Julia Cho

ArtsWatch year in theater 2017

From "Astoria" to "The Humans" with a whole lot in between, a month-by-month stroll with ArtsWatch through the year in Oregon theater

From Portland Center Stage’s Astoria: Part I (Part II is streaming around the bend in January, along with an encore run for Part I) to Artists Rep’s The Humans and a slew of holiday shows, it’s been a busy, busy year in Oregon theater.

In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival rolled out another season blending contemporary and classic with a wide-angle world view. And the fine actor G. Valmont Thomas, after spending a season playing Falstaff in all three plays in which the great character appears, died in December from bone cancer, at age 58.

In Hillsboro, Bag&Baggage, which had been temporarily homeless, opened a spiffy new home in a renovated downtown former bank building.

In Portland, the sprawling Fertile Ground festival introduced dozens of new works (and, like Astoria, is gearing up for a fresh new run in January). Chris Coleman, Center Stage’s artistic director for 17 years, announced he would be leaving at the end of this season to take over the theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. TCG, the influential Theatre Communications Group, held its annual conference in Portland. And theater companies large and small produced more plays than The Count could count in a dozen seasons of Sesame Street.

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Words of loss, words of love

Portland Playhouse's "The Language Archive" deftly dives into the mysteries of language and the subtexts of love

As the guttersnipe turned singing elocutionist Eliza Doolittle put it, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” And as the playwright Julia Cho responds in her nimble, playful, sometimes deeply touching drama The Language Archive, “What is language but an act of faith?”

It must be an act of faith – and as Eliza notes, a frustrating one at that – because, as every writer and every would-be lover knows, words fail us. Constantly. They fail us almost without fail. Words attempt to describe the indescribable, and because it’s indescribable, they can only rudely approximate that thought, that feeling, that thing or chain of events that the speaker is trying to communicate. The heart, the soul, the nub of the thing is always beyond language. And yet the beauty of language is that as it bungles things, it also creates a new reality, a metaphorical parallel universe that becomes the repository of the constantly evolving story of what it means to be that particular kind of social animal we call human. Language is a beautiful map, and only through it can we explain ourselves, as imperfect and misleading as our explanations may be. Without words we are nothing. With words, we are an aspiring mess.

Greg Watanabe, lost in the language of facts. Photo: Brud Giles

Nobody in The Language Archive, which is getting a sweet and crisp and revealingly fragile production directed by Adriana Baer for Portland Playhouse, is more of an aspiring mess than George (Greg Watanabe), a brilliant linguist who studies the world’s lost and disappearing languages – those codes of communication and behavior that define an entire culture and so, in disappearing, represent the catastrophic loss of an entire way of life. What is it about each language that is indefinable, incapable of direct translation, understood fully only by those who speak it, and live it, and therefore know it before it becomes words?

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ArtsWatch Weekly: the language of bargains, a prints of a town

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

Portland’s a provisional sort of town, a place to try things out, take a chance, experiment a little and see what happens. It might have something to do with the town’s rough-and-tumble history, its roots in fishing and logging and shipping, its historical country-cousin status among West Coast cities, without the swagger of San Francisco or glitter of L.A. or sun of San Diego or deeper pockets of Seattle. You can hide in Portland, and just do stuff, and make a life while you’re at it. In the arts, this can be both a blessing and a curse: the extra polish of high-level professionalism doesn’t always get applied, but the sheer guts of working things out, the passion of the process, don’t get ironed away, either.

Leo Lin and Wynee Hu in "TheLanguage Archive"; background: Sofia May-Cuxim, Enrique Eduardo Andrade. Theatre Diaspora photo

Leo Lin and Wynee Hu in “TheLanguage Archive”; background: Sofia May-Cuxim, Enrique Eduardo Andrade. Theatre Diaspora photo

And as an audience member, you can find bargains – deals to see something genuinely interesting but unfinished or in the works. For eight bucks last weekend I dropped down to the basement Ellen Bye Studio Theatre at Portland Center Stage to catch a staged reading of Julia Cho’s smart and insightful comedy The Language Archive, produced by Theatre Diaspora and directed by Dmae Roberts, whose MediaRites is the small theater company’s mother ship. Diaspora specializes in plays written or performed by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and in addition to doing its own thing it chips away at some stubborn patterns on the city’s theater scene, opening doors for AAPI performers and cluing people in to a wealth of potential dramatic material from Asian American writers. The Language Archive will have one more reading, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Milagro Theatre, which itself has been a pioneering force in town for Hispanic performance.

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