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The Aces Sketch Comedy Show Ghost Town Is Going Straight to the Wild Wild West
By Suzette Smith SHELLEY MCLENDON“I was listening to The Specials,” Shelley McLendon says over email. “And the song ‘Ghost Town’ came on.” That was all it took to set her and Michael Fetters on the path to a sketch comedy show set in an Old West town full of gold rushers, ghost hunters, and church kids.

The 2020 Fertile Ground Festival Dismantles the Patriarchy, Plans for Death, and Channels Osho
By Suzette Smith Slumber Party to Dismantle the Patriarchy JEN MITASIt’s time again for the Portland Area Theatre Alliance’s grand annual experiment, the Fertile Ground Festival. This longstanding, citywide festival of new works provides space for a wide variety of performers—from established theater companies working the kinks out of a concept to health care professionals with something to say! The festival isn’t curated so there will be fluctuations in the quality and kinds of work on stage. And the fest raised the price of its pass this year: $70 gets you into any and every show (pace yourself, or don’t!), but many of the single tickets are still affordable (most are below $20, and many are free or pay-what-you-can). Sifting through the possibilities, here are a few that stick out as potentially fruitful.

The 2020 Fertile Ground Festival Dismantles the Patriarchy, Plans for Death, and Channels Osho
Patriarchal ghost stories? Eeeeeeeee! by Suzette Smith It’s time again for the Portland Area Theatre Alliance’s grand annual experiment, the Fertile Ground Festival. This longstanding, citywide festival of new works provides space for a wide variety of performers—from established theater companies working the kinks out of a concept to health care professionals with something to say! The festival isn’t curated so there will be fluctuations in the quality and kinds of work on stage. And the fest raised the price of its pass this year: $70 gets you into any and every show (pace yourself, or don’t!), but many of the single tickets are still affordable (most are below $20, and many are free or pay-what-you-can). Sifting through the possibilities, here are a few that stick out as potentially fruitful. Slumber Party to Dismantle the Patriarchy More of an installation than a play, Hand2Mouth’s Slumber Party to Dismantle the Patriarchy promises face masks, patriarchal ghost stories, and dances performed in sleeping bags. When we spoke at a pre-festival press event, Liz Hayden, Erin Leddy, Maesie Speer, and Faith Helma all told me to “get in the bed” with them, which didn’t feel that special because the whole audience is invited. Slumber Party sounds intensely interactive and Hand2Mouth hopes to use the experience to gather material for a longer work which will be staged in May. (Tues Feb 4 & Wed Feb 5, 6:30 pm, Hand2Mouth/Shout House, pay what you can) {{image:2}} Sitting Shiva I know there are a bunch of people out there going positively wild for end-of-life planning—the spike in traffic we receive every time we write about Caitlin Doughty’s death acceptance organization the Order of the Good Death confirms it. And I also know from experience: Do the sad stuff when life isn’t sad because, when it’s sad, it’s so sad AND you’re doing sad stuff. Lumos Group’s Sitting Shiva is a 90-minute play about three brothers—a very promising cast of Michael Teufel, Doug Dean, and Dirk Foley—reconciling their different visions of their father as they mourn him. After the Sat February 8 & Sun February 9 shows, a medical ethicist will conduct a talkback about the work and end-of-life planning. (Sat Feb 1 & Sat Feb 8, 7:30 pm; Sun Feb 2 & Sun Feb 9, 2 pm, Shoebox Theater, $15-20) {{image:3}} Interplay There are two weekends of Echo Theater’s Interplay, with different 90-minute performances respectively. But Noelle Simone’s description of her piece, which will be part of the first weekend, engaged my empathy and curiosity most. Her Heavy Is the Head that Wears the Crown: Mental Health Memoirs of the Black Woman will seek to explore the compounding fatigue Black women navigate against the threat of an oppressive society, cruel messages from the media, and even their own lovers. Simone’s 20-minute dance piece will incorporate moments where she responds to these pressures, sometimes moving to music and sometimes to the words of men she’s recorded. (Fri Jan 31, Sat Feb 1, Fri Feb 7, Sat Feb 8, 8 pm; Sun Feb 2 & Sun Feb 9, 3 pm, Echo Theater, $15-28) 8-24-9 (Secret Asian Man) During the Vietnam War, the US dropped more than two million tons of bombs on the country of Laos, which works out to the equivalent of being bombed every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Laotian American actor, director, and Theatre Diaspora co-founder Samson Syharath learned this history and these horrifying figures from his Airbnb host in Laos, who also owned a prosthetics shop. 8-24-9 is Syharath’s response to the conflict he feels over his dual identity, with one identity having perpetuated such damage to the other. The 40-minute script reading and following talkback will inform Syharath’s future collaboration with Reed College professor and choreographer Minh Tran on an associated movement piece, slated for performance in the summer. (Fri Jan 31, Sun Feb 2, Sat