Broadway Rose

Live theater’s back in town

ArtsWatch Weekly: In a pandemic era first, Triangle opens a show indoors. Plus: Art in the Pearl, Venice & elsewhere, virtually and "real."

“WE HAVE TO MOVE FORWARD,” Don Horn, who founded Portland’s Triangle Productions more than 30 years ago, said on the phone. “I would rather have the house used than vacant. I think spaces die if they’re not used.”

Somebody had to be first. And in Portland theater, when Triangle opens a 10-performance run of Rick Cleveland’s solo play My Buddy Bill next Thursday, Sept. 10, it’ll be the first time since Covid-19 restrictions shut down theater spaces almost half a year ago that anyone in the greater metro area’s put on a show inside an actual theater space, with a paying audience in the seats. (At least a couple of other companies in Oregon have done live shows, too: Medford’s Collaborative Theatre Projects has been doing indoor radio plays with paying audiences, and Ashland’s Oregon Cabaret Theatre has been doing The Odd Couple.)

Grocery stores, hardwares, and big box stores are open. Restaurants are open, for sidewalk and some indoor seating. Zoos and gardens and aquariums are open. Beaches and hiking trails and camping sites are open, at least many of them, and you can book rooms at motels and vacation getaways. A little bit of outdoor theater and concertizing’s happened. Museums and art galleries have reopened, with restrictions. But live theater, dance, and music have lagged behind, mostly because of strict limits on audience size and spacing inside performance halls, the cost of running shows for the resulting relatively tiny audiences, and the tougher logistics of making tight theater spaces safe enough to use.

Buddy and buddy in the Oval Office. Photo: Barbara Kinney/White House/1997

Triangle’s auditorium, inside The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza on close-in Northeast Sandy Boulevard, ordinarily seats 154 people. Because of a state restriction of 25 people in such a space at a time, the audience for My Buddy Bill will be limited to 23, leaving room for one actor (Joe Healy, playing Rick, the playwright) and one tech person. The bigger the cast and crew, the smaller the allowable audience. In the meantime, Horn and crew are busily getting everything ready so the space can meet multiple safety requirements. “I’ll be spending Friday cleaning everything out of the lobby so we can shampoo,” he said. 

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Connecting in a time of isolation

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the world turns, will real reality replace virtual reality? Plus: The mountain blows its top – this time, virtually.

EVEN AS OREGON BEGINS TO MOVE CAUTIOUSLY TOWARD REOPENING its social and commercial activities – today Gov. Kate Brown announced a loosening of restrictions in 28 of the state’s 36 counties, though not in the greater Portland metropolitan area – the new reality of social isolation remains with us. This holds true in the cultural world in particular: The reopening of theaters, concert halls, museums, and cultural centers is likely months in the future, and for many people the experience of the past two months has prompted a rethinking about the importance of art and what, in fact, “art” means.

In the Pacific Northwest in particular, art has long had a deeply rooted connection with the land itself, from the days of Indigenous stone paintings and carvings to the place-inspired work of contemporary artists and, presumably, the work of future artists grappling with the stark realities of environmental crisis and climate change. You can feel it even in the work of Oregon giants of abstract art, such as Lucinda Parker and the late Carl Morris and Mark Rothko, all of whose paintings are intellectual yet also deeply, unashamedly physical. At a time when the long lockdown and the world’s resulting switch to virtual reality have people yearning for a reconnection with real reality, the region’s stubborn insistence on connecting to the land seems suddenly to put it ahead of the game.
 

Aleksandra Apocalisse, “Grow” (2015). 11 x 14 inches. Watercolor and pen on paper. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Oregonians also have long been open to the idea of outsiderism, in a positive sense: Where you come from or who you trained with seem less important than what you do. And in a time of deep economic and structural insecurity the rigors of the academic and deep-pocket Wall Street pipelines don’t dominate the region’s artistic hierarchy the way they do in more heavily populated art centers. Here, if you Just Do It, as one local corporate juggernaut likes to put it, you stand a fair chance of being seen.

