Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Once more into the screech

A little post-TBA fallout for you.

Remember Taylor Mac’s larger-than-life cabaret, subtitled The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook? Taylor gave us a wild sing-a-long version of a Tiny Tim tune that can only be filed under: OB. SCURE. “The Other Side,” it was called, and I was thunderstruck when he started in on it, because I kid you not, I had been telling James all about that very song not a week before.

Part of the fun of Tiny Tim back in those halcyon days (talking the 60s here, and I was very young, okay?) was that you were never quite sure whether Mr. Tim was for real or whether you were totally being had. This was before Andy Kaufman, mind you; it was pre-DEVO and all kinds of other, later stunts designed to make sure your laughter was nervous.

Everything on the God Bless Tiny Tim album was downright bizarre, and it ranged from retro chic (a pacifist Irving Berlin song) to novelty songs like the familiar “Tip-toe Through the Tulips”; there was even an old vaudeville gag (“The Viper”). But nothing was odder — or more prescient — than “The Other Side,” a song about melting polar icecaps and the world’s subsequent drowning “to wash away the sin.”

Don’t take my word for it. Check out this video tribute to the song, which pairs original footage with the vintage Tiny Tim recording. Pay special attention to the televangelist’s voice at the end, urging you to wade into the water and “having a swimming time” as sea swells.

Then congratulate Taylor Mac and me on our fiercely omnivorous tastes.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Twentytwentytwenty-four hours to go: Mike Daisey’s All the Hours in the Day

Getting into Mike Daisey’s epic, 24-hour monologue, All the Hours in the Day, was a lot of like boarding a really popular Disneyland ride. Long lines snaked all over Washington High School, and I passed FOUR checkpoints before even making it to the lines. On the way I got my left wrist stamped with a jack o’lantern image and a grey wristband affixed to my right wrist and my ID checked TWICE.

But Andrea Stolowitz, Kate Bredeson and I snagged excellent close-up seats and settled in for a good hard sit on ancient auditorium chairs. We were the lightweights, however; along the sides of the auditorium, along the first floor’s side exits, were the True Believers: people with coolers, folding chairs and sleeping bags.
And then it starts. Promptly at 6pm, words are projected onto an onstage screen: The Hour We Begin to Speak.

We all scream. And out comes Mike.

He sits at his signature wooden desk, a stack of papers preset there along with the water pitcher and empty glass we expect. Mike is still for a long time, peering into the audience as though mulling over what to say. This is prolonged. We titter. Still he waits. Then from the darkness that surrounds him on all sides, he extracts an bottle of vodka and a shot glass. Downs a shot. The audience cheers. The Mike produces a gun and lays it on the table. Nobody cheers.

Later on, Mike will assure us that both the vodka and the gun are real. And so the stage is set for a Chekhovian moment.

Before that, though, we are still waiting. The man who is going to spend the next 24 hours talking is silent. Finally, he opens his mouth and says:

There isn’t enough time to tell you everything you need to hear.

From there he wanders through a series of stories so crafted with such immense artifice that they appear to natural — which is to say, all but extemporaneous. Mike confesses he’s a very, very angry person, and we segue to the best friend of his teen years, Gibbs, and the stunts they would pull to vent their anger. Then we hear about a bad gambler whose face and body are riddled with “tells” that repeatedly give him away. (“He would have been a great actor,” says Mike, “but made a terrible gambler.”) The gambler had a brilliant but broken son, trained on the piano by Stravinsky himself, whose name was Warren Zevon.

For hours our man goes on, wandering into this odd vein and whatever dark substrata seem to occur to him at the moment — as in a sudden and apparent digression about his wife (and director) Jean-Michele Gregory has always had this astonishing memory, and recalls with absolute clarity friends, teachers, etc., from earliest childhood. And so skill is Mike Daisey that we forget what we came in knowing: that there are no digressions, and this man knows exactly where he’s going.

It’s all never not compelling. Like a novelist who knows how to end a chapter in such a way that you just have to turn the page to see what happens, Mike ends every 45-minute segment suddenly, arising and disappearing into the gloom and making you hunger to see what’s coming next.

In between each “chapter” are divertissements. The first is Holcombe Waller, who does a vocalise of a passage from a science fiction novel (not an inadvertent choice, as we'll find out). Later, not long after dawn, Nikki Weaver will guide the audience in restorative yoga. It’s all icing, of course, because Mike’s narrative skills are all-encompassing.


After some time, I’m tranced out. I go home and start watching the live streaming, and try to get to bed early, planning to return in the wee hours. But attempting an early bedtime never works for me. I don’t drift into sleep till around 1:11 am, and I'm in the middle of an extraordinarily vivid dream when the alarm clock goes off at 2. I reach over, turn it off, the next thing I know it’s 7:17 and I have a migraine headache.

Oy. I shuffle into the bathroom, take a triptan medication that guarantees I won’t be able to leave home all day. Discouraged, I cancel the ZipCar, wash off my Halloween tattoo and cut off my wristband. And turn on the live video feed.

But it turns out that being in an altered state is a great way to watch All the Hours in the Day.

