Friday, September 19, 2008

Time-Based Art

LAST WEEK IN PORTLAND we attended three events in PICA's Time-Based Art festival. PICA is the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art; "time-based art" is, well, art whose perception requires the passing of time, I guess; what art would that not be?

Not to be snide: it is of course art whose point, or much of whose point, is the awareness of the passing of time. I think I first started thinking about this on learning about Japanese traditional art forms, especially the Noh theater; soon enough this was associated with the music of John Cage and, especially, Morton Feldman.
Well, anyway, PICA has been running a festival of Time-Based Art for a number of years now, and the festival was on last week while we were visiting that fascinating city. After more than twenty years of retirement I still prefer not to go to performances or galleries casually, and I hadn't planned on going to any of these. But three events were irresistible.

On Saturday we tagged along with Khris Soden on his Portland Tour of Tilburg. We and about thirty other people followed him as he led us, walking backward most of the time and holding a little paper Dutch flag aloft, along forty blocks or so through downtown Portland. Along the way he discussed the buildings, sculpture, fountains and streets we were "seeing" — "seeing" in quotes because while we were looking at Portland he was describing Tilburg, Netherlands.

Some of us had booklets of photos of the described places (some of them) in Tilburg. They were helpful, I suppose, but soon enough I was more interested in the cognitive dissonance between what I was actually seeing and what I was hearing being described. It helped, of course, that I'm quite familiar with the generic appearance of Dutch cities; their parks, traffic, cafés, shops, architecture, and the like — even though I am not at all familiar with Tilburg, a fairly large city in Brabant, the part of the Netherlands I know the least.

Today (Friday, Sept. 19) my granddaughter Grace is taking Soden's tour of Portland in Tilburg; I wish I could have been with her. What Soden does is part sculpture, part walking, part dance; wholly active, wholly contemplative. I'll be thinking about it for a while.

SUNDAY WE ATTENDED an event that was pure Dance, The City Dance of Lawrence and Anna Halprin, with choreographers Linda K. Johnson, Cydney Wilkes, Linda Austin, and Tere Mathern, writer Randy Gragg, and the Third Angle New Music Ensemble, a dozen or so musicians, playing music by Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, and Terry Riley.

Probably a thousand people gathered at the first site to watch two corps of dancers in what amounted to a proscenium situation at Ira Keller Fountain Park. Morton Subotnick's electronic music surrounded the dancers and audience; many of us looked on from behind, or alongside. Toward P1040114.jpgthe end ropes were thrown down over the lips of the cascades and dancers climbed them to the lips of the upper fountains, where they threw themselves into the pools; dance and athletics have rarely been so beautifully, so strikingly combined — and in a setting that also includes terrain, plantings, and the audience awareness of itself as participant.


From here, a number of ushers quietly and tactfully guided the audience to the next stop, Pettygrove Park: three fairly small circular berms set among broad-leaved trees. No fountain; just quiet land and trees. Musicians — flute, clarinet, trumpet, French horn, violins, viola, cello, bass — were scattered widely within the landscape, and dancers appeared, holding positions, then coming to life. The music was by Pauline Oliveros, and it was delicious. Hearing unpredictable but logically appearing sounds, from conventional instruments conventionally played, in an outdoors public space, is one of the great pleasures of civic musical life: it binds the audience together with itself, its community, and the traditions of its culture. And seeing the music punctuated and "interpreted" — not only the music, but the park setting as well — knits all these factors together.

At Keller Fountain we'd been on the extreme margin of the audience, hardly able to see the dancers; here we were at the center, the dancers on their berms around us; Pauline's music, with occasional called-out words and phrases from writings of Lawrence Halprin, somehow both floating and focussing the audience into a gentle fabric of urban sound. Distant traffic and more local natural sound contributed, as did uncontrollable small motions within the audience.

We were led next to Lovejoy park, where an ornate grand piano stood in water up to its ankles in a broad, flat pool. Once again the audience had moved into the arena before the dancers, but they soon appeared, by ones at first, then the entire company. As before, the choreography was an homage to Anna Halprin, the seminal San Francisco dancer whose "task" dances, like the great Parades and Changes, had rewritten dance history in the 1960s.


The music here was Terry Riley's, and before it was over a musician had waded to that piano and begun to hammer out the familiar octave "C"'s that begin his equally groundbreaking In C. Before the act was over dancers had taken to the back wall of the fountain, methodically splashing cupfuls of water against the concrete wall, claiming Action Painting as just another part of the entire, integrated mise en scène.