In Oregon, an artist might arrive from anywhere. That’s the case, for instance, with Aleksandra Apocalisse, who, as Shannon M. Lieberman writes for ArtsWatch in Celebrating connection in many forms, “started painting on a whim when she was 21.” Apocalisse’s interests, Lieberman continues, were both broad and focused: “After a series of unusual jobs, including farming, teaching children circus arts, and a stint as a camp science instructor, Apocalisse reached a turning point while interviewing for graduate programs in neuroscience. Unable to stop thinking about how she would balance the demands of graduate work with her desire to make art, Apocalisse realized that her hobby had become her passion–but could she turn it into a career?”

Yes, she could – and her route was not art school but the deeply populist, and popular, Portland Saturday Market, a grand communal gathering of all sorts of people with all sorts of interests. It was connecting at street level, taking art to the people in a way similar to the WPA art projects of the 1930s, except on an individual basis, not government-run. “It has been a good fit for Apocalisse, who thrives on talking to people,” Lieberman writes. “… In her explorations of connection, Aleksandra Apocalisse’s work does not call for change per se. Yet it powerfully implies that we all have tremendous power to forge the kinds of connections we want to see in the world.  Maybe we’re already making them. And if not, what are we waiting for?”

Bruce Conkle, “Quarantine,” 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

More established Oregon artists are taking a turn in their work during the shutdown, too. As Martha Daghlian writes in Artist Bruce Conkle: Isolation as meditation time, Conkle has been doing a series of drawings inspired by the great turn of events taking place beneath our noses – or at least by the headlines and news feeds of a world turned upside down. At the same time, Conkle says, in a strange way the shutdown fits right in: “Artists in general thrive having a lot of time alone, to be inside their own head, so I think in a way we are getting through this house arrest a lot easier than people who constantly need external stimuli. The creative mental state is a type of meditation—one loses track of time, of place, and of self. I draw mandalas as meditations on a certain subject. After a few minutes (of drawing) you become unaware of the subject itself.”


WATCHING MOUNT ST. HELENS BLOW HER TOP


Lucinda Parker, “Magma opus,” July 1980. Mixed media on paper. Collection of Stephen McCarthy, L2019.69.1. Image courtesy Portland Art Museum

SPEAKING OF PHYSICAL REALITIES: Monday, May 18, will be the fortieth anniversary of the big blow that shook the Pacific Northwest to its foundations and sent clouds of ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption scurrying around the globe. And Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, the sprawling exhibition at the Portland Art Museum that opened with a bang in February and was packing ’em in until the museum’s forced shutdown in March, was scheduled to close on Sunday the 17th. The museum, of course, is already closed for an undetermined time. But you still stand a decent chance of seeing Volcano! in the flesh. “After much work with cooperative lenders, we can now confirm that we expect Volcano! to reopen when the museum does (whenever that may be),” museum spokesman Ian Gillingham said in an email exchange on Tuesday. “We expect it to run through sometime in January.”

Now you can get about as good a virtual experience of the exhibition as is possible. The museum staff has assembled and made available online a virtual tour of the exhibition, beginning in prehistory and continuing through early European American paintings, images of the explosion itself, and paintings and photographs from the aftermath. There are even a few examples of ceramics made of Mount St. Helens ash, which for several years formed the basis of a vibrant souvenir cottage industry.

This week’s edition of Willamette Week features a very good, lavishly illustrated guide to the exhibition, We Brought a Piece of Mount St. Helens to You, that’s well worth your time.

And at 3:30 p.m. Sunday – the day before the anniversary – museum curator Dawson Carr, who brought the exhibit to fruition, will host an online event, Mount St. Helens: A Landscape Across Time, with several guests discussing aspects of the show: Seattle artist Barbara Noah, whose excellent painting Tag III is featured in the exhibit; Nathan Roberts, an ecologist and interim director of cultural resources for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe; and director Ray Yurkewycz and science education manager Sonja Melander of the Mount St. Helens Institute.

Barbara Noah, “Tag III,” 1981. Oil on photolinen. Collection of the artist, Seattle, ©1981 Barbara Noah, for changes and additions to a Mount St. Helens image courtesy of USGS, L2019.93.1.


