Marty Hughley

ArtsWatch Weekly: Breaking cultural ground in Beaverton

Work begins on the new, $51 million Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, a long-held dream for the city's center-in-the-making

ON A DRY AND CHILLY MORNING, BEAVERTON BROKE GROUND Wednesday on a significant slice of its future. The official groundbreaking of the long-awaited Patricia Reser Center for the Arts drew a big crowd to the site of what’s hoped to be a new city center, at The Round in the Creekside Urban Development District, near a MAX light rail station, City Hall, and Beaverton Creek. The 45,000 square foot arts center, which is expected to open in 2021, puts a huge stamp on the western suburb’s push to re-establish its own identity separate from downtown Portland: As the metropolitan area grows, its cultural and economic scenes expand with it and assert their own identities.

Patricia Reser speaks at Wednesday’s groundbreaking for her namesake public arts center in Beaverton. Photo: Joe Cantrell

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DramaWatch: Drammys for all

This year's Portland theater awards put the spotlight on inclusion. Plus: "Indecent" opens in Ashland, "Wicked" flies back into town.

The annual Drammy Awards ceremony, which celebrates outstanding work in Portland-area theater, is a warm and welcoming event. How welcoming? Well, so much so that, after one acting award was announced, the evening’s host, Carla Rossi, observed, “That is the only instance in which it is acceptable to rise and cheer at the words ‘Nazi sympathizer.’”

Drag clown Carlo Rossi was emcee at an inclusionary Drammy Award ceremony. Photo: Scott Fisher/Sleeper Studios

Of course, the assembled theater artists and fans at last week’s party at The Armory weren’t cheering a Nazi sympathizer, but rather the portrayal of one, by Michael J. Teufel, who picked up a trophy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical as an unsavory character in Cabaret. Actual Nazis and their sympathizers weren’t among the welcome. As that production of Cabaret, by Fuse Theatre Ensemble, turned into the night’s big winner, acceptance speeches were peppered with what came to seem like the show’s unlikely mantra: “Fuck fascism!”

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DramaWatch: A vintage Storm

Ten years after, Storm Large's short-run revival of "Crazy Enough" blows even stronger. Plus: Drammys Monday, openings, summer tips.

Around 2002 or 2003, not long after Storm Large had moved to Portland and started to establish herself as a local cultural phenom, several friends told me I had to go to the Old Town nightclub Dante’s to hear this amazing rock singer. During those days, I was the staff pop-music critic for The Oregonian, so I dutifully went to see what the buzz was about. Within a couple of minutes I could tell what had people talking: a tall, good-looking woman with a commanding stage presence and a voice as big and pliant as her attitude was bold and defiant.

Yet I wasn’t won over. Her vocal talent and charisma were undeniable. But the brash, bawdy Amazon-sex-goddess persona that had folks howling her praise? Meh, not interested.

Storm Large performs with (L to R) Greg Eklund (Drums) and Matthew Brown (Bass) in Crazy Enough. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

A few years later, in the fall of 2007, she starred in a Portland Center Stage production of Cabaret and I began to take a larger view, you might say. Her vocal chops extended beyond rock’n’roll belting, and she could convey emotional shades that weren’t evident in the bluster of Storm and the Balls. 

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Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

As the new-works festival gets ready for its tenth annual run, a horde of writers and performers check out the media (and vice versa)

And lo, on the third day of the New Year, a great clamor fell upon the multitude, and the dread Pealing of the Four Minutes rang out, and the people scurried from line to line, taking their spots in the sun, pitching their pitches, eager to be heard. And a mighty clatter and confusion arose, accompanied by press releases and business cards, and then the next wave burst, and the pieces shuffled yet again. And the creator of it all smiled, and said, “That’s good!”

