Portland Story Theatre

FG review: a whale of a tale

Lawrence Howard's 'The Essex' recounts the adventure of the 1820 oceangoing disaster that inspired 'Moby-Dick'

The Essex

Premiere production; Portland Story Theater at The Alberta Abbey; performed Jan. 2-24

When the Essex set sail from Nantucket on August 12, 1819, it was considered a lucky ship. At about 88 feet it was smallish for a whaleship, but it had had many profitable voyages, and there was no reason to believe this one would be otherwise.

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of "Whaling Voyage Round the World," ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of “Whaling Voyage Round the World,” ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Nor was there reason to anticipate that, on November 20, 1820, two thousand nautical miles west of the edge of South America in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, a sperm whale almost as long as the Essex itself would turn on the ship, speed toward it, and ram it, then ram it again, until the Essex splintered, tottered, keeled over, and eventually sank. So much for luck.

The ship carried a crew of 20. After 93 days adrift on the ocean in three small whaleboats that survived the attack, five emaciated men reached safety (three other men elected to stay on a small desert island, and were eventually rescued). They had endured starvation, extreme thirst, fevers, and a descent into cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead and, in one case, drawing lots to see who would be shot so his body could feed the others.

The tale of the Essex became legend in whaling circles, eventually reaching the ears of young Herman Melville, who heard it aboard a whaler from the son of one of the Essex disaster’s survivors. The fantastic story became the seed that sprouted Moby-Dick.

It’s also the fifth and latest in storyteller Lawrence Howard’s Armchair Adventurer series, which has retold the exploits of the Antarctic explorers Shackleton, Amundson, Scott, and Mawson, as well as the tale of John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was hanged three times and survived each attempted execution.

Howard

Howard

Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater, is at home in the world of extremes, and he tells the story of the Essex true and well. His style, interestingly, isn’t overly dramatic, although he can amp up the tension when it’s called for. He recounts his tales in an easy, familiar, colloquial style, mixing in a few wry observations, pinpointing moments of valor and foolhardiness and desperation, and drilling down on the essence of character among these historical adventurers when they are faced with the most dire of circumstances. And he links them, casually but carefully, to details of his own life: how he gained his enthusiasm for adventure stories from his father; how learning about the endurance of the sailors on the Essex helped him deal with his own weakness from cancer radiation treatment. It all seems matter-of-fact, the way Howard tells things, and then you realize you’ve been sitting there listening to him for two solid hours, and he’s held you every step of the way.

As Howard tells it, the story of the Essex is more than the story of a disaster. It’s also a story about leadership, and the lack of it, and the tension between a young captain and a younger first mate who continually challenged his authority. And it’s about varying kinds of courage, and the mettle that men find, or don’t find, in their souls. Howard also tells a lot about the economics and practicalities of the whaling trade (whale oil lit city streets and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution), including the arduous and filthy business of actually killing the whales and rendering them. Like Moby-Dick, which takes long side trips from its adventure story to talk about the practicalities of the sailing life and venture into philosophical speculations, Howard’s version of the story carefully places the adventure within its economic, historic, and cultural context, a particularly important decision considering the 21st century’s radically different moral and environmental views on hunting whales. Yes, it slows the story down a bit. The payoff is a deeper understanding of what was at stake, and, eventually, of how the survivors were greeted and treated once they reached home again.

The Essex, directed by Howard’s wife and partner in Portland Story Theater, Lynne Duddy, had its premiere as part of the Fertile Ground festival with performances Friday and Saturday at the Alberta Abbey. Howard’s next scheduled performance of it is at 7:30 p.m. April 17 in the Solo Speak series at the Cascades Theatre in Bend – a landlocked town, but surely one primed for a good old-fashioned oceangoing adventure.

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Telling tales in the Naked City

Portland Story Theater's "Urban Tellers" spin stories of the life beneath their lives

Urban Tellers: a happy curtain call. Photo: Mike Bodine

Urban Tellers: a happy curtain call. Photo: Mike Bodine

“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” Jules Dassin’s 1948 police-procedural movie “The Naked City” and its long-running television spinoff famously declared. “This has been one of them.”

Portland Story Theater’s “Urban Tellers” series might say the same – in the case of last Saturday’s show, right down to the naked part.

It’s not that the tales are about crime and punishment, although a (mostly) comic brush with the law pops up now and again when Urban Tellers get together. No, it’s the fascinating anonymity of it all: just ordinary people living ordinary lives in an ordinary city, getting together to swap their sometimes extraordinary personal tales. We’re all interesting. Our stories just need to be unlocked.

And people love to watch and listen to the unlocking. If defining culture is a matter of locating hot spots – where do people congregate in swarms, not because they have to but because they want to? – the Geiger counter starts clicking at  18th and Burnside on Portland’s east side. Hipbone Studio, a busy art studio by day, transforms into a performance space at night, especially for the age-old but under-the-radar art of storytelling. And every time I’ve been there for one of Portland Story Theater’s shows, the place has been packed and the energy level sizzling.

Maybe Hipbone isn’t the biggest theater space in town, and maybe it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles. But all that storytelling needs, really, is a place for the storyteller to stand and a place for the audience to sit and listen. In the old days an open fire was nice, too, but modern building codes frown on such inflammatory frills.

As Portland Story Theater approaches things, stripped-down is the place to be. Most of the performers don’t even use a microphone, although the option’s there: just a teller and a tale and a couple of hundred ears to hear.

