Sing a song of Dante

ArtsWatch Weekly: A musical trip in a funhouse mirror, talking about "Lorelei," a month in the galleries, creative laureates and more

THE PAST MIGHT NOT REPEAT ITSELF, BUT IT RIPPLES like a funhouse mirror, reflecting in often strange and twisted ways. (Or, as Mark Twain put it, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”) And so, when news crossed my desk from the group Big Mouth Society of a series of small-gathering outdoor picnic concerts celebrating the early 14th century poet Dante Alighieri, I found myself disproportionately, almost ridiculously enticed by the prospect: Dante, who in his Divine Comedy traveled through Hell and back for his readers, might have fit snugly into the 21st century––or at least, a funhouse-mirror version of it. 

Domenico di Michelino, “Dante and His Poem,” 1465, oil on canvas, 91.3 x 114.1 inches, Duomo, Florence

“We’re honoring the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death with music based on his poetry and written over a 500-year period,” Big Mouth’s Susan Kevorkian wrote about the project, called collectively Precious Fruits: A Picnic Concert. “Like us, Dante lived through plague, social protest and regime change. We’re excited to share his work in an array of virtuosic vocal and instrumental music by historical and contemporary masters.” If that’s not a reflection in a funhouse mirror, I’m not sure what is.


A killer of a party on the radio

Imago takes Carol Triffle's newest play offstage and onto the mysteries of radio. Listen up: A cast member explores how and why they dunnit.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: On Monday evening, July 26, Imago Theatre debuts Carol Triffle’s new radio play, “Happy Times,” on Portland’s KBOO-FM 90.7. This time around, Triffle’s quirky, absurdist, and ordinarily highly physical form of theater takes something of a modern-day “Arsenic and Old Lace” twist: Three woman friends throw a party once a year, invite a man to serve as butler, then knock him off and bury him in the back yard. This year, though, something different happens.

How do a playwright and theater company renowned for their physical approach adapt to doing a show on the sightless medium of radio? We asked Imago veteran actor Danielle Vermette, who’s in the show as “a rather maniacal party host with a passion for exceptionalism, a hankering for the ‘butler’ she’s enlisted for nefarious purposes, and a slim grasp on reality,” to give us an inside look at what the process was like. Vermette is also a writer who’s contributed stories to ArtsWatch ranging from profiles of poets Kim Stafford and Leanne Grabel to a look at the life and work of Palestinian American embroidery artist Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, a literary dive into the global work of Clowns Without Borders, and her own memories of touring the world with Imago in a polar bear costume – all of which help make her an ideal person to tell this tale.)


THE IRONY ISN’T LOST ON ANY THEATER ARTIST that the very medium that so adeptly explores human travails and uncertainty plunged into its own existential crisis when Covid shuttered the world. An art form dependent on close-proximity gatherings found itself in a dire state, given that its value to the community isn’t exactly essential (at least according to Maslow and his hierarchy of needs). The arts tend to breed a resilient bunch, though, and fear at the gut level figures into the whole enterprise in the first place.  

Still, marquees perhaps captured this new, particular fear best—signs of encouragement laden with a shaky subtext that seemed also to say, “What’s next?” and “Guys, this is really, really bad!”  “Take care of each other,” read many. “Stay safe,” read several. Sometimes, humor won the day: “Home Alone,” and “No Close Encounters of Any Kind.”

So, while marquees beamed messages of good will, and ghostlights took center stage, and artists scrambled for emergency funding, and artistic directors contemplated new platforms, and grant writers hustled through applications to plead their case, some theater companies blazed into the great unknown by embracing technologies like Zoom performances. Others, like Imago Theatre in Southeast Portland, took another route and explored the challenges and delights of radio drama.

A party to die for: Laura Loy (left) and Amy Katrina Bryan in Carol Triffle’s “Happy Times,” an Imago Theate radio play premiering on KBOO-FM 90.7. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

I’ve been a company member since 1999, and when I learned that Imago had paired with KBOO radio to create a series of radio plays, I felt fairly certain the venture would yield interesting results. In “ordinary” times Imago’s artists are masters of movement, and highly reliant on the whole architecture of a space and all its elements. I wondered what the strictures of radio would inspire in Artistic Directors Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad. 


Oscars, books, and strange things

ArtsWatch Weekly: Oscarmania, Oregon Book Awards, strange tales and a stranger firing, opera's triumph, carving stories, photo stories

ON SUNDAY HOLLYWOOD THREW ITS BIG BACCHANALIA, the 93rd such annual fling, and even in its pandemic-year virtual tuxedo it was an obsessively overproduced wingding that was, at heart, a gigantic sales pitch for the movie industry. Nomadland (based on a book by Jessica Bruder, a former reporter for The Oregonian) won, the late Chadwick Boseman did not, and television viewership numbers took another tumble. Marc Mohan wraps things up smartly in his new “Streamers” column. Most refreshingly, he notes, the studios pushed their big fall and winter releases back to this summer, a move that “allowed greater recognition for films that didn’t conform to Hollywood ‘Oscar-bait’ formulas. As a result, the Academy took a few more halting, belated steps towards racial, gender, and aesthetic diversity.” 

A doff of the ArtsWatch cap also to Portland filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald, who scored his second Oscar nomination for his short documentary Hunger Ward, about the war-caused famine in Yemen and the struggle of two women to feed the devastated nation’s children and infants. Colette, about a former French Resistance member who travels to Germany for the first time in 74 years, won that category, but that takes nothing from Fitzgerald’s achievement. Mohan, ArtsWatch’s movie columnist, talked with Fitzgerald a week before the ceremony, and the resuting interview is worth a second read.

