Moby-Dick

ArtsWatch Weekly: whale of a week

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

The history of art, in a way, is a history of obsession. And who is more obsessed than Captain Ahab, feverish hounder of the great white whale? Herman Melville, perhaps, creator of the novel Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, and thus creator of the monomaniacal Ahab. Or Orson Welles, the mad genius of the cinema, who attempted to latch on to Melville’s harpoon and ride it to obsessive triumph in an unlikely stage adaptation of a novel that might be both untamable and unadaptable. Or, maybe, Scott Palmer, the adventurous artistic director of Bag&Baggage Productions, who’s taken Moby Dick, Rehearsed, Welles’s obsessive adaptation of Melville’s obsessive novel, and brought it to the B&B stage. In his fascinating (and in its own way, obsessive) review of B&B’s production, ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell quotes Palmer on the book that started it all: “Moby-Dick isn’t a novel, it is an entire imaginative world. It is massive, bulky, colossal, terrifying, majestic and ultimately unfathomable. It is the physical representation of one man’s will, one artist’s transcendent vision, an entire internal universe externalized …”

Bag&Baggage's magnificent obsession. Casey Campbell Photography

Bag&Baggage’s magnificent obsession. Casey Campbell Photography

Giant whales and such, as Brett points out, have been something of a communal obsession in Portland lately, from Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s season-long serial [or, the whale] to Portland Story Theater’s The Essex, the Northwest Film Center’s Welles-fest, a reading of excerpts from the novel at Portland’s Mother Foucault’s bookshop, and the musically adventurous AnyWhen Ensemble’s Moby-Dick inspired Boldly Launched Upon the Deep.

And how does this magnificent obsession (or cascade of obsessions) work out? Campbell writes: “Neither Ahab nor Melville nor Welles nor Palmer let the challenges of their tasks daunt them. Ahab caught his prey, but it cost him his life and those of his crew. Melville’s novel was widely regarded as a crazy failure in its time, and its overabundance of non-dramatic material still repels many readers. Welles’s misguided attempt to turn so inward-gazing a novel as Moby-Dick into compelling stage drama amounted to hunting a white whale; as Palmer acknowledged in a pre-show talk, it’s perhaps a good thing that Welles devoted himself to filmmaking rather than playwriting. In nevertheless choosing to stage Welles’s whale folly (in his centennial year), Palmer again plays the white knight, this time trying to save the white whale. Does he catch the object of his obsession in this new production and redeem Welles’s hubristic vision? Like the others, it’s a foredoomed, magnificent failure that, if you can stick with it long enough, you ultimately can’t let go of.”

America is, of course, a land of magnificent attempts and magnificent failures, which makes this whole thing seem so, well, American. It’s like a magnificent stab at the great American production of the great American adaptation of the great American novel: Who needs perfection when you’ve got a series of obsessions the size of a great white whale?

 


 

Vin Shambry (left), Chantal De Groat, and Chris Harder in "We Are Proud To Presnt ..." Photo: Owen Carey

Vin Shambry (left), Chantal DeGroat, and Chris Harder in “We Are Proud To Present …” Photo: Owen Carey

America is also obsessed with race, and the great stain of its racial history, which continues to trouble and obsess us in everything from policing to housing to job opportunity to our political campaigns, where it is sometimes used like a hidden (or not so hidden) persuader of fear and loathing. ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson delves into this not-so-magnificent American obsession in his review of Artists Rep’s new production of We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Hero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s smart and searing play about race, and our continuing difficulty in talking about it honestly, often even when we have the best of intentions. “We Are Proud to Present is a scorpion of a play,” Johnson writes, “and its tail packs a serious punch made all the more deadly by the light tone of the beginning.”

