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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
He throws his arms wide.
Emblazoned on his chest is a white t-shirt with the smiling faces of the Golden Girls.
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.
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 detail! What is going on here? I love how they often mix the beautiful with the fiendish.
Look at this KINGDOGCHICKENSNAKE!
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.
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.
August 13—Tomorrow we're going to Virginia. I'm bringing my ET book & story book, diary, Yes & Know book, Garfield book, solitare, paper & pen, Geraldene & Josephene, & bath room things. When I come back I'll write out my movie. I'll work on it at noni & coco's house. I can't wait to get there. I can't wait to see the new rooms! The movie was the script for the sequel to E.T., which I planned to write and then send to Steven Spielberg - and also eventually star in.
August 14—We are at Noni & Coco's house. Edina skis better than any one exept Freddy. Aunt Sally, Uncle Alex & Nana was here. We sang and played piano before going to bed. It was so much fun!
August 16—I got up on the slalom for the 1st time this
year. I did it on my 4th try, Coco
honked the horn. Mom skied 1st time this
year they honked the horn for her too. I
didn't stay up.
August 17—I slalomed again but I fell again. Mom is learning to slalom. We sank the rowboat. Frankie had a life jacket on & he got caught
under the tipped over rowboat. Coco saved
him. We went over to Jeff White's house
we had a bad time. They turned off the
lights then threw pillows.
August 25—We took a moon light cruse. I learned that the big dipper's last 2 stars point to Polaris, a star. It points to the north Pole. Coco played "the sting" tape in the car to the market my favorite song is Solice & Easy Winners. The moonlight cruise was us going out on Coco's float boat in the evening. Coco was the one who gave me the little astronomy lesson.
August 28—We slept on the boat. I saw a beaver. I saw a shooting star. On it I wished for Stephen Spiellberg to use my movie.
August 31—We went to Baltimore. I went to a giant aquarium & saw a big ship & went to Fort McHenry. I bought 2 pins. 1 was I [heart] Baltimore & 1 was I [heart] E.T. I got E.T. shoelaces & an E.T. keychain. Speaking of E.T. Henry Thomas' middle name is John.
September 2—I slalomed 2wice. I didn't fall! There was a full-full moon. The big Cok took us out to walk around the circle in the midnight. I thought of a new scene for my movie, a dinner table scene. Coco called himself The Big Coke. Sometimes he called himself The Old Coke.
September 3—Tonight was another full moon. We took a long moon light cruse. We saw the Harvest moon. It was yellow. Afterwards we ate Ice Cream & Noni's homemade chocolate syrup & watched "Dallas" The Harvest moon inspired me a song so I'm writing a harvest moon song. The main tune was already made up by me but the rest of the tune & the words (lyrics in professional talk) are for the harvest moon. It's named "Stay, Harvest Moon."
January 25—Noni & Coco came. Noni came to meet us at school. Coco gave me a book on Jacques Philippe Villeré. We did alot of geneology talk. He has a tree (geneology) that goes back to the 1300's!!! I'd sure like a copy of that for my collection of information.
January 26—Coco said he and I can make me a copy of the big geneology tree!
August 5-12—Heather, Edina & I went to Noni's & Coco's. I can slolam on 1 foot. We met 2 German girls (Heikka & Iris) & saw them again when we went to Washington D.C. I saw the Star Spangled Banner.
It's been some time & now it's March 20th. Well, it's finaly come, the day to change PE games. Of course, 'they' said they were going to retake raquetball. We got in line. They switched & I am stuck in raquetball. I knew the time would come and it finally did. I have no partner & will not have one. I hate loneliness and I hate being a teenager. I hate having no friends and I hate this whole bloody mess. Oh well, does it really matter? I knew it would happen sometime. Noni and CoCo and Sassy & Elsa had one last dinner with us (at Shiki) & left for Virginia. Sassy and Elsa were Noni and Coco's dachshunds.
November 18, 1984. I guess this is my last entry in this journal. Noni and Coco, Sassy and Elsa arived yesterday. We took Coco out on a boat ride, rain spitting softly around us. It was a cold, grey day. We came back from the boat and built a warm, crackling fire. It was a good day. I'm to a great part in my book The Talisman. Jack and Wolf were caught by the police and brought to a home. Wolf has turned into a warewolf and is eating everyone.
12/25/84 7:11 P.M. Christmas this year, we had the presents on Christmas eve because Lanaux and Carter had to leave this morning. In here is a way-too-long segment in which I detail all the presents I got. We went out and played fort in the hills. Shena and Mara came by and we took a boat ride with Coco in which we sang songs and saved someone's volleyball.
2/24/85 9:55. Saturday night, we had a birthday party for Coco. We kids had a chance to go to the Prince concert, but, we couldn’t, because of Coco’s birthday. Oh well, maybe some other time.
Noni made some great orange cake. I was wearing my new Mickey Mouse shirt, my new grey socks, and fingerless gloves. I talk about my clothes for a while.
Later on, we got together with Coco and picked oranges in the 'McFerrin orange groves.'
July 16. night. Virginia.