And now, back to our previously scheduled coverage.


Left: Joe Wilkins, author of “Thieve.” Right: Ann Vileisis, author of “Abalone.”

THE OREGON BOOK AWARDS ARE COMING UP SUNDAY, and although they’re much less high-profile than Sunday’s Academy Awards blowout was, a lot of talent and a lot of prestige will be in the virtual room when this year’s winners are announced. That’ll be at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 2, on a special episode of OPB Radio’s The Archive Project, a co-production of OPB and Literary Arts, which also sponsors the annual book awards. (You can see the list of nominees here.)


A strange case of sound over sight

Author Drew Pisarra and director Jerry Mouawad talk about collaborating on their radio drama "The Strange Case of Nick M."

What’s this? Imago Theatre, known for its highly visual and physical brand of performance, creating a radio play? In a year of unlikely events, Imago’s new production “The Strange Case of Nick M.” has an entirely logical unlikeliness: If you can’t open your theater to audiences, why not let them listen in via radio? Audiences can do just that at 10 p.m. Monday, May 3, on KBOO 90.7FM (the KBOO studios are across the street from Imago’s home in close-in Southeast Portland), and also via livestream on KBOO’s website here. It’ll also be available to stream May 7-16; ticket information here.

“Nick M.,” which centers on the story of a man who can remember only what’s happened in the past 30 seconds, is a collaboration between writer Drew Pisarra and director Jerry Mouawad. Pisarra, the onetime Portland poet, writer, and monologist who now lives and works in New York, and Mouawad, Imago’s co-founder and co-artistic director, are longtime friends and collaborators who first worked together in 1994. Here, they sit down (virtually) for an inside conversation about how they put together a new piece in a medium neither had worked in before, shifting from movement to sound:


Jerry Mouawad: What do you think defines a play to be performed as a radio play rather than live? We’ve had lots of discoveries about this topic. One that stands out is how the imagination of the listener is a crucial component. 

Drew Pisarra:  For radio plays, I think that imagination can be nurtured by having a narrator. I was lucky in that early in our creative process, I was listening to the Public Theater’s radio adaptation of Richard II. They’d inserted a narrator into the script repeatedly, which far from being bothersome was immensely enjoyable. I mean, it was Lupita N’yongo. How could it not be? But it also sparked an idea. How might our story benefit from an all-knowing narrator? And thus, the podcaster character was born. 

Drew Pisarra, author of “The Strange Case of Nick M.,” with ancient writing implement. Photo: Steven Burton/Cafe Royal Cultural Foundation

JM: This story revolves around Nick M., a man who has anterograde amnesia, where his short-term memory in the radio play begins at only 5 seconds and eventually evolves to several minutes. He lives in a kind of moment that seems to  us a hell, or at least your fictitious podcaster relays that to us. A moment that is not necessarily bliss, yet for him it’s not such a big deal – he does not  judge the moment the same way the other characters see his “stuckness.” Do you agree with how I see his view of the moment? As the play goes on, his regard of the moment becomes negative because of his response to how others are trying to fix him and this unusual perspective of the moment.


Barbara LaMorticella: a woman of her words

From her Mime Troupe days to "Talking Earth," the Portland poet has been a potent force for writers. Now Soapstone gives her Bread & Roses.

On a recent Monday night a familiar voice returned to the airwaves of Talking Earth, KBOO community radio’s long-running interview show about poets and other writers and reading aloud. The voice was soft and conversational, confiding, helpful, gently guiding the talk into topics not usually considered on modern American radio: the structure of a poem, the ways that words and lives braid together, the themes that define a poet’s career. Five years after her last turn in the interviewing booth, Barbara LaMorticella was talking with her friend and fellow poet Judith Barrington about life and loss and language and Barrington’s newest book of poetry, Long Love.

LaMorticella, who has interviewed hundreds of writers on KBOO beginning in the 1980s, had taken a break from the studio for personal reasons. She was caring for her husband of 56 years, Robert (Roberto), who died last year, and the Talking Earth interview was something of a reemergence into public life. That fact was delivered with an exclamation point a few mornings later when I met in a Southeast Portland bakery with Ruth Gundle of Soapstone, the women’s literary organization, which has named LaMorticella the first recipient of its biannual Soapstone Bread and Roses Award. Meant to honor a woman writer who has created opportunities for other writers and helped sustain the writing culture in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington, the award, which includes a $500 check, will be presented at a private luncheon on March 8, which not coincidentally is International Women’s Day. “We wanted to honor women who’d been here over the long haul, who’d been mainstays of the literary community,” Gundle said. “Barbara was the obvious choice.”

Two days after talking with Gundle I met with LaMorticella in a Northeast Portland coffee shop near her daughter’s house, and there was that voice again: warm, earnest, smart, almost always with a touch of humor near the surface. It reminded me that although we usually read poetry and therefore think of it as a literary art, it is also oral and musical, and so ideally attuned to live performance or the radio dial. “Poetry is an audible art. Or should be,” LaMorticella commented. “When I finish a poem I always read it out loud. And if it doesn’t work out loud, I change it.”


Barbara LaMoricella, up close.

In the KBOO studio LaMorticella took the long view of a life in words, going back to Barrington’s childhood in Brighton-on-the-Sea, England, and surprising her audience with stark revelations delivered in the most congenial of tones, underlining without having to say so directly that personal history shapes a writer’s art. Barrington was born in wartime, she informed her listeners, “… into a bombing raid, and … you were born into a world which in one poem you said, ‘This is the world I came in, and I have to learn to love it.’”