tba

PNCA, Willamette U. will merge

ArtsWatch Weekly: The Portland art school and Salem private university join forces; reading is the new going out; deaths in the arts family

THERE’S A NEW-OLD SCHOOL IN TOWN: Two high-profile Oregon private colleges, Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of Art and Salem’s Willamette University, have announced plans to merge, The Oregonian/Oregon Live reported Thursday morning. The boards of the two schools approved the merger on Wednesday, and PNCA’s faculty, staff, and students were told in a general announcement at 9:33 Thursday morning. The Oregonian’s Jeff Manning reports that the two schools have been discussing a merger off and on for five years, and the talks turned more serious 18 months ago. The Covid-19 crisis and PNCA’s failure to meet enrollment goals played into the agreement, The Oregonian said. The merger still “needs approval from regulators and the accrediting agencies of the two schools,” which is expected in 2021, Manning reported.

Pacific Northwest College of Art straddles Portland’s Old Town and Pearl District. Photo: PNCA

The two schools will maintain their own campuses and names. It hasn’t been so long since PNCA considered taking over the late Oregon College of Art and Craft, which folded after PNCA and other potential suitors decided against merging. PNCA also, after taking control of  Portland’s venerable Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2009, closed the museum down and took charge of some of its collections in 2016. Willamette University has been expanding quietly, Manning reported, including last year’s addition and move to the Salem campus of California’s Claremont School of Theology with its faculty and 300 students. This week’s announcement doesn’t define what this newest merger might mean to Willamette’s existing art department, or whether it will have any effect on Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, which comes under the university’s wing.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: A world on fire

Trees in Trouble. Farewell, Tim Stapleton. Maryhill finally opens. Lots of music. Women in film. Pop-up posters. TBA, Street Roots & more.

NOTHING I CAN WRITE ON A DAY LIKE THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT than the story sweeping across Oregon and the West, where high winds and wildfires and crackling-dry conditions have unleashed historic devastation. Whole communities have been erased. Main highways are blocked off; others have been bumper-to-bumper crawling with people fleeing danger zones. Hundreds of people have been burned out of house and home. Complex ecosystems have been uprooted; wildlife flee with no sure place to go. In Oregon as of Thursday afternoon at least 800 square miles of land was burning, much of it out of control. 

Amid the chaos I’ve seen many small tales of courage, generosity, and resourcefulness. People in the country offering refuge for horses, livestock, pets. Parking lots and driveways offered for people escaping in their trucks or campers. Neighbors helping clear downed trees. Medical and utility and emergency workers, already stretched by the mounting catastrophes of this most extraordinary year, laboring overtime under daunting and exhausting circumstances. As I sit at my desk at 10 in the morning and look out the window the sky has turned from blood-orange to a pink-tinged gray. The acrid smell of smoke seeps through the cracks and into my nostrils. And I am deeply aware, and immensely grateful, that I am one of the fortunate ones, sitting in a stretch of Portland that’s been spared the worst of these multiple conflagrations, and that, barring a radical shift in weather patterns, is likely to remain a safe shelter. 

How did we get here? Where are we heading? In search of some answers ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson talked with Portland writer Daniel Mathews, author of the recent book Trees in Trouble: Wildfires, Infestations, and Climate Change. Mathews takes a long view of the state of the forests, the destabilizing effects of climate change, the role of public policy, and other factors contributing to the chaos of the land. “I’m heartbroken looking at the maps and seeing so many towns and forests I visited just in reporting for this book,” Mathews tells Johnson. “This week’s fires are shocking and truly historic: it’s likely that more acres burned in the West than in any 48-hour period in written history, including the Big Blow-up of 1910. … I  guess there are a lot of disconnects between science and policy in this country, but forest fire policy is one of the most stubborn.”


