Stage sense: the year in theater

2018 in Review, Part 8: ArtsWatch offered varied perspectives on the methods and meanings of theater in Portland, Ashland and elsewhere.

“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us. But you — by which I mean we humans — are under an obligation, or at least a compulsion, to make sense of the universe. That’s easier said than done, of course, even if you’re focusing on a particular little slice of the universe such as theater in Oregon.

The writers and editors of Oregon ArtsWatch try to make sense — and, more crucially, to convey that sense — of the theater scene: what’s being staged, what it’s like, what it means, how it makes us feel, who the artists are and how they approach the work. Of necessity, we mostly try to hammer out that sense show by show and week by week, with the occasional broader overview mixed in. But we hope that amid the vibrant mix of news, reviews, interviews, profiles, features, and the happy/snarky jumble of previews and commentary in the weekly DramaWatch column, readers find that a helpful and sensical bigger picture emerges.

Despite flux in the front office, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival keeps sprinkling magic across the stage, as in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “Snow in Midsummer,” featuring Jessica Ko (from left), Daisuke
Tsuji and Amy Kim Waschke. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

As we look back at ArtsWatch’s first-draft history of 2018 theater, we’ll alight on major news developments, insightful cultural takes and passionate writing worthy of another look.


Social engagement: politics, resistance, and art

2018 in Review, Part 5: Oregon ArtsWatch visited creators in all media who are addressing problems ranging from racism to climate change

The world is indisputably in a precarious position — not just politically and socially, but economically and even ecologically. It is a moment of crisis. Artists play a crucial role in moments like these, helping the rest of us arrive at a shared cognition of what is — of seeing, sensing, and feeling that roil of life in a way that clarifies, opens eyes, and maybe even showing us a way forward.

What struck me in compiling this year-end reading list on socially engaged art in Oregon is the extent to which artists strove not simply to see and interpret, but to peel back layers, to reveal what is largely hidden — either by design or by accident — by institutions, by geography, and even by the telling of history. There may be no “new” stories to tell, but too many stories haven’t been heard by those who need to hear them, by people who perhaps want to see, but don’t know how.

So dive into this compilation. There’s a bit of everything: visual art, theater, music, conceptual art, literature. And, of course, the usual disclaimer: The choices here are highly subjective and presented in no particular order, and obviously are not intended to be comprehensive.



Witnesses in a churning world

Artist Hung Liu says “Official Portraits: Immigrant” (2006, lithograph with collage) is one of three self-portraits representing stages of her life.

Sept. 27: ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks checked out a fall show at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem called Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography. It featured a lineup of artists who look at the world through a lens that is both personal and cultural, and in a way that connects our present moment with history.

“The idea of art as a pristine thing, separated from the hurly-burly of the everyday world and somehow above it all, is a popular notion,” Hicks wrote. “But a much stronger case exists for the idea of art as the expression of the roil of life, in all its messiness and cruelty and prejudices and passions and pleasures and occasional outbursts of joy. Art comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is the world in which we live.”

The article is a mini-tour of the exhibition itself, with nearly 20 pieces accompanied by the artists’ personal statements reflecting the roil and rebellion of their creative processes.



David Ludwig: Telling the Earth’s story through music

Chamber Music Northwest performs ‘Pangæa.’ Photo: Tom Emerson.

July 27: “Pangæa was the single huge continent on Earth encompassed by one vast ocean over 200 million years ago – eons before dinosaurs, much less humans,” musician David Ludwig writes in the program notes for composition of the same name. “It was an entirely different planet than one we’d recognize today, lush with life of another world.” That’s the world Ludwig interpreted musically in the West Coast premiere of Pangæa, a piece inspired by the ancient Earth, and the threat of extinction as a result of human-caused climate change. Matthew Andrews talked to him about this extraordinary piece of music for ArtsWatch. Best of all: You can listen to it yourself.


ArtsWatch’s hit parade 2018

2018 in Review, Part 1: Readers' choice. A look back at Oregon ArtsWatch's most read and shared stories of the year

When we say “hit parade,” that’s what we mean. In the first of a series of stories looking back on the highlights of 2018, these 25 tales were ArtsWatch’s most popular of the year, by the numbers: the most read, or the most shared on social media, or both. From photo features to artist conversations to reviews to personal essays to news stories, these are the pieces that most resounded with you, our readers. These 25 stories amount to roughly two a month, out of more than 50 in the average month: By New Year’s Eve we’ll have published roughly 650 stories, on all sorts of cultural topics, during the 2018 calendar year.


Like ArtsWatch? Help us out.

