Monday, January 30, 2017

Astoria, Part One—Portland Center Stage—Pearl District

“How the (North) West Was Won”

This World Premiere of historic events in the Northwest, is adapted and directed by Chris Coleman (PCS’s Artistic Director) and based on a book by Peter Stark.  It is playing at their space in the Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave., through February 12th (parking can be a challenge in this area, so plan your time accordingly).  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-445-3700.

This is a story I knew little of, although my friend, Dave, who came with me, was all fired up to see it, as he did know something of this amazing tale.  If you thought Lewis & Clark had an amazing journey (and they did) well, “you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!”  I’m sure everybody has heard of John Jacob Astor of fur-trading fame but did you know that Astoria, OR was named after him and for good reason.  It seems that Astor (Leif Norby) and his wife, Sarah (DeLanna Studi), were German immigrants and, since our country, as we know it today, was settled by immigrants (current political leadership party take notice) who saw this United States as a Land of Opportunity, they ventured to carve out a piece of it for themselves.

Although Astor’s original intent was to make his fortune selling musical instruments to the populace, he was eventually persuaded to take on bigger projects.  Among other things he imported and sold tea, bought real estate, but finally decided that even more possibilities lay to the West in trading of furs.  So he organized an expedition to go to the furthest point West of the U. S., the Columbia River, as he felt it was still unspoiled territory.  But there was some questions as to whether a so-called Northwest Passage actually existed that extended the breath of this nation.  So he hired various nationalities including French Canadians, Scots, Irish, Brits, Native Americans, et. al. and even, at a later point, Hawaiians.

He hired one expedition to go by ship around South America led by Capt. Thorn (Ben Rosenblatt), a stern naval commander and his first mate, Fox (Chris Murray), a gentler sort.  The differing nationalities often clashed, especially the hot-headed, hot-blooded Scot, McDougall (Gavin Hoffman) with his band of men including Mackenzie (Jeremy Aggers), McTavish (Nick Ferrucci), Stuart (F. Tyler Burnet) and Angus (Christopher Salazar).  Many trials would be in store for this team including alien ships that threatened them, storms, lack of food/water, mutinous behavior, desertion, and loss of life, as the attempted to discover a way in to the channel when reaching the Columbia River.

The other team was led by the businessman, Wilson Price Hunt (Shawn Fagan), uneasy as the leader of the pack, who was to traverse Westward by land on foot, horseback and canoes.  He had a French-Canadian trapper/scout, Pierre (Brandon Contreras) and his wife, Marie (Studi, again), a Native American, who often served as a translator when dealing with the native tribes.  Among his group are Ramsay (Benjamin Tissell) his friend and confidant, McKay (Christopher Hirsh), a writer, and others (Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Michael Morrow Hammock, and Ben Newman), that double for both ship and land crew.  Both trips are frought with danger, excitement, death, humor, music and song and a sense of wonderment.

A cast of 16 is portraying over 40 roles, much like their rendition of Dickens’ Great Expectations, all played on one set and enlisting the audience’s aid in imagining the settings.  The style is very much like story-telling, in which the actors not only play individual but multiple characters but also do much of the narration as well.  Personally, I like this type of theatre, as it has the viewer enlisting their imagination in processing the story.  That way it becomes more real to you, as you have put something of yourself into the mix.  And they are a terrific ensemble!  Norby is a mainstay in many shows around town and is again good in this.  Hoffman, also, has been seen in many local shows and is always worth watch.  And, a personal note, I reviewed Studi in OSF’s “Osage County” some time ago and she was great in that.  She is the niece of the fine film actor, Wes Studi, and obviously has talent in her blood for acting.  She, again, is definitely worth watching, also.

Coleman has done an outstanding job of bringing this epic story to life (and, remember, this is only Part One).  His use of space to tell the tale and casting and developing the story so that it is always clear as to who’s who and what’s happening, is a tribute to his skill as an artist.  And he, with his amazing designers, Scenic, Tony Cisek; Lighting, Diane Ferry Williams; and Costumes, Toni-Leslie James have done justice both to the book and history, as it’s now a living testament to the courage, stamina, and power of people who strive to expand knowledge of our ever-changing, ever-challenging, world.

I recommend this play.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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