Tag Archives: Portland Center Stage

‘Apollo’ and ‘Vitriol’: New plays, old obsessions on stage

The big buzz this week on Portland’s art scene is Friday’s official kickoff of Fertile Ground, a citywide festival of new plays big, small and in between. The sheer ambition of this thing is impressive and endearing and a little scary: How ever will we manage to get to all this stuff?

Well, we won’t.

But we did get a head start over the weekend, taking in last Friday’s opening night of Nancy Keystone’s gigantic Apollo at Portland Center Stage and, on Saturday night, a preview performance of the new and improved Vitriol and Violets, this time with songs and lyrics by the astute and clever jazz composer and pianist Dave Frishberg.

In the theater world “new” plays almost always emerge out of a long process, and both of these have, well, a little history behind them, in a couple of senses. Keystone’s been playing with Apollo for eight years, and its first two acts have been produced before, in Los Angeles. Act Three, funded in part by Center Stage, now joins them for the first time in this new production, creating the complete play. V&V, the Algonquin Round Table play written by Shelly Lipkin, Louanne Moldovan and Sherry Lamoreaux, has also been around the block with a couple of previous work-in-progress productions. This one is the first with Frishberg’s witty songs, and it’s also undergone a lot of streamlining (a few characters have been banished to the wings) and some welcome shaping, making it feel more like a finished play — although the authors say they’re still making adjustments.

More to the point, both plays are about the American character, as measured through real historical characters and events, and both deal with the gap between the buoyant public perception and the tougher reality of the historic episodes they choose to portray.

Oddly, they go about their similar tasks from almost opposite directions.

Keystone’s Apollo is epic theater — “total theater,” this sort of thing is sometimes called — with a grandiosity that splashes wide, wide, wide and occasionally focuses down to the human particular. It comes at you in waves of choreographed sight and sound. And out of its cold sweep of history, a few vivid personalities eventually emerge.

Vitriol and Violets is far more traditional in its theatricality, reeling you in with the particular human comedy of outsize characters such as Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker and letting the history tumble out almost unannounced. Having seduced you with laughter, it doesn’t announce its more serious attentions: It quietly lowers the boom.

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Scatter gives the money tree a shake, shake, shake…

In this particular phase of the recession, which might actually be worse than a recession, all that anyone can think about is money. Cold hard cash (an expression that implies coinage, actually — I’m imagining Scrooge McDuck’s vault, where he dances a jig and tosses said coinage in the air above his head). Where was I? Yes, cold hard cash. Art Scatter is no different. We can’t help ourselves. We nervously glance at the stock market results, call to make sure our major (and imaginary) patrons are healthy and flush, concoct money-making schemes, pass out the sweaters and vow to save on electricity. And truly, NO money is involved at all in Art Scatter (we’re all about barter), but like we said, we can’t help ourselves.

So, some links to money. Not actual links to actual money, mind you…

DK Row reported that PNCA has nabbed a $500,000 Meyer Memorial Trust grant, with another $400,000 on the way from yet another foundation, part of the art school’s $32 million capital campaign, which will refurbish its building at N.W. 12th and Johnson, among many other things. It’s still $3 or $4 million short, and that doesn’t include another round of fundraising necessary to renovate the 511 Building on Broadway. Some other capital campaigns that could use a boost — Portland Center Stage’s campaign to pay for the Armory building (which was $9 million or so short, the last we heard — looking for an update here!) and P:ear’s campaign to pay for its new home at on Northwest 6th and Flanders (which needs another $1 million).

Oregon arts organizations didn’t do so well in the latest round of NEA grants, at least compared to Washington, which trounced Oregon by a 3 to 1 margin. The list of winners was supplied by colleague Scott Lewis of the Northwest Professional Dance Project, which nabbed $10 thousand. And speaking of dance, Oregon Ballet Theatre received $10k as well and White Bird found its name on a $20k check. Congrats to all and sundry.

Hey, Art Scatter’s got a Senate seat to sell! A Senate seat is worth something, Rod Blagojevich teaches us, so what are we bid? The Chicago Tribune (talk about money problems!) reports that the comedy troupe Second City is excited about the turn of events with the Illinois governor (we are NOT typing Blogojevich again… oops). It’s all about the material, honey, all about the material.

