Sunday, April 17, 2011

Weekend reviews: Men dancing at White Bird, drama in the quartet at Portland Center Stage

Matthew Boston and Chris Coleman in Michael Hollinger's Opus/Photo:Owen Carey
By Barry Johnson

Just about every putative Portland "Spring," your correspondent falls prey to one germ or another. Nothing serious, mind you, just enough to be a nuisance in the various ways that colds/mild flues can be. I even pretend nothing is wrong some evenings and head out into the drizzle to see something. This week, for example, I saw Yossi Berg and Oded Graf's zesty dance concert at the Alberta Rose Theatre, the historic home opener of the Portland Timbers and opening night of Portland Center Stage's Opus, which included the company's artistic director Chris Coleman in the cast.

I didn't want to miss any of them, but on the other hand, writing about them the next day was impossible. My head would start to hurt and sentences vanished before I could get them typed. Then I'd have to cough for a bit.  Or something.

Back to business.  Writing about a concert or play a few days later isn't the best plan, at least not for me, but that's what I'm going to do. The benefit to you is that everything will be a little shorter! And because this isn't a sports blog, I won't be writing about the Timbers game, though I have a rocking analysis of the game, if you want to hear it when we meet...

For some reason when I sat down to write the first time about Berg and Graf's 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer, I started out with four thick paragraphs about the problems that writing about dance presents. See how lucky you are? You aren't going to have to read those now.  (I'll recycle them later, though -- I'm conservative that way). Today, I understand why I went down that path. 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer is just so darn interpretable.

It may even suggest a geo-political interpretation, because Berg and Graf are Israeli choreographers, and everything involving Israel has a political dimension in some quarters. And because this dance is "about" various ways we men are men and men are intimately connected to sovereignty, the last moment in the dance, with one dancer sitting cross-legged on the stage in a pool of light, looking out at the audience, sad or wistful or at least contemplative, we might be tempted to translate it as a commentary on the Middle East somehow.

That would be tiresome, though, even if you could set up a one-to-one correspondence between the episodes of the dance and the complex recent history of Israel and its environs.  Which I couldn't, even if it's there.

Yossi Berg and Oded Graf's 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer
So let's just talk a little about "various ways we men are men."  First of all, we are silly -- we'll line dance to "Caravan" or "Tequila" in the lounge-iest possible way, for example. We'll take a pratfall for a laugh. We'll pantomime for comic effect as well. Other men bring this out in us, 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer suggests.  Then we get to wrestling with each other, maybe in a playful, mixed martial arts way to start, but pretty soon that degenerates into something more dire or... erotic! And suddenly our bleak existential condition, trapped with each other in a hell of our creation (hey, this isn't political, I promise!), reveals itself, and we collapse. Though not for long. Soon we're back to our old monkey business. It's not apparent that we actually learn anything.

Is all of that "in" 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer? Well, yes, I think so, expressed mostly in movement, though we do hear the story of Alice in the middle. The Oregonian's reviewer, Marty Hughley, detected a symbolic quality in Alice. "Alice -- spoken of with fascination but never shown -- is a representative of womanhood and pulchritude, of potential completion for the ideal man, but also of potential, or maybe inevitable, disruption to the male community." That doesn't really work for me, though, because Berg and Graf are so meta -- thinking about what they are thinking about what they are thinking. Do they really think that Alice (or any potential completion) will significantly alter our underlying existential condition? I seriously doubt it.

How quickly the men abandon Alice for their own cries of the heart comes clear in the most moving section of the dance, a duet that begins in macho chest bumping and evolves into something almost unbearably sad. As they bump, one of the dancers says "no" and the other says "yes," this evolves somehow surreally into "I love you" and "more money" and "more power" and "make it stop." Dear humans, you are tragically ridiculous.

The masks, the deer prop, the casual suits -- 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer is quite theatrical as bare as the stage is. The four dancers, the choreographers plus Hillel Kogan and Irad Masliah, are engaging, and they lead us through the dances rapid transformations and episodes without a hitch. And right there, I hesitated to call them "dancers" -- because in this piece, they are more like movement actors than dancers, in the formal sense. There's not a dancerly movement phrase the whole evening, at least not that I can remember now, except maybe for the line dance that begins the show and the occasional nod to social dancing (a little salsa-ish styling from time to time). And that's why my first attempt to come to grips with the show started so far afield itself.  What the heck is "dance" anyway?

