THE newborn Portland Center Stage is an oxymoron: a home-grown import, a mature infant, at once Oregon's oldest theater company and its youngest. With its debut offering, a polished and warmly amusing if slightly staid production of Shaw's ``Heartbreak House,'' the company launches an experiment both dangerous and intriguing for its parent organization and its adoptive city.
Portland Center Stage is the progeny of the venerable Oregon Shakespearean Festival. For more than 50 years, the festival has flourished in isolated Ashland, at the opposite end of the state from the Portland metropolitan area. This has created an odd polarity, with Oregon's dominant theatrical institution at one pole, and both audiences and Portland's active but impecunious theater scene at the other.
The new company is an attempt to leap the gap by establishing a second, urban festival stage - under separate artistic direction, but linked to Ashland by management and (at least in the early going) personnel.
The festival and Portland's cultural establishment spent 12 years cautiously wooing each other; the marriage took place only when the city built the Portland Center for the Performing Arts and persuaded the festival to provide a resident company. The company's new home is the middle-sized theater of the center's three (called, prosaically enough, the Intermediate Theatre).
For all its caution, though, the festival is taking an exhilarating risk. Examples of theaters successfully running two companies of varying character in widely separate locations are precious few.
Portland theater lovers have awaited the coming of Portland Center Stage with excitement and trepidation. For a relatively small city, Portland sustains a great deal of theatrical ferment; the Portland Area Theatre Alliance counts 17 local companies as members, and even that leaves out some occasional producers. There is one solid Equity (union) company, the Portland Rep. Among the rest, there are a number of ambitious companies, struggling to produce fully professional theater with semi-professional budgets and staffs. The reasonable hope is that the Center Stage will draw new people to theater and tap new sources of contributed income that will spill over and revitalize other companies as well. The danger is that, in the first few years, the competition may be too much for some of the smaller theaters.
``Heartbreak House,'' meanwhile, is a strong opening gambit. It is a choice of material calculated to show off the strengths of this newly christened but fully mature company. The play itself is challenging but unthreatening to audience sensibilities; the production is staged by Jerry Turner, the longtime artistic director of the festival in Ashland, and features a cast largely drawn from the Ashland ranks, along with the sumptuous sets and costumes that are a festival trademark.
Shaw is sometimes considered talky, which is a canard against his best work but a bit true of ``Heartbreak House,'' a loving but critical sendup of the British cultured class on the eve of World War I.
The playwright establishes a household stocked with delightfully eccentric types - characters who, in anyone else's hands, would be stereotypes - and lets them bounce wittily off one another. The repartee generated by the battle between the exasperated sexes is as deliciously acerbic as anything in Shaw - and you won't find actors better at snapping off a Shavian riposte than these Ashland all-stars.
But Shaw has a deeper purpose here as well; for all his sympathy with these people of gentility and basic decency, he is accusing their class of irresponsibility, of allowing society to drift aimlessly into war. While his portrait is sharp enough, the play's dramatic structure imitates its subjects' lassitude, drifting pleasantly but aimlessly through the final act.
Turner's deft direction and the abundant skills of his cast accentuate Shaw's strengths. Especially notable are the performances of Sandy McCallum, who lends a peppery flavor to the old salt, Captain Shotover, who sees more clearly than the others that the ship of state is drifting on the rocks, and Demetra Pittman as the elegantly sophisticated Hesione Hushabye.
Robynn Rodriguez is winningly sympathetic as the play's one dynamic character, young Ellie Dunn, who discovers her real strength through the medium of a broken heart.
One could go on singing praises - there isn't a performance in the large cast that is less than first rate.
William Bloodgood's sets and Deborah Dryden's costumes are up to the festival's usual standard (which will presumably be Portland Center Stage's, as well), which is world-class.
If the production has a flaw, it is an excess of its own virtues. The actors are so very skilled and sure, and Turner has given their movements such effortless fluidity, that, while each individual line and pose is effective, the mood of the whole is so comfortable that Shaw's thrust lacks an edge. Ironically, this is the very characteristic of the Oregon Shakespearean Festival - the confident smoothness of its classicism - that the Portland Center Stage was born to challenge as well as to complement.
The festival can scarcely be blamed for resorting to its known strengths in its Portland debut. Indeed, Center Stage's entire first season, which also includes Moli`ere's ``The Miser'' and Shakespeare's ``Pericles, Prince of Tyre,'' is quite festival-like. ``The first two seasons are kind of a shot in the dark,'' acknowledges Dennis Bigelow, the Center Stage producer, himself a festival veteran. ``Until you're born, how do you have a personality?''
Of the future repertory, he says, ``It's hard to predict. In five years, will this audience dare with us? I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the lobby this year, just talking to people.''
``Heartbreak House'' runs through Dec. 3. It will be followed immediately by Bigelow's staging of Robert Harling's contemporary comedy, ``Steel Magnolias,'' set in the less elegant surroundings of a Louisiana hairdresser's shop.