TIM STAPLETON: FAREWELL TO A GREAT SPIRIT


The much loved Tim Stapleton, in transition. Photo courtesy Gary Norman

TIM STAPLETON, THE LONGTIME PORTLAND set designer, visual artist, writer of uncommonly good memoirs, and occasional actor, died at a hospice care center on Labor Day morning, Sept. 7, from the effects of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He leaves legions of friends and admirers, and an enormous hole in Portland’s artistic community. Tim, born in Kentucky coal country in 1949, constantly called in his work on memories of those days and that culture, and before he had to move to hospice care he made his home in The Holler, a stretch of country-in-the-city in a tucked-away part of northern Portland, which is where photographer Gary Norman took the portrait above. In it, Tim seems to be simply walking away, toward something, taking his soft wry voice and sometimes jagged laughter and passion and wit with him, but leaving a trail of memories behind. 

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Even amidst the chaos in our world right now, artists are getting creative and finding ways to perform for you. September’s performances are a combination of live, live- streamed, and recorded performances. 

In preparation for this month’s live performances that require social distancing, let’s play a few games. Let’s imagine that social distancing is a dance and that you are a performer in this dance. A dance that includes everyone around you. All the world’s a stage, right?

First, find a broom. Hold the broom out to your side, parallel with the floor, with one end about a foot from your center. This is approximately six feet. Two arms length. This is the suggested distance that we are supposed to keep between us to keep us safe from catching and spreading Covid-19. Now, walk around the house moving the broomstick around your body 360 degrees and experience what this measurement actually feels like. Yup, it’s bigger than you think. Watch out for those dishes and that lamp! 

If this doesn’t work for you and you need a different visual, measure six feet out from your center and place objects from your house in a circle around you on the floor. Now feel your feet on the ground, reach your fingertips up to the sky, and spread your arms out on either side of you and turn in place carving out the edges of your space with your fingertips. You can even take this a step further and explore your space beyond the vertical and horizontal tracing all of the areas in between. Now take this imaginary space that you have explored and create a giant bubble with it and put yourself in it. You now live in a bubble at all times! Stay in your bubble!

Next game. Imagine that you have a string attached to your bellybutton that connects your body to others. Imagine that we are all connected to each other, all the time, through this extensive web of strings. Take a moment to feel what this really feels like, to keep other people around you in your consciousness at all times. Imagine being out in the world and stringing yourself to people walking by you or folks standing in line with you at the grocery store or protestors downtown. You CAN be conscious of yourself and others all at the same time. 

Now, get into your gigantic bubble and connect your string to the people around you. Keep your distance but stay connected and go forth into the world. 

These are exercises or dances that dance teachers often give to their youngest students to help them learn body awareness and to keep them from bumping into and injuring each other during class. These awareness tools can keep us safe, create compassion, and connection. And don’t forget your costume, your mask!

Performances keep popping up, so I will be adding them to this list as they come up. Check back often. 

September Dance Performances

The beautiful Portland performer and community activist, Chisao Hata.
Photo courtesy of Chisao Hata.

Luminaries
Echo Theater Company PDX
9-10pm September 1

Under the full moon, in an undisclosed location somewhere in Portland (The event address will be emailed the day of the show), Echo Theatre, Portland’s zany, forward thinking, acrobatics, aerial dance, and physical theater company, will present, Luminaries, an hour long performance of music, dance, and storytelling. The event features Japanese-American performing artist and community organizer Chisao Hata, triple threat Bevin Victoria, Korean-American actor, writer and director Heath Houghton, and theatre and television actor Tessa May. Topping off the evening will be performances by the renowned Echo Theatre Company Education Director Wendy Cohen and Director of Operations and Community Engagement Aaron Wheeler Kay, who specializes in acrobatics, aerial dance, and physical theater.

The audience is requested to wear masks and engage in physical distancing. Please bring a blanket or chair. 

Performance artist Lu Yim. photo by Mario Galluci Studios.

Happy Hour with Lu Yim
Presented by Performance Works NW/Linda Austin Dance
5-6 pm September 2
RSVP here by 3pm September 2 in order to receive the Zoom link.

