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FilmWatch Weekly: Gus Van Sant talks about his biopic of Portland cartoonist John Callahan

"Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot" follows Callahan's journey to sobriety after being paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident

One well-known Portlander tells the story of another in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” Gus Van Sant’s new film based on the memoir by the late cartoonist John Callahan.

Van Sant has had his eye on Callahan’s life story for a couple of decades, with Robin Williams, who had optioned Callahan’s book, attached at one point to play the lead role. After Williams’ death, the project’s realization seemed unlikely. But Van Sant recruited Joaquin Phoenix, reuniting the two after Phoenix’s breakout role in “To Die For (1995),” and a fascinating supporting cast, and here we are.

If you lived in Northwest Portland in the 1990s, the spectacle of the orange-haired Callahan speeding down the sidewalk in his motorized wheelchair was a familiar one. Even if you didn’t recognize him on the street, however, you would have almost certainly been familiar with the outrage he frequently stoked with his squiggly, single-frame cartoons, which ran regularly in Willamette Week from 1983 until his death in 2010, and skewered race, gender, and other sacred cows (including disability) with politically incorrect impunity.

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan and Jonah Hill as Donnie star in DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT.

“Don’t Worry” focuses less on Callahan’s notoriety than his journey to sobriety, which began some time after the horrific car accident in California that left him paralyzed and bitter. Among the members of the Alcoholics Anonymous group that Callahan reluctantly joins are characters played by the likes of Udo Kier, Beth Ditto, and Kim Gordon, who’s especially convincing as a wealthy Portland housewife with a drinking problem. The group’s de facto leader is Donnie, a self-mocking sober hedonist played with impressive savoir faire by an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill.

The rest of the cast includes Jack Black as the drunk driver behind the wheel for the fateful wreck and Rooney Mara as Callahan’s almost too-angelic nurse/girlfriend. Newcomer Tony Greenhand deserves special mention as Callahan’s wry, stringy-haired caretaker, but the less said about Carrie Brownstein’s brief appearance as a bureaucrat the better.

Van Sant was in town last month for an advanced screening of “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” held at Cinema 21, with proceeds benefitting the John Callahan Garden at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. I met with him the afternoon of the screening at a downtown Portland hotel, where he discussed the evolution of the movie, its visual aesthetic, and why he didn’t shoot it here in town.

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MusicWatch Weekly: indoor opera, outdoor jazz

Operas, musicals, and sounds from China to South America lure listeners in from the heat, while jazz beckons them back outside

When Portland Opera switched to a summer season last year, one stated reason was to avoid competition with other similar events. But operas and their American-born cousins, stage musicals, seem to be proliferating this summer.

There’s no glass slipper or fairy godmother, but Rossini’s classic operatic recounting of the Cinderella story returns in the company’s family friendly production of La Cenerentola, which runs through July 28 at Portland’s Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway. Read Bob Hicks’s ArtsWatch review.

All dressed up and somewhere to go: From left, Laura Beckel Thoreson, Alasdair Kent (kneeling), Ryan Thorn, and Helen Huang in Sue Bonde’s costumes. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Speaking of comic opera that involves class divisions, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro highlights this weekend’s Aquilon Music Festival program. Barbara Day Turner conducts a chamber orchestra and Daniel Helfgot directs the action in Friday and Saturday nights’ fully staged performances at Linfield College’s Marshall Theatre.

“[O]ne of the very few lyricists who were genuinely funny,” writes Stephen Sondheim in Finishing the Hat, “[Frank] Loesser was able to perform the rare trick of sounding modestly conversational and brilliantly dexterous at the same time….Most impressive to me are the ideas behind Loesser’s songs. The lyrics need not be brilliant in execution; they can ride on their notions alone and bring the house down. Which they did, and still do.”

Now being staged in a new production at The Shedd in Eugene, Loesser’s Guys and Dolls follows the adventures of a trio of petty gamblers who need a spot to continue “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.” With a plot contrived from short stories by Damon Runyan, whose stories captured the colorful characters and slanguage of 1920s New York’s gamblers, gangsters, and other hustlers, Guys and Dolls turned out to be one of the great success stories in American musical theater. It earned unanimous critical raves, running for 1200 performances in its first production, scoring five 1951 Tony Awards (and more in subsequent revivals) and being cheated of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama only by right-wing, red-baiting McCarthyism.

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‘Beyond the Cultural Revolution’ preview: cultural confluence

Chamber Music Northwest celebrates contemporary music by composers of Chinese heritage

Two decades ago, Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin, the clarinetist who still leads the Portland festival, had admired a clarinet quintet written for him by Bright Sheng, one of China’s finest composers, who’d moved to the United States in 1982. Shifrin asked Sheng to compose a new music theater piece for CMNW and other classical music presenters.

