A neoclassical stage? Or a theater off-kilter?

Will Paula Vogel’s "Indecent" do justice to Sholem Asch’s "God of Vengeance"?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an artistic failure.


Yeah. This is what T.S. Eliot says in his infamous essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” claiming that Coriolanus is instead Shakespeare’s most artistically solid piece of theater.

This perhaps says more about T.S. Eliot’s neoclassical leanings, his love of Roman “revenge tragedies,” than it does about the actual esthetics of theater.

Hamlet: a too, too solid self-obsession? Edwin Booth in the title role, ca. 1870. Photo: J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. /Wikimedia Commons

But maybe we should give his theory a test-drive first, before dismissing it outright.

Maybe it is actually a mirror we’d prefer to not look too deeply into . . .


DramaWatch: Orwell’s doubleplusgood oldthink

The week in Portland theater features Artists Rep talking totalitarianism in "1984," Fake Radio turning back the clock, Shakespeare in the house, and more.

Here in mid-September, school is back in session, so that means that somewhere some teen is reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lots of teens in lots of places, more than likely. As did so many of us, I read George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel in high school and found it both fascinating and (even though the titular time-frame was yet a few years away then) prescient. 

But, having not revisited the book in more than 40 years, I do not remember the appendix.

“The Principles of Newspeak,” a linguistic essay following the familiar story, serves a central role in 1984, the 2013 stage adaptation that opens Artists Repertory Theatre’s season. Playwrights  Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan use the appendix, which uses the past tense in discussing the totalitarian government and its use of ideologically coercive language, as the basis of a framing device for the stage, presenting a group of people discussing the story from an historical remove. 

“Far from being a shallow postmodern device,” Variety wrote about a 2014 production at London’s Almeida Theater, “this adds a further layer of creepiness to the tale, allowing us to see the nightmare as something not in the future but in the near past.”

Fight the power. Winston Smith (Chris Harder) goes against government in Artists Rep’s stage version of George Orwell’s 1984.

The year 1984 is by now roughly equidistant from the time the novel was published and our present moment. Time and dates aren’t all that essential to Orwell’s social critique, which, like all literary dystopias, is as much descriptive as speculative. Which is another way of underlining the depressingly enduring relevance of the tale. 


Arden Forest comes to Yamhill County

And just to the south, you'll find Elsinore, as a Bard-filled weekend offers outdoor productions of "As You Like It" and "Hamlet"

Before we get to this week’s most exciting theater opening — an open-air production of As You Like It — let’s quickly cast our gaze just south of Yamhill County, where an intriguing Hamlet will be found. 

Western Oregon University keeps Shakespeare alive in the summer with free outdoor productions by its Valley Shakespeare Company. This year, WOU’s David Janoviak is directing Hamlet on the campus’s outdoor Leinwand stage. Valley Shakespeare shows offer a mix of student, faculty, community, and professional guest artists.

Janelle Rae plays Hamlet in Valley Shakespeare Company’s Asian-influenced take on Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Final performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Photo by: Ray Finnell
Janelle Rae plays Hamlet in Valley Shakespeare Company’s Asian-influenced take on Shakespeare’s tragedy. Final performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Photo by: Ray Finnell, courtesy Valley Shakespeare Company

This is Janoviak’s fifth Hamlet. He’s played the Prince of Denmark twice, both in school and professionally, and he’s played Laertes twice, for professional companies in Utah and Texas. For this Hamlet, he’s going with a 2017 WOU graduate in the lead, Janelle Rae, who uses the pronouns they/them.

“Someone once said that you don’t simply decide to do Hamlet and then hold auditions to cast the title role,” he said. “You discover the actor first and then take on the project.  That was the case with Janelle.” The fact that Rae is female, he said, didn’t really cross his mind.


Beijing Dance Theater thinks big

Choreographer Wang Yuanyuan, a creative force behind the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies, now runs her own show

On February 20, the globally recognized Beijing Dance Theater will make its Portland debut at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with a hefty program of contemporary work. Choreographer Wang Yuanyuan directs the 13-member company and creates big, bold pieces that design director Tan Shaoyuan and lighting designer Han Jiang help shape. Although this is the company’s first local appearance, there’s a good chance you’ve already seen Wang’s work.

Beijing Dance Theater makes its Portland debut with striking work including “The Crossing.” Photo courtesy of KMP Artists.