Feb 8, Sun Feb 9, 7:30 pm, Orchards of 82nd, $5-20) {{iimage:1}} Osho Returns When Ajai Tripathi told me he was writing a play about Osho (AKA Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), my first thought was: “It must be a farce, right? Everyone was momentarily obsessed with that Wild Wild Country documentary on Netflix, so this must be a comedy about the charismatic cult leader.” But Tripathi surprised me with an earnest admission that he’s read all the Bhagwan’s written works and has been working on a play where—in less than an hour—he hopes to channel the sex guru Osho’s voice into his body. Tripathi’s playwriting is probably best recognized from his work with the Milagro Theatre Company, where he writes plays that the company tours for young audiences, like Mijita Fridita, and ¡Corre! ¡Corre! I still don’t really know if he’s putting me on, but, either way, this seems too bizarre to miss. (Sun Feb 2, 5 pm, Hipbone Studio, $10)

Portland Center Stage’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch Review: Delphon Curtis Jr. Gives Us the Hedwig / Beyoncé Hybrid of Our Dreams
Delphon Curtis Jr. gives us the Hedwig / Beyoncé hybrid of our dreams. by Suzette Smith Delphon "DJ" Curtis Jr. as Hedwig Photo by Owen CareyHedwig and the Angry Inch started before I got there. As it happened, Yitzhak (Ithica Tell) stormed ahead of me into Portland Center Stage (PCS)'s Ellyn Bye Studio, shouting about the hysterics of “Beyoncé.” He grabbed a microphone and advised the audience of a delay (a ruse, we were still ten minutes from curtain) and set about helping those in the first few rows—which were at lounge tables—find their seats. “Who is least shy?” he asked, in a heavy Eastern European accent. Then he warned, “There is a hazard to this space. Mistress will sweat on you,” alluding to upcoming moments when Hedwig (Delphon Curtis Jr.) would climb onto the tables in platform heels, to sing and dance into the fortunate first rows' faces. “Mind your feet,” he imparted. “Because Mistress won’t.” Tell adds a never-before-seen level of charm to Yitzhak—a role that calls for Tell to crossdress as a man—which brings the character into direct conflict for the spotlight. At the risk of offending previous Yitzhaks, THIS is what the role is meant to be. Curtis, as Hedwig, is revolutionary, astonishing, and very worthy of comparison to Beyoncé. It's certainly a tall order, but Curtis' singing style has a powerhouse soulful approach, which brings the vision of a Hedwig/Beyoncé hybrid out of our dreams and into the Ellyn Bye. Ithica Tell as Yitzhak Photo by Owen CareyAt this point, you can tell that PCS' production of Hedwig is INCREDIBLE, which is why it is imperative that I also tell you it’s almost sold out. When you’re done with this review, you must buy tickets immediately! Since it’s so popular, it might seem that Hedwig could have been staged upstairs, on the Armory’s main stage. But that would actually run counter to the show’s aesthetic and narrative. Hedwig must be in a small space because it’s meant to represent one night of her tour as she follows her former sweetheart—rock superstar Tommy Gnosis (also played by Delphon Curtis Jr.)—around the US. At multiple points in the play, Hedwig opens an exit door to hear Gnosis at the nearby Moda Center (the script encourages improvisation by location), playing the songs Tommy stole from her to his thousands of fans. In 2014, when Hedwig finally hit Broadway, the only way that production’s director could think to have her believably play Broadway was to invent a musical (Hurt Locker: The Musical), say it failed, and claim she got the space super cheap. Photo by Owen CareyHedwig's story will be familiar to many due to the cult popularity of the 2001 film, directed by and starring John Cameron Mitchell—who also wrote the play with songwriter Stephen Trask. But seeing the stage version gave me an appreciation for the material on a whole new level. Without the film’s eye-popping visual gags stealing the show, Mitchell's layered and hilarious text comes to the front. And while Trask’s songs are earworm catchy, the film’s delivery is nowhere near as powerful—Curtis’ version of “The Origin of Love” had me near tears. Finally, the film doesn’t really convey the duality of Gnosis and Hedwig as strongly as the play. Mitchell has said over the years that Hedwig is not about transgender experience as much as genderqueerness. At the start of the production, Hedwig wears an elaborate costume (her wig hair is curled around soda cans!), but the trajectory takes her on a striptease of self until she ends the performance nearly nude and stripped of her wig, performing as rockstar Tommy Gnosis. Photo by Owen CareySince Hedwig’s been voicing her foils—like her mother and the American G.I. who brought her to the US—for the whole play, this isn’t a statement on masculinity as much as it’s about costuming, persona, and the way the things we want from our lovers are often things we already have in ourselves. It could also be about the imaginary line between masculinity, femininity, and whatever gender is represented when you're crying in your underpants. Ultimately, Hedwig's meaning is up for interpretation. And that's appropriate as Hedwig and the Angry Inch settles into its status as a glammed-up, fun, profound work of art.

