Bob Hicks

 

Oh God, the Carnage

Yasmina Reza's black-hearted comedy about the fall of civilization gets a sharp and lively revival at Lakewood

One thing about a Yasmina Reza play: By the end, masks will be ripped off and something mildly disastrous is going to happen. Another thing about a Yasmina Reza play: Even when things get uncomfortable (maybe even especially when they get uncomfortable) it’s going to be pretty darned funny.

Reza, the French playwright best-known for her hits Art and God of Carnage, is also a latter-day practitioner of the well-made play, that marvel of construction in which a thousand pieces fly into the air, chaotically, and then fall perfectly into place. Her 2009 Tony-winner God of Carnage, which opened over the weekend in a taut and smart revival at Lakewood Theatre, takes a bit of Noel Coward (the “aren’t these upper-middle-class characters delightfully foolish” part) and a bit of Harold Pinter (the “aren’t these upper-middle-class characters ruthlessly savage” part), stirs them with a little Alan Ayckbourn-style tick-tock timing, and comes up with a rollicking escapist entertainment that leaves an existential knot in the pit of your stomach. Well, that’s them, you might tell yourself a little nervously as you head home after the show. That’s not me. Surely not.

From left: Stacey, Sikking, Alder, Lucht, pal-ish to the bitter end. Photo: Triumph Photography

Director Antonio Sonera, working from playwright Christopher Hampton’s sharp and brittle English translation, expertly puts the pedal to the metal in this hairpin race over the cliff by two sets of nominally civilized couples. Sonera indulges in what might be considered stunt casting if the four actors weren’t individually so good at what they do: The married couples are played by performers actually married in real life. David Sikking and Marilyn Stacey are Michael and Veronica Novak, he a successful hardware wholesaler, she an art lover and liberal firebrand who is working on a book about Darfur. Sarah Lucht and Don Alder are Annette and Alan Raleigh; he’s a high-powered lawyer who can’t stay off his cell phone, she’s in expensive shoes and wealth management. If only wealth were all that needed managing around here.

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Black art: a neverending story

The Portland Art Museum's survey of African American art "Constructing Identity" tells a sprawling and many-sided tale

Wandering through Constructing Identity, the lavish exhibition of African-American art from the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection that sprawls across several upstairs galleries at the Portland Art Museum through June 18, I found myself looking for a unifying theme.

With work by more than eighty artists ranging in time from an 1885 landscape by Edward M. Bannister and Grafton Tyler Brown’s 1891 painting of a geyser in Yellowstone National Park to very contemporary pieces, it wasn’t easy.

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As I moved slowly from room to room I began gathering impressions and testing ideas.

Might the theme be the dominance of figurativism in 20th and early 21st century African American art?

Plenty of evidence for that, including Frederick D. Jones’s probing ca. 1945-50 oil portrait of a downcast woman holding a platter of fish, and Charles White’s black-and-white 1965 etching Missouri C., which stretches more than four feet wide and fairly leaps to life with the arresting image of a capacious black woman in profile staring toward a wide-angle emptiness of striations and spots.

Frederick D. Jones (American, 1914–2004), Untitled (Woman with a Fish), ca. 1945–1950, oil on canvas, 12 x 10 in. © Frederick Jones

Then again, might it be the depiction of community, of a people overcoming?

Good evidence here, too. Palmer Hayden’s small oil painting Madonna of the Stoop, for instance, from about 1940, captures in vivid folkish shapes and colors a quiet urban domestic scene, a moment of small happiness: a mother and baby sitting on the stairs of a brownstone building; a bigger girl smiling and playing with the baby, reaching out to touch it; a boy on the lower step reading a book; another boy sliding down the wide stair railings; a dog and the lower half of a second woman standing in the doorway at the top of the frame; a couple of cherub faces with wings floating in little clouds. The mother and the baby are the glue of it all, and their heads are circled, almost as afterthoughts, with thin halos.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: enemies of the people

Plus: ceramics shows all over town, Brontës and Carnage onstage, Shakespeare on Avenue Q, madrigals and music from the Holocaust

I’ve been thinking about my new status as an enemy of the people, which, because I am a longtime member of the press, the leader of the nation has declared I am. I’m not sure what this means (Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic has a few ideas), but I suspect that while we’re all getting hot and bothered about the president’s use of the term “enemy” – a word that, in this construction, implies the harsher “traitor” – we might also be thinking long and hard about what he means when he says “people.”

As I have never considered myself an enemy of the many categories of people who make up this nation (although I have certainly resisted the ideas and actions of some, particularly those of an autocratic, opportunistic, violent, or rigidly ideological bent) I inevitably wonder which people these are to whom I am an enemy. And the conclusion I draw, at least tentatively, is that they must be the people who adamantly declare “my country (or my president) right or wrong,” those whose modes of thought and belief are primarily binary, who see a white and a black in every situation with no recognition of the vast shadings and illuminations between. And although I don’t deny I am not fond of their hard-line ideas, it is less true that I am their enemy than that they consider me theirs.

