Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Portland Queer

Every so often I read a book the reminds me that the whole time I’ve been tearing around the city doing whatever it is I do, there’s been a whole other thing going on that has nothing to do with me and my daily shenanigans. Portland Queer, subtitled Tales of the Rose City, is just such a book.

Conceived of and edited by scrittorista fabulosa Ariel Gore, the 24 entries in this collection cover the territory figuratively and typographically. In some ways a response to Portland Noir (at least inasmuch as they were released within months of each other). PQ seemed at first to lack Noir’s defining aesthetic. For me, it took reading the book cover to cover before I realized that the range of style in the collection is a unifying aesthetic. Rather than a book going in 24 different directions, it’s a diverse diversion spanning a broad range of human experience. As Ms. Gore says of the stories in her introduction:

…giddy, faint, qualmish—like falling. Like love. Destabilizing. Moving targets. Like a part of the whole and at the same time outside of it. First person. We who are always running away and looking for home.

Most of the stories are in the first person, that voice that suits the short story so splendidly. They range from the profound to the nugatory, from searing to frothy. There are pieces by such noted writers as Marc Acito and Tom Spanbauer, and there are gems by writers I’ve never come across before.

Favorite among many favorites: “The Trailer,” by Megan Kruse, which felt elegiac and autumnal – a refreshing if somber antidote to today’s 100+ heat.

Is it any accident that many of these stories explore or celebrate or criticize Portland as the land of a thousand genders? Many of us gravitated to the town through sheer psychic dead reckoning and can’t believe our luck. But that doesn’t mean it’s time for the credits to roll. Notions of home are often synonymous with constructions of identity. Both weave in and out of each other inextricably in these tales that range from Alberta Street to Hawthorne to Washington Park to the Rose CafĂ© to Starky’s Bar and beyond – all familiar settings that dress the stage for some startling revelations.

And it all happens right here in Portland, Ore. Under your nose, perhaps totally unobserved by you. Check it out, you might be surprised. I know I was.

Huh. It does have to do with me, after all.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Quickie semi sort of JAW 2009 recap

First, a confession. Following a fairly good attendance record at Made in Oregon last week, I saw only one third of the Big Weekend. Made it to Day One, but had a migraine the next day and a family thing the day after that. So I was MIA for most of the Festival, which included missing my beloved site-specific pieces, curated by the debonair Tim DuRoche.

But oh that first day! Arrived at 3:45 on a hot Friday afternoon to find a large crowd swelling on the Eleventh Ave, outside the Armory doors. Clearly it was a smart move to launch the weekend with the latest opus of A-Gay Extraordinaire Marc Acito. Minutes later the theater was jammed with theatergoers all a-titter and no doubt a-twitter to be in on the fun escapade.

And the play, Birds of a Feather, delivered big time. Marc can pack more laughs into a square centimeter of time than any writer I know. The audience shrieked, chortled, guffawed and otherwise cachinnated throughout the play, and many of them, including myself, where surprisingly touched by the ending.

Marc has work to do, of course (hello, that’s the whole idea of the Festival), but there’s a good commercial play in there that some smart theater is going to make a killing on.

The evening showing proved the record attendance of the afternoon was no fluke. Surely it was a record-buster for JAW, with most of the floor filled and the balcony open as well. The attraction? Naomi Iizuka’s fascinating new mystery, Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, a mind-bending puzzler rich in language and imagery both. What I love about Naomi’s writing is that her visual sense is wholly integrated into her storytelling; they are inseparable. All of which makes her work theater in the purest sense of the word – unlike a film or other finished medium, her work is evanescent, and can only exist in the performed moment. When this play is produced at Berkeley Rep next season and directed by Les Waters (who also did the reading here), it’s going to be eye-popping. I plan to make the trek down to see it for sure.

Also I want to mention that the two Promising Playwright curtain raisers I saw – Freefall by Daniel Felder and Open the Box by Robyn Pritzker – were outstanding. Breathtaking, really. Enough to convince you that the next generation has plenty to say to us.

Judging from Friday’s start to the Big Weekend, JAW 2009 was well on its way to being a high watermark for the 11-year-old event. Here’s what I can tell you about the rest of the offerings:

Jordan Harrison, author of Act a Lady, brought his new play about a book-free dystopic society entitled Futura. Of course I’m partial to a play that begins with a lecture about typefaces! Jordan is one of the nation’s most dazzling writers, and someone will be snapping up this play soon.

