What a top notch festival looks like

While we may not all love every show (what fun would that be), there can be little disagreement that when it comes to planning, execution, and detail, PICA’s annual TBA is a top notch operation.

From advance materials, to the daily email blast, to the overall brand, to the brilliant scheduler, to the damn color coordinated tables – it all just works.

And it all works TOGETHER. It tells you someone actually thought about exactly what they wanted. And they got it.

As a result, TBA is very cool.

And so much theatre these days is NOT cool. At all. A lot of theatre these days is about as cool as doing time in a prison for senior citizens. With bad food.

That’s not what TBA is though. There is a feeling in the air when this September festival takes over the town. A powerful signal goes out to the audience: “Come and get it.”

And they do.

Wandering all over town between venues feels brand new. Going to a place late night to see what’s happening is a blast.

Now, the more traditional types among us cannot help but imagine what a “straight theatre” festival at this level and on this scale could look like. Imagine a festival of 10-20 “normal” (i.e., language-based) contemporary plays on all over town. Imagine plays good enough to bring out the same TBA audience. Plays that sell out, with lines of people stretching around the block.

Yeah, right.

Meanwhile, back on earth…

Look at every single little thing TBA does. Because if you want them (the audience) to come. This is how you do it.

If you're in the business of art, every single sound you make or sentence you write MUST be art.  The daily TBA email is just that.
If you’re in the business of art, every single sound you make or sentence you write MUST be art. The daily TBA email is just that.
Has it ever been this simple to see what's on when?
Has it ever been this simple to see what’s on when?

TBA Day 4: THE BLOW | We Put It Together So We Could Take It Apart

2-stars

There’s not much to engage with here.

A tag cloud rendering of what dialogue there is would reveal an enormous ME.

In between some pop songs.

Sole performer either satirizes or embodies (does it really matter which?) what seems to be the default cultural role model for young women in media: glassy eyed, air headed, inarticulate, partially clothed, in search of Range Rovers.

Like – ya know.

Long brooding silent stare downs.

TBA Day 3: LOLA ARIAS | El año que nací (The Year I Was Born)

4-stars

Children of the revolution.

Lola Arias’s personal account of the Pinochet years in Chile is notable for two reasons.

First, It’s a fabulous show.

To echo an overheard departing audience member on Saturday: “This is one of the best things I have ever f#cking seen at PICA.”

Indeed.

Ever.

Despite some technical flaws and a few narrative inconsistencies (which the audience looks past because we are so interested in the story before us), THE YEAR I WAS BORN is the kind of direct, cross cultural experience we don’t get enough of in Portland – and that PICA is uniquely positioned to bring us.

The Chilean documentary style piece feels as welcome as a delicious meal from an entirely different food group we know we should be eating more of. We inhale it. It’s a vital reminder of how big the world is, and how much is out there beyond the whitey white Cascades. We desperately need more international material like this.

But we also need to create our own material that is this consequential. There is a second aspect of YEAR that explains its success and also points the way toward more authentic homegrown theatre pieces in the future: When theatre artists take on important social issues that affect a society or culture and put direct human experience (whether their own, or that of interviewed participants) on stage, the results can be huge.

Imago Theatre was the perfect venue for THE YEAR I WAS BORN.
Imago Theatre was the perfect venue for THE YEAR I WAS BORN.

The audience yearns for a real experience.

Yet so much of contemporary American playwriting is overrun by the three musketeers of whimsy, weirdness and wackiness – styles apparently encouraged if not (yet) mandated at the country’s elite playwriting schools.

Without an authentic subject or reason for being, these plays are diversions at best: “I know! Turn the narrator into a bird, then have her recite Jane Austen and talk about her boyfriend while it snows upside down!”.

Cute. But why? Where is the content, the reason for the audience assembling together to bear witness?

Why do we care?

All too often, we don’t.

With THE YEAR I WAS BORN, however, it’s clear from the opening moment why we care. We also know that the investment of our time this afternoon is going to pay dividends. The work exudes authenticity.

The format is straightforward: 11 people talking about what happened to their family members during the Pinochet years and trying to figure out what role these relations played in the larger national drama. Ensemble members wear the years they were born pasted on their backs, and the piece begins with each announcing what was happening in that year. It’s a simple and yet brilliant framing device to start the tale. Several times during the two intermissionless hours, Arias has the cast do several of these physical routines that effectively link the material to the live performance.

What happened in the 70’s and 80’s in Chile? There is a lot about reconstruction here. Children attempt to piece together what parents were doing, and which side they were on during the long military junta. It’s fascinating to see cast members together on stage whose parents were either ideologically opposed or actively killing each other during the era, and the fact that this kind of show is possible at all points toward how far Chile has come in the intervening years.

By comparison, to name another more recent conflict, it’s still impossible to imagine a similar style piece about the Bosnian war. Though, as children born in the early 90’s in the former Yugoslav states are now 20, perhaps we have their version of this excavation still to look forward to at a future TBA on a brilliant September afternoon.

The questions on stage are the big ones and applicable to any historical event or period. What happened? Why did it happen? Exactly how did it happen? What did it feel like when it happened? And now what do we do?

One of the strongest takeaways I mulled on the bike ride home may be one the group would not specifically identify if asked what this play is about. That is: There is no such thing as “history”. There are only individual stories.

This happened to me.

My sister knows what happened on that day.

My mother was there when this happened.

My grandfather saw this happen.

There is no onramp to history other than personal connection. From the sifted personal stories of millions, the silt of history gently accretes on the bottom.

But we can know nothing – absolutely nothing – about what history is in the abstract. History can only come to life through the stories of specific humans, what they did, and what was done to them.

And theatre like THE YEAR I WAS BORN is uniquely powerful when it comes to bringing individual stories to life.

