struggling. For a lot of formerly regular theatergoers, the long pandemic pause has broken the habit of going to the theater. Companies are struggling to develop new, younger audiences, who have their own tastes in the entertainment they want to see. Theaters that control their own spaces have had to continue to pay for them while running fewer shows, seen by fewer people.

And during a hard time for the entire nation, both individual and foundation giving has altered: A lot of donors have cut down on giving to arts organizations so they can turn their attention to pressing social needs such as responding to the unhoused crisis, providing food to people who need it, and helping to underwrite programs to combat a national drug epidemic.

Theater companies have responded to the challenges in a variety of ways. One of the most prominent is a trend toward mounting co-productions by companies in different cities, perhaps following the lead of the opera world, where co-productions have been a part of the landscape for many years. In Oregon, Portland Center Stage has finished a production of Coriolanus that is about to be restaged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and Center Stage’s current production of Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s moved here after first running at Syracuse Stage in Upstate New York.

Also in Seattle, a couple of major theater companies are thinking of a more radical solution: Merging to form a single, stronger company. The Times’ Wilson reported last week that ACT Contemporary Theatre and Seattle Shakespeare Company are moving rapidly toward a merger. Merger discussions have been going on for about a year, Wilson reported, and the boards of both companies have unanimously approved exploring a merger, with the hope of having a “memorandum of understanding” signed by the end of June.

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Washougal Art & Music Festival

Such a move presumably would allow for more streamlined administrative costs, and also save the expense of operating in two locations. ACT currently operates under a $6.8 million annual budget; Seattle Shakes’ budget is $2.5 million. Both companies, Wilson writes, “remain hopeful that few, if any, jobs will be lost in the transition,” but it’s hard to imagine that at least some staff jobs wouldn’t be eliminated.

The bigger question, perhaps, is: How would this new company do justice to the programming goals of the two current companies? ACT is a contemporary company. Seattle Shakes is all about .. well, William Shakespeare, a fellow who turned 460 years old this year.

It’s far from impossible to serve both masters (the Oregon Shakespeare Festival incorporates a lot of contemporary plays into its seasons), but it will require a major shift in artistic thinking, and a shift for the audiences of both current companies: In a sense, it’ll be like building a new audience for a brand new, more artistically encompassing company. Then again, considering the possible financial landmines of continuing to do business as usual as separate entities, why not think big and give the urge to merge a try? Companies across the country, no doubt, will be watching to see how it all turns out.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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