Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ding Dong Ding Dong

By way of ringing out the old, I’m going to take a page from my colleague over at ghost light and regale you with snippets of blogs I started in 2008 but never finished, which will now be relegated to the virtual lumber room forever. In no special order….

1. The Opposite of Schadenfreude. This was all about my envy of new play development oases that benefited in a big way from the Mellon Foundation’s recent burst of largesse, gaining in most cases a million megabux each. The NPD universe is small, so of course these are all friends that got these important award – The Playwrights’ Center, for example – so I’m very, very glad for them, and well appreciate the life-changing effect these funds will have to the good. But at the same time I was discouraged, thinking of poor JAW and how those funds could have made the Festival its own entity, not dependent on PCS for its funding. Now I say this fully aware that Mellon has been phenomenally generous to PCS, which in turns benefits JAW, but….I still can’t help think of what might have been. I know, call me Eeyore.

2. Blogs I love but haven’t had a chance to profile because my job takes up my entire life: DreadWhimsy.; FailBlog; what cannot be won might be coaxed; Inogolo; Marissabidilla; Beard.Revue.

3. The Lives of Others. A gorgeous movie ostensibly about a playwright but actually the resilience of the human spirit. Half the movie (the first half) is dramaturgically conventional, but the second half skids along the surface of a series of future events that winds up being powerfully, though quietly, profound. And any more description that that would be a spoiler.

4. Favorite new ear candies: Labradford; Blonde Redhead; To Rococo Rot.

5. Cousin Tabitha and I love to delight each other by having an Incredible String Band quote for every occasion. Handy fragments include: “winter was cold and the clothing was thin”; “certainly the children have seen them”; “shadowy fingers on the curtains at night”; “it’s gone like snow on the water”; and of course, “my cousin has great changes coming.” C.T. (NHRNoc) may have additional faves.

6. Trendy new spices I’ve indulged myself with in 2008: ras el hanout; grains of paradise; vadouvan.

Enough already! Happiest of New Years to you, one and all. See you on flip side (as the kids say)(or said in the late 20th century) in 2009.

Monday, December 29, 2008

NOW HEAR THIS returns, starring Patrick Wohlmut

PCS has been fortunate indeed to benefit from not one but two commissions made possible by the fruitful marriage of minds between San Francisco's Magic Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Sloan's original impetus was to stimulate writing about science and scientists, with the idea of humanizing the field -- putting a human face on it, as it were.

The Sloan had just two stipulations: that the science at the commissioned play's center had to be a "hard" science (no parapsychology, for example) and it couldn't be science fiction.

Our first Sloan went to Nancy Keystone, who's remarkable verfremdungseffekt Apollo starts previews at PCS on January 13! How fitting, therefore, that our second outing will have its public reading within Apollo's powerful nimbus.

PlayGroup member Patrick Wohlmut's commissioned play, Continuum, concerns a researcher's cock-up over an cosmic theory he believes is revolutionary but that mainstream astronomy considers crackpot. He enlists support from an unconventional source, and unwittingly creates a hall of mirrors in which even he is not always sure what is real and what is surreal. The play is, at its heart, a mystery -- one in which the inexplicable cosmos mirrors the endless surprises of the human psyche.

Patrick was aided in his own research by Reed College Professor of Astrophysics Robert Reynolds, who we hope will be on hand to witness the birth of a brand new play. You're invited, too. Here's the 411:


Portland Center Stage’s

invites you to a rehearsed concert reading of

a new play by Patrick Wohlmut

written with the support of a playwriting commission from
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

directed by
Stan Foote

Monday, January 5, 2009
7:00 pm
@ Portland Center Stage
128 NW Eleventh Avenue (between Couch & Davis)
on the Main Stage


Our outstanding cast includes:
Paul Glazier, Michael O’Connell and Amaya Villazan


Admission is free and all are welcome

A discussion will follow the reading


In the abstruse world of astrophysical research, Peter -- whose promise in the field is dubious -- needs all the help he can get. But he gets more than he bargained for from a brilliant but erratic collaborator he rescues the streets. In the course of their cat and mouse game, roles reverse and shift, stars and planets collide, and both men find that the universe is not as quantifiable as they expected.