IN TOUCH: KEEPING A LINE ON WHAT’S ONLINE


Elizabeth Woody, part of May 20’s “Who Gets To Be an American?” online conversation in the Vanport Mosaic 2020 Virtual Festival. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust

IF YOU HAVE A KEYBOARD AND A CONNECTION (and if you’re reading this, you do) the world’s at your fingertips. All right, not the real world: These days it’s prety much all virtual, all the time. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of good stuff to plug into. Here’s just a sampler:

VANPORT MOSAIC 2020 VIRTUAL FESTIVAL. We wrote about this vigorous and positively provocative festival in last week’s ArtsWatch Weekly, and the online attractions just keep coming through May 30, the 72nd anniversary of the Memorial Day flood in 1948 that wiped the city of Vanport off the map, killing 15 people and leaving 17,500 homeless. Among the upcoming attractions (check the full schedule in the link above): taiko artist Michelle Fujii in conversation with Douglas Detrick on “the constant state of otherness,” Friday, May 15; a conversation with Sankar Raman of The Immigrant Story and writer Ramiza Koya about “becoming American,” Sunday, May 17; a Confluence Conversation among Patricia Whitefoot (Yakama Nation), former Oregon poet laureate Elizabeth Woody (Warm Springs) and Chuck Sams (Umatilla) about “who gets to be an American,” Wednesday, May 20.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW. The Beaverton-based Experience Theatre Project is offering an encore performance of its live-screened production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-actor adaptation of Henry James’s classic ghost story on Friday, May 16. The original screening on May 1 played to a stay-at-home audience of 7,000. You need to register to get your virtual seat; click on the link above.

BROADWAY ROSE AT HOME. The Tigard theater company, which is the metro area’s most prominent home for musical theater, is going virtual with its new series Midday Cabaret, at 1 p.m. every Wednesday. It’s just what it sounds like: livestreamed cabaret shows, hosted by Broadway Rose’s Dan Murphy and featuring stars from past company shows. Right now, performances by David Saffert and Benjamin Tissell are available, with more on the way.

MOMENTARY JOYS, WITH HENK PANDER AND BRUCE GUENTHER. Two lions of the Oregon art world – painter Pander and curator Guenther – talk in a webinar sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education about how, in the museum’s words, “bad times can produce great art. Dadaism grew from the tragedy of the First World War; the Depression sparked a social realist movement and Jews created art in ghettos, concentration camps, and in hiding during the Second World War. … Momentary joys, if you will, that help us get through confinement.” Noon Wednesday, May 20, and you need to register: Once again, click on the link above.


ISOLATIONISTS ARE LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD READS


Alison Dennis is executive director for Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis.
Alison Dennis, executive director of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the Oregon Coast, says in “I am Still here … it still is a time for singing” that she feels both more isolated and more connected than ever.

‘I AM STILL HERE … IT STILL IS A TIME FOR SINGING.’ In the latest in our “Oregon in Shutdown: Voices from the Front” series, Lori Tobias, ArtsWatch’s Oregon Coast columnist, talks with five key coastal arts figures about how the pandemic has changed what they do and think. It’s not all bad news.

MY APPETITES: ON EATING AND COPING MECHANISMS, CHILDHOOD AND SELF-CONTROL, CRITICISM, LOVE, CANCER, AND PANDEMICS. Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for New York Magazine who is married to Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times (imagine their conversations over coffee), writes a beautiful, searing, and sometimes heartbreaking personal essay about the accumulations of experience and realities we carry with us into the time of plague.

SAFE DISTANCE SOUNDS, PART 2: CHAMBER TERROIR. “With live performances temporarily out of the picture, I’ve been fulfilling my jones for homegrown sounds by listening to recent releases from Oregon-based or -born musicians that caught my ear,” Brett Campbell writes. This compilation, which features ambient and other contemporary sounds (including Kenji Bunch’s fresh score for Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen) follows his first Safe Distance Sounds, a roundup of recent Oregon jazz recordings.

INTERVIEW IN A TIME OF SEQUESTRATION. Alone with his camera and his keyboard, photographer and frequent ArtsWatch contributor K.B. Dixon resorts to desperate measures: He interviews himself. His resulting essay in Q&A form (which is illustrated with several of his portraits of Portland arts figures) is both illuminating and amusing. Think the mysteries of shadows, and native soil, and “that much revered Southern snake-charmer, William Faulkner.” 