Beckett Women Preview: Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble Tackles Four Works by Samuel Beckett
Whatever unfolds I can promise Beckett Women will not be boring by Suzette Smith Since their founding in 2011, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE) has graced our city with astonishing, if infrequent, productions of thoughtful, occasionally aggressive, and generally very weird theater. The last piece we saw from them was this past summer’s Our Ruined House, which strove to collapse some big ideas surrounding modern warfare into a complicated couple fight? Did I get that right? Probably not, but it was incredible. PETE’s new production Beckett Women draws from four works by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett—Not I, Footfalls, Come and Go, and Quad—to explore the histories of four female characters, in a garden-like setting. Beckett Women only runs 90 minutes, so that means we’re either in for tidy excerpts or mere jumping-off places, the latter being more likely for PETE. Expect poetics and hilarious, awkward moments. PETE never tries to be serious without also being funny. Let go of attaching meaning too strongly to it. One of the great benefits of any probing work is that what it means to you matters more. Whatever unfolds, I can promise Beckett Women will not be boring. (Check back for a full web review of Beckett Women on Monday, January 13.)

Kids in the Hall Member Bruce McCulloch Interview: Part Mentor, Part Cautionary Tale
“No one told me I couldn’t yell at the head of Paramount.” by Robert Ham Trying to quantify Canadian comedy can be a challenge. At best guess: It’s a lethal combination of matter-of-factness and surrealism, seasoned with just the right amount of fart jokes. Or it’s anything Bruce McCulloch has his name on. The 58-year-old is the perfect example of what makes Canadian comedy so unique. From his years as a member of consistently wonderful sketch troupe the Kids in the Hall to his short stint as a filmmaker to his continued work as a TV director and producer for shows like Schitt’s Creek, Brooklyn Nine Nine, and Trailer Park Boys, McCulloch’s singular tone pulses through each project, with jokes arriving at odd angles alongside moments of sincerity and naked emotion. To experience McCulloch’s particular style of entertainment in its purest form, you’d do well to get to the Alberta Rose Theatre on Friday, January 10. McCulloch will be presenting his latest one-man show Tales of Bravery and Stupidity, which, as he told the Mercury, is “part stand-up, part storytelling,” and filled with his “weird observations of the world.” And there’s music. MERCURY: Something I admire about your work is your willingness to blend your personal life into your art. I’m thinking of the monologues you would do for The Kids in the Hall or the series Young Drunk Punk, which was based loosely on your teen years. BRUCE MCCULLOCH: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found an ability to lay it truthfully on the line a little bit more. I think even as a young Kid in the Hall, I hid my love for the world with my dark sense of humor. I have that conversation in this show, and I think people quite seem to like that. Tell me more about the music element of the show. Will there be songs from your past albums or more new stuff? Just a little bit of music now and then. I do a kind of beat poetry. I always have a musical element to all the stuff that I do. "I do a kind of beat poetry."-Bruce McCulloch You maintain a good balance between stage shows, live performances, working on camera, and working behind the scenes. Is it important for you to flex all these muscles? I’ve had a resurgence in my love of my work. I had a very close friend, Gord Downie, who was the singer of the Tragically Hip. I actually discuss this a bit in this show—with his passing, I’ve really found a new fire for the work. I was in LA for many years, and I got a little like, “Oh, NBC didn’t do my pilot this year. Okay, well, there’s always next year.” Now I feel a bit on fire. And nothing is more important to me, truly, than communicating with an audience. I want to be like Mavis Staples. Not in terms of importance, but in longevity. I remember seeing her eight years ago, and she was, I think, 75. And she just knocked it out of the park. And then she said, “I’ve got CDs for sale out front,” and I thought, “I think that is so cool.” Post-Kids in the Hall, you transitioned into working behind the camera. You directed some films, and lately you’ve been directing episodes of Canadian comedy shows like TallBoyz and Schitt’s Creek. Was that something you always had in mind as a career goal? Well, no. I got myself in a development rut when I lived in LA, where I would sell lots of projects to studios or networks, and they would end up not doing them. And I just want to work. So that’s when I started doing Brooklyn Nine Nine and some other shows. I realized I really love directing. I did Superstar as a young man, and the stress got to me. Now that I’m older, it’s fun. I just did a season of Trailer Park Boys out in Halifax, and it was fantastic. Do you see yourself settling into more of a mentor-type role, working with younger comics like the guys from TallBoyz, or the Northey siblings with whom you co-created This Blows? I’m part mentor, part cautionary tale. When we did The Kids in the Hall, nobody ever told me that I couldn’t be prickly, or I couldn’t come in late. No one told me I couldn’t yell at the head of Paramount. I just didn’t know because I came from a jungle of a home. I came from a drunk dad. We all had drunk dads. We fought our way up. So it’s wonderful to be able to go, “Here’s how I think you should do it, guys. And watch out for this, and make sure to thank that person. And be compliant, but not too compliant.” I really enjoy that now. "I’m part mentor, part cautionary tale. When we did The Kids in the Hall, nobody ever told me that I couldn’t be prickly, or I couldn’t come in late. No one told me I couldn’t yell at the head of Paramount." -Bruce