Friday, February 26, 2010

Lullaby of Spring

February though it is, spring is well underway in the Pacific Northwest. No need to feel envious, thought, if you're still blanketed by winter in the east; when the moutain snows stop this early here, it usually means we pay for it eventually with a summer drought.

Meanwhile, though, THIS is the kind of spring (even if it is months too soon) that makes me love this corner of the world. Water drips from everywhere; the rustle of rain is a constant underscore; the insistent bright green of first leaves is just starting to appear, like they're attempting to gauge the weather. It's a beautiful but somber sort of a spring -- not the delirium of, say, D.C.'s cherry trees or SoCal's wild poppies -- but I prefer this. The triumph of mushrooms, moss, hellebores, particolored lichens, newts and banana slugs.

Cascadia's spring is perfectly captured by this ancient (1967) song by Donovan Leitch.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fascinating schism

Just for fun, check out the results of a recent survey conducted by The Denver Post, which -- lacking no sense of irony -- ran on Valentine’s Day. The results, redacted from a canvas of 177 theater folk of various stripes, is the “10 most important American plays” ever produced.

Probably you’ll have few quibbles with the top ten themselves: Death of a Salesman, Angels in America, Streetcar, Long Day’s Journey, etc. Of greater interest, actually, is the rest of the list, which runs to 294 titles. This by itself is intriguing; few people could recall that many plays on their own, but the collective brain trust ranged astronomically wide -- Rodgers and Hammerstein share column space with the Wooster Group, and Sophie Treadwell rubs shoulders with Adam Rapp.

All of August Wilson’s plays are on the list somewhere (even Jitney), three of which land in the top 20.

There are two plays I never even heard of -- but no doubt they’re fabulous, since they both came in ahead of such plays as Tea and Sympathy and Thom Paine, based on nothing. Also, since words like “important” are being tossed around: Other People’s Money beats out Ragtime in the rankings? Really?

Presumably Uncle Tom’s Cabin doesn’t rank higher than it does because several adapters appear to have had a hand in its stage version (all unauthorized, naturally) and because it’s not exactly written in deathless prose, but it would have been in my top ten fur shur. And I do the brilliant version of it from some years back, The Drama Department’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, got a mention. But there, you see? My ideology is showing. And if most of the 177 people polled for this survey are as idiosyncratic as me, then, well…we need not kid ourselves about its science.

Never mind, though, it’s still fascinating. Most telling of all about the top ten rankings is that is that Angels in America is the most recent entry, with Fences coming in next. After that we’re slip-sliding away into earlier 20th century. The highest-ranking plays can only boast of two living playwrights! Are we so academic anymore that we dare not hail something current as also important? To be fair, August: Osage County clocked in at #11, but after that it takes till #52 (Octavio Solis’ Lydia) to get a play of recent vintage.

I’d love to know what you would have included on this list.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mamet's first masterpiece -- still cranky after all these years

30 years ago or more, I saw American Buffalo so many times that I lost count of how. In the 1970s especially, it was the perfect 60s backlash play -- by which I mean it was hyperrealistic, had only three actors, and called for men who could yell at the top of their lungs. One of whom got to trash the set during every performance.

Third Rail Rep -- displaying its signature knack once again for producing plays whose freshness startles you -- has an excellent production of Mamet’s first masterpiece running through March 7. And I have to say that the script, while fixed firmly in the past, is far from dated -- quite the contrary. For me, anyway, it has taken the intervening years to finally see the play clearly.

Bear in mind, prior to American Buffalo, Mamet had only produced a handful of moderately amusing plays that are not performed so much anymore: Squirrels, The Duck Variations, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. There’s nothing wrong with these scripts, except that they now read like juvenilia next to the plays that would come after them, including Edmond, Oleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross and many others.

So unforeseen was American Buffalo’s advent that it caught critics by surprise; some praised it, but others dismissed it as inconsequential, all surface with nothing to say. Those who sniffed at the play decried it as mere scaffolding for actors to act out on; they thought Mamet’s dialogue, with its fragments and loops and streaming profanity, was merely the dramatic equivalent of photorealism. I remember a professor of mine saying: “If I wanted to rub shoulders with people like that I’d move to Jersey.”

Decades later, we can see American Buffalo for what it always was: a devastating portrait of whose manners, interests, possessions and vocabulary are all scavenged from the scrap-heap of American culture. (The play’s central character, Donny, actually scavenges for a living.) It’s a tour de force for actors (all superb as always at TRR), but it turns out the play itself is deeper than it lets on.

