The People’s Republic of Niceland

Comic provocateur Lauren Weedman sinks her teeth, lightly, into Puddletown

Weedman stalks the stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Weedman stalks the stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Is Lauren Weedman Portland’s Nemesis? It was Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, you may recall, who led the beautiful and arrogant young Narcissus to the fateful pool where he gazed at his own reflection, fell deeply, madly in love with himself, then pined away and died.

And isn’t that Weedman, the extremely talented L.A. comedian and monologist remembered widely and fondly for her stints on “The Daily Show,” pulling a mirror out of her hipster pocket and aiming it straight at the city’s eyes?

Careful, Portland. The illusion you see may be your own.

Weedman scored a hit at Portland Center Stage a couple of years ago with her solo show “Bust,” had a good time while she was here, and then accepted an intriguing challenge from the theater company: create a new solo show about Portland. What with “Portlandia” slapping little birds on every corner of the city, and “Grimm” celebrating the town’s inner monster, and the New York Times adopting Portland as the cute Little Village That Could, the assignment seemed both trendy and timely: Weedman would poke around a bit, blend her observations through the mixer of her own mordant wit, and report back to us as a not-quite-outsider on what it is, exactly, that makes us so darned special.

The result, “The People’s Republic of Portland,” opened last weekend in the company’s intimate basement-level Ellen Bye Studio, following an extended run of preview performances in which material was shuffled in and out of the script like pawed-over recyclables from an overstuffed bin at Scrap. Like an oddball love child of Honore Daumier and Lucille Ball, Weedman barreled into the thing pell-mell, tumbling her words over themselves, shooting past punctuations and unfinished thoughts, racing to stay ahead of herself in a canny impression of cultural dislocation: the Angelino in overdrive, trying clumsily to gear down to Portland speed. Her opening-night performance elicited smiles of recognition and lots of laughter, but very little in the way of visceral or deeply probing reflections in the mirror. The show still has a nervous, hectic, provisional feel, and in a way that’s OK: If Weedman’s still feeling her way toward what she REALLY thinks about Portland, she’s not alone.

“People’s Republic” has split the critics so far, with the two major print publications agreeing that Weedman’s a gifted performer and the script feels unsettled. The disagreement comes in how those two things balance out. The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley, in a largely appreciative review, observes that her delivery is reminiscent of “the manic momentum of Robin Williams or Jonathan Winters.” He adds: “(F)rom her opening tale of encountering a mass-transit proselytizer before the plane even touched down for her first Portland visit, though observant accounts of Pearl District dog chauvinism, geeky trivia competitions, strip clubs, the ‘ecstatic dance’ scene, farmers markets, and so on, Weedman is relentlessly, rapidly funny.” Willamette Week’s Rebecca Jacobson takes a sterner stance, praising Weedman’s performing skills but complaining that her take on Portland hits “too many of the expected beats.” “She’s witty and dynamic,” Jacobson summarizes, “and it’s clear she’s taken with Portland. But Portland isn’t her wheelhouse(.)”

Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Which one’s right? Both, I think. “People’s Republic” is appealing and frustrating, smooth and disjointed, and very much a work in process. That provisionality makes it feel right at home in Portland, which often values exploration over finished product, and I find its reaching, grasping imperfections appealing. And Weedman’s a terrific performer, both technically and emotionally: I’d like to see this show reinvented once a year for the next five years, sharpening and deepening as she gets a firmer idea of how she feels about this small, peculiar, and oddly self-obsessed corner of the world. Right now the material’s funny – love the bearded Pearl barista warning her that everything in the Pearl District’s fake ­– but too much of it’s still on the easy “Keep Portland Weird” bumper-sticker level, a wry kiss to the town’s relentless public-relations assessment of itself.

The value of producing a show like “People’s Republic,” I think, is to challenge the city’s self-celebration as Western civilization’s hipster garden of Eden, its waterbirth soaking tub of creative harmony and DIY bliss. Weedman ventures a stab here and there – indeed, as many an outsider’s asked in consternation and surprise, where ARE the black people? – but for the most part she picks at foibles rather than warts or wounds. Weedman’s very bright, and her performing packs a fierce focus that can be unusually revealing. Last fall at Disjecta she did a few performances of her earlier solo show “No … You Shut Up,” which was intensely personal, and often ruthless about her own shortcomings, and sometimes shockingly funny because of its willingness to venture into forbidden territory. “People’s Republic” could be that kind of show, but it isn’t yet.

The challenge in creating a show like this is a lot like the challenge that travel writers face. Outsiders like Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Alexis de Tocqueville helicopter in to an unfamiliar culture and try to assess it fairly and provocatively while also offering an outsider’s perspective that insiders ordinarily can’t see. Journalists do this, too. I’ve done it more than once, and most likely screwed up a few things in the process. The trick is to get beyond Potemkin’s false fronts – or carefully curated partial realities – and into the byroads and back streets that speak more fully to the place you’re visiting. And of course, the more you become familiar with the place, the less of an outsider you become. One of the things Weedman does best is to strip bare her own dislocations, fears, and fondnesses for this place she’s trying to figure out. How does it fit who she is? How does she fit what it is? Place is personal, a truth that’s never more evident than when you’re outside your own.

How far should an observer-chronicler stay outside, and how close should she come in? There’s no clear answer. But there are important shadings that don’t show up in “People’s Republic,” from the intense reserve of native Northwesterners – one does not blow one’s own horn – to the cultural traditionalism that lies below the surface of the city’s progressive politics. One of the most interesting things going on in the city right now is the relatively quiet cultural clash between old-timers who like to keep things settled and the influx of creative newcomers who feel comfortable throwing a few urban elbows and speaking out as if they ran the place (which, sometimes, they do). Weedman’s captured a lot of the energy of the newcomers and the alt-culturists, and she has a quick instinct for the overwrought and the ridiculous. She also seems to have a genuine affection for Portland, whether she ultimately feels comfortable here or not.

It’s good to be liked, and nervous tics aside, Weedman, who can be pretty astringent, ends up liking us quite a bit. The feeling’s mutual. I like her energy and risky performance style very much, and I think “People’s Republic,” shortcomings and all, is a kick in the pants. What’s more, I suspect the show will continue to change as the run ripens, and why not? The city’s constantly reinventing itself, too. It’s nice having Weedman around, and I hope she keeps showing up: she’s beginning to feel like an old friend, even if I’ve never actually met her. I’m siding with Marty on this one: “Somebody, keep her coffee cup full.”

But is she Nemesis to our Narcissus? No, and why would we want her to be? We’re perfectly capable all by ourselves of drowning fondly in our own reflection. Still, as Weedman shines her understanding of our municipal image back on us, I can’t help wishing she’d be a little more pointed about the places where the mirror’s crack’d.

NOTE:

“The People’s Republic of Portland” continues Tuesdays-Sundays through June 16 on the Ellen Bye Stage of the Gerding Theatre at the Armory, 128 Northwest 11th Avenue, Portland. Ticket information is here.

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