lauren weedman

ArtsWatch Weekly: Random favors

Steven Dietz's "This Random World," Ronald K. Brown dance, Portland Photo Month, Brett Campbell's music picks of the week, Blitzen Trapper & more

Steven Dietz is one of the most famous American playwrights Broadway’s never heard of. Last year’s This Random World is his 34th produced play, and that’s not even counting his 11 adaptations – an astonishing number, approaching the total of that fellow from Stratford. Many of them have been hits on the regional theater circuit, from the Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (where This Random World got its start) to major companies coast to coast. Except New York, where his Fiction, to make a long story short, made it to Off-Broadway’s Roundabout in 2004.

“This Random World” opens this week at Portland Actors Conservatory.

There’s little explaining a situation like this. Dietz’s plays are smart, well-shaped, actor-friendly, and on interesting topics, although they tend not to include things like falling chandeliers or singing cats. No matter. Regional audiences like them. A lot. Many of his plays have helped shape the contemporary American theater, and they move from city to city with ease: More Fun Than Bowling, Foolin’ Around with Infinity, Ten November, God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Becky’s New Car, Rancho Mirage, and more.

This weekend, This Random Life gets its West Coast premiere at Portland Actors Conservatory, and there’s reason to believe it’ll be worth a visit. This year’s class at the professional acting school has some very good talent, and it’s coming off a knockout production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood. PAC’s talented Beth Harper is directing, and the fine veteran actor Kathleen Worley is a guest artist. Plus, it’s a secret you can keep from the Great White Way while it’s busy reliving Groundhog Day.

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Lauren Weedman’s Shadow Selves

The veteran solo performer contrasts glitzy, ditzy country girl "Tami" with sardonic comic Lauren to sneak up on a sad, true story from (at least) two sides.

Tami Lisa is the fictitious host of a country-twanged, retro-era variety show embellished with dancers, tinsel curtains, cheesy jokes and a mouthy house band. Tami Lisa can both laugh with, and be laughed at by, her guests and her audience. And Tami Lisa’s imaginary husband is leaving her for their pretend babysitter.

Meanwhile, Lauren Weedman is a self-deprecating solo theater performer, neurotically processing some of the things she’s been through by spouting them out loud. And what’s she been through? Well, among other things, the real Lauren Weedman’s real husband has left her for their real babysitter.

Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore—surely a reference to the song Love Don’t Live Here Anymore?—is filling the PCS mainstage with a melange of music, monologue, and character impression that switches between first-person confessions from Weedman and kooky meta-onstage antics by her blown-out alter-ego Tami, who “interacts” with show guests by quick-switching her voice and posture to play both them and herself in conversation. As Tami Lisa’s husband Roman, she straddles the stage in a Captain Morgan pose, tucks in her neck and affects a Johnny Cash baritone. As Lucinda Williams, she does a husky whisper and a raw singing voice, juxtaposing that directly with a light, silly Tami Lisa on the uke for a whiplash-inducing “duet” of Sweet Side. As Wynona Judd, she puts on a cockeyed expression and rants menacingly about taking romantic revenge. As “Cornbread,” the guitarist from Tami’s band, she challenges Tami’s self-reliance, and as Tami she snaps back, “I can be alone!”

The world of Tami Lisa, unveiled. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye

If all of that sounds hard to follow, it’s not when you see it in action. “Tami Lisa,” Weedman explains, was the name she was given by her birth parents before being adopted, and hence has become a vibrant figure in her imagination of an alternate self who’d been raised by those parents. The other characters range from Weedman’s real music idols to fictitious tropes of a country/variety environment. To support Lauren/Tami transitions visually, the stage frequently quick-switches, unfurling tinsel curtains to complement Tami’s shallow sparkle, then snapping them back to reveal both the set’s and Weedman’s stark, shadowy depths. A big vanity-lit “Tami Lisa” sign lights up when “the show” is on, and darkens but remains onstage when Tami is on set but we’re to understand she’s not shooting. It disappears when it’s time to hear from just Weedman, perched on a black stool spilling home truths.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Media Blitzen

A pair of premieres at Center Stage, dance and theater openings, Brett Campbell's weekly music picks, Christopher Rauschenberg & more

It’s a busy weekend at the Armory, where Portland Center Stage hangs its hat: world-premiere opening nights Friday for Wild and Reckless, the new concert/play from the band Blitzen Trapper, and Saturday for Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Both will be playing on the Main Stage, in repertory.

