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Theater and music under a big, fat Chagall moon

By Barry Johnson
March 28, 2013
Culture, Theater

It drives the ArtsWatch SEO people wild when I combine two separate art “experiences” in one post. Wild I tell you, wild. But I’m determined to smush them together, I’m afraid, just because in my mind they are smushed…

First, I went to Corrib Theatre’s “St. Nicholas,” the new Irish theater company’s first full production. And yes, Kells was a fine spot for a play that has its share of pints. then last night, I went to Alberta Rose to hear 45th Parallel and 3 Leg Torso make a little music in “To Hungary and Beyond.” As 45th Parallel’s Greg Ewer said, his group was taking care of Hungary and 3 Leg was charged with “Beyond.” Which seemed fair enough.

So, nothing in common these two…

“St. Nicholas” by Conor McPherson/Corrib Theatre/Kells Irish Pub

Ted Roisum in "St. Nicholas"/Photo: Win Goodbody for Corrib Theatre

Ted Roisum in “St. Nicholas”/Photo: Win Goodbody for Corrib Theatre

So Tuesday night, I was sitting in the front row for the second night of Corrib Theatre’s production of “St. Nicholas,” my notebook in hand, in case I wanted to dash down an idle thought or two about the show, just for you, dear reader, just for you.

But then, Ted Roisum walked past from the back of the upstairs meeting room at Kell’s Irish Pub, the staging ground for Conor McPherson’s Irish ghost story, and I realized: Oh, THAT play.
Because I’d seen it before, back in 1999, when Roisum had dazzled us the first time with a plunge into McPherson’s spooky script.

And suddenly that dang notebooks became a big red “A”: “St. Nicholas” is not kind to critics. Roisum plays the worst of us in this one-man storytelling excursion, and his saw-toothed attack on himself and his kind, the Dublin journalist, critic or no, is going to draw a little blood, even among the least self-conscious of us, we who don’t have time to shape opinions, just time to have them.

Blood’s good in this case, because after Roisum has eviscerated himself, his profession, his family, the theater, and perhaps humankind itself, he heads for London, ostensibly in pursuit of a particularly fetching actress named Helen to whom he hopes to… apologize? And leave it at that? But first there’s the little matter of William, who just happens to have a taste for blood.

Roisum knows his way around this script (he did it for Cygnet Productions in 2002, also), and he and director Gemma Whelan, Corrib’s artistic director, have kept things simple in the playing area: a mirror (yes, he can see himself: he isn’t THAT far gone), a table and chair that Roisum adjusts from time to time, and Roisum himself, leveling his eyes on us from time to time, an edge of self-contempt in his baritone and a tale to keep moving along.

Bob Hicks, my estimable colleague at The Oregonian, Art Scatter and now ArtsWatch, wrote in 2002 that “St. Nicholas” (in addition to showing off the very fine acting of Roisum) was, among other things, “an astonishingly insightful, surprisingly sympathetic look by a young writer into the spiritual exhaustions of middle age.” The young writer being McPherson himself. I would add that maybe it’s the young writer getting used to the idea that human awareness itself leads to a certain amount of unhappiness, but that unhappiness is a happier condition than the absence of awareness. For a writer of plays that explore the dark side of things (“The Weir,” “The Seafarer”) this was an important thought, when McPherson had it in 1997, when he was in his mid-20s.

But before I reduce it all to a syllogism or something, I’ll just point out that “St. Nicholas” is hilarious, in a dark way, and that Roisum can still make you squirm.

45th Parallell/3 Leg Torso/Alberta Rose

Gregory Ewer and Courtney Von Drehle/Photo: Jim Leisy

Gregory Ewer and Courtney Von Drehle/Photo: Jim Leisy

The Wednesday night pairing of the contemporary classical ensemble 45th Parallel and the wry humor, musically and otherwise, of 3 Leg Torso was auspicious for lots of reasons, but mostly, I like the idea of merging the fragmented art music audience whenever possible. I sat next to a woman familiar with 45th Parallel who had never heard 3 Leg, though she knew about them, and while I didn’t interview her afterwards, I bet Bela Balogh, Courtney Von Drehle and company converted her to the middle European sound embedded, as Von Drehle suggested, deep in the heart of Southeast Portland.

And I’m pretty sure that the 3 Leg audience found itself in an agreeable place after hearing 45th Parallel’s pulsating, delicious account of Erno Dohnanyi’s Sextet in C Major, which gathered musical thread from the tumultuous middle European soundscape of 1935. Dohnanyi was a Hungary-born pianist, conductor and composer, who shielded his Jewish colleagues from Nazi Hungary (one of his sons was executed by the Nazis for his part in an assassination attempt on Hitler), but who found himself at odds with the Communists who replaced them, emigrating to the U.S. finally in 1948.

The sextet (played by Adam Neiman piano, Sean Osborn clarinet, Joseph Berger horn, Gregory Ewer violin, Adam LaMotte viola, Justin Kagan cello) wanders all over the place musically, from waltzes to jazz, dark to triumphant, with traces faintly Middle Eastern to distinctly High German Classical, a flow of musical ideas that is incredibly demanding on the musicians, much to our delight.

Does the last movement actually sound like a drunken hotel house band trying to play Gershwin, as one critic described it, according to Ewer in his prefatory remarks? Well, maybe so. It certainly changes directions quickly enough, invites the horn and clarinet in at surprising moments, and concludes rather peremptorily. Like that.

Anyway, 45th Parallel wants to record the Dohnanyi along with Beethoven’s septet for its first CD, and they sounded brilliant on Tuesday night, turning and shaping and finding the natural contractions in the music. So, if you want to help them get this rarely recorded music out there, you can jump to their Kickstarter page and make a donation. We’ll wait for you here.

Bela R. Balogh and Gregory Ewer/Jim Leisy

Bela R. Balogh and Gregory Ewer/Jim Leisy

After a bit of stage clearing and set-up (at least three members of the xylophone family, various drums, etc.), 3 Leg charged into its goulash of Romany-tango-klezmer sounds. Balogh’s supercharged violin takes care of the emotional upper registers and Von Drehle’s accordion supplies the coloration, but percussionists Gary Irvine and T.J. Arko keep the xylophone family happy and bouncing and fluid bassist Mike Murphy is an adept soloist as well as indicating the darker side of the universe.

The 3 Leg crowd loves the uptempo numbers best, it seems, but I was drawn to the slowest piece on the program, “According to Chagall,” which made me imagine a 3 Leg suite based on specific Chagall paintings, which might be projected behind the band. Frankly, though I’m sure I’d enjoy the music a lot, I’m sure the stories Balogh and Von Drehle concocted around those paintings would be just as entertaining. The run-up to each song 3 Leg performs includes humorous stories, asides, fiction masquerading as memoir, after all. The music by itself makes you smile, but the stories are most excellent, too.

Ewer joined 3 Leg for a couple of numbers, too, first playing with Balogh and then doing a duet with Von Drehle, Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro in the style of Pugnani, and the peripatetic nature of 45th Parallel’s musical choices is paying off, because he sounded perfectly at home with the pyrotechnical demands on the violin in 3 Leg’s scheme of things. Balogh, after all, makes the instrument practically writhe in his hands.

Oh, and man the moon was big when I left Alberta Rose. A Chagall moon

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