Literary Arts Presents the Portland Book Festival Portland Oregon

Seeking Refuge: Enjoy a live performance again

Shaking the Tree’s new multimedia installation offers the electricity of in-person theater in a safe viewing experience.


Has the past year changed you? Humbled you? Brought you to your knees? 

Has it left you feeling helpless, lost, bereaved? 

Have you shocked yourself with your own strength, with the power you have to endure, to persevere and maybe, just maybe, to overcome?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then Refuge, a multimedia installation from Shaking the Tree Theatre, has something for you.

Communing with the goddesses: Take refuge. Photo: Brian Libby

Refuge is a unique performance experience consisting of 11 illustrated panels arranged in a circle, each dedicated to a different goddess (such as Our Lady of the Infinite Night Sky). You and your pod of up to five people sit within the Stonehenge-like circle and listen to audio-based (or, in a couple of cases, watch video-based) stories of these goddesses, each performed by a different person, as they share their wisdom, offer their consolations and remind us of our place in the universe. 

“I am nature’s vice,” declares Our Lady of Solar Magnificence. “Don’t look too long, don’t get too close. I will take the life you so gladly give up and I will bestow it back on all that is much bigger than you.”

Samantha Van Der Merwe, the founder and artistic director of Shaking the Tree, came up with the panel titles and shared them with the performers, each of whom picked a favorite and wrote a corresponding story for them while the panels were being built. The collaboration resulted in a variety of storytelling modes: a couple of monologues are funny and a couple incorporate dance (via video); some are exaltations while others are almost a lullaby, like these words of comfort from Our Lady of the Deep Interior Sanctuary:

“You who are suffering, you who have lost more than you can name, you who have walked into death’s shadow — you will resurrect. In your grief you will come apart like the butterfly does in the dark bed of her cocoon and the substrate of sorrow will become the scintillant fabric of wings.”

This idea of resurrection felt particularly relevant as I sat in a theater and watched a live production for the first time in over a year. After so much Netflix, which gives us complete control over what we watch and how we watch it, it felt gratifying to surrender to the goddesses of Refuge, to hear their challenges and warnings and to be an active participant in, and a witness to, their stories. 

As hard as 2020 was, I’ve wondered what might be born from the ashes of this year. Have we as a society learned to slow down, just a little? Will the summer’s protests finally bring about true police reform? Might more people fight for significant climate change policies after September’s wildfires?

Root and flame and the cycles of things. Photo: Brian Libby

The tension between destruction and creation exists throughout the show, daring viewers to summon their rage and grief while urging them to recover their will and imagination to produce something new, something better. As the performer for Our Lady of the Primordial Fire says:

You have no time at all and all the time in the world.

Don’t waste it being likable.

Likeable gets nothing done and there’s so much to do.

Portland Opera The Marriage of Figaro Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

There are demons to slaughter, there is shit that must burn.

So leave what was behind and dance until the world’s destroyed.

You think you liked the way things were?

That you were happy then?

You didn’t.

You weren’t.

Engulf it in your flames.

A few things to note about the experience: It’s free. (Donations are accepted.) It’s by appointment only and is open until May 22. It runs just over an hour. And, take it from someone who hasn’t even set foot in a grocery store for over a year: It feels completely safe. Someone lets you in, and then they leave so that you and your pod have a warehouse floor to yourselves to watch the show. 

Most importantly: Go, and enjoy a live experience once again.

Valarie Smith incurred enormous credit card debt during the ’90s when she lived in NYC and tried to see as many Broadway/ Off Broadway/ Off-Off Broadway plays as she could despite her pittance of a salary. She is a fervent believer in the Edward Albee quote, “If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly.” Her top five favorite productions (so far) are: True West (Circle in the Square Theatre, 2000), King Henry IV, Part One (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2017), We’re All Mad Here (Shaking the Tree, 2017), Six Degrees of Separation (Lincoln Center, 1991) and Richard II (BAM, 2016).

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