Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Summer 2010 -- that's a wrap!

Though it’s not (quite) September yet, I’m going to go ahead and exult. It’s a dank, dark and wuthering day here in Portland, Oregon; the drizzle is sifting down through pines; and word has it that it’s snowing on Mt. Bachelor right now. Leaves of dogwood trees and shrubs have already begun changing color! So although there’s still plenty of time left in the season for a heat snap, I’m proceeding to herald autumn’s arrival, which never fails to cheer my gothic soul.

What is it about the fall that summons nostalgia and reminiscence? Maybe because summer already seems like a memory? I think of Lewis Carroll’s introduction to Alice in Wonderland:

A tale begun in other days,
When summer suns were glowing—
A simple chime, that served in time
The rhythm of our rowing—
Whose echoes live in memory yet,
Though envious years would say “forget.”

Autumn’s onset always prompts me to haul out all my ancient Incredible String Band’s albums, whose music reeks of autumn. Here’s a taste:

Some say autumn saddens them because it represents a corridor to winter, which they associate with death and negation. But I think of both seasons as just doors into other incarnations, ones where we occupy the same space as our ancestors and the veil between us is thinner.

However we regard it, we wouldn’t be human beings if we didn’t simultaneously resist and revel in these annual changes. That’s how contrary we are. Which reminds me that Carroll’s poem continues with this poignant couplet:

We are but older children, dear,
Who fret to find our bedtime near.

Happy Autumn.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The play everyone’s afraid of

Sydney Theatre Company’s coming to town, and that’s a big deal. As a world-class company that has shared its stage with the likes of Complicite, Cheek by Jowl, Out-of-Joint and the National, STC itself has toured to prominent American venues including BAM and the Kennedy Center. Plus its co-artistic director is Cate Blanchett, whose early career was fostered by this theater. So forgive me if I’m just a wee bit IMPRESSED that Cate and STC are coming to Portland for a co-pro with our very own Artists Repertory Theatre.

And that ain’t all. The play in question is a towering classic of American drama: none other than O’Neill’s masterpiece, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Long Day’s Journey into Night. This is a play that is rarely performed, and for good reason. It is a horror show; it starts out with a sense of grim foreboding and gets more and more harrowing as it progresses.

When I saw the Broadway revival many years ago, starring Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards as the fractious parents (Mr. Robards originated the role of the elder son in the play’s premiere production in 1956) and Jamey Sheridan and Campbell Scott as the sons, I was also struck by the way the script produced its meaning through its very setting. The story starts at 8:30 in the morning, and concludes at midnight of the same day. As the ghosts of the past press in on the characters, so too does the house fill with literal gloom, as first shadows and eventually total darkness engulf the family.

So why would you submit yourself to an evening with four people going from bad to worse? Because not only is the script excellent, it’s also a tour de force for every actor in it. Taking on the role of patriarch James Tyrone, a magnificent ruin of a man, is akin to playing an American King Lear; it’s that devastating. In this production, ART perennial favorite William Hurt assays the role, repeating the performance that garnered him great reviews in Australia.

All the other actors can be no less superb; a weak link in this quadrille would cause the whole thing to collapse. This cast includes one of Portland’s finest actors, Todd Van Voris, playing elder son Jamie; from all accounts, he’s been holding his own admirably.

Long Day’s Journey into Night begins this Friday the 13th at the mammoth Newmark Theatre (tip: do not purchase seats closer than the sixth row unless you enjoy exercising your neck’s flexor muscles). Gawker alert: Saturday is the opening night, and Cate is rumored to be attending! You have until September 5 to see the show, but I wouldn’t wait; this is a production everyone will be talking about.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Shall we dance?

Going to the fab Willamette Writers Conference, by any chance? If so, please look me up. For the next three days, from 8:30 am till noon, I’ll be holding down the Manuscript ER there — a fun gig where you can simply show up, writing sample in hand, and get my refreshing and perhaps even bracingly frank response to it.

Bring your actual prose, or one of its exponents, such as query letter or a book proposal. Or simply bring your questions. Wondering why anyone would want to read your new memoir about your family, Lives of the Obscure? I'll be honest) Is the supernatural thriller past its prime? Depends. What exactly is a writer’s platform? E-Z! All will be revealed.

Plus -- special for you! -- it’s free free free, as a perk of being a conferencee. Though if you brought me a latte, I wouldn’t hold it against you. No sugar, but a sprinkle of nutmeg on the top if you have it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Corny as Kansas in August? NOT.

So last night I showed up at South Pacific’s opening at the Keller with interest and trepidation. It’s kind of where I came in, as musicals go — with the movie version, anyway, I’m not that old. I was too little to appreciate the story at the time, which I remember as being long and slow. But I grew up hearing the Broadway cast album and knew all the songs by heart, even if I couldn’t quite puzzle out the story. What was going on over on Bali Ha’i, I asked? My parent claimed they didn’t know either.

Come to find out: it’s a terrific story. That’s right, South Pacific actually works as theater, which is amazingly rare with musicals. Debuting in the middle of Rogers and Hammerstein’s incredibly fecund collaboration, it must have been bracing stuff in 1949; it starts out as a love story, and beguiles you into assuming things will develop along certain lines. But just about when you’ve gotten totally comfortable, it has a reversal just before the close of Act I that drew audible gasps throughout the audience last night — from a Portland audience of 2010.

The clip I have here is from the 2008 Tony Awards, with the original Lincoln Center cast, but the touring company I saw last night was top-notch, especially Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush, the “high as the Fourth of July” heroine with feet of clay. The voices, the dancing, the production values — particularly Michael Yeargan’s clever set, with its bamboo blinds that morph into sun-dappled water and even manage to suggest time passing — are all superb. (The photo above, by Peter Coombs, is from the tour I saw last night.)

This is the first offering in Broadway Across America’s new season, which has some genuinely thrilling shows in store, most notably In the Heights. But South Pacific, as a perfect extension of Bart Sher’s celebrated production, is the absolute must-see. And you only have through this Sunday, August 8, to catch it, so hurry up. This is one show where it's worth popping for the expensive seats.