Grand Concourse

ArtsWatch Weekly: the kindness of strangers and the skin of our teeth

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Here it is, the middle of May, and suddenly Portland’s theater season is entering its final stretch before summer, which brings its own busy theater mini-season, indoors and out. The city’s two biggest companies open shows this weekend, both high-profile American classics and both due for a fresh look.

Flickering desire: "Streetcar" at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Flickering desire: “Streetcar” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

On Friday, Portland Center Stage opens its revival of Tennessee Williams’ rough, sensual, groundbreaking A Streetcar Named Desire, which in its 1947 debut featured Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, and a smoldering hunk of muscle named Marlon Brando as Stanley. Center Stage has come up with a new Southern strategy, rethinking the play in a thoroughly multiracial milieu, with national players Kristen Adele as Stella, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley, and Diedrie Henry (a onetime regular at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as Blanche. Can we depend on the kindness of strangers?

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ArtsWatch Weekly: artists at play

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

When visual artists and show people get together, interesting things often happen. Some collaborations have become legendary: Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural set designs for modern dance icon Martha Graham; Léon Bakst’s expressionistic designs for Ballets Russes. The original designs and even the title for the musical Fiddler on the Roof were inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. More recently, the South African artist William Kentridge’s astonishingly absurdist designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 production of Shostakovich’s equally astonishing and absurd The Nose brilliantly suggested the tone of the Gogol story that inspired the opera. Last season, Portland Opera produced Stravinsky’s classic mid-twentieth-century opera The Rake’s Progress, based on William Hogarth’s famous eighteenth century series of paintings and prints, with David Hockney’s inspired modernized designs.

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Paageno (John Moore) and Sendak's set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Papageno (John Moore) and Sendak’s set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Now Portland Opera is back with a new production of Mozart’s fabulist opera The Magic Flute, using sets and costumes designed in 1980 by the brilliant children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose designs for The Nutcracker were also a mainstay at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet for many years. Sendak’s sets and to a lesser extent his costumes for The Magic Flute are immediately identifiable as his and his alone: in this case the collaboration is an overlay of artistic sensibilities, a discovery of parallels between two artists whose outlooks differ but mesh well. Sendak’s bright color sense and playfully exaggerated figurative style emphasize the childlike aspects of Mozart’s music and the opera’s slightly nonsensical tale. Sendak didn’t so much rethink his source material, the way that Kentridge and Hockney did, as find a level of mutual agreement, a seductive surface that allows the music to dive more deeply behind the mask. He created very traditional tableaux, but in his own  pleasing and agreeable style, and the result is … well, pleasing and agreeable and pertinent.

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Heidi Schreck dishes the soup

The author of Artists Rep's new "Grand Concourse" chats about writing, acting, soup kitchens, and getting from Wenatchee to the Big Apple

Things clip along pretty quickly in Grand Concourse, the new play at Artists Repertory Theatre, which takes place in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx and performs a bravura juggling act between comedy and psychological drama. Played out on a meticulous commercial kitchen set by Kristeen Willis Crosser (the show features lots of chopping of carrots, potatoes, and the occasional finger), it’s a four-hander that features an unlikely showdown between an activist nun (Ayanna Berkshire) and a volatile 19-year-old volunteer (Jahnavi Alyssa), with excellent support from veterans John San Nicholas as the soup kitchen jack-of-all-trades and Allen Nause as a shambling, slightly addled perpetual client. As directed by JoAnn Johnson, it’s an expertly careening race of two locomotives heading toward each other on the same track, speeding somewhere between possibility and inevitability.

And it audaciously introduces Portland audiences to the work of Heidi Schreck, a New York actor and rising playwright who grew up in the Pacific Northwest.

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Rep. Photo: Nicole Lane

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Rep. Photo: Nicole Lane

Grand Concourse opened Saturday night, and I saw it Sunday afternoon after chatting with Schreck on Friday afternoon. She showed up for our interview at Artists Rep trailing a rolling suitcase behind her, a woman on the move: she’d flown in the day before and was staying only through the weekend. Still, this was a homecoming of sorts, and she was upbeat, insightful, and obviously very smart.

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