Bob Hicks

 

FG review: a whale of a tale

Lawrence Howard's 'The Essex' recounts the adventure of the 1820 oceangoing disaster that inspired 'Moby-Dick'

The Essex

Premiere production; Portland Story Theater at The Alberta Abbey; performed Jan. 2-24

When the Essex set sail from Nantucket on August 12, 1819, it was considered a lucky ship. At about 88 feet it was smallish for a whaleship, but it had had many profitable voyages, and there was no reason to believe this one would be otherwise.

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of "Whaling Voyage Round the World," ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of “Whaling Voyage Round the World,” ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Nor was there reason to anticipate that, on November 20, 1820, two thousand nautical miles west of the edge of South America in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, a sperm whale almost as long as the Essex itself would turn on the ship, speed toward it, and ram it, then ram it again, until the Essex splintered, tottered, keeled over, and eventually sank. So much for luck.

The ship carried a crew of 20. After 93 days adrift on the ocean in three small whaleboats that survived the attack, five emaciated men reached safety (three other men elected to stay on a small desert island, and were eventually rescued). They had endured starvation, extreme thirst, fevers, and a descent into cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead and, in one case, drawing lots to see who would be shot so his body could feed the others.

The tale of the Essex became legend in whaling circles, eventually reaching the ears of young Herman Melville, who heard it aboard a whaler from the son of one of the Essex disaster’s survivors. The fantastic story became the seed that sprouted Moby-Dick.

It’s also the fifth and latest in storyteller Lawrence Howard’s Armchair Adventurer series, which has retold the exploits of the Antarctic explorers Shackleton, Amundson, Scott, and Mawson, as well as the tale of John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was hanged three times and survived each attempted execution.

Howard

Howard

Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater, is at home in the world of extremes, and he tells the story of the Essex true and well. His style, interestingly, isn’t overly dramatic, although he can amp up the tension when it’s called for. He recounts his tales in an easy, familiar, colloquial style, mixing in a few wry observations, pinpointing moments of valor and foolhardiness and desperation, and drilling down on the essence of character among these historical adventurers when they are faced with the most dire of circumstances. And he links them, casually but carefully, to details of his own life: how he gained his enthusiasm for adventure stories from his father; how learning about the endurance of the sailors on the Essex helped him deal with his own weakness from cancer radiation treatment. It all seems matter-of-fact, the way Howard tells things, and then you realize you’ve been sitting there listening to him for two solid hours, and he’s held you every step of the way.

As Howard tells it, the story of the Essex is more than the story of a disaster. It’s also a story about leadership, and the lack of it, and the tension between a young captain and a younger first mate who continually challenged his authority. And it’s about varying kinds of courage, and the mettle that men find, or don’t find, in their souls. Howard also tells a lot about the economics and practicalities of the whaling trade (whale oil lit city streets and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution), including the arduous and filthy business of actually killing the whales and rendering them. Like Moby-Dick, which takes long side trips from its adventure story to talk about the practicalities of the sailing life and venture into philosophical speculations, Howard’s version of the story carefully places the adventure within its economic, historic, and cultural context, a particularly important decision considering the 21st century’s radically different moral and environmental views on hunting whales. Yes, it slows the story down a bit. The payoff is a deeper understanding of what was at stake, and, eventually, of how the survivors were greeted and treated once they reached home again.

The Essex, directed by Howard’s wife and partner in Portland Story Theater, Lynne Duddy, had its premiere as part of the Fertile Ground festival with performances Friday and Saturday at the Alberta Abbey. Howard’s next scheduled performance of it is at 7:30 p.m. April 17 in the Solo Speak series at the Cascades Theatre in Bend – a landlocked town, but surely one primed for a good old-fashioned oceangoing adventure.

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FG reviews: two from Post5

A witty 21st century sex romp and an overwrought family drama make their debuts at the new-works festival

Woman on the Scarlet Beast

Premiere production; Post5 Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert St.; through Feb. 8

Gender Tree

Premiere production; Post5Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert St.; through Feb. 9

 *

Post5 has put a lot of chips on the Fertile Ground table, opening two shows as full productions Friday night and calling them both world premieres rather than workshops. It’s a gutsy gambit, and maybe a little overeager.

Ridenour and Berns in "Gender Tree" at Post5

Ridenour and Berns in “Gender Tree” at Post5

 

Gender Tree, Cassandra Boice’s string of farcical mating vignettes, can be belly-laugh funny, and features witty and playfully stylized performances by its two clash-of-the-sex-titans stars, Rebecca Ridenour and Philip J. Berns. But as amusing as the show can be, and as crisply as it’s been directed by Ty Boice, it still has some structural issues to work out, and a couple of tough decisions to make, especially about its didactic ending. I hope that happens, because the promise is definitely here.

Gender Tree is what used to be called a sex romp, but it’s updated for the 21st century, and its wink is more rueful recognition than frat-boy coarseness or romantic situation comedy: Doris and Rock it’s not. It stars a man and woman, but considers all sorts of positions on the gender spectrum, from polyamory to dominance to cross-dressing to S&M to good old-fashioned who’s-on-top, with multiple stops along the way. It revels in the comic aspects of the human sex drive (and sometimes, animal sex drives, too) and the absurdities to which sex can drive otherwise reasonably sensible people. Things are exploratory but light, and the comically seductive Ridenour and Berns try on various sexual guises like costumes – sometimes literally. A lot of the fun is of the Greater Tuna type: watching two good performers do lightning shifts of costume and character. (The best recent example of this in town was Isaac Lamb and Leif Norby’s comic shape-shifting in Third Rail’s The Mystery of Irma Vep.)

Boice writes in her program notes that the play “started as a clown show for me.” That reveals itself most clearly in the second act’s long, Skin of Our Teeth-style section on the evolution of sexuality, from the primordial muck, to, well, wherever we are now. It feels as if this was the beginning of the play, the core idea, and the rest grew out of it. It could be plucked out and stand on its own as a witty comic dialogue. Within the larger play, though, it goes on too long: some judicious pruning would benefit the whole. Similarly, the videotaped interviews before each act with various Portlanders who talk about their views on gender and sexuality are appealing but overdone (and on Friday night, a little murky, too: the sound mix needs sharpening). They’re funny, and genuine, and insightful. Just a little less, please.

The biggest problem, though, is the didactic, overly earnest closing scene, in which Ridenour and Berns, in overlapping dialogue, give little lectures about the proper ways to approach this relationship and self-knowledge problem. It’s preachy, and it puts a damper on what the play has already conveyed implicitly. My suggestion: scrap the scene and look for a lighter, wittier, more sympathetic grace note.

 *

The Woman and the Scarlet Beast, a first play by novelist Caroline Miller, is earnest and deeply felt but also overwrought and monochromatic, pitched at high tension and never really letting up so the story can breathe a bit. Even the comic scenes are laden with portent and malevolence. It’s a three-generation family drama, with a wheelchair-bound and fiercely driven onetime prostitute (Adrienne Flagg) at its pivot, with her overly conciliatory mother (Jane Fellows) and repressed daughter (Olivia Weiss, as a reluctant novitiate who’s just been kicked out of the convent) completing the shifting triangle. Toss in a smarmy family “friend” (Aaron Kissinger) and a temptation-weakened priest (Stan Brown), and it’s a full house. If there is subtlety anywhere in this unhappy home, alas, I didn’t find it.

