Review: ASTORIA at Portland Center Stage is a wooden, pre-modern melodrama about heroic white men battling the wilderness – minus Eugene Levy

ASTORIA Adapted by Chris Coleman at Portland Center Stage


Thru February 19, 2017

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.

Astoria at Portland Center Stage
“How high a ridge I could not tell.” Eugene Levy could make ASTORIA really fun.
Continue reading “Review: ASTORIA at Portland Center Stage is a wooden, pre-modern melodrama about heroic white men battling the wilderness – minus Eugene Levy”

Another show, another half off fire sale at PCS

Fire sale on Goldstar. PCS tickets are always 50% off.
Fire sale on Goldstar. PCS tickets are always 50% off.

Whatever it is you sell, training your audience not to buy unless there’s a 50% off sale going is not good business.

What you want to be is a brand like Apple, where people line up around the block and clamor to buy cell phones for $1000 a piece.

Of course, to get people to pay full or premium price takes skill. You have to have a good product on offer. And you have to know how to market it.

So why does a place like Portland Center Stage have a permanent half off sale going for any show? To marketers with half a brain, this simply cannibalizes the market. Why would you subscribe to a theatre season if you know you can always get tickets for close to free last minute? If you keep an eye on Goldstar, you know that if there’s a show on at PCS, tickets will be in the booth for 50% off all the time. Simply being listed in the company of this show graveyard is not good for the brand.

Why does PCS do this? Why can’t PCS sell tickets for $100 a pop like Oregon Shakespeare Festival? ¬†Why can’t PCS sell tickets for more than about $25? Is it because the shows are no good? That’s part of it. But part of it may simply be that they have trained people to think that theatre isn’t worth much. And having picked up on that theme, now PCS and other large theatres without unique brands are in a pickle. Also, as theatres become ever more detached from actual ticket sales, the important metrics to show funders and foundations are attendance. No one seems to care if a theatre is in the red. But if an argument can be made that the theatre is “serving the community”, well then it seems like it’s worth subsidizing.

Of course it costs money to put on shows in a place like PCS, with all the absurd overhead and unions. So if tickets go for cheap to the end consumer, who makes up the difference? You do, my dear People’s Republic of Portland comrade. It’s one bail out after another, via PDC or arts tax, to keep the leviathan of PCS afloat.

In the real world this ship would have been scuttled long ago. But she keeps drifting along, practically giving away tickets while receiving zillions of dollars in grants to help leadership “find an audience”.

News flash: There’s not much of an audience for the kind of mediocre fare PCS loves. But make the best of it. At least if you have to go to shows there, you know it won’t cost much.


If it doesn't cost much, it isn't worth much. Surprise. The next show at PCS is going for next to nothing on Goldstar.
If it doesn’t cost much, it isn’t worth much. Surprise. The next show at PCS hasn’t even started yet and it’s going for next to nothing on Goldstar.

It could happen here | Seattle Rep shows America’s largest regional theatres are vulnerable

The theatre is dead. Long live the theatre.

If there’s anything constant in the besieged world of the performing arts, it’s that the theatre is always dying and yet always being reborn – usually at the same time. On any given day, data points can be found to support either trajectory. It can be quite perplexing to figure out what is really going on.

On the one hand, Broadway (and Oregon’s homegrown version of Broadway – OSF) is booming. On the other, white bread, flagship regional theatres are teetering. In between, innovative projects and companies that create authentic experiences for the audience and take on real issues are generally doing well. In the current landscape, small is beautiful, and big – unless you really know what you’re doing – can be deadly.

Big works if you’re the National Theatre, Lincoln Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But if you’re big and don’t know how to create work appropriate to the largest of stages – big can be a sentence of doom. The imperative becomes: FILL THE SEATS.

At all levels, theatre artists who know how to create good work are attracting audiences. Meanwhile entrenched bureaucracies more about employing former theatre artists in admin jobs where they yammer on about “developing audiences” and “outreach” (when what the audience wants instead are unforgettable live experiences) are kept alive only by tax subsidies and largesse from 1% donor types. Tickets are often sold for next to nothing at these theatres.

As a close to home example of the syndrome, Portlanders already know about the leviathan, mostly uninteresting Portland Center Stage, which only still exists today because the city (which never met an arts tax it didn’t like) has funneled millions of dollars toward the fortress-like boondoggle in the Pearl over the years. Hey, it’s not like Portland needs the money for schools or roads. Given the sheer quantity of public greenbacks that have been been set aflame down at PCS, maybe the theatre’s tag line should be updated to “telling stories at unexpected cost”. PCS spends a huge amount of money, but by and large Portland gets unexceptional franchised art of the same flavor you could get anywhere. In a Portland of internationally known brands, products and technologies, PCS has failed to put the city on the map in any meaningful way when it comes to theatre.

