Showing posts with label Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Review. Show all posts

Let's Travel Awhile

About a year ago, National Geographic Traveler published a profile of our city under the clever (by which I mean, "vapid") title, “Portland Reigns”.

The article was one of many paeans to Portland peppering the national press lately. The breathless pace and gushy tone spurred me to write a parody of bad travel writing. I tried to follow a few simple rules:

• If one adjective helps, two or three are even better.
• Stereotypes and generalizations are always a good choice.
• When in doubt, grasp onto a cliché as if your life depends on it.
• Keep your thesaurus handy...ermm…accessibly situated.

My parody kept getting longer and longer, until it was so ridiculously long (for a blog post) that I lost track of where I was going or how to bring it to a merciful end. I toyed with cutting or serializing it. Then I decided to just publish it. Now it’s in your hands. Savor.

East Chesterburg:
An Old-World City Perched on Tomorrow’s Rim

This resplendent metropolis gets just about everything right: From the friendly natives to the homebrewed deliciousness that embraces every visitor.

Here in the self-proclaimed “City that Can,” restaurants pride themselves in serving locally-prepared meals, and every barkeep is quick with a jovial anecdote that will, one day, become a part of your own tribal lore. Local crafts and an innovative commitment to “green” living are worn like a comfortable flannel suit in autumn, and are as reassuring as a bowl of warm applesauce. What’s more, this is a city that does not hesitate to flaunt its funky charms, just as its residents feel no qualms in sporting billed caps, no matter the weather. Add a flair for the ubiquitous and verdant, and you’ve got a vacation-in-the-making for all but the most hard-hearted of hard-core adventurers.

East Chesterburg isn’t the first place you’ll compare to Paris, but it’s not likely to be the last either--and that says a lot. It’s among a handful of American towns that has managed to pair civic engagement with a soupcon of down-home bonhomie that will have you saying both “oui!” and “whee!” From its trendy downtown nightlife scene to the downscale bohemian haunts that typify the North Gulch Arts District, this is a town that welcomes everyone with the warmth of a Golden Retriever’s tongue.

Starting on the Right Foot

We launch our East Chesterburg adventure with a hearty breakfast at Tiny Harpo’s—a charming diner occupying a prime spot in the heart of the town’s bustling business arrondissement. Before entering this petite boîte, be sure to pause for a moment to listen to the autoharp player on the corner. Sing along if you must. You’ll be delighted to leave a small tip in his open case.


As we wipe the steam from our glasses, we’re greeted by a proprietor who can only be described as brobdingnagian. Nobody personifies the character of an East Chesterburgian restaurateur better than the bistro’s namesake. With his trademark, “Halloo!,” and belying his 400-pound girth, he sweeps us dexterously to a cozy booth by the window, then deals a handful of menus with the speed of a Las Vegas blackjack dealer jacked up on diet pills. In short order, our winsome server fills our water glasses and makes sure we all have napkins. Keeping her promise to return with hot coffee, she takes our orders with a vivacious professionalism that feels as comfortable as a pair of broken-in huaraches.

I choose the “Tiny’s Special” – an adventuresome mélange of scrambled eggs and la saucisse de Francfort topped with a tangy hollandaise sauce. You will be well served by selecting the same, or perhaps you’ll opt for a simpler fare from a bygone era. On any given morning, many of Tiny’s patrons can be witnessed enjoying a light repast of toasted bread squares while perched on angular chairs, perfectly resplendent in parti-colored smocks, knit leggings and the customary cap tilted rakishly.

With a satisfied belch and a neighborly handshake, we emerge from Tiny’s into the rays of a sun that radiates its beams on East Chesterburg many days of the year. When you visit, you’ll want to chat with Tiffany and Amber, animated purveyors of Girl Scout Cookies outside of the Thrift & Save just around the corner. I choose a box of Thin Mints, but you would not be wrong to pick otherwise. Don’t forget to pet the puppies for sale in the box over by the shopping carts.

A Place of the Present with a Forward-Thinking History

East Chesterburg is all about sustainable, low-impact living. As a matter of both public policy and personal ethos, visitors and residents adopt organic, people-powered modes of transportation, including walking and bicycling. People here stride with a confident bounce as if effervescently buoyed, stepping with the crisp snap of a sugar pea from one of the farmer’s markets that thrive, year-round, on every vacant lot. They ride their handcrafted two-wheelers attuned to a personal soundtrack best described as a gumbo of free jazz and proto-bluegrass. Don’t be surprised to see pedallers cruising the neighborhood lanes three abreast, each snapping thumb and finger in a syncopated rhythm that brings to mind a fringed surrey frozen in time by the flash of a daguerreotype camera wielded by Matthew Brady himself.

My first post-repast stop of the day is the East Chesterburg Municipal Museum, housed in a former civic building marked with a postmodern slash of architectural frippery. Entering the museum is like stepping back in time while looking into the future through a kaleidoscope of wonder. Time your visit just right and you’ll miss the rainstorm that will pass through town just a few hours before the city rolls up its sleeves for lunch.

Lovingly curated, this museum is chockablock with refreshing artifacts that reveal more about each visitor’s character than that of those who crafted them. You’ll want to linger at each exhibit to revel in the intrinsic knowledge and inspiring message it imparts. The old-world docent dozing in the corner is Mort, and he’s been manning his station for longer than anyone cares to remember. If Mort tells you to not touch something, it’s a memory you’ll cherish for the rest of your visit. A stop at the gift shop will leave your pockets full of postcards and informative brochures. Edna, the gift shop clerk, will give you $1.55 in change and a whimsical smile that says more than you think.

Stridently Moving Forward

East Chesterburg is so thoroughly trendy these days that at times it seems past retro and outside of outré. An uncounted number of people here live in town or in the suburbs, often in houses or apartments, many with driveways and garages. No taller than most people, East Chesterburgians are not often described as diminutive, though they might be if viewed from the proper distance. A formation of Canada Geese migrating overhead might be fooled into believing that the town itself is smaller than many cities, yet it is larger than others—something not every city can claim. One could live here for a hundred years and not meet every resident at least once, though you will feel as if you have, and you will.

Already hungry for lunch, I follow the recommendation of long-time resident, Herb Vouchsafe, and borrow a red bicycle which I ride to the outskirts of town to visit a rural eatery universally beloved by local omnivores. My handlebars glint in the sunshine, eliciting appreciative waves from townsfolk picking fretless banjos and crocheting socks on rickety front stoops. A quick tinkle of the bell engenders peals of laughter from the youngsters jumping rope in each schoolyard I pass.

As often happens in this city, I find the place to which I was headed exactly where it should be. Mo’s Pig House is redolent of grease and the briny elixir of a seaside fishing shack, reminding me of the winter I hitchhiked from Amsterdam to Antwerp on a foggy morning, laden with a sodden backpack, a perplexing itch and a head full of Baudelaire. You will feel exactly the same as you peruse the written synopsis of food items and pricing that serves as a menu at Mo’s. I choose a beer-battered cheeseburger with a side of crispy sweet potato fries and tart kimchee, but you may want to try the “Pig House Sampler” – a veritable pupu platter of pork pies. The water at Mo’s is free, but a word of warning: You’ll have to remember to ask.

The rain is just returning as I finish my dainty banquet and settle the bill. Swaddled in a bee-yellow poncho, I mount my two-wheeled steed and steer northeasterly to East Chesterburg’s charmingly-named “Labor Town” – a gentrified neighborhood once home to the city’s blue collar community, now a burgeoning village where artists, musicians and writers bump elbows and trade coffee-roasting tips with retired pipefitters.