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Hal Holbrook on jackasses and Mark Twain’s wound

Pushing 90 and back in town again to give America's most famous literary impression, the actor talks about Twain's wit, wisdom, and savage bite

Hal Holbrook turns 90 on February 17, and he’s been portraying the great American writer, humorist, and social critic Mark Twain for more than 60 of those years. His one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight!” has become an American institution, a roving, garrulous, and sometimes sharply satirical entertainment that shifts with the times and somehow always seems to link the pitfalls and ridiculosities of Twain’s 19th and early 20th century world to our own. The man smiles, and shows his teeth. On Saturday, January 31, he returns to Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to impersonate Twain once again. We’re re-running below our interview with Holbrook that we first published on January 27, 2012, before another Portland performance of “Mark Twain Tonight!” The story is still pertinent, and the man is still deeply worth listening to.

*

The last time I talked to Hal Holbrook before this month was in 1988, which, like 2012, was an election year. At the time Holbrook was a spry young 63-year-old, and about as far from retiring, as it turns out, as John Dingell, who first showed up in the U.S House of Representatives in 1955, is from quitting politics. After a while, a job becomes what you are.

Samuel Clemens in later years. Library of Congress

Samuel Clemens in later years. Library of Congress

What Holbrook is, and has been since the idea germinated in the late 1940s and sprang to full form in 1954, is the modern American voice of Mark Twain. It’s been a rare and abiding partnership: good for Twain, good for Holbrook, good for America. All three, as it turns out, are obsessed with this circus parade called politics, and with the queasy suspicion that somehow we’ve turned the parade route over to the clowns. “One of my favorite lines of Twain’s,” Holbrook told me 24 years ago, “he called Washington ‘a stud farm for every jackass in the country.’” If anything, Holbrook’s satirical bent has deepened in the ensuing years to an anger tinted with moroseness. “Common sense,” he told me glumly a couple of weeks ago, “is out of place in Washington.”

On Saturday night, less than a month shy of his 87th birthday, Holbrook returns to Portland to perform his remarkable show Mark Twain Tonight! at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall [This year’s performance, also at the Schnitzer, is Saturday, January 31]. My story about my recent interview with him is in this morning’s A&E section of The Oregonian and online here.

As constant as he seems in the American imagination – Holbrook was, is, and will be our public concept of the voice and carriage of Samuel Clemens – a man can change in 24 years. In Holbrook that change seems a firming and quickening of traits that were already there, and perhaps an urgency that comes with age: time’s running short, and things must be done and said. Our conversation, this time around, was much more a matter of Holbrook talking and me listening. Things were on his mind, and he wanted to be sure he got them out.

Continues…

Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

With a rumble and a roar, producers and performers woo the press before the kickoff of the new-works festival. A peek at the dance card.

On an early January Thursday night in the upper lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, the hubbub began like the foreboding rumble of water about to burst through a high earthen dam. It grew quickly to a roar – a shout, a din, a tsunami, an anarchy of sound in an overcrowded intellectual bazaar, each voice pitching fast and furious, eager to seal the deal. The place was packed with producers, writers, directors, and actors in a fast-paced mating dance, lined up at tables and waiting to pounce on an empty chair opposite one of the chosen customer-targets. Prospective suitors leaned forward across the tables, straining to hear above the cacophony, eager to make an impression on the handful of arts journalists who were the objects of their temporary affections.

Matt Haynes of The Pulp Stage and storyteller Anne Rutherford make their pitches. Photo: Fertile Ground

Matt Haynes of The Pulp Stage and storyteller Anne Rutherford. Photo: Fertile Ground

Welcome to speed-dating night at Fertile Ground.

Portland’s annual free-for-all festival of new theater, dance, comedy, music, and stuff that falls into the cracks between recognized genres runs for eleven jam-packed days this year, opening January 22 and continuing through February 1 on stages scattered across the metropolitan area. The rules are simple. Everything presented must be new (that doesn’t mean it might not have been workshopped or had readings beforehand). And the festival, which is sponsored by the Portland Area Theatre Alliance, isn’t juried or curated: if you can get your act together, you’re in. It’s a bit like a baby version of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, without the international audience and 24/7 street theatrics.

Alan Alexander III of "Alan's Confectionery (the musical)," with Megan Bradley of "Me Here Now." Photo: Fertile Ground

Alan Alexander III of “Alan’s Confectionery (the musical),” with Megan Bradley of “Me Here Now.” Photo: Fertile Ground

The controlled pandemonium of speed-dating night was a nice predictor of the Fertile Ground Festival itself, which seems to sprawl like a hundred cats across a dozen armchairs, but in fact is a marvel of preparation and meticulous timing. Festival director Nicole Lane presided like a combination kindergarten teacher and school crossing guard herding the kids on a field trip to the beach. Five minutes, she commanded. Line up in front of the reporter you want to talk to, grab a seat when your turn arrives, and start talking. Give ’em your two-minute elevator speech, then let ’em ask questions. At each five-minute mark she rang a bell, and everyone switched partners.

Predictably, energy ran high, fueled by stress and hopefulness. ArtsWatch was well-represented, with Jamuna Chiarini, Marty Hughley, Rebecca Waits, Brett Campbell and me. Our A.L. Adams was there, too, this time representing her other main outlet, Artslandia magazine. I sat at a table with David Stabler and Jamie Hale of The Oregonian. Journalists from the Portland Tribune, Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Mercury, and other outlets were on hand, too.

Pitching and catching: speed-dating night felt a little like open open tryouts for baseball spring training slots. Photo: Fertile Ground

Pitching and catching: speed-dating night felt a little like open tryouts for baseball spring training slots. Photo: Fertile Ground

What I encountered was a blur of small pigs, snow queens, flooded cities, pirates of the Caribbean (who popped up in two pitches), Liberace glitter, Mafioso Shakespeare, Pirandello riffs, solo shows, and sci-fi serials. What I emerged with was a litter of press releases, photographs, web links, and, yes, telephone numbers, for professional purposes only.

Somehow, as hubbubs tend to do, this one took on an air of improvisational normalcy. When I got home afterwards, my wife reported a dinnertime conversation. “Where’s Dad tonight?” our 17-year-old son asked, belatedly noticing the empty slot at the table. “He’s out speed-dating,” she replied. “Oh,” he said, and took another bite. Well, of course.

David Saffert and Sammuel Hawkins showed up in character for "David Saffert's 40th Birthday: The Liberace Edition." Photo: Fertile Ground

David Saffert and Sammuel Hawkins showed up in character for “David Saffert’s 40th Birthday: The Liberace Edition.” Photo: Fertile Ground

As usual, this year’s festival is a gumbo of readings, staged readings, workshop productions, and full-blown premieres: writers and producers sometimes use the festival as a first chance to see how things are working for an audience, and sometimes as the launching pad for a completed show.

And of course, I spotted a few people in the crowd who I didn’t get a chance to talk to: we were like shipwreck survivors clinging to different bits of debris and floating off on separate waves. Among them was the veteran playwright Steve Patterson, whose If the Fates Allow, set in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, is one of several scripts from the writers’ group Playwrights West.

Here are quick hits on just a few of the projects. For a complete schedule and ticket information (festival passes are a very good bet if you’re planning to hit several shows), see the Fertile Ground website.

*

It’s beginning to feel a lot like … Musical-theater vet Kurt Misar dropped by with a business card, a press release, and a quick pitch. Contrarily (or smartly, if you consider the virtues of refining a product and planning ahead) he was thinking about Christmas. Under the blanket title Upon a Winter Road, he’s doing a reading – or singing – of two one-act musicals: Christmas at the King’s Head, set in a 1790 English rural inn and featuring his own music, lyrics, and book; and Christmas at the Beggar’s Bum, set in a London coffee house in 1661, with Misar’s music, lyrics by Brad Beaver, and book by Russ Cowan. Some good people are involved in the dual project, including musical director Darcy White and performers including Ron Harmon, Emily Sahler, and Dale Johannes. The press release warns: “Due to the sometimes dark, threatening, bawdy and ribald nature of the work, this show is not recommended for children.” There could be worse enticements. Jan. 24, 2 p.m., Lakewood Theater.

