Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon

A bird’s-eye view of terror


What terrifies you the most? Ghosts? Snakes? Serial killers? Whatever your answer, I guarantee that if you go see Theatre Vertigo‘s profoundly disturbing new production of Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue, the image of a new monster will be carved into your psyche: a hulking man who wears a bird mask that has wide, circular eyes and a beak as sharp as a meat hook.

It would be foolhardy to say that A Map of Virtue exists solely to frighten its audience—it is also a potent rumination on romance, childhood and PTSD. Yet there is no denying that director Emilie Landmann and her incomparable cast have latched onto the most hellish passages of Courtney’s play and brought them to freakishly vivid life. The result of their efforts is an intoxicatingly intense vortex of pain and fear. As I was sucked in, I both savored the experience and longed to be released.

That was partly because I didn’t know what I was getting into. The opening scenes of A Map of Virtue introduce you to Sarah (Paige Rogers) and Mark (Samson Syharath)—two people who forge an intense friendship through a series of chance encounters—and prime you to expect a moody but relatively lighthearted play about people and their feelings. Yes, there are unsettling references (to a Hitchcockian swarm of birds and the sexual abuse Mark endured as a boy at boarding school), but nothing that prepares you for what comes next.

Paige Rogers (from left), Jacquelle Davis, and Samson Syharath in “A Map of Virtue” by Theatre Vertigo. Photo: KKelly Photography.

A Map of Virtue starts to reveal its true nature when Mark and Sarah and her husband Nate (Joel Patrick Durham) are invited to a party in the countryside by June (Kaia Maarja Hillier), who they have just met. She seems pleasant enough, but when the play’s heroes arrive at June’s house, they find themselves locked in a room, stripped of their phones and guarded by Ray (Gary Strong), June’s gun-wielding henchman (and the wearer of the aforementioned bird mask).

Eventually, we realize that June and Ray probably want to terrorize Mark, Sarah and Nate until there is nothing left of them to hurt (a torture scene that begins with June barking at Ray, “You! Get the buckets,” is one of the most alarming things I’ve seen onstage). Yet unlike so many horror stories, A Map of Virtue doesn’t demand that we relish the torment of its characters as punishment for sin or stupidity—we are invited to feel their anguish as our own, which is both more satisfying and more disquieting.

This approach is beautifully aided and abetted by the cast. Not a single actor in A Map of Virtue resorts to overacting—the play’s performances are brilliantly understated, which invites our empathy and fits perfectly with the story’s realism (the play’s horrors never seem outlandish; they seem like they could happen to you). A scene where Sarah stares out into the audience, for instance, is powerful because Rogers refuses to sell the moment too aggressively. She trusts that the slight quivering of her body will communicate the depths of Sarah’s fear—and she’s right.

The work of A Map of Virtue‘s behind-the-scenes team is equally astounding. Chris Beatty’s sound design is effective precisely because it isn’t afraid to be soundless—the oppressive silence of the play’s quietest moments simultaneously lulls you into a false sense of security and makes your muscles tighten as you anticipate the worst. And as for Kelly Terry’s ingenious lighting design, let’s just say that I fully expect the menacing images of June and Ray’s distinctive silhouettes illuminated behind curtains to feed my nightmares for years to come.

I wish I could tell you about the stunning culmination of Sarah, Mark and Nate’s living nightmares. I wish I could tell you about the unforgettable and fitting fate of June and Ray. I wish I could tell you about the the story’s magnificent closing images, which harken back to the opening scene, but with a nasty twist.

But I can’t deny the you the pleasure of experiencing A Map of Virtue for yourself. So I’ll just say that this production has a power to thrill and unnerve that extends far beyond its running time—something that I began to understand after I exited the theater and saw Strong, no longer in his Ray costume, walking up the street. I had no reason to be afraid. Yet my memories of the play were so overpowering that I saw not the man, but the character. As far as I was concerned, he may as well have been wearing that ghastly mask.

A Map of Virtue plays at the Shoebox Theatre. Tickets and scheduling information here:

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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