Allison Mickelson

‘Well’ & ‘Pebble’: over the edge

Welcome to the well-made play? Profile and Imago go beyond the stylistic borders in new shows by Lisa Kron and Carol Triffle

A good play ought to grab its audience from the very top and take it for a ride. The way it grabs an audience can be as varied as a cowboy crooning from the wings about a beautiful morning (Oklahoma!) or a vengeful ghost skulking around a castle (Hamlet).

Well, Lisa Kron’s quasi-comic onstage argument from Profile Theatre at Portland Playhouse, opens in a well of silence with actor Vana O’Brien snoozing, or pretending to snooze, on a recliner flopped way back to sleeping position – not an action but the anticipation of an action, the tension of action’s absence.

Pebble, Carol Triffle’s new existential riff on melodrama at Imago Theatre, opens with an apocalyptic crash and boom of thunder and lightning, an absurdist clatter thrusting a mental institution, and the audience, into mind-altering darkness.

The openings could scarcely be more different. Yet Well and Pebble are both meta-theatrical shows, self-referential experiences stretching the idea of what dramatic storytelling can be. They’re plunges into pure style and the ways in which we invent ourselves, tugging at the fragile veil between fact and fiction, as we go along.


PEBBLE at IMAGO THEATRE


Triffle’s Pebble, the final play in Imago’s three-show Next Wave Festival (following Jerry Mouawad’s Leonard Cohen Is Dead and a revival of Mouawad’s lyrical fantasia To Fly Again) is both familiar and fresh, a vigorous new exploration of territory Triffle’s shown us before. It’s a place so simple and ordinary that it takes on extra-ordinary dimensions, mundanity transforming like Kafka’s unfortunate Gregor Samsa into a new reality of darkly comic horror and thwarted passion at loose ends.

Kyle Delamarter and Danielle Vermette in Carol Triffle’s Pebble: all in the family. Photo courtesy Imago Theatre

The bursts of thunder and lightning at the beginning set the stylistic tone: Everything’s big, bold, broadly gestural, almost a parody of melodrama and American stage realism – the shell accentuated and the stuffing ripped out. Over decades Triffle and Mouawad have built a theater of seductive spectacle at Imago, most obviously in the company’s glorious costume-and-movement shows like Frogz, in which spoken language is either nonexistent or an afterthought, but also in the individual shows the two have created that use language extensively but usually in a disjointed manner – shards of familiarity broken off and scattered across a landscape that is altered as in an odd and perplexing dream, or a painting by Dalí or Bosch.

In Pebble, the skewed landscape is the interior of a mental institution where an emotionally unkempt woman named Pebble (Danielle Vermette) seems something like a live-in guest at an odd and slightly menacing hotel. A partly finished jigsaw puzzle sits on one table, a deck of cards at another. An easel sits to one side, with a painting of two horses propped on it. Sometimes Pebble dons a smock and picks up a brush. More often she’s making obsessive scrawls on the walls, which are covered with them. Toward the back is a reception area, the domain of Nurse Megan (Megan Skye Hale), who sometimes barks instructions into a microphone and often casts speculative glances at a medical orderly (Jon Farley), who is also the object of advances from Pebble, who’d dearly love to get her itch scratched and doesn’t trust Nurse Megan one bit. Little blue pills are passed from character to character, caretakers and inmates alike – Pebble ended up here because of an unfortunate overdose problem – and everyone prowls around like tigers in a cage. It’s all very homey, in a clinical, creepy way. Then a newcomer shows up: Nick (Kyle Delamarter), who might be Pebble’s brother (he probably is), and might be sane or as loony as everyone else, and whose arrival upsets an already unbalanced apple cart.

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A swift and savvy ride

Taking Dad on a roller-coaster vacation to Auschwitz: Lisa Kron's "2.5 Minute Ride" at Profile embarks on a funny, searing journey of discovery

Playwright Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride isn’t easy to describe. Jane Unger, who directed the production on the boards at Profile Theatre, doesn’t even try in her “From the Director” notes. She is aiming for the spirit of discovery for audiences, and I respect that. Still, there are a couple of things we should get out of the way about this play and this production:

First, it’s very funny. For this season-opening one-woman show, Profile cast New York actor Allison Mickelson in the role of Lisa, and she is clearly adept at delivering lines with sarcastic humor. Mickelson, who also starred last fall in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home for Portland Center Stage, makes the perfect Lisa, playing her just uptight enough, self-deprecating, and hiding generations of emotions under layers of biting comedy.

Allison Mickelson, laughing into the abyss. Photo: David Kinder

Second, this is a play about family vacations with her aging father. That sounds simple, right? But the two vacations Lisa describes over the course of this 75-minute play are to two difficult places to take an aging father: a roller-coaster theme park and Auschwitz, the concentration camp where her father’s parents both lost their lives. This point is introduced early in the play, so I hope learning it now won’t detract from your sense of discovery while hearing Lisa’s journey unfold.

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