Patrick Wohlmut
Patrick is an actor and playwright. His most recent stage role was as Harry Berlin in Mt. Hood Repertory’s production of Luv, where he also played Colm in Sea Marks. Other favorite roles include Vaughn in In Apparati, for Defunkt Theater; Faust in Faust. Us., for Stark Raving Theater; Peter Austin in It’s Only a Play, for Profile Theater; Sebastian in Twelfth Night, for Portland Actors Ensemble; Ted in Three Plays Five Lives, for Liminal Performance Group; Miles in The Drawer Boy, for Artists Repertory Theater, which also starred William Hurt; and Todd in Earth Stories, for VERB: Literature in Performance, a role that earned him a Portland Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role. As a writer, two of his short plays – The Surrogate Mothers and K-PAN – were featured in Portland State University’s New Plays Festival in 2002. He was also a featured writer for Bump in the Road Theater’s 2004 original production, (Old Age Ain’t) No Place for Sissies. In addition to being the recipient of a Sloan Foundation New Science Initiative commission, Patrick is also working on a play titled The Chain and the Gear, about the effect of the hit-and-run death of a cyclist on a southeast Portland community; and a novel, Putting Woody to Rest, about two teenagers who are haunted by the ghost of Woody Guthrie. He lives with his wife and two children in Portland.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Beyond Subtext

Snow days are great for catching up on the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary culture, and we spent our pre-Christmas evenings indulging in a lot of that of the film ilk. In addition to the aforementioned Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, we watched I’m Not There (absorbing), Notes on a Scandal (yawn) and Iron Man (couldn’t even finish it).

Also finally got round to the Extras Christmas Special, the series conclusion to Ricky Gervais’ highly original exploration of narcissism, venality and celebrity status – and only a year after everyone else! There was a moment I especially enjoyed, when main characters Andy and Maggie are lunching at The Ivy, a posh watering hole for successful playwrights as well for film industry movers. The Ivy is widely assumed to be the setting for Pinter’s last play, Celebration, so it’s a fun in-joke when Andy drops his voice and says to Maggie, “Oh look, there’s Harold Pinter.”

Eerie to discover, next day, that Mr. Pinter was making his last exit at the same time I was enjoying Gervais’ affectionate joke. That's the playwright to the right, acting in a production of Krapp's Last Tape -- a play by another writer who can boast a Yuletide death.

Pinter’s contribution to dramatic literature may be well nigh incalculable. It’s isn’t just the body of work, remarkable though that is; it’s also that he changed our understanding of how dialogue could work. As his friend Henry Woolf saw it,

"People for the first time in English drama spoke in non sequitors — as if they hadn't heard what had just been said to them," Woolf says. "They had to have heard, but they didn't want to respond so there were these strange pauses and silences."

Turns out Pinter wasn’t the only trailblazing performing arts luminary to give up the ghost on Christmas Day. Eartha Kitt, who made Lady Bird Johnson cry at a White House dinner by criticizing the war in Viet Nam, also left us last night. She was as outspoken as Pinter himself, but with both of them, it’s their work we’ll remember. Feast your eyes and ears:

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Greetings from tropical Portland!

White Christmas here in a big way. Yep, it's snowing again in Portland, breaking all previous records for consecutive days of winter wonderland (though not for amount of snow; you have to go back to the 1880s for a record to beat). So it's a quiet holiday around my neighborhood; no going over the hills and through the woods to Grandmother's house this year, not unless your vehicle has chainschainschains....

Right now the snow's coming down in a dense cascade of of big, gloppy, wet flakes that look exactly like stage snow -- the stuff that falls from the rafters at the end of A Christmas Carol, which never fails to stimulate applause. Here at home, we're a bit past applauding. Oh, it is beautiful. But the weather seers promised us rain today -- the much-maligned, much-missed winter rains of Oregon that we now want to wash away this postcard Christmas.

