Lauren Modica

The fragile ghosts of drama past

The premiere of DC Copeland's "The Undiscovered Country" at Defunkt goes vividly into that good night

The ghost of Bertie Brecht wanders the stage of Defunkt Theatre in the premiere of The Undiscovered Country, DC Copeland’s new play about love and pain and the whole damned thing among the addicted and emotionally unmoored seekers of a big American city. Matthew Kern, as a lonely drug dealer named Terry (or, professionally, “Bear”), announces to the audience right at the top that what’s about to happen isn’t reality, it’s a play, and then gives away a few plot points before anything’s happened, and invites anyone who’s uncomfortable about the subject matter to exit the theater, no questions asked. (Of course, nobody does: that deck’s just a little stacked.) All in all, diabolically dialectical.

Sher and Conway: love hurts. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Sher and Conway: love hurts. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Other ghosts are wandering about, too, some of them actual characters in the play. And certainly the shades of Billy Shakespeare and his gloomy Danish prince are crashing the party: Copeland’s title, after all, comes from Hamlet’s lament about the weariness of life, which surely no one would put up with except for “the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” The people in Copeland’s play are continually contemplating that ultimate question, to be or not to be. They fear it, and they love it. It consumes them.

Lingering in the lines like a ghost in the machine is some of the fateful anguish of the musical Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Bohème-in-modern-Manhattan. And, just a little under the surface, I spy the spectre of Chris Marlowe and The Jew of Malta, with its black heart and curdled damn-the-consequences doom: “Thou hast committed fornication: but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.”

In other words: If you’re looking for a night of laughs, keep looking. There is heat on this stage, but it’s a bleak heat, desperate and about to burn out. So you find yourself, if you buy into the play’s closed universe, taking pleasure in the increasingly dire straits the characters place themselves in, and that’s a bit uncomfortable, forcing you outside the action as you dive deeper into it: Brecht’s dialectic in action. The Undiscovered Country has some of the fevered propulsion of revenge tragedy, and the same propensity for melodrama. It’s as if these lost characters in the naked city are caught in a cycle of hopeless fate: no escape.

In a bracingly stripped-down space (smart set by Max Ward, lighting by Peter West, costumes [which take a bit of rumpling] by Annie Ganousis, sound by Andrew Klaus-Vineyard) Copeland & Company dig deeply and fiercely into the action, which involves pill-popping, heavy breathing both straight and gay, a fatal attraction to a weapon or two, and a mournful sense of disconnection, of characters wanting to love but not knowing how. Drugs and other obsessions that spur the action and the downward spiral are displacements in this universe, attempts to plug gaps that just keep getting wider and deeper. Director Paul Angelo creates a fine rhythm out of all of this, taking his time to dig into the moments but never letting the thing lag.

Modica and Kern: cross-purposes. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Modica and Kern: cross-purposes. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Everyone but Kern doubles up on roles, playing characters who are distinct yet swimming in the same dangerous pool. He’s joined by Lauren Modica, in yet another densely focused performance, as a woman reeling after her lover’s death; and Spencer Conway as a guilt-wracked hunk; and newcomer Lynn Sher as a couple of doomed souls taking refuge in drugs and sex (in one role, speaking of ghosts, she’s an actress playing Ophelia to Conway’s Hamlet). A good deal of the show’s pleasure comes from watching these fierce, sometimes funny, sometimes aching performances, which can leave you exasperated (how can their characters do this stuff?) without losing empathy. Sher sometimes slips inside these uncomfortable shoes with such an addled absorption that her voice becomes something like Ophelia’s in her mad-song, a slur of words that almost lose their shape.

In the end, Copeland’s play seems something like an emotional group snapshot, with no sense of direction other than down. You don’t know how these characters got to this place in their lives, or how they found one another (except for some recovery programs), or even why they seem to feel there is no future. That’s just the way it is: a mystery. After all, the country’s undiscovered. At least, for now.

*

Defunkt’s world premiere of The Undiscovered Country continues through June 20 in the Backdoor Theatre, behind Common Grounds Coffeehouse, 4321 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. Schedule and ticket information are here.

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Into the woods, fangs flashing

Defunkt's "In the Forest She Grew Fangs" prowls the city's mythological October bramble with intense style

Must be the season of the witch. And the zombie, the wicked stepmother, the grim reaper, the wolf.