Eerily, wherever I come into the story seems to be the perfect place. Early on in the performance, it happens several times that Mike describes a state of mind and says, “If you’re like that — like me — you know exactly what I mean,” and 10 hours into the show, I’m beginning to feel like the show has been written expressly to speak to me personally. Does everybody feel like that? In my own private magical mystery tour, going in and out of consciousness, I guess it’s only natural that my mind would seize on whatever seems to be of greatest moment. Even so, there is a lot about Mike’s narrative that sounds downright cosmic.

For instance. The lengthy and spellbinding sequence about a lucid dream of Jean-Michele’s (remember how Mike established her preternatural memory?) in David Bowie appears, playing Nicola Tesla, and gives her specific instructions. Which she acts upon. Mike delivers this sequence totally in the dark.

Dreaming is a frequently iterated motif on this sleepless night. Mike inveighs against society’s strictures and “how much we’re allowed to dream” — and goes on to castigate the arts and its artists for not dreaming big enough.

…and how our dreams are a big part of producing the “signs and sigils and portents” that shape human perception, which in turn shape reality -- are we therefore creating reality? “That can’t really be true, can it?” Mike asks, and the question is not rhetorical.

What is real, actually? Or to put it another way: what is actually happening? This will drive the narrative arc’s second half, in which we’re informed that there is no magic without sacrifice. Mike implores us to consider this. “You need to stop thinking about why things happen and start thinking about how. And I don’t mean how in the epistemological sense, but in the Jungian. Why are the symbols in your life -- of which I am one -- in your life?”

For me personally, the story’s philosophical dimensions are its strengths; I’m less interested in story per se, and this is what drives the event’s closing hours. All the same, it’s a great, great pleasure to be told a story really well, and Mike Daisey is always mesmerizing. This is even true — or maybe I mean especially true — when the story naturally comes to devolve around his own epiphanies.

“I am after all a monologist; my job is to draw attention to myself. My ‘tells' are everywhere,” he says, recalling his earliest accounts about Zevon Sr.’s failed gambling career. Mike story ends in Tomorrowland, underneath the Carousel of Progress, but we feel he has brought us up to the present moment. Twenty-four hours ago, we entered Washington High while it was still “today,” and now tomorrow awaits us outside.

Not that this decides anything. "There is not enough time," Mike says by way of conclusion, "to tell you everything you need to hear."


There’s one last sense of passage: Holcombe returns to the stage and sings a Warren Zevon song that graced Mike and Jean-Michele’s wedding. Followed by Holcombe, along with Sarah Dougher and many TBAers, singing “We All Need Somebody to Lean on.”
All the Hours in the Day is over, and so is TBA11. And I feel like I’ve lived through an extraordinary moment with hundreds of Portlandians — and others far and wide, thanks to the live feed — that will never be repeated.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

tEEth: a dance company with bite

It’s high time I saw a performance by tEEth, the wildly popular dance company reprising its critical success Home Made in this year’s TBA Fest. Judging from the mob scene at Zoomtopia on Monday evening, I’m the last guy in town to find out about the company’s powerful work, choreographed by co-artistic director Angelle Hebert.

“Audience response is critical to the work,” Hebert said earlier this year, when she was awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission. “Something we hope for in every performance is to impact our audience in a meaningful, emotional, and visceral way.” How, exactly? “By creating juxtapositions in movement through displaced limbs or unconventional phrasing, I can investigate these extreme states — our inner beast and gentle nature, weaknesses and strengths, our light and dark side, et cetera.”

And that’s exactly what I saw when TBA presented Home Made this week. Some people like to compare tEEth’s disturbingly physical performance style to Butoh, but this is misleading; Hebert is much more interested in tension between humans than in grotesquerie. In the course of this performance, the two dancers, Keely McIntyre and Noel Plemmons, lead us on a constantly evolving danse macabre that evinces everything from plaintive appeal to outright rampage.

As the audience scrambled for seats on Monday, the stage was pre-set with what appeared to be a soft sculpture of a small mountain. But as soon as the lights went out, the “mountain” became lit from within. Its contents, projected on a back wall scrim, were a man and a woman cocooned within a pod, who began exploring each other’s face with hands, mouth, tongue — teeth.

Once out of the pod, Hebert used the figures as colossal shadow puppets at first, whose silhouettes alternately took on menace and tenderness. Plemmons and McIntyre soon moved from the shadows and acquired human dimensions, and thus their bodies also took on an alarming plasticity; they continually distended muscles and limbs to create unnatural postures (hence the frequent mention of Butoh, I guess). Most surprising of all was the protean nature of their faces; in dance performance, we are so accustomed to see performers whose expressions are perfect masks of impassivity, so it was startling to see facial structures molded into something so startlingly telling.

Equally important to the evening’s sense of dislocation was the music compositions of tEEth co-artistic director Phillip Kraft, whose otherworldly sounds — largely vocal — provided a sense of dramatic throughline. This was especially evident in the performance’s climax, a paroxysm of tortured emotions that called out for explosion but instead devolved into a sense of inarticulate loss.

