I live 47 miles from Astoria, Oregon. It’s a lovely town at the mouth of the Columbia River, sheltered a couple miles in from the Pacific Ocean by a serious sand bar and Cape Disappointment (the name of the cape is a bit of foreshadowing).
There are three stories I want to tell you. 1) The story itself: the real life nation-building story. 2) The play about the story, which somehow totally works! 3) The Armory, the building hosting the play.
I entered the theatre with a virgin understanding of the journey about to unfold. That is, no understanding. I had learned, in the course of reading a brief synopsis while buying my tickets, that the man who financed the expedition to found Astoria was John Jacob Astor. And in that way, two weeks ago, I learned how the town got its name. That should illustrate the level of not knowing the story I’m talking about.
Over the next 3 hours I began to realize it’s a *monumental* story of how my part of the North American continent became the United States instead of Russian territory, or British, or Canadian. Before the play I could tell you more about the founder of the McDonald’s franchise than I could about the early explorers of Oregon, because we are products of what we’re fed through media. Why oh why aren’t we fed the good and healthy stuff?
The play is based on the book by the same name, written by Peter Stark. It’s set mostly in 1810. Astor was a wealthy German immigrant who wanted to become more wealthy by capitalizing on the fabulous otter pelts that rumor had it were there for the taking on the Pacific Coast. From his home in New York City, Astor arranged for two separate approaches to the Columbia River: one by land and one by sea. Back then, the sea route was by way of Cape Horn, Chile. Remarkably, the sailors got there first. The time pressure is a plot point, since whomever establishes the first trading post will control the fur markets on the west coast and will certainly have access to the most wealth. Astor is constantly fretting about news that the French might beat him to the prize.
Hundreds of people joined his expeditions, including men from Scotland, Hawaii, Quebec, Ireland, and England who joined the original Americans on the teams. And original, original Americans (indigenous people) contributed further to the survival of those who did make it to the destination. Because yes, many people died along the way, including the two Hawaiians who froze to death trying to cross the bar into the Columbia River. They were not the only men who died at the bar, in the shadow of Cape Disappointment. Remember I said “foreshadowing?”
What’s remarkable, and irresistible, about this story, is how much went spectacularly wrong. Many people died by accident, and some were killed. Two went insane. Often people fought with each other, and hated each other. Miraculous are the repeated incidences of survival in the snow, survival from starving, survival from drowning, from raging ocean storms. Though catastrophes don’t always result, there was always a threat: of mutiny, getting lost, scalped, abandoned.
Chris Coleman, the artistic director, pulled off magic with that stage. One set, mind you – with occasional backdrops – conveyed a ship on the open sea, or a wealthy fur-merchant’s home, or a frontier fort, or a camp in steep mountains, beside a creek. We got up close and personal with four people rowing a boat, we listened to quiet conversation among the bunks below deck of the ship, we huddled close to the fire and tried not to feel hungry while a trapper told a story, we gasped in despair when three provisioned boats smashed and were lost in a river, and we watched while travelers reluctantly slid from their horses to continue on foot. All one set, and it worked. Like I said: magic.
Scenes with all actors on the deck of the ship were convincing partly because everyone swayed in unison with the waves. We soon learned that tables can be anything, often boats. I enjoyed the artistic creativity throughout, such as when Astor meets with three potential leaders of the excursions. All three are on stage at the same time, in points making a triangle. As each one leaves the meeting with Astor, they rotate until another is before Astor.
More magic: 16 members of the cast! Just imagine how many people you would need to portray the multiple journeys (one by sea with all the crew to run a ship, the overland party split into two, and still Astor remained in New York), and then imagine only 16 people bringing it to life. It’s a tribute to the quality of the actors that they were able to pull this off, switching back and forth between dramatically different characters, such as when Leif Norby starts as John Jacob Astor but becomes a crusty, bearded Frontiersman Edward Robinson, and back and forth. DeLanna Studi is introduced as Astor’s elegant wife, then becomes a pregnant Indian woman, then switches back. The accents switched from thick Scottish to Kentucky backwoods to prim English to French to German. Wow! I’ll interject my only criticism here: impressed as I am by the ability of the actors to do this, it was distracting to look into their faces and recognize other characters. This was amplified because I was in the front row and so close I could discern crow’s feet. I think at a distance it would not have been such a problem for me.
Action never stopped, and even the slow moments were tense or foreboding. In real life the years-long journey was a grueling series of hardships day after day, but on stage the successes and catastrophes rode each other’s heels, barely allowing an audience-member’s heart to settle in between. Amidst the hardest times in life, humans manage to find a way to laugh at their circumstances, and thus we had a not insignificant number of funny moments, such as when a couple of Frenchmen gazing at sharp mountain peaks began comparing them to breasts (“Grand teton” is large breasts, in French, and we can only imagine our travelers must have been in Wyoming about then).
Surprisingly, there was a lot of singing, though it was not a musical. I found this to be very effective support to enriching the scenes, helping us to be back in time with the actors, and helping us to understand the cultures blending on stage. One funny example was during a scene with many people rowing a boat and singing to keep the cadence. It was one of those classic tunes that multiple countries claim, with their own lyrics, and the rowers from different lands were competing for which was the “correct” version of the song, with good-natured and rowdy aggression, singing louder and louder like sports fans arguing over favourite teams.
At long last the overland parties reunite and find the Columbia River (though not yet its mouth). Captain Thorn sends enough sailors to the bar that eventually some of them live to find the entrance into the river. And that’s the end of part one! We have to wait until Portland Center Stage presents next year’s performances, to find out what happens in the end. In the meantime, I’m going to read the book.
I mentioned earlier that the performance was about 3 hours, but that includes a nice long intermission halfway through. Before the show I had admired some of the structure of the old brick building, called the Armory, and at intermission I investigated further.
The brick structure appears castle-like from the street, but it’s hard to get a good look at it because it’s downtown in the Pearl District and surrounded by tall buildings. Inside, I saw that the entire expanse is open: no support beams the length of it. There are two levels, but the second level is merely a balcony, a mezzanine level, that surrounds the open lobby with places to sit and chat, or look out the window. So I looked out the windows, which are bonafide rifle slits – glassed in and wood-framed, ha ha – leaving no doubt about the military origins of the building. I walked right up and put my hands on the bricks. Something about touching something helps me connect to the proper time and place to understand it.
So many bits were intriguing to me that I had questions about its construction, and sought out the concierge. I asked for an information brochure.
“We have a book, if you want,” he said. “It’s a regular, bound book, all about this building. We give them to people who are particularly interested.”
It was the most serendipitous outcome of a random question that I’ve had in some time. The man walked off, and returned moments later holding a large, gorgeous, illustrated, full-colour, 192-page book about how a crumbling and abandoned former military armory became a modern theatre. In fact, that’s the name of the book: “Voices of the Armory: A Chronicle of the Transformation of a 19th century icon into a 21st century theater.”
“Here you go!” he said, obviously pleased to hand it over. “It’s free! I think you’ll love it. I have one and I love it.”
The show was originally supposed to run through February 12th, but was so successful that the run was extended. If you are in Portland, you can still see it, and you should! Look for it at https://www.pcs.org/ Tickets are available through February 19th.