I found the entire event absolutely exhilarating. The Modernism of the 1960s retains its vitality, its optimism, its freshness: it lacks utterly the cynicism and cool detachment of the postmodernism of the present day. I'm almost sorry I'm no longer reviewing art for a daily newspaper: but, since I'm not, let me refer you to this review online: I couldn't do it any better.

ONE EVENT REMAINED: a screening at the Portland Museum of Art of Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle , the 2006 film by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno. Ninety minutes long, it is nothing more nor less than the entirety of the soccer game between Real Madrid and Villareal of April 23, 2005, "entirely filmed from the perspective of soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane," in the description at I found the film utterly fascinating and somewhat frustrating: you never really see soccer; you focus entirely on the persona of Zidane, who naturally spends much of the game physically relatively inactive while mentally entirely focussed and committed. When he does move, of course, he's definitive. Athletics and Dance fuse completely in this film, as they did in the Halprin homage; and when we left the theater I couldn't help breaking and running. Gotta dance.

Shameless self-promotion

LISTENING TO CAGE, by way of his Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras, made me think to check out Feldman, so I went to E-Music to download his Coptic Light. Hearing that made me think of my own Nightmusic, so I put it on next. I'd forgotten how nice it sounds.

Googling it I discover it's available from Audiophile, with the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano — to my knowledge Kent's first recording. (It was released in 1982.)

I wrote the piece forty-one years ago, I suddenly realize, on looking at my account of it over at As recorded, it's a bit over 24 minutes long; quiet; mostly consonant.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ashland 4: Two American Classics


WE SAW SEVEN PLAYS in six days last week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, only once having to squeeze in two performances on a single day. I've told you about the Shakespeare: here's a roundup of the remaining three. I won't go into details; click on the play-title links for OSF's webpages (casts are available there by clicking "Artists").

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is a classic, of course, stripping away all but the irreducible generic from its portrait of small town USA, turn of the previous century. There are those who no longer find it relevant; who think of it as simple-minded and sentimental. I'm not one of those; Chay Yew apparently was -- until he reread the play on being asked to direct it here in his OSF debut.

To my taste the overall success of this production is muted for much of its duration. Played in the outdoor Elizabethan Theater, it lacks two kinds of intimacy it would gain indoors: the stage is too apparent within its setting, but the audience, concentrating on that stage, loses contact among itself. I think Our Town is almost a community meeting; it profits from being shared by an audience aware of itself as part of the Grover's Corners community. Our Town, summoned up by its Stage Manager and playing almost entirely without props or sets, is meant to engage, even enter, the collective consciousness of its audience; for that to work, the audience needs to be aware of itself as a group. The darkness of the Elizabethan Theater audience makes that very difficult: the evening is like a nostalgic family snapshot, sixty years old, printed with far too much contrast, losing informative details in the dark.

But this production was evenly cast, beautifully narrated, nicely scaled; and it closes very effectively, melting away the specificity of individual life into the beautiful and reassuring inevitability and permanence of the future collective history that is death. I think it a magnificent play, and probably particularly one to see during a presidential campaign.

Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge is another American classic, another essay on family and commmunity, another play with immediate political relevance. Staged in the (indoors) Angus Bowmer Theatre, it filled the wide stage with realism and action equally effective at presenting the exterior — dockside Brooklyn and its Italian-immigrant community in the late 1940s — and the interior — family life; psychological drama; challenge, defeat, and retribution.
Where Our Town is a philosophical romantic comedy, A View from the Bridge is a full-fledged Greek tragedy, lacking only the unity of time (it represents several months, not a single day, in the running its infernal machine).

For a number of years Miller's been consigned, I think, to a dusty corner of American theater. Setting his plays on specific American history — Italo-American Brooklyn, Puritan witch-hunt, middle-America traveling salesman — seemed to date him. But he wrote for his immediate present, couching the political issues that concerned him in parables his immediate audience would recognize. If the next generation lost interest, the one after that sees the universality, or rather the again timely, in this work. We continue to need it, alas.

Luis Alfaro's Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner is another matter. In Alfaro's words "a comedy about serious things," it concerns a woman who continues to eat, to inflate, finally to change utterly. Her own journey is set within the distractions of her family — a two-dimensional husband, a nymphomaniacal sister — and two rather undeveloped outsiders: her sister's cop boyfriend and an enigmatic Chinese woman met at a fat farm.

