Sunday, February 19, 2017

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake

Heading out into the lobby of the Keller Auditorium at first intermission of Swan Lake last night, Stephen said, "The corps de ballet is very... together, very..."

Looking for the right word and I anticipated it and jumped in with that tiny pride you have every time you one-up your partner in linguistic prowess.

"Tight?" I said.

"Yes, tight. That's the thing you often hear in reviews, that the principal dancers are good but the corps de ballet was sloppy. I was very impressed."

"So, corps de ballet...?"

"That means the members of the company who dance together in a group, as opposed to the soloists."

"Can I use that term in my blog post? I'm going to use that term in my blog post!"

So, there's my full disclosure: Linguistic excellence? Balletic knowledge? Not so much. But I love ballet, the skill, the beauty, the strange magic of learning a story almost completely through movement, and I particularly enjoyed Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of Swan Lake. The word I kept using to describe things last night as we were leaving the theater, a word that sprang easily to my tongue, was delightful.

It's an interesting production because it is not the classic Swan Lake based on the 1895 revival with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and it's not the classic Tchaikovsky ballet updated with completely new choreography. Artistic Director Kevin Irving's adaptation is an amalgam including input by Petipa and Ivanov and modern choreographers Nicolo Fonte, Kevin Irving, Anthony Jones, and Lisa Kipp. Not only that, but the storyline has been changed to add a completely new element and that takes the story in a completely different direction and toward a different ending.

I'll only say that about the changes, because I hate spoilers, but what I can say is that I felt all the aspects of OBT's Swan Lake, the old choreography and the new, the classic story elements and the new, were assembled beautifully so that the whole production felt seamless and integrated.

And the orchestra under the direction of Niel DePonte was - I'll use my initial not-very-ballet-chic word again - tight. Beautiful. And the dancing, led last night by Xuan Cheng and Peter Franc, was quite good, with particularly lovely use of the corps de ballet. The white swans swirled and churned like a murmuration across the stage. At times, to me, they seemed to symbolize more than enchanted swans, becoming, here, a hint of storm, there a spread of fog as a night moved toward morning.

One of the most surprising things to me was the humor. The scene of the ball in Act 2 is rife with it, fashioned beautifully through the use of both choreography and storyline. I didn't know I could laugh so much in a ballet. And there was one particular moment I never thought I'd see in a ballet - and of course, that spoiler thing, again: I can't say what that moment was. I wish I could. All I can say is that between that moment and the burst of laughter that followed was a half second of silence in which I think the only sound in the auditorium was the surprised "Oh!" that jumped out of my mouth.

Here are three final words in my parade of words about OBT's world premier production of Swan Lake: go see it. It's a gorgeous and delightful evening and you don't need to know any fancy ballet terms in order to come out of the theater feeling smart and full of a little more joy.

More info and tickets here.

Photos of  Xuan Cheng and Peter Franc and the company members of Oregon Ballet Theatre courtesy of Randall Milstein.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

His Eye is on the Sparrow at Portland Center Stage

I was glad I knew nothing about Ethel Waters before going to see His Eye is on the Sparrow in the
Ellen Bye Theater at Portland Center Stage Friday night. Oh, I knew she was a singer who had popularized wonderful old songs like "Stormy Weather" and "Am I Blue." I knew she played Berenice in The Member of the Wedding. But I knew nothing about her life.

It was wonderful to sit in that intimate theater and watch her story unfold through narration and song. His Eye is on the Sparrow, written by Larry Parr, is essentially a one-woman show (I say essentially because she's accompanied by a piano player), in which Ms.Waters, played by Maiesha McQueen, guides us through her troubled childhood, her sad young life as a grudging teen bride, her surprise rise to stardom accompanied by feelings of inadequacy in the face of the racism and sexism all around her, her seclusion as an older woman followed by her return as a gospel singer - and most of all, her songs.

Fabulous songs. "Heatwave." "Old Man Harlem." "Franky and Johnny." "Black and Blue." Songs beautifully performed by Maiesha McQueen in a voice that ranges from sweet to deep to playful to mournful, and a performance that, above all, rings authentic. One of the biggest pitfalls of a show like this one is inauthenticity, and McQueen's performance is not a modern take and not a pastiche. It's the real deal.

I loved the whole of McQueen's performance. She's funny and heartbreaking and brassy and dynamic and again, again, so authentic. Authentic to the time period(s) and authentic to the human experience.

I have to admit I don't tend to be interested in stars or the lives of stars. Packed houses on concert tours and actors' searches for that perfect movie role aren't stories that move me. But His Eye is on the Sparrow is not a play about stardom. It's a story about human relationships, the struggle to make connection. It's a story about race, and the ways people internalize the unfair inequality around them. It's a story about womanhood.

