Few works try to capture the breadth and glory of John Jacob Astor’s epic journey to the majestic Oregon Coast like Astoria: Part One. Sourced from Peter Stark’s deep-hitting work “Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival,” Astoria: Part One doesn’t let up one bit in its adaptation.
The story follows Astor’s attempt to establish a vast fur trading-trading empire and – in the process – a settlement on the U.S. Pacific coast. Based on a true story, Astor put two parties together, both heading west, one by land and one by sea.
Following the epic narrative arc, Astoria: Part One focuses on big-city businessman Wilson Price Hunt’s overland journey and the truly despicable, and appropriately surnamed, Jonathan Thorn’s seemingly never-ending sea-based journey.
While the novel is heavy on facts and historical context, Portland Center Stage’s adaptation, penned by creative director Chris Coleman, dials up the dialog in an attempt to properly flesh out what is appropriately a huge story. Indeed, there’s a reason why this is Part One.
And yet, the pace is brisk, the staging grandiose and the acting superb, no small feat considering the gigantic cast of 16 people playing over 80 roles. The main players leave a mark on your historical consciousness, reminding us of the trials and tribulations of America’s pioneer past.
Helping to set the scene, characters narrate their journeys, providing the audience with a way to step outside the play for a moment to digest this huge story. While that in- and out-of-character juxtaposition can be a hard thing to pull off in other plays, it seems almost necessary in Astoria: Part I. Providing historical context, in this sense, is key.
When you are trying to paint with so broad a brush, weaving together a story arc that includes such a vast array of characters, the visual and musical representation must be spot-on. Fortunately, Portland Center Stage – as usual – does not disappoint.
Whether the characters are weaving their tale through the 20-foot-high wooden pikes making up a fort on the Western Front, the deep woods or a huge ship sailing the open sea, each piece provides an excellent representation, transporting you into a long-gone time of fur trading and hard lives.
The musical score, put together by composer Randall Robert Tico and vocal arranger Rick Lewis, combines sea-bound voyagers singing songs, plucking away at a ukulele or strumming a guitar with overland marchers sending harmonica notes floating out over the audience.
All told, Astoria: Part One is a sweeping endeavor, huge in scope and complexity and steeped in history. It’s serves as a reminder of America’s past, for better or for worse, with much of the “worse” being born by the indigenous Native American population that would find itself in the cross-hairs of capitalism.
Indeed, John Jacob Astor never intended to create the next huge settlement on the West Coast, he was in it for purely one reason along: Money. And while his fur-trading empire never quite got off the ground, his legacy lives on. Just ask anyone living at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon.
Astoria: Part One has been extended through February 19th. For dates, times and pricing information stop on by Portland Center Stage’s website.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a journalist and freelance writer who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over thirteen years. When he’s not profiling Portland-area restaurants and residents, you can find him reporting on national and international travel and eco-tourism through his travel brand, Floppy Hat Adventures.