dystopian theater

Imagining the Portland of tomorrow

Diana Burbano's audio play "The Vertical City" from Artists Rep and The Actors Conservatory is a tragic and triumphant vision of a futuristic PDX

If you want to know what The Vertical City is about, ask Dr. Greta Edelman (Erica Hatfield). “We’re not made to be satisfied,” she says of humankind. “No one’s ever figured out how to decode our souls.”

If she’s right, it’s probably not in the way you think. Written by Diana Burbano, The Vertical City (a collaboration between Artists Rep and The Actors Conservatory, it’s available to stream through June 30) would be a gloriously absorbing audio play if it ended before its final scene. Yet it becomes something more: a dystopian epic that is a meditation on dystopian epics.

Dystopian writing is based on a belief that confronting oppression brings us closer to liberation. But what, the play asks, if it doesn’t? What if the allure of a dystopia is (to quote New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis) that it gets audiences “grooving on the spectacle of their symbolic demise: bang, bang—we’re all dead”? What if the genre grows from a subliminal desire to be dissatisfied?

Dustin Fuentes, as Dylan, recording “The Vertical City.” Photo: Carol Ann Wohlmut

That question haunts The Vertical City, but it isn’t the only reason to listen. Led by director Dámaso Rodríguez, the production’s cast and crew have created a portrait of a post-apocalyptic Portland that overwhelms you through the precision of its sounds, the power of its performances, and the sheer emotional force of Burbano’s saga of injustice, both societal and personal.

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On the run from dystopia

Milagro's new touring show "Bi–" looks to a totalitarian future and blazes a path to the beauty of in-between

The year is 2089. The people of Tierra Plana live orderly lives along strict lines, both figuratively and literally. Walled off from the rest of the world, the xenophobic nation-state has descended into a totalitarian dystopia. The leaders demand order and cultural purity. This is the world Georgina Escobar has created in her new touring show Bi-, which had its world premiere at Milagro Theatre as part of the Fertile Ground Festival.

As a touring show intended mainly for young adult audiences, Bi- is didactic but never feels heavy-handed. The story is fairly simple: The government has instituted a policy of identity bracelets that will neatly categorize the citizens. Four young friends, uncertain about the idea of trying to conform to the strict identities of the state, set out on a journey to find a mysterious underground organization that might offer them freedom.

“Bi–,” and between. Photo: Russell J Young

The idea of boxes and categorization is strong in the show. How strong? Well, the citizens of Tierra Plana are called “squares.” The city itself is composed of hard right angles, represented by lines and boxes taped onstage. The characters shuffle along these narrow pathways, or jump from one platform to the next when inside the city, making great use of the space. There’s a minimal set here but the staging, combined with a Kraftwerk-inspired soundtrack by Lawrence Siulagi, gives the production a futuristic cartoony feeling.

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