Sunday, September 18, 2016

little shop of horrors at portland center stage

Little Shop of Horrors was beloved in my household when I was growing up. At the drop of a hat, we would put on the soundtrack and sing our hearts out at the dinner table, and now, years later, with all of them far away in California, the thought of that shared joy over music and blood-thirsty man-eating potted plants makes me want to cry. Watching it again, Friday night at Portland Center Stage, I think I smiled the entire time.

It wasn't just nostalgia, although the moment the song "Skid Row (Downtown)" began, I had that thing happen where all the skin on my legs tingles. I think that's my body's equivalent of getting the chills. And I know those chills in that moment, and the grin that spontaneously clamped itself to my face, were pure nostalgia. But the way that smile wouldn't let go through the whole show, and all the laughter that probably annoyed the woman seated to the left of me, that was pure Portland Center Stage.

I was worried, as I always am when I'm watching a performance of something I've known in movie form, whether this production would be able to stand up to that old, beloved version. And would they go for a classic rendering or throw in a twist (which sometimes works, sometimes doesn't)? Portland Center Stage's production of Little Shop of Horrors is totally classic*, and totally works. It's got the beautifully pipsqeaky Seymour, the bombshell-squeaky Audrey, the giant puppet plant, all of it. But I wasn't jonesing for a Rick Moranis or a Steve Martin. I guess the closest I came to missing something was, early on, being aware of just a hint of longing for Ellen Greene's (the original off-Broadway Audrey who reprised her role in the 1986 film) surprising voice switch from squeaky to something husky and odd and powerful at certain spots in her songs. I knew I couldn't expect it. That was not classic Little Shop, it was classic Ellen Greene, and to have another actress mimic that would not be right. Still, I had a little craving. But it didn't last long. Gina Milo's voice is beautiful and pure, and her high notes are powerful in their own right.

Gina Milo

She also works the line between humor and sweetness very well. When she came to the end of "Somewhere That's Green," this moment of poignancy that has to struggle to exist in all of Little Shop's luscious camp, I thought to myself, wow, I totally believe her.

Nick Cearley, too, was funny and nuanced. He played Seymour as Seymour should be played, but with lovely timing that kept the most easily caricaturable part in the show from being a poor parody.

Jamison Stern and Nick Cearley

Jamison Stern was particular and beautifully slimy as Orin, Audrey's sadist-dentist boyfriend. The scene in the dentist's office, Orin in his nitrous oxide mask, that terrific prop and the way the sound quality of his voice was used - egad, it made me the perfect kind of uncomfortable.

I so loved Johari Nandi Mackey, Alexis Tidwell, and Ebony Blake as Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette. Their beautifully melded voices and knowing commentary, sometimes playing Greek chorus behind the action, sometimes egging that action on, was a fabulous thread throughout the show. And for me, seeing this now after a long time, seeing it as an adult in this particular time and place, there was an extra layer to the musical that Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette provided the grounding for.

Jamison Stern, Alexis Tidwell, Johari Nandi Mackey, and Ebony Blake

Having a drink at the Gerding before the show, my date for the night, Liz, discussing a recent documentary she'd seen, remarked, "I'm always aware of my privilege as a white woman, but what I hadn't been as conscious of was how hard it would be for me to give that privilege up." It was something I'd been thinking a lot about, myself, recently, and the statement stayed with me as I watched the show: Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette sitting on a rundown Skid Row staircase, Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette always on the streets, watching as more and more privilege was heaped on white Seymour and white Audrey and white Mushnik. As the action ramped up and the rift between the haves and the have-nots got wider and more dangerous, I realized what I hadn't as a teenager who'd been in love with the music and the fiendish humor in the play: this thing, underneath it all, is about some pretty serious stuff. And our hero, for all his clumsy sweetness, who, yes, only goes along with this man-eating-plant stuff when the victim feels, you know, kind of deserving, nevertheless lets privilege keep him from attempting or even considering destroying the plant until he feels sure that destroying it won't take away what he's gained.

