Sunday, September 25, 2011

oklahoma! at pcs

Friday night, we went to see Oklahoma! at Portland Center Stage. If I'm remembering correctly, Oklahoma! was the first musical I ever saw live - at a dinner theater in California. This was during the period of my childhood when I wished my life were a musical and I sang and danced around the house, but only when no one was looking. At the dinner theater, the dancers clicked their heels, and the waitress brought me sour milk in a wine glass.

I was excited to see Oklahoma! live as an adult - and of course extra interested to see Portland Center Stage's production with its all-African-American cast. There's true historical relevance to this casting. Oklahoma! is about America during the period when Oklahoma was on the verge of becoming a state, and the play is full of the icons of the old Southwest - the cowboy and the farmer, the box social and the surrey with a fringe on top - but most of us just have one basic vision in our heads when we think of this era, and that vision is white. Yet one in three cowboys was not white. There were lots of black cowboys, and in the Oklahoma Territory back at the turn of the last century, there were many towns that were all African American. PCS has a really cool blog post with some great old photos about this here.

So, right away, there's an extra layer to this version of the musical. And the production is well researched in terms of set and costume, and even in dialect. A voice coach was brought in to teach cast members to speak the way African Americans spoke in Oklahoma in 1906. In fact, here's another really interesting PCS blog post about that.

Of course, everyone's been wondering what this twist would do to PCS' production of the show. For me, yes, it added a bit of richness to the story, but for the most part, any "differentness" in the show disappeared pretty quickly. In fact, with all the expectation there is in the theater world that plays be made "new and different," this particular twist mostly allowed PCS to stage a very classic rendition of Oklahoma - and that's pretty refreshing. Singing and dancing, a little roping. Lots of energy, lots of humor. Some highlights for me:

The first few lines of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" were surprising and moving. The production number that opens the second half, "The Farmer and the Cowman," was a lot of fun, a great, energetic return after intermission, and the setting was beautiful with hanging baskets lit by candles. There was some lovely harmony in "Many a New Day" (which I listened for, later, in the cast album of the film and didn't hear). The very close of the first half, coming back from the ballet dream sequence, was staged in a way that made it quite chilling, and after all the energy and the dancing, it was almost surprisingly dramatic to me. One of my favorite songs (and favorite odd plot points) is "Poor Jud is Dead," and Rodney Hicks (Curly) and Justin Lee Miller (Jud Fry) performed it beautifully - with the added treat of Hicks mimicking an Oklahoma preacher, which was one of the funniest moments in the show. Ado Annie was played by Marisha Wallace with a huge amount of energy, but not in a way that grated. In "I Cain't Say No," she worked that energy well, bringing it up to a great crescendo in spots like the build-ups to the cain't-say-nos (I cain't be prissy an' quaint / I ain't the type that can faint/ How can I be what I ain't / I cain't say no).

Oklahoma! runs through October 30 at Portland Center Stage.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

nicholas at the party

The day doesn't start out great. After a month of hot sun, it's the first time since Nicholas came to live here that the day is cold and rainy. Nicholas is puzzled and disheartened by this. He's hoped it wouldn't rain in this place; after all, he came such a long way from the last place he lived (Beaverton)*.

In the evening, though, the tall man who calls him dog and the woman with the lap take Nicholas out to a party at the home of the woman who makes everyone laugh and the man who writes pornography.

No, no! says the woman with the lap, the book is called A Common Pornography. Nicholas doesn't get the distinction, or why the woman with the lap seems so horrified by his blunder - he isn't quite sure what pornography is.

The party is called the End of Summer Party, but the tall man who calls him dog laughs sadly and says it should probably have been called the Party to End Summer. As they round the backyard to head inside, they see one man smoking in the wet dark and a ping pong table lonely under a plastic cover shiny with pools of rain.

But the man who writes pornography, standing by the barbecue at the edge of the house, looks happy and grins as he meets Nicholas, and offers to cook them some hotdogs. Inside, the house is packed full of people. There's a big wall with trees and a squirrel painted on it, and a low coffee table covered with food. The refreshments include crumbs at people's feet and a dollop of key lime whipped cream, which Nicholas finds on the carpet. People want to hold Nicholas, and he is passed from person to person.

One group of three get excited and have their picture taken, all holding Nicholas together. They say they are the proprietors of Smalldoggies (a magazine and press and also a reading series), but they've never been photographed with an actual small doggie before (they have cats). On their card is a logo of a Chihuahua looking a lot like Nicholas except that it has two heads. Nicholas has never seen a Chihuahua like this before.

There are so many people at the party, Nicholas can't remember all their names. There's the woman with the blues tattoo and the woman with the girlish voice and the man who lets Nicholas lick his mouth and the man who writes and the woman who writes and the man who writes and the woman who writes. At the end of the evening, when it's time to go, the woman who makes everyone laugh does a little goodbye dance to the Captain and Tennille.