Kaleidoscope“I’m making the jump from the Missoula theater scene to the Portland theater scene,” writer and director Naga Nataka said, slipping into the hot seat to talk about the staged reading of his play about a couple of Portland couples who blur the line between coupledom and test the temptations of the menage à quatre. “It’s kind of a dramedy,” he said. “It starts out funny, and once the reveal happens, it turns very serious.” Jan. 30-31, Feb. 1, 2 p.m. Performance Works NW.

Bruté. Writer/director Edward Lyons Jr. has a mashup on his mind. “I wanted to combine the play Julius Caesar and the movie The Godfather,” he said. So he rearranged Shakespeare’s dialogue drastically and turned the thing into a mobster play set in 1950s Little Italy, complete with gunplay, violence, and machismo. In this telling, Caesar is the Godfather, and Brutus and Cassius are underlings. You can trust me on this: I got it straight from the horse’s head. This is a full-production premiere. Jan. 22-Feb. 1 at The Hostess.

I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Son of a Bitch. The latest from the always intriguing Boom Arts isn’t quite a premiere, but the translation by Portland playwright William S. Gregory is. Goya rethinks Spanish-Argentine playwright Rodrigo García’s solo-performer provocation about “the value of art in a consumerist society” through the lens of British director Jude Christian. The excellent Ebbe Roe Smith stars, along with – yes, it’s true – two live piglets. Lest that prompts visions of Charlotte’s Web, Boom Arts’ Devan Wardrop-Saxton warns it’s not for kids: “It’s very profane. It’s very provocative.” Jan. 28-Feb. 7, Disjecta.

The Snow Queen: A Folk Opera. Laura Dunn arrived at Speed Dating Night armed not with live piglets, but with a handsome stag’s head, which was startling and striking and not at all Disney-in-the-woods-cartoonish. Dunn wrote and composed this adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, setting the action in contemporary Detroit, where it touches on issues including economic devastation, drug addiction, and environmental catastrophe. Also, in other words, not Charlotte’s Web: this is an adult play. Music will include theremin, banjo, and ukelele. “There’s some dialogue,” Dunn said, “but the songs tell the story.” Jan. 24-Feb. 1, The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven.

Play. That’s the title of D.C. Copeland’s newest play, and you can look at it as a generic description or as an ur-statement. Six Characters in Search of an Author-like, it’s about the very process of creation: a narrator (John San Nicolas) creates a character (Chantal DeGroat), who decides she’s writing a play. The narrator creates a second character (Lauren Modica), and on and on, until the stage is full. “It’s sort of D.C.’s philosophy of the creative process, but also her philosophy of life,” said San Nicolas, the Godlike narrator. “We make it up as we go along. Even though (the play is) fully scripted, it should feel improvised.” And accessible: “It’s not random, it’s not esoteric, it’s not ‘intellectual’ at all.” Jan. 28, noon, Artists Rep.

Cottonwood in the Flood. This might be one of the festival’s most anticipated offerings. Rich Rubin’s play about the rapid rise and fall of the city of Vanport, which housed thousands of African American families and others drawn by work at the Kaiser shipyards during World War II, and which was destroyed by flood after the war, exudes Oregon history, culture, and politics. Anthony Armstrong, Wrick Jones, and S. Renee Mitchell are among the cast. “What’s beautiful about this play is that it follows one family, and also the black migration, and you get the family drama,” said director Damaris Webb. Jan. 22-24, Performance Works NW. (Rubin has a second play in the festival – One Weekend in October, about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. “I have a bit of advantage in writing this because there’s the transcript, and Anita Hill’s written a book, and Clarence Thomas has written a book,” Rubin said. Jan. 26-28, Post5 Theatre.)

In Search of the Red Skull. Ah, about those lady pirates: Katie Bennett’s swashbuckler is a full-length comedy-romance and sword-slashing adventure, set in the Caribbean of the 1700s, with a cast of 11 and a nefarious kidnapping to set the plot in motion. The possibilities are avast. Jan. 25, 1 p.m. Hipbone Studio.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. … and more lady pirates of the Caribbean, although in this new musical from 4×4=Musicals creator Mark LaPierre (book and lyrics) and Dan David (music) they share billing with talking walruses, man-eating plants, a fantastical storyteller, and a disbelieving fop named Nigel. The musical’s based on the original stories by Rudolf Erich Raspe, not on Terry Gilliam’s 1988 movie, but the baron and his amazing tales of his own adventures are front and center. “I looked at history to provide a villain, and fortunately, it did,” LaPierre said, adding: “The most influential people in this story are the people who grow limes, because all sailors need limes to prevent scurvy.” Jan. 25, 2 p.m., Lakewood Theatre.

The Cantilever Project. It’s a one-day reading of four new works by a quartet of writers who know the craft: George Taylor’s Renaissance at 11 a.m., Wayne Harrel’s Miserere at 2 p.m., Ciji Guerin’s The Noisemaker at 5 p.m., and Vivien Lyon’s Nobody’s Business at 7:30 p.m. This is a chance to see the sausage in the making: the scripts are writers’ drafts, and there’ll be audience feedbacks after each performance with dramaturg Karin Magaldi, plus continued workshopping after the festival. Guerin on The Noisemaker: It’s “about a traumatized musician whose house is coming alive.” And not, apparently, with the sound of music. Jan. 25, Blackfish Gallery.

Box: A Live Science Fiction Trilogy. Matt Haynes, the genial impresario of The Pulp Stage, dropped by with a drawing and a few crayons to talk about his new three-episode project, which he’s written with fantasy novelist Tina Connolly. It’s about “a young woman who’s been convicted of a capital crime sometime in the future,” he said, and who is then wired into a virtual reality program that pretty much trips her from stem to stern through flashbacks and fantasy games. And what’s the script like? Haynes explained, mysteriously yet intriguingly: “The perfect movie has no dialogue, and the perfect play has no stage directions.” Jan. 26-Feb. 9, Hipbone Studio.

Genuis. No, playwright Sean Bowie said firmly, that’s not a typo. It’s gen-u-is, not gen-i-us. It’s also a solo show, the first offering of the new Yocto Theatre, and a pay-what-you’re-able presentation: “I like the idea of a gift economy.” Plus, it’s the only play in the festival that asks, “Ever look at a random guy and wonder – how does this guy feel about midwives?” Bowie explained his philosophical positioning: “As I get older I find life to be hilarious. Absurd.” Jan. 22-24, 29-31, The Headwaters.

Threshhold.  Playright Redmond Reams, a child psychologist, stopped by with the young actor Dylan Beckett, who plays a 5-year-old boy who “has been abused but is now in a family. He’s secure there, but petrified about going to kindergarten.” A hero, a witch, and a robber – all action figures, but played by adult actors – help him work out his fears. It’s “the story inside his head: how can I find safety”” Reams said. The staged reading is presented in tandem with Sharon Sassone’s The Conditions of Unconditional Love. Jan. 30, Hipbone Studio.

Time, a Fair Hustler. Maisie Speer talked about the latest project from the innovative and experimental Hand2Mouth, a company that builds its plays slowly and collaboratively. This one, created by the ensemble with writer Andrea Stolowitz and dramaturg Jessie Drake, will give a single free workshop performance at Fertile Ground, then premiere in July at Artists Rep. It’s inspired by Gus Van Sant’s 1990 movie My Own Private Idaho, with its gritty view of “a decomposing Portland full of wanderers, hustlers and thieves,” and wonders whether Van Sant’s characters have been “destroyed or absorbed by the new, utopian Portland.” Jan. 26, 7:30 p.m., Artists Rep.