The production is well acted. (We saw an understudy, Kate Mulligan, in the lead role; she was absolutely first-rate.) In fact, I'd say the actors do more with the roles than the playwright has given them; credit has to go to Tracy Young's direction, too. But the production rides on a gimmick of stage mechanics* that ultimately becomes tiresome, turning Alfaro's "magic realism", I think, into bogus magic. I kept thinking there was a play here, somewhere, in fact; but that despite everyone's best intentions and efforts it never quite emerged; it floated away.

*Since writing this I've learned that the second act has been restaged and that "gimmick" — a flying harness — has been eliminated from the production. After two months, it became too much physical strain for the actress; presumably this is why we saw an understudy in the role.

at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland:
Thornton Wilder: Our Town, running through Oct. 11
Arthur Miller: A View from the Bridge, through Nov. 1
Luis Alfaro: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, through Nov. 2

Thursday, September 11, 2008

That walk across the French Alps…

CS.jpgAS MANY OF YOU KNOW, I spent ten days in June and most of July walking from Evian-les-Bains to Nice with my grandson Henry and my friend Keith (Mac) Marshall. I'd intended to blog during that walk, but technology defeated me.
I have been writing about the walk, though, after the fact, in a third blog hidden until now. It's time to let it out: you can find it at Alpwalk.
It's a little rough around the edges, and like all blogs it has to be read from the most recent back to the beginning. Still, there it is, with a number of photos. Let me know if you like it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Othello and Coriolanus in Ashland


TWO DIFFICULT TRAGEDIES — difficult from the point of view of successful production, I mean, not posing intellectual difficulties for the audience — drew memorable stagings at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season. Unlike the two comedies this season, The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello and Coriolanus were given fairly conventional, timeless and black-box settings; each served the text directly without overladen directorial interpretation, and each — like the comedies, for that matter — gained from quite strong casts.

Othello, staged in the outdoors Elizabethan Theater, was so powerful I decided, on leaving the performance, never to see it again. It just won't be necessary, not unless a personal friend's in the production. With no other stage décor than strip lights and an occasional prop (including Desdemona's all-important bed) the production seeemed to be nothing but situation and language: the text is truly brought to stage, to life.

I haven't been crediting actors on this blog recently, feeling your ability to consult the credits online is good enough (since the acting here, with minor exceptions I may get to, is consistently first-rate). But this Othello is so brilliantly set on its three principals, and they are so responsive to both Lisa Peterson's directing and Shakespeare's text, that it would be unusually irresponsible to omit them.

Peter Macon (another OSF debut) is utterly commanding in the title role, growing from the proud but engaging hero of the opening scene to the obsessed yet tragically and oddly sympathetic villain of the climax. Dan Donohue is unusually complex as Iago, thoroughly villainous yet oddly retaining a few misgivings, ultimately as tragic as Othello, because as trapped by his own decisions, by the workings-out of a situation spun completely out of control. And Sarah Rutan was interesting and engaging, not merely vulnerable and wronged, as Desdemona.

CORIOLANUS WAS EQUALLY effective (and affecting) at a different pitch. Staged in the round in the New Theater, lacking proscenium and distance, its production seemed to involve the audience more intimately: it didn't matter that the Roman tribunes and the Volscian army were so few; their ranks were swelled by the audience.

Remarkably, we saw an understudy (Brad Whitmore) in the role of Menenius; one can't imagine the regular player (Richard Elmore) would have owned the role any better. More to the point, Danforth Comins brought as much nuance and credibility as possible to the title role; Michael Elich scaled the antagonist Aufidius nicely, bringing out the parallels to the Iago-Othello opposition in that other tragedy.
Robynn Rodriguez was the Volumnia, and especially in the first act (and especially with help from Deborah Dryden's marvelous costume design) easily projected the obsessive pride and purposefulness that ultimately brings down both her son and the Roman Republic.

If I may never see another Othello, I certainly won't easily pass up another Coriolanus. I've seen two others relatively recently: a weak production, four years ago, at A Noise Within, down in Glendale; and a remarkably good production, by an all-female cast, in the Healdsburg Plaza a few summers back. The play is remarkably resilient: perhaps it's a mark of its imperfectness that a "definitive" production is less conceivable for it than for Othello.