We haven’t (of course) seen either show yet, so we’ll quote the company on what’s up with Wild and Reckless: It “traces the unforgettable tale of two kids on the run, in a futuristic vision of Portland’s past. Evoking a bygone era of Portland, this sci-fi love story features a rock-and-roll score that pairs unreleased songs with favorites from the band’s catalog, including Black River Killer and Astronaut.” And what, precisely, is a futuristic vision of Portland’s past? Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy tossing a coin in spacesuits to name the city? Probably not. But tune in Friday, or anytime through April 30, to find out.

Eric Earley as The Narrator and Leif Norby as The Dealer in “Wild and Reckless.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Lauren Weedman we know a little better from her smart and edgy previous one-woman shows at Center Stage and elsewhere. She could run a clinic on how to grab and hold an audience’s attention: She can be funny, and she can be fierce, and she has the focus of a hawk hunting rabbits in an open field. This newest show, also through April 30, homes in on heartbreak and how to mend it, and arrives with big hair, tight jeans, and a passel of country tunes. Plus, a backup band.

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The People’s Republic of Niceland

Comic provocateur Lauren Weedman sinks her teeth, lightly, into Puddletown

Weedman stalks the stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Weedman stalks the stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Is Lauren Weedman Portland’s Nemesis? It was Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, you may recall, who led the beautiful and arrogant young Narcissus to the fateful pool where he gazed at his own reflection, fell deeply, madly in love with himself, then pined away and died.

And isn’t that Weedman, the extremely talented L.A. comedian and monologist remembered widely and fondly for her stints on “The Daily Show,” pulling a mirror out of her hipster pocket and aiming it straight at the city’s eyes?

Careful, Portland. The illusion you see may be your own.

Weedman scored a hit at Portland Center Stage a couple of years ago with her solo show “Bust,” had a good time while she was here, and then accepted an intriguing challenge from the theater company: create a new solo show about Portland. What with “Portlandia” slapping little birds on every corner of the city, and “Grimm” celebrating the town’s inner monster, and the New York Times adopting Portland as the cute Little Village That Could, the assignment seemed both trendy and timely: Weedman would poke around a bit, blend her observations through the mixer of her own mordant wit, and report back to us as a not-quite-outsider on what it is, exactly, that makes us so darned special.

The result, “The People’s Republic of Portland,” opened last weekend in the company’s intimate basement-level Ellen Bye Studio, following an extended run of preview performances in which material was shuffled in and out of the script like pawed-over recyclables from an overstuffed bin at Scrap. Like an oddball love child of Honore Daumier and Lucille Ball, Weedman barreled into the thing pell-mell, tumbling her words over themselves, shooting past punctuations and unfinished thoughts, racing to stay ahead of herself in a canny impression of cultural dislocation: the Angelino in overdrive, trying clumsily to gear down to Portland speed. Her opening-night performance elicited smiles of recognition and lots of laughter, but very little in the way of visceral or deeply probing reflections in the mirror. The show still has a nervous, hectic, provisional feel, and in a way that’s OK: If Weedman’s still feeling her way toward what she REALLY thinks about Portland, she’s not alone.

“People’s Republic” has split the critics so far, with the two major print publications agreeing that Weedman’s a gifted performer and the script feels unsettled. The disagreement comes in how those two things balance out. The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley, in a largely appreciative review, observes that her delivery is reminiscent of “the manic momentum of Robin Williams or Jonathan Winters.” He adds: “(F)rom her opening tale of encountering a mass-transit proselytizer before the plane even touched down for her first Portland visit, though observant accounts of Pearl District dog chauvinism, geeky trivia competitions, strip clubs, the ‘ecstatic dance’ scene, farmers markets, and so on, Weedman is relentlessly, rapidly funny.” Willamette Week’s Rebecca Jacobson takes a sterner stance, praising Weedman’s performing skills but complaining that her take on Portland hits “too many of the expected beats.” “She’s witty and dynamic,” Jacobson summarizes, “and it’s clear she’s taken with Portland. But Portland isn’t her wheelhouse(.)”

Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Which one’s right? Both, I think. “People’s Republic” is appealing and frustrating, smooth and disjointed, and very much a work in process. That provisionality makes it feel right at home in Portland, which often values exploration over finished product, and I find its reaching, grasping imperfections appealing. And Weedman’s a terrific performer, both technically and emotionally: I’d like to see this show reinvented once a year for the next five years, sharpening and deepening as she gets a firmer idea of how she feels about this small, peculiar, and oddly self-obsessed corner of the world. Right now the material’s funny – love the bearded Pearl barista warning her that everything in the Pearl District’s fake ­– but too much of it’s still on the easy “Keep Portland Weird” bumper-sticker level, a wry kiss to the town’s relentless public-relations assessment of itself.

The value of producing a show like “People’s Republic,” I think, is to challenge the city’s self-celebration as Western civilization’s hipster garden of Eden, its waterbirth soaking tub of creative harmony and DIY bliss. Weedman ventures a stab here and there – indeed, as many an outsider’s asked in consternation and surprise, where ARE the black people? – but for the most part she picks at foibles rather than warts or wounds. Weedman’s very bright, and her performing packs a fierce focus that can be unusually revealing. Last fall at Disjecta she did a few performances of her earlier solo show “No … You Shut Up,” which was intensely personal, and often ruthless about her own shortcomings, and sometimes shockingly funny because of its willingness to venture into forbidden territory. “People’s Republic” could be that kind of show, but it isn’t yet.

The challenge in creating a show like this is a lot like the challenge that travel writers face. Outsiders like Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Alexis de Tocqueville helicopter in to an unfamiliar culture and try to assess it fairly and provocatively while also offering an outsider’s perspective that insiders ordinarily can’t see. Journalists do this, too. I’ve done it more than once, and most likely screwed up a few things in the process. The trick is to get beyond Potemkin’s false fronts – or carefully curated partial realities – and into the byroads and back streets that speak more fully to the place you’re visiting. And of course, the more you become familiar with the place, the less of an outsider you become. One of the things Weedman does best is to strip bare her own dislocations, fears, and fondnesses for this place she’s trying to figure out. How does it fit who she is? How does she fit what it is? Place is personal, a truth that’s never more evident than when you’re outside your own.

How far should an observer-chronicler stay outside, and how close should she come in? There’s no clear answer. But there are important shadings that don’t show up in “People’s Republic,” from the intense reserve of native Northwesterners – one does not blow one’s own horn – to the cultural traditionalism that lies below the surface of the city’s progressive politics. One of the most interesting things going on in the city right now is the relatively quiet cultural clash between old-timers who like to keep things settled and the influx of creative newcomers who feel comfortable throwing a few urban elbows and speaking out as if they ran the place (which, sometimes, they do). Weedman’s captured a lot of the energy of the newcomers and the alt-culturists, and she has a quick instinct for the overwrought and the ridiculous. She also seems to have a genuine affection for Portland, whether she ultimately feels comfortable here or not.

It’s good to be liked, and nervous tics aside, Weedman, who can be pretty astringent, ends up liking us quite a bit. The feeling’s mutual. I like her energy and risky performance style very much, and I think “People’s Republic,” shortcomings and all, is a kick in the pants. What’s more, I suspect the show will continue to change as the run ripens, and why not? The city’s constantly reinventing itself, too. It’s nice having Weedman around, and I hope she keeps showing up: she’s beginning to feel like an old friend, even if I’ve never actually met her. I’m siding with Marty on this one: “Somebody, keep her coffee cup full.”

But is she Nemesis to our Narcissus? No, and why would we want her to be? We’re perfectly capable all by ourselves of drowning fondly in our own reflection. Still, as Weedman shines her understanding of our municipal image back on us, I can’t help wishing she’d be a little more pointed about the places where the mirror’s crack’d.

NOTE:

“The People’s Republic of Portland” continues Tuesdays-Sundays through June 16 on the Ellen Bye Stage of the Gerding Theatre at the Armory, 128 Northwest 11th Avenue, Portland. Ticket information is here.

