Joseph Gibson

‘The Events’ review: the unanswered question

Third Rail’s production grapples with the causes of mass shootings

It happened again yesterday. Whenever it happens, and it happens almost literally every day in this country now, it’s always followed by the same question.

Why?

Scottish playwright David Greig began writing his play The Events, running through November 18 At Imago Theatre, in the wake of the horrific July 22, 2011 massacre of 77 children by a right wing white male (sound familiar?) in Utøya, Norway. The story has only become tragically more relevant. Since then, the world has experienced Sandy Hook, Orlando, Charleston, the bloody list goes on through Las Vegas and doubtless more before the year is out, and beyond. And the first question everyone asks is:

Why?

That’s the question Claire, the church choir director and minister who survives a fictional mass killing, keeps pursuing in The Events, too. In fact: that’s pretty much the whole play: Claire repeatedly asking that question, as her life disintegrates around her in the months after the killing spree perpetrated at choir practice by a teenager called only The Boy. ”How can I hate him,” Claire tells her counselor, “if I don’t understand him?

Porter and Gibson in Third Rail’s ‘The Events.’ Photo: Owen Carey.

Greig uses Claire as other plays and movies use journalists or detectives: as a stand in for audience, a character charged with asking questions. And, whether motivated by PTSD, survivor guilt, or her deteriorating relationship with her partner, ask them she does. Over the course of 90 minutes (no intermission) in this production by Portland’s Third Rail Repertory Theatre, Claire (played by Third Rail stalwart Maureen Porter) obsessively seeks her answer from a variety of sources: a psychologist (including one counseling her), a journalist, a politician, an anthropologist, the killer’s father, and finally comes face to face with the instigator of the events himself. They’re all played by the same actor, Joseph Gibson, implicitly showing how the killer’s image occupies her whole life. To all of them, she poses the same question:

Why?

Along the way, Claire flirts with as many solutions: mysticism, religion, vengeance, suicide, sometimes briefly positing alternative timelines that might have eventuated had the various causes identified by all these experts been addressed in time.

Spoiler: neither Claire nor the audience find The Answer to that much-repeated question of why mass killers kill in The Events, which suffers from its sacrifice of character depth for topical breadth. But it does answer an equally important one.

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‘An Octoroon’: a punch and a gasp

Review: Whiteface, blackface, redface, a slap in the face: Artists Rep's season opener enters the race wars and laughs at the unlaughable

At the top of Act 4 in An Octoroon the show breaks down. Literally. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who has written himself into this satirical melodrama, turns to the audience and says, “So I think I fucked up.” Metatheatrical shows, especially shows where the playwright is a character, can come across as clumsy and self-indulgent. But Artist’s Repertory Theatre’s production completely embraces the Jacobs-Jenkins script, starting off the company’s season with a smart show that packs a lot of punch.

An Octoroon is a satire of the classic 19th century show The Octoroon, written in 1859 by Dion Boucicault, and follows the original plot closely. Boucicault’s script follows star-crossed lovers George and Zoe in the antebellum South. Zoe is one-eighth black, and so their love can never be. At the time of its production The Octoroon provoked a national discussion around slavery. But unless you’ve studied theater you’ve probably never heard of it, because there is no way a company could get away with producing this show today. The plot is overly contrived. Zoe is the classic “tragic woman of color” who has no future because a white artist cannot imagine a future for her, and George is a “benevolent slaveholder.”

Joseph Gibson, in whiteface, lamenting cruel fate as a “benevolent” slaveowner in love with a octoroon (Alex Ramirez de Cruz, background). Photo: Russell J Young

It’s a story prime for satire.

Also, no one who owned slaves was benevolent.

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Monkey business at Artists Rep

In Nick Jones's tick-tock "Trevor," Jon San Nicolas is the most human chimp in town. Laugh, nervously, at your own discretion.

