Sunday, July 8, 2018

stephen's 60th birthday card

Because this is a big birthday this year, I wanted to go a little bigger on my usual photoshoppy birthday card. It became a number of pages long, which makes it harder to share on social media, so I thought I'd post it here.

I was thinking of something that could celebrate him in his many guises, show off the different fun and creative things he's done down through the years, and the idea came to me of putting on an old Hollywood fashion show where the models were Stephen in some of his many alter egos. I vacillated between the color fashion show sequence from The Women and the musical fashion show sequence from Roberta. Though I think, of the two, he likes the former movie more, I chose Roberta because it allowed me to play with the rhyming verse Fred Astaire performs throughout the piece. He recites these different quatrains as the models show off their various outfits:

We endorse
This Polo rig, of course,
And for an added thousand francs,
we furnish horses

Or if you're doing splits
on skis at St. Moritz,
You'd be the best faller-downer
on the courses.

Now take the dowager who's glad
to leave her watchman for tea,
She wears this patriotic plaid
and meets a Scotchman for tea.

Ha-ha, when summertime begins,
this costume always wins,
when fifty million little Frenchmen
clap their fins.

For hunting grouse or quail,
Roberta ran up this suit,
The modest price includes the bag,
the gun, and two ducks to shoot

And should Amelia Earhart care
to get a breath of air,
this is the last thing in the world
she'd ever wear

Tis the hour for dry martinis,
Parks full of little Fords and Isotta Fraschinis
The Ritz bar is serving caviar and weenies.
Madame is there.
And from Roberta she has something that is too divine on
the sort of thing your jealous friends would love to spill their wine on.
For your inspection,
Our cocktail collection.

The one problem I had with my big idea was finding images to play with. I just couldn't find what I needed. I was lucky enough, though, to find the complete film online, and as a last resort, I had to play the sequence in full screen mode and take screenshots. Which meant I had to work to make the Stephen parts of my pictures look of lesser quality. Ah well. But here it is.

From top to bottom: Madeleine Prévert (a character Stephen played during the aughts), the Countess (who became la Condesa, and then the Grand Duchess, a drag character he played in the nineties), Stephen as a soldier from the opera Carmen, Stephen with George Michael hair in the eighties, Judith et Holopherne, and finally Earl Bungalow, who has been known to recite poetry at exclusive parties on the continent..

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

bad faith

Recently I watched the short film Bad Faith, written and directed by Jonah Barrett. I got to know Jonah when he became one of thirty writers contributing a short story to my anthology City of Weird, a few years ago. Jonah's story in the book has human-sized newt creatures and a secret underground biodome and a woman who controls crows with her mind, so yeah, I could have predicted his film was going to be super imaginative.

If you want to check it out, you can view it in its entirety on Jonah's artist website Malicious Wallydrags here.

The movie concerns Jeane on her first week of work in an office job, plagued with anxiety attacks and the loss of a best friend - but it also concerns a monster with a mouth full of teeth and a journey to the edge of the world.

Look at that creature! Can you see its trio of eyes? Look close. That's "Crystal the Puppet," which Jonah's crew constructed from PVC pipe and wire and papier-mâché - in fact, there's a cool clip on how they made it in the very cool "Making of" video you can also find on the Malicious Wallydrags website.

There's some beautiful film craft in Bad Faith. I don't like to give things away, so I won't say what it is, but there's a bit of artistry that happens right at the beginning that made me gasp out loud. I loved the worlds created by Jonah's camera, his eye, and his storyteller brain, both in the bright, sterile office and in the bleak landscape of Jeane's fantasies. Jonah weaves fantasy with reality throughout Bad Faith, making you ask the question: what is scarier, monsters or loneliness... monsters or the endless soul-sucking drone of the corporate working world.

OK, don't answer that.

The film has a great cast of characters, including Jonah himself, who shouldn't be allowed to have so many talents that, wait, yes, it suddenly occurs to me that he made a pact with the devil in which he was allowed to steal the talents of three other people (sorry, guys) and keep them all for himself. He's great as Paul, the best friend Jeane has lost, who we meet in Jeane's fantasies and who accompanies us to the edge of the world.