And OK, yes, I lied: it's a story about stardom. But what that particular thread in the production said to me had little to do with stardom, per se.  Stories about stars are often about persistence. How they struggle to realize their full potential, how they persevere to reach that place in the spotlight. The Ethel Waters I saw last night at Portland Center Stage seemed to have the spotlight handed to her in a gift-wrapped box, and the persistence that marked her life centered around other things. Real things. Most of all, simply the struggle to feel equal in the world.

As I left the theater, a phrase kept playing in my head. She was a star, and she just wanted to be on par.

Silly rhyme notwithstanding, this was the takeaway that stuck with me the most. She had achieved so much - stints on Broadway and the concert stage, appearances in the movies and on TV, record contracts; she was the second African American woman nominated for an Academy Award (Pinky) and the first African American  woman to have a lead role in a television series (Beulah) - and she still felt less than. Less than her fellow man. Less than her fellow White man.

When she persisted, she was called difficult. And perhaps she was. But these were difficult times for Black women. Still are. I can't help it: my mind goes to the recent Senate Judiciary hearings on Jeff Sessions and two women's voices (Elizabeth Warren's and Coretta Scott King's) silenced in their attempt to speak truth about racism. Nevertheless, she persisted. This is what Ethel Waters does throughout her story. She persists. Not toward the kind of achievement that wants to be measured in Academy Awards and television ratings and Twitter followers, but toward authenticity.

Somewhere in the second half, I was compelled to fish a pen out of my purse and scribble on the back of my program a line Waters says. She's describing White people and the line is both biting and sympathetic. "Their souls have been pushed down somehow."

This felt so true and so ironic. With all the efforts, conscious and unconscious, that White America has made to put themselves - ourselves - above, our souls have been pushed down.

But what happens during the play: you feel lifted up. By Ethel Waters' music, her truth, her hilarious barbs, her persistence. And it isn't just her. I said before, His Eye is on the Sparrow is essentially a one-woman show. Maiesha McQueen's partner on stage is Darius Smith. Beyond being musical director of the production, he plays the piano for her performance beautifully, but his presence is more than that. From the way he escorts her through the theater in the opening of each act, to his quiet attentiveness to her performance, Smith seems to be some sort of opposite Greek chorus. Rather than commenting on the action, telling the story for her, he listens. He sits back and actively lets her tell her truth. He attends with grace and respect, and with this, he seems to represent that something that Ethel Waters always deserved.

His Eye is on the Sparrow runs through March 19th. More info is here.

Thank you to Patrick Weishampel for the photos. Theater poster designed by Julia McNamara. The picture of Ethel Waters from Wikipedia Commons.

Monday, February 6, 2017

a moment in the day; or, a short transcript of the introduction to some old radio show i was just listening to while trying to escape from the horrors of reality

Come in!


I'm E. G. Marshall.

"We are all doomed!" said one philosopher.

It is inevitable. It is fate. It is destiny. Our lives hang on a slender thread from one day to another.

We place our daily existence in the hands of total strangers. And pray for the luck of the draw.

We do it when we drive down the highway.

When we fly in an airplane.

We do it when we elect a president.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Book cover: Queen of Spades

One of my ideas for a book cover for Michael Shou-Yung Shum's upcoming novel Queen of Spades, centered around a Seattle gambling casino, was to design the book to look like a package of playing cards. The prominent spade on the pack of Bicycle cards, like the one shown here, works beautifully with the book's title, and I had a lot of fun putting together a very precise homage to one of their classic boxes, before I realized we probably had a trademark issue on our hands and there wouldn't be time to contact the Bicycle folks and ask their permission.

Sure glad I took the time to get the whole thing completely designed before that occurred to me...

Luckily, it wasn't my only idea, so I refocused my efforts on what was, actually, my first concept which was to create a designed card back in the tradition of these.

Aren't they great? Think how fun it would be to be an artist whose sole job was to make these.

It was a lot of fun gathering samples and studying all those lovely designs. And I think one of my favorite things about graphic design is attempting to create something as an homage to something else. In a way, what I like most is not creating but recreating. That's why some of my favorite jobs have been ones like City of Weird (old weird fiction magazine covers), Jamie Yourdon's Froelich's Ladder (old books), and Stevan Allred's A Simplified Map of the Real World (maps). And one of my favorite projects ever, actually, a CD cover I did for a very indy collection of music played on a Wurlitzer theater organ, because I got to design it to look like a 1930s movie poster.

