News & Notes: Something’s rotten in the States

Lisa D'Amour's 'Detroit' and Maguy Marin's 'Salves' stir up some controversy with their analysis of the West

Let’s start this edition of News & Notes with a paraphrase of an axiom from Marx!

The ideology of the ruling class is the dominant ideology of the ruling class’s society.

I know. We’re not supposed to talk about ruling classes in democracies, because the ruling ideology should be democratic. But the contradictions (another good Marxist word) in the West, especially the U.S., between the concentration of wealth and practice of democracy are impossible to overlook. So, without going into a full description of terms and exceptions, maybe we can just leave it at that.

We have bigger fish to fry! We’re going to talk about a dance, specifically Maguy Marin’s “Salves,” and a play, Lisa D’Amour’s ‘Detroit.” From what I’ve been able to gather, these are the two most-disputed arts events we’ve had here in a long time, maybe since Marin’s last visit to town, and their opposition to the prevailing ideology about society itself and art is part of the reason.

No, I’m not going to do a Marxist analysis of the two, because honestly, I couldn’t if I wanted to. But I can point out how subversive they are, how they resist comfortable narratives about how life should be lived, how they point out the tricks and failures of the ideology they critique.

Other artworks attempted to do that in the past, and some of them pop up in “Salves”: Picasso’s “Guernica” and Goya’s “The Shootings of May 3,” for example, among the most powerful indictments of wars prosecuted against ordinary civilians by powerful, anti-democratic elites. In “Salves” copies of each are hung on a wall and soon slide off and disappear, reduced to little pictures of no particular power. Ditto the images of Elvis that were themselves Warhol’s sly critiques of art and the marketplace: The dancers fill a wall with them, and then they disappear.

Compagnie Maguy Marin in "Salves"/Christian Ganet

Compagnie Maguy Marin in “Salves”/Christian Ganet

In the age of mechanical reproduction (and it’s apparent that Marin knows her Walter Benjamin), what about movies? “Salves” is loaded with film references (French New Wave, Fellini, maybe “Age d’Or”—once you start playing the game you can get carried away), but it’s more that it moves film techniques to the stage, as the numerous film projectors onstage suggest: close-ups and tracking shots, strobes, and other devices. Nim Wunnan’s review for ArtsWatch talks about this aspect of “Salves” compellingly.

But I think Marin is suggesting that for subversive purposes, the stage escapes the capital requirements of films, both for making and distributing them. “Salves” is oppositional, analytical, discomforting (as Wunnan wrote). It refuses to quiet us with fine old music and fine new dancing. It tells us that our culture is casually racist, casually violent, halted by sentiment. If I look for something “positive,” it’s the speed and organization with which the dancers sometimes organize work–moving and building things. But opposition to the dominant ideology isn’t a gentle business. Marin’s object is to wake us up.


In my review of “Detroit” I argued that Lisa D’Amour was NOT specifically referencing either the decline of the city of Detroit or the Great Recession of 2008-09. I suggested that the “meaning” of “Detroit” could be found in her specific characters, but I didn’t push that thought.

Deployed in two couples (Ben and Mary, Kenny and Sharon), those characters aren’t the victims of a specific downturn in the economy. Things could be better financially for Ben and Mary–he’s lost his job at the bank–but their lives would be just as empty. Kenny and Sharon are near-wraiths, just out of rehab and perhaps slipping back into addiction, so no, a sudden drop in the unemployment rate isn’t going to help them much, either.

Brooke Totman toasts the Decline of the West  in "Detroit" at Portland Playhouse.

Brooke Totman toasts the Decline of the West in “Detroit” at Portland Playhouse.

