Theatre Diaspora

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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The homesick and the haunted

CoHo Productions' "The Brothers Paranormal" tracks the spirits of the displaced, delivering a masterly blend of social commentary and supernatural horror.

A woman in white appears out of thin air, staring accusingly through her dark bangs. Books break free from a shelf, blasting through the air like missiles. A pillow moves by itself, becoming a silent weapon. Are these occurrences the stuff of delusion? Or is something genuinely spooky afoot?

That’s the mystery of Prince Gomolvilas’ The Brothers Paranormal, which has been brought to creepy and poignant life by director Catherine Ming T’ien Duffly, Coho Productions and MediaRites’ Theatre Diaspora. With captivating characters and fantastically scary supernatural effects, the play grips you like a great horror film, but it succeeds because it cares about both the earthly and the unearthly—the anguish of the living and the dead.

Spooky truth: Thai-American ghostbusters Visarut (Lidet Viravong, foreground) and Max (Samson Syharath) delve into dark realities as The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: Owen Carey.

The titular brothers are Max (Samson Syharath) and Visarut (Lidet Viravong). While Max was born in the United States and Visarut was born in Thailand, they are united in their profession: ghost hunting. Max approaches the job with sneering skepticism, but he sticks with it so he can spend time with his brother and fulfill his credo: “Fake it till you make it.”

The pair’s dubious spirit-detecting abilities are put to the test by Delia (Andrea White) and Felix (Jasper Howard), a couple convinced that their apartment is haunted by a ghost who may be speaking Thai. The brothers sell Delia and Felix a “full-investigation package,” but after they learn that Delia’s family has a history of schizophrenia, Max is convinced that they will find evidence of nothing more than hallucinations.

Yet the apartment is a hotbed of eeriness, a place where sinister white lights abruptly turn on and the fingers of an unseen figure attempt to claw their way through a screen. Some playgoers may try to explain away these images, but The Brothers Paranormal seems to truly believe that ghosts walk among us and that skeptics like Max are fooling themselves (an idea enforced by the revelation that Max’s relationship to the paranormal is more complicated than he claims).

CoHo by candlelight: Delia (Andrea White) and Felix (Jasper Howard) await their fate in The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: Owen Carey.

The Brothers Paranormal is a multifaceted collage of moods and genres. An early scene begins with Felix cheerily telling the story of how Ella Fitzgerald improvised new lyrics for “Mack the Knife” and climaxes with him and Delia fearfully awaiting the ghost’s arrival by candlelight while Max and Visarut catalogue the sounds of the neighborhood (a passing car, a barking dog) in the hope of uncovering traces of a spectral presence. It’s the most frightening moment of the story because it allows you to bask in the glow of anticipation, imagining what horrors may come.

But the play has more to offer than sublime terror. Max, Visarut, Delia and Felix share a sense of profound displacement—the brothers because their family emigrated from Thailand, the couple because Hurricane Katrina forced them to leave New Orleans. Whether or not the ghost is real is beside the point. It symbolizes the isolation each character experiences, the feeling of ghostliness that comes from being away from your homeland.

There’s something deeply moving about seeing this story through the eyes of the two siblings and an African-American wife and husband. The Brothers Paranormal is about being Thai in America (Theatre Diaspora describes itself as Oregon’s only Asian and Pacific Islander theatre company) and the yearnings that transcend cultural boundaries, particularly the hunger to return home (in Max’s case, to a home he has never seen).

The Brothers Paranormal’s greatest strength is the way that it clearly and compassionately lays bare the needs and desires of its characters, which are communicated by everything from Felix’s desperate paean to the apartment (“This is it. This is all we got. This is everything”) to the moment near the end of the play when Max tearfully collapses, overwhelmed by all that he has experienced and lost. As The Brothers Paranormal reminds us, his pain is the pain of many.


On the bridge: American true tales

Theatre Diaspora's "Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project" tells six stories of life from the nonwhite side of the national divide

Shareen Jacobs, performing the opening monologue in Theatre Diaspora’s Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project, takes her audience for a walk on the wild side. The wild side is the sidewalks and streets of Lake Oswego, the small and pretty Portland suburb often cited as Oregon’s safest city to live in, but which, in Josie Seid’s short solo piece Being Me in the Current America, can be very much something else again.

Minutes later, in his own piece See Her Strength, writer/performer Samson Syharath, in the midst of the story of his Laotian-immigrant mother’s fortitude and coming to terms with her new culture and her son’s gayness, lays his head softly for comfort onto Jacobs’ lap. Everything stops: It’s a moment of revelation and grace.

