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Before the show starts is often the only time we are allowed to take photos.

Somehow, the culture people of Portland got my email address, and now I’m at their mercy. I get periodic emails that show up with special price offers at irritatingly convenient times, like Just In Time For Christmas Gifts!

I’ve mentioned before that Tara is crazy about Broadway shows. I sent them a text last Fall. “Hey, Finding Neverland or RENT?” The response was 19-year-old appropriate: “Duh.” I should have guessed that they would want the classic show inspired by La Boheme.

“Classic” sounds kind of funny, because I actually saw RENT not too long after it came out, and that wasn’t terribly long ago. Right? Ahem, the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour is what we went to see. Apparently, I’m old enough to be classic.

The first time I saw the show was in rural Arcata, California, in the late 90s. I remembered that the storyline addresses AIDS, which was still a national scare in those days. And racy for the time and location were the homosexual relationships on stage. Most of all, I remember Angel, the dynamic cross-dresser who was the voice of love and reason for the group of young, desperately poor New York singles.

Arcata is a college town, but most of the audience was made up of patrons of the arts in their 40s or older, who didn’t know the story. And don’t forget that I said “rural.” The audience first sees Angel dressed in masculine clothing, when he meets and falls in love with Tom Collins. But soon comes the big entrance as *Angel!* with glitz and glitter and makeup. Angel pranced out on stage in a white and silver skin-tight costume, ruffles, high heels, red lips, and a dazzling smile that lit up the theatre. She came right up to the edge of the stage – so close I had to tilt my head – and struck a pose.

You could hear a pin drop.

I think I could actually hear people snapping their mouths back shut when they realized they were gaping. There was no cheer, no laughter. Total paralyzed silence. Maybe a muffled sneeze in the back. I had been just about to give a “whoop!” but then realized something was wrong and held it in.

This time the show was different for a few reasons. Notably, I’m in Portland, which is like a baby San Francisco, for all the tolerance we’ve got. And furthermore (it’s apparently 20 years later, and) concepts like homosexual love, drug use, diseases that kill you, and breaking into empty buildings because you’re homeless are not as shocking to find on the stage anymore.

This audience was fully on board. No, not just on board, but cult followers or something. The scene when Angel comes out in drag was preceded by raucous cheers before I even knew what was happening. The outfit was different this time, but the people went crazy for it!

The production still uses telephone answering machines to bring in missing characters (like parents) and to make connections in the story line. And it still works. The difference is that the first time I didn’t pay it any mind, and this time, it caught my attention every time. Answering machines! I remember those!

The first time I saw RENT, there was one relationship that carried it for me. The interactions between Angel and Collins are lovely at every stage, from the joy in the beginning, to their successful negotiations to unite their friends in times of trouble, to the heartbreaking hospital scenes when Collins takes care of Angel. Their love is pure and immense – big enough for all of us.

This time the relationship that carried it for me was between Roger and Mimi. He’s a musician struggling to be true to his art. However, his bigger struggle is with self-worth. He doesn’t really believe he’s good enough to be a musician, so he never finishes a song. And then he and Mimi fall in love and he suspects he’s not deserving of her either, so they break up. She’s an addict and really really wants to quit, but just can’t admit to herself or to Roger that she is weak, and she wants to be loved and forgiven despite that. They wrench apart, and fall together, and wrench apart again.

It was just awful, watching their pain, and knowing we so often bring our pain upon ourselves like that. We are happy or satisfied or loved purely based on our perception of who we are. Arggh, humans!

The ending is sad and hopeful, and Tara and I were still wiping the backs of our hands across our cheeks when the actors bowed. I wonder if art is supposed to make its audience find a truth? Maybe that’s why the same story hit me two different ways at two times in my life. When the artists don’t use direct words, we have to give it our own meaning, and then, it has a distinctly personal message for the most dramatic impact. Oooh, those artists. So clever.

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Forgive the terrible phone camera image from inside the theatre.

Forgive the terrible phone camera image from inside the theatre.

Arno and I spent an evening at The Moth. He purchased two sets of tickets for me for my birthday. I had asked for The Book of Mormon, but it sold out and instead I got The Moth, and Sherman Alexie.

Why The Moth?
Ask George Dawes Green, the poet and best-selling novelist who is the Founder of The Moth. George wanted to recreate, in New York, the feeling of sultry summer evenings in his native Georgia, where he and his friends would gather on his friend Wanda’s porch to share spellbinding tales. There was a hole in the screen which let in moths that were attracted to the light, and the group started calling themselves The Moths. The first New York Moth event was held in George’s living room, but word spread fast, and the events soon moved to cafes and clubs throughout the city. Audiences are drawn to the stories, like moths to a flame. (excerpt taken from themoth.org)

My anticipation was high before the show, because I am well acquainted with The Moth podcast, where one story per week is selected for my free download. It’s a New York live storytelling show. The audience shows up to hear people tell their own true life stories. Listening for over a year now, I had pieced together how I believed it worked.