Inspired by a legend from his native China, Sheng’s The Silver River premiered at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1997 and went on to acclaimed performances in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, London, and beyond.

A scene from Bright Sheng’s opera, “The Silver River” at the John Jay College Theater, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival 2002. Photo: ©Stephanie Berger.

But not in Portland. Back in the 1990s, CMNW administrators, then accustomed to little more staging than a few chairs, music stands, and maybe a piano, looked at the forces required for Sheng’s opera — singers, dancers, actor, choreographer, stage director, classical chamber ensemble, pipa (the banjo-like Chinese lute), props (eventually including a huge heated water tank in which the actors performed), costumes, et al — and blanched.

“We determined we couldn’t afford to produce something that large,” says current CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta. But it remained on Shifrin’s “bucket list” to bring to CMNW before he retires in 2020. With the organization expanding and diversifying as never before, says Bilotta, “we decided to make the resources available and do it.”

On Saturday and Sunday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland audiences will at last get to experience the work CMNW helped create — with the composer in town to see it.

CMNW also decided to use The Silver River as the tentpole for a broader celebration of Chinese-influenced music. Beyond the Cultural Revolution comprises seven events happening this Thursday through Sunday, including the two opera performances, coffee with the composer, and premieres of new works commissioned by CMNW from composers of Chinese heritage.

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#//< EMBEDDED >//# review: con job

Pratik Motwani’s addictive, surprising solo show at Coho Summerfest is a metaphor for today’s social media malevolence

by MARIA CHOBAN

“Want some candy, little girl?”

Any good con job, whether hooking a future junkie or a theater audience depends on great acting. I said “Yes,” grabbed the candy, then allowed Pratik Motwani to roller-coaster me through his 75-minute short course on how to become an addict in his latest creation — #//<EMBEDDED>//#, playing through this Sunday at CoHo’s Summerfest. Only two performances left — run, don’t walk. This is a terrific con job.

It’s the sly story of a nebbish mama’s boy recently moved to America from India. For his birthday his mommy, who lives in India, sends him a card, an orange shirt, and a cell phone. Probably among the three worst things to send a lonely 20-something unsupervised male. In lieu of connecting with the real world, the ugly duckling with huge buck teeth creates an online virtual version of himself and throws this upgraded swan on the virtual wall to see if it sticks.

Pratik Motwani stars in ‘Embedded’ at Coho Summerfest.

Motwani portrays both roles in this solo show. Cinnamon 1 is the living, breathing, lonely mama’s boy videorecorded and projected on the center screen above the stage, with whom Cinnamon 2 interacts. Motwani performs live the role of Cinnamon 2, the avatar, interacting with impeccable timing with the video. (Think about how much rehearsal this required to memorize the pauses and inflections in the video.) Motwani pongs between hip strings of naughty emanating from the declaiming Cinnamon 2 (“Ice Ice Icicles, spec spec spectacles, test test testicles. Woah, this mic is turned on!”) and searing lonely decresendoing salutations to his mom, unable to hang up: “Bye mommy. Bye. Bye bye bye bye?”

Sound design frames this multimedia extravaganza of lighting, projections, mime, dance, acting. From the beginning scrapings heard in the dark to the iconic cell phone rings or Super Mario Brothers theme or “likes” racking up, we’re conditioned to respond as with Wagner’s leitmotifs. When the phone rings it’s mommy so get offline! When the bell dings, it’s an adoring fan! So happy! Stay online! All this in addition to dance music like the “Bidet Mambo.”

Motwani, a wiry, Mumbai-born California theater artist who has appeared in Imago Theatre’s Frogz and ZooZoo, is a precise, exuberant dancer. He looks a lot like Pivot Animator figures in motion when learning how to move as a virtual creation. Trippy projections corkscrewing us down a hole into virtual hell or escalating us back up to mommy’s phone call abetted the sound. Lights going up in the audience when the show went LIVE or the shadow images of Cinnamon 2 behind a screen mimicking Cinnamon one in the real world weren’t just cool effects. This was intelligent theater that kept us hooked, addicted… conned.

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MusicWatch Weekly: pan man returns

Steel pan master and composer Andy Akiho's Chamber Music Northwest appearances highlight Oregon's sizzling musical weekend

Andy Akiho’s previous Chamber Music Northwest appearances with percussionist pal Ian Rosenbaum revealed both performance virtuosity — on the 39-year-old New Yorker’s unlikely instrument, the steel pan — and also a distinctive and appealing compositional imagination. In one of the summer festival’s highlights, Akiho’s Wednesday night Alberta Rose Theatre showcase of originals written over the past decade combines his steely pan with various other instruments: flute, marimba, violin, magnets (!). His half-hour long LIgNEouS Suite features string quartet and marimba, sometimes played with dowels, and a really big rubber band.