In his director’s notes, Brian Weaver hangs his hat on their “dreams,” conflating actual dreams and life fantasies. But their fantasies are ridiculous. Ben, in order, fantasizes about 1) being British, and 2) starting an online financial advice service. He’s much further along with the first, which says something about the second. He enjoys grilling some good meat, too, and though he seems pretty self-regulated, he turns into easy prey for one of Kenny’s fantasies—a night at a skanky strip club. Now, THAT one has a good chance of happening, though D’Amour makes sure even that one doesn’t happen. Does it make “Detroit” safe for consumption to interpret it as a heart-warming story of dreams and community? No, because I think that interpretation collapses under any sort of scrutiny.

Let’s see: If we were to guess what Mary’s dreams are, we’d say better quality furniture, more exotic and expensive foods, and when she’s feeling particularly down and hopeless about these, a dream to live on the land on a permanent camping trip, preferably without her husband. Kenny and Sharon? We don’t know what their dreams are, really, though we suspect that a good part of their brains is filled with thoughts of drugs.

We instantly recognize these characters, especially Mary and Ben, because we see them as expressions of or displaced reactions against the dominant ideology, yes? Mary’s camping survivalism responds to her fear of thwarted caviar dreams. Ben would rather flee the world of coding up a website (is that actually what he’s doing? We don’t know.) and financial guru-hood and enter a separate online reality game. Of course, they aren’t prepared to do any of these things, not really. They are silly and isolated, and that makes them absurdist and comic, even though we’d have to admit that D’Amour and the Portland Playhouse actors have made them good-hearted, even lovable.


D’Amour leaves it with the characters. “Detroit” isn’t obviously ideological itself, though if we look we start to understand how badly the dominant ideology, let alone the economic system, serves them. At that point, the viewer is allowed to dive in with his or her own “solutions” for these lives, provide a little philosophical or political therapy, depending on the viewer’s own philosophy and politics. All Ben needs to do is take a few classes in financial advising at the community college, and he’ll be all set! (So, why didn’t Ben think of this himself?)

Based on her previous work, though, I’m betting that D’Amour’s “Detroit’ is a warning: This is who we’re in danger of becoming, if we’re not already there. Theatricalized, sure, but a good description.

Artists who aren’t connected to the Entertainment Economy (and even a few who are) are issuing this warning with increasing intensity. The contradictions in the society are too great. The coherence of our lives is seriously compromised as a result. Reactions may vary, but they will often be irrational and sometimes violent.

Maguy Marin’s “Salves” conveys that message intellectually, I think, but also viscerally. This is what we are doing to to ourselves. “Detroit” is more oblique—after all, the chattering class to which I belong interpreted it primarily as a sign of the precariousness of individual financial lives after the Great Recession—but perhaps no less effective.

This is disputed ground. After a hard day in service to the ruling class (especially if we ARE the ruling class), the last thing we want is someone telling us we are tearing ourselves apart. We’d prefer someone dancing sweetly or enacting one of the old stories, one with a happy ending, something narcotic, the aesthetic equivalent of what Kenny and Sharon were in rehab for. And sure, art can soothe us. It can’t, however, eliminate the structural problems that make us require soothing in the first place.

News & Notes: The importance of knowing what you’re in for

We reiterate the Maguy Marin warning, link to Alice Munro stories and a Blue Mitchell interview, more!

From Maguy Marin's "Salves"/Christian Ganet

From Maguy Marin’s “Salves”/Christian Ganet

Last night I didn’t squeeze into my seat at the Newmark Theatre for Compagnie Maguy Marin until the very end of Walter Jaffe and Paul King’s introductory remarks, about the time they said, “Please welcome from Toulouse…”, and then a guy onstage started tracking and fingering a fine filament. Pretty soon the stage was full of tracking fingerers, and we were off.

ArtsWatch’s Nim Wunnan was at the concert, and he’ll have a full review on the site soon. Still, I thought I should reiterate the “warning” of the News&Notes a couple of days ago: At no time will the company drop all that jumpy stage business and start moving deliciously to Mozart. The frequently dimly lit jumpy stage business, with all those recurring images, broken plates, crashing sculptures, falling paintings, and seemingly random characters? That’s what “Salves” (“Salvos”) is about.