By the way, TOMORROW -- that would be Sunday, February 21, at 4pm -- Third Rail is hosting a panel discussion about the play, on its set at the World Trade Center. I am among the empanelled, along with Philip Cuomo (moderator), Victoria Parker-Pohl, and Scott Yarbrough. You don’t have attend the 2pm matinee to hear the panel and participate in the discussion, but if you haven’t seen this production, do yourself a favor and go. If it’s been awhile since you’ve seen the landmark American masterwork, you might find your parallax view of it has shifted.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Totally blonditudinous

Strange but true: there are some narratives that improve upon their transformed into wholesome musicals. The doleful story of the Van Trapp Family Singers, for one, in which a plucky brood sings its way past the Nazis. (Just don’t ask what happened after that.)

Broadway’s been making the most of this recently, as the Keller’s “Broadway Across America” season demonstrates; its previous offering was Xanadu, lovingly cherished by some as one of the worst musicals ever created for film. And now Legally Blonde the Musical, based on a movie that a lot of people genuinely enjoyed, which in turn was based on a book (who knew?) by Amanda Brown that was also popular. Yet its reaches its apotheosis in the musical version. How come?

There’s something about people breaking into song when their hearts are full that is -- well, if not “realistic,” then true to our experience. Ever walk down a city street when you’re crazy for love? It feels like your happiness radiates from you like a supernova, so bright you feel sure everyone walking by you can you’re love’s fool. You’d sing, too, if you didn’t think they’d drag you into the drunk tank for it.

Legally Blonde communicates some of this -- what Joni Mitchell called “the dizzy, dancing way you feel.” Sure, it’s fizzy, but the first scene promises to deliver on its promise that all will work out, and it does. We all see from the very first scene that the megablonde Elle Woods (named for the magazine, but of course) is better than the stereotypes she accepts for herself. And we see she’s too good for the erstwhile boyfriend she chases to Harvard Law School. We know what’s going to happen, but now how -- that’s the fun of the show.

Amusingly and knowingly, the musical trades on multiple stereotypes that its characters goes on to transcend: a silly gay boy, a graceless lesbian, a musclebound delivery dude … even a waspy ice princess is redeemed by the end, with only the truly heartless left out of the family circle.

At left are a few of the show’s smaller stars -- all of them rescue dogs, by the way, which seems consonant with the show’s redemptive theme. It all adds up to the surprising conclusion-- surprising to me, anyway -- that this is one Broadway musical that’s actually worth your while (you’ve got through Sunday to see it). Admittedly, it won’t make you long for law school, but you will feel that you don’t have to chased out of Austria to merit the love of your peeps.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hamlet hearts you

Hamletomanes, Portland has been good to you this winter. First CoHo Productions mounted a revelatory slenderizing of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, adapted by Chris Murray and directed by Kristan Seemel, using just five actors and running at a scant two hours (and running through February 20, by the way), that turned the classic into a rollercoaster ride. And now Portland author Myrlin A. Hermes (yes, that’s her real name, okay?) turns the tale inside out with her latest novel, The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet.

Ms. Hermes dazzling sleight of hand is to give us the events that led up to the part of the Hamlet’s life familiar to us from the Bard’s version -- much of which is seen through the eyes of a student comrade of the Prince’s, better known to us as Horatio. From his perspective, much in Shakespeare’s play that begs question is answered here, often incidentally. Why was Hamlet so peremptory with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? How did Hamlet’s royal father come to be napping alone in an orchard when death came creeping up on him, and what exactly was the poison? Did Ophelia know more than she let on? And who exactly was this Yorick that Hamlet (alas) knew so well? Even “Polonius” turns out to be a snarky nickname that explains a great deal indeed.

What makes all this so much fun is that the author insinuates these revelations so subtly that you find yourself saying: of course, now I understand. Without changing Shakespeare a jot, Ms. Hermes utterly alters our understanding of what back story (in her fevered imagination) informs characters’ actions, attitudes, and even specific utterances. In this way her book takes its place with revisionary works of fiction such as Wicked and The Wind Done Gone.

While already knowing Hamlet, or The Wizard of Oz, or Gone with the Wind will heighten your appreciation for their descendants, in all cases this isn’t actually necessary to love any of these novels -- such is the power of excellent writing and a story well told.