Shakespeare: Othello and Coriolanus, running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, through Oct. 10 and Nov. 2.

Ashland: A Midsummer Night's Dream

WE ENDED OUR WEEK at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with an aftenoon performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of four Shakespeare plays we saw last week. I wish I could say this was one of the best productions I've seen: it wasn't. Like The Comedy of Errors it was a "concept" production, and it suffered more: where Errors was an out-and-out adaptation, this was simply relocated to unspecified but post-Hippie America, nudged over the top by its director (Mark Rucker, in his OSF debut), and thrown out of balance by reducing the central romantic quartet to nearly the clown status of the rude mechanicals.

But, hey, there's lots to like here, once you accept the director's premise. It's silly to grouse about such things; we in the audience aren't seeing Shakespeare, we're seeing this one production of one of his plays; and there's no point complaining that this production isn't another.

The play opens with a coup de theâtre: the fairies are Cockettes, their familiar Shakespeare songs thrown defiantly across the footlights (when they're not in fact within the audience itself) in Punk attitude. Theseus is a rich bored dude, vaguely between arriviste Trump and Vegas operator; Hippolyta is amused and only slightly resentful. Egeus is Hermia's mother, not father, but one can get past that easily enough.

It's the quartet that's constantly annoying. The roles are well taken — I refer you to the cast roster — but they're directed to clown it up. This minimizes the distance between them and the genuinely funny Pyramus-and-Thisbe troupe, which is bad enough: Shakespeare has invented a brilliant four-layer world in this play, and to my mind each layer needs its own distinct landscape.

And particularly the lovers. Their lines are among Shakespeare's most poignant, most poetic; and far too many of those lines are distorted by oddly pitched accent, uneven dynamics, and pointedly contradictory sight-gags. Hermia is funny, no doubt, as an upscale valley girl, but that doesn't mean Helena has to be loutish.

The result of all this is a Dream that succeeds completely with Oberon and Titania (and Puck); with Peter Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug, Starveling, and a fine funny Bottom. Maybe that's enough: the audience loved it.
Shakespeare:A Midsummer Night's Dream, running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, through Nov. 2.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Comedy of Errors in Ashland

Ashland, Oregon—

SATURDAY: TWO PLAYS yet to see, one of them a Midsummer Night's Dream to which I don't quite look forward, having heard it's a bit too, well, revisionist in its "concept" production — we'll see tomorrow.

We've already seen one concept production, but it was so "conceptual" — that is, dominated by the producers' determination to impose their own extraneous unifying perspective onto Shakespeare's text — that it is in fact and proclaimedly an adaptation, and to my mind a successful one: a musical version of The Comedy of Errors set in "a town west of the Pecos" in a vaguely late-19th-century period.

Adapted by Penny Metropulos (who also directed) and with a score by Sterling Tinsley and lyrics by both (and additionally by Linda Alper, who also takes an important supporting role), the result seems laid onto the Shakespeare Festival repertory like a glove on a hand. It draws on the Festival's acting ensemble, its outdoor theater, even its history of Shakespeare productions (both "traditional" and revisionist), plays with them, profits from them, in a complex and rewarding way I haven't seen in a theater company since Berkeley Rep's self-examination Rep which ran its course back in the early 1980s, in the then-new thrust-stage theater on Addison Street, and then unfortunately disappeared so successfully I can't now find its author or production history.

This Comedy of Errors is so engaging and energetic it's impossible to complain about it. Tinsley's score, like much else in the production, pokes fun at itself as much as at other musicals; it incoporates familiar old hymns and folk-songs seamlessly with occasional Broadway-type ballads.

The text is basically Shakespeare; the lyrics of some songs are apparently right out of the Folio. (Cole Porter's "I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple", from his Kiss Me Kate adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, came often to mind; this Comedy of Errors was probably inspired partly by that example.) The plot remains Shakespeare's, too, though it's delivered in a raucous, movie-influenced Wild West setting.

I won't "review" the performances or cite the cast; OSF's webpage does that well enough: the cast was evenly matched, the two sets of twins remarkably persuasive physically; and even the addition of a sort of interlocutor, in the form of a Mexican troubador, and a Chinese merchant so stereotypical that any concern with political correctness is overcome by kitsch comedy — even these elements do much more to serve Shakespeare than to betray him. I'd see this production again.
Shakespeare:The Comedy of Errors, running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, through Oct. 12.