Monday, November 30, 2009

The Hamilton Mixtape!

Am I the last person in America to know about this? Apparently Lin-Manuel Miranda, he of In the Heights fame, performed this slyly humorous new piece last May.

How cool is it that this kind of performance can now happen in the White House? Thank you, Cousin Tabitha, for sharing this with us.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Below is a lengthy excursus written by my colleague Matthew David Wilder. Those of you who believe we should have dispensed with the messy, frustrating endeavor of theater years ago may want to skip this post. Otherwise, read on. Whether you're struggling within the "mainstream" theater (a risible oxymoron for an increasingly invisible art form), or like me you've been dumped by that system and discovered there's more to life anyway, or whether all that was always irrelevant to you, you may find a kindred spirit in Mr. Wilder.

* * *
FOR SHAWN-MARIE GARRETT: UPON EXITING THE AMERICAN THEATRE (LONG AFTER, IN FACT)Shawn-Marie asked me to write a piece, to collaborate with, or collate with, or ___________ with, her own, about the State of the American Theatre, and in particular why I ejected from it.

This may take a moment.

Many years ago I was a literature major at Yale. This meant that you studied various theoretical, philosophical texts relating to literature; and you read literature. While there I was swayed by various evangelical speeches made by Peter Sellars, the great opera and theatre director. What was most swaying was that, as a mere student, you could *create work that would interface with the greatest texts ever written by human beings--for zero dollars!* That's right! You and your friends and three folding chairs and a parking-garage roof!

Needless to say, I almost instantly subsequently spent many years with friends and folding chairs on parking-garage roofs, as my classmates can attest.

I later was mentored by and worked for--well, haplessly interned for--Peter; and then for Richard Foreman, who now, many decades later, has become a dear friend; and for Robert Woodruff, perhaps the most underappreciated and in some ways the freest and ballsiest of them all.

So I was rolling with some pretty heady characters before I was twenty-five years old. And I was drinking it in. And I was working in my head 24 hours a day to figure out how to sit at that big-boy table.

A detour: there is, I see in retrospect, one reason for this in particular. I grew up an enormous fan of seventies cinema and its auteurs: Altman, Scorsese, Cassavetes. By the eighties--when I was entering college, and entering Theatre-Orbit--these gentlemen were having troubles. Cassavetes was dead. Scorsese was struggling mightly. And Altman was making films out of...well, stage plays!

But in the eighties, the Theatre Auteurs were ascendant. Richard Foreman directing Botho Strauss' profoundly difficult structuralist play "Three Acts of Recognition" AT THE PUBLIC THEATRE? Or how about Woodruff doing a punk-rock "Skin of Our Teeth" as big as three Six Flags attractions crashed together at the Guthrie? Or maybe Lee Breuer doing his epic foley-session "Lulu" at the ART--right before Sellars bumrushed their season with the ENTIRETY of a four-hour plus baroque opera with Handel's "Orlando"?

Clearly this was where the action was, creatively speaking--not moving to L.A. and getting in line to write a Shelley Long vehicle. "Troop Beverly Hills II" could wait till later.

In grad school, I was a hit, an enfant terrible in a small pond. My productions of Gertrude Stein and Shakespeare made most of what plays on Broadway now look like a flea circus. The great Des McAnuff hired me *before* I graduated to direct "The Hairy Ape" at La Jolla--I was the youngest guy at that time to direct in that theatre (beating Peter by a year or two).

A few more regional gigs followed, but the writing was on the wall. I was a combination unwanted bull in a china shop, and was more often than not considered a little kid in dad dress-up clothing. Old actors used to crossing to the martini glass didn't want to hear from this Gen-X shmegegge in a "Natural Born Killers" t shirt.

So I downshifted to the indie world. You know, that Erik Ehn "Big Cheap Theatre" thing. Austin, barbecue, girls with extensive Lilith Fair cd collections, lotsa readings, lotsa poetic monologues that don't make sense, lots cutesy set design with little Hot Wheels cars on strings.

In brief: it always felt a little bit like being at some hipster couple's Sunday barbecue. They seem an awful lot like their mom and dad, but they dress real weird, and play this slouchy/depressing music that's nothing like Mom and Pop's Stones and Kinks vinyl.

I tried to do my Gesamtkunstwerky thing in this laid-back, slow-poky, slackerrific setting. Most of what I worked on were new plays. It was kind of like an awkward party where Otto Preminger had to sit around making conversation with Dinosaur Jr.