 


 

Tamisha Guy and Vinson Fraley Jr. in Kyle Abraham’s ‘The Getting’. Courtesy White Bird, © Jerry and Lois Photography All rights reserved http://www.jerryandlois.com

Vinson Fraley Jr. and Tamisha Guy in Kyle Abraham’s ‘The Getting.” Courtesy White Bird, © Jerry and Lois Photography. All rights reserved. http://www.jerryandlois.com

And while we’re on the subject: In Kyle Abraham dances about race, Nim Wunnan writes for ArtsWatch about the dance troupe Abraham.In.Motion’s canny and provocative performance in the White Bird series, a trio of works rooted in hip-hop, modern, and contemporary dance. The show “confidently and gracefully engaged both historical and very immediate issues of race and the individual’s place in this culture,” Wunnan says, and adds: “We start to understand in this work that certain movements and positions are almost exclusive to black bodies in this culture. And we rightly start to feel uncomfortable in our seats, notably when the usually vibrant and fluid [Tamisha] Guy sinks to the floor with a leaden exhaustion, face down, with her hands behind her back in an unmistakable position of submission, of arrest. The one Oscar Grant was in when he was shot point blank in the back.” Grant, in case you’ve lost track amid the the seemingly endless string of “incidents” involving police and black citizens, was slain by a Bay Area Rapid Transit policeman in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland.

 


 

Heath Koerschgen and Danielle Weathers in "Davita's Harp." Photo: Friderike Heuer

Heath Koerschgen and Danielle Weathers in “Davita’s Harp.” Photo: Friderike Heuer

A few things to keep in mind on this week’s calendar:

Davita’s Harp. The Jewish Theatre Collaborative has been preparing all season for this world-premiere adaptation (by Jamie M. Rea and director Sacha Reich) of Chaim Potok’s 1985 novel about a contentious family in the New York of the 1930s, as the world is churning toward disaster. Opens Saturday; through April 9 at Milagro Theatre.

Arvo Pärt and The Ensemble. Justin Graff gets us all in the mood for the notable chamber and vocal group’s weekend performances of the mesmerizing music of Pärt, “one of the world’s greatest living composers.” And in A Pärt Pilgrimage, Graff gets considerably more personal, telling the tale of his journey to Talinn to meet the master, of sharing chocolates,  and a session at the keyboard. All pilgrimages should be so rewarding. The performances: 7 p.m. Saturday at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church; 4 p.m. Sunday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall.

Northwest Dance Project. The Portland ensemble’s newest concert is called Louder Than Words, which might be appropriate, because it’s been raising the roof lately with performances in New York and elsewhere. A new work from the company’s talented resident choreographer, Ihsan Rustem, plus one each from artisitic director Sarah Slipper and Brazilian dancemaker/filmmaker Alex Soares. Newark Theatre, Thursday through Saturday.

 


 

 

ArtsWatch links

 

Wangechi Mutu, “Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors”/Courtesy of PNCA

Wangechi Mutu, “Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors”/Courtesy of PNCA

 

Wangechi Mutu and the revolt of the female form. Grace Kook-Anderson looks at 511 Gallery’s Northwest premiere exhibition of this post-colonial, feminist, New York-via-Nairobi artist. “Mutu’s women are distorted figures, hybrids of animals and natural elements, bodies that are capable of great force,” she writes.

Michelle De Young: heavy going. What happens when a Wagnerian powerhouse of a voice meets an art song in recital? Katie Taylor went to the acclaimed singer’s Friends of Chamber Music concert and found the combination of voice and material sometimes disconcerting.

Oscar nominee Ciro Guerra: an interview. Erik McClanahan talks with the Colombian-born director of the foreign-language nominee Embrace of the Serpent. Bummed that he didn’t haul home an Oscar? “We were kind of relieved we didn’t win,” Guerra said. “There was a favorite going in and it’s great not to be the favorite. It can be a lot of pressure. Even winning can be a lot of pressure. So we just made the best of it and enjoyed it.”

Toxic glory: Heathers: The Musical. Christa Morletti McIntyre takes a look at the ’80s glory that was the cult teen movie, and the new glory of its musical-theater adaptation, which is is getting a slam-bang co-production from Triangle and Staged!

Born to run (and to film): Wim Wenders, continued. Marc Mohan looks at more of the Northwest Film Center’s fascinating series by the German director. This time around: Paris, Texas; Kings of the Road; The American Friend; The State of Things.

In Mulieribus: hours well spent. Bruce Browne celebrates the “happy marriage” at Mt. Angel Abbey of the outstanding choir’s Renaissance music and exquisite projected art from a medieval book of hours.

Last chance: Jacques Rivette’s twelve-hour Out 1. The French New Wave director’s ambitious, audacious, half-a-day opus has rarely been seen in the past forty-five years, but the Northwest Film Center’s been showing it, cut into digestible segments. Marc Mohan pays his respects.

