Ready or not, live shows on the way

ArtsWatch Weekly: As Oregon begins to open up, live performances get ready to join the crowd, indoors and out

… AND THIS WEEK, THE GATES BEGAN TO CREAK OPEN. On Tuesday, days after the Portland Trail Blazers began to allow small crowds to see their home games at the Moda Center (they were among the last teams in the National Basketball Association to let fans return) Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced that she would largely open the state up once 70 percent of its citizens 16 and older had received at least one coronavirus vaccination. She expected that to happen, she added, sometime in June. The order would include, as Aimee Green reported in The Oregonian/Oregon Live, “the lifting of capacity limits on restaurants, bars, stores, gyms, sporting venues, movie theaters and limitations on the number of people who can gather indoors or out for events such as road races and festivals.” While many experts consider that level of vaccination too low for a full reopening – as Green notes, “70 percent of Oregonians 16 and older partially vaccinated will probably translate to less than 50 percent of the overall population fully vaccinated” – all sorts of places are making plans.

Artist rendering of The Lot at Zidell Yards, a socially distanced performance venue with stage, large movie screen, food carts, and a series of seating pods. Capacity will be 300, but may expand.

That includes the relatively new outdoor venue The Lot at Zidell Yards, an open entertainment complex on Portland’s South Waterfront, on the west side of the Ross Island Bridge. On the same day that Gov. Brown announced the state’s reopening plans, The Lot announced a summer season of concerts and movie screenings beginning in late May, with distanced seating pods, food and drink carts, and an audience capacity of 300, which could expand if state regulations relax even further. Concerts range from popular acts such as the Dandy Warhols and Jenny Don’t & the Spurs to a show from members of the Oregon Symphony’s brass sections and, on the July 4 weekend, a scaled-back version of the Waterfront Blues Festival. Big-screen movies, produced in partnership with the Hollywood Theatre, range from Crazy Rich Asians to Rear Window and Thelma and Louise.



AND MORE LIVE PERFORMANCES, INDOORS & OUT


Back in the action: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a hit in Portland Center Stage’s 2019-20 season, returns for a new run in the company’s 2021-2012 season. Photo: Owen Carey/Portland Center Stage at The Armory

THE LOT WON’T BE THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN. As we noted here last week, Chamber Music Northwest is planning a season of live performances in July at Reed College, and Triangle Productions has opened its theater to quarter-capacity crowds for its current comedy Clever Little Lies. And it’s not just in Oregon. In New York, Broadway theaters are planning a fall reopening. But we’re a long shot from returning to anything like where we were pre-pandemic.

That doesn’t mean things aren’t shifting into action. On a very busy Tuesday, three big players – Oregon Ballet TheatrePortland Opera, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry – announced a collaborative summer season on the newly built outdoor Jordan Schnitzer CARE Summerstage at OMSI. The ballet company will kick things off June 6-12 with its OBT LIVE performances, which will include premieres from Jennifer Archibald (Alvin Ailey Dance School grad and leader of her own Arch Dance Company) and OBT’s resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte. Tented and distanced pod seating will allow for audiences of 120 per show.

The opera will follow June 22-27 with four performances of Frida, its long-anticipated production of Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s opera about the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Soprano Catalina Cuervo will sing the title role, and tenor Bernardo Bermudez will portray Diego Rivera. Capacity for the live Frida performances will be 250 (the site’s capacity will shift according to what’s being presented), and the performance also will be available digitally to stream. For the ballet and opera companies, this is in a way a tiptoeing back into the world of live performance: Audience sizes will be radically smaller than what they’ve been used to. Both ordinarily perform in the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium and the 870-seat Newmark Theatre.

Also on Tuesday, Portland Center Stage at The Armory, the city’s biggest theater company, announced a splashy return to live-audience action – a seven-show season in The Armory, kicking off in October with Frida … A Self Portrait, the second in a trio of Kahlo celebrations in town: The Portland Art Museum’s Covid-delayed exhibit Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism will settle in for a run Feb. 19-June 5, 2022. Center Stage’s season will continue with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which was canceled last spring a week after opening when coronavirus restrictions shut down live productions across the state); the return of the popular musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch; August Wilson’s Gem of the OceanHamilton and In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Freestyle Love SupremeThe Great Leap (a co-production with Artists Rep), by Lauren Yee, author of Cambodian Rock Band; and a revival of the musical Rent.

Center Stage also will be sharing space in The Armory with Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland’s second-largest theater company, while ART’s thorough remodeling of its own space continues. ART will use the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio, one of the best small spaces in town, for its own shows – including, on the Main Stage, The Great Leap.



MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE VIRTUAL RANCH …


Imago Theatre’s new radio-style play, which opened with a live broadcast on KBOO-FM 90.7 radio, continues with streaming performances through Sunday, May 16.

