Category Archives: Bob Hicks

Dangerous doves, problematic preachers and four-dollar words

Quick hits on a Tuesday with lots of other things on its agenda:

Mourning the doves: It might seem eccentric verging on preposterous here in proudly liberal Portland, where a John McCain lawn sign is as rare as a cup of coffee out of a Maxwell House can, but dovishness is not a universally admired trait. I haven’t read Louise Erdrich‘s new novel “The Plague of Doves,” but I love the title. A plague of doves? Sounds like it could be the title of a neocon screed, something by William Kristol, say: If only those end-the-war-now wimps had a streak of realpolitik in their heads, they’d realize you don’t win world peace by singing Kumbaya. You gotta be tough, you gotta be mean, you gotta fight fire with fire, even if it takes 100 years. A plague on the doves!

Ever since that ancestral white bird spotted land and an olive branch on the side of Mt. Ararat, we’ve been soft on the species. But it turns out there really is such a thing as a plague of doves, especially if you’re a farmer and they’re eating all your freshly planted seeds. That’s the kind of bird Erdrich is aiming at in her new novel, which takes place in the fading hamlet of Pluto, on the edge of Ojibwe reservation land in North Dakota. Reviews of this multigenerational (and multiply cultural) book have been enthusiastic. I’m putting it on my get-to-soon list. No matter what Ann Coulter thinks.

Them’s fisticuffarian words: This morning’s New York Times contains a front page story by Alessandra Stanley about The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.‘s recent television appearances to expand upon his theories of patriotism and the God-damning of America, and if I could get past the four-dollar words I might have a sense of what Stanley thinks of the whole spectacle. Continue reading Dangerous doves, problematic preachers and four-dollar words

The Kirov takes it on the chin

It’s been fun watching from afar the struggles of Alastair Macaulay, the erudite, entertaining and occasionally uber-quibbly lead dance critic of the New York Times, to explain his love/hate relationship with the Kirov Ballet. The Kirov, that bright and shining survivor of the isolated and inbred Soviet art world (the company is based in the royal-bubble city of St. Petersburg, now a favorite haunt of the globe-trotting old and nouveau riche, and is known on its home turf as the Mariinsky) has spent the past three weeks in residence at New York City Center, and Macaulay has been by turns enthralled and unamused.

Unamused? Downright irritated is more like it. This morning, in his review of the Kirov’s final performance in New York, Macauley gave it to the dancers squarely on the chin — a chin, he complains (and I exaggerate only a little here) that the female dancers hold so resolutely high and upwardly angular that its determined thrust makes it seem almost a fifth limb to be integrated into the five positions. “In consequence,” he writes of dancer Alia Somova’s physical relationship to her onstage lover, “she was literally looking down her nose at him. House mannerisms like this make the Kirov’s kind of classicism seem the least sensible in the world.”

Now, I haven’t seen the Kirov dance since 1999, when I was in St. Petersburg and took in a performance of Marius Petipa‘s supremely nonsensical “Le Corsaire” — a sublime performance in a blatantly showmanlike style that had been rooted out of Western ballet traditions many decades before. It was a bit like jumping into a time machine, and that was a good deal of its charm.
Continue reading The Kirov takes it on the chin

A heavy hand comes down in Sherwood

Good God, will this not cease?

While I was twiddling my thumbs Wednesday in a jury-duty pool, The Oregonian’s Maya Blackmun was breaking the story on the latest development in the Sherwood school censorship case: The school district is investigating Jennie Brown, the Sherwood Middle School drama teacher who wrote the play “Higher Ground,” which in a last-minute decision was kept off the stage by school principal Anna Pittioni.

Ironically, the play is about bullying and how to respond to it.

A few onlookers had said earlier in this running farce that the school was going after Brown and trying to get her fired. I thought that was a little melodramatic. Now it looks as if they were right.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s an old tactic, and I’ve seen it many times: the stacked deck of official procedure forcing out the card that doesn’t fit. It’s always done in private, of course, for the “protection” of the person being investigated, even if that person declares he or she has nothing to hide. In the meantime, the charge and the innuendo do a nice smear job, sometimes irreparably damaging the target’s reputation. The first time I saw it done was in the late 1960s, when a college prof I knew who was a leader in the anti-Vietnam War movement was forced out of his job. It was such a shock to his system that he became a journalist.

