Marina Abramović

ArtsWatch Weekly: Framing Wordstock, and other tall tales

Hitting the books with Portland's literary festival, First Thursday, gamesmanship on the Oregon Trail, coyote on a fence

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” the movie director Jean-Luc Godard famously said, and that’s as good a prompt as any to remind you that Wordstock, Portland’s annual orgy of all things literary, is coming up Saturday at the Portland Art Museum and other easily walkable venues along the South Park Blocks.

Take a deep breath. The list of writers taking part, local and far-flung, is long, and this is just a few of them: Diana Abu-Jaber, Sherman Alexie, Nicholson Baker, April Baer, David Biespiel, Carrie Brownstein, Peter Ames Carlin, Liz Crain, Monica Drake, Brian Doyle, Zach Dundas, Renée Ahdieh, Rabih Alameddine, Rivka Galchen, Yaa Gyasi, Karen Karbo, Shawn Levy, Gigi Little, Richard Russo, Sallie Tisdale, Colson Whitehead. It’s a veritable library of contemporary writing in the flesh.

Hangin' in the balcony at last year's Wordstock. Photo: Angie Jabine

Hangin’ in the balcony at last year’s Wordstock. Photo: Angie Jabine

Ah, but what if your story doesn’t have an end? I thought of that yesterday, flying home to Portland from the East Coast, when I boarded a connecting flight in Chicago at just about the time the sixth game of the World Series was beginning. The Cubs, of course, were in the thing, for the first time since 1945, and the Cleveland club (itself a longtime also-ran) was threatening to walk away with the rubies. Spirits were high on the plane as Chicagoans, many of them rabid fans, walked on and began to fill the cabin: It was a full flight, with no empty seats.

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Just art: a creative shot in the arm

Fertile Ground: Vertigo's vivid premiere of Rob Handel's "I Want To Destroy You" takes smart and funny aim at academia and the outer limits of art

Life’s not going especially well for Harold, a sort-of-famous artist who’s now teaching grad students at a richer-than-thou private college, and he really likes it, actually, but there are … problems. His ex-wife is out of the picture somewhere – California, it sounds like – and his teenage daughter, Micki, comes to visit, prodding him for more of a relationship than he seems willing to commit to. His roof’s got a bad leak, and he’s unfortunately seriously ticked off the roofer, Andy. He’s up for tenure, but his friend and mentor Bob is in a hospital, dying, and the school dean, a crafty-smooth politico named Stephanie (everyone’s on a chummy first-name basis around here, even when they’re decidedly not chums), seems strangely unsympathetic: downright threatening, you might say. Then there’s Mark, the weirdo grad student, who comes to class to give a presentation on a conceptual piece, and in the process starts waving a handgun around. Which very much freaks out the other students, earnest Ilich and leafy Leaf, and throws a serious scare into Harold, which is both completely understandable and a tad ironic, because, after all, the work that made Harold famous and a prize catch for the richer-than-thou college in the first place was the performance piece where he had himself shot. With a rifle. What goes around, as they say, comes around. And on the other end of things, it looks scary.

Monkey see, monkey do: Orr and Epstein as student and teacher. Photo: Gary Norman

Monkey see, monkey do: Orr and Epstein as student and teacher. Photo: Gary Norman

So goes Theatre Vertigo’s I Want To Destroy You, the premiere production of a play by Rob Handel that is smart and funny and argumentative in a very good way and a little sprawling and by turns deeply satiric and emotionally telling, and all in all a fascinating, compellingly turned show. It’s also Vertigo’s entry in the Fertile Ground festival of new works, and to understand it deeply it’s good to know some of the background that Handel, who is head of the dramatic writing program at Carnegie Mellon University and so knows some of this material intimately, uses. Which means, first of all, knowing that harried Harold is a stand-in for, or at least inspired by, a guy named Chris Burden.

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And that creates something of a conundrum for me, because I’ve spent decades purposely averting my attention from Burden. I ignore him the way some people pointedly ignore Justin Bieber or Donald Trump or Dinesh D’Sousa or Noam Chomsky or any member of the Kardashian clan, hoping against hope that they’ll just go away.

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