A dancer who trained in China, earned an MFA from Cal Arts and served as the National Ballet of China’s resident choreographer, Wang founded Beijing Dance Theater at the end of 2008. As she recounted in a recent interview with Oregon ArtsWatch, she’d already had plenty of experience by then directing large-scale performances, after playing a prominent role in the famous opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, the opening ceremony of the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, and the 1997 celebration marking Hong Kong’s return to China. The Olympics opening ceremonies alone featured an estimated 15,000 performers; the other two events featured more than 5,000.

While she is rightly proud of her role in those events (the Olympics opener, especially, required “a lot of artists and people to work together to present the same result,” she said), starting Beijing Dance Theater felt even more significant than choreographing a performance that millions of people watched. “I prefer works that present my personal artistic ideas,” she said. “It is important to express myself. Starting Beijing Dance Theater gave me a more personal and professional sense of achievement.” Since it was founded, her company has toured far and wide, and she has earned best choreographer awards in Bulgaria, the U.S., Russia, and China. 

A section of “Wild Grass,” slated for the Portland show, demonstrates the company’s creative vision. Photo courtesy of KMP Artists.

The company’s Portland show will feature selections from three of her original pieces. The first of these, “Farewell, Shadows” is from Wild Grass, a piece the company tours frequently; it was inspired by the writings of 19th-century Chinese author Lu Xun. Though Wang called Lu Xun “one of the most important writers in the history of Chinese literature,” she doesn’t think audiences necessarily need to know his work to engage with the show: as she pointed out, “This is the international language of dance.” Themes of duality and its exploration within Eastern philosophy run through the work; some reviews have characterized “Farewell, Shadows” as the more playful movement portion of the whole.

The company will also stage The Crossing, the first piece Wang ever created for the company. It has, she said, the “action elements of traditional Chinese dance.” It opens as a single dancer, to the hum of white noise, enters a darkened empty stage divided by a single long paper streamer. Crossing “traces the struggles of the individual dancers to mark the emptiness,” according to the company description of the piece, as a progression of solos, duets, and trios pit the dancers’ lyricism against the spareness of the space and the weight of the sound that fills it.

The show ends with BDT’s interpretation of Hamlet, the most theatrical of the three pieces. It dates back to 2006, when director Feng Xiaogang invited Wang to choreograph dances for Daniel Wu and Zhou Xun, the leads in his film The Banquet, which was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After The Banquet was released, the choreography received a great deal of attention, and Wang and Feng began talks of a stage adaptation. While inspired by the film, the adaptation departs on many points to become a new Chinese Hamlet. Extracting characters the Ghost, the New King, the Queen, the Prince, and the Floral Spirit from the original, this production focuses on Hamlet’s psychological struggles, his compassion, and his doubt. This take on the classic tale, which has both historical and contemporary elements, is surely unlike any other version of Hamlet out there.

This show looks to be ambitious and spectacular, as performances that can fill the Schnitzer often are. Behind the blazing marquee lights, however, the company tries to root itself in something more personal and earnest. Of her approach, Wang said, “The most important point is that I think artists should be honest with their works. Only true emotions can lead to sincere works. Works represent the quality of your heart, and more or less represent the living environment you are affected by.” It’s high time that Portland gets to see the company’s vibrant mix of innovation and tradition.

Beijing Dance Theater performs 7:30 p.m. February 20 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Find tickets here

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably feeling exhausted from the insanity overload that is America right now. But don’t worry: Oregon dance can revive you. This week’s concerts offer grit, tenacity, and comic relief; creative problem-solving ideas, and suggestions on how to reimagine our relationships with each other and the space around us. They suggest that there is power in subtlety, warn us about the dangers of unchecked power, and give us strength. It just takes a little decoding and understanding the context of current events to get the most out of the work. Enjoy!

Performances this week

Pilobolus’s “Branches.” Photo courtesy of White Bird.

Pilobolus: Come to your senses
Co-directed by Renée Jaworski and Matt Kent
Presented by White Bird
October 4-6
Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway
Pilobolus master class at BodyVox Dance Center, 12:15 pm October 6
Formed in 1971 by athletes and dancers from New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, Pilobolus–named for a fungus that can shoot off its top faster than a speeding bullet–returns to Portland, bringing along a two-hour dance concert dedicated to the five senses.

