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Weekend Wrap: John Cage & 'Day of the Docent'

The assembled harps for John Cage’s “Postcard from Heaven”

Courtesy of FearNoMusic

The Mark Rothko show at the Portland Art Museum opened this weekend, but with the Rothko bio-drama Red opening at Portland Center Stage on Friday, I figured I’d do a general “Rothko Wrap” next week. With any luck, I may even throw in the Rothko-inspired, 4-hour Morton Feldman String Quartet No. 2, which Third Angle is going to perform Friday afternoon. All Friday afternoon.

John Cage was more of a Richard Rauchenberg kind of composer — mercurial, jumpy even, with a taste for Duchampian mind games and jests, though with a certain resolution beneath it all. So, first thing this weekend, I headed for 100 Years of John Cage, a presentation of FearNoMusic, the contemporary music ensemble, and YU, the contemporary art center.

As the title suggests, this is Cage’s centenary year, and this concert was a fitting tribute, attracting more than 600 people to the inner Southeast YU center. The program included 10 pieces by Cage spread throughout the building, including a long lecture, “Lecture on Nothing,” delivered by Carlos Kalmar, the maestro of the Oregon Symphony, which was pretty astonishing all by itself.

Different ensembles played different works, sometimes at the same time, so the crowd was constantly shuffling around. If you had a great listening spot for one piece, you likely were on the outskirts of the next one. I quite enjoyed the percussion/piano/radio/doorbell buzzer piece, “Credo In Us.” Yes, Cage was THAT kind of a composer, utilizing “noises” of various sorts to make a point about how narrow our conception of “music” is and to try to rectify that.

And I finally got the point of his “Apartment House 1776,” which spread musicians throughout the first floor of the building, playing in small groups, with some piped-in sounds to put a fine edge on the festivities. Why “1776”? Because the piece was written in 1996, the nation’s 200th anniversary, for starters. And why spread so many little groups throughout the room? I think it was to remind us how big the country is, how disjointed at times, but how ultimately we are supposed to be part of one composition. Yes, maybe Cage had an idealistic streak, though the piece is cacophonous.

My favorite, though, was “Litany for the Whale,” which in some ways was the most conventional piece on the docket, a simple recitation and response piece with two baritones singing variations on five tones, each one suggested by one of the letters in “w-h-a-l-e.”

“Litany for the Whale” doesn’t sound like whales, but spare and sonorous, it somehow manages to project “whaleness,” all the same. I thought of it as an apology, human to cetacean, and maybe a little prayer for the future, though I may have been projecting.

Ebbe Roe Smith and Casey McFeron in “Day of the Docent”

Gary Norman

I made it to CoHo Production’s Sunday matinee of Ebbe Roe Smith’s new play, Day of the Docent, the very title of which is funny when you think about it, in a “tour guide goes mad” kind of way. Smith has had a substantial Hollywood career — his biggest movie was the Michael Douglas vehicle, Falling Down — and Day of the Docent is a satire of Hollywood and especially scriptwriters.

It’s a three-hander. Mick (Casey McFeron) is a bad guy who wants to go straight, and because he loves movies, he and his girlfriend Grace (Laura Faye Smith) decide to kidnap the author of his favorite film, The Day of the Docent, Francis (Ebbe Roe Smith). He’s hoping that Francis will be able to help him develop a script from his own life, which has been, well, colorful, but Francis has seen far better days. And though he can still come up with bitter wisecracks, he’s pretty sure he won’t be able to help Mick out. The alcohol is a bit of a problem, too. But eventually, Francis actually attempts to be Mick’s mentor, and they plunge into it, aided by Grace who makes periodic robberies at liquor stores to keep Francis in vodka.

From there we are treated to Smith’s jaundiced view of Hollywood and its products as Francis attempts to turn Mick’s ideas and lurid details from his life of crime into a script. Pretty soon Mick is trying to get Francis off the booze because it’s getting in the way of their progress. The production also has some delightful little comic film segments (directed by Jim Seaton) that play during the blackouts onstage — this is a play about film after all.

I liked the ensemble work of the two Smiths and McFeron, nice and easy and informal under the direction of Marcella Crowson, and I liked Smith’s script, too, which was funny on various levels. And in the tiny CoHo theater, you feel like you’re practically onstage yourself.

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