Will Eno’s work has been striking a resonant chord in Portland for years now, but this new piece – Middletown – just might be his masterpiece. Imagine a fractured, funny, disturbing update of Our Town for this unsettled era we’re living through. Somehow Mr. Eno has written a play that manages to be a cry of existential dread and yet somehow remind you how lucky you are to be here.

You may know Stephanie Timm from the body of exciting work she’s already written for Seattle’s stages; now she’s a graduate playwriting student at UCSD, where she works with – guess who – Naomi. According to one source, her play On the Nature of Dust was “the hit of the festival” – but I must tell you that someone or other told me that about each of the six plays! Kimberly Rosenstock’s remarkable play 99 Ways To Fuck a Swan closed the Festival; Kimberly’s currently at Yale studying with Paula Vogel, who recommended her to JAW. From all accounts expect to hear much more about Mlle. Rosenstock in the near future. Along with this play of hers.

If you have comments to add about these scripts or any other aspect of the Festival – such as the star-studded panel on commissioning, and the site-specific pieces – please add them here. I’d love to hear what you thought.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Midsummer palate cleanser

All right already. Summer hasn't been all ink, angst and entropy. The sounds of the season have been redolent of a certain atavistic abandon -- for me, anyway. Here's a sampling.

First, I'm grateful to the far-ranging vigilance of El Splatterson for turning me on to the spellbinding songs of The Handsome Family, a husband and wife team. As iTunes describes their music, it "teem[s] with an eerie old-time country & western sense of foreboding" -- that covers it pretty well for me. Their most recent album, Honey Moon, is a little cheerful for my taste; I prefer the spooky effulgence of the older albums, especially Twilight.

Do check out the website, via the above link, too; it's the most satisfying band blog I've seen since The Decemberist's (which band has a fabulicious new album out, by the way, The Hazards of Love).

Moroever. My obsession with Animal Collective has now led me to its earliest and perhaps most recklessly playful work. Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished has a fauvist, post-psychedelic folk thing going on that reminds me of my favorite band from the olden days, the peerless Incredible String Band.

Speaking of which. Cousin Tabitha gave me an extraordinary ISB tribute album a while back that has become this summer's soundtrack for me: Winged We Were, it's called, and it's a mind-blowing collection of radical reinterpretations of song that most people have never heard in the first place. One of them, Three Is a Green Crown, is so hypnotic that Tabita (NHRN) found she couldn't listen to it and keep driving; she actually had to pull over to the side of the road and hear the song out. You can listen to the original here, then hear an excerpt of its transfiguration here.

Outsider music freaks, get your geek on.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Signs of the Times

Saw a calligraphed, hand-painted sign that read EXIT on the top of a trash heap near Broadway and all my existential dread leached out through my skin.

Spotted a young lady in the Pearl holding a cardboard sign that read "Will design for food." But that must've just been a goof, don't you think?

Heard a rap song on the radio with the refrain "Stop jackin my style, bitch."

Noticed that whereas when I first arrived in Oregon in 2002 (that was the previous recession, if you still remember that relative walk in the park) the Sunday Oregonian's employment listings ran to 8 pages, last Sunday they only spanned TWO. Sure, a lot of ad revenue's been lost to the Internets, but still.

On a lighter note, fabulist and bon vivant Marc Acito just wrote an article for WalletPop about the economy that I actually got something out of and laughed while I was at it.

Just in case anyone's still checking this blog, after my posting only two entries in two weeks, a lot's been going on with me, and one of those things has been a quiet desperation. Which puzzled me, because materially things are going pretty well. But spiritually....

Attended most of last week's Made in Oregon readings, and had a great time, too. But of course it was also strange. Strange to look at work I had programmed but no longer had any connection to. Megan asked me: "wasn't it sad to be there? to not be part of it anymore?" And I said, truthfully enough for the moment, "Oh NO, it was great, like being at a party you didn't have to host!"

But the next day another friend, a natural empath, asked me how I was doing these days and I sort of ... caved in. She touched the hidden spring and all this sorrow welled up. And realized I'd been depressed for weeks.

Partly it's not getting to work on the festival I helped plan, but it's also the sense of dislocation. Like that moment in Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland, where the path she walked in on is swept away behind h er, and then the path ahead is swept away. She's come from nowhere and there's nowhere to go.

Coming up is JAW's big weekend -- which I highly recommend to you, but I'm not sure I'll go myself. I want to go, and bear witness to the work of everyone involved and to enjoy new writing by some of my favorite playwrights. I hope I'll go. But I might not. I can only take so much vertigo.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

News flash: 1980 was kind to no one

Back to the blog after several days of computer meltdown agonies. It seems I have to post rapidly now, before the system implodes on me. Wish me luck.