Before arriving in the district, I veer to the right for a quick visit to a local used bookstore, The Wormy Book, to meet up with the city’s leading naysayer-cum-raconteur. “I realized East Chesterburg was going to be my home within 20 minutes of first arriving at the bus depot.” says Bud Skullnick, the bookstore’s Sales Team Guide. (“We don’t use hierarchical titles here,” he explains). “It had something going on that is indescribable. I guess I couldn’t imagine myself going anywhere else,” he explains while scratching the long white beard of his personal attendant, an elderly man of Asian descent. “Moreover,” he continues, fiddling a straw boater that I soon learn is his signature look, “I decided that if I was going to live here until I die, I was determined to spend every single day agitating for something to happen.” After only one day in town, I understand the sentiment, though I would be hard-pressed to explain it.

I'm introduced to another form of East Chesterburg’s agitation when I visit Stuff Mart, a cavernous repository of purposeful materials of every imaginable description. The exterior of this emporium will delight you with its medley of whimsical objects crafted from other objects, but inside it's a $5-million-a-year business overseen by a wizened man who can only be described as avuncular. Put this shop on your bucket list because it’s a sight no visitor should miss, both for its astounding variety and because it embodies the “East Chesterburg Way.”

"We move eight tons of product a day,” reports owner, William Sherwin, burning with conviction in a vintage Motorhead T-shirt and paint-splattered carpenter pants with worn knees. "The idea is to take what some people don’t want and turn it around to sell to people who want it. If we do it right, everybody’s happy. It’s the East Chesterburg Way.”

His goal, he says, "is to create a business model that can be given away to other places." One outcome is that Stuff Mart has become a popular stopover and photo opportunity for visiting dignitaries who hope to emulate East Chesterburg’s economic success, the 16% unemployment rate and junk bond rating notwithstanding. Some weeks, Mayor Sam “Slappy” Simperson is here so often you may find him catching a little shut-eye between official visits by curling up in a quiet vestibule on the premises. When you visit, he’s sure to tell you, “People all over the world want to see this. We let them watch and learn.” He will then tweet a message to his 1,480 followers: “Just told a visitor the East Chesterburg story. Awesome!”

On the Fringe

Local business boosters have been doing their best to promote East Chesterburg with a campaign that defines the town as “The New Edgy.” Gurf Franklin, creative director of a internationally renowned ad agency, Spank Spank (formerly InterModalMedia LLC), gives me a synopsis of the multimedia presentation that sold the city leaders on the campaign. “My partner, Jambo Fripp, came up with the concept of edge-seeking,” explained Franklin as a raincloud scuttered past the multi-paned windows of the former rope factory that is the firm’s creative cauldron, known affectionately by locals as “The Old Rope Factory”. Over the course of the next two-and-a-half hours, he hammers home the concept that “humankind instinctively and continuously seeks the edge … the boundary…the outer limits… the border… the outside of the envelope… terra incognito … did I mention the border?” He grasps a saltine and snaps it in half to illustrate a point that leaves me, oddly, more curious than indifferent.

The hallmark of this boosterism is the annual East Chesterburg Alternative Fringe Festival for Transgressive and Movement/Audio-Based Arts (popularly dubbed “the Alt-Trans-Fest”), which hosts 4,287 events over 13 days, ranging from macramé workshops to community pig roasts and pet swaps. Contemporary dance companies compete with dressage enthusiasts for top honors in the “So You Think You Can Prance” extravaganza at the Veterans Exposition Hall and Natatorium, while close to 2,000 local indie bands plug in at virtually every bar, diner, bowling alley, rooftop, subterranean grotto, Masonic Lodge and tented parking lot within a fourteen mile radius of downtown East Chesterburg. You’ll be hard pressed to find a single local under the age of 40 who doesn’t clamber for the coveted all-access wristband for the Alt-Trans-Fest. These “young moderns”--a common reference to members of East Chesterburg’s flamboyant youth culture--enjoy nothing more than loud music, alternative transportation, social media, distilled or fermented beverages, and tam o’shanters. When they’re not blogging and tweeting about their experiences, they open themselves to experiential learning like breaded abalone simmering in a sizzling fry pan of garlic butter.

Red-bearded, energetic, and wearing shoes that squeak when he walks, the director of an emerging social media aggregator, Parlay Jones, likes to call young East Chesterburgians “the next generation of generational change agents.” Himself an owner of 14 recumbent bicycles (one of which is a functional whiskey still), Jones loves nothing more than donning a distinctive hat and joining his youthful compatriots at any one of the hundreds of ubiquitous rolling food carts that crop up at every intersection in East Chesterburg, waiting to serve dripping slabs of deep-fried cuisine to a hungry workforce of cultural creatives.

"The food carts are all about choice,” Jones likes to say. “Every single generation but my own had no choice over what they ate—or even when they ate. Now we like to mix things up and live in the freedom of the moment, eating on the sidewalk because we can, even in the rain. It’s what puts us on the cutting edge of the food empowerment movement. Honestly, it’s what makes us better than every other city in the world. That, and our tam o-shanters.” Sitting on the curb eating fried potatoes topped with chorizo-hummus and siracha sauce is a rite of passage for every young person in town, and you’ll not want to not be one of them.

Adventures in Wayfinding

To navigate East Chesterburg, whether by bike or otherwise, you’ll have to master some basic geography. First, imagine the Toohoioliatte River (pronounce it “TOO-late” unless you want to be laughed at) smartly cleaving the city, east to west, with the north sector (home of the city's downtown) on one side, and the south (home of the city’s tree-lined neighborhoods) on the other. In the northwest quadrant, you’ll find the upscale Upland Heights and the trendy and fashionable Nebbish Hill neighborhoods. The southeast is divided by Clifford’s Gulch into the gritty Lower Southeast and plucky Upper Southeast boroughs. The northeast itself is divided by Sully Swale, which cuts diagonally from southeast to northwest, and is further divided by Little Creek running northeast to southwest, and Littler Creek meandering in such as way to strategically disrupt the entire street grid throughout what locals call “The Lost District.” Curiously, while Little Creek is descriptively named, Littler Creek is named after an early settler, Jacob Littler, and is, in fact, quite wide.

The north-west dividing line, which extends to both sides of the river, is the verdant Boulevard Park, a 700-acre urban retreat that stretches for 15 miles and widens to no more than 25 feet. Paralleled by Park Boulevard, Boulevard Park is a narrow expanse of East Chesterburg’s wildest, most deeply green aspects. Built single-handedly in 1895 by Charles Percy McFitts, an amateur landscape designer with spare time and a 25-foot-wide horse-drawn scraper, Boulevard Park originally served as le grande allée leading to an outer greenbelt that straddles one of the region’s many bifurcated divisions. Nearly doomed to death by bulldozer to accommodate what city planners hailed as “The Freeway to the Future,” Boulevard Park has been placed on the local registry as a “Regional Place of Significance and Meaning.”

Thanks to former mayor Burt Patsy’s acclaimed anti-encroachment campaign, East Chesterburg is now widely recognized as a breeding ground for innovative creativity in the green sector. It was Mayor Patsy who challenged all citizens of East Chesterburg to limit their propensity to expand, saying opaquely, “You have to crawl before you sprawl,” often adding his signature salute as he peddled away on a customized unicycle.