When the announcer remarked once how surprised they were that Albert Maysles (whose name caught my attention because Tara and I had just watched the new, and then the old, Grey Gardens) put his name in to tell a story, I assumed people put their name in a hat and were drawn.

When the news before the show included how The Moth was “popping up” in cities around the country, I assumed that it meant local people were using the format and with support from the originators, were doing their own local Moths. At the Portland show, I was expecting all Portland/Oregon natives telling their stories.

Each podcast is accompanied by the Theme of the night, like Beginnings and Endings, or The Good Old Days. An announcer once drew my attention to the fact that a storyteller on the podcast had cleverly worked the exact wording of the theme into her conclusion, and I concocted a theory that not only do people put their name in a hat, but they also get presented with a topic, and must shape their story to match it.

It didn’t work like that. The producers of the New York show follow the same steps to collect story tellers, but bring them onstage in different cities.  Turns out, I am not as well acquainted with The Moth as I wanted to be. But the important thing is that it was a wonderful evening in a stunning venue with the perfect companion. I cried and laughed with every single storyteller.

The first character of the evening was the grand and elegant Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, built in 1928. Outside, one can’t help but feel a thrill at the 65-foot high PORTLAND sign all lit up in actual bulbs, and the broad marquee announcing the show, just like the old days. Inside the decor involves every decorative surface, and is set off with chandeliers casting a candle-like glow. The multiple steep banks of balconies in the theatre itself hold quaintly small seats, as old theatres are wont to do. The effect brought to mind rather modern images though, such as an IMAX theatre or the Grand Convocation Chamber in Star Wars, with audience members stacked above each other at an angle to provide a great view of the blue-lit stage below.

Our first performer was Gideon Freudmann, who played an electric cello in a fantastic design of wooden horns arcing the outlines of where a traditional cello might be, but leaving only air where one would expect a large instrument. Gideon deftly dropped a rock beat onto a loop, and then celloed a melody on top. The music was unexpected and even more beautiful for it. The audience roared appreciation. Gideon’s job was timekeeper, and he’d pull a soft strain across the bow when storytellers hit their 10-minute limit.

Our host from New York was Ophira Eisenburg, a storyteller herself. She said, “People introduce me as Oprah Something-Jewish”, and warmly hugged and introduced each entertainer.  Most had flown in from somewhere else, so I didn’t get a local show really. But one scheduled speaker couldn’t make it and we had a Portlander Kerry Cohen step in and entertain us. So my secret desires were soothed a bit. The stories had been selected ahead of time, so it’s probably likely that the Theme of the night (Heart of Darkness) was selected to pull all the stories together.

Adam Wade displayed his unquestionable storytelling talents when he told us about being an awkward boy taking his Ya Ya and Auntie out for a ride that included the airport, a local make-out spot, and being humiliated by being caught there by the most popular guy in high school. His was the best display of the art of storytelling; where half the joy is in the telling.

Kerry Cohen took us along a path of bad choices culminating in being taken into custody for traveling with a boyfriend trying to smuggle marijuana onto an airplane, and realizing that was probably a sign that she needed to date someone else.

Dori Samadzai Bonner simply put her hands in her pockets and told us about coming to the United States from Pakistan. Her parents could only afford to send her and her brother when they were kids. The smuggler dropped them in Thailand and disappeared. But against the odds they finally made it to the U.S. on Christmas Day (because the second smuggler reasoned that the authorities at the airport would be too happy to scrutinize their fake passports).  She concluded by saying she had always wanted a public forum to say how proud she was to become a citizen years later, and to thank us for giving her a home.

Satoori Shakoor told us how she lost her mother and then her son and thought she died then. But she pulled herself back to life in a new career of corneal donations. She can now take her acute familiarity with grief and recovery, and use it to talk to the bereaved. Corneas only survive a matter of hours after a person has died, before it’s too late to transplant them to bring sight to a living person. Satoori’s unique life experience is put to the high-pressure test of finding a delicate and respectful way to compel the grief-stricken to assist in gaining access to donated eyes.

Jillian Lauren spun a tale almost too fantastical to believe, of an American girl who boarded a plane looking for adventure and entered a desert world of Aladdin myths, with foreign princes and princesses, and the richest man in the world, and parties and palaces. What made it believable was that it was a tale darkened with misery and self-loathing until she finally had the strength to get out of there and come home. Arno said he was reminded of the song I’ve Never Been To Me by Charlene.

We walked from the theatre back to the car in the mild February air (this is the only place I’ve lived where February brings hints of spring). Stay tuned for Birthday show part II, when I plan to sneak a decent camera in and get some great photos of the place.

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