Fuse Theatre

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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ArtsWatch Weekly: past imperfect, present tense

In the Northwest, images of horror and hope from the past and present. Plus a West Side story, a flamenco flourish, and a divine voice.

ARTSWATCH IS ABOUT ARTS AND CULTURE IN OREGON: It’s embedded in our name. But culture is a fluid thing, coming at us from all corners of the world, and, through our libraries and museums and musical notations, from the enduring fragments of previous times and places. It comes to us. We go to it. Everything mingles in the process. One of our number is on the nothern tip of the Olympic Peninsula right now, a ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, where depending on the weather she might be greeted on the shoreline by a bagpiper in a kilt (although the Unipiper remains a resolutely Portlandian attraction, rain or shine, sleet or snow). Another ArtsWatcher is working her way across Andalucia, taking hundreds of pictures as she goes. Our music editor is settling back into the gentle rains of the Pacific Northwest after a sojourn in Bali with some masters of the gamelan.  

Parmigianino, Antea, ca. 1535, oil on canvas, 53.7 x 33.8 inches, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples; at the Seattle Art Museum through Jan. 26, 2020.

On occasion we indulge in a quick trip north to Seattle, and in case you do the same, you might want to drop in on the Seattle Art Museum, where the exhibition Flesh & Blood: Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum opens today and hangs around through January 26. It time-travels through Renaissance and Baroque Europe, and includes 39 paintings and a single sculpture from the collections of the Naples museum.

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Drama Watch: A clown’s tale

"Going Down in Flames" traces a great clown's fall. Plus: critical changes at The New Yorker, what's up on Oregon stages in June.

One of the things about Joan Mankin was, she was always a surprise: always in the moment, rarely the same thing twice, an improvisational spirit whose free-form antics could throw her fellow performers for a loop, delight her audiences, and send her shows spinning into another dimension. So when the sound of a train rumbling down the tracks behind The Headwaters Theatre during a performance of Going Down in Flames on Saturday night broke the action and prompted Joan Schirle, who was playing the late, great American clown Mankin, to break into an ad-lib wisecrack, it was like a side-splitting visitation from beyond: Queenie Moon, upending expectations and stealing the scene again. And the audience cracked up.

Jeff Desautels (left), Joan Schirle as Joan Mankin, and Michael O’Neill in Danny Mankin’s Going Down in Flames at The Headwaters.

Mankin, or Queenie Moon, as her famous clown persona was called, was a shining light of the West Coast new vaudeville/agitprop theater scene that thrived from the 1960s forward, employing old-fashioned theatrical styles for new and often culturally subversive purposes. She worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the physical-theater stalwarts the Dell’Arte Players, as well as a lot of mainstream companies. I remember her best, and most fondly, as a star of the Pickle Family Circus, the wonderful San Francisco-based acrobatic and clowning company whose traveling shows I would seek out whenever they were in rational range, from Grant Park in Northeast Portland to the Southwest Oregon timber town of Coquille.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Be yourself?

Is there such a thing as "just playing yourself" onstage? What does that mean? Plus, openings, closings, nachos, and a Terrence McNally film

Caroline, or change?

Pretend. Play-acting. Make believe. The actor’s art is a curious challenge: Use your heart and mind, body and soul, to appear to be someone else.

Fine actors do it often. And yet, something in that seeming contradiction at the essence of the art sometimes results in an odd response: “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor, but he only plays himself.”

That’s a bit of off-the-cuff criticism I’ve heard from time to time in talking to Portland theater fans, and I’ve always been puzzled by it. What does such an assertion imply about the nature (or even the definition) of acting? Is “playing yourself” a shortcut to authenticity or a form of cheating? How do you speak someone else’s words and be yourself, anyway?

Sharonlee McLean, “a force of unearthly brilliance” in “Luna Gale.” Photo: Owen Carey

These and other questions came to mind afresh not long ago when I watched Sharonlee McLean as Caroline, an overworked social worker, in Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale, which ended its run at CoHo Theater last weekend. It was another wonderful performance on her part (and from the entire cast, for that matter), but it was her very reliability that reminded me that she’s one of the local performers about whomll I’ve heard that odd opinion: plays herself.

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Everything you wanted to know*

*... about Texas, but were afraid to ask. (And about the OUTwright Festival, and its cult hit "Sordid Lives.")

Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s OUTwright Theatre Festival, celebrating its fifth year, is bringing a lot more to the table than it has in previous years: a bevy of readings and workshops, some already finished, others still to come. And it has one main attraction: Del Shores’ cult hit Sordid Lives, which has manifested in a few incarnations since it first saw daylight in 1996: play, film, and television. OUTwright is staging the cult classic in its first form: live, onstage, fully produced.

The Funhouse Lounge, where all of this is happening, is just off the busy corridor of close-in Southeast Portland now known as “D Street.” Nestled in between houses, it stands out as a Carlo Collodi-inspired oasis with a gallery of velvet paintings dedicated to dead celebrities, an exotic collection of faux-Versailles mirrors, and a bar dedicated to drinking from the sort of 90 proof well that any chaps-wearing man would find an after-hours home. It’s the perfect place for Sordid Lives, which is best described as a John Waters-inspired text, but with a lot more compassion and “real” moments.

Victoria Blake as Dr. Eve and Michael J. Teufel as Brother Boy. Greg Parkinson Photography

There are towns in Texas where, if you order a salad at a restaurant, your waitress will ask: “Potato or macaroni?” And in Sordid Lives there is an itsy bitsy town called Snyder, Texas, on the outskirts of the Panhandle, that has a single restaurant whose salad is composed of wilted iceberg lettuce paired with a thick slice of roma tomato similarly aged and drowned in an almost aspic consistency of French dressing. There is one stop light. One water tower. Plenty of homes and churches. A school. There is nothing else. Shiner Bock is the light and cheap beer that Texans romanticize, in spite of its actual taste. Women still wear their hair high: as the saying goes the higher the hair, the closer to God. It is welded together by cans of spray-net. No person leaves their home without full attire and face on. Plastic surgery is part of most cosmetic approaches to staying young at heart.

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