The big challenge with Queen of Spades was finding the best way to fit all the elements of a book cover into the layout: title, author name, blurb and the words "a novel." It's a lot to squeeze into a design that already takes up a lot of space on the page. I didn't want to obscure too much of the classic card elements, the background pattern, the ornate border, the [usually double, right-side-up-and-upside-down] centerpiece.

I was particularly happy with how I worked in the blurb.

The card went through a number of iterations. The poker chips in the corners of the border were sometimes chips, sometimes simple card suits (heart, club, diamond, spade), the filigree morphed as I needed it to for spacing. The lettering of the title kept getting more and more ornate, thanks to publisher Laura Stanfill's prompting.

One of the things I experimented with was doing Michael's name upside down. After all, card designs are usually done that way. While it was a fun approach, Laura and I felt it was up to the author to decide whether his name would be presented in a way that would also, of course, make it less immediately readable.

Michael chose right-side up. It makes his name more readable but it also fits the space better. And he's the one to thank for the deep blue background color. Originally I'd been playing with the gold shown just above, and I experimented with a number of other colors, but Michael's suggested blue makes the red and white card pop in a lovely way.

I love that collaborative part of the process, and I'll gamble that what the three of us came up with together has made this book cover a lovelier thing.

Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Songs of Willow Frost had this to say about Queen of Spades.

“A magical debut—literally. This tale is both spare and sprawling, gritty and otherworldly, both an homage to the complex psychology of gambling and a cautionary tale for those watching from the rail. A ridiculously satisfying read.”

Here's a taste from the book:

Chan wandered to the employee lounge, where two fellow pit dealers pulled a chair for him to join them. Leanne and Bao were friendly and gregarious, and after fifteen minutes of chatting about their respective dealing pasts, Chan asked them about the old woman he had seen leaving the casino. They were only too happy to respond. He learned that no one knew her real name, and that she was referred to by all the regulars and the staff as the Countess.

Every evening, Leanne said, she could be found playing Faro in the High Limit Salon. She arrived at ten p.m. in a long, silver Rolls Royce limousine, and would gamble for three hours—no, it was four, said Bao. Until two a.m. precisely. All the while, her chauffeur, a young man who never spoke a word, stood stiffly by her side.

“She’s sort of the queen of the Royal,” Bao explained.

Queen of Spades comes out in October of this year. More info is here.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A partial list of what I learned about a man I'll never meet and a country I may never visit while on the phone four hours to computer support yesterday

He's 24 years old.

He's been married for a year to his high school sweetheart who he's known for 10 years.

The city he lives in, in India, rarely gets very cold or very hot. In the mornings, it's misty, and then all day it's sunny, and in the evening it's cool, but "a nice cool."

He currently works a graveyard shift and sleeps in the daytime. His wife works days and sleeps at night. They see each other on the weekend.

They both work in the tech field, but, "when I see her, I say something sweet to her instead of talking technical."

Growing up, he wanted to be a famous soccer player. "I wanted to be a star." But to get that good, he believes you need to practice at least 6 hours a day, and he had to work. To become a soccer star, you have to come from privilege.

Though he couldn't be a famous soccer player, he found many other interests to make him happy. Like geography. He can tell anyone anything they need to know to have a fantastic trip when they travel anywhere in the world. He doesn't make enough money to travel.

He learns all about other cultures by talking to people on the phone while running programs to flush the malware out of their computers.

He had a golden retriever but it died when it was 5 or 6 years old. He had a cocker spaniel puppy, but after he'd had it for just two months, someone stole it from his yard.

He hopes to have enough money to have a house and children some day. "I believe this will happen...? No, yes, it will happen." He hopes to not have to work as long hours and to have a better schedule so that he can spend time with his wife and kids. "Work when you are young, relax when you are old." He doesn't think he can stand the heartbreak of having another pet.

It's hard for him to sleep in the day with all the light and knowing that the weather is so beautiful outside. It's hard for his body to get tired. When he gets off work, he tries to wind down, he works out, he plays some soccer, he tries to sleep.

He is in favor of the Prime Minister, even though many people are very unhappy with him because of what happened with India's money. When the old currency was deemed illegal and the new currency came, people who had cash had to stand in "queues" for days to exchange their money. You had to provide proof of how you earned that money, and if you were unable to do this, you had to pay twice the amount in order to exchange the cash. He is paid through direct deposit and always uses his card so he only had to exchange money once, for his landlord, and his "sweet mom" offered to stand in line for him.

He has a friend who lives in Chicago, who called to say that, on his first night there, he heard a gunshot. The tech guy asked me how safe Portland is and whether there are ever gunshots here, and I said some, yes, but that it was relatively safe as far as cities go. He seemed completely perplexed by my answer, that some gunshots could constitute a safe city. He said he lives in one of the largest cities in India and shootings never happen there.