Nowadays, in new East Chesterburg developments, shops are built at street level to provide ease of pedestrian access, while charming lofts harken back to an era falling squarely between the industrial revolution and post-modern Scandinavia. Simply put, East Chesterburg’s social fabric is woven integrally with the warp and woof of a modern Valhalla perched on the precipice of a new tomorrow. There is simply no other way to describe it.

Of all the city's uber-green spaces, your favorite will be the East Chesterburg Sunken Gardens, found on the edge of the Northeast Outskirts district. The Sunken Garden provides a transformative descent into the intricacies of the spiritual landscape. "What makes a good sunken garden is the sense of sinkage it provides,” says Roxy Delacorte, the garden's Curator of Culture, Art and User Interfaces.

Delacorte and I walk, step-by-step, from the Squat Garden—one of five blending seamlessly, this one populated by colorful koi finning under the Moon Bridge—to the Splay Garden, a wondrously realistic simulacrum mimicking a representation of the hanging gardens of Pompeii as envisioned by an untrained and marginally sane artist. The gardens are known to engender quiet contemplation and repose in everyone who pauses to look. Quite literally, you will want to lie down on one of the graveled paths and take a short nap. The East Chesterburg Sunken Garden manages to accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors a year without losing its air of solitude amidst the jostling of elbows and vigorous snapping from the Snapping Turtle Eco-Pond.

A World of Art and Culture

Becoming tiresome, I trade the tranquil Garden for the bustling streets of "The Gulch," epicenter of East Chesterburg’s thriving arts scene. This former mill district is now peppered with outlets of urban gastronomy and cultural brio, brimming with fine restaurants, jazz joints, cafés, and upscale handcraft knit boutiques. East Chesterburg’s legendary jelly and jam purveyor, Progesteron, occupies an entire city block at the vortex of the district—so large that a local ordinance mandates that each customer be issued a portable rescue beacon to be activated if lost. (You’ll want to devote an entire weekend to the world-famous Marmalade Room, but don’t miss the easily-overlooked Jellied-Seafood Annex).

On the second Wednesday of alternating months, a crush of art lovers moves at a measured pace from gallery to gallery, stopping only to pause at each waystation to absorb the ambiance and eat unpasteurized cheese. Wear black, or risk standing out as a tourist. Cross Street is noted for its edgy, post-modern electronica such as the interactive art exhibited at NERVE: A GALLERY! Press the blue button on artist Lurv Speckle’s anthropomorphic sculpture, "Deity", and prepare to be surprised to hear a loud “squonk” while being squirted in the eye with what you will hope is lemon juice. The local arts college attracts the most creative of creatives, and the streets and alleyways are rife with crafts of all sorts, from cast bronze gamelan gongs to spatulas made from repurposed motorcycle fenders. Don’t miss the display of papier mache sculptures filled with sugar-laden sweets that art-lovers attempt to burst open with decorated batons while giggling like schoolchildren at a Mexican hat dance.

My local tour guide, Webb Masterson, informs me that “the creative arts in the region explicate and inform people about specific landscapes and their transformation onto a higher plane of communal consideration." He goes on to say, “When East Chesterburg’s bootstrap industry collapsed, the community had a hard time picking itself up. In the end, it was the arts that did the picking up. It was the arts that made all the difference, not the tax on cigarettes, beer and paper napkins, though some disagree.” You’ll want to disagree, but remember: You’re just passing through.

Many of the gawkers on the Second Wednesday Art Promenade live in expensive lofts overlooking Corner Square, a comely plaza featuring a wading pool that ebbs in tidal reflux, but others come from highly individualistic neighborhoods in other sectors of the city connected to the center by a web of transportation options. Streamlined Bauhaus-inspired trolleys trundle over parallel steel rails in a mode of travel harkening to Jules Verne’s steam-age, while bus service delivers throngs of fun-seekers both willy and nilly. After your visit, you will remember being part of this “scene” for the rest of your life, and will look forward to the day when you can tell your great-grandchildren about it.

A Burgeoning Cultural Ecosystem at Work

Later that evening, I arrive at the northern edge of an unnamed neighborhood to take an upholstered seat in East Chesterburg’s newly renovated Barnhouse Theatre for a smidgeon of entertainment and culture. While named for local philanthropist, Philo T. Barnhouse, I am surprised to learn that the venue is, in fact, a former goat barn. You’ll be surprised to learn that too, after picking up a brochure that was handcrafted from a mid-century mimeograph press.

As the house lights dims, we hear a sharp intake of breath from the audience, signaling the start of a rousing rendition of the company’s long-running, runaway hit, “Hungry, Hungry, Housewives” –an unbridled musical homage to an era of laissez-faire sexual mores. When we stumble out, eyes a-glaze, we are drenched with sweat and chocolate sauce, satiated by the show’s innovative amalgam of ribald shtick and aerial ballet, accompanied by an 18-member cello orchestra and a lone flugelhorn, artfully blown. The audience at every show is fashionably eclectic—spiffy grunge to quasi-professorial—but mostly warmly predisposed to intimidation. At intermission, the crowd makes a beeline for the state-of-the-art soda dispenser for a frothy serving of a cucumber-raspberry infused vodka and cane-sugar daquirito. Like me, you’ll be glad you asked for artisan-harvested sea salt on the rim of your glass.

While enjoying the respite of intermission, we are captivated by a series of interactive monitors telling the history of East Chesterburg’s cultural renaissance. Jim Beevey, the theater's Manager of Community Engulfment notes, “We’re the only venue in town with a fully-functional wifi uplink to a cutting edge server that integrates each audience member’s feed to their personally-tailored, multi-layered choice of social media mode. It’s what the next generation of audience members crave, driven as they are to co-curate a communal cultural experience.” Beevey, a multitalented chap with a striped t-shirt peeking out from his unbuttoned charcoal jumpsuit, also produces the popular “East Chesterburg Happy Hour and Gallery Guide,” and plays jazz glockenspiel with a combo of like-minded devotees. Be sure to accept his invitation to an early morning of skeet shooting.

After the play, we retreat to a beguiling bistro in a narrow zone straddling two of East Chesterburg’s more piquant neighborhoods, Greek Town and Turk City. The Thanatos Café is famed for it’s aioli-smothered soutzoukakia, crisp flash-fried hakanakaloxia, fire-roasted phipholococcyxolitis, and blackened-xxyzysosakakia in red sauce. (The latter surprised me with its subtle blush of disomos, reminding me of the keftedes found on the island of Skiathos). After serving our food with a flamboyant flourish, our waiter leaps onto the table wielding an earthen, Mycaean stirrup jar from which issues a stream of ouzo to be caught directly in our open mouths. We laugh with abandon, then smash our soiled plates while shouting “Opa!” The savvy traveler will note that Dmitros does not work on Tuesdays.

An Animated Night of Repose

After a day bursting with urban-exploration and personal discovery, I am grateful to stumble to my lodging at the trendy DeLouche Hotel and Swim Club. The desk clerk stops the dance music long enough to offer me a complimentary nightcap of codeine-infused, boutique-distilled gin. I’m also given a choice of either a cruller filled with foamed bacon-grease (topped with shaved-beeswax curls), or a dollop of aerated whiskey-whip cream squirted from a vintage seltzer bottle onto a pewter teething spoon. I opt for the latter, but you may choose differently. The party in the lobby this evening is a gathering of East Chesterburg’s boho-riche supraclass, and won’t end until the bruise of dawn stretches across the surrounding plains like milk spilled on a granite countertop. Like me, you’ll be too tempted to join in the festivities, but you’ll resist.