Along with all this layering (and for another really interesting perspective on that, read Bob Hicks' review here), Portland Center Stage's production of Little Shop of Horrors is smart, hilarious, beautifully produced and a flat-out rocking kick in the pants.

It's playing at the Gerding Theater from now until October 16. More info is here. Thanks to Patrick Weishampel for the pictures.

*Above, I said the Portland Center Stage production is totally classic, but that's a slippery description. It isn't completely the same as the 1986 movie I fell in love with, which, itself, wasn't totally classic. The original was a 1960 move which I'd never heard of. Then came the off-Broadway musical that opened in 1982, which was eventually filmed, with a bunch of changes, including the ending, in the 1986 Frank Oz movie. It had been long enough since I'd seen the movie that, as we moved through the second act, I started to realize I didn't remember how it ended. I'm not going to tell you how it ended, but I'll say it's far better than the film.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

a moment in the day: comfortable

It's late and I should turn over and go to sleep, but Stephen's watching that show about death, a topic humans can't get enough of. I forsake some sleep so I can watch it too. He makes us cookies in the toaster oven, and they're gluten-free and they taste like hard little rounds of sweet wood chips with tiny bursts of lovely, melty chocolate, and we sit in bed in front of the TV where terminal cancer patients lie in their own beds or their hospital beds. Doctors, palliative care specialists, grieving partners.

A doctor and the widower of a former patient talk about the delicate, impossible decisions they made about different rounds of chemotherapy. The doctor admits that he should have stopped treatment sooner and focused on making her comfortable. I'm struck by the fact that the two men, and particularly the widower, discuss this with elegance instead of rage, that the widower doesn't feel the need to lay blame.

Next to me, Stephen breathes and sniffs and eats his cookie. Under the covers, Nicholas works at grooming, occasionally pausing and giving my leg a little lick.

Shot of a woman in her hospital bed, the palliative care specialist saying, are you feeling comfortable, good, I'll be back later, shot of a woman in her hospital bed alone, being comfortable.

When I'm there, I want you to know, I don't just want to be comfortable. Promise me this, OK? I want to be engaged. Thinking about just lying there being comfortable while time drains away is a horror to me. One of the things that will torture you is that you won't know what to say to me, but just tell me a story of your life. Tell me that thing you know about the life of Mary Todd Lincoln. Set me up with a podcast about the size of black holes. Don't just leave the TV on - set me up with a marathon of Bugs Bunny. Read to me, read to me, read to me.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

book cover: the hour of daydreams

When I started work on the cover design for Renee Macalino-Rutledge's novel The Hour of Daydreams, publisher Laura Stanfill said the challenge was going to be creating a design focused on wings or feathers that isn't like any of the other wing and feather covers out there.

Oh, lord. There are a lot.

And some really cool concepts / designs. I could look for other inspiration for the cover art, but I mean, come on. It’s a novel about a woman with wings. And what could be more lovely and provocative than wings, or their beautifully miraculous elements, feathers?

In the early stages of my tinkering, I actually constructed a winged woman who I used in a few samples. But Renee was more interested in my less literal approach, which mostly consisted of a lone feather falling from the sky in a curl that looked moonlike, seeming to pull the stars along with it. I curved the title text so that it was spooning that feather moon, and with the space surrounding this, I hoped I had created imagery that felt both expansive and intimate.

Renee suggested a number of different concepts for the landscape below, and I tried them all, and more: cityscape, water, village, field, trees, wild flowers... I asked about Filipino trees and plants that might be found in the story. I had fun trying on each new landscape and seeing what it did to my sky.

One of the things that kept occurring to me as I worked was that the title comes with a question. The Hour of Daydreams. What hour is that? In the book, this is the napping hour, when a little girl is supposed to be sleeping but instead sneaks outside with her grandfather and listens to his stories.