Well, in the spirit of the holidays I offer you a different postcard, received of Algis Griskevicius, a Lithuanian artist whose work I love. Check out his photography in particular, which has a sense of movement and narrative about it that makes me wish he would photograph theater.

Happy Holidays, everyone. Oh -- the snow just turned into sweet, blessed rain! We're saved! Hoppy, Hoppy Gnu Yr!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A guilty Christmas pleasure

Over at Parabasis, they’re fessing up to repeat viewing of various Yuletide chestnuts. As I stated there, my personal fave is the 1962 TV special, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. This hour-long musical version condenses Dickens’ classic tale admirably. Apart from some odd dramaturgical concessions, like changing the order of the ghosts, the teleplay sticks amazingly close to the original 1843 language, lifting entire passages from the novella.

Of course the show wasn’t the first to deploy this stock-in-trade, nor was it was last – as my own adaptation attests. The animation influenced not only my text, but also the composer’s – Rick Lewis and I share our admiration for this cartoon that has, in subtle ways (?), made it into our own version.

In order to insert Mr. Magoo into the TV version, the authors invented a framing device in which Magoo is on his way to the Broadway opening of a brand new staging of the holiday classic – starring himself. After some folderol concerning getting ready to go on stage, the fable begins and we disappear into its absorbing narrative. But we’re reminded of the frame at every commercial break, when curtains close upon the action and the cartoon audience applauds! At end, as the myopic Magoo takes his final bow, he trips on the stage riggings, causing the set flats to collapse – thus literally “bringing down the house.”

The frame doesn’t do much for the story except explain Mr. Magoo’s presence in it, but there’s something charming about the old-fashioned opening and closing of curtains, and the frequently iterated reminder that this story is being presented specifically to you – no sleight of hand, finally, no suspension of disbelief. It’s a redemptive story of goodness willing out just in time, and you don’t need movie magic to believe in it.

Years ago I bought the DVD, which is still wrapped in cellophane. Every year I brandish it, but my partner scowls and points out that there is no end of life-or-death football to witness on TV. This year, however, when we’re all but snowed in and could use a spiritual makeover, I feel certain I will prevail.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obiter Dicta

A recent read that has continued to haunt me (not a random choice of clichés, as you’ll see) is Julian Barnes’ absorbing new non-fiction work, Nothing To Be Afraid of. As soon as I heard of the book I knew I’d get my hands on it ASAP and devour it, because the whole project is something I’ve thought of doing myself. I.e.: Mr. Barnes has taken 244 pages to explore his worries, hopes, ideas about -- and general sense of outrage over -- the fact that he will one day die.

Even the title evinces his ambivalence; he notes that that the titular statement, so often offered the dying as a fortificaiton against mortal terror, reveals its ambiguities with a mere shift in emphasis: “there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Precisely, Mr. Barnes says. It’s that “nothing” that scares us.

Not that the book’s a blustery rodomontade about staring death down. Actually, just as you’d expect from the fabulist’s fiction, he brings great brio and self-deprecating humor to his task, as though faintly embarrassed to be admitting to his thanatophobia in the first place.

Since I share his dread, I thought the book was a great read, from start to finish. Here’s just a taste of it:

“Do we create art in order to defeat, or at least defy, death? To transcend it, to put it in its place? You may take my body, you may take all the squidgy stuff inside my skull where lurks whatever lucidity and imagination I possess, but you cannot take away what I have done with them. Is that our subtext and our motivation? Most probably—though . . . it’s pretty draft. Those proud lines of Gauthier’s I was once so attached to—everything passes, except art in its robustness; kings die, but sovereign poetry lasts longer than bronze—now read as adolescent consolation. Tastes change; truths becomes clichés; whole art forms disappear. Even the greatest art’s triumph over death is risibly temporary. A novelist might hope for another generation of readers—two or three if lucky—which may feel like a scorning of death; but it’s really just scratching on the wall of the condemned cell. We do it to say: I was here too.”