Bullshot Crummond rides again. Lakewood Theatre’s world-premiere production of the latest Crummond comedy, a sequel to a 1970s parody of the old Bullshot Drummond British adventure series, revels in an old-fashioned sort of fun, Christa Morletti McIntyre writes.

Bolai Cao: abundant talent. It was a propitious meeting at Portland Piano International, Jeff Winslow writes – the rising young pianist Bolai Cao performing a new work by the veteran Oregon composer Bryan Johanson, a piece created in homage to Domenico Scarlatti.

Hello, My Name Is Doris: Sally Field talks about her new movie. ArtsWatch’s Marc Mohan chats with the two-time Oscar winner about her latest turn, as a “socially inept, eccentrically clad” office worker who develops a crush on her younger boss. “Some people have called it a love story, but I think it’s a coming of age story,” she says. “The challenge of being a human being is will we open up to every different stage of our life?”

Johanson and Prochaska: media speak. Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message,” Paul Sutinen looks at new shows by veteran painter/printmakers George Johanson and Tom Prochaska and declares the medium does matter.

 

Tom Prochaska, "Hillside Nevada," 2016, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Photo: Dan Kvitka

Tom Prochaska, “Hillside Nevada,” 2016, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Photo: Dan Kvitka

 


 

About ArtsWatch Weekly

We send a letter like this every Tuesday to a select group of email subscribers, and also post it weekly on the ArtsWatch home page. In ArtsWatch Weekly, we take a look at stories we’ve covered in the previous week, give early warning of events coming up, and sometimes head off on little arts rambles we don’t include anywhere else. You can read this report here. Or, you can get it delivered weekly to your email inbox, and get a quick look at all the stories you might have missed (we have links galore) and the events you want to add to your calendar. It’s easy to sign up. Just click here, and leave us your name and e-address.

 


And finally…

We end with a couple of requests. First, if you have friends or family members who you think would enjoy our cultural writing online, could you please forward this letter to them? The bigger our circle of friends, the more we can accomplish. Second, if you’re not already a member of ArtsWatch, may we ask you to please take a moment and sign on? What you give (and your donation is tax-deductible) makes it possible for us to continue and expand our reporting and commenting on our shared culture in Oregon. Thanks, and welcome!

Become a member now!

ArtsWatch Weekly: Moby-Dick, Golden Boy, in the galleries

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

Neither snow nor ice shall keep ArtsWatch from its appointed rounds, which on this frigid and slushy morning include a virtual tour of what’s coming up in the Portland arts world in this, the first full week of 2016. We’ll also take a gander back at that creakity old-timer 2015, but fresh things first.

Sometimes what’s new is old, or built on what’s old, and that’s the case with [or, the whale], Juli Crockett’s new play for Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, opening Friday at Reed College. PETE’s been spending the season reexamining the events and implications of the great Moby-Dick (Barry Johnson reviewed Drowned Horse Tavern, the project’s opening chapter, here), and this newest chapter, the PETEsters say, “will dive into the mind of the old sea-salt sea captain of the one leg.” Right now, we’re imagining a voyage through icy seas.

"[or, the whale]": drama on the high seas. Photo: PETE

“[or, the whale]”: drama on the high seas. Photo: PETE

Also this weekend, Ty Boice slaps on the gloves at Lakewood Theatre and takes a punch at Golden Boy, Clifford Odets’ earnest cautionary drama about American ambition. Boice, who recently left Post5, the company he helped found, to seek further adventures in the northlands of Washington state, seems excellent casting for Joe Bonaparte, the sensitive violinist who stumbles into the fight racket in search of fortune and fame. Three guesses how that turns out – and Odets didn’t even know about the massive long-term dangers of repeated concussions.

 


 

Final call. A couple of big museum shows close up shop this weekend: Seeing Nature, the exhibition of paintings from the Paul Allen collection, on Sunday at the Portland Art Museum; and Alien She, built around the artistic provocations of the Riot Grrrls, on Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Craft.

