Portland Revels

ArtsWatch Weekly: Outsmarting the Grinch

Stuck in an impeachment funk? Liberace, Liza, shape-note singing, and a whole lot of holiday shows to reset the mood.


IT’S BEEN SOMETHING OF A HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS WEEK across America. But if I can draw your attention away from the impeachment proceedings for a few minutes, let me gently remind you that it’s also a season of peace on Earth, good will toward men, and more holiday shows than you can shake a peppermint stick at. Ah, the traditions. Ah, the welcome rituals. Ah, the familiar faces of … Liberace and Liza Minnelli?

That’s the lively and somewhat tongue-in-cheek holiday duo arriving at CoHo Theatre for a limited run of A Very Liberace & Liza Christmas, a tribute cabaret starring the casino-lounge-smooth David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris. “The chemistry between the imagined pair gives off the sparks of a well-programmed Vegas act that’s being prepared for a television special,” Christa McIntyre wrote in an enthusiastic review for ArtsWatch three years ago. “Your foot will be tapping, and don’t expect the rest of you to remain idle in your seat.” The show gets four performances Dec. 26-29, and we’re giving you early warning in case it sells out, which it just might. Ring-a-ling ding. It’s a sequin thing.

David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris, bringing a bit of Liberace/Liza glamour to the holiday stage at CoHo Theatre. Photo: Mike Marchlewski 

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MusicWatch Holidays: Naughty and nice

Unwrapping Portland’s spiritual duality with holiday concerts for choirs, circuses, dancers, and drag queens

Ho ho ho! Oregon First Winter is fully upon us: the snow and ice and seasonal depression haven’t hit in full force yet, but it’s finally cold and rainy enough to talk about holiday music. Let’s get started with an old favorite:

Our wishlist of worthy concerts is twenty-plus items long this week (not counting the mezzanine), so we’re only going to talk about a select few–but we’ll leave the whole list for you at the end, dear reader, so you can decide for yourself who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

Choral joys, classical comforts

Nothing goes together like choirs and holiday music. Portland and environs may be known for a certain sassy grouchiness, but we’re also known for having more choral ensembles than Santa has ununionized elves. Almost all of them are celebrating the holiday season one way or another in the next few weeks, and although our darling Resonance Ensemble is off duty until early spring, the rest of the Oregon choir tribe is gearing up for year-end banquets of sparkly yuletide music.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: One for the books

Portland Book Fest turns the page, downtown gets a new museum, music and theater light up the stage, it's beginning to feel a lot like ...

WORDSTOCK IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE PORTLAND BOOK FESTIVAL. And the city’s big blowout of a book festival, by any other name, is just around the corner: Saturday’s the day. Portland’s South Park Blocks is the site, centering on the Portland Art Museum but sprawling like free verse across the territory. “A circus is a good analogy for Portland’s big annual book event, with its 100+ authors appearing on nine stages all in one dense, delirious, daylong literary orgy,” Katie Taylor writes in her aptly titled ArtsWatch preview, Portland Book Festival: Sometimes too much is a good thing. “It’s intentional FOMO,” or Fear of Missing Out, festival director Amanda Bullock told Taylor. “There’s always something happening, a new event starting every 15 minutes. Even if one thing is full, there’s always something else to check out.”

Checking the goods at 2018’s Portland Book Festival. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

Among this year’s headliners will be the big-idea journalist Malcolm Gladwell and former Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. As always, the party will be overflowing with authors, readers, speeches, workshops, browsers and impromptu discoveries – a blossoming of language for a book-besotted town. As for that name change, the beloved Wordstock rebranded itself last year, trading in its smart, snappy, cheeky, and memorable monicker for something that sounds a little more boardroom drab. On its web site, the festival explains the change. I’m not convinced. Then again, open book, open mind: Maybe I’m just reading too much into it. 

