the 1 festival

Things are getting crowded on Portland’s theater calendar. Expect a very big party Monday night at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, when pretty much every theater geek in town puts on the finery for the 33rd annual Drammy Awards, Portland’s freewheeling version of the Tonys. This year actor Todd Van Voris adds emceeing to his very busy schedule. It’s free (buy your own drinks) and the fun kicks off at 6 p.m. See you there.

Andy Lee-Hillstrom, "The Centering." Photo: Steve Patterson

Andy Lee-Hillstrom, "The Centering." Photo: Steve Patterson

But lately there’s also been a crowd of loneliness – or aloneness, that elemental brand of theater known as the one-person show. Even some “big” shows have been inching this way, such as Portland Center Stage’s sharp-elbowed and appealing look at race and American music, Black Pearl Sings!, an intense two-hander with an occasional third opening the door. In that show, the two principles, Lena Kaminsky and Chavez Ravine, have nowhere to hide – and that emotional bareness, plus Ravine’s killer singing voice, helps make the show fascinating.

A couple of theaters are going whole hog with the slimmed-down show. CoHo Productions has embarked on Solo Summer, a four-show series that’s begun with an extension of The Centering, Steve Patterson and Chris Harder’s surrealistic play about a clown and a political prisoner trying to escape into his own mind. And hard by the railroad tracks in the north stretches of the East Side, The Headwaters Theatre is in the midst of The 1 Festival, whose slogan is “A Festival of Many. A Theme of 1.” It’s nearly over, with a rush of shows today, and I’m very glad that last night I caught the final performance of Eric Hull’s smart and funny The Man With the Empty Room & How Small a Thought.

For people who believe, as I do, that the heart of theater beats in the spaces between the performers, solo shows present a conundrum: with only one performer, where’s the vital mystery in the middle? A good solo show – and both The Centering and Hull’s piece are good ones – neatly bypasses the problem by taking the magic space directly to the audience, which becomes the “other” performer in the play. It’s really not much different from a soliloquy in a Shakespeare play, in which the character isolates himself from the “reality” of the stage and takes his case directly to the audience.  And although a solo show can be extremely traditional, like William Luce’s Emily Dickinson bio The Belle of Amherst, it can also strip away theatrical expectations and be, within the limitations of its solo performer, pretty much anything it wants to be. The form has a liberating, experimental edge.

I arrived very late to the game with The Centering, a Portland phenomenon that began life in 2004 as a collaboration between playwright Patterson and actor Harder. I was aware of it from the beginning and wanted to see it at several stages of its development, but crossed schedules kept me away. So I can’t say how the performance I saw Thursday night, which Harder directed and Andy Lee-Hillstrom performed, differs from earlier incarnations in which Harder performed. But what I saw I liked very much. Lee-Hillstrom brings a beguiling innocence and softness, almost a femininity, that creates a jarring contrast to the emotional and sometimes physical horrors of the play.

In one sense The Centering is an example of the one-person show as bravura performance: the sort of show where you marvel at the dexterity of an actor jumping through theatrical hoops. But it’s also much more than that, because the writing itself is so good.

The Centering was developed in the harsh aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the swift rise of Homeland Security and its heavy hand. Patterson has a long history of exploring the ragged meeting-places of the personal and the political, and he does it brilliantly here, slowly unveiling a kind of domestic horror story about an innocent kid named Davey; his alter-ego circus clown; his mother and early girlfriend; his mentor, who happens to be an Arab clown; and the forces that have conspired to throw him into prison without even a hint of due process. Yet, as Marty Hughley remarks in his astute recent review for The Oregonian, “The Centering is a funny, charming, delightful show – especially for a play about a befuddled political prisoner being beaten and interrogated.” Couldn’t have said it better.

Actor/writer Eric Hull

Actor/writer Eric Hull

The Centering maintains a sharp and sophisticated theatrical structure. Eric Hull’s whimsical outing at The Headwaters is vastly more low-key and not nearly so overtly theatrical, but although it seems scattershot that’s deceptive: Its structure is smart and solid. It begins with a screening of writer-director Todd Korgan’s delightfully oddball and pensively piercing 2001 short film The Man With the Empty Room, in which Hull stars as a lonely fellow in a quaintly antiquated Kafkaesque city who decides to rent his spare room to an equally odd Jamie Tolbert. Shot in black and white, it’s laconic, downplayed, almost empty of action yet contrarily overflowing with a sweet sadness and awareness of shackled emotion.