It’s true. On January 3, in the upstairs lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, producers, performers, directors, and writers of shows in Portland’s 10th annual Fertile Ground festival of new works met with members of the press, pressing them, as it were, with quick-hit details on their shows and why the media members should really, truly see and publicize them. Once again Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane was stage-managing this frenzy of what she calls “media speed-dating,” cracking the whip – or, more accurately, blowing a harmonica – to keep things moving swiftly along. What sometimes seemed like bedlam actually had a drill-sergeant efficiency: Line up in front of a press member sitting at a table. Take your turn. Make your pitch. You get four minutes. The mouth harp shrieks. You move on to another line, and someone takes your place.

The Fertile Ground speed-dating crowd. ArtsWatch’s contingent is tucked discreetly toward the back, hidden behind more dashing daters. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

This year, ArtsWatch’s contingency in the hot seats consisted of me and Marty Hughley, our theater editor and chief theater columnist. We made a deal beforehand. Marty would get the lay of the land, find out what’s out there, use his brief talks to help strategize our coverage, including which full productions to review. I would do my best to simply report the evening as it occurred from my table. And Bobby Bermea, who wasn’t at date night (sensible man), would tackle the festival from the inside, talking about the stages of some of the shows, and talking with artists about the process of creation. 

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People & Conversations 2018

2018 in Review, Part 3: ArtsWatch goes behind the scenes for conversations with 22 creators who talk about their lives and art

By Sarah Kremen-Hicks

Theaters have their curtains. Paintings have their frames. Books have their covers. The act of presentation, of framing, of giving things edges, shifts the subject to the work itself and hides the artist away, if only a little bit. ArtsWatch’s writers have spent the past year seeking out the artists behind the frames and bringing them to you. Here are 22 glimpses behind the curtain from 2018.

 


 

Michael Brophy in his North Portland studio, 2017. Photo: Paul Sutinen

A conversation with Michael Brophy

Jan. 3: Prominent Northwest painter Michael Brophy talks with Paul Sutinen in an interview that begins with being “the kid that drew” and becomes a meditation on medium and viewership:

Where did that lightbulb come on for you to say, ‘OK, I saw all that stuff in London and now I want to go to art school.’

I knew the minute I saw paintings, like in the National Gallery. The scale of things—my mind was blown by the size of things. An artist I don’t think about much, Francis Bacon, there was a room of Bacon’s paintings [at the Tate Gallery] and it terrified me. I didn’t know that art could do that. I had to leave the room. I had a kind of like a panic attack.

I think they call it ‘epiphany.’

Yeah, so after that I just knew what I was going to do. Just as simple as that.

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DramaWatch: two great musicals

This week features openings of two of the best musicals in the past 20 years: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "The Light in the Piazza"

There are those among us who — brace yourself for this — dislike musicals. Perhaps they hate them, with an active, withering passion, but more likely they simply dismiss the form altogether as sentimental or soapy or sappy or just stupid.

Theater folk understand how much craft and care and sheer intelligence of various sorts it takes to make a musical actually work, but anyway … The form’s detractors can find plenty of ammo for their view (Cats, anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc., etc.). A bad musical can be as dreadful as art gets.

And yet.

Do it right and the thrill is magnificent. Do it boldly and creatively, taking the form in new directions, and the overall effect is something that I’d argue is hard to duplicate in any sort of entertainment.

Dale Johannes in Triangle’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Photo: Henry Liu

This week in Portland we get new local productions of two of the most boldly creative, and thrilling musicals of the past 20 years.

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Brianna Horne and Rodney Hicks as Laurey and Curly in "Oklahoma!" at Portland Center Stage/Patrick Weishampel

Now that all of the reviews are in and a tempest in the OregonLive teapot has arisen over its African-American setting, it’s time  to do a little summarizing about Portland Center Stage’s “Oklahoma!”  By the way, tickets are still selling briskly, and the musical’s final attendance numbers will likely move it into the company’s top three all-time with “Cabaret” and “West Side Story,” just so you know how ticket buyers are voting.

The critics agree that the production as a production is quite good. The only discouraging word (sorry, Western songs are now spinning through my head) came from Noah Dunham at the Mercury, who suggested that director Chris Coleman’s production hadn’t addressed the likelihood that African Americans at the time  had discrimination on their minds, primarily because Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t include that in the text. We’ll get to that argument a little later.

