Romance, an elephant, lots of art

ArtsWatch Weekly: Love in the theater, Lynn Nottage by ear, dramatic streams, art everywhere, elks and otters and the deep dark woods

MALIA TIPPETS HAS A MESSAGE FOR THE YEAR THAT WILL NOT END: “Take that, 2020. We will not drift off into despair. There’s love to be had, there’s celebration to be had, there’s art to be had.” Tippets, the costar with Joe Theissen in the two-hander musical romance Daddy Long Legs, which begins streaming in video version on Friday from Broadway Rose Theatre Company, laid out her credo of love and optimism in an ArtsWatch interview with Bennett Campbell Ferguson, and Ferguson passed it along for all of us in his story When ‘Daddy Long Legs’ says ‘I Do, I Do.’

Ferguson got more than any of us were bargaining for when he set out on the trail of this story. We were interested in the steps an accomplished company of musical theater artists was taking to create a show from scratch in the age of Covid – building costumes and sets, rehearsing in the theater, and putting on performances with almost no audience except the crew and videographers, then splicing the footage together to make a movie version of the production and screen it to audiences not just in greater Portland but anywhere in the world anyone wanted to sign in and watch. 
 

Malia Tippets and Joe Theissen in “Daddy Long Legs”: It’s a match. Photo: Broadway Rose

As it turns out, he got that story, including details on how the company and crew made the environment safe for everyone involved, and something else, too – a real-life tale that echoes the romance onstage. One thing that made the show possible was that Theissen and Tippets live together, and so they could rehearse without distancing – a huge advantage in creating natural performances. 

Still, there’s always room for creative improvisation. One evening during rehearsal Tippets turned to Theissen, and instead of repeating her lines asked him to marry her, for real. He said yes. And, as Tippets just happened to have an ordained minister sitting on the sidelines (Dan Murphy, Broadway Rose’s cofounder and managing director), they sealed the deal immediately, onstage. Sometimes happy endings don’t actually end when the curtain goes down. They just keep going, on and on. Take that, 2020. Amid a crazy week of rapidly spreading Covid-19 in high places, a fly in the debate ointment, and a militia plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan and overthrow the government, you don’t get to call all the shots. As Tippets puts it: “I will not let 2020 be a wasted year.”
 



MLIMA’S TALE: RADIO DRAMA FOR HERE AND NOW


“THUNDER IS NOT YET RAIN,” a rumbling voice begins in the dark, and then continues: “… I was taught by my grandmother to listen to the night. Really listen … because how you listen can mean the difference between life and death.”

The voice, we learn, belongs to the talented actor Randolph Smith (several August Wilson plays on Broadway, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X on film), playing Mlima, a magnificent bull elephant who’s lived a half-century on the Kenyan savannah and who is now, in the brilliant playwright Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale, on the run from ivory poachers drawn to the prize of his gigantic and perfectly shaped tusks. Nottage’s drama is, in fact, very much a play about the difference between life and death – not just on the savannah, but by inference, at least, also in the toxic mix of ruptured morality and economic greed that created and fed the Africa-to-America slave trade.

Playwright Lynn Nottage, giving a reading at Occupy Wall Street, Nov. 7, 2011. Photo: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

Mlima’s Tale is also the beginning of a fascinating and promising new project from Portland’s Profile Theatre to take its season off the stage and reconceive it as audio drama – in essence to return, with contemporary material, to the days of radio drama. The company made Nottage’s play available via streaming on Wednesday, and it’ll stay up through Nov. 4. While there are obvious disadvantages in not being able to see what can be a highly visual drama in real time and space, there are advantages, too – not the least being the availability of Smith and Washington, D.C.-based director Reginald L. Douglas to work on the project via Zoom. And there are advantages to cutting off one of the prime senses in pursuit of art: It sharpens the ear and the imagination, taking storytelling back, electronically, to the gatherings around the open fire in the night. Headphones help. Without visual cues you can lose your way amid the lull of language now and then, but Mlima’s Tale is something of a picaresque, and you can readily find your way back. 

