EGGNOG AND CHRISTMAS MUSIC ARRIVED A FEW WEEKS EARLY at our house, and really, who could blames us? – the quicker we can nudge 2020 toward the door, the sooner we can move on to something a little more promising. The early arrival of eggnog in grocery-store coolers was, I suspect, a calculated move by the dairy industry, which rightly surmised that a lot of people who’ve pretty much had it with this train wreck of a year would like an early start on the holiday season. As for those Christmas CDs (yes, we still listen to CDs), a lot of the greatest music known to humankind was composed for winter celebrations. Even popular holiday songs can feel like old friends and true companions. Winter Wonderland is an eminently hummable and whistleable tune, even if, after a certain number of repetitions, your podmates cry for mercy.
One of the things that goes with the season is The Nutcracker, a Russian tradition that became an American inevitability, performed annually to box-office hallelujahs everywhere from New York City Ballet to Miss Marcie’s Junior Terpsichorean Academy in Little Falls, Oklahoma (if such a training ground for budding balletic talent actually exists). For a stretch of several years it was one of my annual tasks to review the newest incarnation of The Nutcracker in town, an assignment that usually gave me enjoyment in the watching but consternation in the writing: What could I possibly say that was both pertinent and new? One year I found myself lost in description of the one thing that seemed, at that particular performance, most striking: the pleasure on the faces of the flock of star-struck little girls who had rushed down to the orchestra pit during intermission to get a little closer to the magic. Pertinent? On that day it seemed almost the whole point.
The pleasures of The Nutcracker start but do not end with Tchaikovsky’s score, an entirely satisfying combination of structural steel and melodic memorability. The music is in regular rotation on our December stereo system, either in Valery Gergiev’s complete version with the Kirov Orchestra or in Duke Ellington’s sprightly adaptation of the Suite. Sometimes it pops up in spring or summer, too: Why should music as pleasurable as this be confined to a single season? For that matter, why should it be confined to its Russian roots? The world’s a restless place, and art loves to reinvent itself. So, as Jamuna Chiarini notes in her December DanceWatch Monthly column, Sugar Plum-hungry Oregonians can look forward to some variations on the old czarist theme this month. Decadancetheatre’s Hip Hop Nutcracker, for instance, updates the beat in a streamed version featuring rap legend Kurtis Blow as emcee. And Toni Pimble’s enjoyable version for Eugene Ballet will have a regular run, “virtual or in-person, depending on Governor Kate Brown’s orders.”
AH, BUT HOW COULD WE FORGET old Scrooge and Tiny Tim? Not a ghost of a chance. Dickens’ harsh and sentimental tale of hardship and redemption is open to almost endless interpretation and adaptation. All we’re lacking is a Ghost of 2020 in the Rear View Mirror: I throw that out to potential producers as a last-minute possibility. In A Milagro Carol, Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes about A Xmas Cuento Remix, Maya Malan-Gonzalez’ updated Latinx version for Milagro Theatre that debuted last year as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere series and is back on its virtual home turf this season. Cannon Beach’s Coaster Theatre has been doing variations on A Christmas Carol since 1973, and Lori Tobias writes about this year’s up-against-the-pandemic version – a radio-style broadcast set in the American Depression. Eugene’s Ballet Fantastique has produced a made-in-Oregon film variation, American Christmas Carol: A Ballet Movie, available through Dec. 23. In Chiarini’s words, it reimagines the story as “a 1940s post-war American novella (set) to a swingin’ jazz score from international award-winning vocalist Halie Loren.” And Experience Theatre Project is getting ready to wow us with A Drunk Christmas Carol, “a classic tale gone off the rails,” which I suppose circles us back to the eggnog, if it’s well-spiked.
ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, MAKING THEATRICAL SPIRITS BRIGHT
THERE ARE, OF COURSE, OTHER PERFORMANCE TRADITIONS in Oregon that have been uprooted by the Year of Pandemic, among them the Portland Revels, which since 1995 have been bringing to the solstice season British/Celtic/Medieval European-style singing, mumming, horn and Morris dancing, ancient-instrument playing, and folklore, with occasional forays to other time periods and spots on the globe. Kids have grown up with this, started their own families, and brought their own kids to join in the fun. This year the solstice frolicking will go on, but virtually, with three streamed performances Dec. 18, 20, and 24. You can sing along, glug your grog, and cheer the Lord of the Dance from your living room.