Two scenes:

– On Saturday evening, before opening night of Nick Jones’s sort-of-comedy Trevor at Artists Repertory Theatre, I’m sitting at Gilda’s Italian Restaurant in the Commodore Hotel building, across the street from the theater. I’m here because a Portland Timbers soccer match is beginning soon just down the street at Civic Stadium (I refuse to use the ballpark’s current corporate nom-de-plume), and in order to find parking for less than twenty bucks my wife and I decide to show up early and spend a good deal more to have a nice dinner beforehand. The place is packed with pre-theater folk (Profile Theatre has a show tonight, too), a mob of soccer fans all dressed in green, and presumably a few people who just happened to make reservations for 6 o’clock on this particular Saturday. The din’s incredible, like the high-pitched thrumming of generators at an electrical power station, and the servers are hustling around at warp speed, taking orders, carrying platters, running filled wine glasses upstairs and down. In the open kitchen you can see the cooks moving in an orchestrated whir like the blades on an electric mixer, chop-chop-chop. What stands out is the professional efficiency of the staff, who move quickly and unobtrusively from table to table, checking on the wine, refilling the bread plate or the water glass, whisking away dirty plates, bringing a new fork if needed. On a hectic evening, only by running as a well-rehearsed team can a restaurant staff create the illusion of ease and calm and keep the whole edifice from falling into chaos.

Hamblin, San Nicolas, Luch, Gibson: couch potatoes and more. Photo: Owen Carey

Hamblin, San Nicolas, Lucht, Gibson: couch potatoes and more. Photo: Owen Carey

– On Sunday morning, as I sit down at my kitchen nook to begin to write this piece, a sonic boom sounds from the dining room behind me, and a blur of black fur, ears bent back like paper-airplane wings, streaks to the back of the house. On the dining room floor is a potted plant, messily unpotted – ceramic shards are scattered like little poison darts around the room. Dirt is blanketing the rug, burrowing beneath it, unaccountably splattered on windows and sills seemingly a safe distance from the scene of the crime.

I mention these two occurrences because (a) the success of Artists Rep’s Trevor is extraordinarily tied to the skills of its running crew, who have an unbelievable mess to set up and then clean up nightly and must run the show with the precision of a madcap farce, although that’s not precisely what Trevor is; and (b) if a five-pound, five-month-old kitten can inflict this much damage in a dining room, how much more havoc can a 150-pound grown chimpanzee create if let out on the loose?

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Talking race: the color of now

An overflow crowd at Imago Theatre delves into Oregon's racial history, race conflicts in America, and the role that art and artists play in the discussion

When the doors finally opened and the long line wandering down the sidewalk began to surge forward, the intimate Imago Theatre began to be overwhelmed by a human tide. Every seat, it seemed, was taken. I don’t recall seeing the theater this packed even in the heyday of Frogz, Imago’s huge and long-running anthropomorphic-animal hit. For that matter, I’d forgotten the place even had a balcony, which on Monday night was packed, as the saying goes, to the rafters. Old people were there, and young people, and the generations between, and this being Portland there were more white people than people of color but the mix was evident. Almost immediately a baby started crying, a sound not usually heard in theaters unless it’s a sound effect for a play. This was a real baby, in real time. “Cool,” said Chantal DeGroat, the actor and moderator for the evening. “Rock ‘n’ roll. Rock. And. Roll. To the families.”

Jones and DeGroat: "What's RACE got to do with it?" Photo: Peter Irby

Jones and DeGroat: “What’s RACE got to do with it?” Photo: Peter Irby

The event was a conversation called “What’s RACE Got To Do With It?,” produced by the group The Color of NOW and hosted by Third Rail Repertory Theatre, which shares the Imago space. Part performance, part talk show and part back-and-forth with the audience, it included a monologue to an unborn child – a child who, given the state of the world and its racial volatility, would remain unborn, an idea derailed – by actor Joseph Gibson, and a little music from Ben Graves, and a long conversation about the nitty gritty of race in America and Oregon in particular with the actor, director, and activist Kevin Jones, artistic director of the August Wilson Red Door Project, an organization whose ambitious goal is to “change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts.”

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