Jim Lommasson, from "What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization," at Blue Sky. image © Jim Lommasson

Jim Lommasson, from “What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization,” at Blue Sky. Image © Jim Lommasson

First call. This week also brings the first First Thursday of the year in the galleries, and because New Year’s Day arrived last Friday, the Second Friday gallery hop arrives the following day, bringing lots and lots of new exhibits to town. A few shows to keep in mind:

  • Photographer Jim Lommasson is an investigator of trauma and survival, looking for shards of hope amid upheaval. At Blue Sky Gallery, his new series What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization documents the stories of refugees fleeing the Iraqi war, and the things they brought with them. Also on view will be works from his earlier series Exit Wounds, about the aftermath for American soldiers of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meantime, at the Nine Gallery inside Blue Sky, you can see some convincing, new works by ArtsWatch correspondent Patrick Collier.
  • Charles Siegfried’s Boom, at Blackfish, also looks at the effects and aftereffects of war: it’s based on a declassified Department of Defense document detailing a communications surveillance system designed to create a “virtual fence” between North and South Vietnam.
  • Sublime Crush, a new show of dreamlike and intensely stylized landscapes by Kendra Larson, is at Augen.
  • On Friday Portland’s longtime Attic Gallery, a downtown fixture since 1973, opens its first show in its new home across the Columbia River, at 421 N.E. Cedar Street in Camas, Washington. Artists include Bill Baily, Brenda Boylan, and Mike Smith.
  • In addition to new abstract works by the always interesting Portland veteran G. Lewis Clevenger, Laura Russo Gallery will feature Looking Back: Northwest Icons, work by pioneers including Louis Bunce, William Givler, Martina Gangle Curl, Kenneth Callahan, Sally Haley, Carl & Hilda Morris, Amanda Snyder, the Runquist brothers, and others.
Louis Bunce, "Study for Fleet Mural," c. 1960, oil and mixed media on paper mounted on masonite, 25 x 41 inches. In "Looking Back: Northwest Icons" at Laura Russo.

Louis Bunce, “Study for Fleet Mural,” c. 1960, oil and mixed media on paper mounted on masonite, 25 x 41 inches. In “Looking Back: Northwest Icons” at Laura Russo.

 


 

Three things, meanwhile, stand out on the close-but-not-quite-here, start-making-plans horizon:

  • Fertile Ground 2016 runs January 21-31, bringing dozens of new theater and dance works to stages across the city, from first readings to staged readings to full productions. From the Brothers Grimm to a Box of Clowns to a Frankenstein cabaret, the possibilities are multitudinous.
  • CMNW Winter Festival: Chamber Music Northwest, far better known for its summer series of concerts, offers this concentrated winter series of reimagined masterworks – six shows and a free rehearsal January 27-February 1.
  • Biamp Portland Jazz Festival. This year’s fest runs February 18-28, and is built around a celebration of John Coltrane’s 90th birthday. Charles Lloyd, Dianne Reeves, Sonny Fortune, Gary Peacock, Elvin Jones, Bobby Torres, much more.

 


 

 

ArtsWatch links

 

Vana O'Brien and Joshua Weinstein in "4000 Miles" at Artists Rep in May, one of the Big 100 of 2015. Photo: Owen Carey

Vana O’Brien and Joshua Weinstein in “4000 Miles” at Artists Rep in May, one of the Big 100 of 2015. Photo: Owen Carey

The Big 100 of 2015. ArtsWatch’s writers and editors put their heads together and came up with 100 stories that helped define the arts in Oregon in 2015 – a kind of cultural road map of the year. From Miz Kitty’s Parlour in January to a farewell to ZooZoo in December, we sampled the distinct cultural flavors of the year.

Christmas at Coffee Creek. Just before Christmas, a group of musicians from the Oregon Symphony brought a special gift to inmates at the Coffee Creek correctional facility for women: a casual, free-wheeling holiday concert. It turned out to be a happy affair for everyone. Photographer Benji Vuong went along, and filed this photo essay for ArtsWatch.

Happy musicians, happy audience: the Oregon Symphony at Coffee Creek. Photo: Benji Vuong

Happy musicians, happy audience: the Oregon Symphony at Coffee Creek. Photo: Benji Vuong

 


 

 

About ArtsWatch Weekly

We send a letter like this every Tuesday to a select group of email subscribers, and also post it weekly on the ArtsWatch home page. In ArtsWatch Weekly, we take a look at stories we’ve covered in the previous week, give early warning of events coming up, and sometimes head off on little arts rambles we don’t include anywhere else. You can read this report here. Or, you can get it delivered weekly to your email inbox, and get a quick look at all the stories you might have missed (we have links galore) and the events you want to add to your calendar. It’s easy to sign up. Just click here, and leave us your name and e-address.

