Friday, October 27, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coleman gives Portland a drama to talk about

Seattle Times theater critic

Portland boasts nearly as many latte outlets, rock bands, dot-com millionaires and bookstores as Seattle. But when it comes to live theater, there is no comparison.

Why have so many small and midsize Portland theaters gone belly-up in recent years? Why don't the city's hip trendsetters have the kind of yen for drama that keeps the Seattle theater scene hopping, from our spiffy professional houses to our fringe cubbyholes?

Chris Coleman does not have an answer. But the ambitious new artistic director of Portland Center Stage, the city's sole surviving professional playhouse, is determined to turn the tide. And not by playing it safe.

Portland Center Stage just opened its first season under Coleman's watch with "The Devils," a play by Elizabeth Egloff clearly designed to instigate community discussion and get younger, theater-alienated folk into the plush seats at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, the company's home base.

Based on the Feodor Dostoevski novel of the same name, "The Devils" (which ended its run Oct. 22) would have been a gutsy choice in a large Seattle theater. But it was an especially audacious departure for Portland Center Stage - which, under Coleman's predecessor and former Intiman Theatre head Elizabeth Huddle, stuck with classics and well-known, uncontroversial modern plays.

"The Devils," by contrast, is a sprawling, bloody plunge into the nightmarish political vortex of a failed radical uprising in a provincial Russian city during the late 1870s.

Egloff's messy but compelling riff on Dostoevski is true to the novel's bitter study of political disenchantment in most ways, and a bold departure from it in others.

In Portland, Coleman gave the play an assured (if unevenly acted) staging which never soft-peddled its pitiless and unsentimental action. Rape, murder, child abuse, suicide, failures of religion and radical ideology - all were dealt with graphically and emphatically.

And at the weeknight show I attended, the small audience responded in kind. Some patrons left during the first of two intermissions. But the vast majority stayed on, stimulated and curious to see out the 3 1/2-hour saga.

And after the performance, when cast members returned to the stage for an audience discussion, several students in attendance gave them high praise.

"This was so incredible," one remarked. "I'm just, like, totally stunned and awestruck by it."

That is just the kind of response Coleman craves. And if cooking up new excitement about the theater means scaring away some of the city's more conservative playgoers - well, then, so be it.

Chatting over coffee recently, Coleman confided, "I thought initially I'd do `The Devils' in my second or third season here. I was going to open with a Shaw play.

"But a couple of my staff members knew `The Devils,' and felt it would be like nothing this city had ever seen onstage. Some people would hate it, some would love it, but people would talk about it."

Though "The Devils" received mixed reviews in Portland, it won an enthusiastic rave from the city's dominant newspaper, The Oregonian. Arts critic Bob Hicks termed it an "outstanding" production, which reclaimed "Portland Center Stage's place as the vital center of Portland's theater scene."

Audience feedback, Coleman reports, has also been largely positive. "I got a few letters from people who were offended and outraged. But we've had a lot more support. And I'm glad, because I wanted very quickly to push the boundaries of what we had permission to talk about onstage."

The youthful, 39-year-old Coleman moved to Portland from his native Atlanta, which is perceived by many West Coasters as a fairly conservative metropolis.

But Coleman says he had no trouble delivering edgy drama at Actor's Express, the Atlanta theater he founded and ran for a dozen years. His eclectic menu there, ranging from "The Devils" to biting Brecht plays to such Broadway musicals as "Oklahoma!," won him local praise and national notice.

Yet Coleman candidly agrees it is one thing to run a 150-seat theater with 1,000 subscribers in drama-friendly Atlanta, and another to take over a company with 10,000 subscribers, an 880-seat venue, and a $580,000 deficit in a city more devoted to the Blazers, jazz and modern dance concerts.

"I'm on a steep learning curve," he says, "but it's been fascinating."

Julie Vigeland, an Oregon philanthropist who is the board president of Portland Center Stage, says Coleman's energy and fearlessness are just what her theater needs.

"We are really a young company," she observes. "For six years we were an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After we separated, it was a real challenge to form our own identity. I think Liz (Huddle) did a wonderful job helping us do that for the last six years.

"Then when Liz retired, we really wanted someone as exciting as Chris, as strong and articulate."

Vigeland says she is not concerned that, for all the comment it generated, "The Devils" did only "so-so" at the box office.

Coleman, who has a three-year contract, might improve on that with his holiday version of that reliable chestnut "A Christmas Carol." But that is his only concession to conventionality during his debut year in Portland.

He also is presenting the Northwest premiere of Martin McDonagh's tart, quirky Irish comedy, "The Cripple of Inishmaan" (Oct. 31-Nov. 26). And after "A Christmas Carol" (Dec. 3-24) comes Patrick Marber's "Closer," a cynical, R-rated deconstruction of the sexual entanglements of four Londoners (Jan. 16-Feb. 11, 2001).

Filling out the season is a "fiery, intense" adaptation of the Greek tragedy, "Antigone" (Feb. 20-March 18, 2001) and another Northwest premiere, the offbeat William Finn musical about a life-changing cerebral injury, "A New Brain" (March 27-April 22, 2001). For details, call 503-274-6588.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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