But first, a quick run-down of the reviews:

Marty Hughley, The Oregonian: Hughley’s nice, close reading of the musical is a fine jumping-off point. In it, he suggests that the African American aspect becomes submerged in the greater themes and the quality of the production and the musical itself. But he returns to the African American twist at the end:

And it’s here, at this outer edge of the story, that it becomes clear that Coleman’s casting choice actually does more than give black actors the chance to play romantic leads. Even as the show remains faithful to all the traditional pleasures and virtues of “Oklahoma!,” it adds another subtle layer to the metaphor of union, speaking to the hard work and optimism that helped a community move from slavery to full membership in these United States.

What made Hughley’s account exceptional was its context — the invective that surrounded Coleman’s decision (and what they perceived as Hughley’s justification of it) from the trolling community at OregonLive, which at every opportunity accused Coleman and Hughley of being reverse racists, typical liberals willing to desecrate anything at the altar of political correctness. They weren’t there to argue (though Hughley tried to engage them as a rational person might); they were there to spew about a musical that they hadn’t seen. My hope is that someone who agreed with the trollers read the entire thread and realized that one person (Hughley) was judicious and the trolls were, well, trolls. But that’s a longshot.

Bob Hicks, Art Scatter: Just as thunderstruck as I was about the trolling around Hughley’s coverage on OregonLive, Hicks spent a portion of his review defending Hughley (both of us worked with him for decades at The Oregonian and admire his intelligence, commitment to journalism and dedication to honest arguing, in addition to his other qualities). Hicks seemed to have enjoyed the production, and his quibbles (which he didn’t specify, really), had more to do with the way the production played than Coleman’s choice.

Still, I liked very much that Coleman’s production has linked into an underpublicized historical truth, the presence of full-fledged, independent African American communities on the frontier. I like the way it suggests that, on some basic level, communities simply act like communities. And I like the way that idea dovetails with an aspect of the play that I’ve long considered crucial to Oklahoma!’s success: the role of the outsider in American life.

He then went into this idea a little bit, and focused on an alternate “Oklahoma!”, one in which the outsider Jud is played by an American Indian, reminding us how the territory was a dumping ground for various eastern tribes until settlement pressure opened it back up again to white and black settlers.

I’d only add that what we call Oklahoma today was for a long time part of the Comanche empire, which ran things in the southern plains for two hundred years or so, competing successfully with Spanish, English, French, Native American and U.S. interests. One interesting thing about the Comanche (in addition to their abilities as traders, imperialists and warriors) was that the tribe granted equal status to anyone who joined them, and even slaves could earn the right to be Comanches. The tribe had many runaway slave members, until it collapsed under the weight of European diseases, overgrazing followed by a long drought, and pressure from American settlers. (All of this is from The Comanche Empire, the ground-breaking study by Pekka Hämäläinen.)

Ben Waterhouse, Willamette Week: I enjoyed Waterhouse’s review quite a bit, because it begins by recounting all the weird, dark stuff in the musical, including the part that suggests that girlie pictures lead to murder (well, in a roundabout way, maybe). That darkness is balanced by lots of light, of course:

Chris Coleman, in his production of the show at Portland Center Stage, very ably balances its dual personalities of darkness and delight. I had feared that Coleman’s decision to cast only black actors meant we were in for an awkward concept production, but it turns out the director just wanted to work with incredibly talented performers who don’t often get to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music.

I’d argue that there’s a little more to it than that, but sometimes that’s exactly what it feels like. These aren’t black performers; they are good performers.

Noah Dunham, Portland Mercury: Dunham praised the technical achievements of the show, but argued that the African American gesture didn’t make us see the play in a new light, and, in fact, was “questionable.” The full quote: “One has to imagine that discrimination was something very much on the mind of African Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Jim Crow laws were being upheld by the Supreme Court, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still decades away. The fact that this doesn’t even come across as an undertone in PCS’s production makes the credibility of Coleman’s choice questionable.”