Bravo, PICA, for what, even though we’re only three days in, will undoubtedly be one of this year’s highlights.

TBA Day 2: TRAJAL HARRELL | Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M)

It’s opening night (for actual performances) at TBA, and what could be more exciting than sitting front row in a packed house with an audience to die for in the temporarily uber hip Con-Way warehouse, aka THE WORKS, as the lights go down?

The audience turned out in force to witness some cutting edge performance art.

Awaiting Trajal Harrell in THE WORKS.
Awaiting Trajal Harrell in THE WORKS.

But in the case of the first of two Trajal Harrell projects, there wasn’t much on offer.

If you have a compelling piece of art you want to share with an engaged audience, it’s unlikely you would name it:

“Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M)”

Huh?

The purpose of a name is to draw people in, help them understand what it is, and display right there in the first thing your audience may encounter about your show some of your artistic or poetic abilities.

In this case, everything in the name is some inside reference you need a historical primer on to get.

A name this convoluted and insider-facing seems to suggest: “I’m not quite sure what this is about, and you won’t be either.”

Sure enough, it was a perfect name for what we saw.

There was a fairly long verbal explanation of what the piece was supposed to be about by one guy before the show – which didn’t help explain anything, so I won’t try to repeat it.

The first 45 minutes consisted of Harrell quivering on a chair crying. And a Czech guy kept repeating “Don’t stop the dance” in what from his accent sounded like the sum total of English words in his repertoire.

As we had no info to go on at all about anything, after about five minutes of Harrell’s crying, those around me started reading the program, looking for something – anything – to do. Harrell needs to share some of whatever he is on with the audience pre show if we are to enjoy this kind of thing better.

Using great canned music in a dull show is always a risk, as the audience immediately starts thinking about how much more fun it would be to see that performer live instead of this, etc. In this case, I think it was Gillian Welch. And the only reason I and probably a score of others didn’t bail was because the sound was so beautiful.

The music completely upstaged anything happening on stage.

Which was nothing.

Boo hoo.
Boo hoo. Stare at this image for 45 minutes and you’ve got the first part of the show.

Eventually the guy right next to me wisely bailed (from the front row), and the next two guys over starting laughing quite a bit. Others filed out.

The last 15-20 minutes was definitely more exciting (coming from a baseline of 0, mind you), because at least people were moving around a bit.

But there just ain’t much here. And when you are offered the big stage for an international festival, you need to bring SOMETHING.

In the town of the mandatory standing O, the audience response was deafeningly tepid. The performers somehow came back out for a second call even though the response did not warrant it at all.

Btw – do not be decoyed by the amazing clip of ANOTHER Harrell performance piece in PoMo’s “The Experts’ Guide to PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival”. This is nothing like that! Nothing! There are no beautiful, naked people, for starters.

I get the whole “we take risks” and “we like to challenge the audience” PICA thing. But it’s worth asking why we give things in art that don’t measure up a pass, under some rubric of “Oh, is that how you responded to it?”, in a way we never would in other areas of life.

What if your barber said: “I’m going to challenge your conception of a haircut and give you something you may not like or understand, but that will engage you in dialogue.”

What if your local restaurant said: “We’re not bound by traditional conceptions of ‘the good’. We’re going to problematize your expectations of a good meal tonight.”

Would you bust down the door, and shell out your cold cash for these experiences?

Probably not.

Because that’s just how you, the unsophisticated and barbaric masses, roll. You don’t know how to evaluate what you think you want or know.

Harrell seems like the kind of guy who would jump on an offer of a problematized haircut.

In these other realms, people are pretty clear what you mean when you say: “I got a bad haircut.”

It wasn’t what you wanted.

It wasn’t any good.

In this case we got not a bad show but just a non show.

There was a hole where the show was supposed to be.

Oh – and if you don’t like this review?

This is just me problematizing your idea of what a review should be.

That’s my new out.

TBA Day 2: CAMPO / PIETER AMPE & GUILHERME GARRIDO | Still Standing You

The skin we live in.

If watching two flabby, naked, middle-aged men with thinning (but longish) hair (and one with an enormous beard) somersault around on stage in a tangled mess, gripping each other’s awkwardly over-stretched (but, mercifully, flaccid) penis DOESN’T sound like it would normally find its way to the top of your to do list on a September night (at least not if it wasn’t raining and you had to pay to see it), know this: You need to get out more.

And you definitely need to come see Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido do their thing.

Why?

Well, for one, it’s completely silly and yet deeply moving. The two men (presumably both heteros?) are so comfortable in their own bodies (which aren’t naked from the start – there’s plenty of good stuff before we get there) that they can focus in on the profound absurdity of our situation.

Namely, here we are, hurtling through space, trapped inside these bizarre structures of flesh and bone which grow (and lose) hair in the most alarming places, make noises, emit fluids, and stretch in all kinds of weird ways.

And make noises. A LOT of noises.

How can this possibly be our lot? WTF?

Mais voila.

It is.

For a little while, you’re apt to think these two wandered in from one of those permanent groups of dudes hanging out in the South Park blocks. The TBA first timer refrain “Hey, I could do what they’re doing on stage – so what’s so special about it? How is this art?” quickly fades when they perform some remarkable gestures of physical absurdity.

And in the closing moments when two naked bodies impossibly draped over each other shuffle across the stage like some prehistoric wooly mammoth of skin and hair and balls – it’s stunning.

There is nothing more subversive, off-putting, and (ultimately) moving on stage than the naked human body.

No deep thoughts or tendentious art projects here (see the next review for some of that).

It’s just wild adventuring, stripped down to the one thing we’ve got.

Probably not for the kids or bible study group.

And they definitely don’t let you do stuff like this in Russia.

Tip: You may want to sit one row back because…