WHAT SHAKESPEARE ACTUALLY DID DURING THE PLAGUE. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, who teaches at Linfield College and is an occasional ArtsWatch contributor, manages two difficult tasks with aplomb in this short humor piece for The New Yorker: He makes light of Shakespeare and of the Plague Times that Shakespeare lived through, and makes us laugh at both. “Day 13: You’ve been wearing the same doublet and hose for two weeks.” 

OZZIE GONZÁLEZ: STAGING A RACE. The theaters have shut down for the duration. But Portland actor González has moved onto a much bigger stage, as a serious candidate to become mayor of Portland. Bobby Bermea talks with him about why he’s running, what his goals for the city are, and how the world of theater and the arts is good preparation for politics.

MUSEUM CURATOR GRACE KOOK-ANDERSON: FIGURING IT OUT. Martha Daghlian talks with the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Northwest art about working from home, the economic impact of the pandemic, and how things are changing: “There’s a huge emphasis on the extreme local right now that I think is really interesting. … The DIY culture that is celebrated here is evident in many art spaces, and I see that reflected in the ways they are adapting to this situation.”


QUOTABLE (THE NEW BROADWAY VERSION)


Corey Brunish, the Broadway and Portland theater producer who we wrote about last week, was challenged online a few days ago to develop some ideas for updated musicals to fit our shutdown times. He came up with a few:


The Pajama Game All Day Long
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to 2021 
Into the Woods for a Walk
Bye Bye Income
Annie Get Your Face Mask
How To Succeed in Business by Washing Your Hands
HAIRcut

– Your turn. Create a Broadway Quotable of your own!


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ArtsWatch Weekly: a squeeze, a shuffle, a Fertile sprawl

Real-estate blues and a major reshuffle at RACC top the news; Fertile Ground's new works sprawl across the city; Federale's Hegna sounds off

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION, the real-estate mantra goes, to which we might add: Availability, availability, availability. Price, price, price. As greater Portland’s real-estate market heats up, prices are rising and affordable places to use for performance halls and galleries are becoming scarce: In a city that’s staked its future on the creative economy, many of its creative groups and people are finding the landscape tough to negotiate.
 

High-stakes space crunch: Lever Architecture has designed a new theater and office complex for Artists Repertory Theatre on half of the block it used to occupy in Goose Hollow. The other half features a large tower. Rendering courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

In his story Arts groups play the real estate game, architecture and planning writer Brian Libby, who knows the city’s development scene through and through, takes ArtsWatch readers into the space squeeze and the many ways that artists and cultural groups are coping with it. “The erosion of small performance spaces seems to indicate how a booming economy can be a curse for struggling arts organizations as much as a blessing,” Libby writes. This is the first of several stories Libby will be writing for ArtsWatch on the complex topic of space and art: Watch for more.
 

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Heroes and Villains

Review: Broadway Rose's "Up and Away" is an affectionate yet subversive musical superhero parody

Why superheroes? As films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight have elevated the profiles of comic-book characters, that question has reverberated through American pop culture. In an age when Star Wars takes a back seat to even B-list Marvel icons like Iron Man, it’s hard not to wonder what stories of costumed do-gooders have that other modern mythologies don’t.

If you want an answer, go see Broadway Rose’s production of Up and Away, a musical that mocks superheroes even as it burrows to the core of their unflagging appeal. It’s an imperfect play with a few poorly aimed satirical jabs, but it is also moving and subversive in ways that few superhero films are. By remixing elements from Superman lore (including an alien hero and a journalist love interest), it manages to excavate some of the reasons why superheroes matter to so many.

Colin Stephen Kane (left), Paul Rona, and Malia Tippets. Photo: Sam Ortega

Like Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, Up and Away shows us a doomed and distant planet from which a baby is sent to Earth. One time jump later, we’re in Farmtown, USA, where the brothers Joe (Paul Wrona) and Jerry Jessup (Colin Stephen Kane) discover a pair of mysterious crimson gloves. When Joe dons them, he can fly and see five seconds into the future (when he touches his head, that is). Invigorated by his newfound abilities, he sets off for Big City, where he becomes a crimefighter named Super Saver.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Big bucks, big visions

Following up on Portland Art Museum's $10 million gift; a fond farewell to Vision 2020; a final grace note; what's up onstage & in the galleries