UNTIL THIS YEAR Anonymous Theatre has been a rollicking Portland tradition that’s had nothing to do with the holidays. Every year since 2003 it’s produced a one-night-only show – ranging from The Importance of Being Earnest to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Skin of Our Teeth, and Urinetown: The Musical – in which all of the performers are rehearsed in isolation (so 2020!) and nobody knows who else is in the cast until the actual performance. (See Bennett Campbell Ferguson’s ArtsWatch story on 2018’s Anonymous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) With pandemic shutdowns of live events, there was no show this year. Anonymous is turning instead to daily podcasts throughout December – thirty-one of ’em, each recorded by someone who’s done an Anonymous show in the past – of people talking about their own seasonal memories and traditions. Company artistic director Darius Pierce kicked the series off on Tuesday, and Brooke Calcagno followed on Wednesday. “There’s nothing anonymous about it,” Pierce declares. “Except that you won’t know whose video it’s going to be until it’s playing to you.”
THEATER AND TECHNOLOGY have always walked hand in hand (what’s often called “stage magic” is really stage tech). But as live theater has shut down, tech has had to adapt rapidly to the challenges of virtuality. Some companies have responded by switching to radio-style delivery: recorded vocal and sound theater, with no visuals. Others have turned to solo shows, easing the visual and financial challenges by concentrating on a single focus. And a few, with greater or lesser success, have tried to adapt the technologies of cinema, creating pieces that are hybrids of theater and the movies. That’s what Stepan Simek, chair of the theater department at Lewis & Clark College and one of Portland’s more imaginative directors, decided to do with the college’s fall-term production of Cabaret.
He’d chosen Cabaret because the production was set to go up right around election time, and he liked the idea of doing a play from a different time about corruption, dissolution, and “everybody trying to entertain themselves to death.” Then Covid hit. “I thought, maybe we should just do something like The Vagina Monologues,” a solo show, he said. “Then I just thought, ‘no, no, no, we will do Cabaret.”
Ah, but how? It was “pretty much a crash course in filmmaking,” Simek said – and in filmmaking under pandemic-isolation circumstances. For ideas he turned to John Van Druten’s original 1951 Broadway non-musical play, I Am a Camera, and its source, Christopher Isherwood’s book The Berlin Stories. “I thought: OK, we’re going to film the thing and at the same time it will be performed live. So since I’m latching onto the title I’m a Camera, why not set it in a TV studio of sorts with a live audience watching the making of the show live and at the same time see the filmed show as well? Two points of view at the same time, which is a bit disorienting and disquieting, which in turn also reflects the disorienting and disquieting nature of the story itself.”
To do that, all of the sections of the play were separated physically – the dancers in one studio, the actors on another stage, each performing in a plexiglass isolation booth, the Emcee in his own mobile booth. “The actors on the MainStage were in fact not facing the audience in the theater space,” said Owen Carey, the veteran theater photographer, who was documenting the show. “They were behind a black curtain aimed toward the back of the stage.” Lights and cameras were installed in each isolation booth, so that even if the performers were 20 feet apart onstage, the projected images above them looked as if they were having a conversation. Images from both stages were streamed in real time onto a huge white tent outside the theater, where a small, appropriately spaced audience watched. About 60 people were involved in the show, which had six performances, all fractured and brought together by technology: Simek mentioned in particular the creative work of computer whiz Trevor Sargent and musical recorder/mixer Robert Fishel in bridging the gap between theater and film.
In the end, imagination was the greatest technological trick of all. “In general,” Simek said, “all the Covid restrictions actually worked in our favor since the solutions to them have – on some very strange and magical level – reinforced some of the themes in the story and made them pop out more.”
AND THE MUSICAL-THEATER COMPANY Broadway Rose, which most recently produced a videostreamed version of Daddy Long Legs that included, in rehearsal, a surprise marriage proposal and a wedding onstage, is taking a stroll down Crooner Lane with another fresh-taped production, Christmas My Way: A Sinatra Holiday Bash, available Friday through Dec. 31. Like The Nutcracker, it involves a Rat Pack. Unlike The Nutcracker, the rats are good guys.