McCulloch How did you get involved with TallBoyz? Every so often, I drop into Humber College here in Canada, which, believe it or not, has a comedy program. They show me their work and I re-block scenes, or we write together. Vance Banzo, who is one of the four people in TallBoyz, was there and he was just so funny. I found out he had a comedy troupe and I just literally said, “let’s try to do a show together.” We got lucky. And we’re very close to a pickup for our second season. It went fast for them. The Kids in the Hall took probably seven or eight years before we got on TV. These guys have only been together a couple of years at most. What about the Northey siblings from This Blows? Their father, Craig Northey, composed a lot of music for Kids in the Hall and does the music for my new stage show. His daughter is a friend of ours, and his son was a young director, so I thought, “Let’s try do something.” Will there be more This Blows? There may be. I don’t know if I’ll be able to once TallBoyz kicks back up. I want to ask about your experience working for Saturday Night Live. There was a period in 1985 when you and Mark McKinney were apprentice writers. How was that for you? As I said, I was not always the best young person. I left the [Kids], but I didn’t know how important they really were for me. I thought I was just gonna go off and find other great comedy brains. And when I went to Saturday Night Live, I realized that the only comedians I truly bonded with were Mark and the other guys in the troupe. I kind of failed there. I got a few things on, but I didn’t set the world on fire. It just reaffirmed how much my sense of humor was the troupe’s. "I was not always the best young person. I left the [Kids], but I didn’t know how important they really were for me. I thought I was just gonna go off and find other great comedy brains." -Bruce McCulloch I remember George Meyer—who went on to be a big Simpsons writer—he would always get mad at me because my ideas were so weird. Then he finally saw The Kids in the Hall and said, “I get it now.” You directed five feature films. Is that something you’d like to do again? I’m actually discussing something now. I don’t know if I’ll end up doing it. But, you know, I just did Trailer Park Boys. We did 10 episodes in 20 days, and we really didn’t have scripts. That’s the most fun I can have. There’s something about the two years of making a film that I don’t think is really my speed. I love how fast TV can be. But I’m writing a film now. Are there movies of yours that you think didn’t get the attention they deserved? No, I don’t think so. I’ve learned so much more about story and directing, that I would want to redirect all of my films. I saw Superstar recently and I thought, “Ow, that’s a weird film. Who let me make that film?” The elephant in the room a little bit is when I did a Tom Green film [2002’s Stealing Harvard]. That’s when it was not that easy for me to get films. He was a big star when I signed on to that, and it tanked. And I went with it. That’s when I realized TV was what I loved. Is there anything else on the horizon following this tour? We have a blinking little light on Kids in the Hall. We’ve been in discussions to do another mini-series, so that may be happening. I keep hoping that the Criterion folks will come knocking on your door to do a big deluxe DVD of Brain Candy. Sadly, we never kept all the other endings and cut scenes. We ran out of the sinking ship of that editing room so fast.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley: Is This How Jane Austen Nerds Fall in Love?
By Suzette Smith RUSSELL J. YOUNGMiss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is both a Jane Austen story and not. It’s a sequel to Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice, and the product of an interesting collaboration between well-known contemporary playwright Lauren Gunderson (The Revolutionists) and Margot Melcon, a dramaturge who says she never wrote a play before this one. Miss Bennet tells a catty Christmas comedy tale about the last unmarried Bennet sister Mary (Lauren Modica) who was often wisecracking in the background of Austen’s book, easily overlooked. You may remember most of the Bennet sisters were engaged by the end of Pride and Prejudice, and only Mary was still single—but it’s also okay if you don’t.

Cats Review: Ah, So This Is What It's Like to Have a Nightmare While You’re Awake
By Suzette Smith Universal PicturesEveryone who saw the HUMAN FACE/CAT BODY NIGHTMARE that was the first Cats trailer balked at the weirdly flat faces that seemed to slide off the cast’s half-humanoid, half-feline, all-horny bodies. Some thought Universal Pictures might cave to fan pressure, much like the Sonic the Hedgehog brouhaha that unfolded last spring, and manage to stick those faces on by Christmas. They did not, and as a result, Cats is a horrorshow of computer-narrowed cat chins that can’t support singing, human-sized mouths. Strangely, some of the film’s most powerful stars—Dame Judi Dench as a gender-swapped Old Deuteronomy and Sir Ian McKellen living his most joyful truth as Gus the Theatre Cat—make it out okay, but perhaps that’s just because they don’t have to dance. It’s mostly THOSE FACES that gum up director Tom Hopper’s film adaption of Andrew Lllyod Weber’s musical based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats—which I never realized, until now, seems to be a fairy tale you tell a child after you abandon the family cat. But there’s a lot of other bad, boring stuff going on too: Jennifer Hudson stomps all over Grizabella’s “Memory” with heavy dramatics, and the heteronormative sniffing in this film ought to be finable. (Cats BELONGS to the queer community, so I'd like to see some fucking representation, please! There were so many queer people at the screening, and the boy cats can't even nuzzle?) Oh, my poor Cats. Oh, my poor, poor Cats. Cats is now playing at various theaters.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley Review: Is This How Jane Austen Nerds Fall in Love?