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre last year. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Akiho’s LIgNEouS Suite repeats at Thursday’s CMNW concert at Reed College featuring the Dover Quartet, along with one of Haydn’s spirited Op. 20 string quartets and Borodoni’s second quartet. Akiho’s Deciduous repeats at Friday’s New@Noon program at Portland State, which includes recent music by contemporary composers, including a pair of thirty-somethings: Roger Zare’s Escher Triptych for violin and cello, inspired by three M.C. Escher prints, and William Neace’s jazzy little Variance for solo trumpet. The show also includes Steven Hoey’s Other Voice for solo bassoon and renowned Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov’s haunting Mariel for cello and marimba.

CMNW’s weekend concerts Saturday at Reed College and Sunday at Portland State look way back to the early 20th century in French music, including compositions by that Russian exile, Igor Stravinsky. His delightfully Faustian narrated septet Soldier’s Tale ranges from rags to Russian folk to faux jazz and other devilish rhythms. Along with Stravinsky’s three little clarinet solos from the same period, the show features another theatrical arrangement, Jacques Ibert’s The Gardener of Samos, Debussy’s slinky Syrinx for solo flute, and a rarity by another early 20th century French composer who died too young (26), Jean Cartan’s perky, Poulencian Sonatine for flute and clarinet.

Composer Andy Akiho.

More Debussy — his powerful valedictory Violin Sonata — highlights CMNW’s Monday and Tuesday shows, along with still another welcome new Andy Akiho original, Lost on Chiaroscuro Street for clarinet, violin, cello and piano — the same instrumentation Messiaen famously used for his landmark Quartet for the End of Time, which partly inspired Akiho’s melodious creation. Alexander Sitkovetsky and CMNW’s own sterling clarinetist David Shifrin lead a strong cast of performers.

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Waterfront Blues Festival: Day 3

In the third of four days at the sprawling outdoor blues party, photographer Joe Cantrell catches the action onstage and wades into the crowd

Photographs and Story by Joe Cantrell

Friday, July 6, at the Waterfront Blues Festival. This year’s third day of music reminding us how much there is to celebrate in and about the USA, dance lessons naming the African countries, the steps came from, and the first night’s blues dance contest finalists: Three lesbian couples, two mixed-race couples, and one apparently straight white couple. We really did all win in many of the ways that matter.


See Photo First: glorious blue Fourth, Joe Cantrell’s photographs and essay on the Waterfront Blues Festival’s opening day, July 4, and Waterfront Blues Festival: Day 2, his visual report on July 5’s scene. The festival, in downtown Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park, concludes with a full day and evening of shows on Saturday, July 7.


Day crowds are often sparse until after 5 p.m., but the deep-happy of the performers, dancers and audiences being One abides. There’s a visible communication among them; good stuff.

Seeing the evening out with The Mavericks.

Last act of the day, The Mavericks, brought on a full house and took them to a wondrous place . Their lead singer, Raul Malo, sang The Times, They Are a’Changing solo acoustic with power and fervency that transformed the entire end of the waterfront to a sacred place: Well howdy do, 1968! Yep, we’re in deep trouble again, dear people. Worse. We have to deal with this; things are inhumanly ugly in our names. Amen.

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Waterfront Blues Festival: Day 2

Photographer Joe Cantrell captures the sights and sounds of the sprawling blues party as it swings toward Saturday's finale

Photographs and Story by Joe Cantrell

The 4th of July with fireworks draws crowds big enough for the fire marshal to shut down the entrances, and that has traditionally been the last of the Waterfront Blues Festival. But this year it was the first day, and Thursday, hotter and a workday to boot, should have been more sparsely attended. Through the day, it was. Lots of nice people still, but quieter.

Come the end of the workday and afternoon sun, lots of company arrived. Until a couple of years ago, people could stroll in without contributing anything at all. Privilege as an epithet; sleek well-groomed families cruising through the gates without glancing at the volunteers there to accept donations, claiming the suburban lawn territory of their personal tarps. They were ironically displacing later arrivals who did bring contributions but couldn’t get in because of the crowd size limit, especially on fireworks night. This was one of the dilemmas faced by the Food Bank, bless their hearts, but this year, everybody had to have a ticket. Bless the tickets, too; it’s a happier overall place.


See Photo First: glorious blue Fourth, Joe Cantrell’s photographs and essay on the Waterfront Blues Festival’s opening day, July 4.


The acts rotate among four stages, riverboat performances, and after-hours gigs in nearby venues. Many are superb, some not quite. All emotionally connect with the fans (see yesterday’s scribble on music festival as catalyst). The Blues Festival continues today (Friday) and tomorrow. Good-hearted person, you are part of it, whether you’re there or not. Better you be there.

 

Kid Ramos, on the Main Stage.

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