ONE OF THE GREAT PERPLEXITIES OF THE PLAGUE YEAR has been how to get across the essence of a live performance when the nub of the experience – real performers with real audiences in real time and real space – has been unavailable. Yes, things are beginning to open up: See above. But for now, most performance is still being delivered virtually. 

The lack of live concerts has been crushing for performers and musical groups, but for audiences already used to streaming tunes or popping in a CD, the transition’s maybe been a little easier. It’s been tougher for dance and theater, disciplines that rely on the intimacy and  intensity of the in-person experience for their full effect. Movies and television are in many ways abstractions of the theater, but the forms have grown far enough apart that filmed versions of stage plays often feel flat and artificial, without the spark that can light them afire onstage – or, on the contrary, overly embellished; too extravagant for the more nuanced preferences of film realism. Dance and the camera can be accomplished bedfellows, but the sense of being there is tough to nail down. Still, if you want to experience a performance, and you can’t do it in a live setting, virtual’s the place to be.

One of the best such hybrids I’ve watched or listened to in the past year has been Imago Theatre’s The Strange Case of Nick M., a radio-style drama that continues to stream through Sunday, May 16, with a Zoom talkback with writer Drew Pisarra, director Jerry Mouawad, and cast members at 3 p.m. Sunday. In the ArtsWatch story A strange case of sound over sight, Pisarra and Mouawad talked about how they decided to do the show the way they did. One of the big questions was: How does a theater well-known for its expressively visual style adapt to doing a show with nothing to see at all? After listening to Strange Case – which at 45 minutes comes in at not much more than the length of classic radio drama episodes of Our Miss Brooks or Father Knows Best or Inner Sanctum or Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar – it struck me that, for all of its vivid visual imagination, Imago is equally adept at the things it doesn’t do: what it holds back, in the manner of Marcel Marceau or a silent movie star. Strange Case is highly creative, but Pisarra and Mouawad don’t reinvent any wheels. They take their cues from a well-established, classic form of performance that’s been around for 80 or 90 years. Pisarra’s early decision to use a narrator to tie the action together gives the show a solid structure and a satisfyingly familiar arc.

Pisarra’s story is out on the edge, somewhere in that Beckett-like territory where comedy and tragedy and pure performance dexterity meet. The title character, Nick M., has trouble with his memory: After a fleeting 30 seconds or a little longer, it all floats away, and he can’t remember a thing. This makes life difficult in many ways for Nick, and keeps his doctors and scientific observers almost gleefully happy as they try to “discover” what’s “wrong” with him. As the story progresses, all sorts of ruminations about the nature of memory and the role it plays pop up. Do we remember only what we want to remember? Do we will ourselves to forget? Are our “memories” convenient fabrications, or are they “real”? Do we protect ourselves by forgetting? It’s all very pop-psychological, without the grating earnestness that so often goes along with that: Pisarra & company keep things playful, speculative, entertaining, tickling the audience around the edges of consciousness. The acting and technical work are ideally modulated to radio: crisp clean enunciation with a swift yet unrushed pace; excellent sound effects, elements of resolution and surprise. Imagine sitting in the dark in your living room in 1951, with nothing but the glow of the dials on your console radio, and just listening to a story well-told. Sometimes moving back is also moving ahead. 

Among several other virtual-theater opportunities coming up soon: 

  • COHO LAB. The Northwest Portland company CoHo Productions continues on the YouTube delivery track with a trio of taped performances this weekend from its CoHo Lab residences: Kayla Banks’ dance/musical project Find Your Way on Thursday evening; Andrea Vernae’s storytelling and musical blend S.O.M.A. – A story of My Anxiety on Friday; and writer/performer Chris Gonzalez’ solo show OK, Abner (“about apologies, interracial relationships, wolves, whales, and aliens”) on Sunday. 
     
  • BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK. Profile’s onstage production of this racially knotted Hollywood Golden Age play by Lynn Nottage (RuinedSweatIntimate Apparel) was canceled a year ago because of pandemic restrictions. It’ll be produced instead as a pair of free livestreamed readings May 22 and 23, directed by Chip Miller, Portland Center Stage’s associate artistic director.


VISUAL ART: RYAN PIERCE’S HOPEFUL APOCALYPSE


Ryan Pierce, “Flash Flood “(2020). Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel, 72 x 96 inches.

A MORE HOPEFUL APOCALYPSE. What if they gave an apocalypse and it turned out to be a fresh start? In her review of his exhibition of paintings Awake Under the Vines, at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Lindsay Costello writes that “Ryan Pierce chooses to envision the potential for worldly change from an optimistic, anti-apocalyptic lens. What if a collective revolution could be celebratory, wild, improvisational? … The large-scale paintings depict the confluence of environmental chaos and the end of industrial capitalism as a sort of revelrous feast, full of mayhem and clutter and uniquely human messes.”