And so, inch by inch, I found my way back to my first love, cinema. In recent years, I made a film about Philip K. Dick with Bill Pullman, Taryn Manning, M. Emmet Walsh and other great actors that has toured the planet on the festival circuit and will soon appear on a laptop near you. I am working on a second feature, about the porn star Linda Lovelace, and am writing a script for Brad Pitt's Plan B and for other excellent establishments. I feel I am in the right place.

There are caveats to this. I often sit with development people in beautifully appointed offices with Japanese or Polish posters for Polanski or Altman or Wakamatsu movies on the walls. We talk about how we wish we could be making "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" or "3 Women"...and then we get down to the business at hand. So! A sequel to "2012." Like, "2013." What's left to blow up?

The boxes of what is possible within the system in movies grows narrower and narrower. Mainstream bread-and-butter fare gets worse and worse. It's tougher to be an auteur in THIS medium as well.

There is a difference: Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh...not to mention the very very many great non-American filmakers...they are part of the cultural conversation. They are not (entirely, at least) doodling in a corner. A sizable portion of the filmgoing public anticipates their next move avidly.

In theatre...well, it is my theory that when the American theatre hit a frightening financial crash in the early nineties, it made all the wrong moves. Those who had jobs lusted to keep those jobs, period. And so the theatres locked themselves into their graying audiences. With the exception of certain intelligent outfits in New York, you know what you're going to get from an average season in an average American regional theatre. One black musical; one one-person show (usually musical); an American chestnut for the seniors, a "Golden Boy" or "Our Town" or "Glass Menagerie;" and one biggie, either a Shakespeare with a cast of eight or a big-kahuna musical. This is pretty much the formula. Occasionally some venturesome soul sticks in a newish play that did well in New York a year or two ago (generally something that in some way resembles "Sex and the City").

When I first entered theatre, this lean upon the old folks and their tastes...well, selling regional theatre as good old entertainment versus television and film was ridiculous, and made theatre the poor, crippled cousin, the old lady who can't get out of her rocking chair. Now, in an era of iPhone apps and Facebook and Grand Theft Auto, it is ridiculous to pretend this is any kind of proper "entertainment." It is--let's face it--a night out for tired businessmen and their wives.

Tired white businessmen who are not venturesome enough to be dragged to an Asian-themed restaurant or a modern-dance concert. So, okay, I'll see the damn Tennessee Williams thing. And at intermission, depending on where their blood sugar is at, they will roll their eyes at Bob from down the hallway at the office and say, "How'd we get roped into this?," or, if they're feeling noblesse obliging, "The girl is actually not half bad."

This is tragic. In Europe, theatre is considered a living thing, and waxworks approaches to classics are anathema. It is considered that the audience is familiar enough with the dramatic literature to deal with a fresh encounter with the meanings of the text. In America, no one cares one way or the other. Not only is no one shocked by a "deconstruction" of a classic text; they can't be bothered to hear a foursquare version of the original anyway!

Were theatre to be of any currency, of any value at all in America, it would have to have been allied more firmly with the fine arts--with painting, with dance, perhaps with experimental fiction. It would--let's put cards on the table now--have to put its snooty-toot hat on a bit. It would have to say, "I am Art now. I am not vaudeville, not burlesque. My actors are no longer in danger of being buried at the crossroads with a stake in their heart. I am a different thing now. Times have changed, culture has changed, above all money has changed."

This would make David Mamet angry and might make a few tired businessmen sad. But I think we'd have a much richer theatre culture than what we have now...which is a bunch of people with theatre jobs hanging on to those jobs until they, or their graying patrons, expire.

And so I sally forth in a different medium. I enjoy working there. I feel connected in every meeting, in every conversation to the culture at large, rather than feeling like a weird fetishist indulging in his fetish in private. It is difficult to get *anything* going, it is difficult to get challenging things going. But I feel good about what I make.

One last thing. In nearly every harrumphing mission statement for, or defense of, the American theatre, there is talk about the primacy of live human presence. I have almost never found this to be the most important element of any theatrical production, save for a few extremely violent Reza Abdoh shows. What WAS unique, one hesitates to say "magical," about theatre, was the kind of acting and in particular the kind of poetic text it allowed. Cinema does not do well with this. You will note that even the strongest filmic Shakespeare adaptations (enter whichever you love in your head right now) tend to physicalize and image-ize the text more abrasively and needily than any strong theatre production does.

That element, to me, is the most beautiful, the most sublime element of theatre; and one that, in our current climate, seems to me utterly lost.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Days have gone by and I couldn't be sorrier.

Yes, I've done it again. Disappeared. But now I'm back.