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A late autumn night’s dream: magic, mixups, and who we are

Evocations of the Other in 'Midsummer Night,' 'Ephemory' and 'No ... You Shut Up'

Tim True, Linda Alper, Andy Lee-Hilstrom, Daisuke Tsuji, Todd Van Voris, Damon Kupper. Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

 

Like a music lover waiting eagerly for a certain shift of cadence in a well-known symphony, I always look forward to that moment in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when Titania, queen of the fairies, wakes from her drug-induced slumber and first sets eyes on donkey-headed Bottom. O revelation! O feckless bliss! Her world turns!

This is a moment of high comedy, the mirror-opposite of the illusion-shattering moment when the little boy pipes up and breaks the spell in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and actors generally milk it for all it’s worth. It’s the moment when the illusion is born, when sense becomes nonsense and any attachment to reality (which is already tenuous, considering that we’ve been frolicking in the forest of the faeries) disappears. Since the audience understands this but neither Titania nor Bottom does, the joke rises and bubbles and takes off.

Yet as funny as it is, the moment also holds a seed of sadness: we’re watching ourselves, or our theatrical stand-ins, in our most addled and ill-advised of states. This moment of faux falling in love, it seems to me, is a quintessential artistic illustration of our capacity for self-deception. We can call it “magic,” and in the play it is, but it strikes me that magic, like hypnotism, won’t work if the capacity for deception, or betrayal, or wickedness, or call it what you will, isn’t already lurking somewhere deep inside, waiting to be awakened. Something within Titania finds itself attracted to this utter ass of a mortal man, and though that something’s usually deeply and safely buried, it’s there nonetheless. The same holds true for the young lovers who hop from infatuation to infatuation under the spell of the drug: Hermia and Helena and Lysander and Demetrius are a mixup of affections and attractions (the boys, predictably, more so than the girls, who seem to know what and who they want), or the magic wouldn’t work. True love is never entirely true. Selfishness and the illusion of adventure persist. We are attracted to, and also repelled by, the idea of the Other.

Maybe it’s the recent national election, may it rest in peace. But in a race that seemed to hinge on one side’s almost pathological reluctance to entertain the notion of the “other” as anything other than “other” – the reprehensible and misguided 47 percent of “takers,” the “lockstep” African Americans and Hispanics who represented a “problem” to be overcome rather than a partnership to be embraced, the homosexuals who would be wed – “Midsummer” seems an intriguing metaphor for our national muddle of fractured self-identity. With its donkey-headed weaver and scrambled lovers and bickering royals and cries of cultural doom (the young lovers essentially do the equivalent of running off to live in Canada), Shakespeare’s comedy seems to root around in the murky undergrowth below our invasive shrubbery of twisted intentions and strange bedfellowings, and unearth some of the muck of our national malaise. Who are “we,” what is “they”? If we don’t understand “them,” and why we think what we think about “them,” how do we understand ourselves – especially if “ourselves,” in the larger sense, encompasses “them”? Is it possible, it feels reasonable to ask, that the Indian changeling boy might be something more than an exotic prize to be won; that he might actually have a central role to play in the deciding of his own fate?

Whether such questions are truly embedded in the play (and I think they are) or are simply extrapolations from a culturally restive mind, they seem to rise naturally from Portland Center Stage’s lush and charming new production of “Midsummer,” which is directed by the former Oregon Shakespeare Festival mainstay Penny Metropulos and features talented performers and designers gathered from here (Portland), there (Ashland) and everywhere (Chicago, California). The production has an easy, almost regal flow, organically blending sight, sound and action into an invigorating, pleasurable, and mostly seamless whole. For the few who haven’t experienced “Midsummer” before, it’s a clear and lovely introduction to one of the greatest comedies ever written. For old “Midsummer” hands, it explores the play’s nooks and crannies with illuminating and satisfying charm.