It proved upsetting to some attendees. Some left early. One booed on his way out. The applause at the end was patchy. Obviously, they had not read our warning on Wednesday! Please tell your friends to read News&Notes every day the better to avoid unhappy surprises.

We also have writers on the hunt at BodyVox and Oregon Ballet Theatre at various times this weekend, so stay tuned for some serious ArtsWatch dance coverage.


OPEN CULTURE is one of my favorite sites, and it comes in handy when you want a quick taste of a new Literature Nobelist’s work, say, Alice Munro’s!

From Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls” (1968)

“My father was a fox farmer. That is, he raised silver foxes, in pens; and in the fall and early winter, when their fur was prime, he killed them and skinned them and sold their pelts to the Hudson’s Bay Company or the Montreal Fur Traders. These companies supplied us with heroic calendars to hang, one on each side of the kitchen door. Against a background of cold blue sky and black pine forests and treacherous northern rivers, plumed adventures planted the flags of England and or of France; magnificent savages bent their backs to the portage.”


Maybe you know Diffusion, the annual contemporary photography magazine produced in Portland, “an independent, contributor and reader-supported annual that highlights and celebrates unconventional photographic processes and photo related artwork.” Yesterday, LenScratch, the fine art photography daily, posted an in-depth interview with Blue Mitchell, the creative mind and energy behind the magazine, an excellent introduction to Mitchell, Diffusion, and the creative processes behind them. And it’s a photography site, so it’s lusciously illustrated.


Some arts writing of local interest from around the web!

John Motley’s short review is a good introduction to the exhibition of Josiah McElheny’s work at the Lumber Room, produced by Zena Zezza, Sandra Percival’s new arts organization.

Yesterday, I was talking a LOT about “Detroit” at Portland Playhouse. I wasn’t the only one. Here’s Alison Hallett’s review for the Mercury, which was laudatory, and Carol Wells’ account for OregonLive, which wasn’t. And Jonathan Frochtzwajg at Portland Monthly liked the first half, but not the second. Dennis Sparks landed in the plus column. Not that I think liking it or not is all that crucial, but the division about whether or not Lisa D’Amour’s Pulitzer finalist is a good play is pretty interesting. And if you’re trying to make a consumer decision at home, the critics’ vote isn’t going to help.

Theater review: ‘Detroit’ gets down to particular cases

Lisa D'Amour's fine play about two suburban couples gets a well-acted production from Portland Playhouse

Brooke Totman toasts the company in "Detroit" at Portland Playhouse.

Brooke Totman toasts the company in “Detroit” at Portland Playhouse.

Pretty quickly in Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit,” now playing at Portland Playhouse, the lay of the land becomes apparent. Frank and Mary live in an old suburb of some unnamed city (Detroit itself never gets a shoutout). Mary’s a paralegal who is developing a taste for expensive food, and Ben is starting a financial advice service with the severance he received from his old job at the bank. Life could be better.

As the play begins, they are getting together for a backyard cook-out with Kenny and Sharon, who just moved in next door but occupy a lower rung on the economic ladder. Sharon works at a call center, and Kenny’s a warehouseman. They’ve only managed to crash this neighborhood because they are living in Kenny’s great-aunt’s house. Or something like that. Life could be a whole lot better.

They live on Sunshine Way, close to Ultraviolet Lane and Fluorescent Avenue.

Ben and Mary, Kenny and Sharon. No one is special, and nothing all that special happens to them in the course of the play, well, except for the odd catastrophe, and even that’s no big deal. Nobody symbolizes anything, no one is a stock character, nothing much happens, the politics of it are in deep subtext (if they are there at all), the conflicts are mostly inner ones, though sometimes couples do disagree. And yet “Detroit” is mesmerizing, maybe because we so seldom see people like this. The genius of D’Amour in “Detroit” is how particular her characters are, and how true that particularity seems to us. The strength of this production is the ability of its cast to deliver those characters clearly, despite their inevitable complexity.


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