Made in Oregon kicked off Monday evening with the Sue Mach opus described in the previous post – and after all my bruiting the event about, I’m missed it, because of a lucrative but last-minute rush edit. POOP. If you went, let me know what happened, k?

Right now, though, here’s another peek behind the curtain regarding Wednesday’s outing (July 15 at 6:00pm): The Missing Pieces, by Nick Zagone, which takes place in Portland in 1980 just after the Mt. St Helen's blew. Music plays an important part in this play, I’m glad to say, because it was an era when music converged in a veritable gang bang of clashing styles: punk, pop, New Wave, even disco-inflected versions of all these.

The playwright promises that the partial playlist below will appear either in the play itself or during the pre-show, and it’s an orgy of cheesy one-hit wonders and some classics sans fromage -- the perfect play list for ashy Portland Oregon May 1980. Feast your ears:

The Clash: Train in Vain
Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime
Blondie: Call Me
M: Pop Music
X: Los Angeles
Joy Division: Love Will Tear Us Apart.
Ramones: Let's Go and (but of course) Rock and Roll High School
Blondie: Call Me
The Knack: My Sharona
Michael Jackson: Off the Wall
Pretenders: Brass in Pocket
The Cars: Let's Go

And what of tonight? Be there by six for chills and spills in Brian Kettler’s tense new drama, In School Suspension. It’s about Danny and Angela, two high school students locked away in an abandoned Spanish classroom during a disaster drill, beleaguered by a teacher wants to make sure his students experience authentic feelings of fear and terror. What could possibly go wrong, right?

See you tonight.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Prepare for impact

So brace yourself already, will you, and clear your evenings from this coming Monday on. JAW gets going on July 13 with the first Made in Oregon reading: Sue Mach’s new full-length, The Lost Boy.

Sue read scenes from this intriguing work in progress in the very first JAW Playwrights’ Slam back in 2005, and now you have the chance to hear the story in full. With real live actors and everything – Sue doesn’t have to play all the parts this time round.

By the way, Ms. Mach had a play in the very first JAW ever, way back in the 20th century. It’s lovely to see things come full circle, isn’t it?

I’m counting the hours till Monday, and contenting myself in the meantime to play this groovy teaser over and over again like a rat down the proverbially cheeseless tunnel. Only with the sound turned up really, really high.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

My Big Trip

You’ve noticed it, haven’t you. The spotty posting. The distracted tone. The slack facial muscles, the drooling. Okay, not that so much. But the rest. Just admit it, it’s okay.

The photo below at right might lead you to believe I’ve been working out quite a lot. And meditating big time! Actually, true to tell, some of both has indeed been going on (and let me tell you, meditation is all it’s cracked up to be – I highly recommend it -- not the huffing and puffing), but the startling image you see before you is – but of course – the handiwork of Rose Riordan, Photostop terrorist par excellence. Some people take up crocheting, or raising ferrets, or Adam Lambert, but Rose, well…there was a time when she had quite the moonlighting thing going on with morphing my mug into all manner of amusing contexts.

This was all very affectionate, mind you, but invariably such things fall into the wrong hands sooner or later. Apparently the image resurfaced recently at a former place of employment, with a sarcastic caption appended to it: “the angel of the community.”


I’ll spare you my theories about reverse Stockholm Syndrome and just move on. Because things have been so busy lately as to make me think of my previous gig as a kind of vacation. Two major endeavors are taking up a lot of psychic energy these days, one for Willamette Writers, the other for the fabled Wordstock Festival , two organizations I’ve admired for a long time, but the all day/all night life of the theater obviated doing much with them.

WW has its mega-conference coming – August 6-9, thanks for asking – and I’m organizing the volunteers for the workshop side of the event. And I’ll be spending my birthday this year at Wordstock (October 8-11); presently I’m helping to make contact with the authors who are participating this year and inveigling them into allied activities such as panels and interviews. Activities we’re currently inventing – fun!

Neither of these are paying gigs, but they’re both open doors into communities I only glimpsed through barred windows in the past – communities that will form the predicate for an expanded sense of participation in the infinite universe of scribblers like me.

Wish me luck. I’m going in.

There’s more, too, but I can’t post about it, for reasons you might be able to guess. In the fullness of time, however, all will be revealed…

Friday, July 3, 2009

The most overlooked movie of last year?

There’s a reason why I rarely review movies here; I see most everything a year or more after everyone else. And discussing ancient films is doesn’t exactly lend me currency, you know?