Once the film’s done, Hull strolls onstage and begins an intimate conversation with the audience that hinges an observation by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life! … If you want to go down deep you do not need to travel far; indeed, you don’t have to leave your most immediate and familiar surroundings.”

Not exactly the stuff of theater, you might think. But then Hull proceeds, as a sort of wiser extension of his character in Korgan’s film, to make it exactly that as he quietly explores the implications of a universe of the small and closely observed. (In a key scene in The Man in the Empty Room, one that silently links the two halves of the Headwaters performance, Hull is sitting in a field, happily observing the grass through a magnifying glass.) With the startling lightness and grace that large men sometimes possess, he dances a solo tango. He writes on a chalkboard. He reads from a journal, then rips out the pages and blends them into open cans of paint. He observes, discusses, compares. He makes wry jokes that meet at the corner of melancholy and happiness. Finally, in a zenlike and unhurried sweep, he paints, swirl after liberating swirl, obliterating and revealing the surface at once. Satisfying stuff, whatever you want to call it. Just look, and let it be.

The final outings of The 1 Festival:

  • Choreographer Luciana Proano’s Chaski, 5 p.m. today, Saturday, June 9.
  • Mark Hayes, Waegook Express, 7 p.m. Saturday, June 9.
  • Contemporary Performance 3, with Aura Fischbeck, Emily Gregory & Alex Ramirez, and the entrancing performance duo WOBBLY (not a solo act, but they speak as one), 9 p.m. Saturday.

CoHo’s Solo Summer schedule

  • The Centering, through June 17.
  • Mormon Redneck Thespian: How to Overcome a Life of Drugs, Abuse, and Being a Redneck, written and performed by Cory Huff. Opening will be short performances by Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, who direct Huff in Mormon Redneck and whose Portland Story Theatre is a hotbed of solo performance. June 21-24.
  • You Belong to Me, by Steven Wolfson, performed by Elizabeth Huffman, June 28-July 1.
  • Irregardless, written and performed by Stacey Hallal, July 5-14.

 

 

Mizu Desierto

Mizu Desierto's dance in New Women in Butoh took a turn from the bucolic to the darker side. Credit: Nicolle Clemetson

 

 

Friday night, when Portlanders intoxicated by the spirit of sweet summer were thronging the city’s parks, clubs and ale houses, I paused for a bracing show of new butoh work at the Headwaters Theatre in the far north of town.

Butoh, so spare and intense, isn’t exactly a summer treat usually, but New Women in Butoh, the first mainstage show in The 1 Festival seemed entirely appropriate to the season — fresh and at times even comic.

Even though I’m far from an expert on the form, I’m attracted to butoh. When I think of butoh artists (or dancers or actors — they are hard to categorize), I think of those undersea hydrothermal vents. Biologists have discovered bacteria growing on those vents, feeding somehow on the hot sulphur compounds that jet out of them. Some scientists have even theorized that life on the planet may have begun around hydrothermal vents.

Butoh artists are like those bacteria. Instead of sulphur, they are feeding on the synaptic chatter that crackles randomly inside the human brain — sense data, fragments of experience, chunks of the symbolic world, deep monkey memory, dreams, fears and frankly stuff that the symbolic world, represented here by me typing, can’t name. Talk about toxic brew. They seize bits of it and somehow reflect, remedy and make it food through the processes of butoh.

And butoh often takes place in extreme environments, too — caves, deserts, suspended from ropes on the sides of buildings). The artists frequently wear white body make-up, they grimace and chew, their eyeballs disappear and their lids flutter, they assume impossible positions which they hold for impossible amounts of time, to trembling and beyond. Butoh owes something to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Jean Genet, Yukio Mishima and de Sade. The first butoh dance was created by Tatsumi Hijikata in 1959 and dealt with homosexuality and pedophilia, though apparently the crowd was most upset by reports that a chicken in the performance died of strangulation.