Way less sexist than Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love. by Suzette Smith Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is both a Jane Austen story and not. It’s a sequel to Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice, and the product of an interesting collaboration between well-known contemporary playwright Lauren Gunderson (The Revolutionists) and Margot Melcon, a dramaturge who says she never wrote a play before this one. Miss Bennet tells a catty Christmas comedy tale about the last unmarried Bennet sister Mary (Lauren Modica) who was often wisecracking in the background of Austen’s book, easily overlooked. You may remember most of the Bennet sisters were engaged by the end of Pride and Prejudice, and only Mary was still single—but it’s also okay if you don’t. Gunderson and Melcon built a lot of clues into the script about who hates whom and for what reasons. Because Miss Bennett is essentially fanfiction I found myself falling into some embarrassing “um, actually”-ing of the portrayal of Austen’s characters. Would Elizabeth (Cindy Im) be so diplomatic? Did Mr. Darcy (Isaac Lamb) stop being broody after he started getting laid? But it’s also easy to see why Miss Bennet was one of 2018’s most produced plays. It’s funny, witty, and shows real love for the characters. Mr. Darcy and Charles Bingley (Charles Grant) get a modern bromance update to their roles that feels fresh and includes them—not just as husbands but as meddling family. Mary is wry, but relatable. And when she meets her nerdy match in Lord de Bourgh (Joshua J. Weinstein), Miss Bennet treads on the time-honored, real, dorky warmth of a new crush’s uncool missteps. The part of the initial antagonist, youngest Bennet sister Lydia (Kailey Rhodes), must be one of those roles that actors secretly vie for behind the scenes. She’s not the lead, but she has so much fun up there. Rhodes doesn’t run, she leaps. She doesn’t turn, she twirls. And for one moment she holds herself in a doorway at nearly a 90-degree angle to photogenically embody pure mischief. Speaking of doors, Miss Bennet has one of my favorite set designs in recent memory. All the action takes place in a single room, but that room has an almost Yasujir Ozu depth of frame, leading back through rows of bookcases. A large fir tree stands near the center of the stage and it’s treated as an oddity—Elizabeth’s indoor tree decoration is her only shining peculiarity. I came to appreciate the tree as a metaphorical contrast to the customs of Austen’s landed gentry, whose fancy airs feel so silly to us now. Pianofortes are out, indoor trees are in, and nerd love endures.

Batman Return Returns Puts Local Music Heroes in Superhero Roles
Batman Returns was the BEST Batman movie. I said it! DEAL with it! by Suzette Smith Batman Returns Returns is what it sounds like: a rock musical adaptation of Tim Burton’s second Batman film (which is also THE BEST BATMAN MOVIE. There! I said it!). This version—adapted by playwright and director Megan Tabaque—was Museum of Human Achievement (MoHA)’s holiday show in Austin, Texas last year and was so well received that Revolution Hall reached out to Zac Traeger (MoHA’s Director) about restaging it for Portlanders. A couple members of the central cast remain the same. Chaotic, charismatic frontwoman Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit) takes on the cape and cowl once more as a “sulky” Batman who, according to Traeger, “epitomizes all of Batman’s the worst qualities.” The unforgettable Sean Tillmann (Har Mar Superstar!) reprises his place at the play’s emotional center—Penguin. But when it came to casting the other roles, MoHA took a very local approach. The Portland version of Batman Returns Returns will include Toody Cole (Dead Moon/Pierced Arrows) as Alfred, Holland Andrews (Like a Villain) as Catwoman, And And And’s Bim Ditson as Gotham City’s mayor (Ditson ran for mayor of Portland in 2015), and Max Shreck played by Sallie Ford (Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside). A TWIST: the role of Shreck/Shrek calls for Ford to actually play a combination of Catwoman’s business mogul boss and Shrek from the eponymous animated film. The score for Batman Returns Returns is a mix of covers (the play opens with a cover of “Backstreet’s Back” called “Batman’s Back”) and original music, based on whoever’s playing the roles. So maybe you want to check that list above one more time because this sounds legitimately incredible.

Batman Return Returns Puts Portland Music Heroes in Superhero Roles
By Suzette Smith JACKSON MONTGOMERY SHWARTZBatman Returns Returns is what it sounds like: a rock musical adaptation of Tim Burton’s second Batman film (which is also THE BEST BATMAN MOVIE. There! I said it!). This version—adapted by playwright and director Megan Tabaque—was Museum of Human Achievement (MoHA)’s holiday show in Austin, Texas last year and was so well received that Revolution Hall reached out to Zac Traeger (MoHA’s Director) about restaging it for Portlanders.

