Damaso Rodriguez

Imagining the Portland of tomorrow

Diana Burbano's audio play "The Vertical City" from Artists Rep and The Actors Conservatory is a tragic and triumphant vision of a futuristic PDX

If you want to know what The Vertical City is about, ask Dr. Greta Edelman (Erica Hatfield). “We’re not made to be satisfied,” she says of humankind. “No one’s ever figured out how to decode our souls.”

If she’s right, it’s probably not in the way you think. Written by Diana Burbano, The Vertical City (a collaboration between Artists Rep and The Actors Conservatory, it’s available to stream through June 30) would be a gloriously absorbing audio play if it ended before its final scene. Yet it becomes something more: a dystopian epic that is a meditation on dystopian epics.

Dystopian writing is based on a belief that confronting oppression brings us closer to liberation. But what, the play asks, if it doesn’t? What if the allure of a dystopia is (to quote New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis) that it gets audiences “grooving on the spectacle of their symbolic demise: bang, bang—we’re all dead”? What if the genre grows from a subliminal desire to be dissatisfied?

Dustin Fuentes, as Dylan, recording “The Vertical City.” Photo: Carol Ann Wohlmut

That question haunts The Vertical City, but it isn’t the only reason to listen. Led by director Dámaso Rodríguez, the production’s cast and crew have created a portrait of a post-apocalyptic Portland that overwhelms you through the precision of its sounds, the power of its performances, and the sheer emotional force of Burbano’s saga of injustice, both societal and personal.

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Starting Over: The arts fight back

A new column rolls into view, and news from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, RACC and the Oregon Cultural Trust

Way back before the Covid-19 virus pandemic sent us into a sad and alarming combination of hibernation and vertigo—way back before then, let’s say early March—I would have used the same two words to describe the situation of the arts community in Oregon. “Sad” and “alarming.”

I didn’t need the March 5 panel on Building Political Support for the Arts in Portland to make me think that, but the conclusion was unavoidable after the panel members testified. It was pretty glum. It was also the last public event I attended.

I could quote almost anyone on the panel, hosted by Portland State University and moderated by Portland Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan, to illustrate this conclusion, but let’s choose Dámaso Rodríguez, the artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre for the past seven years. Artists Rep is Portland’s second-largest theater company, 38 years old and counting. Its past couple of years have been financially tumultuous and the company is in the middle of raising money for a new theater space. But unusual in a public setting for an arts administrator, Rodríguez was plaintive, and his melancholy had an edge to it, . 

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is closing until at least September 8. /Photo by Kim Budd

“Art elevates society,” he said, quietly and intently. “It is essential to living a good life. It would be nice if public policy made that statement. I feel isolated. I feel alone. I feel like we [in the arts] have become experts at surviving, and public policy could lead to us thriving.”

Artists Rep is going to need all of its survival skills now. And if the people associated with the company do manage to pull that rabbit out of the hat, where will they be? Back to “sad and alarming” where they entered this particular movie? Back to alone?

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In the Frame 4: Culture now

In a fourth collection of images, K.B. Dixon continues his photographic portraiture series of Oregon arts and cultural leaders

Text and Photographs by K.B. DIXON

“The portrait,” said legendary photographer Arnold Newman, “is a form of biography. Its purpose is to inform now and to record for history.” It is hard to imagine a better, more succinct summation of the genre.

The portraits informing and recording here are the latest in a series titled In the Frame—a survey of the talented and dedicated people whose contributions to the art, character, and culture of this city have made it what it is today, people whose work has become part of our collective consciousness, whose various legacies are destined to be part of our cultural heritage.

As with the previous portraits in this series, I have tried to produce first a decent photograph—a photograph that acknowledges the medium’s allegiance to reality as its primal source of strength but one that is more than simple transcription—a photograph that presents a feeling as well as a form, one that preserves for myself and others a faithful representation of its subject.

 


 

Steve Wax

First U.S. Federal Public Defender for the District of Oregon and now Legal Director of the Oregon Innocence Project.

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‘Romeo and Juliet,’ fresh again

Jaded from too many R&Js? Dámaso Rodriguez's production for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival makes the tale seem vital and new.

ASHLAND — Romeo and Juliet must be a theater director’s greatest challenge. How does one make what is arguably the best-known play in the English language fresh and new for audiences who have probably seen or read a version or several of this play already?

Ask Dámaso Rodriguez, who directs the production running through October 12 on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Allen Elizabethan Stage. He manages in a number of ways to make Romeo and Juliet something new, without gimmicks and while sticking closely to the original play.

Nurse (Robin Goodrin Nordli) tells Juliet (Emily Ota) that her cousin Tybalt has been killed and her husband Romeo has been banished from Verona. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

First, instead of casting the role of “Chorus,” he has the entire cast — shrouded in white or black cloaks — serve as the chorus. Romeo and Juliet, in fact, recite the opening setup, in which the narrator/Chorus tells us what is about to transpire. Having the star-crossed lovers themselves tell us their own fates has a profound impact here, because you find yourself wondering why, if they know what’s about to happen, can’t they stop it? Which is, as Rodriguez explains in the playbill, the real tragedy: “The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet isn’t their untimely death but the myriad ways it could have been avoided.” He heightens that sense of “WHY CAN’T THEY MAKE IT STOP?!” over and over, starting with them reading us their own fates.

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Long, cold, and worth it

Artists Rep's premiere of E.M. Lewis's Antarctic drama "Magellanica" – all five and a half hours of it – tells an epic tale of lives on the edge

Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis’s new show Magellanica opens with a scientist holding a parka and some luggage. “No one ends up in Antarctica by accident,” she says matter-of-factly. It’s true. Those who head deep into the frozen continent do must have strong resolve. The journey is long but those who make it hope for great payoffs.

Magellanica, which had its world premiere on Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, embraces this ethos with a five-and-a-half hour run time. The question you’re probably asking is, “Does the payoff justify its length?” The answer is a definite yes.

Don’t worry: There are three intermissions and a dinner break.

From left: Vin Shambry, Sara Hennessy, Allen Nause, Michael Mendelson, John San Nicolas, Joshua J. Weinstein, Barbie Wu, Eric Pargac. Photo: Russell J Young

Set in 1986, Magellanica follows five scientists, one cartographer, and two crew members to an international research station at the South Pole, the most inhospitable place on the surface of the earth. Some of them are there to study the newly discovered hole in the ozone layer. Some are there to escape their own pasts. Some are doing both at the same time.

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