As it has evolved, butoh has become sparer and harder to “read.” But the ideas of the four women who performed at The Headwaters, which is a small, comfortable theater carved out of an old industrial building alongside the railroads tracks in north Portland, weren’t obscure, though the program was helpful in figuring things out.

Vangeline, for example, a New York-based artist, based her piece on her small town, which had once been a thriving  cotton mill town, before the factory closed down. She started with her back to the audience (a common enough butoh trope). She was wearing a voluminous dress with a bustle (I think), her long gray hair streaming down her back. The music was ghostly, and very slowly she rose from the ground, shaking with the effort, running her hands through her hair, and we discover she is holding a length of twine, which she stretches and allows to fall limp. This went on for a while, and then, oddly, Elvis started singing, “Wise men say, only fools rush in,” and she turned toward us full face for the first time. Her eyes were surrounded by red make-up, her fingers locked into a painful splay, her mouth achieving a sort of rictus, broken by chewing. The ghosts of the mill workers? Maybe that would be a little too literal, but, yes, maybe.

Kat MacMillan began the program wearing a red dress and with her back to us as well. Her wrists were bound together behind her and the cord was attached to a small oblong white bundle. Red petals were scattered beneath her. The performance communicated through the strain on MacMillan’s back muscles, at first, and then moved down her torso as she bent forward at the waist and then bent at the knees, millimeter by millimeter, accumulating tension, never releasing it. She stepped through the cord that bound her, almost cradled the bundle, which was just smaller than baby-sized, raised it high over head with both hands, held it with one and brought the other hand back down over her heart.

What did we see? I’m not sure, but butoh like other dance forms communicates through the body, I think, more than through the mind. My body understood something and created a familiar nervous system response, a network of anxiety, grief and tension.

MacMillan was followed on the program by Sheri Brown, who brought an entirely different spirit to the evening, though it took us a while to catch on as she began the piece in a slow march from one side of the stage to the other. Just to reiterate: Butoh’s default speed is slowest, though it occasionally revs up to slower and in rare moments achieves just plain slow. About the time Brown hit the stage floor and started “exploding” into a series of spasms, we started to get that the white make-up she wore should be considered a form of clown make-up.

Brown moved into the audience, gathered a small child and few intrepid souls and led them back to the stage. She summoned a few more, then more, and pretty soon we were all making our way out into the beautiful evening. Brown shed her butoh robes for her skivvies and suddenly bolted, barefoot I think, down the railroad tracks behind the theater. She must have picked up a rock, because when she bolted back, she threw it into a pile of bricks that supported a discarded piece of lumber, nails protruding from the back. She climbed over a ladder and into a patio, where she was met by an accomplice, who poured her a glass of wine, which she lifted in our direction before sipping. I wouldn’t say that Brown was parodying butoh, exactly, but she was having a bit of fun with its familiar elements, which was just fine.

The Headwaters is home base for Mizu Desierto, who organized The 1 Festival, and she closed the evening with a complex multi-media dance, which included rural scenes behind projected onto a screen behind the stage. Laundry drying in the wind and goats figured prominently, and old-timey banjo music, which fit the old-timey dress Desierto wore as she sang “Skip to the Lou,” which is a darker song than maybe you remember, especially if you swap “lover” for “partner” in the line, “Lost my partner, what’ll I do?” The clouds and music darken, the sexy swaying stops, a basket of laundry produced a canteloupe, which Desierto held under her apron. The basket tipped and apples tumbled out.

Suddenly, the rural farmer’s daughter pastorale became something else altogether, and butoh took over, a dance of the distraught, the tortured, a walk in the woods transformed into something malevolent. Even the goats, when they return in the video, seemed to be presentiments of something horrible.

I like Desierto’s adaptation of butoh process and forms to her own material. (I’m imagining a Felix having a butoh moment in front of Oscar in The Odd Couple, and it works!) As the program suggested, butoh can’t survive on guys in loincloths moving glacially in the desert. All four of the artists in New Women in Butoh engaged the form creatively, and the investigation was exciting.

NOTES
The 1 Festival continues through July 17, with a series of solo performances in theater and dance. Anne Adams previewed the festival and profiled Mizu Desierto for Portland Monthly.

 
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