Rodolfo Ortega

Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

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Rody trip: Ortega in Prague

Sound designer and composer Rodolfo Ortega gets a surprise bonus for his stellar work on "Magellanica": a trip to the Prague Quadrennial

The curtain falls, the lights go down, a season comes to an end. The artists have done their work, the audiences have received it, the critics have had their say. The awards ceremonies come and go, met — as always — with equal parts elation, pride, anger and derision. As the dust settled on Portland’s 2018-19 theater season at last week’s Drammy Awards ceremony, 5,000 miles away Rodolfo (Rody) Ortega, composer, musician, and sound designer nonpareil, was receiving recognition of a very different sort: He’d been invited to exhibit his work at the Prague Quadrennial.

What’s the Prague Quadrennial? Ortega had the same question when Stephanie Schwartz, a scenic designer he was working beside on E.M. Lewis’ epic Magellanica at Artists Repertory Theatre, where Ortega is a resident artist, suggested he should submit his compositions from that project to the festival.

Rodolfo Ortega, designer deluxe.

 “‘I have no clue what you’re talking about,’” Ortega remembers saying. “I had never heard of the Prague Quadrennial. So, I started doing a little bit of research and basically it’s this showcase of a variety of different artists from the entire planet that are particularly on the technical side of theater. That is, costume design, scenic design, sound and lights and music composition.”

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Growing up, up, and away

With its fresh book and music, NW Children's Theater's "Peter Pan" flies into a happy place for young audiences and their grownups, too

This is probably not the first time you have heard of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up. It might not be the first time you will see his tale on stage. In fact, it might not be the first Northwest Children’s Theatre production of it, since it’s somewhat of a flagship for the 25-year-old theater company.

In fact, this is the seventh time the company’s mounted Peter Pan over the years, including this same adaptation – a NWCT commission – in 2012 and its followup in 2013. The good news is that the children in your life have likely not seen as many productions of Peter Pan as you have, and the universal story’s magic and wonder will win them over. The other boon for the grownups in the audience is that even if you have seen another Peter Pan (or several), this one has plenty to offer.

Grace Malloy as Wendy and Peter Thompson as Peter Pan. Photo © David Kinder 2018

For starters, it’s a new adaptation – both book (Milo Mowery) and music (Rodolfo Ortega) – that you haven’t seen if you didn’t catch the 2013 production. The songs are catchy and performed well by all in this cast. And the script is terrific, ratcheting up the preposterousness of Captain Hook and his pirates so kids are still a little scared – but most of the squeals are from delight.

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Musical tempest on a small island

Milagro Theatre negotiates the troubled waters of Cuban identity in a new musical

The waters of a troubled past are explored in Óye Oyá, a buoyant new Cuban musical presented in Spanish with English supertitles at Milagro Theatre. Based loosely on Shakespeare’s late romance The Tempest, it has a book by Rebecca Martinez based on a treatment by Rodolfo Ortega, airline pilot by day and prolific and acclaimed composer by night, whose music and lyrics for the show create a moving soundscape to explore modern-day Cuban identity conflict.

The roots of that conflict run deep, in politics, in history, and in this show. The island of Cuba has triggered anxiety on the international political stage for decades. The early 1990s, when Óye Oyá takes place, saw a new rush of worry as Cuba’s biggest Cold War backer, the U.S.S.R., was falling apart. You may remember news flashes of refugees on handmade rafts of plastic, wood, and tarp desperately attempting the passage to Florida. For some the romance of the Cuban Revolution and its bearded heroes remained. Yet there was also a sharp divide between Cuban-American historical memory and that of people who remained on the homeland. Fidel Castro’s recent death sparked tough debate on his legacy, making way once again for a nervous tick about Cuba’s future. While the country is opening its doors for business, refugees who were burned by Castro’s government are unwavering in their conservatism. The majority of them are Republicans, wanting a strong man to hand down sentencing on the Cuban government and uphold the embargo until the island nation changes politics.

Cuban tempest: a little rhythm, a little dance, a little romance. Photo: Russell J Young

Cuba’s many aspects are best felt in its music. Óye Oyá delivers a sample of the intricate rhythms and melodies that captivate hearts and pull feet onto dance floors, the mysterious arresting passion and ache that is born in Cuban song.

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The great American (gun) divide

Playwright E.M. Lewis and actor Vin Shambry dart across the shooting range looking for answers to the problem that never ends in "The Gun Show" at CoHo

The lament is one all too many Americans likely can relate to, even if not always in the anguished and urgent way that the playwright E. M. Lewis feels it, and that the actor Vin Shambry delivers it in the latest production at CoHo Theater. The show is always on.

“The movie theater lives in my head and there’s only one show, There’s only ever one show!

That show — brought to you by the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, an enduring frontier ethos, a complex accidental alloy of other historical, cultural, demographic and economic factors, and (maybe) executive producer Wayne LaPierre — is the Gun Show.

Vin Shambry, carrying the debate onstage. Photo: Owen Carey

Vin Shambry, carrying the debate onstage. Photo: Owen Carey

The Gun Show is the title of Lewis’s compact yet high-caliber theatrical, a short one-hour blast of personal recollection, rhetoric and genuinely conflicted questioning about the gun show that plays out in varying versions throughout our society, our political forums and our private lives. Some versions center on practicality, some on recreation, others on fear, danger, mayhem. Some are more personal, for good or ill, than others. All, increasingly, share a broad backdrop of lamentable violence, controversy and division.

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