Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sometimes a Great Notion

Metallic at first, seen from the highway down through the trees, like an aluminum rainbow, like a slice of alloy moon. Closer, becoming organic, a vast smile of water with broken and rotting pilings jagged along both gums, foam clinging to the lips.

The Wakonda Auga River, as described by Ken Kesey.

Not so much a rain as a dreary smear of blue-gray that daily wipes over the land instead of falling on it.

Ditto for the climate. I can attest to that. Hourly, the sky flexes its hue -- umbrellas only work as signal flares for the lost newcomer. When the clouds disentangle themselves like Baraka's time-lapse photography, there's no point in opening an umbrella. I walked six blocks from the theatre to the bank and back and surfed no fewer than four waves of Rain-Wind-Sun-Wind-Rain. It's a meteorological double for the manic pace of Manhattan human traffic, I think. Soggy and sandwiched in an A-train rain, I suddenly step out to see the sun set behind the Cloisters near my building. All in a Portland Minute. And at the risk of spoiling the climax of our story, I leave you with this passage from the invincible Hank Stamper -- a man who once fucked a freezing river into submission.

You'll make it acrosst because you ain't strong enough not to, I kept thinking as I swam. And I recollect this one other thing, a notion that came to me when I climbed out of the water: that there ain't really any true strength ... and as I climb the steps: there ain't really any real strength ... No, not the strength I always believed in; I kept hearing in my head -- not strength like I always thought I could build and thought I could live, and thought I could show the kid how to live ... No, there ain't any true strength; there's just different degrees of weakness ... But if strength ain't real, weakness sure is. Weakness is true and real. I used to accuse the kid of faking his weakness. But faking proves the weakness is real. Or you wouldn't be so weak as to fake it. No, you can't ever fake being weak. You can only fake being strong ...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Overheard in Oregon

(Kevin, Karl, PJ, Sarah, Aaron, and Andy are gathered around a tense game of billiards at a bar called The Life of Riley.)

ME: Man, I just put $5 in the jukebox. I hope I hear at least one of my songs before I leave.
KEVIN: I saw a tranny fight in the record store today.


ME: Go on.
KEVIN: Well, let me just say ... it's bad enough to be near a pissed-off person with a dick. But a pissed-off person with a dick and tits ...

Portland Center Stage used to be an armory. Having just seen the splendid Major Barbara at the Shakespeare Theatre's Harman Center two weekends ago, I had to marvel at that conversion. For everyone who fantasizes about a day when one B-2 bomber gets pawned to bankroll the NEA for a half-century ... look no further. It's not just a theatre, it's also a paragon of green technology. They recycle the rainwater off the roof. The toilets offer a "half-flush" option. Everything operates on a body sensor so no kilowatt goes unused. And for such a cavernous facility, the temperature floats at an almost amniotic level of comfort.

Each room bears some trace of the brutish superstructure of the original building. George Hunka has a live web-cam of Vienna's Burgtheater -- "a theatre surrounds/embraces a city." I'm guessing George used those words to denote more than geographic proximity (which makes his recent comments about how a theatre might fail America somewhat curious -- especially for someone who has opined about the civic duty to fund theatre). And when I step foot in The Gerding Theatre pictured above, I think about more than childhood parables of spears hammered into plowshares. I think, shit: if Portland suddenly became a strategic target, the theatre would outlive the Bankcorp building.

Keeping with the 21st century zeitgeist, PCS does interactive video interviews with cast and crew members which are then uploaded onto YouTube. Click on the sidebar above to hear from some other folks who have worked here. I have nothing to report and everything to report. There are few times when the story you get to tell has a concrete bond with the people surrounding (and, sometimes, embracing) it. Workshopping columbinus in Denver for a week came close. But for all the concrete and glass that shields our production, one hunts for a more ... organic ... metaphor to capture the comradery engendered by Kesey and Posner's Sometimes a Great Notion. As I've said before, the fourth wall isn't gone -- it's just a few feet behind the audience. And the other three are being used, too.

Friday, March 07, 2008

City of Roses

It's very difficult to write about Portland and the surrounding countryside without the aid of pictures. I choke on the thousand-word replacements I'm supposed to make here. I hope to have a camera by the weekend, but by then the Northwest gray and rain is supposed to roll in. We've been spoiled, the locals say, by the past forty-eight hours of blue sky. Yesterday, I walked a few blocks to the Willamette River to catch a view of Mount Hood.

Two other things keep me from posting: first, I gouged two of my fingers on an aluminum air handling vent on the first day of rehearsal. As it happens, my character is a twisty, verbose east coaster who comes to Oregon to help out with dangerous work. In the original novel, my half-brother loses two of his fingers and forgets to mention this fact to his wife who suddenly wonders one evening why he's wearing his work gloves at the dinner table. So I don't feel like I can complain much. But it does make for some comically slow typing here.

The third reason. This story. Sometimes a Great Notion was Ken Kesey's followup to One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. The book has no fewer than five different narrative voices threaded throughout its 700+ pages and Aaron Posner's stage adaptation isolates three or four of them in three acts. There's a chorus of union loggers, direct address from my character Leland, his half-brother Hank, and Hank's wife, Vivian. It's a big production -- big characters, big emotions, big fights, big cast. And thanks to the genius of Tony Cisek, I get to work on another big, beautiful set ...