As in her plays Sweat and Intimate Apparel, Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale looks deeply at the connections among aggression, repression, economic disparity, and their effects on individual lives. And, like her play Ruined, it returns to the possibilities and pitfalls of life in Africa. Mlima’s Tale follows the trail of the tusks from the savannah to a Chinese embassy to Vietnam to a master carver’s studio to a a wealthy couple’s home in Beijing. A briskly adaptable ensemble of Portland actors – D.J. Curtis, Ithica Tell, Treasure Lunan – leaps nimbly from role to role along the way, revealing the string of corruptions and compromises large and small that keep the whole dirty enterprise going, whatever the cost. (The fascination with bones, old or new, and what people are willing to pay and do in order to possess them echoes in this week’s sale at Christie’s of a complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for $31.8 million.) One of the deep pleasures of this aural production is the sound itself (sound design: Elizabeth Ittoop; composer: Jenn Mundia), a continuing underwave of lament and chant and emotional suggestion, creating a subtle and insinuating frame for the entire enterprise.



CAN A PLAY BY ANY OTHER STREAM BE SO SWEET?


As American theater takes a hard swing out of traditional performance spaces and into the world of streaming (both audio and visual), several other Oregon companies have made new works available. Here are a few to look for this week: 

THE MOORS. The new theater company called, appropriately, The Theatre Company makes its bow with a podcast Friday through Oct. 24 of Jen Silverman’s “twisted Victorian Gothic” – set, of course, on “the bleak English moors” with a mad mashup of genre staples, from a pair of secluded sisters to a Mastiff to a maid with multiple personalities to “a young governess just arrived from London.” The promising cast includes the likes of Lorraine Bahr, Dana Millican, and Jen Rowe, with musical direction by the talented Meredith Kaye Clark. This one could be fun. 

SILENT VOICES. What began as a theater project transformed itself to film with the advent of the pandemic, and has just opened for streaming via Open Signal, the Portland independent media source. It looks well worth catching. Writer Donna Hayes looks at the lives of nine Black Portlanders who have been killed by police over the years, giving them back their interrupted voices. One of them, 17-year-old Quanice Hayes, was Hayes’s grandson.

RICHARD FOREMAN FESTIVAL. Portland’s Performance Works NorthWest celebrates its 20 years of forward-looking performance with an online watch party looking back on the “outlandish genius” of the celebrated and sometimes perplexing experimental theater artist. 4-5:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11.

MATTER. Actor and writer Charles Grant’s short (about 15 minutes) solo show is a muscular, visceral look at gun violence, police brutality, and what it’s like to be Black in America, from a highly personal vantage. Grant speaks some hard plain truths, and does so with expressionistic verve. Co-produced by Many Hats Collaboration and Portland Playhouse, and containing both song and highly choreographed movement, it’s a deeply physical performance – so much so that you might find yourself wishing you could also see it on stage, where it could be felt most deeply. Carried over online through Oct. 26.

BAD CITIZEN PART TWO. Northwest Theatre Workshop and Theatre Vertigo round out a mini-festival of short plays with streams of four fresh works Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The groups promise “comedy, drama, wit, and wonder.” With this title in these times they should have plenty of potential stories to tell. 

MAGELLANICA. Artists Rep’s audio version of E.M. Lewis’s sprawling play set in Antarctica, which we wrote about a couple of weeks ago, continues in sections via streaming through June 30.
 



ART ON THE FARM, IN STUDIOS, IN TEXTILE, AMONG THE DEAD


Greg Bal, © 2020, “Spirits of Braceros,” digital photographic print, at Art About Agriculture.