  • ART FOR AND FROM UNPRECEDENTED TIMES. When the coronavirus crisis struck, Luiza Lukova writes, “the sudden upheaval and economic fissures left many individuals without employment, fearful, and struggling to make light of this new reality.” The tri-county Regional Arts and Culture Council responded with Capturing the Moment – Stories from a Pandemic, an initiative designed to underwrite new art and help artists economically. Lukova takes a deep look at the first batch of finished work, by seven Asian American artists, ranging from taiko drumming projects to “memoir comics.”


A SHATTERING OF MEMORY AND A BLESSING OF THE FLEET


A plinth inside the Fishermen’s Memorial Sanctuary. “Dedicated in loving memory of Lincoln County based fishermen lost at sea since 1900,” it serves as a base for photos, candles, and other remembrances of lost sailors. Many of the mementos were damaged by vandals last month. Photo courtesy: Newport Fishermen’s Wives

FISHERMEN’S SANCTUARY WEATHERS A DIFFERENT KIND OF STORM. In Newport and other towns up and down the Oregon Coast, the commercial fishing fleets are an inseparable part  of community culture, providing not just a way of making a living but also a way of life. This Saturday, May 15, will be Newport’s annual Blessing of the Fleet – a celebration that is, as Lori Tobias writes, “a time to remember those lost at sea and to honor those who continue to work the turbulent waters that provide sustenance for the state and beyond.”  This year, it’ll be different: Vandals at the Fishermen’s Memorial Sanctuary in nearby Yaquina Bay State Park trashed the place last month, breaking windows, destroying vases, and strewing flowers, mementos, and other remembrances around. It was a violation not just of a building, but of an entire culture. And so, as Newport remembers, it also rebuilds.



CHAMBER MUSIC WITH A CONTEMPORARY VOICE


Screen shot from the video for Kirsten Volness’s composition “murmurations.” Animation by Alex Dupuis.

NAVIGATING THE WAVE: AN INTERVIEW WITH KIRSTEN VOLNESS. “I tend to write music that leaves room for and relies upon performers’ individual interpretation – like jazz, folk, or Romantic music might,” Kirsten Volness tells ArtsWatch music editor Matthew Neil Andrews. “When composing electroacoustic music, I try to approach the electronic part like I would any other instrument, like an orchestra of infinite sounds.” In a series of email conversations, Andrews and Volness, the contemporary composer and visiting professor at Reed College, explored the sounds, techniques, and underpinnings of her music, including her recently released album River Rising.   



LENS ON THE GORGE: THIS YEAR’S PHOTO WINNERS 


Portland photographer Dan Hawk won the grand prize in Friends of the Columbia Gorge’s sixth annual photographic contest for his photo “Down the Middle (Dry Creek Falls).”

PICTURING PROTECTION: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE COLUMBIA GORGE. The conservation group Friends of the Columbia Gorge holds an annual photo contest, and on Thursday morning it announced the winners of this year’s edition, Picturing Protection. Grand prize winner is the photo above, Down the Middle (Dry Creek Falls), by Portland photographer Dan Hawk. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, which established the nation’s second-oldest scenic area, will have its 35th anniversary this fall, but the Gorge has been a draw far longer than that for both professional and amateur photographers, including the 385 who entered this year’s contest. “This was one of the first places I visited when trails started to open up again after the fires, and traveling this trail is like a story,” Hawk commented. “While the hike into this beauty leads through large blackened areas at the beginning of recovery from the 2017 fires, this waterfall lies in a fairly deep canyon keeping it green and lush all year round and which also protected it from fire damage. It’s a beautiful reminder of nature’s power and resiliency.” Click the link to see the seven category winners and nine honorable-mention images.



BOOKS & READINGS: BALLET AND BASKETBALL


Artur Sultanov and Gavin Larsen in “Orpheus Portrait” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

ZOOM BOOK TALK WITH GAVIN LARSEN. The Portland Ballet will host a talk, reading, and Q&A session at 4 p.m. Saturday, May 15, with Larsen, the former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre and author of the new book Being a Ballerina: The Perfection and Power of a Dancing Life. (See ArtsWatch’s review here.) It’s free, but requires a ticket; click the link for information.


‘THE STEP BACK’: COMING OF AGE AND BASKETBALL. Amy Leona Havin reviews Eugene writer J.T. Bushnell’s debut novel The Step Back, a coming-of-age story of hoop dreams, family loyalty, bad decisions, and the redeeming abilities of empathy.


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About the author
Senior Editor

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

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