‘The Events’ review: the unanswered question

Third Rail’s production grapples with the causes of mass shootings

It happened again yesterday. Whenever it happens, and it happens almost literally every day in this country now, it’s always followed by the same question.

Why?

Scottish playwright David Greig began writing his play The Events, running through November 18 At Imago Theatre, in the wake of the horrific July 22, 2011 massacre of 77 children by a right wing white male (sound familiar?) in Utøya, Norway. The story has only become tragically more relevant. Since then, the world has experienced Sandy Hook, Orlando, Charleston, the bloody list goes on through Las Vegas and doubtless more before the year is out, and beyond. And the first question everyone asks is:

Why?

That’s the question Claire, the church choir director and minister who survives a fictional mass killing, keeps pursuing in The Events, too. In fact: that’s pretty much the whole play: Claire repeatedly asking that question, as her life disintegrates around her in the months after the killing spree perpetrated at choir practice by a teenager called only The Boy. ”How can I hate him,” Claire tells her counselor, “if I don’t understand him?

Porter and Gibson in Third Rail’s ‘The Events.’ Photo: Owen Carey.

Greig uses Claire as other plays and movies use journalists or detectives: as a stand in for audience, a character charged with asking questions. And, whether motivated by PTSD, survivor guilt, or her deteriorating relationship with her partner, ask them she does. Over the course of 90 minutes (no intermission) in this production by Portland’s Third Rail Repertory Theatre, Claire (played by Third Rail stalwart Maureen Porter) obsessively seeks her answer from a variety of sources: a psychologist (including one counseling her), a journalist, a politician, an anthropologist, the killer’s father, and finally comes face to face with the instigator of the events himself. They’re all played by the same actor, Joseph Gibson, implicitly showing how the killer’s image occupies her whole life. To all of them, she poses the same question:

Why?

Along the way, Claire flirts with as many solutions: mysticism, religion, vengeance, suicide, sometimes briefly positing alternative timelines that might have eventuated had the various causes identified by all these experts been addressed in time.

Spoiler: neither Claire nor the audience find The Answer to that much-repeated question of why mass killers kill in The Events, which suffers from its sacrifice of character depth for topical breadth. But it does answer an equally important one.

“Claire’s journey isn’t easy and it isn’t neat and it isn’t straightforward and it isn’t familiar and it isn’t rational,” Yarbrough writes in his program notes. “Greig doesn’t give us a traditional play with the multiple threads of narrative and character tied up nicely… it’s more of a collage, a dabbing of questions and possibilities and flights of fancy and points of view.”

But by switching so often among so many avenues of pursuit and characters, Greig leaves little room for development of any of his ideas or characters except Claire. Neither the script, which merely has her ask the same question over and over again, even of different sources, nor Porter’s performance display the ratcheting desperation a really obsessive-compulsive seeker would exhibit, making her later choices less and less convincing. Gibson, too, gets too many roles and too little time to develop most of them effectively, though he really scores as The Boy.

With so many rapid changes of character and scene, director Scott Yarbrough adeptly employs most of Imago’s small stage space to help the audience follow the action. Each of the many encounters between Claire and whichever character Gibson is playing gets its own space and style. Along with the choir risers, Megan Wilkerson’s spare set is basically a backdrop that suggests stained glass, a reference to the church where the events took place.

Healing through Singing

Greig himself might have realized that he’d set himself an impossible task: making compelling drama out of a search for nonexistent or at best unsatisfying answers, a problem only masters like Samuel Beckett have solved. After months of working on the story after the Norway massacre, Greig wasn’t sure he even had a play. Until he happened to see a community choir practicing, and suddenly realized that here was the answer: not to the question of why killers kill, but to the question of how victims, and even communities, can heal.

That’s a different question than the one he poses going in, and while it’s easier to answer, The Events may still disappoint audience members who, given the set up, understandably feel disappointed that his newly arrived-at ending doesn’t quite match or resolve the complication that’s gone before.

Greig’s realization is no surprise. Communal musical responses have followed most recent acts of catastrophic hate, including one of the most poignant early attempts at healing the wounds of the September 11 attacks, when a Maine choir sang Beaverton native Morten Lauridsen’s song of solace, O Magnum Mysterium at Ground Zero.

Here, the choir provides the play’s best moments. Porter and Gibson are the only actors onstage. The rest are local choral singers who never leave the stage, sometimes singing both traditional and pop covers, and original music that advances the plot. Greig specified that producers use community, not professional choirs, and Third Rail has engaged several for this run.