You did realize I was gone, didn’t you? Well. By way of celebrating my Thanksgiving advent, I’m going to filch from the creativity of some fellow bloggers.

Following playwright Patrick Wohlmut’s lead over at his blog, Draining the Locks, I want to say how grateful I am that you’re checking this blog just to check out my latest mental leakage. (Even if Cousin Tabitha did admit to me last night, during the Thanksgiving dessert course, no less, that she skips over the boring parts.) Back in the day (i.e., last year), when this thing was called Mr. Mead’s PuPu Platter as a way of apologizing for its randomness, the blog felt like a message in a bottle. Nowadays it’s part diary, part safety valve – a way to bridge the gap between the luxurious solitude of working at home and the inconvenient need for contact that apparently comes hard-wired into human consciousness.

Originally I was delighted to get any hits. Nowadays they oscillate inexplicably between ... well, let’s just say much more than a few. Which is a thrill for me personally. Never mind that pundits like Arianna get upwards of 10,000 per day.

Of course a dismaying percentage of my hits comes from intergalactic white noise – people or other entities who wind up here inadvertently and depart seconds later, have ascertained that this place is nowhere near where they thought they were going. I’m grateful for youse, too, and – in homage to SMB’s suit over at From Every Corner -- here’s a shout out to a few recent castaways hailing from Cairo, Helsinki, Nordrhein-Westfalen (Germany), Mississauga (Ontario), Hyogo (Japan), Sentjur (Brezovica), Ontario, Essex, Tehran, Toronto, London and Bucharest – not to mention all the mysterious visits from the tireless googlebot. And I’m especially honored by the visits from various corners of Cascadia.

Thanks for coming. I promise everything will be better – next year.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Thespian Nation

Just finished the theater equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (don’t extend the metaphor too far, please) that’s taken me from one end of the county to the other. It started on Wednesday – not with a play, actually, but a theatrical event. Dmae Roberts read from her work-in-progress memoir, Lady Buddha and the Temple of Ma. The poised Ms. Roberts delivered a funny, self-deprecating and touching performance that left me looking very forward to the publication of her book. Not to steal her thunder, but ask her to tell you what her mother taught her about how to kill chickens. No, it’s not grisly – quite the contrary.

The next night I was back at Lewis & Clark, but at the Theater Department, for Beckett(s), an evening of Sam’s short pieces that director and curatorial mastermind Stephen Weeks described as “somewhere between a museum tour, a haunted house, and installation art.” The experience took me into crannies and nooks I didn’t know existed in the building. A favorite performance included a filmed version of What Where in which the constant blurring and refocusing of the images gave me the sense of being drugged under interrogation. Also I loved Not I, which could be watched from two vantages: a catwalk, where you looked straight across at the frantically confessional mouth jabbering away while a well yawned at your feet that had an ornate sofa at its bottom; or downstairs, peeping through a set of eyeholes. From above you could see that whoever’s peepers peered through the eyeholes were projected into the well, just below the mouth. Eerie.

Most unintentionally theatrical moment of the evening: during a performance of Play, in which the audience was seated onstage and the three actors were seated at the top of the auditorium, a few spectators drifted in and sat directly below the actors. These spectators seemed to take for granted that they were facing a crowd staring back at them while a disjointed dialogue played out over their heads. C’est Beckett!!

Alas, the Beckettfest is history, but I also made it to Hand2Mouth’s current opus, Everyone Who Looks Like You, which has one more week at the Theater!Theatre! space. Make sure you see this one. As one of Portland’s most consistently genre-busting ensembles, Hand2Mouth never fails to surprise, but this piece…this piece alternates between being hilarious, harrowingly recognizable and – dare we acknowledge it – moving.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, H2M has created a piece all about family – the parental units, of course, but just as importantly, the siblings. Those other people hanging around the house while you were growing up that you had to cope with. The title refers to this, of course, but also to something so startling I guarantee you won’t see it coming. And the whole evening is like that.

Everyone Who Looks Like You - Trailer from Hand2Mouth Theatre on Vimeo.

Several times during the show, I caught myself wishing my brother was seeing it with me. Not for sentimental reasons (though the play is often poignant, it is not sappy for even a moment), but because Everyone Who Looks Like You celebrates that sense of childhood sometimes being about kids vs. adults – when the kids aren’t squabbling among themselves, of course. I came away feeling like parents will come and go, but your sibs are the only people who will know all about you all your life.