We awoke very early (4:30 for me) and showered and dressed and prepared to leave for the airport. We drove out in the van to the Disneyland hotel, whereupon ariving, we kissed Dad goodbye and borded a bus which took us to the airport. I had with me a suit case (which I have just discovered has no sweat-shirt in it—necessary for a sleap on the boat), a purse (virtually empty), and a carry-on bag filled with cassettes, my walkman, Salem’s Lot, my diary, my little poetry book, a pad of paper, any- and everything to keep me occupied during the flight. We ate a quick breakfast & borded.
I sat down by a large black woman who was busy crocheting a small pink square (for a scarf, I found out later), and I immediately (I was so proud of myself) said ‘Hi’—the first step in meeting people—the acknowledgment. And, as the plane ride commenced and drew out 5 hours, I learned alot more about this woman. (2nd step—Conversation)
Well, Virginia, Cross Junction, the Summit is just as green, and old fashioned & beautiful! It’s great to see Noni, Coco, & Nana, again. Along w/Sassy, Elsa, and Didgeridoo.
We had a swim in the lake & played a small game of Troll. Had freshly baked (& I mean freshly—the berries were picked by Coco, the day before) blackberry pie—baked of course, by Noni. Troll was when we swam in the lake and Coco hid under the pontoons of the float boat and pretended to be a troll.
Then, we went on a moonlight cruise (there was no moon, but that’s O.K.). There were so many stars it was spectacular. God, how I love the stars! I picked one out and, as usual, wished on it. Then, Noni & I saw a shooting star. I wished on that one, too, for the same thing as before.
“I want to be a writer.” my mind screamed, “God Dammit, I want to be a writer!”
Friday July 19th. day.
We’re all on the boat, heading for a place to fish. It’s been a couple of days. We’ve skied a lot—atleast twice a day. We’ve begun to teach Chandler to ski, and he’s gotten up many times; Hasn’t yet mastered the staying-up part, but he’s getting better. Chandler is my brother Frank.
We’ve stopped, now, in a “finger” that Coco & Noni call THE LITTLE BEAVER FINGER. I’m not sure if Coco coined the name, or not, but the origin is that a small beaver house was built (by beavers, of course. Just incase you didn’t figure it out.) somewhere in this finger.
It’s beautiful; so unlike Canyon Lake. There are foresty trees bordering it, and not a house, at all. They are mirrored in the glossy surface of the water, etched with sparks of sunlight which is reflected from the sky.
We’re moving again, past the little beaver house, and up to the opening of the finger. Fish-lines are dropped, and voices, too, and Frankie has already caught the 1st fish.
So, today, Coco, Edina, Frankie,, and I went out to pick blackberries. These berries will be used to make a blackberry pie for Dad for when he arrives. Aunt Sally & Uncle Alex will arrive on Monday; Lanaux and Carter will be comming up, too, during our stay.
Every morning, after breakfast, Noni, Coco, Mom, Frankie & I (& Didge) take a walk to work off breakfast. Between that and the skiing, we all should get more in shape than get fat (I.E. Noni’s pies), and that’s good.
We’re slowly drifting out into the middle of the opening of the Little Beaver Finger, and Edina has caught a fish. Elsa is sleaping under the table and Sassy is dozing on the seat behind me where Mom is fishing also.
We’ve migrated (myself at the wheel) across the lake to what Coco coined (yes, he did the naming) THE BABY BEAVER COVE, and lines have once again been dropped.
The next door neighbor to Noni and Coco is a nice German woman called Dam Klinger, who also speaks not a word of English. Well, she sent over a nice apricot cake which I think she baked herself, and today, Edina and I went next door to thank her, knowing only the German word for thankyou.
So, there was alot of German speech and laughing from her, and some utterances of “Dankershan” (which I am sure I am misspelling) from us. She gave us some 7-up and strange apple danishes to eat, and took us around her house, showing us each item in it and babbling a-mile-a-minute in German, to which we just smiled and said, “uh-huh.” We were back up in the kitchen when we heard Coco’s whistle out in the front—he had come to rescue us. She was a sweet woman, but there was no way to communicate.
Now, we’re back in our finger, drifting and fishing some more. I have done no fishing, because I have been writing so much.
After dinner, Mom read to Noni, Nana, and Coco some of my journal-writes, and they laughed.Journal writes were creative writing assignments from school. Oh how happy it made me! She read the one about the Garden of Eden, and when she read the part about “Eve’s mother-in-law, whom they called Serpent”, both Coco and Noni burst out laughing. I mean, it just made me scarlet! I got a good pounding on the floor by Coco’s feet for that one.
July 20. day.
Dinner, last night, was crabs and corn, which was great. Nummers, nummers, & after dinner, we dressed in warm clothes—I in jeans, a shirt, a sweat shirt, a small jacket, my red knit fingerless gloves, & shoes—and went down with our mattresses and blankets, to sleep on the boat.
It was great. I was snuggled between Mom & Noni, all warm and cozy, looking up at the stars. The stars, the stars, the wonderful stars! Oh, how I love the stars!
