ASTORIA Adapted by Chris Coleman at Portland Center Stage
If you’re setting sail on the perilous journey of adapting a long historical drama for the stage, particularly one that tries to deal with the glorious (or not) story of America’s early days, you should be very familiar with two examples from the genre that define a spectrum of possible outcomes.
On one end, HAMILTON, the international juggernaut that breathes life into history by using forms and multi ethnic bodies of the present. On the other, RED, WHITE AND BLAINE, the show staged inside of the film WAITING FOR GUFFMAN that has become a defining reference for amateur community theatre and (more subtly) oblivious historical white washing of what life on the merry frontier was like.
A lot of pixels could be spilled trying to explain what’s wrong with ASTORIA, the excruciating recitation of moment by moment facts in the familiar “white men cross continent/ocean, find heap of troubles” narrative (AMAZING BUT TRUE!) now playing at Portland Center Stage. But with the country and world being in the state they are, it just doesn’t seem worth the time or effort to treat such a trivial, small town puffball with much energy.
Suffice it to say that Chris Coleman’s grand vision of the retelling of the 1810 Astoria expedition suffers a double whammy: It’s not a very interesting story, and it’s told badly. The real problem here is the framing, and reading Coleman’s program intro immediately sends up a red flag there’s trouble ahead.
In a kind of mirror origin story to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, we learn, PCS patrons recommended that Coleman might enjoy a read through Peter Stark’s “thrilling, true-adventure tale” (Amazon bio) “Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier”. He plunged in and became hooked on the real life swashbuckling of French Canadian trappers, British botanists and New York plutocrats (OMG! THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED!).
In ASTORIA we are regaled with the hardships of nature (HOW DEEP THE SNOW! HOW HIGH THE MOUNTAINS! HOW BIG THE BUFFALOS!) and the indomitable hope and spirit of well-meaning Europeans fighting through it all, hell bent on extirpating the flora, fauna and natives in the betterment of mankind. Er, I mean, establishing a munificent outpost of civilization on the Pacific coast…
But where’s the insight, the dramatic tension, the understanding or art that justifies why this is worth our time or money? Where’s the horror and pain of real American dramas like THE KENTUCKY CYCLE? It gets lost between French peasant dances and deafening declamations of what is happening on stage by bearded, brow-knotted pilgrims.
Coleman’s note that Stark “had another 400 pages of research he could have included” in this book highlights the problem here: understanding the difference between things that happened and important details. Do we need to know every single minute of the journey?
And the words people say. This did not come from the book, so it must be all Coleman. There is enough wood in the dialogue to furnish a fleet of ships to round Cape Horn (IN A FEARFUL STORM!). There is no poetry, no character and nothing remotely resembling how real people talk. This is the land of historical people talk: cliche, anachronism, overstated obviousness. The language is in step with the exaggerated deliveries and hammed up scowls at the audience.
Most puzzling of all, this feels like a play that could have been written 50 or 100 years ago. There is no touch of the post modern or any sensibility at odds with a 1940’s 4th of July Parade in small town white America anywhere. It’s hard to imagine a multi cultural audience in London, New York or Chicago sitting still for more than 15 minutes of this pablum – unless it were turned into the Guffmanesque sendup it teeters mere inches away from at times. Now that would be fun.
But in its present state ASTORIA could play quite well to high schools in towns like Blaine – anywhere white bread citizens are interested in “history”.
For such a huge undertaking, there’s a disappointing inability here to say anything insightful about the nature of empire, whether in 1810 America or today. That’s the difference between ASTORIA and many much better epic history plays (such as those regularly launched down the road at OSF in Ashland). ASTORIA remains trapped in a heroic golly gee history mode (THEY ATE HARDTACK!). Whereas good plays turn down the slapstick and examine what really happened. ASTORIA is quintessential small town theatre’s idea of puttin’ on a big show. The only thing that is missing in the lobby is red, white and blue banners with “ASTORIA!” on them.
The good news? People are coming and buying tickets. And at this point anything PCS can do to limit the need to hit up Portland’s tax payers for millions more in public bailout funds to keep the boondoggle Armory project afloat deserves five stars.