The Armory

ArtsWatch Weekly: eyeballing the state of the state

Vision 2020, new/old Five Oaks Museum, music of Second Winter, blood sweat & fears at the theater, storm of the (last) century

HERE AT ARTSWATCH WE’RE ENTERING THE 2020s NOT WITH A WHIMPER BUT A BANG. On New Year’s Day we began a series called Vision 2020 – twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the coming decade.

Yulia Arakelyan of Wobbly Dance in a scene from Wobbly’s film Tidal. Photo: Kamala Kingsley

We started planning for this series several months ago, looking for potential voices that are insightful, informed, and sometimes provocative. We wanted to hear not just from the Portland area, but from around Oregon. And we wanted to dig deep. Some of the people we’ve interviewed are well-known artists. Some you might never have heard of. Some work behind the scenes. Some are up-and-coming. Several are from vital communities that have been under-recognized. All are creating significant chapters in the Oregon Story.

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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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The Week: Seatbelts & Bumpy Nights

The mirror crack'd: Dance, art, and theater ripped from the anxieties and tensions of an unruly world at large

WHAT A WEEK IT’S BEEN, RIGHT? Phone calls and whistleblowers and suppressions and impeachment hearings. A teen-aged climate activist who speaks sharply at the United Nations and prompts both cheers and jeers from the political-media talking heads. A fair amount of fiddling, if we can make a historical comparison, as Rome burns. The Ukrainian Affair looks dark and complex, which by coincidence is what Bobby Bermea has to say about Theatre Vertigo’s season-opening show, the world premiere of Dominic Finocchiaro’s play complex – small “c”, infinite anxieties. Bermea, in his pre-opening interview with Finocchiaro, calls Vertigo “the David Lynch of Portland theater,” and if it feels like we’re living in a David Lynch world, well, that’s life in the 21st century fast lane.

complex, hanging out in the no murder zone. Theatre Vertigo photo

ALSO OPENING THIS WEEKEND, at Portland Playhouse, is Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, a play about “the vim and vigor of a pack of adolescent warriors” who do their battle on the soccer pitch, and if that doesn’t remind you just a bit of the young climate activist Greta Thunberg playing on a much bigger field, well, I ask you. Meanwhile, Portland Center Stage is moving into preview performances at The Armory of what looks to be a hard-boiled, stripped-down, lean and mean Macbeth, with all of its raw palace intrigue, which gets me thinking also about Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II and “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and … well, things do circle around, don’t they?

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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:

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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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DramaWatch: A vintage Storm

Ten years after, Storm Large's short-run revival of "Crazy Enough" blows even stronger. Plus: Drammys Monday, openings, summer tips.

Around 2002 or 2003, not long after Storm Large had moved to Portland and started to establish herself as a local cultural phenom, several friends told me I had to go to the Old Town nightclub Dante’s to hear this amazing rock singer. During those days, I was the staff pop-music critic for The Oregonian, so I dutifully went to see what the buzz was about. Within a couple of minutes I could tell what had people talking: a tall, good-looking woman with a commanding stage presence and a voice as big and pliant as her attitude was bold and defiant.

Yet I wasn’t won over. Her vocal talent and charisma were undeniable. But the brash, bawdy Amazon-sex-goddess persona that had folks howling her praise? Meh, not interested.

Storm Large performs with (L to R) Greg Eklund (Drums) and Matthew Brown (Bass) in Crazy Enough. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

A few years later, in the fall of 2007, she starred in a Portland Center Stage production of Cabaret and I began to take a larger view, you might say. Her vocal chops extended beyond rock’n’roll belting, and she could convey emotional shades that weren’t evident in the bluster of Storm and the Balls. 

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Garden Wars at The Armory

Two sets of neighbors and a battleground of flowers: Portland Center Stage's "Native Gardens" is an explosive, plant-based satire

Imagine that you’ve just moved to a new home. It has multiple floors, a formidable tree, and a garden that could really be something with a few more blossoms and shrubs. There’s just one problem—the couple in the house next door has been planting flowers on part of your property for years, and they pout and snap whenever you confront them. Why, you wonder, can’t they just admit that it isn’t theirs?

Now picture the other side of the equation. You’ve meticulously cared for those flowers, nourishing them with both love and pesticides. Who are your neighbors to rob you of that pleasure? They just got here! Why can’t they have some compassion? Why can’t they understand?

Paul DeBoy, Anne-Marie Cusson, Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez, and Erick González in Native Gardens. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Add those two perspectives together and you get Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens, which has come to Portland Center Stage. It’s a tale of neighborly conflict that, unfortunately, builds up to an implausibly tidy conclusion. Yet it’s still a treat to watch director Melissa Crespo’s cast of outstanding actors tear into Zacarías’ deliciously tart dialogue, bringing their characters to gloriously unlikable life.

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DramaWatch: the naked and the nude

The first two weeks in May bring Portland stages a bundle of shows straddling the territory between the real and the ideal

This Saturday, as it turns out, is World Naked Gardening Day, and don’t worry, neighbors, I’m not taking part: I’m not really much of a gardener. The revelation, however, makes me think of another spot of news I got a few days ago from my friend Gerald Stiebel, in his weekly column Missives From the Art World. Gerald was writing about Monumental, the new show of nude paintings by the 20th and 21st century master Lucian Freud, at Acquavella Gallery in New York, and in it he discusses the fine line between nudity and nakedness:

“The renowned British art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, in his 1956 book, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, made a distinction between the Naked and the Nude, considering the nude as an ideal representation of the naked body. By Clark’s definition Freud’s works are not nudes but might be called naked portraits.

An intimate theater in the flesh: Lucian Freud, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” 1995, private collection, at Acquavella Gallery.

“Freud himself wrote, ‘Being naked has to do with making a more complete portrait; a naked body is somehow more permanent, more factual … when someone is naked there is in effect nothing to be hidden. Not everyone wants to be that honest about themselves; that means I feel an obligation to be equally honest in how I represent them. It is a matter of responsibility. In a way I don’t want the painting to come from me, I want it to come from them. It can be extraordinary how much you can learn from someone by looking very carefully at them without judgment.’”

Hardly anyone would call Freud’s often massive portraits ideals of the human form. They can seem grotesque: hills and vales and fissures and folds of flesh; fantastic landscapes of skin. And yet they hide nothing, at least visually: They exude humility, openness, a sense of natural animal humanness, vulnerable and unguarded.

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