THE BIG NEWS THIS WEEK ON THE OREGON ART FRONT came in a nice round figure: $10 million. That’s how much Portland philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer pledged to give the Portland Art Museum to spur funding for its Rothko Pavilion, a multi-story glassed-in structure that will link the Portland Art Museum’s original Belluschi Building to the south and its Mark Building to the north. Schnitzer has a decades-long record of support for the museum, and her gift – announced at a splashy unveiling on Tuesday at the museum and reported here by Laurel Reed Pavic – covers a tenth of the project’s cost in one swoop. Tuesday’s unveiling also included news of a $750,000 grant for the pavilion project from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
 

Design concept for the east entrance, from the South Park Blocks, to the Rothko Pavilion, showing the open passageway for pedestrians and bicyclists. The pavilion will link the Portland Art Museum’s north and south buildings. Illustration: Hennebery Eddy Architects and Vinci Hamp Architects

Schnitzer’s gift marks a significant turning point for the $100 million pavilion project, a major undertaking that has been in the works for several years and will help unite the museum campus and vastly improve what is now an often bumpy and disjointed interior flow for visitors among gallery spaces. Museum director Brian Ferriso told OPB’s Donald Orr that PAM still needs to raise $25 million to $30 million in the next two to three years to complete the project. The museum hopes to break ground on the pavilion in late 2021. The cost includes $75 million for construction and $25 million to bolster the museum’s endowment, which is now about $54 million. The $100 million estimated price tag is up from an originally announced $75 million: Construction costs have escalated by $25 million, in large part because of revisions to include a 20-foot-wide passthrough for pedestrians and bicyclists to move easily between Southwest 10th Avenue and Park Avenue. The design change was made in response to community objections to losing a heavily used public passageway through the museum’s plaza.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Outsmarting the Grinch

Stuck in an impeachment funk? Liberace, Liza, shape-note singing, and a whole lot of holiday shows to reset the mood.


IT’S BEEN SOMETHING OF A HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS WEEK across America. But if I can draw your attention away from the impeachment proceedings for a few minutes, let me gently remind you that it’s also a season of peace on Earth, good will toward men, and more holiday shows than you can shake a peppermint stick at. Ah, the traditions. Ah, the welcome rituals. Ah, the familiar faces of … Liberace and Liza Minnelli?

That’s the lively and somewhat tongue-in-cheek holiday duo arriving at CoHo Theatre for a limited run of A Very Liberace & Liza Christmas, a tribute cabaret starring the casino-lounge-smooth David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris. “The chemistry between the imagined pair gives off the sparks of a well-programmed Vegas act that’s being prepared for a television special,” Christa McIntyre wrote in an enthusiastic review for ArtsWatch three years ago. “Your foot will be tapping, and don’t expect the rest of you to remain idle in your seat.” The show gets four performances Dec. 26-29, and we’re giving you early warning in case it sells out, which it just might. Ring-a-ling ding. It’s a sequin thing.

David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris, bringing a bit of Liberace/Liza glamour to the holiday stage at CoHo Theatre. Photo: Mike Marchlewski 

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DramaWatch: Holidays for days!

The week in theater offers more Christmas shows than you can shake a candy cane at!

Outside, the weather has grown cold and crisp, and pretty lights twinkle from the shop windows and houses. Inside, the TV tells us the way to show love is to give someone a $60,000 car topped with a red bow the size of a middle linebacker.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Another way to tell what time of year it is would be to check theater listings. In the summer, outdoor stages turn to Shakespeare, not to plays about the Fourth of July (though any production of the musical 1776 is welcome!), yet winter’s arrival brings show after show about the true (or at least satirized) meaning of Christmas.

So if that’s how it’s going to be, at least it’s good that theater makers are out there trying to create a few new shows to add to the mix.
Last weekend brought three Christmas-themed premieres to the Portland area, and your dutiful DramaWatcher shook off the tryptophan haze enough to make the rounds.

And I’m sorry to report that, for the most part, duty is what it felt like. Not that there was anything unpleasant to endure. After all, nothing typifies holiday theater more than a kind of fiercely determined geniality.

Jennifer Goldsmith’s golden voice brightens the appeal of It Happened One Christmas, a musical revue at Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega.

