A pigeon, a boy, a novel night onstage

Jewish Theatre Collaborative's literary drama takes flight into the heart of home

“That novel just came to life for me!” I overheard a fellow theatergoer exclaim happily as I worked through the crowd at Milagro Theatre on Saturday night after the opening performance of the Jewish Theatre Collaborative’s A Pigeon and a Boy.

Well, yes, it did – and in some interesting ways. She might have meant the story itself swept her off her feet. And she might have meant she loved seeing good actors step inside the story and bring its characters into heart-thumping, flesh-and-blood reality.

Muñoz, DeGroat, Dinkowitz: ready to fly. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Muñoz, DeGroat, Dinkowitz: ready to fly. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Both were reasonable responses to JTC’s performance, a world-premiere stage adaptation of the Israeli writer Meir Shalev’s time-hopping novel about a rumpled, aging tour guide in contemporary Israel and the unlikely love story of a pair of young pigeon-handlers during the 1948 war of independence. A Pigeon and a Boy ripples with themes of home and belonging, issues that are intensely potent in Israel and the Middle East. But onstage the tale’s metaphors play second fiddle to a more basic and immediate dramatic impulse: how’s life going to work out for these characters right here in front of my face?

And that strikes me as a good thing.

Metaphor works best when it’s lurking below the surface, a quiet force that drives the action but doesn’t get in the way of a good story about sympathetic people. A Pigeon and a Boy sets out on its journey in a novelistic patchwork, taking its time to interlace the groundwork for a kind of historical and cultural mystery, and gradually bringing its elements together in a satisfying mosaic.

Pierce, Bahr, Elias: uprooted. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Pierce, Bahr, Elias: uprooted. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Pigeon, adapted by director Sacha Reich and Doren Elias, joins the recent run of good-to-excellent shows that have made late winter and early spring such a memorable and rewarding season on Portland’s stages. With an intriguing story, a solid and highly flexible cast led by Darius Pierce as the disgruntled romantic Yair, and excellent technical credits including a cleverly pop-up diorama of a painted set by the visual artist Henk Pander, this show’s got the goods: it engages you both in that slow and intellectually heightened way of a good written story being gradually unspooled, and with the immediate emotional impact of good drama.

“Hello, home,” Yair’s mother, Raya (Lorraine Bahr) teaches her son to say whenever he crosses the threshold from the outside world to their comfortable place in Tel Aviv. Then her doctor husband (Doren Elias) moves the family to Jerusalem, and things begin to fall apart. Yair’s brother (Nick Ferrucci) moves in one direction. Yair moves in another, lost and evasive, stumbling into a marriage to a wealthy American (Jamie M. Rea) that soon disintegrates into a sham. At the same time, Shalev introduces a secondary story, which gradually flows into the first, about a boy and a girl (Sam Dinkowitz and Crystal Ann Muñoz) who fall in love while learning how to handle homing pigeons during the 1948 war. A family friend, the genial and generous Meshulam (Matthew Pavik) and his construction-business daughter and partner, Tirza (Chantal DeGroat), who helps Yair renovate a home of his own, complete the web of characters who tie the tales together. In the end, the story is about Israel and its history and aspirations, but it’s more about this group of people and the way their lives intersect.

Pander’s ship’s-prow, panoramic set, with its occasional pop-up elements and its richly broad painted surfaces (Frances Fagan assisted on the scenic painting), emphasizes both the intimate and the widescreen aspects of the tale: we can see the weeds growing between the tiles of the old house’s floor, and also the parched desert vistas that will explode into war. Kristeen Willis Crosser’s lighting design and Shareth Patel’s sound design work seamlessly with the set to create a unified physical environment, and Alison Heryer’s understated but smart costumes subtly suggest the characters’ emotional and social states.

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Bahr, alone in a crowd. Photo: Friderike Heue

Bahr, alone in a crowd. Photo: Friderike Heuer

One of the things that marks a healthy theater scene is how broad its umbrella is. How many different ideas about what the word “theater” means can fit comfortably under the dome without being left out in the rain? With its busy improv, storytelling, puppetry, standup, musical-theater, non-English-speaking (the gorgeous recent Ardiente Paciencia at Milagro), solo, staged reading, and other scenes, Portland’s been hoisting a bigger and bigger umbrella all the time.

With A Pigeon and a Boy, the umbrella nudges a little wider to make room for literary adaptation – and not adaptation in a loose sense, but adaptation that fuses theatrical techniques with the actual language of the work being adapted. Pigeon is much more and much less than a staged reading of a literary work. Less, because so much is left out: Shalev’s novel is 311 pages long, and it’s been mined for its most crucial and dramatic material. More, because actors and designers are using their theatrical skills to create an immediate, sensory, and emotional version of the tale. We’re constantly aware that it’s a play, in the traditional sense, and also that it’s a literary work: at key points, the performers pass the language around like a good basketball team on a fast break, emphasizing the quicksilver qualities of the language.

It’s not a new form of theater – Portland audiences have seen it over the years in projects ranging from Great Expectations to Pride and Prejudice – but it’s done rarely enough in town that it still seems a little unusual when it pops up again. Nice work, big umbrella.

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Another aspect of the city’s recent theatrical renaissance has been the sharing of performing spaces that accelerated after last year’s loss of the Theater! Theatre! space in Southeast Portland. Artists Rep has become a mini-arts center, with several companies using its stages. JTC produces at Milagro. Tears of Joy has moved in with Imago. And unlike the business world, with its mergers and hostile takeovers, these are practical partnerships: theater companies keep their own identities and independence even as they cut costs by sharing resources. It’s happening in the smallest spaces (Shoebox) and the biggest (the Gerding Theater at the Armory, home of Portland Center Stage).

The latest example at the Gerding is Lone Wolves, a two-night run of solo sketch comedy playing at the downstairs Ellen Bye Studio while it’s between Center Stage shows. It’s Friday and Saturday, March 28-29, with performers from the Liberators, the Brody, Live Wire! Radio, and elsewhere. Details here.

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A Pigeon and a Boy continues at Milagro through April 12. Ticket and schedule information here.

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