But I have to make an exception for Wendy and Lucy, the austerely beautiful 2008 release from auteur director Kelly Reichardt, written by Jonathan Raymond. It took me a long time to get round to this movie because the basic premise – young woman loses her only friend (her dog) en route to a dubious future – sounded too painful to watch. But the film was shot in Portland, mostly in the northwest industrial district, and I have friends in the cast, so I braved it.

It’s an amazingly wrought film – moody, slow, with little dialogue and less action, at least by the kind of Hollywood standards that demand reversals within the opening seconds of a story. Here you’re not jerked around by the usual devices of screenwriting formulae that tell you exactly what to feel in every moment.

Quite the contrary. It’s the story of a young woman, Wendy (portrayed with impressive understatement by Michelle Williams) who is driving from Indiana to Alaska with her dog – Lucy. Wendy has $525 in cash on her, and, as we find out, none of the other resources, like family, credit cards, etc., many of us take for granted. She makes it as far as a drab outpost of Portland, and then things spiral out of control – most notably, her car breaks down to where it’s beyond repair, and Lucy goes missing. Time to feel sorry for our plucky heroine, right?

Not really. Lucy is gone because Wendy left her tethered in front of a grocery story all day and someone took her away. And Wendy was gone all day because she got thrown in jail for shoplifting dog food. Later it turns out that before Wendy ever left Indiana, she was warned her car could break down at any moment. Even the impetus for the trip – the promise of employment in Alaska – turns out to be more of a rumor than an actual offer.

Wendy’s mistakes, it turns out, are mostly the consequence of sheer, youthful fecklessness. She’s brought her situation upon herself. But what of that? Do we feel less empathy because she’s the engine of her problems? Because ultimately…who is not.

Forgive me now for getting you this far and then dodging the question of what happens to the eponymous pair. The part of the movie I most want to discuss with you . . . I can’t. To do so would completely give away the point of the entire story. At this juncture, therefore, all I can do is urge you to see Wendy and Lucy and to relish the way it takes its time getting to the penultimate scene.

In this moment (which is followed only by a brief coda), we watch Wendy silently make a decision that changes the whole course of the story. Michelle Williams gives us an Oscar-worthy performance rendered almost entirely with her posture and her facial muscles. Those, and a few stark lines of dialogue, bring us to the story’s heartbreaking and probably ineluctable conclusion.

I will tell you, just in case you're faint of heart like me, that the film is not a tragedy. No. But when we comes to forks in the road, it can sometimes feel that way, can't it.

If you’ve seen the film, or when you see it, please talk to me about it. Because what would happen beyond the movie, if the story continued, depends entirely on whether Wendy believes what she herself feels and says. Whether she acts out of altruism or personal convenience is left for the audience to debate, and I'd like to know what you think.

BTW: Something I virtually never do is purchase DVDs of movies I’ve already seen, but I’m buying W&L so that I can watch the aforementioned scene over and over. I’m going to be haunted by this subtle film for a long time.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

This just in!

Funnily enough, when I lived in Nueva York (this was way back in the 20th Century, before you were born), there was such a wealth of thrilling stuff to do all the time that I missed out on the majority of it. I just took it for granted; another raft of groovy events would be happening the following evening, after all.

That ain't necessarily so in lovely, verdant but sometimes quiescent Portland, Ore. When something big comes along, you get there FIRST. So if you're going to be here during the JAW Festival, put this item on your calendar right this minute. Because events like this don't come along every year.

Special panel open and free to the public!
Saturday, July 25, 11am to 1pm in the Ellyn Bye Studio Theater

PLAYS: The Art of Commissioning, Developing and Producing New Plays

Four east coast-based theater professionals discuss the process of giving playwrights money to write new plays; what goes into developing a new work; and planning and choosing a season.

Rose Riordan, Associate Artistic Director of Portland Center Stage, moderates a panel of experts including Paige Evans, Director, LCT3, New York(Stunning; Clay); Sarah Stern, Assoc. Artistic Director, Vineyard Theatre, New York (Avenue Q, God’s Ear); Jennifer Kiger, Assoc. Artistic Director, Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven (Eurydice, Passion Play); and Mark Subias, SUBIAS, New York, Theatrical Agent (Will Eno, Itamar Moses, Sarah Treem).

Presumably, as with other JAW events, first come is first seated, so be there by 10:30 or forget it (the Ellen Bye Studio seats fewer than 200). You heard it here first!

By the way, the scintillating illustration above, by Matt the Samuraiis entitled "Twin Fire Fountains." The original, visible at DeviantART, is an animation. Just like you. Happy Fourth, toots!