If it’s Wednesday in America, then a Shakespeare theater must be closing (Milwaukee), an opera company has joined the Tribune company in Chapter 11 (Baltimore) and they are talking about the money (and perhaps enjoying the art, too), at an art fair (Miami). Has it ever been thus? Maybe so. But we are reading the tea leaves SO intently these days.

BodyVox jumps for joy about its new home

While we’re all worrying about arts organizations going bust (let’s just hope there’s life and vitality in the Portland Jazz Festival yet) and arguing about whether the city needs a covered plaza as a gateway to the downtown arts district, let’s take time out for a spot of good news.

BodyVox has a new home.

OK, right now it’s a big old mostly empty warehouse with 1890s brick walls reminiscent of a 1970s restaurant rehab (Art Scatter happens to be fond of old brick walls and brawny posts and beams, if not necessarily hanging ferns). But Jamey Hampton, who runs the popular dance and movement troupe with his wife and fellow performer/choreographer Ashley Roland, says the space will be ready for the company’s spring show, and adds that the troupe’s architects, Portland’s BOORA, are estimating a complete makeover by next June. Well, maybe some of the office spaces won’t be quite done by then, Hampton says: Depends on the money.

Portland is a talk-big, think-small town, and that’s both bad and good. The bad part is that it supports its large organizations poorly and doesn’t really think, despite its sometimes fawning press notices, that it can play in the big leagues. The good part is that modest-sized organizations such as BodyVox have learned how to get the most bang for their buck and have an impact far beyond the size of their budgets. It’s a corrolary to our economic self-image: We define ourselves as a small-business-friendly city because we don’t have much in the way of big businesses, and then turn that into an advantage.

BodyVox’s new building, which it rolled out in a convivial tour/party late Monday afternoon, is at Northwest Northrup Street and 17th Avenue, a nice, relatively quiet urban stretch that’s tucked neatly between the Pearl District and the city’s more traditional Northwest neighborhoods. Easy to get to, relatively easy to find a parking space, and a mortgage, not a lease. Nice work if you can get it, and BodyVox did.

The building, which began life as Portland’s Wells Fargo building (the main space was for carriage storage, and there were also stables and a dormitory for the drivers) and more recently was the printing and publishing space for Corberry Press, came to BodyVox through Henry Hillman, the arts supporter, photographer, glass artist and owner of several properties. As Roland tells the story, Hillman had been advising BodyVox in its hunt for a new, bigger space, and kept pointing out the shortcomings of several possibilities: too small, not at street level, too hard to rehab. Finally, Hampton said, “Well, what about your building?” And Hillman said, “Hmmm.” Hillman keeps his glass studio next door, and as a bonus has a decent parking lot that BodyVox can use in the evenings.

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Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion Takes Root

“Remember William Carlos Williams’ description of the pioneer
women who shot their children against the wilderness like cannonballs. Do the same with your novels.”

— Nathanael West

sometimes_notion_150.jpgDismantling Paradise is hard work. Accomplishing it by proxy, such as in writing a novel, also takes its toll. Perhaps that’s why Ken Kesey abandoned the novel form after completing Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964.

He dismantled the myth of Eden at the end of the Oregon Trail.

Americans claimed Oregon, in the words of John Quincy Adams, with the promise “to make the wilderness blossom as a rose, to establish laws, to increase, multiply and subdue the earth.” But the idea that the West is a storehouse of riches to be extracted from raw wilderness, is counterpoint to that other potent myth – that the West is a natural, unspoiled Eden. Many folk long to spend their pilgrimage here in refreshing hot springs, even as money folk see the quick buck in resources, renewable or not.

As Aaron Posner’s stage adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion premieres at Portland Center Stage, and related lectures and discussions explore Kesey’s importance and place in Oregon culture, let’s recall how Kesey exposed that myth as baldly as a clearcut and covered a theme as old as Europe’s invention of America. The empire with no clothes. An empire as precarious as the Stamper house cabled and sandbagged on the brink, the river’s edge.

Here’s D. H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature:

“Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the underconsciousness so devilish. Destroy! Destroy! Destroy! Hums the underconsciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! Cackles the underconsciousness.”

And Charles Olson in Call Me Ishmael:

“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”

Olson is writing about Melville and Moby Dick, but he’s thinking of the continent and “the restless thing” that is the American in action, out to conquer that stretch of earth between oceans. “It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning.” Americans fancy themselves as democrats, “but their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.” For Olson’s Melville “it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people.”
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