Where Young People Go to Retire

Dance, Food, Theater, Travel Add comments

campo still standing hereYou would think that with my day job which entails crisscrossing the country racking up both air mileage and time zone discombobulation, there would be few places in the US that I would not have been to. In reality though, I haven’t really spent that much time in the Pacific Northwest. For the past several years, I’ve stared longingly at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s website, devouring the descriptions of the offerings in its Time-Based Arts (TBA) Festival, an international festival of cutting-edge theater, dance, and performance art which occurs for two weeks every October. The TBA Festival curator used to be Mark Russell, who also programs the highly-regarded Under the Radar Festival in New York City’s Public Theater. So over the past few years, the biggest names of edgy, unconventional theater from The Wooster Group to Nature Theater of Oklahoma to Australia’s Back to Back Theater to Baryshnikov dancing with the Donna Uchizono Company have shown up in Portland in the fall. So finally, this year, with cultural wanderlust and curiosity winning over work and Chicago personal life scheduling conflicts, I headed into what Fred Armisen calls the place “where young people go to retire”.  In addition to taking in a couple of performances at the TBA Festival, the trip was also an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and to satiate a non-theatrical, culinary curiosity: is Andy Ricker’s PokPok, winner of James Beard awards, subject of frenzied national food media coverage, and hot restaurant export warmly-embraced by usually skeptical, world-weary New Yorkers, truly the second coming of Thai food?

Well, let’s get that question out of the way first.  The answer is an unequivocal no. Yep, no. I tried both the original PokPok as well as Ricker’s newly-opened noodle shop, Sen Yai, and I gotta say being a veteran of numerous Bangkok trips as well as eating binges in Chicago’s lively, adventurous Thai restaurant scene (Chicago and LA are probably the only two cities in the US universally acknowledged as having a top-notch Thai food scene), nothing really blew me away. The food was good, but I’ve had as good, and at times better in Chicago. At PokPok, I appreciated Ricker’s inclusion of ground pork and dried shrimps on the grilled eggplant salad, one of my quintessential Bangkok dishes, but the eggplant was cut in large, awkward chunks and the chili heat muted, a version that paled in comparison with the delicately heady off-menu version at Aroy Thai (which needed to be requested ahead of time). I liked his Chiang Mai pork belly curry, robust and deeply satisfying with Burmese curry powder, but his dessert of a durian-scented, coconut and palm sugar caramel cake was so pungently durian, all the other elements cruelly drowned in it (and I’m a veteran durian eater so I know great cooks in Asia have the ability to tone down the unique durian flavor to work harmoniously with other ingredients).  At Sen Yai, the kuay tiaw noodles were fresh and delicious, but the sauce which  included rendered pork fat, prawns, and cuttlefish, tasted flat and ordinary (thank goodness for the fish sauce and other condiments on the table).  I’m not surprised that the food media is fawning all over Ricker – he is mediagenic, well-spoken, and seemingly good-natured at his success. He is a familiar persona to represent a sort of-unfamiliar cuisine (well, a cuisine that goes beyond pad thai and penang curry) to the culinary masses.  But I am very perplexed by all these Chicago chefs, food writers, and Twitter “personalities” who have proclaimed that PokPok (New York or Portland) is the best Thai food they’ve ever had. Where have they been eating?

There were no such disappointments at the TBA Festival. I only had time to go to two performances, but both were so exciting, provocative, innovative, intellectually and emotionally challenging, that the plane fare from Chicago to Portland was well worth the money. First, there was Still Standing You, billed as a dance performance which chronicled male relationships from Belgian dancers Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido, who developed the piece while at residency at Campo, the performing arts center in Ghent.  “Dance performance” was putting it delicately.  Over 55 minutes, Ampe and Garrido climbed all over each other, played body tricks on one another, fought, wrestled, yelled, grunted, twisted and played with each other’s penis foreskin (yes, you read that right), did so many things to one another that I didn’t think was possible to do to a human body. Half of the hour-long running time was jawdroppingly devoted to nude wrestling/body exploration and punishment, a mesmerizing, painfully voyeuristic mix of a MMA fight, fraternity hazing, and a Sean Cody video without erections.  I’ve seen a lot of theater, but I hadn’t seen something like what Ampe and Garrido did before.  What did it actually all mean? Well, it could be an intriguing commentary on male relationships, always a mix of warrior competitiveness and deeply-repressed homoeroticism. Or it could be an impressive challenge to see how far movement techniques could push a dancer’s body. I’m not sure what it was, but it was ferociously riveting, and I was so impressed at the physical and emotional intimacy that Ampe and Garrido (both heterosexuals in separate relationships as far as I know; Garrido talked at the beginning of the piece about being a new father) that they shared with each other and with the audience.

The second show I saw was El ano en que naci (The Year I was born) devised by Argentinian writer-director-performer Lola Arias from the real-life stories of its performers, who were all born after Pinochet’s 1973 coup which established dictatorial rule in Chile. It is coming to the MCA Chicago Stage in January 2014, and I can’t wait to see it again. I’ll probably write more about it then, but man, it’s bold, devastating, politically potent theater.  The performers, a mix of actors and non-actors, talked about the lives of their parents, some of whom were arrested and/or killed by the Pinochet regime, some of whom were military officers in the dictatorship and participated in the repression.  The vignettes painted episodes from 40 years ago, many of them still hauntingly painful (one actress recreated the death of her mother at the hands of the military, a scene that was so hard to watch), but overlaid with the adult perspectives of these children whose parents went through these experiences – a truly powerful expression of “the children pay for the sins of their fathers”, meta-theater blown up to the zillionth degree.  Interspersed throughout was pointed commentary on Chilean culture from its social stratification (based on wealth and skin color) to its fraught future with the upcoming Presidential elections (the first in South America where two women are the contenders and both have fathers tied to the opposite sides of the Pinochet rule).  But El ano en que naci wasn’t all just politics or polemics; it was also highly, engagingly theatrical, with multi-media, a dance number, and a rousing show ending with the cast playing air guitars.  At the end of the show, I wondered, after seeing this play that was so ragingly hypnotic, so relevant, so much a part of the bigger world, how can I go see another Shakespeare play or a new play about the angst of New York hipsters?

The Time-Based Arts (TBA) Festival runs till this Sunday, September 22 in Portland.

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