Finally ensconced in my cozy room, I curl up under a yak skin throw rug emblazoned with custom-beaded Walt Whitman quotes, choose a magazine from a stack of vintage erotica stocked in each room, and watch the Sonny Liston/Cassius Clay fight playing in a continuous loop on a mid-century black-and-white television with no off button. I sleep like a baby, reminded only periodically that the DeLouche is built above the central distribution hub of East Chesterburg’s main post office, right next door to the All-Night Metalsmithing Collective and the Acme Bakery Supply Company. An old-school vending machine in the lobby offers noise-cancelling headphones for rent.

Sad Farewells and Fond Memories

Next day, I arise early and soon have my hands wrapped around a steaming mug of craft-roasted, artisan-brewed coffee at Caffe Assange, the dawn watering hole for East Chesterburg’s burgeoning community of life-style oriented creatives. We’re seated at a communal table sharing a bowl of deep-fried challah balls dusted with confectioner's sugar and porchetta crumbles (the café’s signature petite appétit dejeuner du jour), engaged in a lively debate about vegan cheeses, when founder and gastro-preneur Garth Feybart, announces that the café will be closing at noon—not just for the day, but forever. We gnash our teeth and trade email addresses with our fellow diners, vowing to meet again in other cities. When you visit East Chesterburg, you will be disappointed to find that Caffe Assange has already been replaced with something not quite as cool.

Too soon it is time for my visit to everybody’s new favorite city to come to a close. My cabbie, Herb “Toots” Thimpkin, bleets his horn to signal that I must take my bow. While all the world may be a stage, it is time for the curtain to fall on this play, and it does so with little drama. I’m not ashamed to report that I feel a tug of emotion as I say goodbye to the City that Rarely Dozes. As he drops me at the train station, Toots sums up my experience in a quietly reflective manner: "East Chesterburg revolves around things in ways we don’t understand. We throw our doors open and hope for the best. At heart, we’re just local people trying to be responsible and caring. You might want to bend at the knees when you lift that bag.”

NEXT STOP: West Chesterburg

Editor's Notes:

1) East Chesterburg is not a real town, nor is it meant to stand in for Portland, Oregon.

2) Astute readers and transcontinental pilots will note that the photograph at the top of this post is actually Lincoln, Nebraska.

3) The line about "colorful koi finning under the Moon Bridge," is directly plagiarized from the National Geographic article, where it was used in a description of Portland's Lan Su Garden. We apologize.

4) Some Portland natives do carry umbrellas. Travel writers who say otherwise are perpetuating a canard.

5) A canard is also a duck.



Petty in Pink

Despite all of the amazing art that I come across every day, most of you know that I still love me some Broadway musicals. I say "despite" because no matter how good the book, the score, the costumes and the scenery, Broadway musicals still feel like a guilty pleasure when compared to some of the other things I like, such as Shakespeare. Or Shaw. Or Mad Men.

Not that I can stomach just anything you put on the stage, mind you. Last month's Xanadu, for example, was a travesty from start to finish. But you knew that already. And movies that get made into musicals tend to have a rough go; Young Frankenstein closed after only a few months.. although (here comes that guilty pleasure thing again), I enjoyed it for what it was. So what about the latest offering from Broadway Across America: Legally Blonde, The Musical?

I saw Legally Blonde on Broadway a few years ago after calling to ask a friend which of a few remaining productions that were up on the TKTS boards I should see. He recommended this, and I liked it just fine. It could be, in fact, one of the best meaningless productions I have ever seen.

But I couldn't muster the energy to see it again the other night despite the Opera's generous offer of complimentary tickets, so I offered them to Rob who took his 14-year old son Taylor. I told Rob that he'd have to write a review for this blog to justify the comps, careful to explain the ethics of these situations and that we as all-powerful THEATER CRITICS are under no obligation to actually enjoy the piece. Rob hasn't been inspired quite enough to put together a thorough narrative of his experience, but he does offer these quick observations below, which, given the short attention span of most musical-goers anyway, should suffice just fine.

So without further ado: Rob's and Taylor's Excellent Review:

The best way to describe Tuesday night’s performance of Legally Blonde, the Musical is a pink parade of silly fun.

Becky Gulsvig’s performance as Elle Woods was very strong, and Natalie Joy Johnson’s performance as Paulette was brilliant. But the male leads Jeff Mclean (Warner) and DB Bonds (Emmett) paled in comparison.

The show moved at rapid fire pace including multiple seamless set changes.

The songs were fun. The dancing was great.

The dogs were very well trained, especially Rufus who would bark on queue without a verbal command.



And there you have it. I couldn't have said it better myself. And thank goodness for well-trained dogs, right? If substantive reviews of less-than-substantive productions are more your style, check out Grant Butler's fine piece.

Legally Blonde closes Sunday.

UPDATE at 5:20PM: Blogorrhea just posted some complementary compliments as well. Read Mead.
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Book Review in a Questioning Vein

Have you read Padgett Powell’s new book, Interrogative Mood: A Novel? Are you at least aware of it, perhaps from having read an article about Mr. Powell in the October 18, 2009 edition of the New York Times Magazine? Do I need to remind you that each of the book’s sentences is a question? If this is the first time you’ve heard of the book, have I piqued your curiosity, or are you rolling your eyes, thinking, “For God’s sake! What a silly idea?" If I hadn’t capitalized “God” in that last question, would you have been offended? In a typical day, what is the ratio by which you are offended relative to not being offended? Can you live with that?

Have you already guessed how the rest of this book review is going to go? Do you agree with Ernest Hemingway’s statement that “parody is the last refuge of the frustrated writer?” Or are you confusing that with Brendan Gill’s observation that “parody is homage gone sour?” If I had left out the first names of those authors, would you have asked, “Who’s that?” with regard to Gill, but not Hemingway? Is there a chance you would have asked, “Which Hemingway?” In a fist fight, who do you think would win, Hemingway or Gill? What if Hemingway wielded a shotgun and Gill was armed with nothing but a rolled up copy of the New Yorker? Are you picturing this scenario?

Are you still with me? How many sentences of this review do you think I wrote before realizing that my approach is utterly unoriginal and--if we’re being honest with each other--trite? Can you explain why I insist on pushing forward in this vein? Would you think less of me if I had misspelled it “vane”? Would calling this review a pastiche be a fair characterization, or is that too highfalutin? Have you ever called something highfalutin? Have you had enough of this? What else have you had enough of in your life?

Are you amused or annoyed by non sequiturs? Do you find it disconcerting when a question such as “Are you familiar with the sport of kite fighting?” is juxtaposed with one such as “Do you think of there being a proper point in your debilitation as you age at which you should, if you can, kill yourself?” Would you laugh if the very next sentence is, “Do you have any experience with boils?” When was the last time you used the word "juxtapose"?

Do the questions we pose to others reveal secrets about ourselves? Have you ever had to stuff a dead body in a trunk? Did you see what I just did there? Are you telling us everything? Do you display misanthropic tendencies, by which I mean would you nod your head in agreement upon reading this series of questions: "Do the people you do not wish to talk to far exceed the number you do wish to talk to? Do you have much to say to even those to whom you do wish to speak? Do you know where it went wrong with you"?