In a mindful approach that provides financial support to artists of color in the community, while centering dance and experimental performance, PWNW has created a Happy Hour on Zoom that features a variety of artists, twice monthly! The evening includes a cocktail demo (featured drink this week is the Oaxaca Old Fashioned), a toast, a performance, PWNW-themed Bingo, and prizes, of course! 

Happy Hour this week will feature performance artist and choreographer Lu Yim​ who creates work from her interests in body politics, language, and the mechanics of memory. 

About the work-in-progress presentation in Lu Yim’s own words:

“I embarked on Before the Dying That Will when I witnessed my father get up and perform an impromptu dance in an effort to settle a dispute with his sister. They were arguing about the ungodliness of homosexuality. With curiosity I started to archive this dance by conjuring it in my own body, discovering its connections to other bodies, geographies and timescapes. I imagined the archive of his dance through my version of it, coming via ancestral, cellular and inexplicably miraculous catalogues of information. It turns out the dance emerges by way of escaping, so I stopped looking at it or for it, like, I don’t need to hold on to it, and like, sometimes meaning is better when it is hacked anyway.”

Happy Hour will resume in October

Dancers of Espacio Flamenco performing onstage at The Alberta Rose Theatre.
Photo by Dennis Glisson of Glisson Imaging PDX.

Espacio Flamenco on the Portland Music Re-Stream
The Alberta Rose Theatre
7-8pm September 2
Rebroadcast from The Alberta Rose Theatre

Espacio Flamenco, Portland’s premier flamenco producer, will rebroadcast a previous performance from a night at The Alberta Rose Theatre right to your living room. 

Flamenco, an improvisational form of dance, is an amalgamation of centuries of cross-pollination between the many cultures that have existed in Spain, and combines singing, dancing, instrumentals (guitar mostly), hand clapping and finger snapping. It is also one of the few dance forms that requires audience participation, so get up and clap along and shout out words of encouragement to the performers on the screen as they perform.

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers taking company class at Director Park in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

OBT Moves/ Exposed
September 8-October 3
Check Oregon Ballet Theatre’s schedule for times and locations.

In a rare look behind the scenes, Oregon Ballet Theatre moves out of the studio and onto Portland city streets. For a month, the company will participate in week-long residencies that rotate between four Portland locations: Zidell Yards, OMSI, Hacienda CDC, and the last location to be decide. OBT will present a variety of non traditional performances that include a look into the ritual of how ballet dancers train and the process of ballet making. Check Oregon Ballet Theatre’s schedule for exact times and locations.

An A-Wol Dance Collective dancer stretching herself to the limits.
Photo courtesy of A-Wol Dance Collective.

A-Wol Pop Up Park Performance
A-Wol Dance Collective and Circus Rose
5-8 pm September 12
The performance will be repeated at the top of every hour
Mary S Young Park, 19900 Willamette Drive, West Linn

In a normal summer, which this is not, you would find the artists of A-Wol dance collective, a fantastically creative, Portland based aerial dance company, suspended from trees under the stars in their annual Art in the Dark performance along the Willamette River in West Linn, at Mary S. Young Park. But, because their  season was cancelled, due to Covid-19,  and they love their work so much, they’ve decided to do it anyway. So bring a blanket, snacks, a mask, and stay socially distant in this one-off, pop up performance of dancer favorites. 

A video still from Fernanda D’Agostino’s film collaboration Peace Movements performed at the Palace of Fine Arts. Photo courtesy of Fernanda D’Agostino.

Time-Based Arts Festival
Presented by The Portland Institute For Contemporary Art
September 10-30

For 21 days, The Portland Institute For Contemporary Art’s annual Time-Based Arts Festival will share the work of 40+ artists through performances, films, audio projects, publications, conversations, music, workshops, and participatory events, with a mix of virtual and in-person programs. 

The festival is inherently interdisciplinary and champions local, national and international artists who reflect and respond to our times. It’s a mind-altering, opinion-changing, heart-opening extravaganza of the senses. 

Matter writer and actor Charles Grant from his solo show in 2017 standing on the set of The Language Archive.
Photo courtesy of Portland Playhouse.