Sarah Robertson plays Jeane with wonderful range, and a sense of so much pent up emotion - terror, shame, loneliness, even hope - just below the surface.

I love Deane Shellman as Mrs. Vander the office manager. She's the perfect corporate office trope, whose enthusiasm for the job reminds you why existential angst is a thing and whose chirpy helpfulness, as Jeane keeps screwing up on the job, just creates more tension.

And Amber Atalaya is pretty delicious as Phillis, the conniving coworker out to step on anyone's nose she can to keep her beloved place in the hierarchy of the office.

But the heart of the film is Howard, played with lovely realness by Kela Kealakai. I love the subtlety Kela brings to their role as maybe the one truly grounded character in the whole story. With all the peril Jeane endures, from betrayals to failure to loneliness to encounters with ferocious prehistoric beasts, Howard  brings to the story what was, to me, the most unexpected thing of all.

No, I'm not going to tell you. Watch it here. The website also has info on Jonah's writings and photography and more. This profile I wrote about Jonah's contribution to City of Weird contains some more fun info about him and his projects.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

a moment in the day: on the staircase

We stand on the steps in the dark. It's André and I, side by side, at the top—well, halfway up the staircase, but we're for the moment the highest eyes in the place, and we can look down over the shadowy spill of courtiers down the staircase and spreading out across the stage—courtiers, concubines, Duke and jester. We're in a long, narrow pocket of stage, the dark curtain in front of us, the elaborate set and backdrop behind, and out beyond the curtain is an orchestra pit full of musicians and a house full of an audience. Here just halfway up the steps, I'm on the top of the world. Except for all the people in the two balconies out there in the theater, but who's counting?

It's closing night for Rigoletto. I don't want to see it go, I don't want to see it go.

There's a murmur of hushed conversation across the stage. Studs of light start up in the dark as players with candelabra switch on their electric flames. The chorister in front of André touches one of his candles to one of the candles of the chorister on the next step down. Uani, the super on the step below me, has a wine goblet in one hand and one of those masks on a stick that you can hold up to your eyes, in the other. My party prop is just a wine goblet. I kind of covet the masks and the candelabra, but there's no way I'd make it up these stairs without stepping all over my mass of skirts, if I had to do it holding onto more than this goblet.

Beyond the curtain comes a single note, held long. Then another, an octave higher, another an octave lower. The orchestra is tuning up. André hums along. His voice is beautiful even when he's playing around, humming a note mid-range, then a note up high, then hitting a tone way at the bottom of his register. Under my breath, I join in, quiet, wanting to be part of the music.

When the conductor makes his entrance, the applause seems to start behind me, a crackle across the faux stone walls and balcony of the set.

I have a frog in my throat. I keep trying to clear it, quietly, and somehow this feels disingenuous, like, what, it's not like you're going to go out there and sing.

There's a silence and then the overture begins. I take my eyes up into the blackness of the fly space way high over my head. Listen to the music. A cluster of light that looks like a surreal flower moves across the curtain, descending. I always wonder what it looks like from the front side. André's still humming along with the music. Under this, a quiet rattle as the outer curtain rises. Only the outer curtain—for one more moment, the whole raucous party in the Duke's court is still hidden in the dark.

The overture hits its crescendo. The curtain comes up. The light comes up. And we're all laughing.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Major Barbara at Portland Center Stage

The other night, a friend and I took in George Bernard Shaw's play Major Barbara at Portland Center Stage. I love PCS productions, and I knew this was/is Chris Coleman's final show as artistic director. Come to think of it, one of the first shows I saw - if not the first show I saw - at the Armory was Shaw's Misalliance more than ten years ago. Remembering that play and knowing the many wonderful productions I've seen in that theater since, I knew Major Barbara would be a sumptuous, funny, thought-provoking evening.