The production’s look is both comfortingly familiar and challengingly diverse. Michael Vaughn Sims’ set, with its hanging picture-frames and gnarly-rooted trees, has that classic fairy-tale sense of being realer than real, a landscape that’s not just alive but also strangely sentient. Diane Ferry Williams’ lighting gives the set a refracted Arthur Rackham or Kay Nielsen glow; Deborah M. Dryden, who has just retired after many years as resident costume designer at the Shakespeare fest in Ashland, wittily blends periods and attitudes, from Elizabethan to Goth to James Dean punk, into an inexplicably congruent whole. (Could it be she’s figured out the inclusive part of this whole “other” thing?)

A few things struck me, as a veteran of more “Midsummers” than I can count, about this one in particular.

First, Metropulos took care to cast the young lovers as very different from one another, not peas in a pod. Ty Boice’s young-rebel Lysander and Joel Gelman’s buttoned-down junior executive of a Demetrius would dislike each other even if they weren’t rivals in love; Kayla Lian’s barking Chihuahua of a Hermia and Jenni Putney’s festering Rottweiler of a Helena may be from the same species (which accounts for their supposed friendship) but have fundamentally differing personalities. This makes the quarreling more plausible, and adds a suggestive undertone to the loveplay: opposites repel, but they also attract.

Second, Ashland vet Daisuke Tsuji’s circus background gets an amusing workout in his performance of Puck, who “can put a girdle round about the earth” in 40 minutes. On a slow and moony night, he’s the speed demon who keeps the action rolling: at one point he leaps deftly backward between the roots of one of Sims’s gnarly trees, disappearing like a stray thought. Tsuji also lends the show a wayward operatic air, now and again breaking out mid-speech into song, or at least recitative, and adding an unexpected layer of melodrama to the stylistic fantasy.

Third, I found myself viewing the story mainly (and unusually) through the eyes of the two sets of royals, Titania and Oberon and Hippolyta and Theseus. This is partly because Dana Green and Richard Baird, who played both pairs of sparring lovers, seemed to be most at ease with the language, giving the poetry room to roam but never allowing it to overrule the stress and meaning of the text. They sounded elevated, natural, and dramatically expressive – the Shakespearean trifecta – and both also acted physically with precision and ease. It also struck me, particularly with Theseus and Hippolyta, that other-ness was central to their relationship, and that fact seemed a key to the play. Hippolyta, remember, was an Amazon queen, defeated in battle by Theseus and then, contrary to expectation, drawn to him in a union of romantic and personal parity. In their case, the “other” becomes the “one,” a stronger and more elastic if less comfortable “one,” with lofty political, cultural and personal ramifications. Republicans and Democrats, take note. (Side observation: In Greek mythology, Hippolyta’s father, the war god Ares, gave her a magical girdle. Did Shakespeare borrow that idea and hand it off to Puck?)

Fourth, my one important regret: I wanted to see the lovers at least struggle against the magic when Puck misapplied it and turned the objects of their affections in the wrong directions. This wish goes along with my understanding of the play as a matter of a struggle between warring dominant and recessive desires inside each of the major characters: an “othering,” if you will, of the self. Demetrius, remember, believed himself in love with Helena until Hermia came along. There was something real in that. And surely Lysander doesn’t find the prospect of having Helena as a lover entirely disgusting. Yet considering that Hermia is his soulmate, I’d expect him to at least hesitate a little against the power of the magic. But here, the juju’s unstoppable: one little whiff and the lovers’ heads are spun completely around. This bothers me even though I concede that sometimes in Shakespeare, you have to simply accept what happens, illogical as it seems. King Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale,” for instance, develops a sudden, fierce, and entirely unwarranted jealousy of his wife and his great childhood friend. Why? Well, because it says so, that’s why.

This is such a charming and well-integrated cast that I can’t slip away without applauding the rest: the cannily cornpone James Newcomb as a neighing ass of a Bottom; Linda Alper, flexing her farcical muscles, as Quince; Todd Van Voris as a sweetly meek Robin Starveling; Damon Kupper as Snout; Andy Lee-Hillstrom as Flute; Tim True as Snug; and Dylan Earhart, who plays a mean toy piano, as the Changeling Boy. (The mechanicals double, quite winningly, as the fairies.)