Presuming you know such things, who taught you the cocktail party strategy of asking questions to draw people into conversation? Or are you more apt to think, “Enough about you, let’s talk about me?” Are you an actor? Do you quibble over the difference between strategy and tactic? If an author, over the course of 164 pages, asks thousands of questions, many of which are quite personal and blunt, would you have a clear portrait of him by the end of the book, even though he hasn't answered any questions himself? Would you be able to guess the author’s age based on the content of his questions, or in what region he lives? Do you talk about regionalism in the company of friends?

What do you think of this paragraph, which appears on page 27?
If your family had a cat, and the neighbor across the street had a cardinal in a cage, presumably because it could not live in the wild, and your family’s cat tormented the cardinal to death by leaping at and striking the cage, would you feel bad about it all your life? Is feeling bad about something all one’s life anything to particularly feel bad about? Are we redeemed by regret? Do you like going into very cold water? When was the last time you wielded a slingshot? Are you any good? Do you remember Buster Brown shoes? Are you afraid of geese with red carbuncular heads? Can you ski on water? On snow? Are you prepared for the end?

Did you notice how the author, in the midst of a rather bizarre hypothetical situation slipped in that simple line: "Are we redeemed by regret?" How careful do you suppose he was in selecting "carbuncular" as an adjective and can you think of any choice that would have been better?

How about this self-referential paragraph from page 70?
Is there anything you’d like to ask me? Are you curious to know what I’ll do with the answers you’ve given me? Do you think I can make some kind of meaningful “profile” of you? Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I have asked you? If we had these profiles, could we not relax and let them do the work of living for us and take our true selves on a long vacation? Isn’t it the case that certain people are already on to this trick of posting their profiles on duty while simultaneously living private underground lives? Can you recognize these profile soldiers by a certain dismissive calm, a kind of gentle smile about them when other are getting petty? Is in fact the character of the profile-façade person not that which is called wise? And is the person who is congruent with his daily self and who has no remote self regarded as shallow?

Does that last paragraph give you a hint of what to expect from this book? Might it help you understand why I liked this book so much? Are you more inclined to read the book now that you've read this post, or less so? If you have or will read "Interrogative Mood: A Novel?" will you let me know whether you ended up liking or disliking the narrator? Will knowing that I liked the narrator influence you? Would you lie to me?

On a related topic, do you remember that I wrote a review of Willy Vlautin’s book “Motel Life” in parodic form nearly a year ago, and that the Oregonian's arts and culture critic at the time, Barry Johnson, called it “the best book review of the new year...?” Do you realize that Mr. Johnson has not (to my knowledge) called another book review "the best of the year?" Also, are you aware that Mr. Johnson no longer writes for the Oregonian? Help me here, but doesn't that mean that I can now claim bragging rights for writing the best book review of 2009 according to Barry Johnson of the Oregonian, even though 2009 is not yet over?

May I ask just one more question? How can you not laugh at a sentence like this:

"If one man suggests to a second that he resembled Ted Kennedy, and the second in protest said, 'I ain’t got no outside gorilla,' what would his remark mean?"

FABULOSO!

Out of a slew of theater openings Friday night, we chose “Fabuloso!” by Third Rail Repertory Theatre. Directed by Third Rail's artistic director, Slayden Scott Yarbrough, “Fabuloso” is exactly what the title promises: A fabulous fabulist fable! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

With the first few opening scenes, I thought we were going to get a kitchen-sink comedy reprising some of the themes from “Dead Funny,” the company's fall production. You know: A middle-aged married couple whose tastefully decorated apartment masks lives of quiet desperation, boredom and bickering. But then all hell breaks loose.

Husband Teddy (Philip Cuomo) coaches girl’s soccer, meekly enduring the ire of disgruntled parents and looking ready to jump out of his own skin. At first, I couldn't tell whether Teddy is a man-child, a dimwit or just an empty husk. In one scene, he describes himself (through a bizarre bit of sing-song verse) as a half-filled glass of water who would rather be a piece of raw, rotting meat--at least the neighbors would notice his existence. Cuomo’s clown training and background is evident in his hang-dog demeanor and rubber face. He's a sad sack and a failure whose greatest flaw is his decency.

Teddy’s wife, Kate (Stephanie Gaslin) is clearly the more competent one of the pair. She’s the family member who holds down a real job at a bank, and the one whose infinite patience may be about to reach its limits. Gaslin succeeds in keeping the role appropriately reined in and even-keel--at least compared to her outsized companions.

The first few scenes with just Teddy and Kate are a slow simmer, interspersed by occasional chuckles. But then Teddy’s childhood friend, Arthur (Tim True), bursts onto the scene in a frenzy and a white dinner jacket. Arthur is a bon vivant and a gadfly, a man full of bluster, charm and manic energy. He spews the play’s choicest lines as he quickly destabilizes whatever sense of “normal” Teddy and Kate have settled for. True's portrayal of Arthur reminded me of his Mr. Marmalade at ART a few years ago, though without the menace and threat. I can understand why you would want to have him around, but also why you might pray that he just go away, please!

Arthur's warm reunion with Teddy (after a twenty year gap) is cut short when his fiancée, Samantha (Val Stevens) arrives, a bipolar express with murder on her mind. She’s even more unhinged than her par amour, if such a thing is possible. Stevens's overwrought portrayal of the maniacally-depressed drama queen is perfectly pitched; there's no call for subtlety in this role.

After Arthur and Samantha arrive, the play’s delicious absurdities zoom, and playwright John Kolvenbach’s script really begins to shine. (This is one of those rare plays that make me want to read the script afterwards). The visitors quickly turn an overnight slumber party in a long-term encampment in Teddy and Kate’s cozy one bedroom apartment. Life becomes one long party, full of mirth, martinis and merriment … at least when it isn’t shadowed by the threat of stabbings and occasional gunfire. It’s a wild, boozy ride--a ride that Kate endures gamely, despite her dire need for sleep. (After all, she’s the one that has to get up for work in the morning). Don't worry about this turning into "Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?"--no Hump the Hostess happens here.

You just know the foursome’s party can’t go on forever--or can it? Somebody is going to have to grow up and make some adult decisions, or somebody is going to get hurt. Until then, it’s great fun to watch this odd little family having fun together. The highlight of that fun is a lengthy dance number that closes the first act; it's a wild, sweaty production number that they’ve rehearsed to the point of exhaustion, and easily the top bit of stage choreography this season.

In the end, Teddy and Kate do grow up … at least a little. Arthur and Samantha aren’t transformed a bit; however, I suspect they may be nothing more than ghosts--the embodiment of that inner child that just needs to play, to be loved and to throw a temper tantrum every now and again. Once Teddy and Kate learn to accept that part of themselves and each other, they’re going to feel a whole lot better about how their lives are working out.

Final note: For a relatively young and smallish theater company, Third Rail stands out with its top grade production values. It works with some of this town’s best designers and doesn’t skimp on sets and costumes. Curt Enderle's realistic apartment set is both detailed and sturdy (there is a lot of movement in this play), and Don Crossley's lighting is just right. The entire Third Rail team is clearly a well-coordinated team, albeit one that mistreats its stagehands and wardrobe folks something fierce. I don't want to give away any surprises, but the backstage crew of “Fabuloso” ends up with a lot of cleaning up to do each night, just as it did after "Dead Funny" with its pie fight, and "Skull of Connemara" with its smashed skulls and piles of dirt.

"Fabuloso!" runs through May 31, 2009 at the World Trade Center Theater. Call the box office 503-235-1101 before this one is gone.