Also this weekend, I saw Charlie and the Chocoloate Factory, produced by Oregon Children’s Theatre over at the Newmark. Got to tell you: it is something to sit in a 900-seat theater that’s totally packed with kids who are cheering for a show in which brat after brat gets undone by his/her own greed. And it’s adding performances! Amazing! Love seeing theaters make money. You have one more week to see this show, if it’s not already sold out, and to marvel at Sarah Gahagan’s eye-popping costumes.

Finally, I concluded my theater blitz at the closing performance of a new company now resident at Portland Actors Conservatory, The Montgomery Streeet Players, which presented three new one-acts written by Scott Rogers. It was called Stay for the Cake, and indeed a particolored gateau took center stage in the final playlet, which was fed to the audience at the conclusion. Nice. Can we have more plays in which the actors applaud the audience for showing up and even feed us after the curtain call?

Monday, November 9, 2009

At last: a No Exit I can live with

Plays I refuse to sit through again in this lifetime:

All My Sons
Feydeau’s idiotic so-called sex farces
Spring Awakening
Pretty much all Roman “comedies”
Mother Courage
Butterflies Are Free

Although I must admit. There’s a passel of plays that always struck me as thunderously boring in their original forms that have received truly astonishing makeovers from gifted renovators – face-lifts so total as to make those plays entirely fresh experiences. The Wooster Group’s version of The Hairy Ape. Neal Bell’s transmogrification of that shabby little shocker, Thérèse Raquin. Steven Cosson’s uproarious revision of The Children’s Hour, retitled Fingered! (true, this was an out-and-out spoof, but still). And now, right here in Cascadia, Jerry Mouawad and Imago Theatre have actually made me enjoy my most abhorred script of all time, a threadbare little play I swore I would never attend again under any circumstances: No Exit.

The siren call that got to me get over myself was the casting: JoAnn Johnson, Maureen Porter and Tim True, three of Portland’s finest actors. Just as expected, they were superb in every way. What I didn’t expect was a set design (created by Jerry Mouawad, who also directed) that opened up the play’s meticulous triangulation in ways I had never imagined.

As conceived by Jerry, the room where the condemned are to spend eternity together is a flat plane in space, surrounded by infinite darkness on all sides. And it tips. The slightest imbalance puts one character radically downstage, another high in the air. Sudden feints cause the room to reel. Only a carefully choreographed suspension of emotional ballast keeps the room in equilibrium – the rueful state where the play comes to a rest.

Of course this is what the play is supposed to be about, but when have you ever seen this realized with No Exit? All the tension and drama I missed through years of seeing this play done badly melted away, and suddenly I saw the taut, thrilling drama Sartre must have originally envisioned.

Oh, I wanted to add that Maureen, Tim and JoAnn are ably aided by Bryce Flint-Somerville, who played the Valet with demonic glee and held his own with his colleagues. Ultimately, to be sure, this is a version of No Exit, but grab this chance to see what’s probably the only good production you’ll ever bear witness to. This weekend’s the last one of the run, and since Saturday was packed to the rafters -- literally -- I suggest you get tickets soon. Otherwise: No Entrance.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Orpheus a là mode

Forget what you believe about Philip Glass. If you’re accustomed to associated his music with numbing repetition and avant-garde antics, his opera Orphée is going to come as a surprise. Oh, it sounds like Glass all right. But yoked into the service of narrative, his music finds depths and nuances you don’t always find in classic operatic warhorses.

Even the avid opening night audience last evening, who clearly showed up ready to have a good time, was caught off guard by the Joplinesque music of the opening scene. From there the music morphs gradually through a series of musical moods, from movingly lambent intimacy to “heroic” set pieces that would please even grand opera enthusiasts.

Likewise, the story leaps through various dramatic styles. That story is not just the ancient Orpheus myth of a man who follows his wife to the underworld, but also Jean Cocteau’s pre-postmodern gloss on it. Now: I haven’t seen that film since my early 20s, which was probably too young to see a film about the power of love over time and about the way foreknowledge of death affects that love. At the time, I thought Cocteau’s effort was a pretentious snooze. Thirty years later, whether it’s thanks to Glass or from sheer dint of personal experience, I found the same story profound.

References to the movie abound – most conspicuously in an ongoing motif involving mirrors that provide both dangerous reflections and passage to unseen worlds -- but I digress. I was going to say that Glass’s unique dramaturgy recalls ancient storytelling more than modern; now we tend to expect a unified tone throughout, where the ancients had no problem mixing comedy and tragedy. The scene in which Orphée tries not to look at Eurydice is treated as out-and-out comedy – close to buffonery, really – yet you know what’s coming, and the permanent loss of Eurydice is all the more poignant because you’ve been tickled into forgetting it for a few minutes.