Composer Gabriel Kahane on Marrying Social Justice With Contemporary Classical Music
The Brooklyn-based artist performs this weekend with the Oregon Symphony by Robert Ham Gabriel Kahane Josh GolemanThis weekend, the Oregon Symphony will raise the curtain on one of their most ambitious ventures to date. At three concerts, the orchestra will be joined on stage by Gabriel Kahane, the musician and composer who was recently brought onboard as the organization’s first creative chair. The role is a continuation of the commission Kahane was given by the Symphony to write a piece that dealt with the issue of homelessness in America. His finished work, the exhilarating and damning emergency shelter intake form, is an oratorio that uses the words and language of the titular documents, along with interviews he conducted during his volunteer work at a shelter in Manhattan, to examine our broken social structures and collective lack of empathy. The project went so well that Kahane and the Symphony helped craft a staff position for him that will task him with composing three new pieces for the orchestra, as well as help produce two concert series that will serve to both take the organization outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and keep them connected to modern classical composers and the pop music world. To inaugurate this collaboration, Kahane will be performing with the Symphony, taking six songs from his politically-driven 2018 album Book of Travelers and adapting them for the full orchestra, as well as singing a particularly haunting song from his 2014 album The Ambassador. I caught up with Kahane to talk about his new gig, what he has in store for the ensemble, and the pieces he'll be performing this weekend. His answers have been edited for clarity. MERCURY: How did you land this new role as Oregon Symphony’s creative chair? GABRIEL KAHANE: In 2016, I was commissioned to write this piece having to do with housing and homelessness, which became emergency shelter intake form, which premiered in 2018. I had initial misgivings about taking on a commission for a kind of ivory tower institution dealing with poverty and housing insecurity. But at the same time, I really wanted to write for the Oregon Symphony. I knew they were a great orchestra. I said yes, not knowing how I was going to handle writing the piece. But there was a good connection with the orchestra. I found them to be both extremely genial and extraordinary musicians. And there was also a sense of great kinship with the staff. When we came back to record the piece a few months later, I basically said, “You know, this date went well. Do you want to… hang out again?” And both Scott [Showalter], the president, and Charles [Calmer], the VP for artistic planning said, “Well, we were kind of thinking the same thing.” We sort of built the position from the ground up as an extension and expansion of some of the things that we felt had gone well in that initial collaboration. You say you were a little nervous about writing for an institution like the symphony? Specifically, I had misgivings about the idea. I’m a politically minded person and have spent a lot of time thinking about poverty and income inequality. The idea of tackling this subject matter in the context of a symphony orchestra, which optically tends to be perceived as an institution that caters to people of privilege… I didn’t know exactly how to attack it. What I did was to treat homelessness and housing insecurity as symptoms of broader systemic inequality, and to try to implicate the audience in the story that I was telling and to really kind of hold their feet to the fire. Also, it was really important to me to include voices of those who have experienced housing insecurity and homelessness. By which I don’t mean just setting texts of interviews to music, but actually to have bodies on stage who could bear witness to that experience. And so we partnered with the Maybelle Community Singers, who sang the last movement. That was a way of keeping myself honest, in as much as they were going to tell me if the texts that they were singing didn’t resonate with their experience. It seems like I didn’t mess up too badly. Tell me about the concert series you're organizing. The first one, which begins in March, is called Open Music, and the idea is that I’m inviting someone who has a piece being performed [by the symphony] to do a very elaborate conversation/performance, pre-concert talk the night before. I called my friend Caroline Shaw, whose piece Partita, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize at age 30, is going to be performed. It was one of the first pieces that Charles and I spoke about. He wanted to do [Luciano Berio’s] Sinfonia, which involves voices. And Roomful of Teeth, for whom Caroline wrote Partita, had done the Sinfonia with the New York Philharmonic. I suggested that he bring them out to do that and they also sing Partita. It’s a very unconventional thing to do on a symphonic program, but Charles has the guts to go there. So on the night before, we’re going to kind of dump Caroline’s brain onto the stage in the form of a program that draws from all the things that inspire her, from JS Bach to Paul Simon to Brahms. I want people to come hang out with Caroline, and I want them all to leave madly in love with her and then want to come to the Schnitz to hear her Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. Then we’ll do it three more times in the 2020 season with different composers. Those haven’t been figured out. Well, they’ve been figured out, but I’m not going to tell you. What is so inspiring to me is how the Oregon Symphony has been balancing out their programs by including more modern pieces with music from the classical canon. Do you think it's important for the health of an organization like this to keep an eye on what’s happening now? The value of performing work by living composers or by recently deceased composers is twofold. One, this is work that speaks to the moment that we live in. It helps us understand our moment more clearly. And that’s work that should be celebrated. But also, work by living composers helps us understand the work of those who came before. I think when programming is really canny, it makes us hear the old and the new in different ways. And that’s something I’m invested in, having grown up in a house with a lot of classical music, but also with a lot of Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell and the Beatles. The other series you’re doing is to bring in artists from the pop and rock world to perform and collaborate with the Symphony. Do you already have people in mind for that? One of the older projects that I will bring in—and by older, I mean from last year—is a project I did with Andrew Bird, which we did with the Kansas City Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, and the LA Philharmonic. We took six of his