The best part of Dunham’s review, though, was the response to it by Rodney Hicks, who plays the lead role, Curly, in the Center Stage production. You should jump to the Mercury site and read it in its entirety, but here’s the crucial bit, at least for me:

“I take great pride in the fact that we are doing something very special and ultimately important to who we are, not just as Black people but who we all are as Americans and all of our contributions to the History of this great country. With the end result being we’re no different. That is what makes this new production of Oklahoma to me seem fresh, timely and ultimately universal. Where at its heart and center is the universal theme of community and love. What is problematic in that?”

Dunham graciously acknowledged Hicks’ response to his review, and clarified his central point a bit, mostly by personalizing it. Dunham, I think, was looking for a deeper investigation of African American life in the real, historical African American communities of the Oklahoma Territory. That might be difficult within the context of this particular play, but I can imagine the greater “realism” he advocates. He himself writes: “Perhaps I’m being a greedy audience member.” And that made me laugh: I feel the same thing so often. I want it all. I want this production AND an alternate one, just to see which one really works better. I’m not just greedy; I’m a glutton.

To the historical points Dunham raises, I’d add this one. In 1921, the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, by some accounts the wealthiest black neighborhood in the U.S. at the time, was attacked by a white mob over a couple of day and razed to the ground. Hundreds are likely to have died, though the “official” count was 39. Was the white Curly involved? Did the black Curly perish? And knowing about the riots (which were kept out of the official histories of Tulsa and Oklahoma), do we think of a line such as “Oh what a beautiful morning…” in a different way?

Ron Hockman, Culture Mob: Hockman agreed that the Coleman Choice had infused the production with new energy, and then, in a nice, thorough review, detailed the technical achievements that gave it life:

The success of this production is the result of all the individual parts fitting together and complementing one another. Portland Center Stage has once again provided a rich, rewarding, and thoroughly entertaining evening of musical theater.

Barry Johnson, Oregon ArtsWatch: Yeah, there’s no escaping me. My primary observation is simply that this production does what a good revival is supposed to do — help us rediscover something worth rediscovering, in this case a great musical encrusted with cornballs and the image of the happy dancing cowboy, an image that is false to the play itself, let alone Real Oklahoma. As to charges that Coleman has damaged Oscar Hammerstein’s book by introducing African American actors, I pointed out that Hammerstein himself, the same year that “Oklahoma!” was produced on Broadway, also moved a classic — in his case “Carmen” — to an African American setting in “Carmen Jones.” So much for the purity argument.

Chris Coleman on Oregon ArtsWatch podcast: I interviewed Coleman about the production, and he talked about the moments in the script when the decision to use African American actors really mattered, his approach to this play and how his directing approach in general has changed, the comparison between a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and a new musical (kudos for R+H) and many other topics. Give it a listen while you chop vegetables for supper!

Chris Coleman in The Oregonian: The Oregonian asked Coleman to respond to the trolls on OregonLive, whose responses nearly always include invective against liberals or the Far Left or Obama and who can’t assemble anything like a coherent argument. Hughley has been chastising them regularly through this, but I’m afraid they aren’t willing to engage in civil argument.  I liked Coleman’s response, though, calm and deliberate. Here’s how he ended it: “And, ultimately, whether an artistic choice is successful will be judged by those who sit in the theater and take the ride. My favorite response thus far was overheard from a high school student who saw our first performance and turned to his friend to say: ‘Wow! I’ve never seen ‘Oklahoma!’ before. It’s great. (pause) I can’t imagine it with white people.'”

That seems like a great place to stop. “I can’t imagine it with white people.” Except that you can: a successful production gets your imagination running in various ways, and you start to dream up alternate versions, dredge up real history, confront hard stuff from a different angle. And heck, we’re talking about a Broadway musical here! I don’t know about you, but when I saw “Oklahoma!” on the Center Stage schedule last year, I didn’t think I’d be going on this particular trip. Not by a long shot.