Sunday, October 07, 2007

Ghosts of Celilo

My father and I drove through the Columbia Gorge to see his mother in Pendleton at least once a year throughout my childhood. He told me stories of visiting the Celilo fishing village as a young boy. When I stayed at my maternal grandparent's house in the Summer I often slept on a sofa in their basement party room under a photo of the fishing platforms on Celilo Falls. (My Greek grandfather was fascinated with Native Americans. He claimed to have ridden with Geronimo's gang, a family fable that one of my aunts assumed to be true and shared with her class. She was sent home for her dishonesty. Getting one of his children into hot water didn't dissuade him from sticking to his story.)
As I grow older and have resettled in my home state, my appreciation for the cultural and natural history of the Northwest increases. I was excited to see Marv Ross's play Ghosts of Celilo. It has been described as magical. Much has been publicized about the ten year process of its creation in collaboration with Natives. I was nervous about it being a musical, but I quieted my anxiety with hopes of Native song and dance. I thought that the pageantry of Native music and legend would serve to abstract much in the same way hearing a Mass in Latin serves the soul and distracts the intellect from the trite tales of Christian legends.
Marv Ross has a claim to fame with a soft-rock hit with a group called Quarterflash that was big in the early 80s. Much to my disappointment the music reflected the playwright's lite FM roots more than anyone else seems to recognize. I found the literal qualities of the writing and the music almost unbearable. Much was made of the mystery of the ghosts, but the exposition killed all the potential drama of discovery. The beauty of the sets in the opening scene were cheapened with a cheesy Star Wars style superimposed prelude. Worse yet the snippy bickering of the ghosts: Well who are you? You didn't! Yes I did! No you didn't! Okay not that base, but very close. Things didn't improve much from there. Most of the play centered in an Indian school run by opportunistic white Christians. There was a moment in the last scene of the first act where the Native American child actors sang and danced. One girl in particular experienced a touch of Lorca's duende. I also appreciated the bits of cultural history sprinkled throughout the first act. As we sat in the beautiful little banquettes in the Newmark Theatre during intermission I almost suggested leaving, but it wasn't that bad.
The second act has received praise for its brisk pacing. Admittedly it moved along in a more dramatic fashion, but a surprise romance almost made me audibly groan. I mostly checked out as I couldn't get Pocahontas out of my head.
Thankfully I was given comps for the show. I would have been outraged if I had paid for it. As it was I just grew closer to being convinced that I truly hate theater.
I truly hope that someone celebrates the wonderful story of Celilo in a more elegant rendition. Perhaps film would be a more poetic medium.

¡Viva la cinema!
Signore Direttore

1 comment:

Sokrates said...

The cast and audience of the "Cuckoo's Nest" I did last year got an early taste of this show, as the song "Fishin' at Celilo" appeared twice in our production. (In the play, Chief Bromden waxes nostalgic about the falls that were no more.)

I hear you about the state of modern theater. Believe it or not, a while back I actually saw a decent play here in LA. Didn't blow my mind but was better than expected -- especially considering LA's reputation as the world capital of bad theater.