songs and kind of broke them up. He was incredibly generous in letting me bash them apart and put them back together, harmonically and structurally. We made a kind of concerto for him. It was just him in front of the orchestra playing violin, singing, and doing a bit of looping. That was sort of the lab for this concept. As far as other artists, we’re having conversations with a lot of folks and you’ll hear about some of these in February. Let’s talk about your performances this weekend, which will include a selection of songs from your most recent album, Book of Travelers. What can you tell me about your choice of songs for these shows? Book of Travelers is a kind of musical diary of this 9,000-mile train trip I took just after the 2016 presidential election. I went off the grid and talked to strangers for two weeks to try to understand where the body politic was without the meditator of the digital space. Most of the songs I chose for this orchestral suite are portraits of people I met. I framed them with songs that deal a little bit more with my experience, and the inner four have to do with passengers I encountered. Basically, there were twin challenges. One was to reduce something that initially a live performance at [the Brooklyn Academy of Music], which commissioned Book of Travelers, and was 60 minutes, of which 35 minutes are on the album. And the album is just piano and voice. So the question is, “How do you maintain the intimacy and the emotional value of the songs while blowing it up to a much bigger canvas?” We'll find out this weekend whether I succeeded or ruined myself. This train journey was obviously planned well before the election. Do you think the conversations you had would have been wildly different had the election turned out differently? I think that regardless of where people sat on the political spectrum, everyone was shocked. That led to a kind of openness. But I also found it really hard to isolate the variables. People were so vulnerable and forthcoming on the train, in the dining car, which is where most of these conversations took place. It’s like the anti-social media. You haven’t curated your feed. You’re sitting with whomever they tell you to. Maybe it was the shared experience of the passing landscape or the sense of all of us on this atypical mode of transit, but people poured their hearts out in a way that I found really, really moving. What about the other piece in the program, “Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.),” from your 2014 album The Ambassador? Why did you choose that song? It’s kind of the centerpiece of the record. The Ambassador is a study of Los Angeles through the lens of its built architecture. It’s 10 songs about 10 buildings. “Empire Liquor Mart” is an attempt to tell the story of Latasha Harlins, who was a 15-year-old African-American girl who in 1991. A few days after the beating of Rodney King, [she] went into the titular liquor store to buy a bottle of orange juice. It ended up with a disagreement with the shop owner, which was a Korean woman, and Latasha was shot in the back of the head, point blank. Her assailant was given time served and had to pay for the funeral arrangements. That was the extent of her sentence. A lot of academics argue that that incident was as much an inciting event in the uprising as was the verdict in the Rodney King case. The King verdict conveniently told a Black versus white story, when in fact, there was all this intra-ethnic tension in various communities in Los Angeles leading up to the uprising. While I was reading about that, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson and George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin and… I just hit a point where reading these accounts of young Black kids being out on trial posthumously, and the people who had killed them, generally with no accountability, was making crazy. What I wanted to do with that song was to try and celebrate the innocence of this girl whose family had done this very prototypical great migration to Los Angeles looking for a better life, only to encounter all of these various tragedies. It remains something that I feel connected to, both artistically and politically. That song remains as apt today as it was then, because Black kids are still getting killed and there’s no accountability. I’ll keep singing that song until there’s some justice. Oregon Symphony with Gabriel Kahane, Sat Dec 7 & Mon Dec 9, 7:30 pm, Sun Dec 8, 2 pm, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, $24-125

Burn This Theater Review: Is Lanford Wilson's Revived Play a Story, an Exercise, or a Pedestal for Male Rage?
By Suzette Smith SALIM SANCHEZWhen I consider Asylum Theater’s production of Burn This, first and foremost in my mind are the stinging moments when the sassy roommate character, Larry (Michael J. Teufel), flounced onstage like gay men in the ’90s were expected to flounce, and the audience exploded with laughter. Those laughs hit me like needles and trapped me in a mire of disbelief—are we still doing this?

Burn This Theater Review: Is Lanford Wilson's Revived Play a Story, an Exercise, or a Pedestal for Male Rage?
I’m going to be terrified of Pale for the rest of my life. by Suzette Smith When I consider Asylum Theater’s production of Burn This, first and foremost in my mind are the stinging moments when the sassy roommate character, Larry (Michael J. Teufel), flounced onstage like gay men in the ’90s were expected to flounce, and the audience exploded with laughter. Those laughs hit me like needles and trapped me in a mire of disbelief—are we still doing this? I’m still stewing, and wondering if Asylum’s production can be responsible for the reactions of their audience to a 1987 work by Lanford Wilson, a gay playwright. This particular Wilson play was revived this past spring in New York with a cast that included Hollywood’s “most intense guy” right now, Adam Driver, as Pale—the bereaved, homophobic older brother of Larry’s former roommate, Robbie. It’s easy to picture Driver being attracted to a role that would allow him to rocket between coked-up visions of grandeur and gut-wrenching sorrow. This too is true of the Asylum production’s Pale (Heath Koerschgen), who embodies the character wonderfully—in that I’m going to be terrified of Pale for the rest of my life. Initially, Burn This appears to be a story of mourning (everyone’s mourning Robbie), but I would argue the actual point is the fury and frightening force that Koerschgen must unearth for his role. Is this a story, an exercise, or a pedestal for male rage? In the face of it, all the other characters recede. That’s unfortunate, because I‘ve liked the actors playing Anna (Briana Ratterman) and Burton (Jason Maniccia) in other projects. Pale’s dominance could also be a commentary on how we all step lightly around rage-filled men and why it’s so damn advantageous for them to behave this way.