Nixon: Uncomfortable in his own Skin

Last Friday, upon returning home from a satisfying opening night performance of "Frost/Nixon" at Portland Center Stage, we snuggled up on the sofa with a nightcap and a bowl of popcorn and proceeded to surf the net on our respective laptops, engaging in a little post-theater research and memory freshening. There's nothing quite like historical research to top off a night of theater.

Since then, I’ve been trying to write a review, hoping to deliver a post that provides the reader with my uncanny analysis and musings on media, political corruption and human nature. I wanted to draw parallels between Nixon’s corruption and other political travesties, national and local. I wanted to reflect on the role of media in politics and how it has changed over the past 35 years. (Note: MY GOD! Has it been that long?).

Unfortunately, after six days of noodling, all I've come up with are dribs and drabs of incomplete thoughts. I keep getting distracted watching YouTube clips of the original Frost/Nixon interviews and listening to snippets of secret White House recordings. I'd like to be able to use the following Nixon blooper clip as a springboard for profound commentary on media and image-shaping, but mostly I just thought it was funny ... in a sad kind of way:




Over at Art Scatter, Bob Hicks writes more eloquently about Nixon as a tragic figure, so read his post (including the comments) and then pretend that you heard it from me. I'm done trying to weave the following random notes into a coherent essay. Best that you just go see the show, which runs through May 10th at the Gerding Theater ("The Bob"). It's good.

Full disclosure: I’m a neighbor and former colleague of director Rose Riordan and we frequently bump into each and talk about the business and art of theater while walking our dogs late at night. Our dogs are friends too.

1) "Frost/Nixon" is a complex technical achievement, with panels and set pieces that slide smoothly in and out, and lots of projected video (recorded and live). While tricky, all of these elements work together without being obtrusive or flashy – the whizbangery did not distract me from the story. The extensive use of video projection is an essential part of the storytelling and is not a gimmick. (Note: The actors aren’t lip-syncing to prerecorded video as one patron reportedly complained). The proscenium itself is encircled in a bezel that says, "I'm a giant TV set."

2) Technical bravado aside, the true key to the production’s success is that Riordan found just the right Nixon in Bill Christ. For any production of "Frost/Nixon," the big challenge is to transcend the three basic Nixons implanted in our brains: (1) The original Tricky Dick we watched on television from the Checker’s speech to his resignation; (2) the cartoon Nixon with floppy jowls and outstretched arms flashing the victory sign; and (3) Frank Langella.

Bill Christ conveys key Nixonian mannerisms and vocal inflections without sounding like a hack impressionist. He portrays Nixon’s complexities and vulnerabilities, and even manages to elicit a smidgeon of empathy. His nuanced acting holds up even when his gigantic mug is supersized on the video projection that dominates the set.

3) If there are weaknesses in "Frost/Nixon," they are in Peter Morgan's script. I think the play leans too heavily on expository speeches by two of the side characters: Jack Brennan (Scott Coopwood) on the Nixon team and Jim Reston (Adam Ludwig) as one of Frost's researchers. I’m not sure how else the necessary exposition might have been accomplished, but it struck me as a clumsy mechanism to bring the audience up to speed and move the story along. (Note: "Clumsy" may be too strong in this case ... make it "inelegant").

4) Other than Frost and Nixon, I thought the other characters were weakly developed (though well played and directed). Of course, the play's focus should be on the match between the title characters. Still, I would have liked to have known more about the other characters and their motivations, beyond what the script provides. For example, the character of Caroline Cushing (Allison Tigard) is introduced as a woman Frost meets on a flight while on his way to meet Nixon in advance of the interviews. She's invited to accompany him and they become an "item." In real life, Cushing was a journalist who had already been in a relationship with Frost for five years before the Nixon project. Tigard's portrayal gives the role enough weightiness to avoid coming across as Frost's arm candy, but the picture still seems incomplete.

5) The script makes David Frost out to be a journalistic lightweight and party boy. Perhaps that’s an accurate depiction, but it makes him less plausible as a “worthy opponent” (as Nixon ultimately declares). The underdog overcoming odds and beating a tough opponent is a perfectly legitimate plot trajectory. In this case, Frost's transformation from hapless bimbo to master debater seems to happen too quickly, conveniently and without enough dramatic tension. (Note: I couldn’t resist writing “master debater,” but did edit out the reference to Frost as a “cunning linguist” because I have my standards).

6) One of the play’s pivotal scenes involves a drunken Nixon making a late night phone call to Frost in which he exposes all of his insecurities and grudges. (Note: I’m putting “Drunken Nixon” on my list of potential band names). It’s a powerful and effective scene, but one that is completely fictional. I'm not sure what to think of that. I know, I know, it's a play, not a documentary, but still. (Note: I really mean it when I say I don't know what to think about this ... but at least it made me think about the role of truth and imagination in creating theater based in historical fact ... ).

7) I would like to say that "Frost/Nixon" will win a Drammy for best set, except that I think that category might be won by either "The Receptionist" or "How to Disappear and Never be Found" -- also directed by Rose Riordan. Bill Christ should at least be nominated for Best Actor -- but if he wins, the monkey-fightin' Portland acting community will go batshit crazy because he's from out-of-town.

8) Really. Go see the show. Ignore my little penny ante quibbles. It's really well done and is a fascinating story with lots to think about afterwards, food for thought, blah blah.

Oh, one more thing: It's always good to be reminded of how power corrupts. Nixon thought he had the right answers and that his reelection would serve the nation best; hence, the ends justified the means -- lying, cheating and covering up were okay because he was the guy with the brilliant mind and great ideas who was going to save us from ourselves and the rest of the world. Isn't that always the slippery slope upon which politicians risk finding themselves?

Biloxi Blues @ Profile Theatre

When Profile Theatre announced its 2008-2010 season, I thought Jane Unger’s choice of Neil Simon as the featured playwright would turn out to be a marketing mistake. (I'm presuming readers know that Profile has the unique mission of focusing on a single playwright through an entire season, “celebrating the playwright's contribution to live theater”).

Before this year’s author was announced, Profile mailed a teaser postcard listing playwrights under consideration: Sam Shepard? Samuel Beckett? Moliere? My memory is hazy about the list, but I recall liking most of the other prospects more than Neil Simon. With most theater companies around the country trying to figure out how to attract a new, younger audience (a topic Culture Shock has covered before), picking an old-school writer such as Simon seemed retrograde. It certainly isn’t a sexy choice. Of course, Simon is America’s most successful playwright for a reason, so what do I know?

More than a week ago, I attended Profile's opening night performance of Simon's Biloxi Blues (1985) expecting to be mildly entertained. Instead, I enjoyed an outstanding production of a well-crafted script. No big fireworks, but a well-told story. I should have given more credit to Neil Simon, as well as to Pat Patton, a veteran stage director. After close to four hours immersed in the multimedia extravaganza of Apollo the previous night (reviewed here), I was primed for straightforward theater that moved at a crisp pace.

Biloxi Blues is a simple coming-of-age story set in a boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi during WWII. It sits in the middle of a semi-autobiographical trilogy that starts with Brighton Beach Memoirs and ends with Broadway Bound. (Many critics have declared Biloxi Blues to be the best of the three). The opening night audience chuckled and guffawed through the whole thing, but it’s more than a two hour laugh-fest as it sensitively tackles serious issues such as homophobia and anti-Semitism.

What really stands out in this production--and what I've been meaning to comment about for more than a week-- is the uniform quality of the acting ensemble. There wasn’t a single mediocre performance to be found from the group of mostly young actors.