He was equally perplexed when I told him I had a good job but not a college degree. He said in India education is the number one thing. Jobs are very competitive and if you want one, you have to have the best education.

His schedule changes monthly. He never knows from month to month what shift he's going to have and what days are going to be his weekend. This month he shares the weekend with his wife, so on those two days, he tries to stay up all day and sleep at night, which causes an adjustment period when each new week comes. "I think this might be bad for my health, but I want to spend time with my wife."

If he does anything his wife doesn't like and she says so, he will stop doing it. He says she has complete say in all things. Except that she can't tell him not to play soccer. He will never let anyone make him not play soccer.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

City of Weird Contributor: B. Frayn Masters

B. Frayn Masters is one of the off-the-top-of-her-head funniest people I know. Recently we did a City of Weird event up in Longview Washington, and Stephen and I offered to carpool a couple of the readers. Frayn was one and Jason Squamata, who wrote "Aromageddon," was the other, and having those two in the backseat - I'll just say that driving to another state for a reading is so much more fun when you bring along Abbot and Costello, or... well, I'm not even sure I think Abbot and Costello were funny. How about Lucy and Ethel high on chocolate and given their own radio show? It was like that. At one point, Frayn was doing animal impersonations. I made her repeat the rooster at the end of the City of Weird reading event just for the hell of it.

Frayn was one of the few writers I invited outright to write me a piece for City of Weird. I knew what to expect from her: something funny and smart and totally weird. OK, I absolutely did not know what to expect from her. I just knew it would be funny and smart and totally weird - and it was. She delivered a hilarious and thought-provoking story about a, well, a sentient and somewhat sex-starved volcano. At least that's how I read it. I invite you to be the judge. But suffice it to say, Mount Tabor plays a part.

Lying on their backs in the middle of the park, not far from the statue, Henry said, ”It’s so groovy that Tabor is a volcano.” He had no idea the industrial-sized can of worms he’d just opened. 

Minerva’s grandmother was a volcanologist and Minerva had lost many a friend and potential lover to droning on a bit too much about the specifics of cones and calderas. But she couldn’t resist blurting out a few facts. “Tabor was formed, like, two million years ago and is twice as old as Mount Hood—suck it, Hood—and even though scientists say it’s dormant—because none of its vents have been active for 300,000 years—I’ve got it on good word that scientists don’t actually know shit about if and when a volcano might just change its mind. I mean, did you know that Yellowstone is a supervolcano and erupts every 600,000 years, and because it’s a supervolcano, when it does erupt again it will wipe out a large portion of North America?” As her fact rant trailed off and up into the night air, it met up with all the other words being spoken by all the other people of the world. 

Minerva’s eye caught a squirrel swinging between two trees. She rolled onto her stomach and spread her arms wide, digging her fingers into the dry August ground. Barely audible, she said, “Hug the volcano with me, Henry. Your Queen commands it.” Henry dutifully hugged Tabor.

When Frayn shouted "suck it, Hood," I believe she scared off a table of old ladies who were there for the reading, but, no offense to them, it was kind of worth it. Not only is Frayn an expert writer, she's an expert performer, who won Best Spoken Word / Storyteller in Willamette Week's Best of Portland in 2015. She's the creator, executive director and host of the super popular Back Fence PDX, a live storytelling event that you can read more about here.

Their next show will be January 21st - Back Fence PDX Russian Roulette! With storytellers Jason Sauls, Bri Pruett, Dylan Reiff, Kahlie Towle, Mellish, Camille Rose, and Eden Dawn.

And a show I'm really excited about, on January 27th at Revolutionary Hall, they'll be doing Super Women in Tech, Frayn told us about this on the way back from Longview, Washington. As the title explains, this performance highlights some super women in the tech field, including Dominique DeGuzman, Melinda Campbell, Maria Webster, Leah Siddall, Saira Weigel, and Brook Shelley. Storytellers in the Back Fence tradition tell their stories using no lies, no notes, and no memorization. For this particular performance, Back Fence is teaming up with Vox Siren, and more info about it is here.

Not only is this show going to be amazing, they're putting together a coloring book in conjunction, which highlights the super women in the show along with ten more badass ladies in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields throughout history: Katherine Johnson, Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and more. Written by B. Frayn Masters, illustrated by some fabulous artists, the book will be for sale at the event and will come free with VIP tickets.

You can watch a cool teaser video about it here and info on how to buy tickets or the book is here.

Here's a story of Frayn's up on Spork.

Frayn is fabulous and her story for City of Weird, "Queen of Tabor," contains the phrases lick a worm and ski lodge porn. I think I've said enough.