A year ago, it felt like Portland theater was gearing up for the apocalypse. Along with the sobering closures of long running theaters like Sellwood's Post5, there was a sense of urgency to address the impending doom that would follow the inauguration. That desire to say something—while still struggling to process what was actually happening—manifested in strange, surreal plays that ended with more questions than they started with.
Many of the most exciting plays in the second half of the 2017-2018 theater season grapple with real events instead of moral uncertainty. Clearly, audiences have a hunger to reevaluate history through the lens of our current time. There's no better example than of that than Hamilton, which isn't included in this preview only because the tickets for all 24 of the Portland shows sold out seconds after they became available. Locally, the trend was heralded by Astoria, a two-part epic about a 1810 expedition to found a fur trading empire in Oregon. Part One premiered last winter, and remarkably, was the best selling play produced by a Portland company this year.
It would be naive to interpret that ambition as stability, but if nothing else, it's a sign of bold perseverance. Here are the five plays that we're most looking forward to for the rest of the season.
A new work written by Portland playwright E.M. Lewis, Magellanica is a five-part play about the 1985 discovery of a hole in the ozone above Antarctica. At six hours long, it's a ballsy premier—plays of that length are demanding for both the actors and the audience. As theaters struggle to remain open, Artists Rep is asking people to spend a third of their waking day in a theater. But Artists Rep had good reason to put their faith in Lewis. Her last play, The Gun Show, part one-man show, part town-hall-style discussion about gun control, proves she has a knack for conveying a clear political meaning with remarkable nuance, empathy and creativity. Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. Jan. 20-Feb. 18.
February: Astoria: Part Two
Last year, Portland Center Stage debuted a massive creation—a two-part play, stretched over two seasons. Written by Portland Center Stage's artistic director Chris Coleman, Astoria is based on Peter Stark's critically acclaimed book about the 1810 land and sea expeditions funded by John Jacob Astor, who hoped to create a fur empire mecca in Oregon. The first part, which premiered last winter, was a three-hour-long production about the perilous land expedition. It was brought to life with the thoughtful acting from every member of the huge cast, plus the superbly choreographed, edge-of-your-seat action sequences, which makes the promise of sea-faring peril in Part Two very exciting. Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., pcs.org. Jan. 20-Feb. 18.
March: Men on Boats
An interesting though unintentional counterpoint to Astoria, the 2016 play is about a 1869 expedition to map the Colorado River. But instead of casting men, New York playwright Jaclyn Backhaus' script calls for an all women crew. An open-ended experiment instead of satire, it's neither serious or totally a joke. It isn't gender commentary, or at least not in the eye-winking innuendo sense. It's brought to Portland by Third Rail, whose work thrives in conceptual grey area. Imago Theatre, SE 8th Ave., thirdrailrep.org. March 2-24.
April: A Fond Farewell
For the first time in their two decades as a company, Hand2Mouth is holding a regular season. Until now, they've forgone a predetermined schedule for the freedom to hone and reinvent each of their plays over years of workshops and touring. But so far, it doesn't seem like they're trading careful construction for regularity. Their season debut, Psychic Utopia, was a mesmerizing, abstract account of a fictional Oregon commune inspired by dozens of interviews conducted with real communes and first workshopped almost a year before its official premiere. The second show in their season has been in the works for a while, too. A Fond Farewell is an Elliott Smith tribute that reimagines his songs as a staged classical song cycle. Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St., hand2mouth.org. April 12-13.
Anytime Portland Playhouse stages an August Wilson play, you should go see it. A prolific, loyal producer of Wilson's work, Fences is the seventh of Wilson's ten play cycle that the theater has staged. But there's extra hype around Fences, considering it became the first of Wilson's plays to get adapted into a movie last year. Perhaps for that reason, Portland Playhouse has hired acclaimed director and personal friend of Wilson, Lou Bellamy, to direct their production. Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., portlandplayhouse.org. May 2-June 10.