Matter
Conceived, written, and performed by Charles Grant
A co-production of  Many Hats Collaboration and Portland Playhouse
September 25 – October 1
Matter will be available for free viewing here and on Portland Playhouse’s website. 

This very personal portrait of a Black Everyman follows writer and performer Charles Grant on his journey to find answers to police brutality and gun violence. While not strictly a dance work, Matter does include a lot of movement, as life should, and includes sections that could be called dances with movement direction by Many Hats Artistic Director Jessica Wallenfels. 

Inspired by recent and not so recent events, Matter centers the embodied experience of being continually bombarded with systemic racism and injustice. 

Dance Performances in October

October 2-8, Portland Dance Film Fest
October 2-23, A Taste of Dance, A co production of Chapel Theatre and Milwaukie Arts Committee

The Week: See you in the dock

Autumn settles in swiftly, and with it the rhythms of a new cultural season, from "In the Heights" to the sidewalks of Forest Grove

AUTUMN’S SETTLED IN EARLY ACROSS MOST OF OREGON, and with it the rhythms and traditions of a new cultural season. Music, theater, dance – each has its own history and pattern, its own set of rituals. 

Corey Brunish, the Portland and New York performer and producer who has a handful of Tony Award statuettes as a producer on Broadway, has just been named one of more than two dozen nominees for this year’s Broadway Global Producer of the Year Award, on a list that also includes the likes of Gloria Estefan, John Legend, and Jada Pinkett Smith. 

Brunish, whose nomination is for the aggregate of his Broadway work, has an abiding love for the rituals of the theater, and often expresses it in musings about the still time before the curtain rises. He wrote this one, he says, during a California run of the new musical Empire, about the building of the Empire State Building, a show that’s still trying to raise backing for a Broadway run. But, he adds, it could be any show, any time, anywhere:

*

Dancing is a highlight of Portland Center Stage’s In the Heights. Above: Alexander Gil Cruz, Eddie Martin Morales, Alyssa V. Gomez, UJ Mangune. Photo: Owen Carey

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TBA report: aggressive whimsey, meditative chaos, kinetic violin

Martha Daghlian reviews performances by Laura Ortman, Takashi Makino, and Asher Hartman and Gawdafful National Theater

PICA’s Time Based Art Festival (TBA) was held at locations around Portland from September 5th through 15th. The festival brings together a diverse roster of artists and performances. Martha Daghlian reviews three notable offerings.

by MARTHA DAGHLIAN

Laura Ortman (with Marcus Fischer and Raven Chacon)
Lincoln Hall
1620 SW Park Ave
September 6 & 7

Brooklyn-based violinist Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) brought her intense experimental style to Lincoln Hall in two performances for the 2019 TBA festival. Ortman was accompanied by Portland artist Marcus Fischer and by her frequent collaborator Raven Chacon (Diné) of New Mexico. A prominent figure in experimental and Native music scenes, Ortman has been developing her unique sound for decades but has recently garnered international acclaim for her video “My Soul Remainer” which was included in this year’s Whitney Biennial (In fact, all three performers were featured artists in the Biennial; Ortman and Fischer as solo artists and Chacon as part of the arts collective Postcommodity.)

Laura Ortman. Courtesy of PICA.

Saturday night’s set began with the dim stage backlit by blazing red light and the slowly building buzz and rumble of looped and distorted guitar and synthesizer. Ortman commenced the evening by uttering a few garbled proclamations into a loudspeaker that sounded like the muffled, staticky voices of a radio station just out of range. 

From then on, Ortman danced around the stage tirelessly, accenting her playing with dramatic lunges and sidesteps. She moved almost frantically at times but maintained a sense of deep focus even in her freneticism. She scribbled away at her instrument as though trying to set it on fire by friction and at one point carried this sentiment to an extreme when she scraped an alternate violin against a mic’d-up panel of wood covered in sandpaper. The sound was nearly unbearable. Then, finally, she picked up the board and knocked it on the stage to release a small pile of sawdust. She tapped and thumped her instrument like a bizarre drum and used a wooden whistle to evoke the tones of a train, a bird, or an idle human. Her playing veered from screeching to cinematic to sweetly melodic, driven by her insistent kinetic energy. 