Were the man and the woman worse off than ever at the end? Or simply starting over? Hebert and Kraft deny us any sense of narrative closure, but their gift to us is an evening of superheated emotion. If you tend to think of dance as a lovely, pastel cultural duty, not to worry — Home Made is the opposite of all that.

By the way: good news for those who missed the show’s initial TBA run. An extra performance has been added for Thursday night.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Method and Madness

There’s a moment in The Method Gun in which a character is being interviewed for a television show. To the host’s consternation, the guest is of the irascible persuasion, and isn’t much interested in sticking to the subject. The funny thing about television, she tells her host (and I’m paraphrasing) is that you only see what the camera wants you to. In the theater, everything’s all around you at the same time. She looks around the performance space. She look at the host, grinning like an imp.

She might have been describing the Rude Mechanicals’ entire aesthetic philosophy. Taking honesty in the theater to its logical extreme, Kirk Lynn’s script gives us a Foremanesque universe in which everything is on stage at once and the implicit promise is that all of it will be used some time very soon. Of course this extends to the titular gun, enshrined in a bird cage—an inheritance from the group’s acting guru, Stella Burden, who meant it to remind the actors that they could kill one another at any moment.

Unlike Richard Foreman, however, The Method Gun has a definite ubernarrative to tell, even if it’s buried in several layers of metatheatrical conceit. Essentially, Stella Burden disappeared nine years previously, and her students have been rehearsing A Streetcar Named Desire ever since. A very special Streetcar it is, since their exercise instructions were to work through the entire script without ever playing Mitch, Stanley, Stella or Blanche.

Everywhere you look, there is the entire evening in miniature. Whether it’s a menacing tiger (“Think how much better Death of a Salesman would have been if it were Death of a Salesman from Tiger!”), crying practice, or shlongendorfers held aloft by helium balloons, the play has something to say about how our sources of inspiration mold us into something entirely unexpected.

Because this is also about actors seeking the truth in their practiced art of pretend, there’s also lots of references to honesty and to realness. It’s fitting indeed, then, that the play’s stunningly beautiful ending comes from a tense sequence that’s as honest as it gets on any stage — since we’re genuinely scared for the actors, even while we see watch enact their spellbinding version of Streetcar (previously seen only in glimpses) in its fullest realization. This vision is such a coup de the√Ętre that I won’t describe it; I don’t want to blunt its impact for you when you see it yourself.

I’ll just say you’ll never see the Tennessee Williams staple quite the same away. And that I hope we see the Mechanicals again soon, with PICA bringing them back for subsequent TBA fests. The company is a national treasure, though the Austin-based company (whose town copped a “Keep Austin Weird” motto years before we adopted it here for local use) has a shape-shifting sensibility especially endearing to Portlandians.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Taylor's lament: “everybody wants to be God’s exclamation point”!

Two things to know about Taylor Mac: yes, he is as absolutely fabulous as you’ve heard; and no, the faint of heart should not sit within easy reach of him.

I caught Taylor’s uproarious cabaret last night, on the hottest night of the year, at Washington High School, where his latest performance event has been a conspicuous offering of this year’s Time-Based Art Festival. Entitled Comparison Is Violence or The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook, the evening’s ostensible premise centers around how a lone critic pegged his act as a cross between these two legendary performers, and immediately other Google-dependent journalists adopted the description as Mac’s tagline.

But that’s all a feint, as it turns out.

Early on Mac tells us — after asking us to sing along with the chorus of an obscure Tiny Tim song — how much he hates audience participation. At once point, after having just asked a question of the audience, he goes so far as to reassure us, saying: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to make you do anything.” Yet after singling out a few terrified spectators, he adds: “Okay, the drag queen lied.” And climbs off the stage and into the audience, where he proceeds to embroil his victims in various degrees of participation throughout the evening.

Another feint: after decrying the “niches” that Bowie and Tiny Tim were put into, the artist voices his concern that he’s always getting invited into highly specialized performance occasions such as TBA and No Boundaries. “The trouble is,” he says, “I have boundaries.”

But this too is not true. Because the entire screamingly funny evening, peppered throughout with impressive vocal gymnastics and punctuated by glitter throwing, is all about busting boundaries. Even the glam-rock drag Mac wears gradually gets shed as the cabaret continues, until by the end the bitch goddess towering over us in cothurni is revealed as a smallish bald guy (albeit a strikingly sexy one), whose voice has gone from thunderous to softly appealing.

If I’m making this sound like a jumble, much of the evening it feels that way. But yes, you’ve guessed it—this too is marvelous sleight of hand. Following this performance, director Megan Kate Ward observed: “He acts likes it’s all just a conversation, like he’s just chatting and make it up as he goes along, and then of course it turns out he knew exactly where he was taking us the whole time.”

This much IS true. At the end we’ve learned, among other things, that while comparison may be violence, sometimes a little violence is good thing.

Reportedly The Irish Times has said: “Taylor Mac seduces you, breaks your heart, patches it back up again and sews sequins along the scars.” I know now what the Times means. Once Taylor Mac sprinkles you with glitter, you’ll follow him anywhere.