jerry mouawad

‘Human Noise’: Music in Carver Land

Imago Theatre's choreographed take on Raymond Carver short stories may activate your interpretive juices

“Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple. But now and then they felt they alone among their circle had been passed by somehow.”

That’s how Raymond Carver’s 1970 story “Neighbors” begins, and that’s exactly how Imago’s version of the story in “Human Noise” begins, too, with the narration. Also with Nathan Wonder, Danielle Vermette, Michael Streeter and Carol Triffle on stage, the bare outlines of two apartments, and a percussive score (Kyle Delamarter is the sound designer) in the background.

Michael Streeter and Carol Triffle in “Human Noise” at Imago Theatre/Photo by Jerry Mouawad

Streeter and Triffle take over the narration and dialogue after their neighbors in the story, Wonder and Vermette, leave on vacation, reciting Carver’s words, punctuated by the odd fling of the arm when a sudden, loud percussion cue demands it. The story turns weird: Bill goes over to his neighbors’ apartment to feed their cat, and alone in that space, he starts to explore. “The air was already heavy and it was vaguely sweet.” He tends to kitty, then opens the liquor cabinet and takes a couple of pulls from a bottle of Chivas Regal (an imaginary bottle, actually). When he returns to Arlene, he finds himself in an amorous mood.

“What kept you?” Arlene said. She sat with her legs turned under her, watching television.

“Nothing. Playing with Kitty,” he said, and went over to her and touched her breasts.

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Tess Gallagher on Raymond Carver

The celebrated poet, who'll be in Portland for Imago's Carver stage adaptation "Human Noise," talks about life with and after Carver

It’s difficult to imagine a question that has not been asked of the poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright and teacher Tess Gallagher. As one-half of the legendary literary partnership with the revered, Oregon-born poet and short story writer, Raymond Carver, there was a time when Gallagher, well-published on her own, was one of the world’s most interviewed artists. If you’re familiar with her writing, you are not surprised.

Gallagher’s been generating poetry and prose for decades that shocks and moves with its vast range of expression. All of her work, even the most emotionally raw, seems to be guided by a steadfast intelligence and relentlessly penetrating vision.

Tess Gallagher: writing a life.

She’s published and taught extensively while also being the devoted steward of Carver’s work since he died in 1988. After reading Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge and seeing the invaluable Carver collections that Gallagher shepherded to posthumous publication, one gets a sense that the communication between the two never really stopped.

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Portland Opera review: two faces of David Lang

Production elements sometimes enhance, sometimes impair "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” and “The Little Match Girl Passion”

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Sunday afternoon marked a bravura effort by Portland Opera Association on the front lines of 21st century opera. Never an easy sell, “new” opera these days is propelled by a combination of theatrics, good music, and – as in modern cinema – special effects. POA chose well here, offering two short dramas by composer David Lang: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (a success) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion (a knockout). The shows conclude their run at Portland’s Newmark Theatre on August 3 and 5.

Match Girl is a moving setting of the 1846 Hans Christian Andersen tale, set on a chilly New Year’s Eve. The eponymous character, opening the opera center stage in foreboding sepia tones, was played with poise and aplomb by Max Young. The tiny match girl is the embodiment of goodness and purity pitied by onlookers too busy applauding their own pious countenance to actually help her to survive.

Portland Opera’s “The Little Match Girl Passion.” Photo: Cory Weaver.

While there is no earthly hope for the tiny waif, Anderson offers her hopeful dreams, brought on by the lighting of one match and then another and then all – a Christmas tree, a roasted goose, a fire to warm her bare feet and her beloved sainted grandmother.

Lang, his own librettist, inserts three angelic characters into the ensemble – guardians for her journey. He also inserts a moral overtone which, he has said, is the Passion story according to St. Matthew, hold the religion. Pain, suffering, faith, indifference.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Banging the can

David Lang's "Match Girl" opera, JAW snaps open, Chamber Music Northwest's race to the finish, Brian Cox chats, art and science meet

Poor little match girl, and chamber music too: David Lang, cofounder of the effusive Bang On a Can and 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Little Match Girl Passion, is all over the Portland cultural calendar this week.

Damien Geter, Cree Carrico, and Nicole Mitchell in David Lang’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” at Portland Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Portland Opera’s shift to a mainly summer season concludes with a double bill of Lang’s contemporary one-acts Match Girl and The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, opening Friday in the intimate Newmark Theatre. And his music will be on the bill Thursday and Friday at Chamber Music Northwest. Get the lowdown on Lang and his fascinating career from ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell in his profile David Lang: From iconoclast to eminence.