ID[ea]. “It’s a hodgepodge, if you will, a mixed play,” Eric A. Lynes said of this evening of “short plays, big questions, and human interactions” from the members of Third Rail’s innovative Mentorship Company program. “At the end of August we were 14 strangers. And we were locked in a room for 36 hours, and basically told, ‘You have to come up with a play’.” Lynes, a University of Portland grad who’s done tech work around town, joined the Third Rail program to get into directing. “All of us are changing,” he said. “And how we present this change to the world is fascinating to see.” Jan. 24-25 and 30-31, Echo Theatre.

David Saffert’s 40th Birthday: The Liberace Edition! The slick-haired ivory tinkler swept into the room and insinuated smoothly into his seat, carrying a playbill for Artists Rep’s recent production of Blithe Spirit. “I met Cole Porter once, you know,” he said in an effusive rush. “Have you ever had the chance to meet him?” Well, no. And of course it wasn’t Liberace, it was Saffert, who stayed in character for his speed-dating gig quite as rigorously as the honor guard at Buckingham Palace, if a lot more loosely. This act promises to be one of the festival’s most popular, and as a bonus, Saffert has Bo Ayars, Liberace’s musical director from 1973 to 1986, on board to help him nail down the details. Let the impersonation and the hijinks begin. As Liberace himself said: “I don’t give concerts, I put on a show.” Jan. 23-31, Curious Comedy Theater.

What Is Erotic? Eleanor O’Brien of Dance Naked Productions, who’s brought the idea of overtly erotic theater and storytelling into the spotlight in Portland, is back with a new round of sex-positive stories, a “curated cabaret of intimate performance art.” Jan. 27-28, Feb. 12-14, The Headwaters.

The Essex. Lawrence Howard, one of Portland’s best storytellers, premieres his latest historical adventure tale, this one about the Nantucket whaling ship that was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, and the struggle of its crew to survive. It’s the true story that inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick. Twenty men went down; after 93 days, eight survived. Jan. 23-24, Alberta Abbey.

________________

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Je suis Charlie? Oui, even here

Art and politics collide in a terrorist atrocity in Paris, and the effects are felt around the globe

Also read Brett Campbell’s “The Charlie Hebdo murders: what I told my journalism students” on ArtsWatch.

*

“Je Suis Charlie” has swept the nation in the past few days, along with a few “I am NOT Charlie”s filed by people who agree that the murderous attacks on the offices of the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were criminal and repugnant, but reject the slogan for a variety of reasons: because most of us don’t put ourselves in danger the way that war correspondents and the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists do, for instance; or because the newspaper’s caricatures were often offensively anti-Muslim. (Many critics have been calling them racist, although the issue seems to be religion, not race, and the publication seems to be committed to offending pretty much everyone pretty much equally.)

Much of the world has risen in indignation and resolve against the Charlie Hebdo murders and the apparently linked slayings shortly after in a Parisian kosher supermarket. Well more than a million people gathered in Paris in solidarity against terrorism on Sunday, including more than 40 presidents and prime ministers. Encouragingly, that list included both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Controversially, neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden attended.

Mockery in art carries a long tradition. Here, Charlie Chaplin skewers Hitler in 1940's "The Great Dictator."

Mockery in art carries a long tradition. Here, Charlie Chaplin skewers Hitler in 1940’s “The Great Dictator.”

Here at Oregon ArtsWatch, Charlie Hebdo seems both somewhat distant and urgently close. We don’t deal in the sort of savage satire that is Charlie’s baguette and brie. We trade in opinion, and reporting, but within relatively narrow bounds: we write about art. Someone might be offended by something we write, even angry enough to want to punch us in the nose, but no one ever has. The likelihood of artists or readers coming after us with assault weapons is remote to the point of seeming absurd. Within the context of international politics and the struggles between cultures, the world of art, surely, is safe.

Except, of course, when it isn’t. Art can comfort, art can provoke. Art can celebrate the small and private, or amplify the large and tendentious. It can be rude, and challenging, and stick out its tongue. In its gut it’s open, and openness is a threat to terrorism and totalitarianism alike. Even the relatively open governance of the United States is wracked by obsessive spying on citizens, and state secret-keeping on such matters as the use of torture for political ends. In opposition to such things, or simply making end-runs around them, the likes of Banksy, Ai Weiwei, Piss Christ artist Andres Serrano, Madonna-and-elephant-dung artist Chris Ofili, and the makers of a dumb movie comedy about assassinating a North Korean despot are in the same cricket match. If I think Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator by all odds must be a vastly superior artistic response to totalitarian thuggery than Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview (which I haven’t seen, and don’t intend to), the urge to mock is the same. And mockery comes with risk. Wherever ideas occur – good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones – danger follows.

CharliehebdoYou’ve no doubt read plenty of opinions elsewhere about Charlie Hebdo and the terrorists. A few of the more interesting commentaries I’ve seen: Adam Gopnik’s take in The New Yorker; onetime Oregonian political cartoonist Jack Ohman’s insider view for his current newspaper, the Sacramento Bee; underground comix legend R. Crumb’s view from France, where he’s lived for 25 years, in the New York Observer; columnist David Brooks’s demurring view in the New York Times; the outstanding cartoonist/journalist Joe Sacco’s graphic response in The Guardian; the English actor and writer Stephen Fry‘s musings on mockery. In case you haven’t looked at the cartoons that prompted the terrorist revenge, you can see them here, reprinted by the Huffington Post: most American publications declined to reproduce the offending drawings. (The photo insert above, from Wikimedia Commons, shows the cover of the newspaper’s November 3, 2011 issue, one of the lighter Muslim-themed drawings, with a speech bubble that translates, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”)

Well, there’s nothing to laugh about now. And certainly nothing to die about, although 17 people did in the newspaper and supermarket assaults. Until last week’s terrorist shootings I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo. Scanning what I’ve been able to see, I discern an obvious cultural disconnection between Charlie and me. I love Jonathan Swift; I re-read Gulliver’s Travels every few years. I sup at the aesthetic table of Daumier and Rowlandson and the harsher, angrier Goya in his Los Caprichos and Disasters of War mode. Much of what I see at Charlie Hebdo seems crude and sophomoric in comparison. Yet if Charlie unnerves me, and certainly offends many others, that’s the point. There’s an anarchic fervor to the thing, a relentless desire to call into question everything. And that’s what totalitarians can’t stand. Charlie is an emblem in the dangerous and often vicious struggle between freedom of expression and the drive to control thought.

Journalism and art are not the same thing, but they’re closely related in their drives to engage attention and reveal truths. Sometimes, as with the Saccos and Ohmans and Crumbs and George Orwells and Charlie Hebdos, they overlap. And often they have the same enemies. Repressive regimes, and “freedom” fighters acting in the hope of establishing repressive regimes, always want to control what’s written, spoken, and drawn. Art is a crucial player in that struggle, especially when it speaks truths that power doesn’t want to hear. The playwright Vaclav Havel became a symbol of Eastern Europe’s emergence from the Soviet bloc. Ai Weiwei is treated as a criminal in China, and something of a liberator to millions. The Third Reich outlawed “degenerate” modernist art.

It’s comforting to think the United States doesn’t act that way, except we do. Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t wish to draw a parallel between the French terrorists and the practitioners of thought suppression in America, because the gap is as wide as the gap between dirty tricks and murder: they are not the same thing. I’m aware of the long historical roots of mistrust between the West and the Muslim world; I’m aware that the terrorists don’t represent most Muslims. I’m also aware that murder is murder, and nattering is not. Even the most scurrilous of American agitators – the traveling circus known as the Westboro Baptist Church, for instance, which was in town a few days ago to castigate the Portland Trail Blazers, of all groups, for some sort of alleged crime of depravity – don’t put people in fear of their lives. And in the U.S., political blowhards are pretty much just political blowhards: we don’t expect them to come at us with AK-47s.