Pilobolus choreography ranges from comedic to otherworldly, even bizarre. Sometimes the movement is dancerly, sometimes it’s more athletic. Sometimes the choreography defies logic and gravity, and sometimes it contorts the human form. It is always evolving and surprising.

In 1978, years before he co-founded BodyVox in Portland, Jamey Hampton joined Pilobolus. This week, ArtsWatch senior editor Bob Hicks asked Hampton how his work with Pilobolus has influenced BodyVox’s work. “What comes to mind–two things,” Hampton replied. “One is, remain open-minded and let your imagination fly without barriers, so you can be inventive. The other: Let yourself consider the impractical and the impossible. And then if there’s a light there, see what you can do to get to it.”

Renée Archibald in “Shiny Angles in Angular Time.” Photo by Brian Rogers.

Shiny Angles in Angular Time
Melinda Ring and Renée Archibald
October 5-6
Performance Works NW, 4625 SE 67th Ave.
Workshop with Melinda Ring and Renée Archibald at FLOCK Dance Center 1 pm October 6
In their efforts to redefine the black box theater as a magic box, choreographers Melinda Ring and Renée Archibald question how spaces influence us in real and imagined ways.

Part One, a full-length solo that Archibald dances, examines the basic rules of theatrical perspective by asking, “How can I act on the space and can the space, in turn, act upon me?” In Part Two, Archibald and Ring present the movement responses to these questions.

Danced without musical accompaniment but still attentive to musicality, this complex, understatedly virtuosic dance addresses the parameters of, and relationship to, the room it’s performed in.

The work began in Walla Walla, Washington, where Archibald teaches at Whitman College and has access to studio space. The pair spent time in the space, observing it and examining their relationship with it. They created the piece by videotaping their own improvisation, keeping what seemed interesting, then relearning the steps to create the final movement material, which Archibald will perform live.

Ring, the founder of the performance company Special Projects, creates dance- and movement-based projects that incorporate visual arts practices, video, sculpture, and installation.

Archibald is a dancer, choreographer, and Assistant Professor of Dance at Whitman College. She has performed throughout New York City, the United States, and internationally with independent artists including Christopher Williams, Ann Liv Young, Joshua Bissett, Nina Winthrop, and Rebecca Lazier.

Amy Watson and Candace Bouchard in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2015 premiere of August Bournonville’s “Napoli” Act III. Photo by James McGrew.

August Bournonville
Performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre
October 6-13
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St.
Napoli, sometimes called The Fisherman and His Bride, was created by Danish choreographer and ballet master August Bournonville in 1842 after he was inspired by his visit to Naples. The ballet, set in an Italian fishing village, spins a tale of young love thwarted by parental objections, natural disasters, evil sea creatures, and memory loss. Ultimately, however, faith and true love prevail.

Oregon Ballet Theatre, which staged the ballet’s third act in 2015, built this new production from scratch (including new costumes and sets). It is the first U.S. ballet company to stage the full-length three-act production, aided by former Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Frank Andersen and Bournonville experts Eva Kloborg and Dinna Bjorn. The OBT Orchestra will play live for all shows.

The Bournonville technique is characterized by quick footwork, small jumps, understated elegance in the port de bras, and dramatic impact through pantomime.

Napoli is one of Bournonville’s most famous ballets; another is La Sylphide, which the Bolshoi Ballet will perform in a live simulcast November 11. Check local cinema listings for details.

Ophelia in Stephen Mills “Hamlet,” performed by Eugene Ballet. Photo by Ari Denison.

Stephen Mills, Eugene Ballet
October 6-7
Hult Center for the Performing Arts, 1 Eugene Center, Eugene
For its 40th anniversary season opener, Eugene Ballet (directed by Toni Pimble) stages Stephen Mills’ contemporary ballet version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Featuring lavish sets, Armani-inspired costumes, and a Philip Glass score, the ballet–which adheres to the original tale of family drama–will make its Pacific Northwest debut here.

It’s the ballet in which “everybody dies,” according to a helpful blog infographic from Ballet Austin, where Mills serves as artistic director. “My inspiration for putting Hamlet in a contemporary setting” Mills said in a statement, “ is due to the fact that many of the themes in the play—murder, betrayal, and more—are still very relevant themes in today’s society. For me, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a perfect warning for a contemporary audience about the dangers of unchecked power and the ways in which lives of innocents can be forever changed.”