DECEMBER IN THE GALLERIES; CERAMIC FERTILITY
VIZARTS MONTHLY: THE ‘FREEZE’ EDITION. With Oregon’s pandemic shutdowns, most art galleries are either closed or operating on restricted access. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to see, Lindsay Costello writes, especially in the form of virtual exhibitions. She finds an intriguing selection, from Ralph Pugay’s 2020-titled Hang in There at Upfor, to an ambitious show at Blue Sky of photography by women of the African diaspora, to work by Tannaz Farsi, John Hitchcock, and more.
FERTILITY FIGURES GET AN UPDATE. Ashley Gifford reviews Ambrosia, Grace Stott’s show of “sensuous, fruit-focused” ceramic sculptures at Fuller Rosen Gallery. They’re bright and warm and appealing and, Gifford writes, immersed in matters of fertility and infertility.
STREAMERS: BIG-SCREEN FLICKS FOR SMALL SCREENS
STREAMERS: ‘MANK,’ ‘THE CLIMB,’ SMOOTH TALK.‘ With the lockdown screws tightening, Marc Mohan digs into the streaming services for some winning new films to see from home. They range from comedy bromance (The Climb) to Orson Wellesiana (Mank) to a time-capsule rediscovery (Smooth Talk, a 1985 indie sleeper starring Laura Dern and Treat Williams). Pop some corn, settle in, and enjoy.
MUSIC: BANDCAMP AND A WALK IN THE PARK
NOW HEAR THIS: DECEMBER EDITION. Every month, Robert Ham takes a stroll for ArtsWatch readers through the virtual aisles of the music distributor Bandcamp, looking for likely releases from local musicians that you can add to your listening list. This month he comes up with a trove, from ambient metal to spaced-out hip-hop, Holiday and Young covers, and a Nigerian compilation – and all in time for Bandcamp’s final Fee Free First Friday of the year.
SOUND ART FOR A WALK IN THE PARK. Ah, for a nice brisk walk in a Portland park! But what to listen to on your December amble? Third Angle New Music, Gary Ferrington writes, has you covered in its Soundwalk Series of compositions written specifically to be heard while strolling through particular city parks and, in some cases, their surrounding neighborhoods. That’s good! There’ll be a new release monthly through next August. Don’t forget your earphones.
A SEASON OF LOSS AND REMEMBERING
2020 HAS BEEN A LONG AND DIFFICULT YEAR, made harder by the loss of some brilliant and well-loved Oregon arts & cultural figures, among them, in April, the philanthropist and pioneering gallerist Arlene Schnitzer; and in September, the writer/actor/stage designer/visual artist Tim Stapleton, about whom Marty Hughley wrote movingly for ArtsWatch.
Late autumn has brought several more deaths that have deeply touched the state’s cultural community. Here are three of them:
MARY OSLUND. Oslund, for several decades a key figure on Oregon’s contemporary dance front as a performer, choreographer, administrator, and general guiding spirit, died at age 72 on Nov. 17 from the neurological disease MSA, or Multi-System Atrophy. In Mary Oslund: A Personal Tribute, Martha Ullman West writes sensitively and perceptively about Mary’s life and influence.
BRUCE BROWNE. Browne, who led the Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties and was for many years director of Portland State University’s highly regarded choral program, was a legend in choral circles and beyond. He also, late in his career, wrote reviews for ArtsWatch. “Working with Bruce was one of the real highlights of my decades as an editor,” Brett Campbell writes in Remembering Bruce Browne. “I’ll miss him, and Oregon music will miss his valuable insights, but his generosity and wisdom will continue to resonate — in his writings, lessons and recordings, and in the voices of the many students and choristers he made sound more beautiful and more powerful together than they could have imagined.”
DOROTHY GOODE. The prominent Portland abstract painter, who died unexpectedly in her sleep of undetermined causes on Nov. 23, had a big personality that encompassed a large part of the Portland art world. An obituary is here. She was, as she wrote on her website, “born in 1969 and raised by hippies in the wilds of Mendocino County, California,” and she seemed never to have lost that free spirit. In Nothing at all of this is fixed, from January of this year, Friderike Heuer wrote for ArtsWatch about her visit to Goode’s studio. “It struck me as joyful,” Heuer wrote of Goode’s art. “Playful beauty.”
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