By contrast, one need only look across the street to the reputation and success of PICA’s annual TBA festival to see what can be done on the world performance stage with vision and leadership. Or a little farther south down I-5 to the lil’ hamlet of Hamlet, where under AD Bill Rauch OSF has become a major launch pad for new plays – and Broadway.

Continue reading “It could happen here | Seattle Rep shows America’s largest regional theatres are vulnerable”

“mediocre adaptation… with uninspired direction” | The Oregonian slams CYRANO at Portland Center Stage

Well, it figures. Right after we shoot our mouth off about how the O is no longer capable of writing negative reviews – along comes a zinger. Just goes to show that hope springs eternal.

Carol Wells wades in old school style from word 1 on the wheel of cheese that is CYRANO at Portland Center Stage.

All we can say in response to a salty review from the paper of record of a fragrant-pile-of-cheese-of-a-show on the city’s largest (and most expensive and tax payer-subsidized) stage:


Can I get a witness?

“In the midst of a Portland theater renaissance rightfully giddy with its own vitality, it is especially disappointing to see a directorial vision as lacking in originality and excitement as the one Jane Jones brings to Portland Center Stage’s current production of CYRANO.”


Meanwhile, you know what WOULD be a truly enjoyable experience?

A standup routine by Lauren Weedman on how absurdly boring and old-fashioned this CYRANO is. Serious gold waiting to be prospected here, folks.

Lauren, this may be your next show. Just not one you can do at PCS…

Meanwhile, tired of the corn and cheese that passes for theatre at PCS, despite almost unlimited subsidies from Portland’s taxpayers?

Start speaking up: #PCSTimeForAChange

For the amount of money Portland has spent on this white elephant leviathan we should have a world class theatre that draws people from around the world.

Instead, we are served up CYRANO, SANTALAND DIARIES and TWIST YOUR DICKENS for the zillionth time in a row, TV stars, etc.

If artistic leadership at PCS doesn’t know how to create durable, original, important theatre that will bring in paying audiences, it’s time to hand the wheel to someone who does.


The sound of one hand clapping
The sound of one hand clapping.

Waiting for Guffman – I mean CYRANO | 5 Useless Degrees: “incredibly dull”

Even though 5 Useless Degrees are no longer doing reviews in their radio show, that doesn’t mean they can’t post a few thoughts on shows they see.

Eric Kilgore threw himself on the landmine that is CYRANO over at PCS and had this to say:

“This production is so vapid and lifeless that I was trying to figure out how I could extract myself from my center seat after less than 10 minutes.”

I totally agree.

But I’m such a masochist I saw it twice somehow. Actually 1 1/2 times.

If you must go, remember you can ALWAYS get a $20 rush ticket for main stage PCS shows just beforehand. The second night I went after opening the theatre was about half full.

If you build it and spend way too much, they’ll come and we’ll still lose millions – sound good? | PDC (and thus you, my faire citizen) prepares to up ante on Portland Center Stage Armory debt forgiveness to $4 million

It’s a good thing that many Portlanders wax grandiloquent at the drop of a beret about how precious art is and how much value it creates and how much it’s worth to them and how it should be supported by the government and even special taxes if needed.

Because according to a story in today’s Oregonian, Stumptown citizens are getting ready to watch their already significant subsidy for Portland Center Stage’s goliath Armory building tick up yet another $2 million in the form of additional debt forgiveness from the PDC. That’s on top of the $2 million the PDC forgave back in June. Who knows what the net number to date is of total public resources spent on the ill-conceived Titanic project. But it’s obviously north of $4 million.

There’s a much, much bigger story here that someone needs to write, one that goes all the way back to Vera Katz, and with luck real journalists are working on it. In a nutshell, the fantasy of what art is worth, and the soft spot developers have for empire building and “citadels”, as Mike Daisey calls them, are grinding across the reef of financial reality. And if people won’t pay what it costs in the form of buying tickets, who picks up the difference? Apparently the taxpayers.

Continue reading “If you build it and spend way too much, they’ll come and we’ll still lose millions – sound good? | PDC (and thus you, my faire citizen) prepares to up ante on Portland Center Stage Armory debt forgiveness to $4 million”