Most surprisingly of all is the opera’s final scene. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that it’s a marvelous bit of playwriting prestidigitation that makes you recast the entire myth.

Can you tell I was impressed? This is one opera you should catch – never mind if you don’t usually care for the form, and not to worry if you think you don’t care for Glass. It’s all too rare to see an opera that works as theater, so do yourself a favor and go. Just three more performances.

By the way, almost as much fun as the opera itself was the fab celebrity blogging table, which was very much its own event. To catch up on what the opera experience was like as it unfolded, started with Art Scatter’s preliminary account here; Mr. Scatter provides you with links to all the bloggolalia. His cohorts included Cynthia Fuhrman, Storm Large, Byron Beck and even (from backstage) cast member Marc Acito.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My big trip

Though my Halloween Countdown disguised the fact, I was gone for a spell last week, sunning my pasty northwestern legs and otherwise aging my skin cells in the turquoise waters of Napili Bay. Maui.

Sure, it was lovely. But remind me never to leave Portland again when it’s at the height of its autumn glory. There I was basking in tropical temps (overnight lows in the mid-70s!), and all I could think of was the mist sifting down through the lurid light show of all the falling leaves back home. Just like a Brontë novel. Except for the consumption, madness, and festering cisterns.

Seasonal Affective Disorder aside, I had some adventure, as the photos here attest. Yes, I parasailed! A joyous experience. Not only was I exhilarated as I lifted up into the air, I was actually moved emotionally; to be weightless and aloft and 1,200 feet high in the air was like slipping out of time altogether for a while. Just taking the world in from a distance, like it was a story someone once told me. Like I was leaving it behind forever.

We’ve been to Maui several times before, so the purpose of this trip was to be as idle as possible. To spend all day on the beach, eat from the roadside stands as much as possible, go to bed early. Snack on lotuses. But I can’t handle total relaxation, so I read several books while beached. One was by my friend Joan Herrington, about August Wilson, entitled “I Ain’t Sorry for Nothin’ I Done” -- still one of the best books about the playwright’s work, even though it’s 11 years old now.

And I brought a novel with me that could not have been more wrong for a sunny-soaked holiday: Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic nightmare The Road. This book, about a father and young son tramping through a grey world of ash in search of a warmer climate, is so compelling that I rapidly tore through page after page, hopeful and fearful that they would come across other people (they do, mostly for the worse). This book is bleak. I soon found I couldn’t read it in bed at night unless I seeking insomnia.

So I padded on down to the “hotel” clubhouse, a repository of abandoned vacation books. Reluctantly I picked up a copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Anne Shaffer Annie Barrows. Everything about the cutesy title and the pastel-colored cover seemed to shriek FOR GIRLS ONLY. But it’s a mega-best seller, so I considered it research, and therefore work, and therefore acceptable reading. And to my surprise, it turned out to be a lark. Starts out as silly as a daffodil, but then goes on to reach surprising depths. I was grateful for its light touch, finally, as a temporary antidote to The Road.

However, it’s the McCarthy novel that will stay with me forever. And which surprised me, finally, with its Beckettian view of a universe in which both the horror and the redemptive force of being alive is….well, other people.

Yeah, I’m glad to be back among them.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Life on the dark side

Okay, so All Souls’ Day is November 2, not today. Today is the far less interesting All Saints’ Day, but we’ll blip over that in order to continuing with the more mysterious and ooky tides of the season.

Here in tropical Portland, gardening is a big ole deal. And while even the most avid of gardeners looks forward to that time of year when their work is done for a few months, there’s still much to do right now. Conventional wisdom sez you plants new shrubs now so that they overwinter and have a head start when spring arrives.

With that in mind, here’s a little inspiration for those special places in your apothecary. I mean garden.

Wicked Plants, a book of “botanical atrocities” by Amy Stewart, is evil fun. From plants that strangle to shrubs that explode, here’s how to have a garden that will turn the Addams Family bilious with envy.

Black Plants, created by Paul Bonine and published by Oregon’s own Timber Press, is a gorgeous compendium of plants whose dusky shades seem to defy all you thought you knew about photosynthesis.

And as if you needed more reason to ban pastels from your yard, Karen Platt’s Black Magic & Purple Passion, now in its 3rd edition, is the book that started the craze for baleful foliage. Karen richly illustrated tome makes me want to turn my entire property into a haunted house. She warns, though, that dark plants are best used as accents; the more they’re surrounded by contrasting plants, the more they pop.

So come over to the dark side and let’s get to work. During what Portlanders optimistically call “cloud breaks,” there’s still much to do.