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MusicWatch Weekly: holiday highlights

Reliably refreshing midwinter concerts dispel Oregon's midwinter gloom

The winter holiday: a time for rest, reflection, restoration, reconnection. But they too often mean stress: travel, house guests, obligatory cards and gifts. Sometimes by early January, I feel like I need a vacation from my supposed vacation.

Which is why it’s so reassuring to know that at the start of each winter, Portlanders can count on a few choral and vocal performances that are reliably high quality, musically and emotionally engaging — but not merely ritually repetitive renditions of overfamiliar holiday fare. Several that we told you about in earlier MusicWatches have already brightened this dark December as surely as the glowing lights on neighborhood homes. Two more I always look forward happen this weekend.

In Mulieribus performs in Vancouver and Portland. Photo: David Lloyd Imageworks.

Portland’s all star female vocal ensemble In Mulieribus draws the music for their annual Christmas concert from across a millennium, from chants by the great medieval abbess/composer/healer/icon Hildegard of Bingen to, this time, a brand new piece commissioned from one of Portland’s own classical music legends: composer/singer/instrumentalist John Vergin. A highlight of the divine group’s Green Groweth the Holly concert of Christmas songs and carols: 20th century English composer Benjamin Britten’s evergreen Ceremony of Carols, which will still be enchanting listeners a millennium from now.
Friday, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Portland, and Saturday, Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater, Vancouver WA.

Cappella Romana probably didn’t expect this year’s Christmas program to be part of a current news story. One source of world tension is Russia’s ongoing attempt to reclaim its dominance over Ukraine, including annexing Crimea and fomenting a separatist movement. The latest development in Ukrainian self-determination: forming its own Orthodox church separate from the dominant Russian Orthodox religion. And as it happens, this year’s Christmas concert by the outstanding vocal ensemble focuses on Ukraine’s long tradition of distinctive folk and Orthodox sacred music, with help from  a pair of experts in each sphere to lead and join its performances. Like the American “song catchers” who traversed Appalachia in search of traditional tunes passed down only through oral tradition, Ukrainian folk singer Nadia Tarnawsky has spent the past year collecting and studying folk songs and folklore in Ukraine, including traditional carols, which she’ll share. And Ukrainian-American guest conductor and former UC-Berkeley music prof Marika Kuzma is an expert scholar on Ukrainian and other Slavic choral music and has recorded one of the pieces she’ll lead here: a brief but radiant a cappella choral Christmas concerto by Ukrainian composer Dmitry Bortniansky, a contemporary of Beethoven who was one of Eastern Europe’s great choir directors and composers in his time and whose music Kuzma is helping to revive.
Saturday. St. Mary’s Cathedral, Portland.

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DramaWatch Weekly: A Dickensian Nor’wester and scattered Revels

ArtsWatch forecasts this week's holiday theater weather.

This weather, huh? What’s the forecast for this weekend and beyond?

A.L. Adams

To the southwest, there’ll be scattered Revels, with peak conditions for viewing Nordic Lights, and some precipitation rolling in from the Mediterranean will leave conditions Pericles Wet, while a family drama high pressure front builds up between Morrison and Alder. A Dickensian chill will sweep along the east river bank, building into a twister as it crosses into Northwest and breaking into gales of wry laughter as it heads for the Hils. It will miss Tigard altogether, which will experience mild enough conditions to continue its Holiday Parade already under way. Meanwhile, the Northeast will experience bursts of gospel, and as you head toward Columbia, be on the lookout for flaming radicals.

Dickensian drama is blowing in with the return of Portland Playhouse’s popular “A Christmas Carol” (above), Scott Palmer’s “Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol'” at Bag & Baggage in Hillsboro, Second City’s “Twist Your Dickens” at The Armory, and Phillip J. Berns’s “A Christmas Carol: A One Man Ghost Story.” Photo: Portland Playhouse

As you head Southeast, expect some choppy seas, and an abrupt shift as Utopia closes at Hand2Mouth and a dystopia opens at Theatre Vertigo: Victor Mack will direct José Rivera’s Marisol, a near-contemporary of Angels in America with some similar motifs—mental illness and spiritual warfare between angelic beings—along with some surprisingly ripped-from-current-headlines themes—namely, the struggle of a Puerto Rican woman against an unjust god who is dying and “taking the rest of the universe with him.” Also the frenzied desperation of an urban hellscape where citizens driven into homelessness by debt and personal injury gnash and wail in the streets.

Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity”: a shining star. PassinArt photo/2016

Happy holidays, y’all. Jacob Marley left a message; something about “mankind being our business?” He said he’ll try again—repeatedly throughout our city, then at Vertigo on Christmas week, when Phillip Berns reprises his solo version of the classic.

Imago’s’classic “Frogz” leaps back into the swim. Photo: Imago Theatre

But what were we talking about? Oh yes. The weather. Northwest Children’s Theater will experience spells of magic, to subside by midnight. And tell the kids next weekend’s conditions should be ideal for watching FROGZ. Til then, stay warm, from hands to heart.

ArtsWatch Weekly: Revel without a Claus

Commedia Christmas, O'Connor & Ives, Nutcracker, Imago's new Belle, Milagro's Posada, more "Messiah," Kurosawa Dreams, and more

This year’s dragon, not red as in the picture here from 2014 but a bright scaly green, was sitting in a little storage corner outside Portland Revels’ offices in the Artists Repertory Theatre creative hub one day last week, waiting patiently for assembly. It was in two pieces: a hind portion stretched over a large backpack, with room for levers, and a gangly top, again with movable parts, which when occupied by puppeteer Shuhe Hawkins will stretch giraffe-like perhaps 12 or 15 feet above the stage. It is a lovely creature all in all, and that fabled dragon-slayer St. George really ought to be ashamed.

Taggin’ with the dragon, in the 2014 Revels. Portland Revels photo

It’s Revels time again – this year’s Christmas Revels runs for eight performances Friday through December 21 at St. Mary’s Academy downtown – and for Bruce Hostetler, newly settled in as artistic director after about five years of working with and directing the annual winter solstice show, that means settling into the hundreds of details at hand while he’s also thinking about bigger things. If you don’t know about Revels – which is in its 22nd year in Portland, and began in 1975 in Cambridge, Massachusetts – it’s a grand and genuinely family get-together of singing, dancing, storytelling, mumming, and playing old-time instruments that is rooted in Celtic customs but regularly roams the earth, making connections with other cultures’ solstice traditions. Santa Claus? That’s somebody else’s tale.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: all that glitters, all that glows

A holiday compendium: in dark times, a triumph of artistic light

I read the news today, oh boy. It’s a compulsion begun in childhood with the sports and comics pages of broadsheet newspapers (Duke Snider! Alley Oop!) and expanded, as I grew older, into the full range of world events and a long career inside the sausage factory of the newsgathering game. Rarely has the news looked more bleak or fragile than it does today: who knows where that latest piece of Internet-amplified information came from, or whether it was invented by fierce partisans out of outsourced whole cloth, without a whiff of objectivity or credibility? Truth becomes the loudest voice; the loudest voice becomes the truth. Oh boy, indeed.

Miya Zolkoske and Andrea Whittle (foreground) with ensemble in "A Civil War Christmas." Photo: Owen Carey

Miya Zolkoske and Andrea Whittle (foreground) with ensemble in “A Civil War Christmas.” Photo: Owen Carey

Hardly a time, it would seem, for visions of sugarplums. And yet, as the holidays roar into their inescapable month of triumph (if there’s a “war on Christmas,” its battlefields seem to be in places like Walmart and Macy’s and Amazon) I find myself, once again, comforted by the beauty and ritual of the season’s quiet core. At our house we have our own holiday rituals, including a strict paternal ban on pulling out the Christmas CDs before Thanksgiving, a ruling that is regularly and gleefully broken by the better natures of the household, who know a sucker when they see one. Lately, having once again acquiesced to the inevitable, I’ve been listening to an old favorite, “Christmas in Eastern Europe,” from the Bucharest Madrigal Choir.

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