At the reception following the performance, Jane Unger told me they’d auditioned a lot of actors to find just the right mix of young men who could embody the play’s distinct characters – from the intellectual misfit, Arnold Epstein (played by Matthew Sa) to the tough-guy Pole, Joseph Wykowski (Mario Calgano)--a manly stud who is alleged to sport a perpetual pole. The two women roles are played perfectly by Brooke Fletcher (as the prostitute, Rowena) and Brittany Burch (as first-love, Daisy Hannigan). In early scenes, Todd Hermanson’s portrayal of the tough drill sergeant borders on stereotype (written that way by Simon). Later, he nails the sergeant’s gentle response to the young soldier Hennessey (played by high school senior Derek Hermann) who is being arrested on charges of sodomy. He is also superbly menacing in a drunken encounter that is at the climax of the play.

This is one of those rare productions in which EVERY performance is great. I recommend that any casting directors looking to fill roles straddling the transition age from teenage to adulthood go see this cast in action. (For instance, if you’re developing a play called The Mentoring of Beau Breedlove). I hope this cast ends up being nominated for "best ensemble" in this year's Drammy Awards. (As long as I’m suggesting nominees, let me also include set design by Tal Sanders).

p.s. The accompanying photo is not from Biloxi Blues. It's from the Phil Silvers Show (originally titled You'll Never Get Rich)--a mid-century (1955-59) work of television sit-com brilliance starring one of the funniest comedians of the age. The 1996 Steve Martin film adaptation of the series sucked.

The picture to the right is also not from Profile's production of Biloxi Blues. Rather, it is a portrait of the inimitable and debonair Top Cat (known as "T.C." to his friends) from the eponymous Hanna Barbera series of the mid-60s. That cartoon series was modeled on The Phil Silvers Show, with Top Cat's voice being a loose imitation of Phil Silvers' (which was also imitated for the cartoon character Hokey Wolf).

But I digress.

Blast! Off.

Prolix! Prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors can't fix.

Leaving the Gerding Theatre after the opening night performance of Apollo, I was thinking of those lines from a song by Nick Cave (We Call Upon the Author). To save you from scampering for a dictionary, “prolix” is an adjective describing something that is tediously prolonged or wordy. It is an apt term for Apollo – a three act play packed with intriguing ideas and striking images, sounds and movement--all overshadowed by a sense of self-indulgence and excess. Sorry, that’s how I saw it.

I thought a lot more about Apollo on Saturday, creating this 60 second video to convey my thoughts:



In short: Like these rockets, Apollo is full of grand ambition and moments of spectacular imagery, but requires further development to work out the bugs.

On Sunday, I realized that wasn't being informative, constructive or kind. So let's go back to the beginning.

Friday evening began with a delightful dinner at Fifty Plates in the company of Culture Jock and our respective partners. We dawdled over coffee, stoking caffeine to offset the depressant effects of martinis and a bottle of Pinot Noir, girding ourselves for the three acts of Apollo. A balky credit card reader threw our timing off, forcing us to rush to our seats just as the doors were closing. Artistic Director Chris Coleman was wrapping up his curtain speech and I caught the faint scent of preemptive apology. To paraphrase (very loosely, because I was out of breath and turning my cell phone off), “I know some of you aren’t going to like this, but that’s the nature of new play development. Have a good time.” Uh oh.

Rather than write my own synopsis of the play, I’m just going to borrow this nice description from Portland Center Stage's website:

Apollo is an epic, multimedia examination of post WWII America which explores the birth of the U.S. space program, its employment of former-Nazi rocket scientists, and their surprising intersection with the Civil Rights Movement. Using the U.S. mission to the moon as a symbol of our country’s greatness, Apollo probes deep into the question: what did we sacrifice to become the America we are today? And was it worth it? Through a kaleidoscopic array of theatrical methods (movement, text, video projection, music), [Nancy] Keystone reveals the costs and ambiguities of human aspiration and progress.”

Keystone wrote and directed Apollo in collaboration with the Los Angeles-based theater ensemble, Critical Mass Performance Group, where she is Artistic Director. Her artistic ties to Portland Center Stage under Coleman’s artistic reign go back many years, including a stint as artist-in-residence. (I liked her direction of Antigone, and thought Under the Lintel was a fascinating production). If you’re familiar with the work of Sojourn Theatre, you’ll spot similarities, both in the approach they take in creating work and in the performance elements they employ: stylized/ritualized movement, nonlinear narratives, multimedia sound and images, etc.

If the goal of a work of theater or performance art is to provoke contemplation and conversation after the curtain has gone down, then Apollo is a success. Since I left the Gerding 48 hours ago, I’ve devoted way too much mental bandwidth to Keystone’s epic opus. I've scrolled through Wikipedia entries on Wernher Von Braun, Arthur Rudolph, Walt Disney, Jules Verne, V-2 rockets, “Frau im Mond,” Operation Paperclip, etc. I even watched YouTube clips of von Braun’s collaboration with Walt Disney to sell the vision of space exploration to the American public.

I learned about things I didn’t know before, was reminded of more that I had forgotten, and found fresh ideas to contemplate. I understand why Keystone’s imagination was ignited by the intersecting stories and resonant themes she uncovered in her research. With a web woven between rocket scientists in Nazi Germany and the struggle for civil rights in Alabama, Keystone has concocted a framework through which she examines a slice of American history.

Apollo poses profound and timeless human questions, covering a lot of ground for a single play. Maybe too much. It seems to strive to reach epic proportions--trying to do with the space race and civil rights what Angels in America did with the AIDS epidemic. While all three acts of Apollo are of a piece, each could have been developed as a complete play by itself (albeit at the price of diminishing its grandeur).

But the fundamental problem is not that Apollo is too ambitious in its scope. That wouldn't explain why I started getting impatient in the first act. The bigger problem is that Apollo could have achieved its storytelling ambitions without becoming a bloated three-and-three-quarters hour-long endurance test. Some sensible editing and tightening are badly needed.

My sense is that Keystone was so enraptured by all of the elements created over Apollo's long gestation that she was unable or unwilling to let any of them go. The toughest task for a writer is to excise text you've grown to love. It’s hard to say, “Even though I adore this scene, it’s not serving a necessary purpose.”

I’m going to presume that Keystone heard this suggestion from colleagues as the play took shape (I hope she did), but decided that the work’s artistic integrity would be compromised by cutting. Okay, that’s the artist’s prerogative. And bravo to Portland Center Stage--I guess--for respecting the artist and giving Keystone the freedom and resources (!) to carry out her vision. Of course, that means accepting the blowback from audience members, like me, who won't connect with this play because they are annoyed at the extravagance of spending nearly four hours to get two to three hours of content.

Some audience members will be put off by Apollo because they are unaccustomed to nontraditional approaches to theater, or are simply obtuse. It's not a challenging play in the sense of being intellectually dense, suffused with tricky language or built on obscure references. While a few segments are abstract or confusing, much of the play suffers from being too obvious and heavy-handed: Lincoln balancing on a tight rope? I get it. A belle in a hoop skirt warning of threats to Southern womanhood? I get it. Simplistic caricatures abound–not just Mickey Mouse himself, but a cartoon George Wallace, a buffoonish Hitler and a fleeting visit from a Klansman. Visual and verbal metaphors rain down incessantly and without nuance. The laughs are often cheaply purchased. The acting ensemble is talented, but the stylized approach Apollo adopts strips almost all of the characters of any real human dimensions. (The exception is during the Arthur Rudolph story in the second act--that alone should be developed into a play).