Accompanying Ortman’s forceful performance were Fischer and Chacon’s heavy (and heavily distorted) guitar/synth/tape loop combo, which, though compelling in their own right, at times threatened to completely obscure the headlining artist’s efforts. In contrast to much of Ortman’s recorded music, which allows the listener to hear every affecting nuance and note she plays, the show at Lincoln Hall was dominated by the monolithic dronescape that continued almost unbroken for the full 90 minutes. Ortman’s violin was like a small bird flying through a hurricane, variously engulfed by clouds and shoved to and fro by the wind. Whether this was a conscious decision within the three performers’ collaborative process or the result of the way the venue’s sound was mixed, it was hard to dismiss the possibility that listeners might be missing out on a certain level of sonic detail. The wall-of-noise effect became slightly monotonous after a certain point, making the moments when Ortman took over feel all the more exquisite.


Memento Stella, Takashi Makino
OMSI
1945 SE Water Ave
September 14 & 15

Memento Stella, according to Japanese filmmaker Takashi Makino, means “remember we are stars.” It is also the title of his most recent work which TBA screened at OMSI’s Empirical Theater over the weekend. Makino’s work is decidedly abstract and has evolved from Stan Brakhage-style direct film manipulation in his early career to his current mode of intricately layered digital footage and lens effects that create wildly flickering hypnotic textures on the screen. Memento Stella is his longest film to date with a run time of 60 minutes. For the Sunday evening showing I attended, the artist was present to perform a live soundtrack on synthesizer. The piece was composed by Reinier van Houdt, who also performed at Saturday’s screening. 

Takashi Makino
Takashi Makino. Courtesy of PICA.

The audience was warned at the outset that although we might recognize specific images, the idea was to relax into the visual chaos and let our minds drift free from representation or narrative. The film began with tiny twinkling shards of light on a black background that resembled a more lively version of television static or perhaps stars moving at warp speed or a cloud of agitated dust particles viewed in raking light. We weren’t supposed to worry about making visual associations but I couldn’t help myself. It took some time to fully settle in and stop trying to make sense of what we were seeing (was that water? It had to be water!) but eventually the vast field of vibrating, swirling forms and particles began to feel absorbing and meditative. Tiny patterns and broad motions clashed and harmonized in turn. The experience was akin to the start of a psychedelic trip or the moment you fall asleep, only to be suddenly startled awake. Makino’s live performance of van Houdt’s soundtrack was also ambient, but its composition contained subtle peaks and valleys that prevented the sonic fatigue that can accompany noise music. 

At certain moments the total immersion became nearly overwhelming and a sort of existential dread crept in to the point that I actually felt afraid for a moment. After the show, other audience members reported having similar feelings of anxiety or foreboding and we all agreed that we felt a bit altered. It was as though we had all had a strange dream together. Maybe the experience wasn’t always relaxing, but it was powerful and unique, and isn’t that what art is supposed to be?


The Dope Elf (Asher Hartman and the Gawdafful National Theater)
Yale Union
800 SE 10th Ave
Additional Performances: September 20, 21 & 22; October 11, 12 & 13; October 18, 19 & 20
Doors open 7:30 PM / Showtime 8:00 PM

The Dope Elf, the latest production of Los Angeles artist Asher Hartman’s excellent Gawdafful National Theater Company, kicked off its month-long run at Yale Union during TBA’s second weekend. It stands out as one of the weirder and more exciting works featured in this year’s festival. Hartman and his crew have transformed Yale Union into a fey sort of “trailer park” in which handmade, treehouse-like structures and repurposed garbage/sculpture hybrids are scattered throughout the cavernous gallery. The company are artists-in-residence in the literal sense – they have been living on set since the production began and will continue to do so through the final performance on October 20. The Dope Elf is a three-part show that unfolds over three consecutive evenings each weekend of the run; I saw what was described as a modified version of Play 1 in a media preview performance. (A 24-hour live stream can be found on the gallery’s website.) Before the show started, Hartman addressed the audience. He explained that the players would be moving around the gallery throughout the evening, and that he would lead us to the next location after each scene. This roving action resulted in a rather fluid barrier between performer and viewer that was fun and kept everyone alert as we tried to avoid inadvertently stumbling into the spotlight.

