Crossing Mnisose

Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

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DramaWatch: Standing on a Rock

What was and what is, from Sacagawea to Standing Rock, in Mary Kathryn Nagle's time-traveling tale "Crossing Mnisose"

A bit of banter between a couple of young indigenous protesters at Standing Rock drills down wryly and comically on one of the key issues in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s new time-hopping play Crossing Mnisose: the way that many white people either venerate or underestimate nonwhite people, falling back on shopworn assumptions rather than taking the time to listen and learn and simply respect.

Carey (Nathalie Standingcloud), a young woman from nearby Bismark, and Travis (Robert I. Mesa), a key student activist in the 2016 fight to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline that poses a threat to reservation land and burial sites, break into an impromptu comedy routine about the ways that white New Agers approach them as embodiments of mystical indigenous powers. The mimicry’s spot-on, and only a little exaggerated, which makes it all the funnier, in a shoulder-shrugging, with-friends-like-this sort of way. It’s almost a courtship dance, tough and affectionate and satiric and seductive all at once.

Robert I. Mesa and Nathalie Standingcloud, flirtatious at Standing Rock. Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Time warps in Nagle’s plays, or rather, overlaps. The past is prologue to the present, an enduring chord within a freshly written song, the sins of the fathers visiting generations to come. Nagle’s play Manahatta, which premiered last season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and opens next month in New York, bounces between the stories of a Lenape woman in the 1600s, when Dutch settlers began to take over Manhattan, and a modern-day Lenape woman who is a high-powered securities trader on Wall Street, which sits on land from which her ancestors were evicted.

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DramaWatch: Aliens in rom-coms

Corrib's "How To Keep an Alien" in review, "Jesus Takes the 'A' Train' and "Crossing Mnisose" opening, children's theater, new seasons

Irish playwright Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep an Alien, which took the best-production award when it premiered at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2014 and is now enjoying its West Coast premiere from Corrib, Portland’s all-Irish theater company, isn’t about flying saucers and little green men. It’s about that other kind of alien – the foreign-born kind, the kind who faces political and sometimes actual walls when trying to move from one nation to another, and who must overcome not only bureaucratic obstacles but also personal ones, the sort we often erect between our desires and our fears.

It’s intriguing, often appealing, and whimsically constructed, like a shifting tower leaning sharply to one side: an odd duck of a play, and I mean it no disrespect when I say it’s a contemporary rom-com, the sort of story that might make a good Hallmark movie if Hallmark movies ever were to recognize the actual and ordinary existence in the world of homosexuality (or, for that matter, the desirability of non-white characters filling any role in a romantic comedy larger than supportive sidekick). I happen to like a good rom-com, and this one has the enormous advantage of being about two lesbians falling in love, but approaching their affair altogether naturally, with no flashing lights of cultural or political importance: just two people going through what people of all sorts all over the world go through every day. The decision to not make a big deal out of the lovers’ gender – to treat it matter-of-factly, as just the way this story goes – is in fact a bigger deal than making a big deal would be.

Amy Katrina Bryan (left) and Sara Hennessy in Corrib Theatre’s “How To Keep an Alien.” Photo: Adam Liberman

In this case the two people overtaken by emotional attraction are Sonia, an Irish actor starring in a historical costume drama that she finds ridiculous, and Kate, the show’s Australian stage manager, who is also, in a meta sort of way, the onstage stage manager of How To Keep an Alien, batting back and forth between the reality of the story and the reality of the production. If this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but usually isn’t.

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