I have awaited and anticipated the world premiere of Astoria: Part Two since I saw Astoria: Part One at a year ago at Portland Center Stage. This sprawling drama, based on Peter Stark’s best selling Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival, was adapted and directed by PCS Artistic Director Chris Coleman.
Parts One and Two bring to life the historic commercial venture begun by John Jacob Astor in 1810. Astor commissioned both an overland and a sea expedition to the West Coast to set up what he dreamed would be a shipping empire. At the conclusion of Part One, the Tonquin, captained by Jonathan Thorn, had reached the mouth of Columbia River, having rounded the tip of South America and taken a small detour via Hawaii. The overland party, led (sort of) by Wilson Price Hunt, found themselves, Christmas 1811, in a blizzard in the Blue Mountains without horses or any source of food. Part Two begins where Part One ended, in the middle of a crisis.
As the Overland Party struggles to stay alive, those who arrived on the Oregon Coast by sea face their own set of problems, as partners in the company feud about who’s in charge and begin erecting buildings to hold the furs destined for export to Asia. Captain Thorn and his crew set sail north up the coast, and a dark depression sets in among those who remain in Astoria.
Astoria: Part Two did not disappoint. Between shows I read Peter Stark’s book. It is an excellent read. But bringing a book like this to the stage means putting flesh on the bones of characters long dead, and putting believable words into their mouths. Chris Coleman exceeded expectation in his plays. Bigger than life, complicated characters with differing agendas populate his stage, fight their battles, tell their stories, and bring the audience into this historic adventure convincingly and with passion.
In addition to a cast of 17, playing more than 60 roles, it takes an army of crew and craftspeople to put on a show of this scale, including scenic design (Tony Cisek), costume design (Toni-Leslie James and Alex Wren Meadows), lighting (Diane Ferry Williams), dialect coach (Mary McDonald-Lewis), music direction and vocal arrangements (Rick Lewis), sound design (Matthew M. Nielson), and original music (Randall Robert Tico). These and many others contributed to making the show a huge success.
Astoria: Part Two continues at Portland Center Stage through February 18. In addition, performances of Astoria: Part One will run February 11, 15, and 17 for those who need a refresher or did not see the show last year.
In the meantime, Chris Coleman has accepted a position in Denver, Colorado as artistic director for Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company. He takes his final bow at the end of the 2018 season in May, leaving us bereft but grateful to him for telling our stories so well. In his years as PCS Artistic Director, Chris Coleman has inspired the Portland theatre scene on every level imaginable. He will be terribly missed by all of us who love the roar of the crowd.