A holiday compendium: in dark times, a triumph of artistic light
I read the news today, oh boy. It’s a compulsion begun in childhood with the sports and comics pages of broadsheet newspapers (Duke Snider! Alley Oop!) and expanded, as I grew older, into the full range of world events and a long career inside the sausage factory of the newsgathering game. Rarely has the news looked more bleak or fragile than it does today: who knows where that latest piece of Internet-amplified information came from, or whether it was invented by fierce partisans out of outsourced whole cloth, without a whiff of objectivity or credibility? Truth becomes the loudest voice; the loudest voice becomes the truth. Oh boy, indeed.
Hardly a time, it would seem, for visions of sugarplums. And yet, as the holidays roar into their inescapable month of triumph (if there’s a “war on Christmas,” its battlefields seem to be in places like Walmart and Macy’s and Amazon) I find myself, once again, comforted by the beauty and ritual of the season’s quiet core. At our house we have our own holiday rituals, including a strict paternal ban on pulling out the Christmas CDs before Thanksgiving, a ruling that is regularly and gleefully broken by the better natures of the household, who know a sucker when they see one. Lately, having once again acquiesced to the inevitable, I’ve been listening to an old favorite, “Christmas in Eastern Europe,” from the Bucharest Madrigal Choir.
I understand my friends who feel, often rightly, oppressed by the season: the nonreligious, those of other faiths, the ones embittered by the failures and provocations of religion or the crass commercialization of the enterprise, those who are simply too distressed by current events to allow themselves to let down their guards for just a little bit. For me this season of diminishing nature, with its beguiling jumble of Christian tradition and cultural fragments of ancient pagan solstice celebrations, offers something valuable far beyond its jollified commercial face: at the nadir, when the trunks and branches are stripped bare, a promise and reminder of life.
That’s certainly where A Civil War Christmas, the new musical drama from Artists Repertory Theatre and Staged!, comes in: a reimagined historical investigation of the roots and causes of a divided nation at the time of its deepest trauma, set on the eve of the holiday in 1864 and peopled by citizens high and low, from Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln to escaping slaves to freed black citizens to racist raiders and even the nefarious John Wilkes Booth. That Artists Rep’s production freely mixes its black and white and brown performers into race-specific roles, a bit like Hamilton, furthers the sense of the vital mix that makes up America, and deepens the empathy, and the sense that, however fractured we may be, we’re all in this together. It seems a play for our own rancorous and perilous times, and for this season in particular. Intimate personal stories may be folded into a larger cultural story out of anyone’s control, and yet there is hope. Look for A.L. Adams’ ArtsWatch review soon.
In Portland as elsewhere artistic expressions of the season are multitudinous, ranging from the frivolous to the profound. ArtsWatch’s writers have been out and about, reporting on the rush of holiday events. Christa Morletti McIntyre has discovered uplift down in the depths of Barbra Streisand’s basement at Triangle Productions (The Buyer, the Cellar, and Babs) and at a lively and lovely musical revue at Broadway Rose (Yes, Virginia, there IS a good holiday musical). A.L. Adams has rounded up a surprise package of offbeat offerings, from a circus Christmas to a bellydance potluck (Out There: Holiday Edition), and the bittersweet delicacy of love and ambition in a shop around the corner at Bag&Baggage (Parfumerie’s clerks take a personal inventory). Martha Ullman West has reveled in the sprightly spectacle of John Clifford’s ballet about dancing toys at The Portland Ballet (Enchanted Toy Shop, all Gift Boxed).
And much more is to come. Among the season’s potential highlights are PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s reprise of Black Nativity, Langston Hughes’s masterful 1961 gospel song-play, opening Friday. Also opening Friday is Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, the musical biography of the great American songwriter who composed the nation’s iconic Christmas and Easter songs, White Christmas and Easter Parade, though he himself was Jewish (and born in Russia). It’s at Portland Center Stage, where on the same night the droll actor Darius Pierce once again dons a department-store elf outfit for another run of David Sedaris’s Santaland Diaries.
Then there are the fantasies, the shows meant to take us out of ourselves and open new possibilities, which this December in particular, when old possibilities seem to have played themselves out, might be a very good idea. Probably the biggest fantasy on tap is Imago Theatre’s eagerly awaited La Belle: Lost in the Automaton, a vivid retelling of Beauty and the Beast by the people behind the visually enchanting mime-and-mask show Frogz, this time featuring puppetry, shadow theater, song & dance, and more. It opens December 9. Opening this Saturday at Northwest Children’s Theater and School, which knows a thing or two about producing family musicals, is The Wizard of Oz, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version. And dropping into Schnitzer Hall Dec. 22-24 as part of the Broadway in Portland series is the traveling spectacle Cirque Dreams Holidaze. It’s from a Florida-based aerial and acrobatic company, not part of Canada’s Cirque du Soleil.
What, of course, is The Nutcracker but a giant holiday fantasy? Oregon Ballet Theatre’s annual production of the classic George Balanchine version runs Dec. 1-26 at Keller Auditorium. Tchaikovsky’s marvelous score is a work of spun sugar and steel, and the story as the ballet tells it is a confectionery metaphor for a child’s view of Christmas: the adventures of the first act like the adrenaline rush of Christmas Eve, the gaudy divertissements after intermission like the opening of presents on Christmas morning. Time to recapture a little innocence.
Christmas Revels has become a salutary Portland tradition, circling the globe in song and dance and mummery, with a lot of audience singing of carols to boot. This year’s version, Commedia Italiana, is built around a loose story about a Renaissance doge of Venice who runs away to join a commedia dell’arte troupe. There are far worse things a doge could do. It runs Dec. 16-21 at St. Mary’s Academy downtown, and tickets do go fast.
Milagro Theatre’s Posada Milagro, which will have two performances on Dec. 13, is an engaging family celebration of Latin American traditions centered on the story of Mary and Joseph’s search for refuge and featuring music, dance, storytelling, and arts & crafts projects for kids. This promises to be a congenial gathering.
And little says Christmas more deeply and movingly than Handel’s “Messiah,” even though it was written as an Easter celebration. Something about this music is both firmly anchoring and spiritually liberating: It’s a transcendent work of solace and power. Portlanders will have at least two opportunities to hear it this season, in the wonderful collaboration between Portland Baroque Orchestra and the choir Cappella Romana (Dec. 9-12 in downtown’s lovely First Baptist Church), and from Portland Chamber Orchestra and Resonance Ensemble (Dec. 14-18 at various locations). Portland Baroque Orchestra will also perform the Bach Magnificat, written for Christmas vespers, along with some Bach cantatas and Telemann’s concerto for three trumpets, on Dec. 15 at Trinity Episcopal. Sometimes, it’s good to drink deep from the well.
Check the schedules (there are plenty of other holiday shows, too), decide what sounds appealing, and make your plans – even if your plans are to resolutely sit the season out and wait for January. Good luck, good listening, and please excuse me now. I need to put on another Christmas CD.