Here's the lowdown:

Feeling sure that none of her progeny will keep the family in money (not her lazy son Stephen or her daughters Barbara and Sarah or their less-than-well-to-do beaux), Lady Britomart Undershaft has called in her estranged husband Andrew, hoping to persuade him to step up to the plate with some financial support. Andrew needs to find an heir to his business, a highly successful factory that manufactures guns, cannons, torpedoes, battleships, and other tools of war. Lady Britomart Undershaft isn't too keen on troublesome things like bombs, but she's interested in the money and comfort they could bring. The hitch is that for some reason there's a tradition in the business that the head of the company shall always be a foundling. This lets Stephen out (not to mention his equally not-orphaned and decidedly female sisters).

Will Lady Britomart Undershaft convince her husband not to disinherit their less-than-ambitious son? Will Barbara convert her father to a life of peace and goodness through her devotion to the Salvation Army? Will Andrew Undershaft convert (conversely) his daughter Barbara to his religion of money and gunpowder? Shaw's play is equal parts witty and absurd so that halfway through the first act, you realize you've been laughing pretty nonstop since the thing began. It seems like a lovely, light romp designed to let you comfortably bask in its drollery - but then you start to realize you're feeling ways you don't expect to feel. Your sense of good and bad start to skew a little. You start to feel uncomfortable. By the end of the play, you will have examined a lot of things about yourself that you didn't expect to examine - and all the while, you've been laughing your head off.

Joshua J. Weinstein and Dana Green

Standouts in the cast for me: right off the bat, Dana Green as Lady Britomart Undershaft. She exudes the perfect combination of strength, grace, snark, and passive-aggressiveness, with beautiful comic timing. For the whole first act, I was captivated by her whenever she was on stage, and you know that old cliché, I'd follow you anywhere? She did that for me in the opening to the play. Pretty much from her first lines, I was ready to follow her, and the story line, straight through to its end.

She also plays two other characters, including the fantastically crusty Rummy Mitchens, a frequenter to Barbara's Salvation Army shelter.

Dana Green

And then there's Charles Leggett as Andrew Undershaft. With a fabulous laugh and a flair that made me think of my grandfather Coco, who was full of humor and joie de vivre. And here's one of the interesting things about Major Barbara. From the beginning, Shaw is pulling the wool over your eyes. You know Andrew Undershaft gets rich off of death and suffering, you know he doesn't mind this (his "true faith of an Armorer" is to "...give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them, without respect of persons or principles..."), yet you... like him.

Nikki Weaver and Charles Leggett

You like him a lot. And not only because he's a foil to the hilariously pompous and fabulously quarrelly rest of the family. You like him because of Charles Leggett, who plays him with a sort of irresistible panache. I think this charm is one of the keys to Major Barbara and to successful productions of it, and Leggett pulls it off beautifully.

Major Barbara is a play in three acts but only one intermission, with the actors changing the sets between acts and scenes in that fun, lively way that Portland Center Stage is famous for. In Major Barbara, this technique seems also to underscore the questions of class and labor posed by the play, as rich magnate Andrew Undershaft and prim do-nothing Stephen and down-and-out drifter Bill Walker equally move furniture around on stage.

For me, the only place where the show gets at all sluggish, and really it's due to the writing of the play, not the production of it, is in act two at the Salvation Army shelter. There are a few characters who are introduced and then given a lot of stage time, only to disappear for the rest of the production. It's not that the scene isn't enjoyable. It's as full of witty barbs and laughs as the rest of the play - and a good deal of tension - but I found myself wondering whether some of the exposition was a bit long for the work it did.

Shaw makes up for any overwriting he indulges in by filling the dialogue full of fantastic bon mots (and making you feel smart enough to pretend you can get away with using the phrase bon mots). One line that Andrew Undershaft delivers made both my friend and me let out one of those sounds you make when something has really struck you. Walking out of the theater we were both trying to remember it. Later I googled what I could remember of the line - and luckily much of G. B. Shaw's wit lives on the internet. I emailed her with the line the next morning. Is it a spoiler to include what's probably a well-known quote? If so, look away. If not:

You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.