Knowing this, I wanted to set my cover design during the day, but I also kept coming back to the lovely folktale-like image of Tala, the winged woman, flying every night up to the stars with her sisters. No matter what I did, stars kept sneaking into my designs

And as much as the book is about magic, it's also about questioning magic. It's about deception and suspicion, the unknowing - all themes that, to me, speak more to nighttime than to day. And that word itself: daydreams. It starts with a root that has night built right into it - dream - and then turns the tables by adding day. Renee does some very similar table-turning in her book, and I hope I did some, too, with the cover.

Here's a little snippet from the book.

"Grandfather shared another story from his vault of words reserved especially for me. They filled up the silence, not the one that blanketed our barrio during the napping hours when everyone disappeared into their rooms, but the one that had followed me everywhere, for as long as I could remember."

The Hour of Daydreams comes out in spring of 2017. There's more info here.

Feather image copyright Partha S. Sahana. You can check out the original image (black feather on white, which I adapted), here on Flickr Creative Commons (licence info here), and you can check out the photographer's photo stream here.

Landscape photo comes via Morguefile.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

a streetcar named desire at portland center stage

It took some adjustment for me to appreciate Deidrie Henry's Blanche DuBois in Portland Center Stage's production of A Streetcar Named Desire. At first, I kept thinking, what is all this seeming strength, this brashness, from a character who is designed to be fragile, a character Tennessee Williams described as, "daintily dressed," and with, "delicate beauty," and: "There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth."

Deidrie Henry's Blanche is no moth. To me, she is much more butterfly, always moving, as, yes, all of those with wings do, but with more color. Literally and figuratively. More vitality. She delivers her lines beautifully but without any hint of "uncertain."

Demetrius Grosse, Kristen Adele, and Deidrie Henry

Now, the thing you need to know about me when I make statements like this is that I have it bad for Elia Kazan's 1951 film of A Streetcar Named Desire. I could drink that movie for dinner and then just spend the rest of the night lying on the bed in luxurious despair. In fact, I think I'll do that tonight. The lovely, heady melancholy, the poetry of the dialogue, the mood. The lush, beautifully tawdry, full-of-longing mood.

Portland Center Stage's production gets right to the heart of that mood. Tennessee Williams' world is a very particular mix of reality and dreamy, steamy unreality, and the set feels perfect: cramped, unkempt two-room apartment with a wrought iron balcony hanging overhead. Battered metal trash cans on the "street," the hint of dark alleyways. Stella and Stanley's flat feels tight and claustrophobic, but at the same time, the walls are like some beautiful gothic lace that allows us to watch the scene inside but also see through to Williams' dank, little corner of New Orleans outside: couples fighting, couples necking, the enigmatic flower woman calling, "Flores para los muertos..." The fact that the set never changes reinforces the feeling of being trapped, as does the lighting, full of deep blues and streetlamp golds and shadows.

Deidrie Henry

In the midst of all this Williamsesque atmosphere, I was surprised at how much humor is in Portland Center Stage's production. The same lines that feel moody in the film and in other play productions I've seen rang with a nice humor, especially those delivered by Kristen Adele's Stella, who has spot-on timing.

Deidrie Henry and Kristen Adele

Blanche, too, delivers some humor, which again brings me back to the disorientation I had about the way she's played. She just doesn't seem broken. I expect a Blanche who is fragile and cracked and ready to crumble.

But in a play that is so iconic that modern productions rarely surprise (or try so hard to that they get gimmicky), here's the surprise that I took away from Portland Center Stage's version. And I found it in moments like the scene that ends the first half, when hope and intimacy strip away Blanche's facade and she tells Mitch the story of the greatest loss and shame of her life. Her voice, her whole delivery changes. We see the fragile.

We see it again in what I think of as this scene's counter-scene, when a disillusioned Mitch pulls Blanche's paper lantern from the bulb and threatens to look at older-than-she-wants-him-to-know Blanche in the full, unforgiving light of reality.