ART HAPPENS IN ALL SORTS OF PLACES. In galleries and museums, of course. Also in the quiet of people’s homes, on the walls of abandoned buildings and underpasses, in pop-up shows and public spaces, on sidewalks and intersections with chalk or paint. It has all sorts of methods and subjects, some familiar from the art-history texts, some not. Sometimes it’s new, or so off-center we barely recognize it. Sometimes it’s deeply traditional (and sometimes in traditions we hadn’t considered before). And sometimes it creates fresh forms as it carries on traditions. Oregon is home to a few creatively out-of-the-mainstream visual traditions in October:

Greg Bal, © 2020, “Spirits of Braceros,” digital photographic print, at Art About Agriculture.

2020 ART ABOUT AGRICULTURE. Yes, there are political and cultural divides between urban and rural Oregon, but there’s a lot of agreement, too, and appreciation of the differences: A lot of Pacific Northwesterners live here at least partly because of the easy access between the two. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Oregon State University’s annual exhibition of agricultural art is in its 37th year, or that it draws a lot of attention from artists and audiences alike. This year’s show, which continues through Oct. 30 and can be seen virtually or, with restrictions, at the university in Corvallis, includes works by 35 artists. A lot of the names will be familiar to followers of contemporary Northwest art: George Johanson, Mary Josephson, Betty LaDuke, Tallmadge Doyle, Erik Sandgren, Deb Stoner, Amanda Triplett, and others. The variety of outlooks and styles, from the growth cycle to environmental concerns to the lives of field workers, is stimulating.

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Portland Open Studios artist Gia Whitock, in her element. Photo: Portland Open Studios

PORTLAND OPEN STUDIOS. For more than 20 years this has been a biggie on the Portland art calendar: For a couple of weekends every year artists across the greater metropolitan area throw their studios open for visitors to drop in and visit them in their natural habitat – the spaces where they make their art. It’s part of what’s become a nationwide movement to breach the distance between art makers and art followers, and also to provide potential patrons for a lot of artists working outside the gallery system. Artists compete for the 100 or so slots, but there’s also something democratic and egalitarian about the thing: artists range from well-known to barely known, and over the years I’ve encountered more than a few genuinely good artists whose work I might not have known otherwise. This year, everything’s different: There’ll be no physical studio drop-ins. Everything’s happening online. In a way, that contradicts the whole purpose of the thing. In another way, it creates the sort of challenge that artists are used to figuring out every day in their work, anyway. This year, 91 artists will show their work online. Of those, 48 will be offering live, interactive talks from their studios on Instagram. It happens the next two weekends: Saturdays and Sundays, Oct. 10-11 and 17-18.

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Wendy Wallin Malinow, “Dia de los Muertos Guitarrista,” polymer, varnish, glass, in Guardino Gallery’s Day of the Dead exhibition.

GUARDINO GALLERY’S ANNUAL DAY OF THE DEAD SHOW has developed a loyal following among fans and artists taken with the visual possibilities of Mexico’s Dia de Muertos, the holiday commemorating friends and family who have died and helping to support their spiritual journey in the afterlife. Partly because they happen at about the same time it’s often conflated with Halloween, but in fact the two celebrations are very different. This year’s Guardino show, which you can see at the Alberta District gallery (pandemic hours 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays) or online, continues through Oct. 25.

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The Afro-American Heritage Commemorative Quilt, conceived and carried out by 15 African American women in Portland on the occasion of the 1976 United States Bicentennial, is on display through Nov. 2 at the Oregon Historical Society as part of Portland Textile Month.

PORTLAND TEXTILE MONTH. This is a relatively recent tradition – Portland Textile Month is in its third year – but its roots, of course, go deep into prehistory, to a place where art and craft meet and the distinction, much of the time, just isn’t really very important. Textiles – cloth art, for the most part – have been shoved into a corner by Western art history, for a variety of reasons, none of them good: They’re “homespun,” “folk,” “ethnographic,” “practical,” “women’s work”; the material doesn’t last as long as bronze or plaster or paint. The art world is beginning to catch up, and to realize that creativity is creativity and art is art – and also that traditional forms can create fully forward-looking art. October’s month of textile art carries a theme of “Repair and Reuse,” and includes more than 170 events. Lindsay Costello’s VizArts Monthly, linked below, includes more details.