"Love that quote," she wrote back. "It shakes something up in me."

With Shavian sleight-of-hand and PCS artistry, there's a lot that Major Barbara shakes up in you, even as you're laughing and having a really good time. And in true Shaw form, even that fact is ironic. 


Major Barbara continues through May 13th at the Gerding Theater at the Armory. More info is here. Thanks to Jennie Baker for the pictures.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

a moment in the day: golden

It's day three of opera rehearsal for Rigoletto. I'm standing on the balcony in plain clothes but my underskirt tied around my waist. It's the first time the super* women are practicing in our skirts, and I'm glad for this, because going up and down the steps in all these ruffles takes some getting used to.

We're in the middle of the Duke's party, singers and supers scattered across the staging studio. At the piano, the rehearsal pianist attacks the keys with lovely relish, as though he's an orchestra in himself and there's an audience beyond the footlights ready to applaud. I drape my arms across the railing of the balcony, wine goblet in one hand, and watch with staged interest as the Duke and Count Monterone confront each other below.

It seems the Duke has seduced Monterone's daughter, and Monterone's here to crash the party, tell off the Duke, curse us all, and dis the canapés.

He sings:

E se al carnefice pur mi darete,
spettro terribile mi rivedrete,
portante in mano il teschio mio,
vendetta chiedere al mondo e a Dio.

And if you give me over to your hangman,
I shall haunt you as a terrifying spectre,
carrying my skull in my hands,
crying to God and man for vengeance!

Monterone is an imposing figure, a very large black man with a shaved head and a deep, deep blue baritone voice.

Sii maledetto! he sings.

Be cursed!

He throws his arms wide.

Emblazoned on his chest is a white t-shirt with the smiling faces of the Golden Girls.


*super = supernumerary = extra

Thursday, April 19, 2018

three moments in opera rehearsal

I've been in opera rehearsals for Rigoletto. No, not singing. I'm a super (which is the opera equivalent of an extra) and I play a courtier in the big party scene that opens the first act. At least that's what we've been rehearsing so far.

I'm trying to figure out which moment was my favorite from practice last night. Can you help me decide?

1. The moment mid-scene when the Duke and the Countess are singing and everyone else across the stage is in a freeze-frame and I stand staring into the eyes of a man I don't know for a long, long awkward half a minute.

2. The moment at the end of the scene where, after having left the stage with the rest of the women, I move around to the side of the staging studio and seat myself up against the wall, my back against a baffle, close my eyes, and listen to the chorus men sing beautiful and raucous up to the ceiling.

3. The moment on the balcony when my partner André gesticulates a little too big and knocks my brass chalice out of my hand, over the side, and down, to clang hugely loud on the studio floor.

Yes. That moment of horror before the cup hits the floor - and not knowing if it's going to come down on someone's head - that's the one.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book cover: The Alehouse at the End of the World

I got a little selfish with the cover design for Stevan Allred's The Alehouse at the End of the World, which is due to come out this coming November. This book is a hugely imaginative novel that takes place on the Isle of the Dead, deep in the belly of a mythic monster, somewhere in the fifteenth century. When publisher Laura Stanfill started telling me about the book, my mind instantly went to illuminated manuscripts.

I LOVE illuminated manuscripts. You might notice there's one in the painting that serves as a header for this blog. It's an imaginary bestiary of evil beasts that I included in a painting I once did called Still Life with the Devil. Ever since I researched bestiaries for that painting, I've been obsessed with illuminated manuscripts—their elaborate, ornate borders, their extravagant lettering, their particularly unnatural animals. The way they can be both crude and gorgeous.

Look at this!

And this!

And this detail! What is going on here? I love how they often mix the beautiful with the fiendish.


I knew that using this artform as a jumping off point in my design would not only give a sense of antiquity but also highlight the otherworldliness, the quirkiness, the sense of history and philosophy, the limitless imagination of Stevan's book.