Keith Eric Chappelle and Deidrie Henry

Here, again, is that surprise of a fragile Blanche. And that's what's so effective about Deidrie Henry's performance. Suddenly we find something very real in the midst of our Tennessee Williams dreamy-steamy unreality: the fact that so much fragility can be locked up inside the lies of strength we tell about ourselves, and that no matter how well we lie...

"I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! —Don't turn the light on!"

...we can still be broken.


The show runs through June 19 on the main stage at the Gerding Theater. More information is here. Thanks to Patrick Weishampel for the photos.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

stupid fucking bird at portland center stage

The play I saw last night was desolate, full of disillusioned, heartsick characters railing against their empty lives and the excruciating futility of all of human existence.

Yes, it's a comedy.

I can't remember the last time excruciating, heartsick desolation was so fucking funny.

I'm dropping the eff-bomb in honor of the title, of course. Stupid Fucking Bird at Portland Center Stage was full of fucks - in fact, at intermission, a man sitting in front of me remarked to his wife, "I've never seen a play where they used the eff-word so much." I wonder if Anton Chekhov ever used the eff-word - well, or the Russian equivalent. My guess is, only in subtext.

To say Stupid Fucking Bird is an adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull would be going a bit too far. It uses The Seagull as a skeleton to build its own particular story around. But even with the very different flesh and hair and that outfit Chekhov never would have worn, the body built by playwright Aaron Posner (who gave us, among other things, that fabulous adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion a few years back), walks around with the same gait.

Lovesickness. Yearning. Self-hatred. The aforementioned futility of existence.

(No, seriously, it's hilarious.)

And the question of what becomes of us when we make theater of our lives. This is what the characters in Stupid Fucking Bird do - not surprising when they're actors, playwrights, screen writers. They dramatize their personal misfortunes and play those dramas out as if on stage to the point that one character finally asks the group at large if they actually feel all the feelings they think they feel.

Some context: Dev the tutor loves Mash, the cook. Mash loves Conrad, the playwright. Conrad loves Nina, the actress. Nina loves Trigorin, the writer / screenwriter. Conrad blames all the ills of his life on Emma, his mother (another actress), who is also dating Trigorin, who has fallen in love with Nina. You don't have to remember all that, but you get the picture. Rounding out the cast is Emma's brother Eugene, who is often the voice of reason during the gnashing of teeth of the various lovelorn and often histrionic characters.

Not only are the gnashing of teeth and histrionics very funny - they're often cathartic. Who among us hasn't wanted to scream out our frustrations on a proverbial stage now and then?

And the proverbial stage and the literal stage come together in very interesting ways in Stupid Fucking Bird. During the first act, there is a play-within-a-play, in which we, along with the show's characters, watch as Nina performs Conrad's new theatrical work, an existential monologue he hopes will transform theater but which only succeeds in falling apart under the jeers of his audience. I always love the device of the play-within-a-play, but Stupid Fucking Bird is also a play-all-around-a-play, with the characters breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience about how they're in a play and we're watching. It's fascinating to clock all the many ways Posner and his players explore the theme of art and theater and the ways it relates to life.

And those players. I usually try to highlight who I think are the standout performers in a show, but with this cast - Ian Holcomb, Kate Eastwood Norris, Cody Nickell, Charles Leggett, Kate deBuys, Darius Pierce, and Kimberly Gilbert - each one was a standout, each one, I daresay... wait for it... fucking great.

Stupid Fucking Bird is playing at Portland Center Stage through March 27th. More info is here. Thanks to Patrick Weishampel for the photos.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

great expectations at portland center stage

It's been a while since I've been to the theater. Sitting in the seats at the main stage at the Gerding on
Friday night, watching a play that was adapted from a book I've both read and listened to on audiobook and whose film adaptations I've seen, I was reminded just why I love theater. There's nothing quite like that particular magic. The way a grown actor can so beautifully and believably play the role of a child. The way one basic theater set with some moving pieces can so fully harbor the many different settings of a complex story line.

