Anya Pearson

DramaWatch: Cause for celebration at OSF

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 85th anniversary season; plus new shows open across Portland, "West Side Story" gets too dark a makeover, and more.

In a way it feels odd to refer to something that goes on eight months of each year as a festival. And yet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — originally launched in 1935 as a two-play, three-evening event, now grown into one of the largest, busiest theater companies in the country — still feels celebratory.

The 2020 season, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1, has more than usual to celebrate, or at the very least to consider noteworthy. It is the festival’s 85th anniversary season, of course, an impressive achievement for any American arts organization, especially one in a small Northwestern town. This season also is the first under the full-time leadership of Nataki Garrett, who last August became the festival’s sixth artistic director, replacing Bill Rauch, now the inaugural artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center in New York. (Garrett recently spoke with ArtsWatch for an interview published separately.)

The current festival leadership also includes interim associate artistic director Evren Odcikin (currently in Portland directing Portland Center Stage’s upcoming production of Nine Parts of Desire) and acting executive director Paul Christy, a retired U.S. government economist.

And in addition to being an anniversary and a celebration in its own right, this festival season is a part of the Jubilee

The Wars of the Roses are seeded in Bring Down the House, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In the works since 2015, the Jubilee is, as the program’s website describes it, “a yearlong, nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have historically been excluded — including but not limited to artists of color, Native American and Indigenous and First Nations artists, women, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists, LGBTQIA2+ artists, Deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.” Providing a clear, tangible goal to help along the cause of diversity and inclusion, the Jubilee involves a commitment from numerous theater producers across the country — from professional companies to high schools — to put previously marginalized voices at the center of their programming for the 2020-2021 season. In addition to OSF, participating Oregon companies include Portland Center Stage, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and Corrib Theatre.

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DanceWatch: A rich cultural stew

What's happening in Oregon dance now

Welcome to DanceWatch for March, the month that enters like a lion and retreats like a lamb, or so they say. While it’s still cold and dark outside, you can think of this month’s dance offerings like a warm winter stew: hearty, rich, varied, and soul-soothing. And don’t forget that spring is a mere 22 days away!

Let’s start this month’s column with Native American dance. Last fall, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art caught my attention with this statement in its Time-Based Art catalog: “The land now known as Portland rests on the traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other Tribes who made their homes along the Columbia (Wimahl) and Willamette (Whilamut) rivers.”

I didn’t know this. Did you? I was struck. I rarely hear about the native tribes of Portland and the surrounding areas and I even more rarely see dance representing these cultures. I feel weird about this. I can’t go back to not knowing. In fact, this information made me want to learn more about Native American dance artists in Oregon and beyond, and recently, I did.

This past Sunday, I attended the Alembic artist performance at Performance Works NorthWest, where choreographer Olivia Camfield, a resident artists and a Muscogee Creek Tribal member from Texas Hill Country, choreographed and performed a powerful contemporary piece about indigenous people reclaiming their narratives. She welcomed everyone with this statement, a reminder to be respectful when we’re visiting someone else’s territory.

“Hensci (hello), estonko (how are you), Olivia Cvhocefkv Tos (my name is Olivia). I come from the Muscogee Creek nation of Oklahoma. Originally we come from the southeastern region of this continent. I would like to acknowledge that I am a visitor here today and in the spirit of reciprocity, I would like to bring medicine and movement prayer to this land and the people of it. These nations include the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tumwater, Watlala Bands of the Chinook, the Tualatin Kalapuya, and many other indigenous nations of the Columbia River valley region. I would like y’all to acknowledge whether you are a settler occupier of this stolen land, an indigenous visitor, or you are of this land and this is your ancestral territory. I would like to ask to come here and be in a good way and walk this land as a caretaker and a medicine giver. I would like y’all to do the same, be here in a way that is respectful and honorable to the people and spirits who have taken care of this land since time immemorial. Mvto (thank you).”

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SALT on America’s wounds

Inspired by Gandhi's Salt March of resistance, Shaking the Tree's new venture blends art, theater, and dance in a collective raised voice

Shaking the Tree Theatre, under the artistic direction of the imaginative Samantha Van Der Merwe, incorporates visual art into each of its theatrical performances. With SALT, opening Tuesday for an all-too-brief six-day run, Shaking the Tree is flipping that concept on its head. SALT is the first of Shaking the Tree’s acts of resistance – “in direct response,” according to the SALT program, “to a Trump presidency and its implications of hate, exclusion, bigotry, and fear.”