Beth Rogers. Photo: Mike Bodine

Beth Rogers. Photo: Mike Bodine

What those ears hear varies. Sometimes it’s an evening-long piece – one of co-founder Lawrence Howard’s “Armchair Adventurer” tales about polar explorers, for instance. Once a year it’s “Singlehandedly!,” a festival of longer stories. More often it’s a night of “Urban Tellers” tales: short stories by a variety of people – some professional performers, many not – who take a workshop with Howard and his partner, Lynne Duddy, and develop a personal story. Duddy and Howard believe that everyone has a story to tell, and almost anybody can learn to tell it in a public space. More often than not, something electric happens between storyteller and audience. A bond of encouragement and complicity forms, and an element of uncertainty heightens the tension and the stakes. Unlike traditional theater, the story isn’t scripted and memorized: it’s learned and told, so that in a way it’s being re-formed and rediscovered every time it’s performed.

Professional storytellers such as the gifted Will Hornyak sometimes make guest appearances on the Story Theatre stage, and the company has a few regulars. But a significant amount of its attraction is that it’s for and by everyman and everywoman: a small and intimate unveiling of the selves. In a small but significant way, a kind of family forms.

Maura Conlon-McIvor. Photo: Mike Bodine

Maura Conlon-McIvor. Photo: Mike Bodine

Last Saturday evening at Hipbone, the Urban Tellers program “Home on the Edge” was a little unusual, though far from unheard-of: it was an invitational. The Story Theater invited six tellers who’d taken the company stage before to develop new tales. Their stories were diverse and appealing: often funny, often heartfelt, frequently confessional, sometimes just a little churning in the gut. Duddy and Howard, the warm and embracing mama and papa of the place, were on hand as usual to introduce the storytellers. Often they also perform, but not on this night. A lot of the crowd was happy to see Howard in his familiar spot. In April of this year we told the tale of his performance of a new piece, “Legacy of Limericks,” less than a month after undergoing surgery for throat cancer. He’s been through long sessions of radiation therapy since, and reemerged, if not entirely on the other side, then much, much closer to it, with a cautiously optimistic prognosis.

Aaron Hartling. Photo: Mike Bodine

Aaron Hartling. Photo: Mike Bodine

The naked city kicked in right from the start. Aaron Hartling opened the evening with “Naked Guy,” his story about how a shy and gangly teenager turned into a devoted nudist, partly to shed his discomfort over being taller than everyone else in his class. Rather than hide it, he decided to flaunt it. His tale involved a teen-aged trip with his family to Hawaii, where he made an awkward pilgrimage to a nude beach. Now (in addition to being Portland Story Theater’s videographer the past three years) he’s a life model, often posing – naked, natch – for drawing classes at Hipbone.

It was a night for tall guys. “Tall Matt” Haynes, who’s artistic director of The Pulp Stage theater (his latest “Pocket Pulp” show, a three-playlet “CRIMEdy Night,” plays tonight, September 19, at the Jack London Bar in the basement of the Rialto Poolroom downtown) told a tale he called “Are Ya’ Suuuuure?,” dragged out through a full five “u”s. It was a bit about growing up amid high achievement and high expectations, and then settling into a life that, while happy, does not involve wearing a superhero cape, after all. And he talked about why he thinks it’s actually a good idea that, as he’s about to turn 35, both his mother and mother-in-law are about to move in with him and his wife. Home sweet home.

Lawrence Howard (left) and Matt Haynes. Photo: Mike Bodine

Lawrence Howard (left) and Matt Haynes. Photo: Mike Bodine

On the other hand, writer Maura Conlon-McIvor (“She’s All Eyes: Memoirs of an Irish-American Daughter”; “FBI Girl: How I Learned To Crack My Father’s Code”) told a bittersweet tale of trying to figure out the meaning and location of “home.” The daughter of an FBI special agent, she grew up part of the time near Disneyland but moved often, both before and after she married, never really being able to set down roots. Was home Ireland, where the family had come from? Was it wherever her younger brother, who has Down syndrome, is? Where her husband’s found a residency or a job? Might it be Portland?

Angela Hahn. Photo: Mike Bodine

Angela Hahn. Photo: Mike Bodine

Angela Hahn’s “Acceptance” was the story of a daughter whose mother drank, and then after many years didn’t drink, and who for all of those drinking years was mostly emotionally absent, and who after she stopped drinking never really explained the why of the thing and never really apologized; and it’s the story of how, after close to 50 years, the daughter realizes that she doesn’t have the relationship with her mom that she wanted, she has the one she has, and that’s when things start moving forward.

Jack Schwab, executive director of Good Neighbor Center, a homeless shelter and community center in Tigard (and, for a brief stretch, mayor of Tigard) told a tale of wanting to run away from home – and actually doing it a couple of times. It was about the tension between duty and the desire to do something for yourself, and how sometimes the two can help each other out. And it’s about the adventures of maybe the most polite and orderly young hippie of all time.

Jack Schwab. Photo: Mike Bodine

Jack Schwab. Photo: Mike Bodine

The evening ended with Beth Rogers’ desperately funny (and sometimes comically desperate) tale “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Rogers has albinism, which means, among other things, that her eyes are unusually sensitive to light, which means that, although she can get around, she’s legally blind – and yet, not blind enough, apparently, for certain kinds of aid that might be extremely helpful. She talked, with irony and exasperation and a good deal of down-to-the-bone humor, about getting a lecture on eugenics from the relative of a deaf person. And she talked, with sweet acerbic toughness, about how “normal” wears a lot of faces.

That’s the naked truth. There are a couple of million stories out here in the sort-of-progressive Northwest regional American city. This has been six of them.

*

Portland Story Theater’s next Urban Tellers program will be October 12. The company is also embarking on a new series, “Bridges: Personal Stories About Race,” that will debut at Hipbone on October 26.

The crowd, rapt. Photo: Mike Bodine

The crowd, rapt. Photo: Mike Bodine

 
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