Apollo does have some outstanding moments and strengths that show Keystone's artistry. Isolated bits of movement are compelling: The actors mimicking weightlessness; the row of ensemble members shadow punching and stepping forward with swift jabs while reciting in unison, “We the peoplepow... of the United States...pow pow pow...; the rope tricks turning into nooses and binding the players.

The set design (also by Nancy Keystone) is spectacular--particularly in the second act--and the light and sound design are exceptionally good. Unfortunately, this only adds to the sense of extravagance and self-indulgence. How much did this puppy cost?

The final act of Apollo includes a scene in which civil rights leader Dr. Ralph Abernathy leads a march on the eve of the launch of Apollo 11. He challenges the amount of spending on NASA and space exploration while so many Americans remained impoverished. I'm sorry, but I can't help but feel that the same question is relevant to this Apollo project.

Now, if you disagree with my assessment, or are disappointed that I'm disappointed, let's talk. Give me some comments. Tell me I'm full of it. Reminder: Though I blog under the moniker Mighty Toy Cannon, I'm not hiding behind anonymity.

God Bless Us Every One!

The Toy Cannon household went a-wassailing with Portland Center Stage for the opening of “A Christmas Carol” on Friday night.

I’ve long been a defender of this holiday chestnut. I’m a sucker for the story, from the original novella to oddball stage and screen permutations. And, I'm a fan of wide-ranging intrepretations of its central character, Scrooge, from Mr. Magoo to Henry Winkler. (You may chuckle about the latter, but I remember Mr. Winkler being quite convincing in the depression-era version, “An American Christmas Carol,” that ABC aired as a holiday special in 1979).

The opening paragraph of the Dickens novella strikes me a particularly modern in its metacommentary:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Many theater snobs (and I can be one) scoff at “A Christmas Carol” the same way balletomanes bemoan the annual NutcrackerFest, as if using these sacred cash cows to tow the cart of commerce is a transgression against Art. Granted, production crews have cause to complain; the ideal Victoriana version demands scenery on turntables, falling snow, billowing fog, giant puppets, flying ghosts and street scenes crowded with yuletide carolers in four-part harmony. In other words, “A Christmas Carol” can be a son-of-a-bitch to pull off.

Yes, the plot is a simplistic morality tale with hoary characters and a predictable arc of redemption with which we are all familiar. But damn, it can be tearfully joyous when Scrooge gets that second chance and--SPOILER ALERT--Tiny Tim lives. In tumultuous days of foreclosures, lay-offs and bail-outs, what better time to be reminded about the values of generosity, charity and human connectedness?

Portland Center Stage’s current version, now in its second season, uses an engaging adaptation by the estimable Mead Hunter (the Doyen of Dramaturgy). Wesley Mann in the role of Scrooge hits the sweet spot of portraying the cantankerous coot with enough humanity that the audience can root for him as he is blessed with the gift of awareness by his visiting haints.

On opening night, the audience favorite seemed to be Julianna Jaffe playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. She was flown in, perched on a tinseled wreath, singing carols with gusto, good humor and a campiness that was incongruent with the staging and tone that preceded her arrival but was a good goof nonetheless.

The costumes were predictably impressive, and the complicated set unfolded and swiveled on cue, while scenic elements dropped in, popped up and flew out to move the play through the many scenes of Scrooge’s spirit-guided journey. I’m sure it was a nightmare for the technical staff, but if you’re going to do a full-blown version of “A Christmas Carol,” pull out all the stops and make the kiddies’ jaws drop. To top it all off, they threw in a little snowfall during the curtain call.

My big quibble with the PCS production on opening night was the horrible sound quality. Miking actors seems to have become standard practice for musical theater no matter the size of the house (this production has plenty of caroling to contend with). But why do adult actors in a 600-seat modern theater need to be miked when speaking? And if you’re going to mike them, please do it right. The sound balances were off, lines faded in an out of amplification as actors turned their heads or came into proximity with other microphones, and the opening tunes were marred by grating sibilance. Marley's ghost was amplified and echo-chambered to give it a spooky, ghostly quality. Nice effect initially, but I presume one reason for casting Ted Roisum in the role is his booming, resonant voice. Unfortunately, the echo effect obscured that voice and buried some of the most poetic lines in the play:
I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?
This is a minor quibble, but it threw me into a Scrooge-like mood that took some time to dissipate before I could fully enjoy the show. Somehow it made the production feel small despite the money invested on stage--perhaps because amplification creates distance whereas the actual human voice draws one closer.

But never mind all that, there are endorsements that matter more than this writer's opinions. Bruce Livingstone, founder and director of Playwrite Inc, brought a group of young participants from that program to see the play. At the post-show reception, he reported that one of the youngsters gave this succinct review:

"That was better than television!"

Indeed it was, though I still think the Henry Winkler version is worth renting.

The Receptionist -- Too Late!

We finally got a chance to see “The Receptionist” at Coho on Thursday night. Had I attended earlier in the run, I would have been touting this show like crazy. Since the production closes this weekend, and is reportedly sold out, I’ll just say, “Too bad if you missed it!” Full disclosure: I’m biased since I have friends and colleagues associated with the show. (But who among Culture Shock readers doesn’t)?

Rose Riordan’s direction and design are impeccable, demonstrating an astonishing attention to detail in conjuring the daily, drabness of the office place--from a burbling coffee maker to a pathetic, shriveled house plant. Sharonlee McLean’s portrayal of Beverly, the receptionist of the title, is perfectly rendered with 80 minutes of nuanced stage business, gestures and vocal inflections that are thoroughly engaging, belying the fact that nothing of import is really happening for much of the first half of the play. Like many Portland theater fans, I’ve admired every role Sharonlee has played since she first appeared in “All in the Timing” for Portland Rep under Dennis Bigelow’s direction in the 1994-95 season.

Laura Faye Smith plays Lorraine with verve, conveying a professional woman whose life is (mixing metaphors here) a train wreck dancing on the razor’s edge of a meltdown in a pinball factory made out of funhouse mirrors. Laura deftly moves from coquette to basketcase, showing a true knack for physical comedy and fearlessness in every choice she makes. Indelibly etched in my memory bank of theater moments will be the image of Laura stuffing her cheeks, chipmunk-like, with wad upon wad of salt water taffy as she delivers a passionate, mascara-smeared, drooling tirade. Classy.

Gary Norman is excellent as the beaten-down shlub, Mr. Raymond, whose heart just isn’t in the dirty business at hand any more, and Chris Murray is all innocent, young charmer as the enigmatic Mr. Dart ...until he isn’t.

Playwright Adam Bock’s script accurately captures the day-to-day, mundane dialogue of the corporate office. My quibble with the play is that I liked it best when it was exposing the quotidian in precise detail more than when it brought out the message hammer. My complaint about Bock’s “The Thugs” (which PCS produced last year with much of the same artistic team) was that the lurking threat was too subtle, making the play more of an amusing sit-com about the life of temps than the allegory I think he meant it to be. With “The Receptionist,” I thought Bock overadjusted. I wanted the menace to be sneakier – more Harold Pinter and less Rod Serling. (Other critics have made the apt comparison of “The Receptionist” to an episode of “The Twilight Zone”). Still, even though the play delivers chilling ideas with a cudgel, its message is certainly thought-provoking and timely, and I look forward to whatever Mr. Bock comes up with next.

Drammy nods for production, direction and/or acting? Magic 8-Ball says, "Most Certainly!"