I have spent many days working in offices (and observing other offices in operation), witnessing and participating in a multitude of tiny moments of friction, inner and outer, a rubbing together that often rubs out the actual work. In those days, years, decades, I have learned that the most delicate maneuvers, the riskiest and yet often the most satisfying, involve working around a directive from above. Or even better, an attempt to subvert the great historical tradition of the office itself. Because sometimes opposition is necessary, both for the mental health of the employee and for the health of the organization itself.
Not that opposition is necessarily all that risky. Sometimes it seems baked into the whole process. And that’s where we arrive at “Procedures for Saying No,” Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s fourth installment of its investigation of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” the Journey Play project, with words by Robert Quillen Camp, who teaches at Lewis & Clark College, and direction by Rebecca Lingafelter.
“Procedures for Saying No” takes place in a modern office, where very modern meetings to discuss very modern protocols and deal with very modern problems are called, in part to relieve the drudgery of the desk work. How boring is it? The packet each audience member receives before the show attempts to explore those depths, outlining a series of steps each of us should take to get into the proper state of irritated stasis—the tiny, time-wasting tasks we call busywork.
The stasis of the modern office. Or is it ennui? In either case, “Procedures for Saying No” doesn’t linger over its parody of the office environment. Eventually it takes a turn for the apocalyptic, though I was never quite sure how metaphorical that turn was, and whether the metaphor was psychological or something wider—social, political, anthropological.
Not knowing wasn’t a bad thing, maybe because the moment-by-moment action and discourse on stage by the PETE regulars (Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman, Cristi Miles), augmented by Linda Austin and Murri Lazaroff-Babin, was so captivating. Where is this play going, I asked when I took a second to consider larger questions. But then I was back into it. “One day you will go to work and you won’t go home.”
What do office personalities, protocols, mini-dramas, and procedures for saying no have to do with “Moby-Dick,” you might rightly wonder. The connection is Melville, who wrote much more than sea stories (Moby-Dick, Typee, Billy Budd, Omoo). Among his land-lubber fictions, his short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” feels the most modern, at least to me: a lawyer hires a third clerk to help him through a busy period and perhaps calm the fractious relationship between the other two, Turkey and Nippers. At first Bartleby is an excellent employee, producing copies of office documents swiftly and well, but then he becomes a refusenik: When his employer asks him to do something, he always replies, “I prefer not to.”
Bartleby is so pathetic a character that the lawyer doesn’t have the heart to fire him, and even after Bartleby takes up residence in the office, the lawyer decides the solution is to move the office, rather than confront him.
Still, though it is set in an office, “Procedures for Saying No” is closer to “Moby-Dick” than to “Bartleby the Scrivener” in important ways, which is why it makes sense within PETE’s great whale cycle. It even has a Queequeg!
Played by Cristi Miles, she is in charge of technology in the office, specifically the copier (“Bartleby” reference!), which puts her in conflict with the office technophobe (Linda Austin). When Miles finally shows up, she has ankle-length hair, the bottom of her face is heavily inked, and she has no fear of the dead animals at the door or the alarming lack of food and water in the office.
Because, yes, one of the key questions “Procedures for Saying No” asks is, are our protocols and procedures sufficient for the abyss yawning down the aisle of our cubicles? Or, how quickly are we reduced to playing the cockroaches left after the annihilation? Short answers: no and pretty fast.
Do you have to read “Bartleby, the Scrivener” before seeing “Procedures for Saying No”? Of course not, though maybe it would put you in the proper frame of mind. (I didn’t read it until afterward.)
For that matter, should you have read “Moby-Dick” before engaging the four parts of PETE’s Journey Play project? I guess I’d say, glibly, that reading “Moby-Dick” wouldn’t hurt you a bit, but honestly, the novel (and subsequent films) are still sufficiently part of the popular culture that it’s not necessary. If you know Ahab, Queequeg and Little Pip, you know enough to have proceeded through the project without learning how to render blubber.The Journey started with “Drowned Horse Tavern,” which placed the audience inside a tavern on the edge of the sea, recreating the mood of the old whaling days through folk songs—and grog. And yes, a gigantic plastic whale figured, too. Then “All Well” sank us into hammocks, swaying in the complete darkness of Imago’s basement, hearing the creak of a ship at sea, and waiting for an apparition to float by to tell us, yes, that all was well and we could go.
“Moby-Dick” was most clearly invoked in Juli Crockett’s [or, the whale] earlier this year. It focused more on Ahab’s missing leg than a mythical white whale, asking, “What’s the sound of one leg floating?” But we were clearly at sea…or maybe the four Ahabs in the show put us figuratively at sea. Maybe you had to be there.
That’s the point of live theater in general, of course, but it’s particularly the point of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. I could tell you about the little dance that Whitehall and Austin perform at one point in “Procedures for Saying No,” but there’s no substitute for seeing it, no substitute for the actual confusion I felt at times during the play or the moments of clarity.
My favorite moment came, oh, two-thirds of the way through, and it runs counter to the run of the play in general. Whitehall has the floor, and she’s the wistful, fragile one in the office, the one trying to make it work, trying to follow the rules. “Do you know how sometimes the office just kind of transcends,” she asks. “The office feels absolutely fantastic today.” And what does that mean exactly? “The work is easy and unimportant.” Oh, and “light is coming through the window.” Perfect.
Why would we leave that for a life of dangerous sea-faring? Why would that make us create procedures for saying no? Maybe because we think Whitehall’s character is just a little bit crazy.
“Procedures for Saying No” continues at 8 pm Tuesday-Saturday through July 2 at Shaking The Tree, 823 SE Grant St.