No matter the season, unpleasantness is out of character at Broadway Rose where “a festive new musical revue” opened, called It Happened One Christmas. The set up is sweet and simple. It’s after hours at a big department store, and Walter, the white-haired security guard (Fred Bishop, avuncular and dignified) makes the rounds to make sure everything is in order. The North Pole display puts him in a nostalgic mood and he sings holiday tunes as he reminisces about a dear, departed wife. Around him, the mannequins come to singing and dancing life, acting out his fantasies and, it seems, their own. And we’re off on an evening of sprightly and assured performances of sprightly and assured arrangements of dozens of Christmas songs, familiar and less so. It’s professional, it’s polished, it’s prosaic.

The show was “written by Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis,” the playbill tells us, but the pair’s main work seems to have been curatorial — selecting (and, in Lewis’ case, arranging) all these songs; there’s just one original tune in the show, a comic come-on called “Beneath the Tree,” given the honey-glazed-ham treatment by Macaulay Culkin/Bryan Adams look-alike Colin Stephen Kane. What strings the songs together is thin thread indeed, brief snatches of dialogue that sometimes sound like they were created by training an AI algorithm on the Hallmark Channel (“Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic or a sentimental old fool, but I still think there’s some good in the world.”).

Ah, but then someone comes along to clean things up. That would be Frances, the store cleaning lady, played by Jennifer Goldsmith, and whenever she’s onstage things are a little brighter, more truly engaging. In a fine cast of singers all around, Goldsmith’s more nuanced phrasing brings a much needed sense of personality and charm.

Lady Brass (Allison Anderson, left) and her daughter Gwendolyn (Katherine Grant-Suttie) prepare for the holidays in The Christmas Case: A Lady Brass Mystery at Chapel Theatre. Photo: Wynne Earle.

At the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, critic-turned-writer/director John Longenbaugh is presenting a Victorian mystery story called The Christmas Case. Perhaps I should disclose right off the handicaps I face in evaluating this one. Subtitled “a Lady Brass Mystery,” his new play is part of an elaborate fictional world that Longenbaugh’s Battleground Productions calls “a multi-platform adventure serial about a family of Victorian science geniuses.” As I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the serial, there might be rich character threads here I’ve missed. Also: It’s a mystery. Why do some people so love this genre? My answer: It’s a mystery.

And despite the title, The Christmas Case is primarily a mystery, in this, er, case, about a huge precious sapphire that disappears suddenly and is presumed stolen. Throw in the ingenue from a fading family, her wealthier suitor, a few assorted character types and a couple of those science geniuses” and you have a story that clips along nicely enough through its obligatory twists and turns. An appearance by Father Christmas occasions a fun discussion of holiday symbolism and ritual and the transnational roots of the Santa Claus myth. But that’s ultimately incidental: Plug a rabbit into that scene instead, and you just as readily could call this The Easter Case. In any case, by the second act I found myself too acutely aware that I didn’t care a bit about “whodunnit” or about the stakes of any of the plot points.

That said, amidst a somewhat uneven cast, Allison Anderson as the super-sleuth Lady Brass and Katherine Grant-Suttie as her junior-detective daughter are compelling, leavening their characters’ haughty bearing with glimmers of impish wit. And the show looks good, thanks to terrific costuming by Portland Opera’s Christine Richardson.

Milagro bills Maya Malan-Gonzalez’ A Xmas Cuento Remix as “not your abuela’s Christmas story,” but it’d be nearer the mark to say it’s not your abuela’s story-delivery system. The bones here are unapologetically Dickensian, complete with a greedy/wealthy villain beset by ghostly dreams of past, present and yet-to-be. But the trappings are contemporary and Latinx, with repeated mentions of the importance of eating tamales on Christmas and varied uses of the term “pendejo.” And it’s a musical, spiced with a loose mixture of high-energy pop arrangements.

As a musical, it’s like getting a pair of lighted socks for Christmas: You grin cheerfully while you yearn for the return counter. The singing is inexpert and uneven, the dancing better but still looks a little forced. In its earnest eagerness to be lively and engaging, the production often races headlong into cheesiness. 