Samson Syharath and Shareen Jacobs in “See Her Strength.” Photo: Alex Haslett

On they roll, these short and telling stories, each its own tale yet all gathering force and strength from their mutuality. Sofia Molina’s firm yet gentle telling of Yasmin Ruvalcaba’s Carmelita, a story of danger and bravery and crossing the Rio Grande to the United States. The tough and sorrowful truth in Dré Slaman’s performance of Heather Raffo’s bone-rattling Lockdown Drills, about slain children and the psychic cost of mass-shooting lockdown drills in America’s schools: “Who grew this boy? This girl?” Shelley B. Shelley’s stubborn, wryly humorous, and sometimes angry performance in Bonnie Ratner and Roberta Hunte’s That Diversity Thing as a black lesbian blue-collar worker who loves her job but not the guff that comes with it: “Twenty years later I still hear that voice. ‘You’re only here because you’re black.’ Or, ‘You’re here because you’re a woman. That’s the only reason you’re here.’” Jane Vogel, in Dmae Roberts’ Harvest, her story of an Asian American woman growing up in rural and mostly white and inhospitable Oregon, and the state and family history of stolen land and incarceration during World War II: “It’s like the harvest was us.”

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DramaWatch Weekly: Double Chekhov, Ghost Hunters

It's January. Time to shake off that holidays hangover and get on with the shows.

Hello. The holidays are over and now plays can be about anything again. Next week brings Fertile Ground, brimming with homegrown theater offerings of every conceivable topic and timbre. There’ll be almost too much to mention then, so this week by comparison is short to summarize.

For those who can’t wait ’til next week, a couple of plays are opening early that you can Chekhov your list.* Northwest Classical Theatre brings Patrick Walsh’s adaptation of The Three Sisters to its old stomping grounds the Shoebox (with a familiar face from last season’s Playhouse Creatures gracing the cast). I, for one, miss the days when NWCT used to hang their collection of velvet cloaks in the Shoebox’s breezeway. Glad they’re back.

Dainichia Noreault as Irina, Elizabeth Jackson as Masha, Christy Bigelow as Olga in Northwest Classical Theatre Collaboration’s “Three Sisters.” Photo: Gary Norman

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble presents Štĕpán Šimek‘s “visceral, in-your-face” take on Uncle Vanya at Reed College. Expect surprises. (Though in the context of Chekhov, what does that mean? A gun not firing? Who knows?)

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, www.marthagraham.org. Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).

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ArtsWatch Weekly: dragon boats, demon barbers, Native fashion now

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Hang on tight: it’s going to be a wild week. Or, to borrow a line from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s  Carousel, June is bustin’ out all over. Without further ado, a few of the highlights from the next seven days:

ROSE FESTIVAL/DRAGON BOAT ART SHOW. Yes, it’s here again, the annual civic bacchanalia that, as local journalistic legend has it, an old-school reporter for The Oregonian once famously described as the season “when sailors swim upstream to spawn.” The Starlight Parade begins to wind through downtown streets at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, and those who love a parade are advised to show up and snag a spot well in advance. (Those who don’t love a parade are advised to stay away from downtown at all costs.) Here at ArtsWatch we’re quite fond of the dragon boat races (we happen to know a few paddlers, and they’re a hearty lot), which splash down June 11-12 in the Willamette River. And we’re always tickled by Fire on the Water, the annual show of art inspired by the dragon boat races, which is free and always a lot of fun. This year’s version, with work by about seventy artists, opens Thursday in the rotunda lobby of the performing arts center’s Antoinette Hatfield Hall, and hangs around all summer, through August 30. You can drop in most anytime.

2016 "Fire on the Water" cover image. Art: Mario Robert

2016 “Fire on the Water” cover image. Art: Mario Robert

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ArtsWatch Weekly: the language of bargains, a prints of a town

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Portland’s a provisional sort of town, a place to try things out, take a chance, experiment a little and see what happens. It might have something to do with the town’s rough-and-tumble history, its roots in fishing and logging and shipping, its historical country-cousin status among West Coast cities, without the swagger of San Francisco or glitter of L.A. or sun of San Diego or deeper pockets of Seattle. You can hide in Portland, and just do stuff, and make a life while you’re at it. In the arts, this can be both a blessing and a curse: the extra polish of high-level professionalism doesn’t always get applied, but the sheer guts of working things out, the passion of the process, don’t get ironed away, either.

Leo Lin and Wynee Hu in "TheLanguage Archive"; background: Sofia May-Cuxim, Enrique Eduardo Andrade. Theatre Diaspora photo

Leo Lin and Wynee Hu in “TheLanguage Archive”; background: Sofia May-Cuxim, Enrique Eduardo Andrade. Theatre Diaspora photo

And as an audience member, you can find bargains – deals to see something genuinely interesting but unfinished or in the works. For eight bucks last weekend I dropped down to the basement Ellen Bye Studio Theatre at Portland Center Stage to catch a staged reading of Julia Cho’s smart and insightful comedy The Language Archive, produced by Theatre Diaspora and directed by Dmae Roberts, whose MediaRites is the small theater company’s mother ship. Diaspora specializes in plays written or performed by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and in addition to doing its own thing it chips away at some stubborn patterns on the city’s theater scene, opening doors for AAPI performers and cluing people in to a wealth of potential dramatic material from Asian American writers. The Language Archive will have one more reading, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Milagro Theatre, which itself has been a pioneering force in town for Hispanic performance.

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