In Ibsen’s play the newspaper editor is a collaborator and the “enemy” is a whistleblower.

This is a far, far smaller definition of the American people than my own old-fashioned idea of a populace enriched by its multitude of backgrounds, talents, experiences, expressions, and beliefs. The president’s declaration, it seems to me, is a siren song to know-nothing insularity, a constricted, self-defeating, fear-driven, and exclusivist view of the American ideal of what a “people” is (or are). Under its sway a belief in a middle ground of understanding over ideology, even when the understanding must come by asking hard questions and seeking answers from alternative sources when the primary ones hide or lie about what they know, becomes a ground of treason. It is thinking that divides the country into “real” Americans – the true believers – and, well, enemies. Including those members of the press who point such things out.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: NEA battle, dancing with Rodin

Arts groups push back, a week of dance, a road dog warrior, concert tips, what's on stage

It’s been a busy week in the arts world. Nationally, as the New York Times reports, the new administration seems intent on moving forward with its plan to kill off the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, although it’s by no means certain that Congress would go along with it, and, as the Times reports, opposition is being mounted across the country. The endowments reach into virtually every congressional district, and that reflects a lot of votes. As the Times put it, “(E)ven if the arts get only crumbs, administrators said, they are crumbs worth fighting for: much-needed money that supports community projects, new works and making the arts accessible to people in different parts of the country and to those who are not wealthy. And after years of culture-war debates in which conservatives took aim at the programs, questioning their value, arts groups are pressing the case that the federal money they receive supports organizations — and jobs — in all 50 states, both red and blue.”

 


 

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new “Swan Lake.” Photo: Randall Milstein

IN PORTLAND, MEANWHILE, it’s a dancey sort of week. Oregon Ballet Theatre has just opened Kevin Irving’s reimagined version of Swan Lake, with the focus shifted from Odette/Odile to Prince Siegfried; it continues with four performances Thursday-Saturday at Keller Auditorium. Look for Martha Ullman West’s review in ArtsWatch on Wednesday.

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Well-worn Oregon, refugee dreams

K.B. Dixon's Oregon photos at Parsons and Friderike Heuer's photomontages at Camerawork strip back the veil of the ordinary

I caught up not long ago with the Portland novelist and photographer K.B. Dixon, who wrote good gallery reviews for me years ago at a once-daily newspaper where we both worked, and whose fascinating portraiture project I wrote about a year ago in Face to Face: K.B. Dixon photographs Oregon artists.

K.B. Dixon, “Stars and Stripes,” 2014, silver gelatin, 8 x 12 inches.

Dixon’s most recent photographic show, Town & Country: Excerpts from an Oregon Journal, is entering its final week at Michael Parsons Fine Art, where it closes Saturday. As in Face to Face, all of the images are black and white, emphasizing the structure of things and the subtleties of light and dark. And while Dixon doesn’t expressly pick out the weird, in that amped-up Portlandia way, he has an eye for the offbeat and unusual, from his portraits of street characters to his evocations of Oregon architectural survivors from an earlier, more fiercely independent time. Dixon’s Oregon, urban and rural, is a place well-worn, from drive-in ice cream joints to murals on the walls of old cannery buildings to the studio of a fiercely focused glass blower to the wondrous time machine that is the Ringler’s Annex Bar building at Stark and Burnside in downtown Portland. Dixon quietly reveals an Oregon that is right in front of us, if we just stop and take the time to see.

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A Road Dog barks his tale

Portland filmmaker Kelley Baker and his chocolate lab hit the road for some American adventure. Oh: and a book that spills the beans.

“Our story starts in the Garden of Eden,” Kelley Baker begins. “Not that one. The one in Lucas, Kansas.

 “S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden.

 “The wind blows ferociously across the Kansas prairie, because it’s … Kansas.

 “I’m standing next to a too-skinny woman dressed in black who reminds me of a meth addict. With teeth. Dinsmoor’s lying in front of us. He’s seen better days.

 “S.P. Dinsmoor is a mummy.”

Baker calls himself The Angry Filmmaker, and there is some truth to the assertion, although “renegade” might be a more accurate if less marketable word. Now, with the release of Road Dog, his comic and exasperated and slightly profane tale of traveling America’s highways and back routes, he could even make it The Renegade Raconteur.

Curling up with a good book.

A fixture on the Portland film scene for decades, Baker’s juggled a mainstream career – sound designer on six Gus Van Sant movies and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, writer/producer/director of several successful documentaries for TV – with a fiercely independent career of making ultra-low-budget features, often peddling them himself on long road trips to colleges, film festivals, and specialty video stores. Then there’s the one he’s still reeling in, the feature-length documentary on the novelist and radical activist Kay Boyle, a three-decade project that is tantalizingly close to completion but still a few thousand dollars short of the finish line. I wrote about his quest three and a half years ago in Angry and obsessed: the Baker/Boyle story.