***

Sometimes the strangers we don’t understand are those closest to us. Our parents, perhaps. Perhaps the simple yet all but impermeable barriers of time. “Ephemory,” Miriam Feder’s semi-autobiographical new play continuing through Nov. 25 at the little Headwaters Theatre in deep North Portland, is the affecting tale of a middle-aged daughter coming to grips with the failing memory and inevitably approaching death of her aged mother, and at the same time learning for the first time in depth about the astonishing if largely anonymous story of her Jewish mother’s escape from Nazi Germany and eager embrace of the American way of life.

Collage courtesy Such a Production

The ignorance of children about their parents’ lives before the children existed is common. The effort to break through and understand is quietly remarkable. “Ephemory” is a jigsaw puzzle of a play, with most of its pieces hiding in the past, and it has a documentary, reportorial quality – but a kind of reporting in which the author is intimately and unapologetically part of the story. “As my Mother exhaled her last breath,” Feder writes in her program notes, “I suddenly felt both the permission to work with her story and the urgency to do so.”

Feder’s stand-in, as Ruth, the grown daughter sorting through the memorabilia in her mother’s home and the increasingly shaky memories in her mind, is played with quiet openness by Alana Byington: a little frustrated, a little astonished, a little guilt-ridden, a little dictatorial, but always wanting to learn and understand. Carolyn Marie Monroe is eager and winningly brash as the young Carole, breaking from her home in Germany and embracing the opportunities in the teeming city of New York.  Kaycheri Rappaport plays Carole as an old woman, forgetful and fitfully lucid but happy, all in all, with the life she’s led. Chris Shields and Amanda Mehl take on a variety of roles, and the adaptable David Mitchum Brown marches manfully through all of the male roles, from old-world father to new-world lover to soldier and latter-day husband.

What seems remarkable about “Ephemory,” which is directed by Debbie Lamedman, is that Carole’s story isn’t remarkable – or rather, that it’s remarkable in a way that so many immigrants’ tales are, especially the stories of those who found safety from the horrors of the Holocaust, whether they left before, during or after. Carole is one of the fortunate ones, and one of the many whose loss to Europe was America’s gain.

It’s not so much the role of art to challenge the politics of identity as it is the nature of art to explore it. Who are we? How did we get that way? Why do we think and feel the way we do? Yes, art can be didactic, but when it is, it usually lessens itself. In a human sense, politics can only follow where art has already explored. The great American symbol of inclusion, the Statue of Liberty – also known as the “Mother of Exiles” – implores the world to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In many millions of stories like this, that remains the hope and strength of this immigrant nation – not border fences and exclusionary politics. Because, after all, the Other is Us.

***

Comedy on the razor’s edge. Courtesy Lauren Weedman

On Saturday night I drove to Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in the Kenton neighborhood to catch Lauren Weedman’s late-show performance of her monologue “No … You Shut Up.” It was unfortunately a short run, and Sunday’s performance was the last. So let’s just say, in case you missed it: Weedman’s a very funny woman.

Many Portlanders first saw her last year when she performed her solo show “Busted” at Portland Center Stage. She was so intrigued by her stay in town that she decided to write a show about life in our peculiar little corner of civilization. “The People’s Republic of Portland,” which she’s developing now, will premiere at Center Stage at the end of this season, April 30-June 9. Watch out, Portlanders: Weedman might very well put more than a bird on it. If “No … You Shut Up” is any indication, it’ll be more than bright and cute and safely quirky. Weedman’s got teeth, and she’s not afraid to use them.

Doing a solo show is like dancing on a razor blade: you’ve got to move fast and light or you’re gonna get hurt. There’s no place to hide, and you’ve got to be “on” without a lull: If you let the audience’s attention flag for a moment, you could lose them for good. Sometimes it’s closer to standup comedy than traditional theater, but it calls on both kinds of skills, and Weedman’s extremely good at them: we don’t see performers with her kind of physical and vocal focus and adaptability very often.

I’m not sure how much Weedman sticks to the facts of her own life in her solo shows, but I suspect that, like “Ephemory,” a lot of “No … You Shut Up” is autobiographical. And what begins as standard late-night TV joking – Weedman’s the protypical motormouth, a regular Lucille Ball with an attitude, always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person, and then having to try to clean up the mess she’s made – morphs ever so subtly into something much more tender and revealing. The laughs and the shocks are here, but in service to a fascinating and touching personal story. It involves adoption neuroses and a couple of split-ups and a widower with teen-agers and an “unadoptable” kid and a nightmare visit to the potential in-laws and, finally, a self-realization, or maybe a self-determination, that opens things up. Sometimes we, ourselves, are the “other” we don’t understand, but with a little effort we can stumble through. Laura, meet Laura. She’s actually pretty cool.