Few artists have been as brutal in their social commentary as Goya in his "Disasters of War" series, of which this print is No. 37. Titled "This Is Worse," it depicts the mutilated bodies of civilians skewered on trees in the aftermath of battle. Wikimedia Commons

Few artists have been as brutal in their social commentary as Goya in his “Disasters of War” series, of which this print is No. 37. Titled “This Is Worse,” it depicts the mutilated bodies of civilians skewered on trees in the aftermath of battle. Wikimedia Commons.

But the war on information and expression is real, even here. After 9/11 the Bush administration, remembering the power of images to sway public opinion during the Vietnam War, banned photographs of caskets and body bags returning home from the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration has done nothing to lift that restriction. In the 1980s the political and artistic worlds erupted in a “culture war” in which shrewd politicians such as Jesse Helms castigated artists over perceived depravities in an attempt to swing public opinion toward a harsher, more restrictive view of civil liberties. Artists and entertainers and arts funders and bureaucrats responded in varying degrees of outrage and caution, but one upshot was that “official” art – that art that is supported by tax dollars – became meeker; or more precisely, that the available money flowed more readily to uncontroversial projects.

In the end, one thing seems clear: civil society is designed to guarantee its citizens safety in both body and mind. It’s a guarantee that has been hard fought for, and is sometimes unreliable, but it is the goal and it is the standard. It’s not meant to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. On the contrary, it can be harsh and divisive and uncomfortable – just like some art. And the culture’s agreement to make decisions based on a code of civil laws is its chief protection from the passions of unbridled belief and extremism.

Freedom of expression is freedom of choice. Hell, freedom of expression is freedom, and that’s crucial to a civil society, even – maybe especially – when it makes us uncomfortable. Yes, we are Charlie. Whether we actually like Charlie Hebdo or not.

________________

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Season’s ghostings: Blithe Spirit, Irma Vep, Noël at Noël

A little Ludlam and a lot of Coward brighten the season without the specter of all-out Christmas themes

Little ghosts, everywhere.

Look, over there at Portland Playhouse: It’s the spirits of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, in the revival of last December’s Christmas Carol that took home about a zillion hunks of hardware from June’s Drammy Awards.

Over there, in the Armory: the same three spirits, gone a bit more bonkers, in Portland Center Stage’s second wrestle with The Second City’s A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens.

Coming soon to Keller Auditorium: All those rodenty souls of vanquished rat soldiers littering the stage in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s latest incarnation of The Nutcracker, which crosses swords and slippers beginning this Saturday, December 13.

And of course, the sleek and cunning Elvira, haunting the stage of Artists Rep in Blithe Spirit, and the misfortunate Irma at Third Rail Rep in the Winningstad Theatre, casting a pall over a very odd old English manse in The Mystery of Irma Vep. It’s these latter two we’ll be discussing here, along with the shades of their late, great creators: Noël Coward, whose theatrical roots stretched back to the Edwardian era and who helped define a certain 20th century brittle sophistication; and Charles Ludlam, who cheerfully ransacked everything from Victorian melodrama to Wagner to cheesy horror movies. Bonus pick: a raffish little cabaret performance of Coward songs, Noël at Noël, put together by Susannah Mars and friends for just two performances (the second is tonight, Monday, December 8) at Artists Rep.

Norby and Lamb: It's a mystery. Photo: Owen Carey

Norby and Lamb: It’s a mystery. Photo: Owen Carey

 

 THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP

One of the selling points of both Blithe Spirit and Irma Vep is that they’re good holiday season shows without actually being about Christmas: light, stylish, funny, a little bubbly, but not burdened with perennial obligation. You can get into the spirit of things, so to speak, without feeling as if you’ve just wandered into a scene from a Hallmark greeting card.

How Irma got from her cult Downtown Manhattan beginnings in a basement theater 30 years ago, when she was at the epicenter of a revolutionary gay theater scene, to today’s mainstream holiday-comedy-of-choice is a fascinating tale. Ludlam was the creative spark of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, a cheekily transgressive troupe that reveled in drag performances and, at a time when being openly gay was still vastly difficult, cheerfully flaunted its gayness. In the company’s early years most of its audience was gay men, and the bawdy in-jokes batted around the room like Ping Pong balls in the rec room of a YMCA. Ludlam, who starred in the original Irma with his lover Everett Quinton, died of complications from AIDS in 1987, at age 44, and if he had survived he might well have become a major mainstream playwright, because he was becoming better and better at what he did at the same time that American attitudes toward homosexuality were slowly beginning to thaw. While we hardly live in a perfect world of acceptance today (feel free to file that under the heading Annals of Understatement), the changes over the past 30 years have been startling, and in a way, theater and movie people have had a role in that: Dustin Hoffman starring in Tootsie, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, Robert Preston and Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria, all three of which were massive popular hits. These days, shows like Irma are almost mainstream family fun.

That’s a big gain, and a little bit of a loss. When a cult show breaks wide, it loses some of the anarchic recklessness of its subcultural origins. What once were the sharp elbows of insider nudge-nudge get protectively padded and smoothed out. In Third Rail’s beautifully realized production, in which the actors Leif Norby and Isaac Lamb go giddily overboard while maintaining strict stylistic control (try that sometime: it ain’t easy), the sense of original audience, of being a product of and for a select group of people, is the one missing element. At Sunday’s opening-weekend matinee performance a lot of the gay humor, the comic thrusts and double entendres, seemed either to be going over the audience’s head or simply not as funny anymore because they’ve become commonplace. On Sunday things were smooth but a little airless during the opening act, which was performed presentationally in a traditional proscenium manner. After intermission Norby and Lamb entered from the back, bantering with the audience, ad-libbing a bit, and the energy immediately picked up: this is the sort of show that works best in an intimate space, with the performers and a simpatico audience steaming in the same kettle of clams.

Lamb as Lady Enid, Norby as Lord Edgar: crying wolf. Photo: Owen Carey

Lamb as Lady Enid, Norby as Lord Edgar: crying wolf. Photo: Owen Carey

That said, Third Rep’s production is as close to a flawless show as you’re likely to run into for a long time. The cast credits name eight characters: four played by Lamb, three by Norby, and the eighth, the tragic Irma herself, listed as “Unknown,” which turns out to be just about right: It is Irma Vep’s sad fate to not make an appearance in her own play, unless you count the trickle of blood from her portrait over the mantel when it’s accidentally shot. What we do have is Lamb as a clumping, one-eyed, wooden-legged swineherd in the family manse of Lord Edgar Hillcrest; as Lady Enid, Irma’s successor and Lord Edgar’s second wife; and as a couple of characters encountered on a trip of discovery to an ancient Egyptian crypt. Norby embodies Lord Edgar; the sinister housemaid Jane Twisden; and “An Intruder.” An extraordinary amount of the fun is watching the two actors zip in and out of these roles, often with uncanny speed, and in and out of Alison Heryer’s flamboyant, zip-and-strip costumes. Major props to the wardrobe and stage crew who make these lightning changes possible: Laura Coe, Kelly Cullom, Karen Hill, and Matthew Jones. Kristeen Crosser’s Stately Home set, which opens up mechanically for the tale from the crypt and the unveiling of the mummy, is a perfectly Gothic horror – that is, for Gothic horror purposes, it’s perfect.

