We are at a memorial service. Joining the audience members in the pews of Portland’s Old Church (temporarily returned to its original, pre-concert hall function), black clad people who appear to be mourners trickle in and take their seats, their attire suggesting a setting in the early 20th century. Half-lit by two candelabras, the stage holds only a life-size puppet figure.
One of the mourners moves deliberately to the organ keyboard onstage and plays an ominous single chord that reverberates for minutes — a drone that underlies the action, which we gradually (and somewhat apprehensively) realize, is happening not onstage but in the seats around us, as various mourners silently display various states of agitation — until one tearfully erupts in a torrent of Stuart Smalley-esque laments (“I am a good person!”) before collapsing in anguish.
“Welcome to tonight’s performance, ladies and gentlemen,” nervously intones one of the mourners, taking the stage.
We are at a dinner party, possibly a birthday party judging by the balloons. The main course is apparently pickles. The mourners — it’s not clear if they’re the same characters we encountered in the previous scene — eat and drink silently. A live klezmer rock band provides Balkan (Turkish and Serbian) instrumental accompaniment for awhile, then halts. Never speaking, as they drink more, the partiers’ behavior grows disconcertingly wilder, at one point resolving into a perfectly coordinated ensemble performance of what can only be described as dinner table percussion. One of the partiers dances unsteadily on the bar, and while another plays Chopin on the piano, she unleashes an increasingly hysterical stream of accusations. One by one, the other characters eventually drift away.
“Thank you for coming tonight,” the host announces.
We are, in fact, at Source Material Collective’s I Should Have a Party For All The Thoughts I Didn’t Say, “a theatrical performance, a grief merry-making, a proclamation of radical conformities….a ceremony of etiquette and recklessness, a storytelling of delicate customs, of remembrance, of cowardly ceremonies, and secret braveries,” according to the press release. “It is a love letter to Russian writer Anton Chekhov. It is a funeral party, and a funeral after party.”
There’s not much more to ISHAP’s “story,” such as it is, than described above, and I’m intentionally omitting spoiler details. No dialogue (just the two monologues), no clear plot. But the production’s chief delights lie elsewhere — in the creative use of the Old Church’s spaces (the audience moves between them); in the occasional bouts of deadpan humor that peek out when potential pretentiousness looms; in the deftly executed musical episodes that unexpectedly emerge when the pace threatens to flag; in the portentous, dreamlike atmosphere of suspense and implication created through deft design (by Nina Caussa), costumes (by Miekko Romming) and acting (James Michael Chowan, Miles Hartfelder, Tiara Jackson, Justin Montalvo, Raven Scott).
More than most theatrical occasions, you really have to be there — and you should. Sometimes I felt like I was in a late Kubrick film, sometimes a Tim Burton show. The performers’ emotive indecipherable lyrics (set to original folk music with influences from Bulgaria and Croatia), combined with the funereal costuming, incongruously summoned a combination of Cocteau Twins meet the Addams Family. Kate Conklin, who teaches Bulgarian singing, coached the vocals, with live music performed by music director Lauren Baba, Andrew Conrad, Rusty Kennedy, Mac Whipple and Jarret Tracy.
Directed and produced by SMC co-founder Samantha Ravenna Soley Shay, it’s the kind of nonliteral theater that might especially appeal to fans of Portland’s Liminal Group, or some of the Time-Based Art Festival’s productions. Much remains mysterious, but unlike so many other superficially similar abstract theater performances, this one didn’t feel under-thought, over-long or insufficiently realized. Rather, it seemed to offer tantalizing glimpses into a strange, fully imagined world that was never quite revealed. I was never entirely sure what was going on, never quite clear about who was an audience member and who was in the cast, and despite the announcement, wasn’t even certain when it was really over. Yet I never stopped wanting to know what would happen next, and whatever it was or wasn’t, after an hour, I still wanted more.
ISHAP is only the second Portland production (and third overall) by the young company composed mostly of recent Cal Arts graduates, half of whom live in Portland. The first, 1000 Tongues, a portion of which premiered last month at Portland’s Fertile Ground festival, is currently in development and headed to Europe in the fall, where it will premier at Poland’s Grotowski Institute. The company’s maiden project won several awards at its premiere at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival. With ISHAP, too, still in progress, it’s too early to say for certain how successful the show or the company will turn out. But its early efforts already reveal the potential to add an important dimension to Oregon performance. Already SMC is creating strikingly designed theatrical experiences unlike anything else I know in Portland today.
Source Material Collective’s ‘I Should Have a Party For All The Thoughts I Didn’t Say’ runs through February 9 at The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Portland. (Saturday’s show is sold out.) Tickets are available online.
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