I'd also like to point out how well the White Bird team adapted the Alberta Rose Theatre for dance -- extending the stage and adding banks of lights. It's a terrific neighborhood theater to begin with, and White Bird made it an excellent place to see dance.

I would have wanted to see Opus even if Chris Coleman wasn't playing in it. It's about critical moment in the life of a string quartet -- with flashbacks to other critical moments -- and I've been interested in the dynamics of small groups for a long time. We spend much our lives in small groups, voluntary or otherwise, and yet we haven't developed that many useful approaches or insights into how they work.  Not that I've seen anyway.

A string quartet is different from a lot of musical organizations, more democratic, usually, and more organic, sometimes.  And we get to eavesdrop on their conversation -- at least the musical performance part of it. What goes on behind the scenes? Well, that's what playwright Michael Hollinger, himself a classically trained violist, tells us about in Opus.

The quartet in Opus (Coleman plays first violinist Elliott, Chris Hietikko is the cellist Carl, Greg Jackson plays second violinist Alan, Matthew Boston plays violist Dorian, who is replaced by Grace, played by Sarah Stevens) has some formal rules -- everyone has an equal vote about everything, anyone has veto power. As the play begins, Elliot, Carl and Alan are choosing a new violist. Dorian, who's always been a bit fragile (we learn some of the reasons later), has disappeared, and the quartet has a major gig in its immediate future -- a date at the White House. Which is where Grace comes in -- she's auditioning for the group.

The quartet is pretty informal, and like most successful groups, the special characteristics of each member are made into strengths. So, Carl is impatient with arguments and wants decisions made quickly.  Elliott (in the absence of Dorian, anyway) takes a leadership role, though the others "adjust" the outcomes he's angling for. The absent Dorian, we learn via flashback, had the most particular musical ideas. And from the same flashbacks, we learn that he and Elliott have a romantic relationship that has gone sour and that he's the needy one. Everyone has a back story, of course, and they are all obligingly supplied by playwright Hollinger. The membrane between life at work and life at home is always permeable, but in small groups it can almost disappear altogether, as it does with Elliott and Dorian.  Dorian is "more" equal in the quartet, and Elliott is more equal in the relationship, and you know that's going to be a problem, right?

So, to the first question: Yes, Chris Coleman can act! He has the boyish charm that Elliott requires to get his way in his relationships and the quartet, and the coldness necessary not to mind that his way might mean pain for others. Because, yeah, there's pain in the quartet, lots of it -- sickness, loneliness, relationships gone bad, musical dreams unrealized. And there's a sort of violence, too, as the quartet re-forms itself without a member. You can veto everything but the vote on your own membership in the quartet, apparently, because in extreme situations, in states of emergency, the rules are always set aside.

Opus is "musical" (the actors mime playing their instruments to the piped in music), and I liked its discussion of Beethoven's late quartet, Opus 131, which the group considers the greatest of chamber quartets (Schubert agreed, supposedly: "After this, what is left for us to write?"). But you don't have to be a chamber music buff to enjoy it. It's about small groups and relationships and important work, things we are always ready to consider, yes?

Beyond Coleman, the rest of the actors, under the guidance of director Brendon Fox, have enough nuance to deliver each of the characters as individuals while realizing they are part of a larger group. Hey, that's a lot like a string quartet! Funny! In this context, I especially enjoyed the blenders -- Jackson and Stevens -- who have less of the obvious drama to enact. And I liked the ingenious set by James Kronzer, with its interlocking, movable panels, almost the same light color of wood as Kaul Auditorium's acoustic backdrop at Reed College, where Chamber Music Northwest (among others) plays.

Final question: Does Opus finish off our thinking about the string quartet? Of course not. I know that with just a passing acquaintance with a few quartets in my life. But maybe it will get you thinking about your own small groups, how they work and don't work, what your place in them might be with a little more reflection. It did that for me, as you can see.


Hollinger's play (2006) has already played in many American theaters. Director Fox directed it in North Carolina previously. Here, Christopher Isherwood reviews the New York version of the play, with Kronzer's set design, quite favorably.


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