I won’t trouble you with plot points, because the plot doesn’t really make a lot of difference, although it’s cleverly calibrated: Irma Vep is a well-crafted puzzle. I will mention that werewolves and vampires and a mangled milkmaid and a lost child and some darkly twisted passions and howling noises over the moor play their parts in the thing, and that watching Lamb and Norby, as directed nimbly by Philip Cuomo, whack away at their panoply of roles is a pure theatrical pleasure. Lamb does a fetching belly dance as an unleashed Egyptian queen, but he truly shines as dim and drooling Nicodemus, the clomping swineherd with a furtive secret. Norby’s shifts between anguished/pompous Lord Edgar and domineering/calculating Jane are quick and beguilingly complete.

And what about poor ghostly Irma, the unseen hand that guides the action? I can only say, God rest her haunted soul – and thanks for being there. Really. Without her, we’d be bereft.

 

Hennessy gets into the spirit with O'Brien. Photo: Owen Carey

Hennessy gets into the spirit with O’Brien. Photo: Owen Carey

 

BLITHE SPIRIT

Artists Rep’s production of Coward’s otherworldly 1941 comedy, directed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Christopher Liam Moore, was a runaway hit before it even opened previews, extending twice before opening night: originally scheduled to end December 21, it’ll now close on January 4. Talk about riding the wave of the zeitgeist: this puppy might be the surfer of the year.

Coward’s been on my mind lately, and apparently on a lot of other people’s, too. First, I watched my son play Elyot in Coward’s other most enduring hit, Private Lives, in a first-act, student-directed production at his high school. He was improbably dashing in his dress pants and dinner jacket, planting kisses smack on his costar’s lips and tossing off a very funny “Don’t quibble, Sybil”: I was disconcertingly impressed.

Then I drove to Salem to see Pentacle Theatre’s Blithe Spirit, now closed, with my friend Nyla McCarthy as the indomitable Madame Arcati and her husband, Peter Bale, as Dr. Bradman, in a highly amusing and handsomely mounted community-theater production directed by Debbie Neel.

Then I took in the first night of the Coward cabaret, Noel at Noël: more on that below.

Finally, I squeezed into Artists Rep’s Blithe Spirit, which is as handsome a production as Irma Vep (set by Alan Schwanke; drop-dead, if you’ll pardon the expression, costumes by Nancy Hills) and which features something of a Portland all-star cast led by Michael Mendelson as Charles Condomine, the clever and unfortunate fellow who finds himself saddled with two wives at the same time because the dithering medium Madame Arcati (veteran Vana O’Brien, in a role that fits her like a silk evening glove), by some minor miracle of the occult occupation, has managed to summon his first wife back from the grave.

It’s a bit of a joke that sassy Elvira (Sara Hennessy) is the one who’s shuffled off this mortal coil, because as Coward wrote her she has more life force than anyone else in the room: she’s truly a wayward spirit, a pleasure-seeker, a carnal goddess, hellbent on getting her own way and devoted to the indulgences of life. It’s struck me that Elvira’s demise and uncanny return have something to do with the timing of the play itself, which made its debut in 1941, when England was deep at war and London was being blitzed by German bombs. In a way, Elvira’s ghost stands in for England itself, which was undergoing a near-death experience but was sure enough of itself to know it would be bouncing back, as tough and lively and irreverent as ever. It would be a mistake to follow the metaphor too closely or literally: the parallels aren’t exact, and Blithe Spirit isn’t Pilgrim’s Progress. But thinking of Elvira this way adds a little undercurrent of resonance.

Like Ludlam, Coward was a gay man. Unlike Ludlam, he didn’t emphasize it professionally, although in his wide social circles he didn’t much bother to hide it, either. He simply thought that private lives and public lives were different, and of course in his time being openly gay as a public figure was an invitation to trouble: It hadn’t been all that long since Oscar Wilde had been tossed into Reading Gaol. Over the years people have suggested that Charles’s eventual frustrations with both Elvira and his second wife, Ruth, are a result of Coward’s gayness, but I tend not to agree: I think they have more to do with his feeling for the mechanics of comedy and his understanding of the discontents and competing passions of domesticity in whatever form it takes. In both Blithe Spirit and Private Lives a kind of ghostliness is at the center of things: the tricky and unreliable memory of old relationships impinging on the stability and growth of new ones. We can’t escape our pasts, Coward seems to be telling us, and that’s really proof of our foolishness. I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that Blithe Spirit represents another sort of ghost, as well: the spirit of an old but still beloved form of theater, the sophisticated, well-made comedy, which is clever and frankly artificial and brittle yet surprisingly tensile in its structure. Maybe that’s what makes Blithe Spirit a good draw for the holiday season, when traditional values of all sorts kick in.

Wife No. 2 (Van Velzer) gets a right scare from Wife No. 1 (Hennessy). Photo: Owen Carey

Wife No. 2 (Van Velzer) gets a right scare from Wife No. 1 (Hennessy). Photo: Owen Carey

I saw Artists Rep’s Blithe Spirit on a Wednesday evening, the first show after opening weekend and after the cast had had a couple of days off. The whole thing was smooth and gorgeous, but also a little flat, which I took to be a matter of getting back in the groove. I expect it has by now. To truly take off, a Coward production has to be fast and agile: not so much an Indianapolis 500 sort of race as an Italian mountain sports car rally, where pedal-to-the-metal meets mastery of the gearshift. On Wednesday, the show was taking it a little carefully around the corners.

The talent’s unquestionably there: Mendelson in a funny and precisely manic mood, Hennessy all saucy and sassy, Allen Nause bluff and genial as the visiting Dr. Bradman, JoAnn Johnson in a slyly funny performance as the good-hearted and gullible Mrs. Bradman, Val Landrum as the clunkily inept maid Edith (Coward created theatrical worlds in which servants, inept or not, were as natural a part of the environment as dry martinis and cigarette cases), O’Brien, in a role originated by Margaret Rutherford, as a classically British backbone-of-the-nation oddball. On Wednesday Jill Van Velzer seemed the most comfortably and pliably up to speed member of the cast, playing what might be the comedy’s most difficult role: Ruth, Condomine’s second wife, who needs to be a bit of a nag and a drag but somehow also must hold the audience’s sympathy.

In my crystal ball I see sold-out houses. Get your tickets soon, or you won’t stand a ghost of a chance.

 

NOËL AT NOËL

This quick and easy cabaret, subtitled Susannah Mars & Friends Sing the Music of Noël Coward, meshes nicely and naturally with Blithe Spirit (it’s performed on the same set) and creates a pleasing showcase for a small group of young and veteran talent. It’s also the first in a projected series of cabarets at Artist Rep, Artists Rep in Concert, organized by Mars, the talented actor and singer, whose knowledge of theater songs runs deep and wide. Mars is one of Artist’s Rep’s resident artists, and this is one more fruit of that loose-knit program, which among other things encourages individual projects by its members.

Noël Coward, ca. 1930. Wikimedia Commons

Noël Coward, ca. 1930. Wikimedia Commons

Mars herself and veteran actor Del Lewis are the core of the show, which features 20 songs, among them such plums as Why Must the Show Go On?, Marvelous Party, Twentieth Century Blues, the iconic Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and the bittersweet Mad About the Boy. (“Sir Noël wrote 300-plus songs, for the love of God!” the show’s director, Sarah Lucht, told me. “It was tough choosing, let me tell you!”) They’re joined by three young singer/actors from the musical theater company Staged! (Voni Kengla, Aimee Martin, and Isaiah Rosales), and the arrangement reminded me of the advantages of the guild-like old company system, under which young performers playing juvenile roles learned the tricks of the trade by acting side by side with their more experienced elders. The five singers are accompanied, superbly and wittily, by musical director Rick Lewis on piano.