The Dope Elf publicity image
The Dope Elf publicity image. Courtesy of PICA.

The show began when Michael Bonnabel jumped onto a platform surrounded by faux arcade game consoles made from cardboard boxes (including “Street Frighter” and “Donkey Dong”) and tore into an acidic monologue about a pretentious fellow referred to as “the actor.” Slowly it became apparent that the actor in question was Bonnabel himself – or the character he was playing – which was our first indication of the multiple layers of meaning and identity contained within this rowdy performance. 

The next scene found Bonnabel sitting in one half of a two-bedroom shanty, engaged in a petty domestic squabble with John (played by Philip Littell). From there, the energetic cast transformed themselves into trolls, wolves, aunties, actors, depressed trailer-park residents, concerned family members, and death itself. Zut Lors gave a brief but standout performance as Gingy, a trailer-park troll. Lors is a gifted physical comedian whose facial expressions and excellent timing were genuinely funny, which can be hard to come by in contemporary performance art. She reappeared later as one half of a couple (or siblings? roommates?) opposite Joe Seely and was compelling even in that more subdued role, relaxed in her lines and her movements. 

Although there was a superficial gloss of wacky humor throughout (particularly in the instance of Gingy’s deranged stand-up routine), the underlying tone was one of deep metaphysical disturbances. The wretchedness reached a nadir in a scene in which Bonnabel (perhaps playing Michael, the actor) holds another man (played by Paul Outlaw) hostage in his bedroom, commanding him to remove and replace articles of clothing, psychotically singing love songs to him while mimicking sexual acts, and threatening to tape his mouth shut before the scene fades out. From my vantage point, I was able to see Bonnabel discreetly remove a length of rope and a set of kitchen knives from a duffle bag at the start of the scene (not everyone would have seen this, I just happened to be standing directly behind the actor), and as a result I spent the entire scene worried that we were about to witness a gruesome fictional murder. To my relief, the action never devolved into that sort of spectacle, but that doesn’t mean the audience was spared any discomfort. 

And then there was the titular Dope Elf, played with aggressive whimsy by Jacqueline Wright. The Elf described itself as “a system” whose DNA test results read zero and who seemed to veer from victim to monster to average-joe within the space of a few wild run-on sentences. Within Hartman’s creation, the Dope Elf’s particular brand of “magic” represents the systems and disguises of white supremacy that delude and torture the rest of the characters in the play. The Elf’s confounding lack of identity evokes the supposedly neutral status of whiteness both in racial terms and in the rarefied space of contemporary art, where the white cube of the gallery bestows institutional legitimacy upon its contents. 

Jacqueline Wright as the Dope Elf. Courtesy of PICA.

The Elf made several bizarre appearances throughout the performance, but her final monologue was truly memorable. In a tirade of convoluted and vulgar poetic logic, the Dope Elf managed to communicate the theoretical gist of the work – that living within systems of violence and power leaves people with what Yale Union curator Dena Beard describes as “strangled desire, residual fear, and rage.” The split personalities of the show’s actors were suddenly revealed as reflections of unstable identities locked in a struggle for power, whether magical or political. With that, the spell was lifted and the members of the Gawdafful National Theater Company stepped onto the stage and took a bow. 

