“Song of the Dodo”

News & Notes: We catch up and we fall behind

Some thoughts on Dave Frishberg and Rebecca Kilgore, "Song of the Dodo," Union Tanguera, and "Twist Your Dickens"

Last night I dropped by Ivories for a late supper with a few friends. On Wednesdays, Dave Frishberg and Rebecca Kilgore usually command the bandstand the lounge, and last night they were joined by Lee Wuthenow on tenor sax. Things were nice and informal, frequent collaborators getting together to share some old songs that hovered near the mainstream American Song Book without quite landing there. While I was listening, “Old Devil Moon” was probably the most central. The music they made was very smart, a little understated, and deeply proficient, and of course, I left with a smile on my face.

I also left thinking how many great experiences are available on any given night in Portland, even a Wednesday, and how any of them could sustain a long consideration (tonight at Ivories pianist Tom Grant continues his vocal showcase with Julie Collura and Heather Keizur). Anything involving these three certainly could, and I made a mental note to come back later with my reporter’s hat on and an empty notebook and pen in my pocket. But then I did the same thing, in a way, with Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s “Song of the Dodo”: I promised to get back to it later.

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "Song of the Dodo"/Gary Norman

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s “Song of the Dodo”/Gary Norman

I brought it up in the context of Veterans Day and Joe Sacco’s new graphic book on the Battle of the Somme, hoping to light on it again. And now it’s entering its closing weekend, and I haven’t. Fortunately, others have reviewed it positively and in a more timely fashion, including the Mercury’s Alison Hallett who concludes her review this way:

For me, a big measure of the success of a non-narrative show—when there are no characters to assess, no storyline to follow—is how effectively the show engages my curiosity. Do I want to understand this cryptic piece of theater? Is there humor and rigor? Am I motivated to understand how the pieces fit together? In the case of Song of the Dodo, the answer is yes.

I didn’t find “Dodo” cryptic, exactly. The three sections are comprehensible, though very different, and though they aren’t explicitly connected, they echo, one in the other. The play is a pastiche of elements (interviews with Katharine Hepburn and Nicol Williamson, who died last year, Euripides’ “Hecuba,” and yes, the song and antics of the dodo bird), and the juxtaposition of elements generally strangers to each other leads us to a deeper encounter than any of them might have generated by themselves. And the performances are excellent, not uniformly excellent, each excellent in its own way.

So yes, I could go on…


Let’s see, what other reminders do we need to give ourselves?

Why yes, Claudia Codega and Esteban Moreno’s French-Argentinian tango company, Union Tanguera, performs “Nuit Blanche (Sleepless Night)” an inventive projection of the dance form into the 21st century through a story as old as tango itself—the flirtations, betrayals, and romance that can happen during one long night in Buenos Aires. Since Portland has a fairly large community of tango fans, the audience should be one of the attactions, too. White Bird is bringing them for three nights, Thursday-Saturday (Nov. 21-24), at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway. Cold nights sometimes require hot dancing.

"Twist Your Dickens," Portland Center Stage/ Patrick Weishampel

“Twist Your Dickens,” Portland Center Stage/ Patrick Weishampel

The Second City comedy team of Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort have devised a zany (and R-rated) re-interpretation of “A Christmas Carol,” filled with comic sketches, improv and guest stars. The biggest star is Craig Cackowski (who plays “Officer Cackowski” on the TV sitcom “Community”) as Scrooge, though the cast is full of comedy veterans, including Second City’s Beth Melewski. “Twist Your Dickens” runs through December 22 at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave. Goodness knows what they’d do to “Great Expectations” (but honestly, I’d like to find out.)

On Veterans Day: Joe Sacco, ‘Song of the Dodo’ and ‘Hecuba’

A new book by Joe Sacco on the Battle of the Somme leads to thoughts on Tragedy

Today is Veterans Day, a day about which I couldn’t be more conflicted. I honor the Americans who served and fell in our wars, of course. I just hate the policies that led to many of those wars and fallen soldiers, especially the set of American empire wars since World War II. And I’m permanently stunned that, as Joe Sacco says,  humans make war their highest endeavor. So, yes, I’m conflicted.

I bring up Joe Sacco this Veterans Day, because W.W. Norton has just published his most recent book, “The Great War,” which is about the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, as World War I entered its bloodiest phase. As Sacco says, the British lost 10,000 men in the first hour of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  “The Great War” isn’t exactly a book. It’s a 24-foot foldout panorama, a piece of art more than a commentary. And that’s what Sacco says in the NPR interview he gave about it, that he looked at the battle “less as a journalist and more as an artist.”

I might argue with him a little about that formulation, just because I think artists often function as “engaged” journalists, telling us about their world, inner or exterior. What I’ve liked about Sacco’s work over the years is his ability to merge the two, to give us the reporting sensibility of the journalist with the probing into the Unknowable of the artist.

From 'Song of the Dodo'/Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

From ‘Song of the Dodo’/Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

Last night, I saw “Song of the Dodo,” an original play created by the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. It starts with a comic interpretation of three dodo birds, before it slides inexorably toward darker terrain, because, yeah, we all know what happens to the dodos. And then it artfully morphs into a scene from Euripides’ “Hecuba.” That tragedy starts at the end of the greatest war of ancient times, the Trojan War, with one of its survivors, Hecuba, the queen of Troy’s King Priam, and her grief as her last daughter is chosen for sacrifice to the gods by the Greeks, praying for better winds, and then her last son is found dead on the beach, with his throat cut. I’ll talk about this production more later, but it’s on my mind as I contemplate Veterans Day and the Battle of the Somme. War is all about grief. This is from the very beginning of “Song of the Dodo”: “Why does Tragedy exist?” the narrator asks. “Because you are full of rage…Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

As “Song of the Dodo” suggests, Aristotle had the theory that Tragedy, the enactment of this cycle of rage and grief on stage, leads to catharsis in the audience, and perhaps our release from this cycle. On the other hand, Greeks kept going to war after the invention of Tragedy and the idea of catharsis. The jumps from the fate of British troops at the Somme to the fate of the dodo on Mauritius to the fate of Hecuba on the shores of Troy are impossible without the ideas of grief, fear, war. On this Veterans Day, I’m grieving because we have devoted so much more of our energy to waging war than dealing  with grief. At least Euripides tried…



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