 

NOTES:

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the dance version, gets a run in town this weekend: The young dancers of The Portland Ballet, accompanied by several professional guest artists, bring back choreographer John Clifford’s version with live accompaniment by the Portland State University Orchestra of Felix Mendelssohn’s enchanting score, Friday through Sunday at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall. Details here.

Holly Johnson’s review of Center Stage’s “Midsummer” for The Oregonian is here.

Win Goodbody’s review of Center Stage’s “Midsummer” in Portland Theatre Scene is here.

Mitch Lillie’s review of “Ephemory” for Willamette Week is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edgar Meyer/ Photo by Jim Leisy, Chamber Music Northwest

This weekend I resembled the bees in my backyard, nosing around for a little something to take back to the hive, you know, a little Edgar Meyer sweetness at Chamber Music Northwest, a couple of blossoms at the JAW festival, another visit to Dance+ for Part Two.

Unlike the indefatigable bees, though, I’m not intending to build an entire honeycomb from the experience. And here, I’m taking leave of the metaphor altogether, especially because I know next to nothing about bees to begin with nor their alleged indefatigability. For all I know, bees start their days with the best of intentions and then find themselves distracted by less-than-urgent business on the Internet, just as I do! Hey, who DID win that air pistol gold medal?

Where was I? Right. No honeycombs and no more bees. (I am suppressing SO many bee puns right now…)

“The People’s Republic of Portland,” Lauren Weedman, JAW festival: You know the deal with JAW, right? Staged readings of plays-in-progress, which means that anything you see or hear could change or disappear before it hits the stage in a real production. And that means getting too deeply into the scripts is foolhardy, and the actors haven’t had time to develop their characters fully, so questioning a particular characterization doesn’t make sense, either.

That doesn’t mean we can’t write SOMETHING about the shows we see, though, although it’s likely, in Weedman’s case, just to confirm what you probably know already: Lauren Weedman is funny! And her reading was more like a progress report on how her reporting on the topic of Portland is going rather than a first read of a finished monologue. So… how’s she doing?

Lauren Weedman in “Bust” at Portland Center Stage/Owen Carey

Well, hard to say, because “Portlandia” has made this commissioned piece (by Portland Center Stage: the show is set to debut in April) difficult. How much satire can the city sustain? Food jokes, personal enlightenment jokes, gay jokes, stripper jokes? Check, check and check!

Trying to get off the usual merry-go-round of approved Weird Portland destinations (I remember when all we really had in the way of Approved Weird was the Church of Elvis and the Sandy Jug tavern), she wandered into some serious issues. But the problem is that Serious Portland is a lot like everyplace else: We struggle with changes to our neighborhoods that force out one class or race of residents and replaces them with others, for example. Maybe we’re trying to do more about it than most American cities going through similar things, but even so, this isn’t funny. Or maybe it is. I know even less about making comedy than I do about bees. Maybe a “Portland Is Really a Hellhole Just Like Every Other American City” comedy hour would be a laff riot.

Weedman’s got a good eye and ear, though, and as she wanders about, she encounters funny characters and situations.  Compared to her home ground in Indiana (she lives in LA now), the West Coast and Portland must seem optimistic, a place where technology, spiritual questing, the arts, the hand-made and the participatory (democracy, crafting, ‘zining, etc.) intersect in curious, amusing ways. And sometimes even profitable ways (in 2010 Portland’s growth in GDP was close to eight percent, I just heard on the radio). Maybe in her place, that’s the nexus I’d explore, not to make big “statements” about the future or nature of the city (both unknowable, right?) but simply to encounter the stories and characters that might be a little different from Evansville (which used to be the Big City to this western Kentucky boy) or even Indianapolis.

Whatever Weedman comes up with, I’ll be there, though, because she’s smart and engaging. That’s a pretty great start.

