Death, sex and money featured prominently on Portland stages in 2014. So did punk rock, kitty litter and confetti. The year's top theater and dance shows embraced raw emotion—several gave our tear ducts a workout—but they also knew when to party. Here are our picks for the best of 2014.
1. The Piano Lesson (Portland Playhouse)
Portland Playhouse is more than halfway through August Wilson's 10-play Century Cycle, and this electrifying production, directed by Kevin Jones, reinvigorated the project. Set in 1936, as the Great Migration sent waves of blacks north, the show had all the emotional resonance, folksy humor and rhythmic musicality Wilson demands. By play's end, I felt as haunted as the characters themselves.
2. One Flea Spare (Shaking the Tree)
If there's one show I wish I'd seen twice this year, it's this one. Naomi Wallace's play, about a plague-ravaged London, is both textually dense and sexually visceral, and this production was plenty unsettling—but also far more rollicking than you'd ever imagine a stint in quarantine could be. Credit goes to director Samantha Van Der Merwe, who produces some of the most mesmerizing and thoughtful work in town, and to the unwavering commitment of the actors, particularly Matthew Kerrigan and Jacklyn Maddux. And props to David Bodin, who played dead for an absurdly long stretch of time.
3. All the Sex I've Ever Had (Mammalian Diving Reflex)
OK, OK—this one isn't strictly local. It was produced by the Toronto-based Mammalian Diving Collective during the Time-Based Art Festival, but the cast was exclusively Portland (unlike several productions on this list that featured out-of-town actors). The show, essentially a chronological recounting of the sex lives of the five performers—all between the ages of 66 and 76—spoke to the human condition in a way most theater can only dream of. I laughed. I cried. And I spilled way too much of my own sexual history afterward.
4. A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff (Alicia Jo Rabins)
Probably the best experimental song cycle about financial corruption ever created, Alicia Jo Rabins' one-woman show blurred the line between theater and concert: She employed spoken word, live violin, electronic effects and abstract projections to explore the intersection of finance and spirituality. The end effect was to make the Bernie Madoff scandal both entrancing and enlightening.
5. Lizzie (Portland Center Stage)
Once in a while, the biggest theater company in town tosses its heft behind something truly delicious—like this boisterous rock opera, which imagined ax murderer Lizzie Borden as a foot-stomping hellion, and unfolded with lots of primordial wails and power stances. The punky anthems of rebellion and revenge remained in my head long after the final ax dropped.
Runners-up: Middletown (Third Rail Repertory), The Three Sisters (Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble), The Caretaker/The Homecoming (Imago Theatre), Masque of the Red Death (Shaking the Tree).
1. Director's Choice (Northwest Dance Project)
Portland's scrappy chamber company was on top of its game for its April show of greatest hits, Director's Choice. The company, which turned 10 this year, brought energy and drama, and the dancers stuck the choreography with confidence. The standout piece, A Fine Balance, featured Andrea Parson and Viktor Usov (both Princess Grace Award winners) in a tumultuous duet around a table and chair. Chaotic and seductive, the show was testament to the company's longevity, and created new fans. And if you missed it, you had no excuse—it was broadcast live on the side of a downtown building.
2. Reveal (Oregon Ballet Theatre)
The first season for OBT artistic director Kevin Irving was a journey of artistic buzzwords—Dream, Create, Celebrate—but the climax was naturally his big Reveal. Irving cleverly straddled a line between old and new, reprising fan favorites and adding a dash of contemporary work. In the case of Bolero, a contemporary piece choreographed by Irving's partner, Nicolo Fonte, for the company in 2008, it was like Irving had always been there. For its reprise, he ushered in the towering Artur Sultanov, former OBT principal, to dance with Alison Roper in her farewell season. Roper had her final bows several months later, but here her dancing was at its most ebullient, and the company's direction was clear.
3. Hummingbird (Linda Austin)
One of the most entertaining shows of the year was a fundraiser for Allie Hankins' fantastic Like a Sun That Pours Forth Light but Never Warmth. Among the acts—drag queen Pepper Pepper doing a death drop and Luke Gutgsell climbing into a pair of pants with his boyfriend—was Hummingbird, a then-in-progress work by performance-art pro Linda Austin. In the funny and personal piece, she poked fun at herself as an aging cat lady—thrashing about to chants of "60 is the new 40," and repeatedly reciting a grocery list while smacking herself on the head with a fan: "kale, quinoa, cat food, kitty litter...gin." Performance art can sometimes zip right over your head, but Hummingbird landed, and it resonated. AARON SPENCER.
1. Eleven (Elevate)
Elevate, a new company that unites classically trained and street dancers, came storming out of the gates in its debut performance. The evening-length show featured 11 pieces that drew from hip-hop, modern and ballet to explore a range of emotions—joy, exhilaration, remorse. The depth of feeling and level of dedication were remarkable: In Complicated, a real-life broken-up couple danced the heartbreakingly relatable story of their final days together. (Next time, they should hand out tissues to weeping audience members.) The final vibrant number, which soared along to Explosions in the Sky's "The Only Moment We Were Alone," left the 12 dancers—and all of us—breathless and hopeful.
2. OBT 25 (Oregon Ballet Theatre)
A 25th anniversary is a big one, and OBT threw a fantastic party to celebrate, complete with live music, confetti and a surprisingly touching moment under a disco ball. The technique here was as poised and practiced as we've come to expect from the state's premier ballet company, but it was the cheerful mood that made the show. Recently retired principal ballerina Alison Roper returned for Christopher Stowell's Carmen, handily portraying the manipulative titular character, and Xuan Cheng and Michael Linsmeier performed an exhilarating pas de deux set to Fleet Foxes' soaring harmonies. And the final minutes topped it all off, with a handful of dancers playing snare drums to Pink Martini's live score, their grins jovial and infectious. KAITIE TODD.