We couldn’t bring you the stories we bring without your support, which is what keeps us going. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit journalism publication, with no pay wall: Everything we publish is free for the reading. We can offer this public service thanks to generous gifts from foundations, public cultural organizations, and you, our readers. As the year draws to a close, please help us keep the stories coming. It’s easy:


And now, the 25 of 2018, listed chronologically:



Legendary jazz drummer Mel Brown. Photo: K.B. Dixon

In the Frame: Eleven Men

Jan. 2: Writer and photographer K.B. Dixon’s photo essay looks graphically at a group of men who have helped shape Portland’s cultural and creative life, among them jazz drummer Mel Brown, the late Claymation pioneer Will Vinton, Powell’s Books owner Michael Powell, gallerist Charles Froelick, and the legendary female impersonator Walter Cole, better known as Darcelle. Dixon would later profile eleven woman cultural leaders, a feature that is also among 2018’s most-read.


The hidden history of ‘Oklahoma!’

Contemporary reinterpretations of the classic American musical may be getting back to its root: It's based on a play by a gay Cherokee man.


Seventy-five years ago, as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s new musical Oklahoma! was beginning its sellout run on Broadway, the Times ran an indignant letter from Eva Paul, of Provincetown. “It is rather amusing to notice the insouciance and naïve bravado with which all the perpetrators of Oklahoma! eliminate all mention of Lynn Riggs,” she wrote. “After all, did he or did he not give them a plot to which they more or less adhered and a galaxy of characters which none of them ever approached in their other undertakings?”

Original poster for “Oklahoma!” on Broadway, 1943. Wikimedia Commons

He did: a decade earlier, Riggs had enjoyed a brief Broadway success at the Theatre Guild with his play Green Grow the Lilacs, which evoked the cowboys and farmers of his childhood in Indian Territory, before Oklahoma became a state. Traditional folk songs and picturesque dialogue enlivened a courtship triangle: whether Laurey, a young homesteader, would go to a party with Curly, a cocky cowboy, or Jeeter Fry, a rough farmhand. In 1942, the Guild’s producer, Theresa Helburn, saw a revival of Green Grow the Lilacs and thought it could furnish the material for an American folk opera on the model of Porgy and Bess, which the Guild had also staged. She engaged Richard Rodgers—his partnership with Larry Hart dissolving as Hart fell prey to alcoholism and depression—to compose the music and Oscar Hammerstein—longing for a hit after a series of flops with his Show Boat partner, Jerome Kern—to adapt Riggs’s play and write the lyrics.


Ashland: ‘Oklahoma!’ for today

Bill Rauch's gender-fluid revival of the classic musical at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival breaks into fresh new territory for a new age

ASHLAND — Oklahoma! broke new ground when it debuted in 1943: It was the first time Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II paired up to create a musical, for starters. If you’re skeptical that it could still break new ground in 2018, you are not alone. It’s hard to imagine a musical about finding love in the Oklahoma Territory as very relevant, let alone earth-shattering, in today’s world.

But before you write it off, take a peek at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s version, which opened last month and continues through October 27 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. This new production is directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, the visionary who has led the festival since 2007 and will depart in August 2019 to lead the Perelman Center in New York’s World Trade Center. Rauch has pushed OSF further into embracing inclusion, diversity, and equity —and that is nowhere clearer than in his Oklahoma!

Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, right) tries to entice Laurey (Royer Bockus) into accompanying her to the box social. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

This is inclusive rethinking and casting at its most innovative. Rauch’s production reimagines Curly (Tatiana Wechsler) as a woman and Ado Annie becomes Ado Andy, a flirtatious boy torn between his affections for Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler (Barzin Akhavan makes this character more than the stereotype you might recall from previous versions), and Will Parker (Jordan Barbour), the not-that-bright-but-in-love cowboy. Jonathan Luke Stevens is pitch-perfect as this reimagined Ado Andy. When he explains to Laurey that no “fellers” gave him the time of day until he “rounded up a little,” he shoves his rear end out for emphasis. This is a (hilarious) breath of fresh air for women, who have suffered our whole lives at the stereotype of men desiring nothing more than a buxom bombshell. Stevens’ entire performance is made funnier because he is a man at the “butt” of these far-overdone female stereotypes (for example, when Will calls him the “sweetest sugar in the territory” or says he is going to “make an honest woman out of him”).


DramaWatch Weekly: ‘Major’ news

A Shavian comedy at Center Stage, a baby in peril at CoHo, Peter Pan at NW Children's Theatre, shocks at Artists Rep, Triangle's new season

She is the very model of a modern Major Barbara.

Sorry, wrong Brit classic. Let’s try again.