Van Der Merwe was inspired to create this first act in Shaking the Tree’s four-year project by Gandhi’s speech on the eve of the 1930 Salt March (or Dandi March). In that speech, he famously encouraged his followers to resist peacefully. “We have resolved to utilize all our resources in the pursuit of an exclusively nonviolent struggle, he said. “Let no one commit a wrong in anger. This is my hope and prayer. I wish these words of mine reached every nook and corner of the land.” Van Der Merwe asked a cross-section of the city’s finest artists — from many cultures, genres, and backgrounds — to use Gandhi’s speech as a jumping-off point.

SALT teams around Samantha Van Der Merwe’s “Thread.” Photo: Meg Nanna

The Shaking the Tree space is divided into eight 8×8 boxes, and each artist (with Van Der Merwe’s piece, created out of salt, in the center) was given that space to create something, anything. Some artists will be performing as part of their piece, or have others performing. Some is visual art. Some have video. Some are interactive.

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‘Belfast Girls’: It’s about time

Corrib Theatre's resonant staging of a play about women escaping the Irish Famine rings true amid today's sea change of women's rights

“The time of women is coming.” Uttered by a character early on in Corrib Theatre’s production of Belfast Girls, it sounds like foreshadowing. This is a play, after all, about five women escaping Ireland during the Irish Famine of 1845-1852. They board a ship called the Inchinnan en route to Australia, with hopes of a better life.

What we know, of course, and what the playwright Jaki McCarrick knew when she wrote this play in 2015, was that the time of women is still coming. The statement – and these five fiery female characters – are particularly prescient today, amid a sea change in women’s rights, particularly the right to be free of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. But we all also know that time can’t come soon enough.

The Belfast Girls, from left: Summer Olsson, Hannah Edelson, Tiffany Groben, Brennan Dwyer, Anya Pearson. Photo: Adam Liberman

When Belfast Girls begins, we meet four women escaping Ireland, bonded by a shared dorm quarters on the ship taking them toward their dreams. There is the de facto leader, Judith (Anya Pearson), a well-spoken woman unafraid to speak her mind. She is joined by Ellen (Brenan Dwyer) – “stupid Ellen,” as Judith calls her in the beginning, but we learn there is much more to her than anyone realizes. Hannah (Summer Olsson) – called “fat Hannah” by Judith and her other companions – carries more grief and resilience than anyone should have to muster. Sarah (Hannah Edelson) is the stranger in the group, a country girl – and the only one who was not a street girl in Belfast. Still, she has her reasons to be here, and we’ll learn those soon enough. These four are joined before departure by Molly (Tiffany Groben), a weak and sickly maid from outside of Belfast who has carried on books and more than her share of secrets.

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‘The Call’: waiting, fretting, hoping

Profile Theatre opens its season of plays by onetime Portlander Tanya Barfield with a drama about adoption and Africa and the uncertainties of life

When the call finally arrives, it’s not as if Annie’s jumping up and down for joy. She’s been waiting and waiting, and stressing, and having double-triple-quadruple thoughts, and … well, as the Gershwin boys put it, let’s call the whole thing off.

Or not. That’s the problem. Life is full of maybes, and at some point you’ve got to have a solid yes or no. But how do you get there?

The Call, the first play in Profile Theatre’s new Tanya Barfield season, opened Saturday night at the Artists Rep complex, and suggests a season of playful, contemporary, issue-oriented, and curiosity-driven theater to come. It’s part domestic drama, part cultural-conflict theater, part situation comedy, part mystery thriller, and always smart and engaging. And it introduces Portland audiences to one of the city’s own: Barfield grew up here before moving to New York, and went through school at the Metropolitan Learning Center, and has been a Pulitzer nominee, but has never before had one of her plays produced here. Suddenly, an entire season is about to rectify that oversight.

Howard and Soden: the talk before The Call. Photo: David Kinder

Howard and Soden: the talk before The Call. Photo: David Kinder

In The Call, Annie is a woman of a certain age, an artist who’s more or less put off her career because it conflicts with her job at a museum, and who has also put off having a child until, it seems, it’s biologically too late. So she and her husband, Peter, have decided to adopt, and they have a line on a baby about to be born in Arizona, but the young mother seems likely to keep the kid, and so Annie, almost on impulse, decides they should adopt from Africa: so much poverty and sickness, so many orphans, so many needy kids.

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