“In some ways, this choir functions like a Greek chorus,” write Third Rail dramaturgs Ellen Walkley and Brian Myers in the program. “But unlike a Greek chorus, they are not part of the cast…. They perform but are not actors; they watch, but they are not quite audience. They are both visitors and participants.”

Choir members occasionally deliver a line or two and interact with the action, functioning as more a narrator than a Greek chorus’s traditional commentator role, including describing the, uh, events via the lyrics of original songs created for the show by Irish composer John Browne.

Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s ‘The Events.’ Photo: Owen Carey.

What could have been a mere gimmick and audience padder (choir members have friends and family who like to see them sing) turns into The Events’s most successful aspect. The fact that the choir is an approachable, amateur one (though in the show I saw, the solid singing of Portland’s B-Side Bookclub a cappella choir was fully up to professional standards) helpfully grounds a play that otherwise seems as much a product of its protagonists’ imagination as reality. One thing it’s apparently not, though, at least on the night I saw the show, is multicultural, as the script specifies. (The choir’s multi-ethnicity supplies some of the motivation — that “why” question — for the murders.) But hey, this is Portland. In fairness, other choirs engaged for the run appear more obviously multicultural.

(In a post-show talkback, Porter rightly lamented the constrained timeline that gave the choristers little time to prepare for their dramatic moments, necessitating the use of a script in hand in one scene. With choir seasons planned long in advance, future productions might want to start the choir recruitment process a year before opening night.)

Having the choir musically narrate the story’s most harrowing moment rather than giving it to actors to perform is one reason the show isn’t really frightening or depressing or anything else you might expect given the dreadful subject matter. None of those understandable reservations should keep anyone, even those who think of art as a kind of escape from harsh reality, from seeing this show. (Nevertheless: trigger warnings, though not literal ones.) Like so many companies that have addressed the challenges of our time on stage this season, both Greig and Third Rail deserve credit for not flinching from what’s happening in that other world beyond the stage.

In the end, of course, none of her sources can give Claire the answer she — and we — seek. Greig’s story commendably avoids pat answers by stopping short at every turn, as if to say that the only answer is that there is no answer. True as it may be, that conundrum seldom makes for compelling drama. That doesn’t, however, mean we should stop seeking answers.

Yet however dramatically unsatisfying as presented here, Greig’s non-solution feels real— don’t expect to find the answer to an unanswerable question; instead, ask a different question: how do we heal? At the play’s climax, Claire faces a fateful choice (though the script leaves her motivation a little muddy) to resolve her own dilemma of how — and whether — to go on, even though she can’t find the answer to her big question.

Why?

But even though it doesn’t quite match the climactic insight, the final scene’s resolution implicitly presents another, truer realization. As Yarbrough puts it, “we aren’t left with an answer to the question of ‘why,’ but we are left with a possible path forward.” At a talkback after the performance I attended, that insight was enunciated by one of the choir members, which went something like this: “for me , and really for anyone who sings in a group, no matter what’s going on in our lives, we know that when we go to rehearsal, we’re going to find solace in singing together with friends we love.”

Those of us, like me, who sing and play in choirs and community music groups like those performing in this production understand the very real, almost mystical feeling of fellowship that arises when you sing together, even with strangers. The Events isn’t claiming that singing in a choir will stop mass killings, or bring more than musical harmony to its participants’ lives. Third Rail’s moving, beautifully staged final scene does suggest that the community that emerges from participating in choirs and other performing groups — can be a countervailing force to the social isolation that sometimes produces killers like those we’ve seen way too often in our isolating society. Singing together and fostering community may not be the answers to that persistent question of why killers kill, but they may help answer the question of how their victims can heal.

Meanwhile, the killings go on. So does, inevitably, that unanswered question. But as The Events reminds us, so too does the music.

Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s The Events continues through November 17 at Imago Theatre, 17 S.E. Eighth Ave. Tickets online or 503-235-1101. For information on what you can do to help find answers to gun violence, consult Ceasefire Oregon.

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One Response. Have your say.

  1. Choirster says:

    I see the fundamental journey of the play as Claire’s quest to recover her soul. And I’d argue that final scene with The Boy shows how she does that (even though that’s not necessarily what she had planned) and the final scene with the choir shows that she did indeed recover it.

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