What will happen if people confuse The Gun Show with a Gun Show? Director Shawn Lee says he’d be delighted. The day after CoHo Theatre’s opening night this Friday (September 9), The Original Rose City Gun Show will kick off at the Portland Expo Center—and while the proximity of the two events may be a coincidence, it certainly demonstrates the immediacy of the play’s theme.
Drive 20 minutes outside of Portland in almost any direction, and you may see a bumper sticker that re-dubs our state “Ory-gun.”
Turn on the news, and you may or may not see sufficient coverage of whatever mass-shooting happened within the last two weeks.
Or perch on a bench in Colonel Summers Park, as actor Vin Shambry did recently while studying his Gun Show script, and you may discover that you’re sharing your bench with a gun enthusiasts’ magazine.
Guns are everywhere. If the left wing is trying to take them all, as some on the right assume, they have their work cut out for them. Playwright E.M. Lewis is relatively quick to clarify that that’s not her objective. Hailing from the rural “Orygun” town Monitor (just east of Woodburn), she’s had an intimate long-term relationship with the gun as an implement of recreation and protection as well as a tool of threat and disaster—and she’s penned a script comprised of five true gun stories from her life that cover as many sides of the issue. For example, her first date with her future husband was spent learning how to shoot on a sunny day beside a pond. She wore a bikini top. He wrapped his arms around her while showing her how to line up the sights. Sparks flew.
Either despite or because of the fact that her script’s stories are that personal, Lewis has chosen to always cast a male actor who’s by her own admission “tougher” than she to narrate the tales. “I’m too much of a Betty Crocker type,” she says. “The voice I was writing in sounded very masculine to me.” With even the term “gun show” becoming evermore synonymous with men showing off muscles, Lewis’s creative choice certainly jibes with the prevailing expectation, yet it presents interesting challenges in delivery, as evidenced while Shambry rehearses the show.
Speaking in first person, the actor begins to tell Lewis’s stories in a voice that emotionally if not physically approximates her own. The musclebound, tightly wound Shambry says he was in a bikini top. He says his date made him feel safe, etc. Just as we’re being lulled into this alternate reality by Shambry’s commitment to the role, he abruptly pierces the fourth wall by shining a flashlight on Lewis where she’s seated in the audience and proclaiming “See, that’s me.” For the remainder of the show, he periodically checks in with her, especially as tension mounts toward the final story, which (no spoilers) gets particularly painful.
This narrative device requires her to attend every performance of The Gun Show—and there have been surprisingly many, especially considering the script has yet to be published. Since it was written 16 months ago, The Gun Show has been produced ten times, in Illinois, New Jersey, California, Arizona and more. Sitting through every performance has created a unique bond between Lewis and each actor that manifests in conscious and unconscious ways. Of course she reacts when the script calls for Shambry to address her directly. But even as she watches him rehearse a line about “fingernails,” I notice her fidgeting with her own hands in a gesture of empathy. As the marketing copy puts it, “Her words. His voice. Our story.”
The Gun Show’s performances in other cities have been called “raw and unsettling in the very best way,” and “a riveting exploration of America’s love/hate relationship with guns.” In the Portland market, even before opening night, they can claim another accolade: Shambry is “Portland’s Best Actor,” according to Willamette Week.
One more talking point for this play is its aim to generate discussion. Following each performance of The Gun Show, CoHo will host a “Gun Talk.” Sponsored by an Oregon Humanities Responsive Program Grant, these talks should not be confused with the typical post-play talkback. For one, they’re not about the play—in fact they’re open to the public whether they’ve seen the play or not. What’s more, they won’t be a forum for the play’s creators to speak, but rather an open opportunity for anyone to share a gun story. To get the community dialogue going, some arts personalities have already taped video testimonials, posted on a dedicated CoHo Gun Show Facebook page. “We’re setting the tone for the kind of sharing this event is about, so it might really be accessible to someone who didn’t see the play,” explains CoHo’s Jessie Drake. “Ideally, everyone is engaging with the online content, the art installation [by Russell Foltz-Smith, opening on September 10], the play and the Gun Talks.”
When it comes to guns, everywhere you look, there’s something to talk about.
The Gun Show opens Friday, September 9, at CoHo Theatre and continues through October 1. Ticket and schedule information here.