Overall Nicholas enjoys his night on the town.

*[editor's note: the woman with the lap would like to go on record saying she's not actually sure where nicholas' foster home was, so she chose beaverton, since this was where she first met nicholas.]

Thursday, September 15, 2011

question mark

Last night, Nicholas went to Chapman School in the northwest where, at this time of year, thousands of swifts nest in a huge chimney and where, during the seven o'clock hour, they gather and swarm in the sky before swirling and funneling down into the chimney for the night.

Two humans went too. One was the woman with the lap. One was a man who spoke like poetry. The three of them sat on a slope in the grass surrounded by all sorts of other people, lots of kids, some dogs. Nicholas thought about running around and through and over all those people, but the woman with the lap held him on her lap and bribed him to stay with much petting and talking in that odd voice she uses when she talks to Nicholas.

The man who spoke like poetry looked up and said there were hundreds of parentheses turning in the sky.

A mom came up with a little red-haired boy. She said, "We just want to say we love your dog."

The woman with the lap was happy and asked the little boy if he'd like to meet Nicholas, but the little boy made a tiny smile and stepped back. The mom said the little boy wasn't ready to meet Nicholas but that, though he was afraid of dogs, Nicholas was the first dog he'd ever said he liked.

More and more swifts churned overhead, though Nicholas didn't watch them because he couldn't smell them from that far away. On one side of the hill, the sea of people and blankets was parted, and children with flattened boxes rode like magic carpets down the slope. A man walked through the crowds handing out leaflets about Vaux swifts and showing off two little glass boxes. One had a dead swift inside, the other a dead swallow. A small group of boys followed the man with their eyes big on the boxes of dead birds.

Look, said the woman with the lap, it's like a big question mark in the sky.

Up over everything, a huge black curl that straightened out at the bottom as the birds tunneled down into the chimney.

A thousand parentheses come together to make a question mark, said the man who spoke like poetry.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


On October 9th (hey, isn't that John Lennon's birthday?) Stephen and I ( or Madeleine and Penny) will be performing in the Richard Foreman Festival. Which you can check out here. We won't get our prompt (which the theme of our performance will be based around) until ten days before, but as Madeleine and Penny don't come with an orchestra, we figured we'd better take a look at our music.

Stephen had an idea about what our musical accompaniment should be, but first we need a tape with the basic tunes on it. I figured maybe I could take the sheet music and work it out on piano (OK, what we have is an old electric keyboard) and then record that, and that would give us something to start with. Let me play around with it Tuesday night, I said, and I'll see if I can learn how to play the songs.

It's been a long time since I've played piano. I am not sure when the last time was that I played piano. I don't sight read very well--I know most of the notes inside the lines of the treble clef and about five of the ones inside the lines of the bass clef, and for the rest I have to stop and do math. But I have a good ear and figured if I studied the lines and notes and rests and knew the basic songs, I could piece it together and then memorize it.

I'm not great at memorization.

Tuesday after I left work, after I went to the grocery store and put away the food, I sat down on the couch with the keyboard in front of me balanced on a chair, and Nicholas curled next to me (when he wasn't trying to get on my lap), and I stayed there for probably four hours poking my fingers at the keys.

I'm not saying I expected to turn into Oscar Levant in four hours.

(I tried to find a clip of Levant playing Sabre Dance or something else from the movie we watched Monday night, which is The Barkleys of Broadway, but i can't find a thing, so I'll have to just say that when you watch him play, you understand how piano fingers dance. His fingers dance as much as Fred and Ginger do in that movie.)

I didn't expect to turn into Oscar Levant in four hours, but I worked pretty much straight, just getting through one song. So many black keys. Black keys mean you can't play it by ear and logic, you have to more or less memorize the song note for note. But it's strange what happened with my fingers on keys for the first time in years. When I didn't think too much about them, they mostly remembered where they were supposed to be - and stranger, they started dancing. Not something you could see by watching my clumsy work, but I could feel it - some sort of magic thing that moved my hands as much as I was moving them. There's a bit of dance in everyone. I used to feel it when I was clowning. And even at times when I had my hands on a light board. The impulse is in me even when I'm an everyday body in space, walking to work, going down steps, sliding books onto a shelf. If it were socially acceptable, I'd probably dance everywhere, in some small way.

My fingers on the keys was a dance I'd forgotten with all the years that have passed since I used to play. That dance kept me sitting there on the couch until ten o'clock through a thousand wrong notes. I don't know if I'll be able to pull off playing the song sufficiently in the time we have, but the evening was worth it for that tiny awakening.

[goodnight, oscar levant, wherever you are.]

Friday, September 9, 2011


This month, I got to create my first real window display in... too long. So excited because it's touting not only Banned Books Week (coming up at the end of this month) but a new graphic novel illustrated by Portland artist (and friend) Jonathan Hill.