That’s almost, though not quite, how long it’s been since we’d sat down to talk. Until recently, when he came out with Road Dog, and I figured it was time to catch up. Kelley’s one of those people you like to catch up with now and again, if you can figure out where he is and how long he’ll be there. Road Dog is a sort of working-man’s riff on Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck’s tale of traveling into the soul of America on an epic road trip with his dog. Baker’s book recounts his adventures over several years of long road trips in the company of a 120-pound chocolate lab named Moses, who may not lead him to the promised land but is a good and faithful companion and a co-conspirator in many stories.

The book is episodic, as rambling as the endless country roads Kelley and Moses travel, and very funny. Baker writes pretty much the way he talks, which is with a natural plainspoken rhythm that incorporates wry humor, sharp satiric jabs, fascinating side trips that eventually loop around to the point, and a streetwise moralism that does not suffer fools gladly but appreciates their contributions to the telling of a tale.

Baker

Road Dog covers several national tours that Baker and Moses undertook, usually twice a year, from North to South to East to West in a tripped-up minivan. It covers, usually, hundreds of miles a day, broken up by “incidents” with Texas and Idaho and Iowa state troopers and snooty film professors who’ve never made a film. It drops in on nights of drinking and swapping stories with lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center beside Hank Williams’ grave, and meetings with friendly bikers and pickup drivers and helpful long-haul truckers. It is dotted with Motel 6es and Walmart parking lots (“a series of campgrounds with stores attached that stretch across the United States”) and adventures with a giant Jesus in the Ozarks and an antiseptic Prayer Tower in Tulsa. It tells of being outed as a Yankee in a Memphis bar, and meeting kindred souls from Austin to the nation’s capital, and white-knuckle drives through blinding storms, and traveling with his daughter, Fiona, who adapts adroitly to life on the road. Through it all, Baker encounters an America shaped by and yet also somehow engaging deeply beyond the headlines of a divided nation. And Moses doggedly makes his mark at rest stops and tree stumps across the country, winning friends and stealing hearts along the way.

Road Dog even includes a glossary, which is largely an excuse for Baker to make epigrammatic pronouncements of a jaundiced and entertaining nature. (On the Winchester Mystery House: “This place is a tribute to one of the craziest people in America. But she was incredibly wealthy so she was just considered eccentric.” On PBS affiliates: “a loose network of television stations that have no problem overpaying for films by people like Ken Burns and yet wants most other filmmakers to give them their work for free. Especially if you’re local.”)

Oh, and about the Garden of Eden. S.P. Dinsmoor’s wife is there, too. Buried under several tons of concrete. You could look it up.

Mary of the mysteries

Jacklyn Maddux tells a tale of wonder and regret as the mother of Jesus in Colm Tóibín’s "The Testament of Mary" for Corrib Theatre

Holy Mother of God, how could you say such things? Tense, sad, argumentative and just this side of bitter, Jacklyn Maddux is far from a Renaissance painter’s vision of the Virgin Mary. Then again, that symbol of serene and ardent holiness is not what Colm Tóibín wants her to be. What he wants, as things turn out, is something more combative and conflicted in its mysteries.

Watching Maddux’s solo turn for Corrib Theatre in The Last Testament of Mary, Tóibín’s stage adaptation of his 2012 novella, I thought almost inevitably of Nikos Kazantzakis and his startling, in some circles notorious, novel The Last Temptation of Christ.

Temptation was first published in Greek in 1955, the year that Tóibín was born in Ireland, and although Last Testament is in no way connected stylistically or narratively to the earlier novel, they share a thematic understanding: religious myth is built on human experience. It is rote among Christians to refer to Jesus as both man and god, and yet the “man” half of the equation is routinely subsumed, as if it were a tainted and shameworthy thing, in the glories of the god. Kazantzakis roiled the official waters by writing a novel in which Jesus, far from being above or otherwise separated from humanity, was deeply and passionately human. He felt every emotion, every temptation, including the temptations of the flesh; only by being fully human and understanding what that meant could he be the kind of god he was.

Jacklyn Maddux as Mary, remembering. Photo: Owen Carey

The Last Testament of Mary concentrates on the human, too, through the voice and experiences not of Jesus but his mother, speaking, finally, years after the events. And Mary, to tell the truth, isn’t buying a lot of the mythology. Tóibín chose the word “testament” carefully: This remarkable and sometimes heartrending narrative is indeed a testimony and not a gospel (from the Old English “god spell,” or “good news”). To Mary’s mind, there’s not much good about it. Her account of her son’s life and death could almost be a legal deposition, a statement of the facts as the witness sees them, and yet it is also a dogged questioning, a ruthless self-examination, a turning-inside-out of the soul.

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