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The Genie (Major Attaway) from the lamp sings his own praises. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

My ticket for Aladdin

{Note: None of the performance images are mine, I have used media photos provided.}

When we’re talking about live shows, performance and production can be words to describe the same thing. I recently saw two shows and for one I declared “That was a production!” and for the other, I was moved by the performance. They were equally wonderful and nothing alike. I’ll try to explain.

Tara, my 21-year-old-offspring, loves all things Disney and Broadway. Thus, tickets to Aladdin were an obvious choice for a Christmas present. I did not know anything about the show and did not take the time to look it up.

Consequently, I was totally blown away on Thursday when I saw this show. The creators pulled out all the stops for entertainment. This was the sparkliest, loudest, flashiest, most-colorful, most frequently jaw-dropping, silliest, gaudiest show I have ever seen. The costume changes were constant, and every costume was layered in mesmerizing colours and more rhinestones and sequins than I thought possible to fit on fabric. There were scarves and bangles and turbans and feathers and every single, every single male character wore pointed shoes. At one point, cannons shot metallic glistening streamers over the audience and we sat transfixed, watching them spiral down onto us.

Leaping, turbaned dancers

Golden cave of treasures, where Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan) finds the lamp.

Back up dancers and singers, male and female, supported nearly every scene, and these were the fittest performers I’ve seen in a Broadway show. I could tell because most of them were only about 50% covered in clothing. It was nice to see men objectified for a change. All those glistening six-packs….sigh. They leapt, spun in the air, spun on the ground, flipped and skidded and cartwheeled back and forth.

Aladdin as the Prince, with Jasmine (in Portland played by Lissa deGuzman)

The sets were incredible, in the literal definition of the word. At one point the whole back of the theatre dropped away into a convincing starry night sky…WITH a legit flying carpet that Aladdin and Jasmine sat on and sang A Whole New World to us. The scene inside the cave of treasures, where Aladdin found the lamp, looked like it was made of solid gold. Indeed, every surface shone like metal. This made it particularly splendiferous when the fireworks went off. YES!! Real fireworks inside the theatre!

Genie explains to Aladdin how the three wishes work.

Genie was hilarious, Jasmine was convincingly strong, Aladdin convincingly vulnerable, and Jafar sufficiently evil. We were all glad to see him change from one costume to another in a blink before our eyes like magic, and then just as quickly disappear leaving only a lamp behind, when Jafar foolishly wished to be an all-powerful genie (and therefore had to live in a lamp).

What. A. Show. What a production!!

The set for Tiny Beautiful Things was a cross-section view into a beautiful home that is clearly lived in. (Left to Right: Lisa Renee Pitts, Brian Michael Smith, Dana Green, and Leif Norby)

My ticket for Tiny Beautiful Things

Storytelling took center stage in Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. This play is based on the book, which is about an advice columnist named Sugar, and the letter-writers who contact her and sometimes get responses.

The set was great!! So perfect and beautiful. I wish we were allowed to take photos during performances, so I could have captured just one shot that showed the whole thing. Multiple times during the show I thought how nice it would be to live there. If you look at the kitchen shot above, imagine a small dining table to the right, with a door off stage on the right to the laundry room. On the far left of the photo, you can see two steps leading to a playroom in the back. Imagine that farther to the left, there is a living room with a couch and table, and behind the couch is the front door leading off stage on the left, and at the very back a staircase upstairs, and a door to the basement? beneath the stairs.

Sugar “listens to” one of her letter-writers.

We watched Sugar, a busy mom, as she carried her laptop with her around the house, answering mail (outloud) all day long as she does the laundry, folds clothes, picks up toys, straightens the living room. We also watch as three other actors perform the words of the letter-writers, who are children, people with cancer, or people who are pregnant. Letter writers told their secrets, exposed their fantasies, regretted their choices. Gender, age, and background aren’t visually reflected by the actors, so we had to listen carefully to the words to find out who was speaking.

Sugar didn’t answer everyone. She wore yoga pants and a cardigan, and at one point pulled her long hair back into a sloppy bun while she read the letters. One writer kept submitting the same letter over and over, that said, “WTF. WTF. WTF?” She didn’t answer that one, obviously. Until…. the end.

The way Sugar answered the questions was to tell a story from her own life (taken from true stories of Strayed’s actual life) filled with pain and tragedy, joy and fear and bravery and hope. She connected to the letter-writers by telling what got her through her own similar challenges, and recommended that we be more compassionate, kind, and generous – particularly to ourselves. It was thirty stories told, hers and theirs, linked by the advice column, and a thousand stories told, linked by all the people laughing and crying in the audience. Proof that we were all feeling these stories as our own.