And yet, it’s something of a joy. Milagro stalwart Veronika Nunez plays Dolores Avara, the Scrooge stand-in, a stern striver who understands the American dream only as an individualist proposition, and it’s hard to say which part of the character she shows most affectingly — the closed off miser we first meet, the hurt loner the ghosts reveal to her, or the grateful giver her epiphany creates.

Meanwhile Tricia Castaneda-Guevara provides the emotional contrasts as Dolores’ down-on-her-luck niece, Andres Alacala anchors the ensemble cast with an easygoing warmth, and the whole thing sneaks into your heart and makes you care about these characters — and people like these characters — in a way the weekend’s other shows don’t.
As I filed out of the theater, I heard a voice behind me — I think it was the voice of noted arts patron Ronni Lacroute — offering an opinion on the show I think I’d agree with: “Ridiculously uplifting!”

Opening (brutal Xmas onslaught redux)

Austen-tatious: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley Photo: Russell J Young

Seeking new Christmas fare with an air of familiarity, playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon created this holiday-themed Jane Austen pastiche, a comic sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” blending period elegance and modern wit. Though set at the estate of that novel’s main couple, Lizzy and Darcy, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley centers on the overlooked middle sister, Mary, who has hopes of striking a rom-com match of her own. Portland Center Stage artistic director Marissa Wolf deploys a talent-rich cast, including Lauren Modica, Isaac Lamb, Kailey Rhodes, Josh Weinstein and others.

***

Stumptown Stages will try to sing the Dickens out of A Christmas Carol, the Musical, directed and choreographed by Gary Wayne Cash, who also stars as the man you love to hate, Ebenezer Scrooge. 

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If one stock story form won’t do, try two at once! Another example of the strange Christmas/hybrid, Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot puts Sherlock Holmes into wintry whodunnit territory. Kymberli Colbourne directs for Bag & Baggage.

***

Fake Radio’s It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really fake, it’s just not really radio. It’s live, it’s theater. And it’s more than just a facsimile of fun.

Second-hand news

As The Nutcracker is for ballet companies in America, so A Christmas Carol is for theaters. American Theatre digs into this shocking scandal (kidding).

Opening (holiday-free edition)

An academic devoted to traditional Scottish folk culture attends a conference on ballads of the country’s border region. But in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, that rather dry-sounding event turns into a dreamlike journey involving a rowdy pub, a fearsome snowstorm, and a devilish stranger. Staged amidst the audience in an immersive, pub-like setting, told in songs and witty couplets, the show is, in the words of the Daily Beast, “satirical, absurd, a literary parlor game, a crazy surf through folkloric history, and a wild and celebratory slice of storytelling-as-art.” This Artists Rep production includes the option to pre-order food and whisky to complete the pub experience. And with stars such as Amy Newman and Darius Pierce, how could you go wrong?

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Feeling put down and bossed around? Your special qualities going unrecognized? Want to set things right? Well, then you’ll likely relate to Matilda, the title character of this award-magnet (Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier, etc.) musical, based on a story by the twistedly whimsical Roald Dahl. In a kid-friendly production from Northwest Children’s Theatre, villainous authority is met with precocious intelligence, kindness, and a touch of telekinesis. 

***

Portland Action Theater Ensemble describes Never Too Late Pop-up Escape Room as “a meditation on regret, loss, and healing.” An immersive, puzzle-solving game room sounds more like work than meditation to me, but if the escape-room fad is your idea of fun, here’s a chance to indulge. And if you manage to, well, escape, there’s still William Gibson’s sturdy classic The Miracle Worker, about Helen Keller, at Twilight Theater, and just for this weekend, Profile Theatre presenting “concert stagings” of Ruined and Mother Courage, exploring the interesting juxtaposition of Lynn Nottage and Bertolt Brecht.

Closing

So much to do! So much to do!
And if you haven’t yet caught Shakespeare in Love at Lakewood or the Hullabaloo Alice in Wonderland, well, there’s more for the priority list.

The flattened stage

Have an hour to escape the seasonal social tumult? Why not spend it with those wonderful gals, the Apple Sisters, as they perform their Holidoozy Christ-mess Spectacular, Live from Hollywoodland!? As they assure us, it’s “sweet and delicious and free of worms!”

The best line I read this week

“The human soul craves for the eternal of which, apart from certain rare mysteries of religion, only love and art can give a glimpse.”

— from The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch 

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.