Dance+, Part Two, Conduit: I’ve written a couple of times about Dance+. Basically, Conduit (the downtown Portland dance studio non-profit) put out a call for proposals, specifically asking for collaborations between choreographers and other art forms, and a panel of judges selected eight to perform over two weekends, though one of them was scuttled from Part Two (Luciana Proano, “for reasons beyond her control”).

Some brief notes about Part Two? The Friendly Pheromones (Zahra Banzi, Chase Hamilton and Zoe Nelson) collaborated with Wave Clamor Bellow, performing together onstage. The tone was melancholy, by and large. In a sad world, sometimes we humans just form little clumps of support and maybe protection. Unclumped, up and dancing, the Pheromones moved in a satisfying classical modern style, that made the most of Hamilton’s angles, Banzi’s quickness and lightness and Nelson’s athleticism.

Gregg Bielemeier and Keyon Gaskin’s collaboration with composer Philippe Bronchstein was comic, full of quirky little solos and duets, though I hate using the word “quirky” to describe what Bielemeier does—he’s light and comic, like a Klee painting maybe, and Gaskin fit right in, capturing the little arm gestures above the head and little spins that mark Bielemeier’s work generally. Gaskin, though, turns Bielemeier’s shuffles into something altogether “leggier”—and funny in a slightly different way. And yes, there was a little cross-dressing at the end.

Danielle Ross’s “The Loveliest Landscape” is an extended solo with projected slides, strings of lights and flour, which Ross formed into little mounds and then scattered, with music and co-design by Christi Denton. I loved the semi-abstract slides projected onto Conduit’s back wall and mouldings, perfect for situating us in a space and dance that seemed to be trying to tell us something explicit but then pulled back for a more poetic gesture, either movement or visual. And I liked Ross and Denton’s ambition—”The Loveliest Landscape” is complex, various, well-considered.

“The Bachelors,” Caroline V. McGraw, JAW: Before hitting Dance+, I caught this dark comedy, which mostly makes fun of single men and their, um, relationship problems, if you consider breaking the rules about touching in a strip club a relationship problem. Maybe in the broadest sense? Anyway, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for these guys, even the sad-sack ones, which makes it easier to laugh at them.

The cast of Blake DeLong, Darius Pierce and Patrick Alparone seemed to have a good time with the material, and they adeptly located the laughs and drew them out of the audience. If I were giving feedback (and I’m not!), I’d say maybe one of the key turns didn’t seem logical to me (in the psycho-logical sense), but people were laughing around me, so they clearly had no trouble tracking.

 

Edgar Meyer/ Photo by Jim Leisy, Chamber Music Northwest

Edgar Meyer, Chamber Music Northwest: I’ll just say a word or two about Edgar Meyer, whom I interviewed back in 2009 when I was first attempting to work out some things about how classical music could renew itself, become part of a vital, living cultural conversation. Meyer was perfect for this because he’s a walking, breathing, bass-playing fusion project, who can find the heart of the matter in the classical repertoire as well as participate in and compose contemporary music.

And his concert at Kaul Auditorium was a demonstration project (here’s James McQuillen’s review). He started with J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello, which he played on bass, of course, and then moved first to a series of his own compositions (mostly, he also played Jobim) and then, for the encore, to music by his 19-year-old son George, who showed up to play violin alongside his dad. In his own work, the straw of the hoedown and some low-down mountain lonesome mix together, maybe with a little Western swing syncopation sometimes, and he glides up and down the neck of the bass easy as pie, producing sonic effects that make you laugh and also fit perfectly into the songs.

I think what I’ll remember most is the way Meyer paused in between movements of the Bach. He’d gather a breath, sigh, look at us, look heavenward and roll his eyes a little, throw his arm out around the neck of the bass and shake his hands (reminding me somehow of Stanley Laurel, the great Silent Era comedian) and then curl his fingers around the instrument, hunching over it at the same time. Playing a cello solo on the bass? That’s work, man!

And you know what? In the final movement, a gigue, a dance form that originated in the British jig, I thought I overheard the conversation between Bach and Appalachian mountain folk music. Without Meyer, I may not have noticed that.