Sugar answers a letter at night, after the day’s chores are done.

Sugar dispenses advice to a letter-writer.

Sugar would usually speak to her laptop as she answered letters, even while the letter-writer was sitting beside her on the couch, speaking to his phone as he typed his question. But when the topic or the connection got more intense, they would turn and face each other, and have a conversation. During one wonderful scene, she brought all the letter-writers into the kitchen with her to help pack school lunches for her kids while she answered a letter.

Live performances get to me more than TV or the movies (and all of these actors have been on TV or in the movies). This show was deeply personal, designed to make the audience reflect, or identify, or consider. Ultimately, this play took up all the parts of us that are dark, acknowledged them, and then made us feel good anyway. It is wonderfully done.

Frederick (Peter Curtis) and Mabel (Laura Tack) find a moment to talk. Well… more like a moment to sing.

I love theatre and for the past decade have only attended shows in Portland. However, I moved to a tiny rural town a few years ago, and recently discovered that across the river in Longview (somewhat bigger rural town), there is a theatre company.

My boyfriend Will is visiting from Rhode Island. Since he treated me to a show at Trinity Rep in Providence when I visited in January, I thought it would be fun to return the favour and take him to a show here.

Stageworks Northwest Theatre is now running The Pirates of Penzeance until April 7th. It’s a community production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s well-known comedy. For the blue-collar port town of Longview, Washington, they would have been forgiven for making some cuts to the show in order to pull it off. Instead we enjoyed the real deal: comedic talent, great singing, and a live orchestra.

Please forgive the relatively poor quality of my iPhone photos taken while seated in the audience, but they do give a sense of the fun, the great costumes, the splash of colour in every scene. This entertainment is inexpensive, every seat is a good seat, and we definitely felt part of the community there, while listening to patrons talk about holding season passes and other shows they saw. If you live around here, support your local arts and go check it out!

General Stanley’s daughters try to decide what to do about their sister Mabel. (Cassandra Charles, Rochelle Larsen, Rachel Welsh, and Claire Beck)

Major General Stanley (Patrick Hale) argues his case to the pirates.

Drama unfolds as twists in the story are revealed.

Frederic finds himself motivated by Ruth (Lorraine Little) and Richard, the Pirate King (Joey Le Bard), while the orchestra plays.

All images in this post used with permission from Portland Center Stage. https://www.flickr.com/photos/portlandcenterstage/sets/72157671722653471

All images in this post used with permission from Portland Center Stage. https://www.flickr.com/photos/portlandcenterstage/sets/72157671722653471

I live 47 miles from Astoria, Oregon. It’s a lovely town at the mouth of the Columbia River, sheltered a couple miles in from the Pacific Ocean by a serious sand bar and Cape Disappointment (the name of the cape is a bit of foreshadowing).

There are three stories I want to tell you. 1) The story itself: the real life nation-building story. 2) The play about the story, which somehow totally works! 3) The Armory, the building hosting the play.

The overland party, looking ahead and realizing their destination remains far away.

The overland party, looking ahead and realizing their destination remains far away.

The wicked Captain Thorn gazes to the horizon from the deck of his ship.

The wicked Captain Thorn gazes to the horizon from the deck of his ship.

I entered the theatre with a virgin understanding of the journey about to unfold. That is, no understanding. I had learned, in the course of reading a brief synopsis while buying my tickets, that the man who financed the expedition to found Astoria was John Jacob Astor. And in that way, two weeks ago, I learned how the town got its name. That should illustrate the level of not knowing the story I’m talking about.

Over the next 3 hours I began to realize it’s a *monumental* story of how my part of the North American continent became the United States instead of Russian territory, or British, or Canadian. Before the play I could tell you more about the founder of the McDonald’s franchise than I could about the early explorers of Oregon, because we are products of what we’re fed through media. Why oh why aren’t we fed the good and healthy stuff?

The play is based on the book by the same name, written by Peter Stark. It’s set mostly in 1810. Astor was a wealthy German immigrant who wanted to become more wealthy by capitalizing on the fabulous otter pelts that rumor had it were there for the taking on the Pacific Coast. From his home in New York City, Astor arranged for two separate approaches to the Columbia River: one by land and one by sea. Back then, the sea route was by way of Cape Horn, Chile. Remarkably, the sailors got there first. The time pressure is a plot point, since whomever establishes the first trading post will control the fur markets on the west coast and will certainly have access to the most wealth. Astor is constantly fretting about news that the French might beat him to the prize.

