Astoria: Part One

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday January 30, 2017

Astoria: Part One

Great storytelling takes the listener to another place -- a haunted wood, a rebel base, a classroom in New England -- and introduces you to the struggles and triumphs of the people in that world. It connects the listener to people we would never otherwise know and takes us on an adventure with them, and in the process, gives us a new perspective on the world and ourselves.

"Astoria: Part One" is just such storytelling. It's the tale of the plans of John Jacob Astor, who launched a massive westward expedition to claim the North American fur trade monopoly. Astor's undertaking represented the chance for the U.S. to take control of the western territory by establishing American trade supremacy in the region if they could beat the British.

In the show, a French-Canadian voyageur scoffs, "These Americans, with their dreams..." at Astor's seemingly impossible plans. Portland Center Stage Artistic Director Chris Coleman had a dream of bringing the story of Astor's expedition to the stage, and as theatrical dreams go, this one is massive; take this epic story of an event crucial to the formation of these United States and scale it to the stage.

Somehow, he must show a four-month journey at sea to the mouth of the Columbia River, an overland canoe trip, and a trek on horseback and foot through the Rocky Mountains. Even more daunting, he had to capture somehow the men whose imaginations allowed them to see over the mountain range, beyond the limits of what was known to what they thought might be possible.

Coleman adapted the story from the book "Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival" by Peter Stark, which struck a deft balance between history and context. Using the framework of that well-told story, Coleman built a stage production of big imagination and intimate storytelling.

Astor's expedition required the construction of complex human mechanisms: finding the ship, hiring skilled leaders for the separate expeditions, selecting the right crews. Coleman had to construct dialogue, characters, a massive and flexible set, adapt music (oh, the music!) from the voyageurs, find and employ accurate dialects across several nationalities and indigenous tribes, and create multi-cultural period costumes, all while telling this ambitious story of pursuit and survival.

These Americans, with their dreams.

Coleman's efforts are well rewarded, as his show "Astoria: Part One" succeeds with rich storytelling that is at once grand and nimble. A reported 80 characters take the stage, using only 16 actors in this first of two parts of the colossal story. The use of the broken fourth wall, informing the audience directly of ensuing action, gets the show off to a slow start, but once the planning period is over and the journeys begin, the show is all momentum.

It's easy to get lost in the enterprise and the diverse characters, from Astor to the harsh Captain Thorn to hotheaded Scotsman Duncan McDougall to the Democratic-minded Wilson Price Hunt. The acting in this endeavor is outstanding; Leif Norby as Astor (also as a voyageur and later a wilderness man) is commanding in every role.

Captain Thorn is played by Ben Rosenblatt, whose delivery is so abrupt and coarse it's comical until he reveals Thorn's dangerous seriousness. As the indecisive and methodical Wilson Price Hunt, Shawn Fagan's gentle humanity is evident in every action.

A particular joy to watch is Shaun Taylor-Corbett, magnetic and intense in his "smaller" roles (Astor's secretary, Second Mate on the ship, and Les Yeux Gris, a member of an indigenous tribe approached by the overland party). Delanna Studi stands out as the sole female in two roles (Sarah Astor and Marie Dorion), where she brings out a boldness that is exciting.

"Astoria: Part One" is a riveting play of epic proportions, a fine-detailed work with a sweeping narrative. From the internecine battles for leadership to the pummeling inflicted by Mother Nature, this play is a three-hour excursion into a dream made manifest by John Jacob Astor.

In this world of period and fantasy miniseries, Coleman has created a spirited story of adventure and survival. It's exciting storytelling in the hands of a masterful director with a big vision and, like Astor's, a marvelous dream.

"Astoria: Part One" runs through February 19 at The Armory, Portland Center Stage, 128 NW Eleventh Ave, Portland, OR, 97209. For tickets and information, call 503-445-3700 or go to

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.