Continue reading A heavy hand comes down in Sherwood

Banned in Sherwood, sold out in Portland

The good news is, I couldn’t get in to Brunish  Hall Sunday afternoon to see “Higher Ground” — it was sold out. Maybe you read about it here, on the front page of Monday’s Oregonian, in another of reporter Maya Blackmun’s continuing series on the off-again, on-again production of a play about middle-school bullying that Sherwood Middle School Principal Anna Pittioni deemed too hot for her tots to handle.

It would have been nice to see this sort-of happy ending, with all the cheers for the hard work of the student performers and tekkies and their drama teacher, Jennie Brown, who wrote the script that Principal Pittioni considered too mature for some of the school’s students to deal with. (The kids in the show argued that the script actually watered down everyday reality in the halls of the Sherwood school, a typical sort of place in a typical sort of town, and, you could further argue, a reality that the typical young teen enrolled in the school is already all too familiar with.) But if I’d gotten in, someone else would have been left out (lots of us were turned away at the door), and isn’t that what every producer wants: a sold-out show?

So everybody won, and everything turned out great, right?

Well, no — and it’s important to remember that.

Continue reading Banned in Sherwood, sold out in Portland

For Sherwood kids, the show goes on — downtown

This from Maya Blackmun at The Oregonian, who’s been covering the flap over a play about bullying at Sherwood Middle School. In brief: The show’s going on, but not in Sherwood, where the school principal ordered a last-minute postponement of “Higher Ground” and said parts of the script would have to be rewritten after parents of three kids involved in the show (out of almost 50) complained about the content. The kids voted to cancel the show, which was supposed to have opened Feb. 22, instead of changing it. Art Scatter wrote about the issue on Feb. 27.

Now you can see it, the way they and their director intend it: The Portland Center for the Performing Arts has donated the center’s Brunish Hall for one performance, at 2 p.m. this Sunday, March 9. It’s free, but donations are being accepted at the door (dig into your pockets) and the kids are also collecting nonperishable food for the Loaves and Fishes lunchtime program at Sherwood Senior Center, where they’ve been rehearsing. As the rock anthem goes: The kids are alright.

— Bob Hicks

Bully pulpit: One more punch to the theatrical chops

“Why do I feel it is important to impress upon young readers their right to freedom of speech? Because so many of them don’t know they have freedom of speech. I’m not sure their peer group leaders give them freedom of speech. And I do know that the school library of the school they attend is under heavier attack than the public library just down the street. I think they are in the thick of the battle and many of them are not aware of it.”

Richard Peck
Newbery Medal-winning novelist, quoted on

If the kids at Sherwood Middle School in suburban Portland didn’t know they were in the thick of the battle, they found out with a thud last week. As Oregonian writer Maya Blackmun reported in two excellent stories — Feb. 21 on the uproar, Feb. 22 on the outcome — you can think what you say but you can’t always say what you think. At least, not from a school-sanctioned stage.

In brief: Principal Anna Pittioni postponed the winter play, “Higher Ground,” after last-minute complaints about its contents by parents of a few students involved in the show.

And that content was?

Continue reading Bully pulpit: One more punch to the theatrical chops

“At Freedom’s Door”: Novels in paint, provocations in fabric

Ropes and chains and the piercing masts of slave ships at harbor pop up as boldly as the brilliant colors that command Arvie Smith‘s paintings in the exhibition “At Freedom’s Door.” Smith’s big oils of slave auctions and lynchings and other aspects of the bleak side of antebellum life are like jam-packed chapters in a vast historical novel bursting to be told. Some of his more satiric images are reminiscent of Robert Colescott, and his brown-yellow-red palette brings to mind some of the color combinations of fellow Portland artist Isaka Shamsud-din. But in their narrative urgency, their invocation of historical moment and their sometimes quizzical snatches of story (you get the feeling that you’ve been dropped into the middle of something, but you’re not quite sure where it started, although you have a good idea where it’s likely to end) Smith’s paintings also have a novelist’s sense: They make me think of Charles Johnson and his great American slave story of the beginnings of things, “Middle Passage.”

“At Freedom’s Door,” which also includes fabric art by Baltimorean Joan Gaither and the admirable Portland artist Adriene Cruz, was originally shown last year at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum, where Smith and Gaither were artists in residence. Now in the Feldman Gallery of Pacific Northwest College of Art through March 8, it’s one of a pair of provocative exhibits in Portland noncommercial galleries that commemorate Black History Month. The other, on view through March 2 at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery, is “Working History”, which features work by such nationally notable artists as Kara Walker, Io Palmer, Faith Ringgold, Kianga Ford, David Hammons and Nick Cave.

