devised theater

Devising ‘Very Poorly Indeed’

Other than that, Mr. Donner, how'd you like the Party? Using devising techniques, a group from PETE creates a fresh take on a ghoulish tale.

It begins, as these things often do, at the nexus between worlds, the juncture, the crossroads of realities, with the audience and the performing area both in light and both in darkness. On the stage, just on the other side of a translucent membrane, a pagan entity (Myriel Meissner) approaches. Something stirs inside the audience, something akin to communal memory or a dream we all share that never quite fades away.

The entity steps through the veil and we see it has the body of a young woman and the head of a deer. It — she — is silent as she walks across the stage in a manner both strange and familiar, and we feel both welcomed and wary as this entity, this being, exists between reality and illusion, life and death, good and evil, God and human. Before long we will encounter snow and ice, want and fear, ghosts and madness, a Trickster/narrator, and a tree adorned with human flesh, like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s visceral stuff, viscerally performed by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s training program, the Institute for Contemporary Performance.

As through a scrim, darkly: “Very Poorly Indeed.” Photo: Jeremy Jeziorski

The piece, Very Poorly Indeed, is being presented at CoHo Theater this weekend by PETE and is the culmination of a year of hard work, training and exploration by ICP students Clifton Holznagel, Jonathan Lee, Meissner, Rose Proctor, and Myia Johnson. This is the third year the Institute has been in operation, and the students vary from those new to the stage to those with a wealth of experience. They’ve spent the past school year immersing themselves in a variety of disciplines, including Suzuki and Viewpoints (taught by Amber Whitehall and Jacob Coleman), Alexander Technique (taught by Cristi Miles), and Clown (taught by Philip Cuomo).

It isn’t easy.

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The inner quest for Utopia

Hand2Mouth's "Psychic Utopia," about Oregon utopian movements, brings the search for a "beautiful and bold life" to the audience

A Hand2Mouth ensemble member is kneeling onstage a few feet away from me and makes eye contact. “What have you done to live a more beautiful and bold life?” she asks. I knew this question was coming but I still feel a sense of panic when the fourth wall breaks down. I tell her, and the audience around me, “I allowed myself to be vulnerable.” I don’t elaborate on what that means. She smiles beatifically, repeats my answer, and turns to someone else and asks the same question. This question is at the heart of Hand2Mouth’s new devised show Psychic Utopia.

At first, it’s a little hard to tell what kind of show Psychic Utopia, which is created by the company with collaborating writer Andrea Stolowitz, is going to be. You’re offered warm hand towels on entry and invited to take your shoes off. During the preshow the actors mingle with audience members. I imagine it’s like going to a spiritual retreat.

In search of Utopia, in search of self. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

The beginning of the performance is signaled by the ensemble gathering around a glowing cube and exhaling one long harmonic note together. The actual significance of the preshow and this ritual isn’t as important as what they are doing: Setting the tone for the show. Inviting the audience to engage actively with what they are about to experience.

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