The New Chinese Acrobats. Photo by Liu Baomin.

The New Chinese Acrobats
7:30 pm October 9
Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Silva Concert Hall, 1 Eugene Center, Eugene
Acrobatic arts and variety shows in China date back many thousands of years and evolved from everyday life, incorporating tools and found objects such as rings, tables, chairs, jars, plates, and bowls. Chinese variety shows also included martial arts, gymnastics, wrestling, musical performances, dance, horsemanship, juggling, and Chinese folk stories and cultural traditions.

Connecting the past with the present, The New Chinese Acrobats, in association with Montreal’s Cirque Eloize (a driving force in the circus arts reinvention movement), present audiences with a unique look at ancient Chinese performing arts traditions and practices, combining them with contemporary aesthetics.

In case you missed it

Martha Ullman West recalls the late, great Arthur Mitchell, founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the indelible imprint he left on dance in Warm hug from (and for) a giant.

And Bob Hicks reviews Northwest Dance Project’s season-opening Room 4 and Carmen.

Upcoming Performances

October 11-13, Napoli, Oregon Ballet Theatre
October 11-16, Circa, Presented by White Bird
October 11-20, Bloody Vox: Deadline October, BodyVox
October 12-13, Change(d) Together, The Circus Project
October 12-20, A Spine Tingling Soiree, Wild Rumpus Jazz Co.
October 12-21, Portland Dance Film Fest
October 18-20, Lucy Guerin Inc, Presented by White Bird
October 19, Everything’s Copacetic, The Skylark Tappers
October 20, Clock that Mug or Dusted, Cherdonna Shinatra, Presented by Risk/Reward
October 20, As You Like It-A Wild West Ballet, Ballet Fantastique, Eugene
October 20-21, The Man Who Forgot, The Portland Tap Company
October 22, Dance Artist Talk: Lucy Guerin, Reed College
October 26, Star Dust, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Eugene
October 26, Flamenco Pacifico, Presented by Berto Boyd
October 28, Matices Criollos, Peruvian Cultural Festival

November 1, Windows 11, Roesing Ape and Beth Whelan, Night Lights
November 2-4, A Midsummer Night at the Savoy, Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre
November 4, civilized-Happy Hour, Catherine Egan
November 9, ¿LISTEN?, ELa FaLa Collective and Polaris Dance Theatre
November 9-11, Cloth, PDX Contemporary Ballet
November 11, La Sylphide, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema-Live from Moscow, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
November 13-14, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, Jennifer Weber
November 14, Tangueros del Sur, Presented by White Bird
November 16-18, Perceiving The Constant, Jessica Hightower
November 23-25, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with PSU Orchestra, The Portland Ballet

December 2, Don Quixote, Bolshoi Ballet in cinema, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
December 6-8, Winter Performance, NW Dance Project
December 8, So You Think You Can Dance Live! 2018, Eugene
December 8-25, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, Oregon Ballet Theatre
December 14-16, Babes in Toyland (World Premiere), Ballet Fantastique, Eugene
December 21-23, The Nutcracker, Eugene Ballet, Eugene
December 23, The Nutcracker, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema-Live from Moscow, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live

January 2019
January 9-20, The Lion King, Eugene
January 20, La Bayadère, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema-Live from Moscow, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
January 24-February 2, The Cutting Room, BodyVox
January 31-February 2, Shay Kuebler/Radical System Art, Presented by White Bird

February 9-10, Romeo and Juliet, Eugene Ballet, Eugene
February 13, Les Ballets Trockadero De Monte Carlo, Presented by White Bird
February 16-23, Cinderella, Oregon Ballet Theatre
February 20, Beijing Dance Theater, Presented by White Bird
February 28-March 2, Compagnie Hervé Koubi, Presented by White Bird
February 29-March 2, Trip The Light Fantastic, NW Dance Project

March 1-3, The Odyssey, Ballet Fantastique, Eugene
March 1-3, Materialize, PDX Contemporary Ballet
March 7-9, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, Presented by White Bird
March 8-10, Interplay, Eugene Ballet, Eugene
March 9, Painted Sky Northstar Dance Company, Walters Cultural Arts Center
March 10, The Sleeping Beauty, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
March 29-31, New Expressive Works Residency Performance