And Posner doesn't do the usual table-work, blocking, working, tech sequence of rehearsal. He does it all at once and that's exactly what this story needs -- up on your feet, grab your script, learn quick, get moving, here's some live music we're playing with, and lets start choreographing that Act Three fight. Each day sends me back to the hotel with the most satisfying exhaustion I've felt in a long time. And the whole cast (11 men, 1 woman) seems to know the contours of their parts the way you get to know a favorite pair of jeans. Because the story digs into raw mannish conflicts about sex, territory, family, pride, domination, the frontier, nature, and revenge, our work is both straightforward and limitless.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Neuron Glut

Last month, I was eating beef cheeks* and sweetbreads at Cafe Atlantique with my dear friend and DC SuperPatron Renee Gier when she asked me if I'd gotten around to finishing those seven seasons of Homicide she'd lent me before Thanksgiving. I snapped back no like a kid who hadn't finished mowing the lawn. And then I felt like a dick for the rest of the meal. On my way home, I realized that I was under enormous self-imposed pressure to consume hours and hours of media and I was falling behind this regimen.

I never thought drinking up DVDs on my couch would become tiresome labor. It wasn't until last fall that I finally caught up with this splendid program called The West Wing and felt entertained enough to plow through the first five seasons (Sorkin Era). By my count, I'm now obliged to watch:

Homicide (Seasons 1-7)
The Wire (Seasons 1-5)
Deadwood (Seasons 1-3)
Six Feet Under (Seasons 3-5, although I've seen bits here and there)
Slings & Arrows (Season 3)
Battlestar Gallactica (Seasons Xyclon through Pafligate-G)
Twin Peaks (Both)

And that figure doesn't include those Netflix copies of Ran, Judgement at Nuremburg, and On the Waterfront still clogging my queue. My media trickles in through a narrow bottleneck, tightened all the more by the swelling cache of Simpsons and South Park episodes on DVR. Not that I can afford to see much theatre in New York, but if I could manage the two shows a week I want to see, I don't think I'd have much time or interest left for the accumulated syndication of Every Show Ever.

Which is fine. I know my friendships aren't based on the congruency of iTunes playlists. Mostly I just feel bad for snapping at Renee. She was the last in a line of about four people who've been lending me whole box sets to "check out" lately. What better way to muffle my shame than to make my frustration an essay on condition general?

Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, iTunes, eBay -- these are the tent poles that shelter a manic giga-ring circus. Because we secretly crave monolithic authority online, the preponderance of cyber-life is only a pageant of anarchy.

I'm Feeling Lucky

When I was a kid, maybe five or seven, I fell in love with a woman on the cover of Newsweek. She wasn't famous, I don't think. She was a punk-ish looking woman with short, dark hair and (I think) sunglasses. I hid this affair behind the couch and would sneak glances whenever I was alone. I remember thinking, without the word for it, that this was a fixation. Her mouth, in particular, locked my gaze for long stretches of Little Kid Standard Time. I wrote little odes on the glossy page.

I don't remember what happened to her. We moved to Canton around my 10th birthday and I may have grown into shame enough to hide my tracks before the furniture got shuffled. By then, I had discovered this hilarious game called Cooties wherein the losing party gets tackled and kissed by a quartet of neighborhood girls. Like Alvy Singer, I never had a latency period, so I loved losing each round.

But I was journaling about this seminal crush the other day when it suddenly occurred to me: I could probably find that picture online somewhere.

Google: Newsweek cover
Google: Newsweek cover archive
Google: Newsweek cover images
Newsweek: cover pages
Newsweek: archive
Newsweek: cover stories
Newsweek: punk 1986

And nothing.

Google News lets you scroll across a big time line, which I narrowed down to 1986-1988, searching for "cover story Newsweek." But that got me everything ever written about Newsweek cover stories, from every other source, during that time. Newsweek's own site lets you peruse the archives if you have a paid subscription. Other aggregate magazine and newspaper sites only have articles dating back to 1999 or 2000 at the earliest -- the chronological edge of the digital divide. Little 1s and 0s stacked and mothballed on a server somewhere.

Alas, my first love was Anna Logue and I don't know if this flashback will actually compel me to a library for a reunion. I certainly don't think it's worth paying for Lexis Nexis. So what's worth the search these days? When was the last time anyone out there had to leave the house to answer a question or find a buried memory?

*beef cheeks. This was a first for me. Delicious. As I was swallowing one big bite, Renee asked me "How are you cow jowls?" The more I repeat that disgusting, assonant phrase, the more I'm convinced it's better than the original**.

**better than the original. In the infancy of motion pictures, before there was an industry School for cinematography, one textbook author called film actors "photoplayers." Isn't that beautiful? I love when forgotten archaisms pop up to show the exuberance of a lost time. Orson Welles said he'd never call actors anything else. I'm sure Monty Burns would agree.