Keeping the inevitable at bay is not the only reason to write, or paint or compose or what have you. But isn’t some element of that always present, however sublimated it may be? I'm grateful to Julian Barnes for this humorous, well-considered circumnavigation.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Novel That Predicted Portland

Thank you, Ms. Cynthia, you of Culture Shock fame, for bringing a fun Scott Timberg article to my attention that recently ran in The New York Times. Essentially the piece is a thoughtful review of the ‘70s classic cult favorite Ecotopia, a speculative work of fiction written by Ernest Callenbach. Some credit the author with kick-starting a barrow full of ideas that we are increasingly adopting.

Like what? At one point in his article, Mr. Timberg asks:

"So what has 'Ecotopia' given us?

"A great deal, thinks Professor Slovic of the University of Nevada, including the bioregionalism movement, which considers each part of the country as having a distinct ecological character to be cultivated. The green movement’s focus on local foods and products, and its emphasis on energy reduction also have roots in “Ecotopia,” he said. In fact, much of Portland, Ore., with its public transport, slow-growth planning and eat-local restaurants, can seem like Ecotopia made reality."

Apparently the novel’s influence has been so osmotic that I was unaware that the term “Ecotopia” originated with it. Today it’s used to refer to the Pacific Northwest in general, and occasionally it’s also bandied about as the region’s future name, reserved for when it finally gets fed up with the U.S. and secedes from the Union.

The other name you hear in this regard from time to time is “Pacifica.” Did you know that Oregon has legislation on the books that allows for an initiative process that could authorize secession? So do Washington and California. Hmmmm…….

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stopping by Portland on a snowy evening

Got to love Portland. In this town, Halloween decorations start going up around September 1, and in many households, don’t go away for months. They just coexist with the Christmas trappings. So that now, in mid-December, with snow straight out of central casting falling all over the town, you walk past porches festooned with fir garlands….and pumpkins still holding down the front steps. Many windows still have construction paper witches taped to them – but now the witches share the honor with cut-out snowflakes.

It’s an apt macaronicism, since St Nicholas was originally the Catholic Church’s recuperation of an old folk figure that seemed a tad too Satanic for post-medieval tastes.

Anyway, here in Portlandia, autumn has definitely given way to winter; it’s beginning to look a lot like the Solstice, everywhere you go. In fact today I’m staying indoors and working at home, partly thanks to night-long migraine episode, but partly because the weather outside is frightful. And in between script reports, press announcements and responding to email, my favorite way to heat the house is cooking.

Lunch was a velvety carrot soup, perfect for cleaning out your fridge and also for watching those dire weather forecasts on streaming video. If you want to make it yourself, you’ll need:

· 1-2 tablespoons butter
· 1-pound carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
· 1/2 cup chopped onion
· ¼ cup (or more) shallots
· 3 cups chicken broth
· 1/2 cup orange juice
· 1 tablespoon orange zest
· 1 tablespoon brandy
· 2 teaspoons of bonnes herbes and/or herbes de Provence, crushed


Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add carrots and onion; sauté until onion is soft, about 8 minutes. Add broth; cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat, uncover, and simmer until carrots are tender, 10 minutes or so.

Puree soup in blender (I used an immersion blender) until smooth. If you used a conventional blender, return soup to pot now. Stir in orange juice, brandy, and crushed herbs. Simmer 5 minutes for flavors to blend, then season to taste with salt and pepper.

This made just enough for James and I, but we eat supersized portions, alas. For friends or normal people (quick! what’s the literary reference there?), or as a first course, you could probably serve four.

We had garlic bread with this – with impunity, since no theatergoing is possible tonight.

If by some miracle you still have fresh tarragon, I bet that that would make a terrific replacement for the dried herbs. Would make a good garnish, too.