Portland Center Stage's production of Great Expectations is full of that stuff. And one of the most effective bits of that magic is in its adaptation (by Lucinda Stroud for Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre). Stroud folds passages from the book right into the dialogue so that characters might be speaking to each other in one moment and then reciting part of the narrative in the next. It's very skillfully done, adding momentum to the scenes and giving the gift of Dickens' voice to the action.

Some other favorite bits of magic: The way we're introduced to the cemetery as Pip and Magwitch gaze at the graves of Pip's family (I'll just say that much so as not to give it away, but it's a lovely, clever theater moment). The slow, subtle shift of Stephen Stocking's Pip from boy to young man to man. The chameleonlike work of the actors playing more than one part - particularly Dana Green's Mrs. Joe and Miss Havisham, two very different characters, each played beautifully.

Dana Green as Miss Havisham and Stephen Stocking as Pip

I'll say I wanted a little more out of Miss Havisham's cake. Granted, no depiction I've ever seen, on stage or in film, has ever matched the cobweb-draped, spider-infested mountain of rot and regret that I created in my head when I read the book. What is spectacular, though, is the set. It's all wood and shadow, bleak, framed by two staircases and a connecting footbridge that amplify the power dynamics, both real and imagined, throughout the story.

Stephen Stocking as Pip

And most spectacular of all is the gigantic clock that presides over everything. It's a lovely fiendish reference to Miss Havisham's many clocks, all stopped forever at twenty till nine, the moment when, years ago, her heart and her own best expectations were broken. Time may have stopped for Miss Havisham, but the enormous clock face, cloaked in cobwebs, rotating slowly, is, rather, a looming reminder of the endless forward movement of time, of the inevitability of change, and of our relentless march toward death.

In other words, the show's a delightful romp. Actually, I'm serious. This production is definitely dark, but it's also deceptively light and often funny. Packing the 500-plus-page story expertly into three hours that are so entertaining you'll be surprised to learn that three hours have gone by, PCS' Great Expectations is delightfully Dickens and magically theater.

It continues through February 14th. More information is here. Thanks to Patrick Weishampel for the photos.

Friday, January 15, 2016

book cover: city of weird

Forest Avenue Press' next short story anthology, City of Weird, is a collection of thirty weird fantastical stories, all set in Portland, Oregon.

I've been obsessing over the cover for this one. Not only is City of Weird a book I edited, but I wanted the cover to be reminiscent of something I love, those old pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales.

What would have been incredibly fun would have been to tinker around with some of those old covers and create the illustration from that, but for something professional, you can't just alter undersized or copyrighted material (the above little images are from Wikimedia Commons), and I, of course, wanted something all my own, so I decided to build it.

I thought it would be fun to show off just how primitive an image like this starts out. I began by building the bridge out of shapes in Illustrator.

Color was something I dealt with later. I knew I'd want something more atmospheric than grays and browns, but those drab colors made it easy to keep the pieces straight.

Once the bridge and background were laid out, I started building the octopus. Early steps in tentacle-making:

Again, willy-nilly on the colors.

Early draft welcome sign concept I scrapped. Then more tentacles.

Then from Illustrator to Paint Shop Pro to start the shading process.

And finally textured and halftoned:

City of Weird comes out October 11, 2016, including stories by Stevan Allred, Jonah Barrett, Doug Chase, Sean Davis, Susan DeFreitas, Rene Denfeld, Dan DeWeese, Art Edwards, Stefanie Freele, Jonathan Hill, Justin Hocking, Jeff Johnson, Leigh Anne Kranz, Kirsten Larson, B. Frayn Masters, Kevin Meyer, Karen Munro, Linda Rand, Brian Reid, Bradley K. Rosen, Nicole Rosevear, Mark Russell, Kevin Sampsell, Jason Squamata, Andrew Stark, Adam Strong, Suzy Vitello, Leslie What, Brigitte Winter, and Leni Zumas. More info on the book and Forest Avenue Press is here.