John Waters Interview: Mr. Know-It-All Talks Tarnished Wisdom and Why He Stopped Making Films
Your favorite filthy father X-mas returns! by Robert Ham {{image:1, align:right, width:250}} John Waters doesn’t plan on making a movie any time soon, even if it’s been 15 years since his last feature, 2004’s A Dirty Shame. If the stories the 73-year-old cult filmmaker recounts in his latest book Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder are to be believed, Waters was fine with giving up negotiations with studios and producers. While the back half of Waters’ memoir imparts that promised “tarnished wisdom” (music recommendations, how to deal with air travel and public speaking, drugs, etc.), the early chapters describe time spent making movies within the Hollywood system—after he scored a modest hit in 1988 with the surprisingly adaptable Hairspray—and watching his last three directorial efforts die at the box office. It’s dishy fun with plenty of behind-the-camera gossip and tales of screen legends like Tab Hunter, Traci Lords, Patricia Hearst, and Sam Waterston. Waters has zero regrets. He’s made the campy, trashy films he wanted to make. He now makes a tidy living from his regular one-man shows. The biggest success on that front is his annual A John Waters Christmas, where he offers acerbic and naughty commentary on the holiday season. In advance of his upcoming appearance at the Aladdin Theater on December 6, Waters spoke with the Mercury about his tour, his new book, and staying influential into your seventies. MERCURY: You’ve been doing this show for over two decades. How has it changed? JOHN WATERS: Well, I write stuff for it every year. I’m in the middle of doing that today. A lot of the audiences come every year, so I always want to have a new show for them. Has it changed? Every year it reflects the political climate. I think this will be an angry Christmas for a lot of people. So I think I’ll use that. I’ve always made fun of the pressure of Christmas and how it affects everybody, no matter what your politics. What do you get out of doing these shows? Connecting with your audience? A nice check? It is a nice check. I make my living doing this show. And it forces me to come up with new material. I stay in touch with my audience and what people want to talk about. I have signings afterwards, so I meet all the people. I do the pictures. Touring’s incredibly important. As I say in my new book, Elton John once told me, “As you soon as you stop touring, it’s over.” Mr. Know-It-All feels like a rough guide to life, with fun tips about air travel and food. Sure! With my book Role Models, I wrote about the people that gave me the freedom, when I was young, to believe I could do what I wanted to do and succeed. Now I’m sharing what I learned in my 50 years of getting away with it: How to negotiate your way through the shark-filled waters of Hollywood [and] the art world. How to continue doing what you want to do without ever having to get a real job. Now I’m sharing what I learned in my 50 years of getting away with it: How to negotiate your way through the shark-filled waters of Hollywood [and] the art world. How to continue doing what you want to do without ever having to get a real job. Your chapter on music is especially great because it’s an example of how to get older without losing touch. Today, you just have to say the name of a song into your phone and it’ll play it! Truly amazing. Why do you think people get to a point in their lives where they stop paying attention to new music and new art? It happens as soon as you think they don’t make music like they used to. Or they’re not having fun like we used to. As soon as you stop being interested in new stuff, your influence is over. Reading your annual film lists on Artforum, it’s heartening to see that the stuff that excites you is still extremely challenging and sometimes extreme art. I don’t understand people that say, “I want to go to a movie that makes me feel good.” I already feel good. I don’t want a book that’s easy to read. I like hard books that make you smarter. I like things that challenge you. I don’t want a book that’s easy to read. I like hard books that make you smarter. I like things that challenge you. You’ve been open that you don’t really miss making movies. But what if one of the streaming services came knocking on your door with a blank check and complete creative control? Sure! I’ve been paid three times to write Hollywood sequels to Hairspray, including an HBO one two years ago. I’m still in that business. They pay me. They just don’t make them, which is fine. I know how it works. I don’t have any complaints. Hollywood treated me fairly. You surround yourself with supportive people who’ve stuck with you, even through the lean years when your films weren’t doing well commercially. I think that’s very important—to thank and name the people that helped. The ones I fought and had trouble with, I don’t name them because they were doing their job. Their job is to make money, not to make art. And some of my movies did lose money, so they were right. The only thing I would argue is that I made the exact movie they approved. They should’ve made that decision before they paid me. I didn’t realize you had to send your movies through the gauntlet of a test audience. There’s no way to make a movie with a Hollywood studio where they don’t do that. They call it “the fuck off group,” not the focus group. It’s always a nightmare. Even the head of [the National Research Group] said to me, “What norm do we test you against?” That’s part of playing the game. They’re not going to give you those big salaries if you don’t do that. That’s just basic math. At least you got something out of the process with A Dirty Shame, when the producers agreed it needed a bigger ending and you were able to have that final, crazy scene. Imagine that meeting, and imagine how many producers wouldn’t say yes to that. That’s why I wanted to give [Hairspray producer] Bob Shaye credit for being the kind of producer that would take that risk. Do you think any of your other movies benefited from the process of testing and reshooting? With test screenings, you can tell if there’s something they don’t understand, and all you need to do is put in one little shot or something. That’s really helpful. You can also tell when something is too long. When you’re young, you don’t want to cut anything, but if you ever think something is too long, it is. My humor is extreme, so you can’t pitch it to middle-America, really. Although I’ve gotten further than I ever expected or imagined. All over the world! What are your plans for the rest of the year and beyond? I’m going to Greece with my other show, This Filthy World. Then to Manchester, London. Four cities in Australia. I’m on the road constantly. Then I do 16 cities for the Christmas show. I’m in the middle of writing a novel. I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my entire life.


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