The journey begins at the ‘Drowned Horse Tavern’

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble launches an 18-month seafaring exploration in an imaginary tavern by the sea

I spent my night at the Drowned Horse Tavern seated beneath a great white whale.

OK, that’s not quite true: I spent opening night of a Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble show called “Drowned Horse Tavern” sitting in the back row at CoHo Theater. Right above me was a great white INFLATABLE whale made of plastic.

But the beauty of the show is that I could imagine I was at a real tavern, even though, yeah, there was no denying that large plastic rendition of a sea mammal (and honestly, who knew you could buy such a thing?). PETE wasn’t attempting to recreate some specific early 1800s inn at all, really, they were just suggesting one. And despite all the hijinks, the silly, audience-interactive play-within-a-play (during which one of the city’s leading actors who was in the audience on opening night blew one of her lines—blame it on the grog), and an equally silly enactment of Baby Gramps’ even sillier lyrics to his 2006 “Old Man of the Sea,” despite all that, somehow, yes, at some moments I felt very close to 19th century seafaring days. Closer than I’ve ever been? Maybe so.

Here’s the set-up. You walk into CoHo (if you can get a ticket: the show runs through July 12 at CoHo, 2257 NW Raleigh St.), you secure a glass of free beer, you enter the theater proper down a narrow corridor. Then you have a choice: Take a seat around one of the long tables on the floor or sit in the usual theater seats. I’d suggest the tables, even though I’m NOT a big audience participation guy, just because you MIGHT get a free refill. The actors (Rebecca Lingafelter, Criti Miles, Amber Whitehall, Paige McKinney plus guitarist Mark Valadez) roam around and among those tables. They are restless and active. Movement is a key part of PETE’s approach to theater, and the company here isn’t just plodding about. For example, maybe they are finding out how long Miles can hold her breath with her head dunked in a big blue tub of water!

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble  has taken to the sea for "Drowned Horse Tavern," part of CoHo's Summerfest.

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble has taken to the sea for “Drowned Horse Tavern,” part of CoHo’s Summerfest.

The route to the past involves three key elements. The first and most immediately obvious: folk songs. They sing 10 or so folk songs that have some bearing on life at sea or in port. You’ll know some of them: “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor,” say, and “Rye Whiskey.” And you’ll know all of the tunes…they are that bred into the music of the West, underlying the music of the West in truth, because you don’t hear those songs very often in their “original” versions. And they are great songs, full of yearning and heartbreak, the life sensual and the life of privation, songs that understand that death is nearby. Except maybe for “Friggin’ in the Riggin’,” which couldn’t be bawdier.

“I felt right at home in this mythical realm,” Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles, “made up not so much of individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each rugged soul filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom…It was so real, so more true to life than life itself. It was life magnified. Folk music was all I needed.”

The actors sing the songs AS folk songs. They have fun with them, though usually they simply sing them plainly. They aren’t occasions to show off their singing technique. And sometimes they sound terrific.

“Drowned Horse Tavern” also uses words, sparely but effectively. I’m not talking about the humorous patter that sets things up and keeps them in motion. The show borrows from Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” a very recent play by Juli Crockett called or, the whale, and John Thomas Haines’ “My Partner Joe” (which the program lists as dating to 1883, though Haines died in 1843, and per our friends at Wikipedia, “My Partner Joe” was a big hit in 1835). These tend to be mood changers, moving us from the zesty put-on that’s going on around us to a place more serious and direct.

And then, PETE employs some ritual techniques, specifically a sort of hand-washing ceremony—the actors wash their own hands and then those of audience members, especially the people at the tables but also some of those seated. Seated as I was beneath the Great White Whale, I didn’t receive this ablution, but I think the point was a basic one: Contact. We are here together, sharing our time in a state somehow cleaner, metaphorically speaking, than the one we left on the street outside. The words and the music make the same gesture, an invitation to consider things anew in this space at this time.

“Drowned Horse Tavern” is the first episode in an 18-month exploration by PETE called “The Journey Play IS the Whole Thing.” At “Drowned Horse” the company was issuing passports, which you can get “stamped” after each performance. (This stamp was a photograph of a woman in a horse suit, which is pretty wonderful all by itself.) “At the center of this body of work is a play: or, the whale by Juli Crockett,” the press release says about this Journey. “Beneath this play is a book: Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. PETE will spend the next year and a half searching deeper still, in pursuit of what lies tantalizingly out of sight.”

Up next: All Well: A Sightless Play​, which the company calls “a theatrical sound experience,” October 29­-November 1, at The PETE Room, 810 SE Belmont St., and or, the whale​, “a play, a song, an operetta, a poetic response to Melville’s Moby Dick,” January 9-­23, 2016, Reed College, Black Box, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd.

I’ve written about PETE several times before, if you’re curious about them:

A review of Enter the Night by Irene Fornes.

A review of “The Three Sisters,” Anton Chekhov.

A preview of “The Three Sisters” that also talks about the company’s Anne Bogart-based approach to theater.

A review of the company’s version of Richard III, called R3.

A review of Song of a Dodo, which the company devised.

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