BTW: haul in one of those leftover pumpkins from the porch, roast is and substitute it for the carrots in the recipe, and you'll be ready for New Year's Eve in no time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Almost Famous, starring MrMead

Tuesday evening I was on KGW, briefly, repping PCS on a Christmas Carol promo. Here it is, if you're interested. I am not. Interested in seeing it. Ever ever. I'd rather be waterboarding than listening to the sound of my own voice, much less seeing my mouth acting in concert with it.

Sounds like vanity, I know, but really it's more like a self-esteem issue. As long as I'm not confronted with hard evidence to the contrary, I can go around town assuming I look like this.

But it takes only one errant glance into a reflective storefront window to be reminded that I actually look more like this.


Nevertheless, here's the clip, if you dare:

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Where was I.

O yes. I was talking about myself.

Forgive me for my neglect, dear fellow traveler. I know you’ve been waiting for me to finish this post for a week. In the interim, much has happened, including the opening of our retooled, freshly re-tinseled A Christmas Carol.

Excuses aside (I mean, being busy never seems to slow down the good peeps of Culture Shock), last week, as you’ll recall, I was tracing the genealogy of my own aesthetic origins, and came to realize I owe it all (such as it is) to . . . Walt Disney. Or rather, Disneyland. That’s right. For all my high-mindedness, my earliest notions about what theater should be were shaped by a corporate entity that built its fortune through pillaging Western civilization’s folk myths and figures. Well, figurines: Snow White, Cinderella -- Paul Bunyan, for mercy’s sake. Abraham Lincoln, even.

Case in point: as a little boy, I remember being captivated by a new attraction in “the park” called The Enchanted Tiki Room. This was and is an event of vaguely Polynesian inspiration in which animatronic birds of festive plumage preen, sing and burble away. Even as a kid I knew the content was corny, but the experience was….complete.

First we were admitted to an enclosed holding area outside the “hut” where the experience was to take place. As I recall, every feature of this pen was part of the experience, even the trash bins. There was a water feature made from bamboo pipes that emptied noisily into a pool; if you peered into the water, you saw that the pool’s bottom was littered with the partly submerged skeletons of lizards or anyway something of reptilian persuasion.

In due course we got to shuffle into the hut itself, and we (la familia) seated ourselves on one of four sides of a small square. Looking around, I saw gruff-looking tikis surrounded the playing area like they were guarding it. Above, thatched roof; behind, walls and windows shuttered with reeds. The hut seated maybe 80 spectators.

Then the show started with the famous nonsense of robot parrots waking up and cajoling the audiences with canned dialogue and mortifyingly twee treacle (“let’s all sing like the birdies sing / tweet tweet tweet tweettweet”). But the good part was the conclusion. On some cue I no longer recall, the parrots’ were yanked up and out of sight, and the tikis – which we all assumed to be mere set dressing – woke up. Bug-eyes gaping madly, wooden mouths moving up and down, these fearsome gods intoned some guttural, driving incantation (probably my first inkling there was more to music than Herman’s Hermits, Petula Clark and Papa Haydn). The tikis worked themselves up to a frantic crescendo, and at the very climax the lights went out (someone always shrieked at this), and the hut was lit only by flashes of faux lightning, which enabled you to see rain running down the windows.

As the thunder died out and we filed out of the place, I had no trouble belaying my critique of the material in favor of the experience I just had. And in years to come, through my early years at Storefront and on to my subsequent career as a groovy performance artist, it was some time before I realized my debt to the Tiki Room. The salient qualities were:

1. The performance surrounded its audience.
2. There was surprise (presumed inanimate objects lurching into performance).
3. Several senses were assailed at once.
4. The performance began upon admittance to the area, started long before the “actors” and persisting after they had exited.

Years later now, I’m more often in the position of enabling others to create their performative work than I am in doing it myself. But these things still inform my understanding of what makes an affective and memorable experience for audiences – which is, in sum, to transform them from passive spectators to participants.

Portland is rich in artists who espouse these same views, whether avowedly or not. But that’s a different post altogether……