A LITTLE FLEXIBILITY ON THE GALLERY SCENE


Portland’s GLEAN program challenges five artists annually to make new work from materials discovered at the Metro Central Transfer Station (otherwise known as the dump). See this year’s results through Nov. 1 at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center.

VIZARTS MONTHLY: FLEXIBLE VIEWING OPTIONS FOR UNUSUAL TIMES. Lindsay Costello scans the October art gallery scene and discovers a lot of exhibits worth your virtual or socially-distanced-and-masked in-person time. As she says, “choose your own adventure.” Among the highlighted shows: nonagenarian painter Lois Dodd and twentysomething ceramicist Sharif Farrag at Adams and Ollman; Pacifico Silano’s photographic collages of mourning and longing at Melanie Flood Projects; multidimensional art involving video games at HOLDING Contemporary; Nationale’s group show RE:ASSEMBLY; Haley Darya Parsa’s online and downloadable Sharing Suns at Third Room; Philadelphia artist and current Pacific Northwest College of Art artist-in-residence Rami George’s video essays and billboard structure at PCC Cascade and PNCA; Alyson Provax’s virtual and interactive art at Clark College’s Archer Gallery; Common Ground in Eugene; Jordan Sullivan’s folk-inspired sculptures and paintings at Ampersand; and this year’s Portland Textile Month, all over town.



THE CREATORS: 10 PORTRAITS IN ART


Sculptor and painter J.D. Perkin. Photo: K.B. Dixon

THE ARTISTS SERIES 5: VISUAL ARTISTS. With this group of photographic black and white portraits of ten prominent Oregon artists, K.B. Dixon concludes a remarkable project that has given ArtsWatch readers deeply expressive images of fifty leading Oregon artists – twenty writers, thirty visual artists. This final chapter in the series includes portraits of sculptor Mel Katz, painter and filmmaker Mark Andres, painter Jackie K. Johnson, interdisciplinary artist V. Maldonado, photographer Stu Levy, painter Sharon Bronzan, painter Gabe Fernandez, painter Judy Cooke, sculptor and painter J.D. Perkin, and painter Rene Rickabaugh.



RECOLORING THE CONTOURS OF THE FOREST DEEP


Returning color to images of the Oregon forests after it’s been stripped away: Bob Keefer’s studio and painting tools, with resident cat. Image courtesy of the artist. 

INTO THE WOODS WITH BOB KEEFER. The longtime notable journalist in Eugene has turned in recent years in his own art to a contemporary spin on an antiquarian sort of nature photography, inspired in part by the Romantic paintings of the Hudson River School: He takes photos in the Oregon woods, strips out the color digitally, then adds color back with acrylic paint. The result, writes Susan Palmer, is “landscapes with a whispering quality rather than a hollering one … a tree that startles out of the mist, a skitter of fallen orange and gold leaves beckoning the eye down a deep green tunnel. Art that whispers in your ear: This place is magic.”



AND DON’T MISS: OUR ELK; MUSIC & OTTERS; DANCE RETURNS


Roland Hinton Perry’s “Elk” in seclusion. Photo: Brian Libby

STARTING OVER: IT’S NOT ABOUT THE ELK, IT’S ALL ABOUT THE ELK. Barry Johnson begins by spotting a misperception in the New York Review of Books about Portland’s beloved downtown elk statue, and takes us on a brisk intellectual ramble through classical sculpture, Confederate monuments, and the emancipatory qualities of art. 

MUSIC TO SEE OTTERS BY. Lori Tobias scans the cultural calendar on the Coast and discovers cellists at the aquarium, high-fiber art, music from the Andes, an online art talk about the late Rick Bartow’s work, and more.  

DANCEWATCH MONTHLY: Even a pandemic can’t keep restless feet from moving. Oregon’s (and the world’s) dance scene is waking up, making its adjustments, and stepping out both virtually and in the flesh. Jamuna Chiarini tells us what, where, when, and how. This week, look for a flamenco happy hour and more.


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