In Play Reviews

A massive, new, American epic tale of adventure, endurance, and survival roared onto the Main Stage at Portland Center Stage last weekend. It was Astoria: Part I, the world premiere, and before it had officially opened it had surpassed all previous advance ticket sales for the company.

This is extremely good news for PCS artistic director Chris Coleman, who adapted the play from Peter Stark’s 2014 New York Times bestseller Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival. A lot was on the line for this production. In Chris Coleman’s shoes I would have felt nothing but terror –and, indeed, the word “terror” did cross the threshold of my interview this morning with the playwright/director.

L-R: Ben Rosenblatt as Captain Thorn, Leif Norby as John Jacob Astor, Ben Newman as Gabriel Franchère and F. Tyler Burnet as David Stuart in “Astoria: Part One” opened January 20 at The Armory.
Photo by Kate Szrom.

Coleman transformed a history book into a live action-adventure play that pushes the limits of most theatrical performances. Under his pen, the silent characters of Peter Stark’s book become flesh and blood, conflicted and conflicting, altogether larger than life.

Astoria Part I fills the huge tapestry that is the American West telling a story that could only happen here. In the stage version, 16 actors play 60-plus characters. In addition to the principals, there are the trappers and mountain men, Quebecois voyageurs with their raucous songs sung in polyphonic harmony, one lone woman–Marie Dorian (Delanna Studi who also plays Astor’s wife Sarah), wife of translator Pierre Dorian (Brandon Contreras), plus a handful of Scots and the sailors on Astor’s ship, Tonquin.

It is a fascinating and true story that has eluded history books. Coleman, in taking on the project, asked himself “How have I never heard of this?” Indeed, most of us who hail from these parts have never heard the story either. In 1810, German-born John Jacob Astor (Leif Norby) commissioned an expedition to follow more or less in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. His goal was domination of the North American fur trade. Thomas Jefferson (Michael Morrow Hammack) blessed the Astor expedition as a means to solidify the United States’ claim on the Oregon Territory. While this vast land west of the Mississippi had been legally purchased from the French, it was huge, wide open, and unprotected. Astor intended to set up a commercial trade center at the mouth of the Columbia River that in addition to warehousing furs, would enable trading with China for tea in exchange for European products.

All good. But when all is said and done, doesn’t this just sound like another grinding expedition with a capitalist slant?

Perhaps it would be if it hadn’t turned into such a bloody mess! Whereas the Lewis and Clark Expedition lost one member, on the Astor expedition 61 died and two went insane.

Astor hired a tyrant, Jonathan Thorn (Ben Rosenblatt) to captain the Tonquin and lead the sea expedition which was to travel around Cape Horn and up the west coast of South America and North America to the mouth of Columbia. Another unfortunate hire, Wilson Price Hunt (Shawn Fagan) proved a disaster as leader of the overland trek. If this wasn’t bad enough, both groups got seriously off course. On the one hand, Captain Thorn deprived and abused his crew, but they did end up, briefly, in Hawaii. Hunt’s unfortunate followers played directional guessing games with a mountain man of questionable usefulness named Richardson (Leif Norby). There were encounters with Indian tribes, but alas no Sacajawea to keep them out of trouble.

Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s towering set, reminiscent of the old piers of Astoria’s early days and of the pointed posts at Fort Clatsop, serves as the ship’s deck as the Tonquin’s crew pits itself against both Thorn and the forces of nature, sometimes violently. It also enables Hunt’s gang, providing mountains for them to scramble up and canyons to scramble down as they try to locate the river that will lead them to the Columbia. Special nods go to Toni-Leslie James for excellent period costumes; Diane Ferry Williams, lighting; Rick Lewis, music director/vocal arranger; and Mary McDonald-Lewis, who had her hands full coaching a large crew in several different dialects’; Matthew M. Nielson, sound designer; Randall Robert Tico, composer; John Armour, fight director; and all the other members of the crew who made this such an outstanding production.

While an excellent and engaging play from a number of perspectives, Astoria is more than just a story. It is an epic, a hero’s journey on the grand scale, that travels beyond the worldly in its test of human endurance and what people are willing or able to sacrifice. By the end of Part I, many characters are dead, and we aren’t even there yet. We hapless play-goers, must wait an entire year to find out how this all works out.

Astoria Part I runs through February 19 at Portland Center Stage, and is suitable for ages mature 8-10 and up. Middle- and high school audiences should enjoy it very much.

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