Martha Daghlian is a Portland-based visual artist and arts writer. She is the creator of the Grapefruit Juice Artist Resource Guide, a Portland arts directory. More information and work can be found at marthadaghlian.com

The Week: Art is where you look

From Eastern Oregon to a paint-out on the coast to queer opera and TBA Fest in Portland to the streets of New York, art is all around us

THE ARTS WORLD MIGHT BE FINANCIALLY FRAGILE, with a tenuous toehold on the economic stepstool, but art and culture are all around us, wherever we look – and certainly, wherever ArtsWatch’s writers look. Carnegie libraries-turned-community-art-centers in Eastern Oregon. Street art and “high” art having a deep-in-the-trenches conversation in New York. Dancers in the woods near Astoria and a landscape paint-off in Cannon Beach. Queer Opera in Portland, a virtuoso theatrical solo turn in Clackamas County, Pavarotti on the radio, contemporary performance art at PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, a great photographer imprinted on the nation’s memory. And really, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of things.

Pendleton Center for the Arts, in a former Carnegie Library. In the
home of the Pendleton Round-Up, Randy Gundlach’s horse statue by
the entrance adds a Western touch. Photo: David Bates

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DramaWatch: Moving in rhythm to creative Heights

Portland Center Stage kicks the theater season into musical high gear; plus TBA experiments, Artists Rep gets dystopian, and other calendar comings and goings.

Now as ever, New York City is a place for dreams. Some of those dreams are pursued amid the busy streets of close-knit neighborhoods, where immigrant families and friends scuffle toward a better life. Others are played out across stages under bright lights, where passions pulse and songs soar through that efficient pleasure-delivery system known as the Broadway musical.

In the Heights, which opens the 2019-’20 season at Portland Center Stage is a dream in both these ways, and the beginning of a dream come true for those wanting renewed energy and relevance in the American musical.

Ryan Alvarado (top) and cast members of In the Heights light up the neighborhood with song. Photo: Michael Brosilow_Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

The greatest energy infusion in a generation has come from composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: an American Musical, the 2015 cultural supernova that won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize with its inspired blend of hip-hop and history. But Miranda already had brought rhythmic juice and sociological savvy to Broadway with In the Heights, a vibrant, witty and heartfelt tribute to his heavily Hispanic Upper Manhattan neighborhood, Washington Heights. 

Conceived and presented in its earliest form while Miranda was a student at Wesleyan University, In the Heights underwent several years of development, emerging as a 2008 Broadway hit that won Tonys for best musical and best original score, as well as a best-actor nomination for Miranda in the role of Usnavi, a bodega owner at the center of the story. 

In its completed version, with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, it’s a story of striving and celebrating, of struggles and hopes, of worries and romances, of a community balancing precariously between continuity and change. Some critics have griped about the “soap opera” quality of the story, but “In the Heights” pulses with real human feeling as well as its  propulsive mix of salsa, soul and hip-hop. 

The show has been in Portland before, as a Broadway bus-and-trucker in 2010, then in a local production by Stumptown Stages that was a 2016 Drammy Award finalist for outstanding ensemble. This latest is a sort of regional-theater mega-production: Directed by May Adrales and featuring a mostly consistent cast, it arrives at Portland Center Stage following month-long runs last season at Milwaukee Rep, Seattle Rep and the Cincinnati Playhouse.


Time has come today

Somewhere amidst my books, last time I checked, I still have programs from the first several iterations of the Time Based Art Festival, more commonly known as TBA, the flagship program from the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. I’ve lots of fond memories of excitement and discovery from those days, diving into the festival’s diverse array of multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and, well, sometimes just undisciplined art.
Over the past decade, however, I’ve grown progressively less interested in TBA’s brand of progressivism, coming to prefer more familiar and definable performance forms and such old-fashioned virtues as, oh you know, coherent writing. I’ve become a snob for conventional theater.

By contrast, TBA is, according to the PICA website, “ten days of contemporary performance, music, visual art, film, workshops, lectures, food, drink, conversation, and celebration.” Actually, Sept. 5-15 is eleven days, but at least that description is easy to follow, unlike much of the rest of the TBA program notes. I always found that the festival experience benefited greatly by seeing as much as possible, whereupon the good, the bad, the interesting and the weird all informed and enhanced one another. But unless you have loads of free time and the money for one of the upper-tier passes ($200 for the Immersion Pass or $500 for the Patron Pass), you’ll need to pick and choose. And that leads to poring over program notes, trying to decipher all manner of performance-theory gobbledygook that rarely offers much sense of what might be in store. (One performance description this year promises “textures of reflection dipped in impressions of deconstruction and decay.”) 