Coward and Cole Porter, the Englishman and the American, are inevitably paired in discussions of sophisticated 20th century music and theater comedy, although unlike Coward, who was a master playwright, Porter stuck to music. I know Porter’s music better, and while I tend to put the two on a par as masterful lyricists, I’ve always thought of Porter as a subtler and more complex composer. Noël at Noël doesn’t change that view, but it’s a good reminder that Coward’s compositions, though more strictly theatrical and less easily adaptable to jazz and pop styles, were pretty darned appealing, too. Mars is an elegant host and savvy interpreter with a smart feel for the stories inside the songs, and Lewis is an adept and engaging interpreter who sometimes seems to channel Coward’s own performance style.

The show was put together quickly, without much rehearsal, and it sometimes shows: as enjoyable and appealing as it is, a little more polish would have brought it together more successfully. It’s also a very brief run; by the time you read this it may already be history. But Portland needs more cabaret venues, and there’s great promise here. As a song not written by Coward, but by Steve Allen, puts it: this could be the start of something big.

________________

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Three hands of art: why it matters

None of us owns art. Not even the artists who create it. And yet, we all own it, and it shifts as we shift.

Why art? On Saturday, ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks spoke on this basic question to the national sales meeting of Pomegranate Communications, the Portland-based publisher of fine art books and gifts, at the invitation of vice president and publisher Zoe Katherine (Katie) Burke. Also speaking were Scott A. Shields, associate director and chief curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, and Randall Stuart, founder and director of Portland’s Cerimon House. Hicks’s speech is reprinted below.

*

When Katie asked me a couple of months ago if I’d be willing to talk with all of you today, I said, Sure, what would you like me to talk about?, and she said she was thinking of a general theme for the day of Why the Arts Are Important.

For a writer, that’s a dream assignment. You can go just about anywhere you want with it. And I will.

Let me start by observing that our culture is schizophrenic on the subject of art.

On one hand, our opera and ballet companies and symphonic orchestras are spiraling toward perpetual poverty and even bankruptcy, victims of high production costs and a shifting culture that just isn’t all that interested in such art forms anymore. The National Endowment for the Arts is a battered political Ping-Pong ball, surviving on what amounts to table scraps from the smorgasbords of Wall Street bonus babies. Theater companies scrape by on the backs of their performers, who are all too often the last and least to be paid, but, hey, the show must go on. And while few visual artists starve or live in actual garrets, a lot are spending more on supplies to stock their garage studios than they make in sales, relying instead on outside jobs or gainfully employed domestic partners.

On the other hand, it’s possible that no culture in history has been as saturated in art as ours is. Culturally and anthropologically, if not always aesthetically, art is everywhere. Movies and television and Facebook and YouTube streams and on-demand delivery systems and probably someday soon little cranial implants that will allow us to simply “think” the feeds we want to see and feel are 24-hour-a-day preoccupations. We use art to keep our hypercapitalistic economic engine humming: ever noticed how often the commercials on TV are more entertaining than the programs they break up? Every time I hear some pop singer mangle The Star-Spangled Banner before a ballgame, I’m reminded of how completely the arts and sports megaliths have merged into one giant entertainmentplex. It’s the fusion of the Homeric tradition and the Roman gladiator ring.

"Echo and Narcissus," John Price Waterhouse, 1903, oil on canvas, 43 x 74.5 inches, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons

“Echo and Narcissus,” John Price Waterhouse, 1903, oil on canvas, 43 x 74.5 inches, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons

You might be thinking, But that’s pop culture, that’s not art. And I agree – partly. Pop culture and art are both built on story. They might fulfill a basic human urge in different ways, but they’re responding to the same desire. And they bleed into each other.

It’s good to remember that the ancient tales of Homer and the other Greeks were popular entertainment as well as a kind of philosophy and religion and science, an attempt to explain the universe and humans’ place within it. The gods were frightful and petty and powerful and they were also great entertainers: people hung on the stories about them the way we hang on reports of the misdeeds of celebrities. We’re suckers for the wayward cavortings of our media stars. How is Miley Cyrus shaking her booty or Kim Kardashian baring hers different from Zeus chasing down Leda for a little roll in the feathers, or Narcissus drowning in a pool of self-idolatry? The Greek heroes and deities were undeniably great and they were also raffish and lowbrow, like Shakespeare after them, and for centuries the Greeks and Shakespeare, along with the stories of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, have been pretty much the base of our high culture, at least in the Western world.

On the third hand, if you’ll grant me the extension of an extra appendage, we also live in an American culture that believes art is equivalent to decorative wallpaper, and therefore irrelevant to what is really important, and thus to be shunted to the peripheries of our lives. In the politicized and obsessive world of education reform, the battle cry is STEM, an acronym that stands for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” No, no, the advocates of arts education retort, we must have STEAM, adding an “A” for “arts,” and I confess I do get a little steamed when I hear the demands for STEM, because I can’t see the point of learning “how” if you’re not also examining “why.” And then I think about Charles Dickens, and his novel Hard Times, and its earnest but misguided headmaster Mr. Gradgrind, who believed that floor carpets should not have images of flowers woven into them because the flowers are not real and so add nothing to the purpose of the rug.

And then I realize that I’ve just made an artistic response to counter a utilitarian argument. And isn’t that, in itself, utilitarian in the way the educational reformers seem to believe the arts and humanities are not? That makes me wonder, as things follow: Are such extreme cultural catastrophes as Ferguson and Sandy Hook and the Staten Island chokehold, at their heart,  failures of the imagination? And is it not the imagination that is the wellspring of art?

I believe that if we pay attention, art is everywhere. I believe it happens early and often, and that it doesn’t really happen, though of course it’s made; it simply is. We live it, we breathe it, all the time, and the more we live and breathe it, the more it defines us, the more it becomes a part of us. It is astonishing for its diversity, and for its ability to unite – or if not unite, at least connect. “Only connect!” E.M. Forster famously wrote in his novel Howards End, anticipating both our electronic microchip lifestyles and our need to see ourselves as individuals within a vast human context. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” That, I believe, to put a utilitarian twist on it, is one crucial purpose of art: to help us be whole, as individuals and as a species.

*

Little occurrences of art inhabit my memories, and I imagine yours, too. As an early grade-schooler in the 1950s I remember going to a neighbor’s house and seeing a portrait of a person I didn’t recognize, hanging in a prominent spot on the wall. “Who’s that?” I asked the woman of the house, the mother of a friend of mine. “That,” she replied solemnly, “is the greatest man in the world.” I was thunderstruck. To think the world’s greatest man was right here, enshrined, in my neighbors’ living room! Later I learned it was a portrait of Dwight Eisenhower, and maybe not art as most people think of it, except that in that household, it served both an artistic and an almost religious function. A few years later I visited another house, as the guest of a very young couple who had recently been married. They proudly, sweetly showed me an embroidered cloth framed on the wall of their tiny living room. In it, the young woman had stitched the words “Home Sweet Home.” And I realized that in that house, that was art, a living relic that echoed the commitment they had made to making a life together. In their household, that embroidery was more valuable, and certainly more personal, than a Jeff Koons sculpture. It connected. It dawned on me that people make art – not just in the ordinary sense of artists crafting objects that we call art, but more elementally and democratically: individual people, no matter what their stations in life, invest objects and ideas with artistic purpose.

I remember, from as far back as I can remember, books. The stories, of course, but also the heft and feel of them, the crinkle of pages, the gentle creasing of the spine, the texture on my fingers as I turned the page.

Arthur Rackham, illustration from "Cinderella," by C.S. Evans; London, W. Heinemann / Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott, 1919.