The book is called Americus and deals with the issue of banned books. You can check the book out here but if you're a Portlander, I'd encourage you to come down to the downtown store and have a look at this month's gallery show, which features every single illustration Jonathan drew for the book.

For the window display, Jonathan gave me an image for a poster he created - I think he put it together for a comicon - and I incorporated that into the panel. Can I just say how satisfying it was to put together a window display again? My little show-off image below includes an image of the book cover, but in the real window, the actual book is displayed there in front of the panel. The display will be up the whole month of September. The art show will be as well. Also, check out Jonathan's website here.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

File this under: what have we gotten ourselves into...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

nicholas on the trail

On the last weekend of August, Nicholas went hiking. Well, two humans went too - the woman with the lap and the tall man who calls him Dog. It may have been some sort of anniversary for the humans. The first trail Nicholas hiked was in a place called Strawberry Island, which wasn't an island and didn't have any strawberries. It did have wild blackberries, though, and the humans picked some right off the twisted, thorny vines and ate them. The woman with the lap reached a blackberry down for Nicholas. He smelled it. The woman loves the fact that anything she offers to Nicholas - blackberry, book, hairbrush - he smells.

Strawberry Island was all waving, golden grasses and blue sky. Wind pushed the hot air around. When a peculiar smell came with that air, the woman with the lap said, "Mint?"

The tall man who calls Nicholas Dog reached down and, with a finger and a thumb, rubbed the leaf of a small plant growing low to the ground, then brought his fingers to his nose and sniffed.

The woman with the lap said, "Poison oak?"

Later when the trail forked and down on the right stood a strange, industrial-looking building, the woman with the lap sniffed that same scent and said, "Sewage treatment plant?"

Nicholas stopped on the trail and twitched his nose. He didn't mind the smell of the sewage treatment plant.

But there were beautiful views of the Columbia River and lovely fields of gold. Overhead cartwheeling against sky were two hawks. They whirled past the sun and threw sudden flashes of shadow down on the hikers.

They were too far away for Nicholas to smell.

The second place where Nicholas hiked was called Fort Cascades and was very different from Strawberry Island. It was forested and green and cool. Nicholas walked among enormous moss-covered boulders unearthed by the flood of 1894.

He did not pee on the replica of a Native American petroglyph. He did not pee on the remnants of the old railway or on the 1861 gravestone.

At the end of the hike, the tall man who calls him Dog noticed another short trail leading away from the area where cars were parked. The trail led down a hill and over and through rocks of various sizes until it landed at the shore of the Columbia. There, at the end of the long day, the man and the woman found places to sit on flat rocks and brought out the liver snacks, and Nicholas sat on a lap and sniffed and contemplated contentment.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

pocket shrink

Recently, I created a banner graphic for the new blog Pocket Shrink. I love the problem-solving you have to do in taking an existing space shape, an existing picture and a specific set of text and fitting it cohesively and attractively together. There's also the added element of tone. What kind of look would work best for this particular blog? What can I do with color, what can I do with font? It's definitely not as easy as you'd think.

Here's the final product.

The blog is equal parts psychology and writing, two of my favorite subjects. I've been privileged to witness parts of the book Pocket Shrink as it's been taking shape, and it's lovely. Totally accessible, totally smart writing, discussing issues for which we could all use a bit of "shrink" in our lives. The blog is like a daily dose of the book on a smaller scale. A Pocket Pocket Shrink. Check it out and follow if you so desire! Here's a link!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

dogs and roses

One of the things that's made our experience of having a new dog even more lovely is that we're reading the book Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. I'd been eyeing the book for a while as I shelved bestsellers at Powell's, and when I brought it home, Stephen had the idea that we could read it together. We used to read to each other when we were first together and have read a number of books that way, including Faraway Places and The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon. It's been a while, though, and when Stephen suggested we do that with Inside of a Dog, I thought it was a perfect idea. Horowitz is a psychologist who focuses her study on animals, and this book explores dogs' perceptual and cognitive abilities and gives you a good idea of what it's like to be a dog.

So lovely to lie in bed together with Nicholas curled up against us or burrowed deep in the covers, and read about dogness. The book is illuminating but also written with a sweet, droll style--and thank you lord, not full of cutesy animal puns. I'd highly recommend reading it if you have a new dog, or otherwise. Here's a paragraph I really enjoyed:

"...Imagine if each detail of our visual world were matched by a corresponding smell. Each petal on a rose may be distinct, having been visited by insects leaving pollen footprints from faraway flowers. What is to us just a single stem actually holds a record of who held it, and when. A burst of chemicals marks where a leaf was torn. The flesh of the petals, plump with moisture compared to that of the leaf, holds a different odor besides. The fold of a leaf has a smell; so does a dew drop on a thorn. And time is in those details: while we can see one of the petals drying and browning, the dog can smell this process of decay and aging. Imagine smelling every minute visual detail. That might be the experience of a rose to a dog..."