...OK, actually I just really wanted to have fun making a pretty, pretty illuminated manuscript.

OK, it was both.

I wasn't sure at first whether I envisioned it as a modern take on the illuminated manuscript, with clean lines and solid colors, or as a remake of the real article. I began to sketch out various different sample designs, and as much as I love trying to create images that look like real things and would have loved playing with the challenge of making it look like washes of ochre and vermilion on ancient paper (or vellum, but I'm a vegetarian), the modern approach started feeling right. Time is a slippery thing on the Isle of the Dead. For instance, in the magic of Stevan's world, he sneaks modern references into his late Middle Ages story so that time becomes something beautifully arbitrary. Staying modern in my design seemed to speak to that.

There are so many arresting images from the book to draw from. There's the aforementioned Isle of the Dead. There are the talking birds and the souls of the dead that are housed in clam shells. There's the Kiamah beast that has swallowed the island whole.

One early sample played on the Kiamah beast. I really liked that one. But in my zeal (not even as much my love for illuminated manuscripts as my absolute love for the hugely imaginative writing in this book), I got started early on my design work and ended up with a Kiamah beast who looked different from the Kiamah beast created by our artist for an inside graphic (more on him down the line).

Also, in beta testing, I learned that some viewers might find the image of the tongue kind of gross. (By beta testing, I mean when I showed it to my dad.)

But I really liked the scrollwork and the lettering approach so I kept those for the design that we eventually chose.

Another really evocative image from The Alehouse at the End of the World is the pyre of bones. To set it up, the Isle of the Dead, having been swallowed by Kiamah, lives in the beast's belly. When the dead arrive at the Isle, their bodies are thrown on a pyre and burned.

This also did the Kiamah decree, that the bodies of the newly dead should be burnt upon the sacred fire, so that the heat of that fire might sustain him, and the smoke of that fire might cleanse him.

I worked on my design for Alehouse last fall, so as it happens, come Halloween night, I was sitting at the dining room table at my computer, alternately answering the door for trick-or-treaters and working on building a human skeleton.

In the end, I think staying modern with the design was the right choice, because it allowed me to work outside the bounds of the illuminated manuscript, as I did with the slant at one side of the border, and the overall dimensionality of the piece, particularly with the frigate bird who flies out of the frame. I think it reflects the fact that The Alehouse at the End of the World is anything but conventional.

Here it is.

Stevan's novel will be published by Forest Avenue Press this November. Here's another taste:

Already the beast was stirring, and there was little time to lose. If the monster awoke before the fire was lit, his wrath would know no bounds. The crow plunged into the collapsed pyre, tossing bones this way and that, clearing a bare spot in the center of the fire pit. There the crow made a loose mound of knuckles and toes, and he encircled it with a cone of ribs and thigh bones, laid loosely together. While he worked, the crow sang an ancient song, a song the Old Gods once used to call forth all the creatures and all the plants from the time before time, only now the crow sang the song with the Kiamah beast’s name, forsaking the Old Gods, who were dead gods devoured by the beast, for the crow served the living evil that was the Kiamah. He circled the pyre of bones four times, and each time he stopped to offer the glow of the embers in his basket to each of the four directions. Then he emptied the basket into the center of the fire pit, and he drew a breath of air as big as a whale’s lungs, and he blew on the embers. They glowed hotly in the dark night of the Kiamah’s belly, and flames grew tall out of that hot glow, and now the cone of ribs and thighs was fully ablaze. Clouds of smoke belched upward, and the crow threw on more bones from the jumble around him, building the pyre taller and wider, and as the fire grew larger the crow passed a wing in front of his face, and grew himself a cubit taller, and now every bone was in the flames. “Kiamah, Kiamah, kiaw aw aw,” sang the crow, his power strong and growing stronger, “I give you thanks.” And the Kiamah answered with a great smoky belch that shook the whole cavernous belly. The sacred fire was once again lit.