This critic’s curmudgeonly caveats aside, some very promising shows for theater fans appear on this year’s TBA calendar. Sept. 12-14, Anthony Hudson’s drag-clown character Carla Rossi puts a queer spin on coming-of-age story form with Looking for Tiger Lily, an exploration of cultural, racial and gender norms shot through with caustic wit and trenchant insight. And on the 13th and 14th, Seattle musician and comedian Ahamefule J. Oluo presents Susan, a musical portrait of his American mother coping with abandonment by his Nigerian father. 


Opening

While acknowledging that his unflinching stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 is “designed to hit you hard,” co-writer Robert Icke told the Hollywood Reporter, “if this show is the most upsetting part of anyone’s day, they’re not reading the news headlines. Things are much worse than a piece of theater getting under your skin a little bit.” The original London production reportedly got so far under the skin that some audience members fainted. Director Damaso Rodriguez stages it for Artists Repertory Theatre, with a top-flight Portland cast featuring Chris Harder as beleaguered hero Winston Smith.

Lauren Steele stars as Jacqueline Marie Butler, trying to navigate the new in Queens Girl in the World, at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Multi-character/single-actor shows are challenging by their very nature, and you’d think that’d be especially so for young performers. But Lauren Steele, who stars in the West Coast premiere of Queens Girl in the World for Clackamas Rep, has the kind of powerhouse presence and keen intelligence to make you confident she’ll rise to the challenge. A coming-of-age/fish-out-of-water tale of a black girl in the 1960s moving from Queens to the wilds of Greenwich Village, Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ play — directed here by Damaris Webb — also occasions some pre- and post-show lectures about the racial politics and literature of its time period. 

Solo performers at least have an audience around them. Being a caregiver for a dying parent often can be lonelier work. In Mala, a play by Melinda Lopez, delves into that fraught (and for growing numbers of us, familiar) subject, with the compelling Julana Torres performing, directed by Brian Shnipper.

Summer may nearly be over, but Lakewood Theatre Company and director John Oules are going to camp. That is, they’re staging The Rocky Horror Show. Y’know, if you’re into that sort of thing.


Closing

Devised theater can be rich with fresh perspective or can fall prey to the lack of a cohesive voice and coherent structure. (Though, to be fair, I suppose a conventionally written script can have the same range of outcomes.) And an “authentic, empowering, sex-positive, feminist portrayal of local strippers” might be an intriguing show premise to some theatergoers but I cannot honestly count myself in their number. But I am interested in From the Ruby Lounge — produced by William Thomas Berk, who, along with the cast and crew, devised the script — because of some of the promising young talents involved such as co-director Sarah Marie Andrews, her Crave Theatre co-founder Kylie Jennifer Rose, and Taylor Jean Grady. The show’s run ends on Saturday, with only so many seats available in the Shoebox Theater, so scarcity adds value, too. 

Also looking worthy of your time, even on such a busy weekend, is a production of Hamlet  by the young company Clever Enough. The twist here? Apparently a heightened emphasis on — of all possible characters — Fortinbras, the Norwegian Prince in this Danish tale, the guy who usually just shows up at the end to clear out the bodies and take over the throne.


The flattened stage

With the opening of another promising theater season, perhaps we should revisit some performance tips from a master thespian:


Best line(s) I read this week

“Art does not reflect society and environment and consciousness so much as it tells us what environment and society and consciousness do not know. It compensates for conscious attitudes; it reveals to us that there are other, perhaps opposite, but still tenable ways of looking at things, of feeling about things…Art tells us what we do not know or do not realize. And it prepares the way for change.”

— from “The Jazz Tradition” by Martin Williams

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.