April 4-6, Parsons Dance, Presented by White Bird
April 4-13, The Pearl Dive Project, BodyVox
April 7, The Golden Age, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
April 9-10, Savion Glover, Presented by White Bird
April 11-14, Director’s Choice, Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 13-14, The Firebird, Eugene Ballet, Eugene
April 24, Philadanco, Presented by White Bird
April 25-27, Spring Performance, NW Dance Project

May 9-11, Contact Dance Film Festival, BodyVox and NW Film Center
May 10-12, Shaun Keylock Company
May 10-12, Current/Classic, The Portland Ballet
May 10-12, Cleopatra (World Premiere), Ballet Fantastique, Eugene
May 17-19, Undone, PDX Contemporary Ballet
May 19, Carmen Suite / Petrushka, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema-Live from Moscow, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
May 26, Derek Hough: Live! The Tour, Eugene

June 7-15, The Americans, Oregon Ballet Theatre
June 7-9, Up Close, The Portland Ballet
June 13-15, Summer Performances, NW Dance Project

Newport honors favorite sons David Ogden Stiers, Ernest Bloch

Upcoming on the Coast: a screening of Benedict Cumberbatch in "Hamlet" and an open house at an historic Coast Guart boathouse

The central Coast pays homage to two of its famous former citizens this month. As part of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts’ capital campaign program, plans are under way to change the name of the Performing Arts Center’s Black Box Theatre to the David Ogden Stiers Theatre.

A campaign is under way to rename a Newport theater after former resident David Ogden Stiers. Photo courtesy Newport Symphony Orchestra

In a press release, the arts council’s Executive Director Catherine Rickbone called the actor, known for his role as the pompous Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III in the 1970s TV show M*A*S*H, “an inspiration to several generations over his many years of involvement with OCCA and the PAC.” Stiers, 75, died March 3 of bladder cancer at his home in Newport.

Rickbone’s release continued to note that Stiers often said of the Performing Arts Center, “it so delights me to see the theater camps and dance recitals involving kids. They think they own this place, and of course they do!”

The renaming comes with $1.6 million in renovations that will include a new seating system, enhanced sound, lighting, and acoustics, and improved HVAC for the theater. It will be home to experimental theater, premiering original plays, literary readings, storytelling, piano performances, dance recitals, cabaret-style jazz ensembles, international musical events, and a broader youth theater. It will also enable simultaneous programming with the adjacent Alice Silverman Theatre. For more information, call Bonnie Prater at the OCCA office, 541-574-2655.


The guitar strings at midnight

Death-metal music amid a quiet coup shapes a "Hamlet" on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor stage


ASHLAND – Every production of Hamlet that theater fans see is strengthened by the one before it. Or maybe it’s complicated by the previous one – or is it just affected? Even non-Shakespeare fans or non-Hamlet addicts know many of the play’s words in snatches, in pieces of lines that we all say, not needing the origin story of “to sleep, perchance to dream” or “sweets to the sweet.”

Add in the past few decades of contemporary theater and digital narratives: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I Hate Hamlet, Fortinbras, that “more ketchup!” scene from Grease II, The Lion King, the first seven episodes of the (deservedly legendary) Canadian show Slings and Arrows, not to mention a zombie Hamlet or two and the many movies of the play itself, and you’ve got cultural freight that looms around any major English-language production.

(Spoiler alert: Hamlet has a relatively high body count, which I’ll be discussing in the review, along with a few other plot points. If Hamlet’s plot is something you don’t want to know before you see the show, please wait until after you see it to read this.)

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) greets his friends Rosenkrantz (Dylan Paul) and Guildenstern (Cedric Lamar). Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) greets his friends Rosenkrantz (Dylan Paul) and Guildenstern (Cedric Lamar). Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

At this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet, there’s an added challenge, common to summer Shakespeare festivals everywhere: Creating a meaningful, tight Hamlet in the airy beauty of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Hamlet is an intimate court play, a two-family tragedy that has an impact on an entire region. Director Lisa Peterson and sound designer/co-composer Paul James Prendergast deal with these questions, and the specific design options of the space, by employing a guitarist and musical collaborator to set what this year’s Hamlet, Danforth Comins, called “an aural soundscape” for the play.