Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Laughing at the end of the world

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What is Fallout? I suppose the term “end-of-days comedy” fits. Yet that seems too narrow for a play about war, friendship, sexual awakening and the adverse effects of nuclear ash on human hair. Written and directed by Imago Theatre’s renowned absurdist Carol Triffle, Fallout is a play far grander in scope than the cramped room where it unfolds.

In an era awash with self-important tales of heroines and heroes nobly braving the apocalypse, the idea of Triffle (co-founder of Imago and co-creator of the legendary Frogz) journeying to the end of the world armed with her trademark anarchic wit sounds inviting. Yet despite the healthy amount of chuckling in the audience on the night I saw Fallout, the play struck me as emotionally aloof and scattershot. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a cereal box stuffed with many disparate brands.

Kyle Delamarter: crazy like a fox, or just crazy in a foxhole? Imago Theatre photo

Fallout begins in a bomb shelter that a bumbling drifter named Bobby (Kyle Delamarter) has molded into a relatively cozy home. It’s not immediately clear whether Bobby is hiding from a nuclear war or is simply a reclusive lunatic (a scene where he muses nonsensically about snake bodies encourages the question). Yet he seems to have settled into a routine that consists of playing his out-of-tune guitar, writing in his diary, and dreaming of either going to college or dying (don’t look for logic in his thinking).

This zany but carefully calibrated existence is ruptured by the arrival of Nadine (Danielle Vermette) and Jackie (Anne Sorce, who gave a thunderous, magnificent performance in the title of role of Imago’s 2017 production of Medea), two women who wander away from a picnic and into Bobby’s snug domain. After they accidentally lock themselves inside, Bobby hides under the bed while Nadine and Jackie panic, frantically search for an escape and lapse into casual chatter when the prospect of getting out starts to look increasingly unlikely.

Questions loom over this quirky madness. What will happen when Bobby emerges from his hiding place? Will he, Nadine, and Jackie escape? And what’s really going on in the world outside? Triffle provides some answers, but focuses chiefly on engineering abrupt, expectation-pulverizing narrative turns. As the play progresses, you may find your mind filling with thoughts such as, “There’s no nuclear war—no, wait! There is! Nadine lusts for Jackie—no, wait! She has a thing for Bobby! Bobby doesn’t want to escape—no, wait! He does!”

Danielle Vermette (left) and Anne Sorce in Carol Triffle’s “Fallout.” Imago Theatre photo

While I admire the audacity of Triffle’s zig-zag storytelling, it left me with a case of mental whiplash. The experience of trying to follow Fallout’s machine-gun-fast twists may leave some theatergoers exhilarated, but I left the play worn out and baffled by what I had just seen.

I also felt troubled by the way Fallout keeps its characters at an emotional distance from the audience. It’s telling that when Jackie howls, “I can’t believe we’re locked down here!” she sounds less like a woman terrified of a life of imprisonment and more like a child unhappy with her Christmas presents. While that might have made for a clever gag in isolation, the entire play is like that. We are constantly invited to look down upon and laugh at (not with) the characters, an experience that becomes profoundly depressing.

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Triffle’s sense of humor is clearly an acquired taste, and it’s one that I almost feel guilty for not being able to acquire. Why? Because there’s much to admire in Fallout, including some ingenious visual touches (like the bucket Bobby appears to have awkwardly converted into a toilet) and a surreal, impressively unsettling conclusion.

What I’m trying to say is that while I found Fallout frustrating, it was also intriguing enough to make me curious about what Triffle will do next.

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The short run of Carol Triffle’s new play Fallout concludes with performances at Imago Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 8 and 9. Ticket information here.

 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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