It was probably the last time we will be able to do that, because it’s not allowed back home. Boohoo! Noni and Coco were going to move from Virginia to California where we lived, so this was our last summer at Cross Junction.
I love it here. So beautiful.
I was watching the sun come up, this morning, a bright, yellow-orange, its color spraying down upon the water. And it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. The big orange sun was just peaking through the clouds, shying away from the world, and then peaking out again, casting its glistening (ooh, what a nice word!) tail upon the green mirror lake. Beautiful.
Doing these little posts where I pull pieces from old diaries, I go through computer files where I've transcribed the diaries from books and notebooks. There's a large chunk of time where those books and notebooks haven't been transcribed. After 1995 nothing is transcribed until the year 2000 when I started doing all my journaling by computer. This last segment below is from the next computerized journal after the break that mentions Coco...
Monday, January 15, 2001, 10:15 am—Oh God, I slept in. Stayed up until after 3 last night. So, Day three: 7:00-9:00, 10:30-2:00, finished up with the flesh tones on figure and mirror reflection figure for white page. 3:00-4:30, background including bear in mirror, little details. ...I write about painting for a while. I was working on my Magical Trunk children's book. A small press publisher was going to be publishing it and I was rushing to finish illustrations before we went on the road for the next circus season, I think. So, yesterday I painted for a total of 12 ½ hours. Now all I have to do on white page is the hair details and the white makeup on face. And snow to do later, I think. Sometime yesterday I was painting and happened to turn and look over my shoulder to the picture of Noni and Coco on the end table. I glance at it a lot, but yesterday I looked at him and my mind said, I'll never see him again, and without warning I was crying. Seemed like my eyes teared up even before I felt the emotion of it. Strange not to be able to see someone ever again.
I had a chance to see Astoria: Part Two at the Gerding Theater at the Armory. I debated because I hadn't had a chance to see Part One, and I worried that it'd be difficult to follow, coming in at the middle and with such a large cast to track, and I'm not exactly the sharpest tack in the deck.
Alright, my husband's going to give me a hard time for saying that, so I'll clarify. I tend to get a little lost when a lot of details are coming at me fast, and the biggest thing: I have a really hard time recognizing faces. Often when we're watching movies at home, Stephen will lean in and quietly murmur during a pause in the action, "Remember that guy's the ex-husband of the older sister."
He wasn't with me Friday night when I saw the play, and of course I wasn't going to lean in to my date and periodically whisper in that packed theater (incidentally full of people who probably knew every character from last time): "Wait, who's that guy?"
So when the lights went down and the large cast of mostly men started to range across the stage, I thought, oh no.
And it was true—there were times when I thought, wait, who's that guy, but in the end, it didn't matter.
I'm here to tell you that even if you haven't seen Part One, even if you're as faceblind as I am, you can thoroughly enjoy PCS' beautifully produced, thought-provoking, action-packed, fully-contained epic Astoria: Part Two.
My early panic over face recognition quickly gave way to the realization that I didn't need to track every character because this was a much bigger story. There are individual plotlines that are fascinating to follow, of course, but for me, this is a story about big picture. About groups of people and the things that drive them apart and the things that bring them together. The instinct for survival being one of them.
It's a harrowing tale. Driving home afterward I was mesmerized by the streaks of streetlight red and green and the streetlamp yellow along the rain-wet asphalt streets. Me in my car with the classical station on and the heater going. My god, the lives these people lived, trekking across the wilderness of early-1800s Oregon, fighting to survive, unwittingly helping to lay the groundwork for the easy life I live today.
Like many old Hollywood epics, this play included a cast of thousands. OK, I guess that's not true, but I didn't look at a program before or during the production and was surprised to find out, when I got home and started looking at PCS's website, just how many different characters had been portrayed by their robust 17 person cast. It really did feel as though there were something like 75 different cast members filling out the show.
Standouts for me included the fabulous Leif Norby and the very versatile DeLanna Studi who play not only various characters along the arduous trail—including Marie Dorion, the one woman on the 1811-12 overland expedition— but also John Jacob Aster and his wife Sarah Aster in their much more comfortable New York City home setting, creating a fantastic contrast to the brutal wilds of the American Pacific Northwest.
But it really was the ensemble that was the true standout for me. The way the cast told the story, breaking sentences up, back and forth, between them like some leapfrogging Greek Chorus underlined the fact that this was a tale of people, not persons. And my favorite thing? The music. I hadn't expected to find that Astoria is a musical of sorts, with that large cast breaking out in beautiful harmonies, in songs that felt completely authentic to the time. The music again reminded me that this story was a far larger tale than just the individual threads of the particular characters, but it also seemed to make the statement that no matter how difficult and, at times, cruel the world—and the world of men—can be, there is beauty in that world and in what man can make of it.
Astoria: Part Two is playing now through February 18th on the Main Stage at the Armory. More information—including a video you can watch to refresh your memory of Part One (which I did not watch, actually, before I saw Part Two [for more information on why I failed to do this, see the last line of paragraph one of this post])—is here.
Thank you to Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv for the photos.