BONUS: Myrlin A. Hermes reads from The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet at Powell’s Bookstore TONIGHT at 7:30 pm. I’ll be there, but of course! If the author’s histrionic skills bear any correspondence to her storytelling talent, I expect a compelling evening.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Just read Olive Kitteridge already. K?

About a month, I ran into Molly Gloss and Gretchen Corbett at Theatre Vertigo’s opening night of Boom, the fiercely funny new play by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. I was toting a copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Olive Kitteridge, and Molly said: “Olive. A hard person to like.”

True that, though by the end of this story collection, I could say I loved the title character without, perhaps, really liking her. Put another way, I was impressed with Mrs. Kitteridge, though if I were able to knock on her front door up in Crosby, Maine, I doubt she would have time for me.

Ms. Strout does a remarkable thing with this interconnected group of short stories; she gives us an antiheroine that we can surmise would not care for us personally and makes us grant her a grudging acknowledgment of humanity. We note how Olive is mired in her private pathologies -- her quirks and tics that are so obvious to us but not to her -- and know the reverse equation pertains, too. Olive would instantly see through our self-delusions, but unlike most people, she just might point them out.

Olive’s author accomplishes in a remarkable way. Of the 13 stories in this collection, only a handful are actually about Olive herself. She appears in every story, however -- sometimes only fleetingly yet tellingly (waving indifferently at a piano player on the way into a restaurant, for example), sometimes more substantially. And in this way, Ms. Strout gives us a composite portrait of an American Gothic original and her family. We see her as others see how, and we decided when their assessments are right and when they’re wrong.

Sometimes a work of fiction can shake your soul without any apparent attempt to do that. Many of the stories show us people in a rural community who make quiet decisions that changes their lives forever -- the decisions that have been coming for years yet were not clearly foreseen. Some make you smile; others break your heart. Particular affecting for me were “A Little Burst” and “Starving,” but it’s really the accumulation of all the stories that carries the book’s impact.

Do yourself a favor and read Olive Kitteridge.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Happy Hedgehog Day

Spring has come to Cascadia early, evidently. You can tell by how bright green and ubiquitous the moss is. This time of year, entire lawns are made of moss here. My driveway is a sheet of celadon. Even the back windows of my car, which have neither been washed nor rolled down since September, have moss creeping up them.

Hence it seems fitting that the city-wide event laid to rest last night is known as the Fertile Ground Festival. That’s why my blogging has been dilatory of late -- during the Festival’s 12 crazy days and nights, I made it to 17 different events. Yet still couldn’t get to several things I heard were white hot.

Here’s just a few highlights:

Truth and Beauty
, an adaptation of Ann Patchett’s searing memoir by Elizabeth Klinger in collaboration with Betsy Cross and Jessica Wallenfels and her company, Many Hats Collaboration. Highly physical and fluid yet carrying a palpable emotional charge, this play was a perfect confluence of movement and text. It stunned me; I could hardly speak afterward.

Claire Willett’s How the Light Gets In was a sassy psychological breakthrough story that deftly avoided the usual traps of sentiment and sententiae, and showed us that Claire is very much a writer to watch.

SexyNurd, a one-man show co-written by Pema Teeter and AuGi and performed by the latter, blew the minds of the comedy club habitu├ęs who saw it; it started out like a stand-up routine and quickly veered into depths all but unknown in those venues. I doubt those audiences knew what hit them.

Dirty Bomb, by Rob Newton, was like a toxic Something for Everyone (does anyone remember that movie?) in which everyone’s worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It’s hard to say you “like” the play, with all the bleakly corrosive badgering of the family portrayed in it, but the intensity of writing was so wuthering, and the acting so superb, that the audience came away impressed, whether they liked it or not. Rob is a major new addition to Portland’s theater scene, and I’m glad he’s found a berth here.

Hunt Holman’s Willow Jade got its world premiere during Fertile Ground at the Portland Playhouse, and its run continues for another two weeks, so get it while it’s hot. Without giving too much away, the play is a dramaturgical marvel. It starts out like a well-observed social satire about people going nowhere fast in a small Washington town. Then slowly -- so gradually no one notices at first -- the story goes more and more off the rails. By the time the audience realizes this consciously, it’s too late; they can only hold on to their seats and as the story completely comes apart at the seams. Literally. This one I have to go back and see at least one more time.

My my my but this year’s fest, which is only the second, was a bang-up year. The bar’s set very high for next year. Put it on your calendar now.