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.

Monday, January 11, 2016


I was another kid obsessed with David Bowie in high school. Modern Love was popular but my little group of friends, we listened to Ziggy and Aladdin Sane and Hunky Dory. Tricia and Mark used to pretend they were from another planet called X-Squared where you had purple hair and blue skin or was it blue hair and purple skin, and somehow the portal to this world had something to do with listening to Heroes. I found the planet game annoying, but I loved to lie on the floor in my room with Mark and listen to the songs and discuss them, and as a perpetually shy and nerdy kid, I felt proud of being a fan of someone so... I don't know, so great.

We saw him live at Angels Stadium. They covered the playing field with a vast false floor and filled the place. Every one of us down on the floor stood on our chairs through the entire show.

I think I saw him live once a year for most of my adult life, or at least every tour he did, up through Tin Machine when I left the circus and stopped seeing live shows much. Like Mark, who was my friend and then my best friend and then my boyfriend, my ex-husband had a huge thing for Bowie. I'm trying to remember how far we drove one time to see one of those concerts. Something like three hundred miles one way, and we drove it there and back to the circus in one day. My ex had a blue satin jacket that said MTV on it and, as always, he tried to get the back stage manager to let us back stage by claiming that he was a show promoter. Sometimes it worked, but with Bowie, who he wanted to meet most of all, it never did.

It's a weird world where it's possible for David Bowie not to be in it. Oddly, he's mentioned in two of the stories I edited for City of Weird, and is one of the only celebrities mentioned in the book. I could keep jabbering on, but I don't need to talk about all his amazing musical innovations, his way of reinventing himself, the many ways he affected our culture. Everyone else out there is doing a great job at that. I just want to think of lying on my bedroom floor listening to music that opened up that big high school wonder in me like almost nothing else did.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

a moment in the day: sidewalk

I'm stepping carefully down the sidewalk that, yesterday, was so covered with ice that I couldn't leave the house. When I say "carefully" I mean embarrassingly carefully, especially since most of that ice and slush is gone, but it's six in the morning and I don't trust what I see in the streetlamp glow, the slick spots along the pavement, as I make my way to the bus stop for work.

Halfway down the block, and I can't look back, because if I look back I'm just sure I'll take a header into those ice-encrusted bushes, but I don't have to look back to know he's still at our front door, watching. Had me wake him up, even though it's his day off, just so he could stand there cold at the front door and watch me all the way to the bus stop. My ally. There's no way to ever fully acknowledge how important that is, the way he's my ally.

On my lunch break, I will buy him two gluten-free peanut butter cookies.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

a moment in the day: building

Sitting at my computer unshowered on a Saturday, tinkering with the front cover for the book City of Weird. I'm so deep inside that place that I don't see the room around me, or the clutter of papers on my desk, the jacket I left on the floor, only this deep, dark fantastical world I'm building out of pixels. Reds, blues, yellows, shading and shadows. World-building makes you a kind of god. Right now, I'm building a city, I'm building a monster.

Click of my mouse, and over that, the hammering of a fellow world-builder. Bradley K. Rosen is in our backyard, putting French doors on the garage that's going to be Stephen's artist studio. I like that Brad is building the opening through which Stephen will be soon doing his own world-building.

I also like that the power is on. I need electricity today. Last night, luckily just after we'd finished watching a movie, the power went out due to high winds. The entire neighborhood dark. I walked Nicholas in the frozen front yard. The wind was a freight train through the trees and Nicholas kept moving in and out of the little glow from my cell phone flashlight, appearing and disappearing in the black, tail tucked, not happy, still taking his time to find just the right place to pee. I had the leash around my wrist and squeezed hard in my hand but I still felt like he would slip from my fingers and be gone.

We went to bed wearing extra layers, listening to the wind and to the world flying apart outside.

This morning, walking Nicholas again, in the light, I surveyed the damage, such as it was. The garbage container was overturned and the plastic wheelbarrow. There was a thin sheet of metal that used to be attached to the fence between our house and the neighbors', loose and flapping in the breeze. But the tiny pumpkin, healthy and left over from Halloween, is still sitting on the porch.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

a moment in the day: bicycle

Driving home from work through the drizzling dusk, I'm following a bicycle. He's riding on the right side of the road, where a bicycle lane would be if a bicycle lane were there, and I could go around him if there weren't a steady stream of oncoming traffic, but there is. So, I creep along behind the bicycle, maybe fifteen miles per hour. I don't mind. I'll get where I'm going when where I'm going is where I've got. We pull up to a red light and wait while the traffic crosses, bicyclist in front, me behind. When the light changes, the bicyclist doesn't move. A second goes by, another. The green car facing us on the other side of the street starts into the intersection but the bicyclist waits.

Now, fast, from the right, a car plows through the red light and just about into the green car. Both cars slam to a stop. The car that ran the red light was going fast enough that when it stops, it's with a great jolt that rocks it back on its tires. For a second no one moves. The car that ran the red light, sitting stopped in the middle of the intersection right in front of me, its nose practically up against the other car's driver's side door, is a white Scion, the mirror image of my car.

Had that bicycle not hesitated, it would have been very bad.

Green car drives through, white Scion drives through, bicyclist and me, we ride through. The street is shiny with rain. Bicycle, how did you know? I didn't see you even turn your head. How did you know?

We creep up to a four-way stop. The bicyclist stops, then starts ahead, then does a little bobble-swerve to a halt as another car, a yellow old-fashioned station wagon, pulling to a stop where the cross street comes in from the right, rolls a tad too far into the intersection.

I felt it too, that jolt when the station wagon rolled forward. Coming from exactly the same direction as the white Scion that ran the light. A zing down to my fingertips on the wheel.

For just a moment, the bicyclist's foot is on the ground, and then he's getting back on the bike to continue on. As he rides through, the guy in the yellow station wagon, scraggly beard and puff of light brown hair, throws his hands up in the air at the bicyclist like, what are you freaking out for, you little twerp.

People and their need to judge.

Yellow station wagon, get your hands down. You don't know everything. You don't know anything at all.