Major Barbara, by the legendary British wit and armchair socialist George Bernard Shaw (not by Gilbert & Sullivan), is a play of ideas – big ones, as was Shaw’s wont – about the State of Society and How It Should or Should Not Be Run. Major Barbara Undershaft toils ceaselessly for the Salvation Army to uplift those in need. Her father, Andrew Undershaft, works just as hard to pile up money – in his case, by manufacturing and selling munitions. When he then plans to give some of that money to charitable causes, things, well, blow up. Can good causes accept gifts from bad sources? Can bad money do good things? The horror!

Charles Leggett as Andrew Undershaft in “Major Barbara” at The Armory. Photo: Jennie Baker

In the nonprofit world, this is an ever-present question, and the answer is usually (though not always) “We’ll take that money; thanks.” Shaw being Shaw, the question is delivered with more than a dash of switchbacks and wit – plus a fiancé or two. After several preview performances, Major Barbara opens Friday night on the Main Stage of Portland Center Stage at The Armory, and continues through May 13. Besides providing an increasingly rare chance to see a full-out professional production of a Shaw play, it’s special because this will be the final opening night at PCS for Chris Coleman, who’s been the company’s artistic director for many years and is leaving to take a similar post in Denver.


REBECCA GILMAN IS KNOWN is known for writing socially and politically provocative plays such as Spinning into Butter, which puts its spin on political correctness on college campuses, and Luna Gale, her latest to hit town, appears to follow a similar path. It opens Friday (through May 12) at CoHo Theatre, with a cast including Sharonlee McLean, Danielle Weathers, Kelsey Tyler and others under Brandon Woolley’s direction, and digs into issues of child services, parents’ rights, and adoption. Luna Gale is the infant; the parents are teens under court order to undergo meth rehab; the mother’s born-again mother wants to adopt, against her own daughter’s wishes; and the caseworker’s in the middle of it all.

Sharonlee McLean in “Luna Gale” at CoHo. Photo: Gary Norman


NORTHWEST CHILDREN’S THEATRE is ending its 25th anniversary season up in the air, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s reviving its popular 2012 production of Peter Pan, a fresh take with a new book by Milo Mowery and a new score by Rodolfo Ortega. Ryder Thompson is Peter, Grace Molloy is Wendy, Andrés Alcalá is Captain Hook, and Kevin Michael Moore is Smee. Flying by Foy, of course, will be on hand to keep things airborne. Opens Saturday; through May 20.


IT’S BEEN 75 YEARS SINCE this musical fable about farmers and ranchers in the American Midlands rocked the Broadway world, and a fresh take on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical Oklahoma! joins the rep at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland this week. Whatever else artistic director Bill Rauch’s revival does, it’s going to be topical, with same-sex lead couples. Plus, of course, those songs. Oklahoma! will join Othello, Sense and Sensibility, Destiny of Desire, Henry V, and the world premiere of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta in the rep, with Romeo and Juliet, The Book of Will, and Love’s Labor’s Lost opening on the outdoor stage in mid-June, and The Way the Mountain Moved (by Idris Goodman; commissioned by the festival and also a world premiere) and Snow in Midsummer opening later in the season.


NATURAL SHOCKS, Lauren Gunderson’s new one-woman play about gun violence, will have a staged reading at 7:30 p.m. Friday on the Alder Stage at Artists Rep, on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shootings. It’s free, but you need to reserve a seat, and any donations will go to the organizations March for Our Lives and Everytown for Gun Safety. Lauren Bloom Hanover will perform, and Kisha Jarrett will direct. Gunderson is also the author of Artists Rep’s next full-run show, I and You, opening May 20.


ANOTHER NEW SEASON: Triangle Productions has joined the recent crowd of companies announcing their 2018-19 seasons. The six-show season opens in September with Holland Taylor’s Ann, about the late and legendary Texas governor Ann Richards. It’ll star Margie Boulé, and that seems like a good pairing of smart, talented and witty women. In November and December it’s Who’s Holiday, starring Daria (Bad Dates, Judy’s Scary Christmas) and written by Matthew Lombardo (Looped!). In February 2019, Helen Raptis stars in I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers. No, it’s not about the Donner Party. Mengers was a fabled Hollywood agent with A-list clients. Dirt, no doubt, will be dished. March brings Straight, by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola, followed in May by Love, Loss, and What I Wore, an evening of monologues and ensemble pieces by the fabulously funny Ephron sisters, Nora and Delia. The season concludes in June 2019 with Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride, about a guy who gets fired as an Elvis impersonator and then discovers a drag show’s taking his slot.

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.