The combination of these three artists in “At Freedom’s Door” plays a nice ping-pong in your head, knocking you back and forth among varying aspects of the African American experience. And they represent three intriguingly different artistic sensibilities.

Continue reading “At Freedom’s Door”: Novels in paint, provocations in fabric

Charmin’ “Carmen”

The thing I miss about most opera is raffishness.

You know, that music-hall, theatrical-underbelly, up-from-the-depths, cut-loose, anything-but-grand collaboration with the audience: the sly wink.

1748840-thumb.jpgWagner’s a mighty guy, but he’s no winker. Puccini’s plenty theatrical, but he wouldn’t wink if a butterfly fluttered past his eyeball. OK, Mozart winked. A lot. And I suppose you could call the elephant stomping around the stage in “Aida” a wink, but really, that’s more of a giant-size goggle.

There’s plenty of joy in the music: Listening to Leontyne Price or Maria Callas or Renee Fleming or Jessye Norman or Dawn Upshaw can transport me to places I love to visit again and again. But so often the staging (especially in the cavernous halls where most opera is performed), and the Deep Seriousness of the composition (I’m talking to you, Ring of the Nibelung guy), seem designed to dwarf the audience into a state of insignificance.

Still, I can’t help thinking things were somehow looser in opera’s early days, in those intimate Baroque halls where you didn’t need opera glasses to see the expressions on the singers’ faces, and where gilding the lily — essentially, making a virtue of the showy art of ornamental improvisation — kept things loose and lively and less High Art than living entertainment. Show biz, if you will.

So when I saw last weekend that a group called Opera Theater Oregon was presenting Georges Bizet’s glorious-sleazy “Carmen” at a downtown Portland nightclub called the Someday Lounge as live accompaniment to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 silent-movie version of the 1875 opera, I was there.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Continue reading Charmin’ “Carmen”

Second rate? Second rank? A snarky dispute


Maybe you spotted it, near the end of a generally mild-mannered editorial urging people to help pay down the debt at Portland Center Stage’s Gerding Theater at the Armory, in the Saturday, Feb. 9, Oregonian: a throwaway insult guaranteed to boil blood.

“Portland has long been recognized,” the editorialist sniped, “as a first-rate place to see second-rate theater.”

That didn’t get past Oregonian reader Mary Starrs, who replied angrily in a letter to the editor on the Tuesday, Feb. 13, op-ed page, and if the original editorial hadn’t happened to run on a Saturday, by tradition the least-read edition of any daily newspaper, it might have raised more of a ruckus.

Now, there probably isn’t a writer in history who hasn’t experienced the clever line coming back to bite him on the behind, so I’m not going to toss too many pebbles at the anonymous editorial writer: glass houses and all that. Nevertheless, this particular cute line is a big mistake in a couple of ways.

First, it muddies the main message of the editorial, which is that Portland Center Stage is still almost $11 million short on its $37 million rehab of the Armory — a troubling figure that hasn’t much budged in the past year. The whys and wherefores of the company’s inability to pay off its debt — you always want to have bricks and mortar paid for before a new museum building or performance hall opens, while there’s still some excitement about the project — are fit subject for some serious analysis, but that’s another story.

Second, if the editorial writer actually meant what he or she wrote, it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of local and regional theater. What exactly does “second-rate” mean? (And isn’t the reference to Portland as a “first-rate place” just another example of this city’s increasingly annoying habit of overestimating its own charms? — but that’s another story, too.) Continue reading Second rate? Second rank? A snarky dispute

Sculpture meltdown (not for scrap metal)

This report from my wife, Laura, who was walking in the South Park Blocks near the Portland Art Museum this morning, Tuesday, Feb. 12:

An elderly gentleman is standing beside that stern, sorrowful, loving statue of Abraham Lincoln. A bouquet of flowers is resting by the pedestal.

“Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday,” the gentleman says.

“Did you put the flowers there?” Laura asks.

“Yes,” he replies. “I do it every year.”

“Oh,” says Laura. “Let me get a picture.”

But by the time she has her cell phone out of her purse and in her hand, the gentleman has disappeared.

Now, that’s public art.

— Bob Hicks