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'Astoria: Part One' tells little-known tale

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Show at The Armory dramatizes another NW expedition


COURTESY: KATE SZROM - (Clockwise from top) Leif Norby as John Jacob Astor, Ben Rosenblatt as Captain Jonathan Thorn, Shawn Fagan as Wilson Price Hunt and DeLanna Studi as Marie Dorion play in Portland Center Stage's 'Astoria: Part One,' opening Jan. 20.A lesser-known tale of American expedition will have the opportunity to come to life on the stage in Portland this month.

It might hide in the shadow of grander tales — such as Lewis and Clark’s Oregon Trail expedition — but the true tale of the three-year Astoria Expedition starting in 1810 was integral to enlightening the world of the potential to settle on the West Coast.

“Astoria: Part One” will open Jan. 20 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave. It’s part of Portland Center Stage’s Northwest Stories series, which aims to celebrate the “essence of the region” by way of fresh looks at history and exploration of contemporary culture.

The production depicts the story of President Thomas Jefferson and millionaire John Jacob Astor, who turned their sights to the Pacific Northwest for coastal trading.

“What’s so intriguing about this piece is that so few of us in the region knew the story of the Astoria Expedition, and even fewer had a sense of the role it played in determining the geography and political map of North America,” says Chris Coleman, the artistic director for Portland Center Stage and adapter and director of “Astoria: Part One.”

A cast of 16 will portray five characters each between two installments: part one, which focuses on the journey from New York to Astoria, and “Astoria: Part Two,” to open in 2018, which will focus on the establishment of Astoria — the first permanent settlement on the West Coast. The play was adapted by Coleman from the novel “Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, A story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival,” written by Peter Stark. Coleman thought the book was a “riveting read.”

“I couldn’t believe how harrowing the journeys were, or how anyone survived,” Coleman says. “In terms of thinking about how to translate it to the stage, it seemed physically impossible — which always excites me.” Impossible to him means “you have to invent a theatrical vocabulary that allows the story to unfold in a way that is unique to the live stage.”

COURTESY: KATE SZROM - Portland Center Stage's Chris Coleman (left) and author Peter Stark worked together on 'Astoria,' including in a July 2016 workshop at The Armory.Of the 16 actors, only one is a woman: DeLanna Studi, who will portray Sarah Astor, the wife of millionaire John Jacob Astor, and Marie Dorion, a Native American woman.

“It’s kind of like a blessing and a curse, being the only woman, because I’m representing all of womankind, and then of course I’m a native woman so I’m also representing that part of my culture as well,” says Studi, adding that she wants to be sure her portrayal is fair and accurate.

The group on the expedition comprised people from all different backgrounds; audiences will be exposed to 11 dialects and accents and several languages, including French, as well as the Native American languages of Arikara, Iowa (the state, but pronounced eye-oh-way) and Shoshone.

Studi, originally of Oklahoma, has a strong Native American background and speaks Cherokee fluently. However, in the performance, she had to learn lines in Iowa, which she says was a bit challenging.

“It’s as if you were learning Spanish and then you had to learn French,” she says.

Portland Center Stage brought in a dialect coach, Mary McDonald-Lewis, to help. She sought out Native American speakers, including someone from the Arikara tribe, of which, according to Studi, there are only 12 fluent speakers left.

“It would be easy for the theater and ... our director to have the Indians speak in English and just pretend like they’re speaking in a different language, because then we don’t have to translate it. That would be the easy route,” she says. “But (Coleman) wanted to set up the obstacles that this team had to overcome.”

Studi added that back then, in the early 1800s, no one knew there were over 600 different tribes.

“That’s 600 different languages or different language groups, 600 different creation stories, so when you encountered one, you really didn’t know who you were encountering,” she says.

She says some of the languages that will be spoken in “Astoria” are close to extinction.

“So to have it actually recorded is a big deal for us. I don’t want to say it’s resurrecting language, but bringing awareness to it,” Studi says.

The characters she’s performing inspire her. Studi calls them resilient.

“They’re living in a time where they couldn’t do a lot. Their opinions weren’t appreciated or people didn’t even want to hear them,” she says. “Sarah Astor inspires her husband to keep going ... Marie Dorion literally helps these people survive.”

Studi hopes the production will prove powerful in its ability to not only entertain, but also educate and serve as a tool to combat narrow worldviews.

“People come to see a play and think they’re going to just have a moment of escapism, but they learn so much through it and they see life from a different perspective. They see a different world view, in this case native people who are often overlooked,” Studi says.

If you go

What: “Astoria: Part One”

When: Previews start Jan. 14; opening night is 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20; the show closes Feb. 12.

Where: The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.

More: pcs.org/astoria-part-one

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