 


And finally…

We end with a couple of requests. First, if you have friends or family members who you think would enjoy our cultural writing online, could you please forward this letter to them? The bigger our circle of friends, the more we can accomplish. Second, if you’re not already a member of ArtsWatch, may we ask you to please take a moment and sign on? What you give (and your donation is tax-deductible) makes it possible for us to continue and expand our reporting and commenting on our shared culture in Oregon. Thanks, and welcome!

Become a member now!

FG review: a whale of a tale

Lawrence Howard's 'The Essex' recounts the adventure of the 1820 oceangoing disaster that inspired 'Moby-Dick'

The Essex

Premiere production; Portland Story Theater at The Alberta Abbey; performed Jan. 2-24

When the Essex set sail from Nantucket on August 12, 1819, it was considered a lucky ship. At about 88 feet it was smallish for a whaleship, but it had had many profitable voyages, and there was no reason to believe this one would be otherwise.

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of "Whaling Voyage Round the World," ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of “Whaling Voyage Round the World,” ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Nor was there reason to anticipate that, on November 20, 1820, two thousand nautical miles west of the edge of South America in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, a sperm whale almost as long as the Essex itself would turn on the ship, speed toward it, and ram it, then ram it again, until the Essex splintered, tottered, keeled over, and eventually sank. So much for luck.

The ship carried a crew of 20. After 93 days adrift on the ocean in three small whaleboats that survived the attack, five emaciated men reached safety (three other men elected to stay on a small desert island, and were eventually rescued). They had endured starvation, extreme thirst, fevers, and a descent into cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead and, in one case, drawing lots to see who would be shot so his body could feed the others.

The tale of the Essex became legend in whaling circles, eventually reaching the ears of young Herman Melville, who heard it aboard a whaler from the son of one of the Essex disaster’s survivors. The fantastic story became the seed that sprouted Moby-Dick.

It’s also the fifth and latest in storyteller Lawrence Howard’s Armchair Adventurer series, which has retold the exploits of the Antarctic explorers Shackleton, Amundson, Scott, and Mawson, as well as the tale of John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was hanged three times and survived each attempted execution.

Howard

Howard

Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater, is at home in the world of extremes, and he tells the story of the Essex true and well. His style, interestingly, isn’t overly dramatic, although he can amp up the tension when it’s called for. He recounts his tales in an easy, familiar, colloquial style, mixing in a few wry observations, pinpointing moments of valor and foolhardiness and desperation, and drilling down on the essence of character among these historical adventurers when they are faced with the most dire of circumstances. And he links them, casually but carefully, to details of his own life: how he gained his enthusiasm for adventure stories from his father; how learning about the endurance of the sailors on the Essex helped him deal with his own weakness from cancer radiation treatment. It all seems matter-of-fact, the way Howard tells things, and then you realize you’ve been sitting there listening to him for two solid hours, and he’s held you every step of the way.

As Howard tells it, the story of the Essex is more than the story of a disaster. It’s also a story about leadership, and the lack of it, and the tension between a young captain and a younger first mate who continually challenged his authority. And it’s about varying kinds of courage, and the mettle that men find, or don’t find, in their souls. Howard also tells a lot about the economics and practicalities of the whaling trade (whale oil lit city streets and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution), including the arduous and filthy business of actually killing the whales and rendering them. Like Moby-Dick, which takes long side trips from its adventure story to talk about the practicalities of the sailing life and venture into philosophical speculations, Howard’s version of the story carefully places the adventure within its economic, historic, and cultural context, a particularly important decision considering the 21st century’s radically different moral and environmental views on hunting whales. Yes, it slows the story down a bit. The payoff is a deeper understanding of what was at stake, and, eventually, of how the survivors were greeted and treated once they reached home again.

The Essex, directed by Howard’s wife and partner in Portland Story Theater, Lynne Duddy, had its premiere as part of the Fertile Ground festival with performances Friday and Saturday at the Alberta Abbey. Howard’s next scheduled performance of it is at 7:30 p.m. April 17 in the Solo Speak series at the Cascades Theatre in Bend – a landlocked town, but surely one primed for a good old-fashioned oceangoing adventure.

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