Arthur Rackham, illustration from “Cinderella,” by C.S. Evans; London, W. Heinemann / Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott, 1919. Wikimedia Commons

And the pictures. So often, the pictures. As a child, when the world was fresh and my perceptions were more vivid than they’ll ever be again, books truly were magical, and much of the magic was transmitted through the pictures, in which an illustrator gave recognizable form to the abstract and wondrous stories that authors transmitted to my mind. Alice followed the rabbit down the hole, and that was novel, but Tenniel gave the image life. I devoured fairy tales, like the wolf I suppose: Perrault, Andersen, the Grimms, the Russians; and great illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen. I recall particularly a set of books that included the old tale of Snow-White and Rose-Red, and which was illustrated with silhouette drawings that created a beautiful, dreadful double world; and many years later, when I first encountered the work of Kara Walker, I responded to her racial and cultural satire but also felt a little shiver at the memory of those childhood images still lurking patiently and indelibly in some small corner of my mind.

There’s a children’s tale I haven’t read, but I’ve seen the movie version which is quite good, called The NeverEnding Story. And the gist as I understand it is that story itself creates the fabric of reality, and that if we allow it to be nibbled away, by the earnest Gradgrinds or more brutal forces such as Stalin or Hitler, who banned certain types of art as “degenerate” and elevated sentimental and propagandistic images in their place, we put ourselves in danger of being swallowed by the void. And not just Stalin and Hitler. The Chinese government has just announced a plan to send wayward artists to the hinterlands to learn from the people and gain a “correct view on art.” The Chinese government also, by the way, recently banned punning in television broadcasts and advertisements: so far, you’re still free to engage in wordplay in the privacy of your own homes. Apparently, the freedom to think playfully leads to disasters like Ai Weiwei. Our own government, learning a lesson from the power that images held to sway opinion during the Vietnam war, does not allow photographers to shoot pictures of body bags or coffins coming home from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. If that’s not official recognition of the power of art, I’m not sure what is. So, we tell and retell and reinvent stories, because through stories we exist. Quite a role for wallpaper.

*

Art is important because it provokes and challenges and upends attitudes. As I grew older and moved beyond the illustrations to folk and fairy tales, which had their own savagery, I discovered the prints of Kathë Kollwitz, which held a mirror to the brutality of her relatively recent time, and Goya’s grotesque and angry images of war, and the strangely fevered visual creations of Bosch and Blake, and the satires of Daumier and Hogarth, and through them gained a sense of the psychological reality of what we so often confine to the tidy little corner of academia that we call history: such things really happened to actual people. Art preserves and transmits such knowledge. When I look at a painting of village life by Breugel I understand something about those people that I couldn’t understand in any other way. I was going to say that art is a shield against the onslaught of popular culture, which urges us to forget about history and context so we become more pliable to the forces of political and market culture, but that’s not right. Art is more like a flexible, nimble hovercraft that allows us to navigate among the new, making connections and opening fresh vistas and helping us understand pop culture as well as “serious” culture and place them both in perspective.

We live in a time when privacy is dying a very public death, and that’s a matter of serious concern, particularly when we consider that the erosion of individual privacy is occurring at the same time that large organizations are increasing their holds on secrecy. Facebook knows all and sees all about us – or at least it thinks it does; when I look at the ad feeds it sends me on the basis of the personal information it mines, I realize its capabilities are rudimentary and sometimes laughable in the extreme. But whatever Facebook and the National Security Agency know, there is a different kind of privacy, and that is the privacy of the mind; and the mind, in its full sense that includes that emotional state of being we call heart, is the domain of art. The time you spend contemplating a painting, reading a novel, immersing yourself in a piece of music: it’s irreducible to numbers. It can’t be measured. It’s yours. Even if you try to give away its secrets, in the end you can’t, because at the core of the transaction between human being and art is something ultimately unexplainable. That is the precious thing.

*

Beth Van Hoesen (American, 1926-2010), "Albert's Poppies," 1991, color aquatint, etching, and drypoint, hand colored with watercolor and gouache on moderately thick, moderately textured white wove paper, Gift of the E. Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Adams Trust, © Beth Van Hoesen, 2007.60.379. Portland Art Museum

Beth Van Hoesen (American, 1926-2010), “Albert’s Poppies,” 1991, color aquatint, etching, and drypoint, hand colored with watercolor and gouache on moderately thick, moderately textured white wove paper, Gift of the E. Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Adams Trust, © Beth Van Hoesen, 2007.60.379. Portland Art Museum

An artist of any kind is a witness to the universe, and because the universe is both micro and macro, what she sees can be wide or deep, large or small. The wonder of museums and of books is that they can accommodate both, and the spaces in between as well. I’m working right now on a catalog project on the artist James B. Thompson, whose work is very contemporary but also encompasses ancient archaeological markings from the Iron Age in northern Scotland. In the world of art, the past, present, and future can coexist, and that’s the sort of thing that theoretical physicists also grapple with.

Working on the essays for Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna & Flora, which Pomegranate published in August, I was struck again by how broad a vision Van Hoesen had from such a narrow focus. With her precise images of animals and vegetables and flowers she connects most easily with artists like Dürer and Monet and Audubon, but I also think of her as having a little bit of Emily Dickinson in her soul. She was intensely private, though like Dickinson far from a recluse, and conservative in technique, and like a microbiologist she saw wide by looking closer and closer. Her prints are easy to appreciate, and for people who want to simply glance at them they provide small moments of pleasure; quick reminders of small things in life that are good. Like all good art they deepen the more you look at them, and for me they transcend time. Given their original time and place, in the midst of the ferment of the latter half of the 20th century, they’re conservative images, but over time that doesn’t mean a lot: meanings come and go. Van Hoesen wasn’t consciously an environmentalist, at least so far as I know, but in the American West, where climate change and agricultural habits and human growth are threatening many species, her art and Audubon’s and that of contemporary Western artists like Michael Brophy and Matthew Dennison take on new meanings. Van Hoesen’s insistence on the individuality and vivid personality of animals also takes on fresh meaning in light of one of the 21st century’s emerging social movements, the quest for animal rights to parallel human rights. I doubt that Van Hoesen considered herself part of that movement. But there it is, and there she is.

In the end, none of us owns art, not even the artists who create it, and yet we all own it, and it shifts as we shift, and meanings shift according to who we are at any specific moment in time. And that’s a marvelous thing. I’ve come to appreciate the idea of the mosaic, which is at least partly an Islamic concept, in opposition to the arrow, which I take to mean the Western myth of constant progress toward something new and different. The view of the mosaic is rather one of interlocking pieces, interconnections, a pattern that can’t be seen in its totality from any single spot but which does exist.

*

I get a little taste of that every day, when I post an image of a historical painting on Facebook with a very short story to go with it, always beginning with the words “Today I Am” and often following with something outrageously made up, and then sit back and watch while people comment on the art and talk with one another, taking something public and making it privately their own, in a public forum.

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It’s a small thing, a little daily ritual, and undoubtedly to the eyes of the world’s Thomas Gradgrinds a counterproductive waste of time. But in its small way it enriches lives. Occasionally it might even subtly change them, and even if that’s small, it’s big. The thing is, I never know exactly what’s going to happen when I push that “post” button. It’s beyond my control. That’s the way art works, too. Plan carefully, execute as well as you can, embrace uncertainty, then set your baby free into the world and see how it flies. The results are usually not what you expect. And that unanticipated aspect – the surprise that happens when you simply let go – is really the heart of the thing.

To artists, I urge: keep on making art. To publishers, keep on making books. To marketers, keep on marketing and selling. To the censors, hands off: it’s not yours to decide. To all of us, keep on looking and reading and thinking and listening and learning. This is how we know ourselves. This is who we are.

 

 

 

 

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