FG reviews: two from Post5

A witty 21st century sex romp and an overwrought family drama make their debuts at the new-works festival

Woman on the Scarlet Beast

Premiere production; Post5 Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert St.; through Feb. 8

Gender Tree

Premiere production; Post5Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert St.; through Feb. 9

 *

Post5 has put a lot of chips on the Fertile Ground table, opening two shows as full productions Friday night and calling them both world premieres rather than workshops. It’s a gutsy gambit, and maybe a little overeager.

Ridenour and Berns in "Gender Tree" at Post5

Ridenour and Berns in “Gender Tree” at Post5

 

Gender Tree, Cassandra Boice’s string of farcical mating vignettes, can be belly-laugh funny, and features witty and playfully stylized performances by its two clash-of-the-sex-titans stars, Rebecca Ridenour and Philip J. Berns. But as amusing as the show can be, and as crisply as it’s been directed by Ty Boice, it still has some structural issues to work out, and a couple of tough decisions to make, especially about its didactic ending. I hope that happens, because the promise is definitely here.

Gender Tree is what used to be called a sex romp, but it’s updated for the 21st century, and its wink is more rueful recognition than frat-boy coarseness or romantic situation comedy: Doris and Rock it’s not. It stars a man and woman, but considers all sorts of positions on the gender spectrum, from polyamory to dominance to cross-dressing to S&M to good old-fashioned who’s-on-top, with multiple stops along the way. It revels in the comic aspects of the human sex drive (and sometimes, animal sex drives, too) and the absurdities to which sex can drive otherwise reasonably sensible people. Things are exploratory but light, and the comically seductive Ridenour and Berns try on various sexual guises like costumes – sometimes literally. A lot of the fun is of the Greater Tuna type: watching two good performers do lightning shifts of costume and character. (The best recent example of this in town was Isaac Lamb and Leif Norby’s comic shape-shifting in Third Rail’s The Mystery of Irma Vep.)

Boice writes in her program notes that the play “started as a clown show for me.” That reveals itself most clearly in the second act’s long, Skin of Our Teeth-style section on the evolution of sexuality, from the primordial muck, to, well, wherever we are now. It feels as if this was the beginning of the play, the core idea, and the rest grew out of it. It could be plucked out and stand on its own as a witty comic dialogue. Within the larger play, though, it goes on too long: some judicious pruning would benefit the whole. Similarly, the videotaped interviews before each act with various Portlanders who talk about their views on gender and sexuality are appealing but overdone (and on Friday night, a little murky, too: the sound mix needs sharpening). They’re funny, and genuine, and insightful. Just a little less, please.

The biggest problem, though, is the didactic, overly earnest closing scene, in which Ridenour and Berns, in overlapping dialogue, give little lectures about the proper ways to approach this relationship and self-knowledge problem. It’s preachy, and it puts a damper on what the play has already conveyed implicitly. My suggestion: scrap the scene and look for a lighter, wittier, more sympathetic grace note.

 *

The Woman and the Scarlet Beast, a first play by novelist Caroline Miller, is earnest and deeply felt but also overwrought and monochromatic, pitched at high tension and never really letting up so the story can breathe a bit. Even the comic scenes are laden with portent and malevolence. It’s a three-generation family drama, with a wheelchair-bound and fiercely driven onetime prostitute (Adrienne Flagg) at its pivot, with her overly conciliatory mother (Jane Fellows) and repressed daughter (Olivia Weiss, as a reluctant novitiate who’s just been kicked out of the convent) completing the shifting triangle. Toss in a smarmy family “friend” (Aaron Kissinger) and a temptation-weakened priest (Stan Brown), and it’s a full house. If there is subtlety anywhere in this unhappy home, alas, I didn’t find it.

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