Early in the trip, future sailors of the Tonquin maneuver a smaller boat.

Sailors from the ship maneuver a smaller boat.

One night around the campfire with the overland party.

One night around the campfire with the overland party.

Hundreds of people joined his expeditions, including men from Scotland, Hawaii, Quebec, Ireland, and England who joined the original Americans on the teams. And original, original Americans (indigenous people) contributed further to the survival of those who did make it to the destination. Because yes, many people died along the way, including the two Hawaiians who froze to death trying to cross the bar into the Columbia River. They were not the only men who died at the bar, in the shadow of Cape Disappointment. Remember I said “foreshadowing?”

What’s remarkable, and irresistible, about this story, is how much went spectacularly wrong. Many people died by accident, and some were killed. Two went insane. Often people fought with each other, and hated each other. Miraculous are the repeated incidences of survival in the snow, survival from starving, survival from drowning, from raging ocean storms. Though catastrophes don’t always result, there was always a threat: of mutiny, getting lost, scalped, abandoned.

Chris Coleman, the artistic director, pulled off magic with that stage. One set, mind you – with occasional backdrops – conveyed a ship on the open sea, or a wealthy fur-merchant’s home, or a frontier fort, or a camp in steep mountains, beside a creek. We got up close and personal with four people rowing a boat, we listened to quiet conversation among the bunks below deck of the ship, we huddled close to the fire and tried not to feel hungry while a trapper told a story, we gasped in despair when three provisioned boats smashed and were lost in a river, and we watched while travelers reluctantly slid from their horses to continue on foot. All one set, and it worked. Like I said: magic.

Scenes with all actors on the deck of the ship were convincing partly because everyone swayed in unison with the waves. We soon learned that tables can be anything, often boats. I enjoyed the artistic creativity throughout, such as when Astor meets with three potential leaders of the excursions. All three are on stage at the same time, in points making a triangle. As each one leaves the meeting with Astor, they rotate until another is before Astor.

More magic: 16 members of the cast! Just imagine how many people you would need to portray the multiple journeys (one by sea with all the crew to run a ship, the overland party split into two, and still Astor remained in New York), and then imagine only 16 people bringing it to life. It’s a tribute to the quality of the actors that they were able to pull this off, switching back and forth between dramatically different characters, such as when Leif Norby starts as John Jacob Astor but becomes a crusty, bearded Frontiersman Edward Robinson, and back and forth. DeLanna Studi is introduced as Astor’s elegant wife, then becomes a pregnant Indian woman, then switches back. The accents switched from thick Scottish to Kentucky backwoods to prim English to French to German. Wow! I’ll interject my only criticism here: impressed as I am by the ability of the actors to do this, it was distracting to look into their faces and recognize other characters. This was amplified because I was in the front row and so close I could discern crow’s feet. I think at a distance it would not have been such a problem for me.

Antoine and Joseph consider the finer qualities of distant mountain peaks.

Antoine and Joseph consider the finer qualities of distant mountain peaks.

Action never stopped, and even the slow moments were tense or foreboding. In real life the years-long journey was a grueling series of hardships day after day, but on stage the successes and catastrophes rode each other’s heels, barely allowing an audience-member’s heart to settle in between. Amidst the hardest times in life, humans manage to find a way to laugh at their circumstances, and thus we had a not insignificant number of funny moments, such as when a couple of Frenchmen gazing at sharp mountain peaks began comparing them to breasts (“Grand teton” is large breasts, in French, and we can only imagine our travelers must have been in Wyoming about then).

Surprisingly, there was a lot of singing, though it was not a musical. I found this to be very effective support to enriching the scenes, helping us to be back in time with the actors, and helping us to understand the cultures blending on stage. One funny example was during a scene with many people rowing a boat and singing to keep the cadence. It was one of those classic tunes that multiple countries claim, with their own lyrics, and the rowers from different lands were competing for which was the “correct” version of the song, with good-natured and rowdy aggression, singing louder and louder like sports fans arguing over favourite teams.

Robinson and McKenzie face off.

Robinson and McKenzie face off.

At long last the overland parties reunite and find the Columbia River (though not yet its mouth). Captain Thorn sends enough sailors to the bar that eventually some of them live to find the entrance into the river. And that’s the end of part one! We have to wait until Portland Center Stage presents next year’s performances, to find out what happens in the end. In the meantime, I’m going to read the book.