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David Lang: from iconoclast to eminence

Pulitzer Prize winning composer and Bang on a Can founder's music will be performed at Portland Opera and Chamber Music Northwest this week

When David Lang was a Stanford University undergraduate, he once staged a famous avant garde work by American composer Lamont Young that required the performer to “feed” the onstage piano with a bale of hay. The result: Lang was formally banned from performing onstage at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium again.

That experience typified Lang’s college years, and, in a way, his career. Now 60, the New York based composer has spent a lifetime challenging the rules and institutions of contemporary classical music, finding success on his own terms. A member of the faculty at both Yale University and Oberlin College, Lang reached the pinnacle of establishment cred when he received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music for his vocal quartet composition Little Match Girl Passion, which has been performed in Portland in the last two  years by Portland State University Chamber Choir and The Ensemble in its choral and original versions, respectively. One of America’s most performed and prolific composers, he’s also collected an Oscar, Musical America’s Composer of the Year award, Rome Prize, and other major grants, fellowships and honors.

Composer David Lang. Photo: Peter Serling.

Since its founding in 1987, Lang’s one-time insurgent organization, Bang on a Can, has grown from an annual music festival for non-establishment composers to a permanent and valuable institution of American music. His music is regularly performed at festivals and in concerts, dance performances, even films (YouthThe Woodmans). World renowned Eugene flutist Molly Barth this year recorded a new album of Lang’s music.

This Thursday and Friday, Chamber Music Northwest performs two concerts featuring three Lang compositions, followed by his appearance in a panel discussion Friday afternoon. And opening July 28 for four performances, Portland Opera stages two Lang creations: his 2002 chamber opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and an original operatic setting of Little Match Girl, both designed by Portland’s own theatrical visionary, Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theater. The iconoclast has prevailed.

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At last, Thom Pain’s back in town

Will Eno's startling, wryly funny, deeply moving play returns with a memorable performance by Todd Van Voris for the new Crave Theatre

At long last, Thom Pain is back in town.

That is to say, Thom Pain (based on nothing), a marvelous, many-faceted monologue by the playwright Will Eno, is running through June 11 at the Shoe Box Theatre, in a smart, spare production featuring the resurgent Portland acting star Todd Van Voris in a performance that’s wryly funny and deeply moving. This is one of those small, theater-lovers’ passion projects that pop up now and again and make for something truly memorable. And this one has been, in a certain way, a long time coming.

Todd Van Voris in “Thom Pain (based on nothing).” Photo: Russell J Young

Thom Pain, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005, first showed up in Portland a few years later. Devon Allen of the Portland State University faculty directed her former student, Matt DiBiasio, in the role at a small campus theater. But because of the location, perhaps, and that the production took place amid the busy weeks of the Fertile Ground festival, the show largely was overlooked. I caught it only at the end of the run, but have been forever grateful that Allen talked me into attending. It remains one of the most remarkable performances I’ve seen on a Portland stage  — intense and discomfiting, desperate and controlled, awkward and awe-inspiring. Allen and DiBiasio remounted the show again several months afterward, in November 2008, at a much larger venue, the Kingstad Center in Beaverton, but again, location may have kept it from being as widely seen as it deserved.

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Medea brings new meaning to catharsis

Imago presents a gut-wrenching Greek tragedy on a slanted stage

“Does the word ‘catharsis’ have Greek origins?” I wondered as I watched Imago’s Medea. Sure enough—and its meanings have been faithfully maintained: Katharsis and related words imply vomiting, purging or bodily cleansing, with an aim toward purity. When the body is sick, it triggers nausea (another Greek word, for seasickness specifically), and before the body can rest—either in repose or death—it must first expel some poison.

And yet, there’s a natural impulse among “civilized” people to resist the impulse to purge, to contain the inevitable upheaval. Guts clench and wrench. Teeth gnash and throats choke. And in that moment, however brief or prolonged, there’s suspense and tension. In the nausea before the catharsis, sickened people are holding in an ocean’s worth of sorrow. They’re dry-heaving a clutch of tortured sobs before unleashing a torrent. And that, Friends, is the feeling of a good Greek tragedy.

Anne Sorce as Medea: a family tragedy. John Rudoff/Polaris Images

For an archetypal figure from antiquity, Medea’s plight is surprisingly universal. The mother of two (played by the always-commanding Anne Sorce) has just lost her cheating, midlife-crisis-indulging husband Jason (played by the equally-formidable Todd Van Voris) to a much younger woman, and it’s driving her crazy. As her ex-husband’s wedding day approaches, she schemes about how to make him pay, deciding that ultimately she’s willing to add to her own suffering in order to inflict her pain on him. Medea, her nursemaid/narrator (Madeleine Delaplane), and a chorus of Medea’s peers spend much of the play in a prolonged reverie of poetic nausea, trying in vain to choke back the forthcoming horrors the scorned woman is about to release. They wail. They moan. They warn. And we wait trepidatiously.

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