I mentioned earlier that the performance was about 3 hours, but that includes a nice long intermission halfway through. Before the show I had admired some of the structure of the old brick building, called the Armory, and at intermission I investigated further.

The brick structure appears castle-like from the street, but it’s hard to get a good look at it because it’s downtown in the Pearl District and surrounded by tall buildings. Inside, I saw that the entire expanse is open: no support beams the length of it. There are two levels, but the second level is merely a balcony, a mezzanine level, that surrounds the open lobby with places to sit and chat, or look out the window. So I looked out the windows, which are bonafide rifle slits – glassed in and wood-framed, ha ha – leaving no doubt about the military origins of the building. I walked right up and put my hands on the bricks. Something about touching something helps me connect to the proper time and place to understand it.

So many bits were intriguing to me that I had questions about its construction, and sought out the concierge. I asked for an information brochure.

“We have a book, if you want,” he said. “It’s a regular, bound book, all about this building. We give them to people who are particularly interested.”

It was the most serendipitous outcome of a random question that I’ve had in some time. The man walked off, and returned moments later holding a large, gorgeous, illustrated, full-colour, 192-page book about how a crumbling and abandoned former military armory became a modern theatre. In fact, that’s the name of the book: “Voices of the Armory: A Chronicle of the Transformation of a 19th century icon into a 21st century theater.”

“Here you go!” he said, obviously pleased to hand it over. “It’s free! I think you’ll love it. I have one and I love it.”

This beautiful book was more than I could have expected.

This beautiful book was more than I could have expected.

A peek inside, where there are hundreds of photos of the restoration of the Armory.

A peek inside, where there are hundreds of photos of the restoration of the Armory.

The show was originally supposed to run through February 12th, but was so successful that the run was extended. If you are in Portland, you can still see it, and you should! Look for it at https://www.pcs.org/ Tickets are available through February 19th.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is playing Willy Loman on Broadway right now. I know in my very marrow that the performance would wreck me if I saw it. I would have to be carried out at the end.

I hated the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller when I read it for the first time. Hated the misery of it. Willy Loman is a shit. I freaking despise that guy. The whole damned dysfunctional family sucks.

But wow, when I disengage from those hateful feelings, I am in awe of Arthur Miller. Can you imagine what it might feel like to be the author of a play that makes somebody react so strongly? I can think of one other piece of writing in which I hated the main character so much, and that is Ignatious Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Miller and Toole have achieved my powerful emotional response through the mere application of ink to paper. This is a skill I have held as a life’s goal for as long as I can remember. These two writers and their wretched characters have my deepest respect.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favourite actors. Some actors can pull my emotion out of my gut the way Miller and Toole did with their writing. Hoffman’s characters can be wretched, pathetic, funny, fiercely strong, and always always achingly beautiful because they show us unflinching glimpses of what it’s like to be a person. Hoffman finds a core human soul in his character and translates it for us. He first got to me as Scotty in Boogie Nights. Didn’t your heart just break for Scotty? I know him, that Scotty. He’s been in my life in many scenes, and –as I felt when watching the movie- I just have no idea what to do with him. PSH was the perfect kiss-ass in The Big Lebowski. Watching him I simultaneously wanted to smack him, and knew I would be the same person in that job.

The two roles that friggin’ killed me were Phil in Magnolia and Rusty in Flawless, both 1999. As the empathic hospice care provider, I was utterly convinced of him. “Oh, there’s no asshole like you,” he said. And it was not an insult, but an easy statement of fact, honesty, almost respect (but no respect really), that showed Phil had the courage and compassion to meet –at his level – the jerk who was dying.

See, it’s not just the writing; it’s the actor who can make it come true.

In Flawless… WHY doesn’t everyone love this movie? No one I talk to remembers it. In Flawless, Rusty was the real thing. Pain, love, anger, hunger, tenderness, bitchiness, mothering, beauty and ugliness all came together as clumsily and real as it does in life. PSH’s insecure drag queen playing off Robert De Niro as the epitome of a wounded arrogant asshole, gave me a reason to fall in love with humanity again. And since I saw parts of myself in Rusty – particularly the way a tenderhearted insecure person is willing to take abuse because of the faith that maybe the abuser can one day be reformed – I had a reason to love myself, too.

I haven’t seen all of Hoffman’s work. But after Rusty, I have been a devoted, unconditional fan. It doesn’t matter what he shows me on the screen: I’m all in. Every time.

So put that together with Death of a Salesman, and I throw my hands in the air. I would have no resistance whatsoever. Take me, art. Take me and use me, I am yours.

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