October’s oozing with mystery and horror in Portland. Zombie apocalypse in The Last Days at Post5. Dark musical fairy tales in Into the Woods at Beaverton Civic. Young Frankenstein zapping for laughs at Lakewood. The Turn by The Reformers mashing up The Turn of the Screw and The Shining in a Buckman district living room. The Day of the Dead coming up soon in !O Romeo! at Milagro, a plague at Shaking the Tree in The Masque of the Red Death, all sorts of scary stuff at BodyVox in its annual BloodyVox. In her exhibition Grimms’ Hooks at Froelick Gallery, veteran Portland painter Katherine Ace dives deep into the murky psychological waters of the Grimm tales, in their savage, pre-sanitized versions.

Ceballos (left) and Modica, deep in the mythological woods. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Ceballos (left) and Modica, deep in the mythological woods. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Into this creepy autumn bramble steals Defunkt Theatre’s In the Forest She Grew Fangs, an intense and hypnotic little show that lives up to the promise of its terrific title. Defunkt’s new production, in the steamy little boiler room of the Back Door Theatre, is the West Coast premiere of Stephen Spotswood’s updated riff on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and it’s got all the archetypes in American-backwoods small town form: the grandmother, a chain-smoking auctioneer who lives in a double-wide and laments the loss of the boy who claimed her virginity; the wolf, who’s been bumped around a lot and is really misunderstood; the hunter, who’s on the high school football team and has a mad crush on the new girl in town; and Red herself, who couldn’t keep on the path if it had a chain-link fence on either side.

In the Forest is notable partly because director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard and his cast and designers use the compact Back Door space so well. Actors sit around on the risers, pop in and out from entrances running through the seating areas, sometimes lock onto a spectator, gazing deeply and intently, almost nose to nose. Video design by Klaus-Vineyard and some imaginative animation by Amy Kuttab help Max Ward’s set play much bigger than it is. The whole thing has an intimate hothouse effect, as if the story just grabbed you by the throat and pulled you in for a good theatrical mauling. In short, the show turns technical disadvantages on their head and makes them part of the appeal.

In the forest, everything changes: Katherine Ace, "Brother & Sister," 2013, oil & charcoal on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, Froelick Gallery, Portland. Photo: Jim Lommasson

In the forest, everything changes: Katherine Ace, “Brother & Sister,” 2013, oil & charcoal on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, Froelick Gallery, Portland. Photo: Jim Lommasson

Spotswood’s story is an even bigger attraction. It’s the Little Red Riding Hood of old, but never slavishly so: it lurks in the background, a suggestion mostly, until it leaps out and claws its way into the action. Spotswood adeptly balances familiar scenework with a storyteller approach (storytellers, plural, actually: much of the tale’s told by the wolf, but sometimes it passes to granny, or the hunter, or Red). And for a story with such a gothic sense of good and evil and retribution, Spotswood’s version is surprisingly subtle and complex. If (almost) nobody gets out of here alive, nobody gets out unstained or totally stained, either. On one level the play’s “about” bullying, but it approaches the subject by the side door, never preaching, never giving “lessons,” working by suggestion and insinuation. We see layers and levels of abuse, some of it malicious, some of it thoughtless, and the silent scars that run as deep as claw-slashes across a face. I don’t mean to belittle this play by saying it’s a good one for high school audiences – I mean to compliment it, and to emphasize that it’s appealing for adult audiences, too. I also recognize that few high-school drama departments are likely to produce it: after all, it has swear words, and talks about sex, and Parents Might Be Upset.

But mostly I want to talk about this sparkling cast of young actors, anchored by veteran Lauren Modica’s bruising, caustic, tough, vulnerable, and almost inordinately funny performance as Ruth, the grandmother, who’s something of an outcast in her hardscrabble little town, lost in the bitterness of her own past, and helpless to reel her granddaughter in from the deep end of an increasingly fraught teenage life. Modica’s spot-on performance pulls the story deep into mythic territory, and lends weight to the sharp work by the younger actors, who are led by Marisol Ceballos’s prowling, meek-but-feral performance as Lucy, the girl who gets picked on and picked on until the worm turns. Gabriel Isaac Lakey is appealingly open and clunky as Hunter, a guy balanced clumsily somewhere between jock and nerd; Tabitha Trosen is brash and funny and ultimately vulnerable as Jenny, the fish-out-of-water California kid who finds herself stuck in a hillbilly backwater; and Kitty Fuller, R. David Wylie, and Annie Ganousis make up an adaptable and exemplary chorus. This cast is one more evidence of the recent flowering of good young performers in town, arriving at Defunkt from such training grounds as Staged!, Portland Actors Conservatory, Northwest Academy, the University of Portland, and Portland State University. The talent’s good, and it’s being taught well.

In the meantime, it’s a Grimm world out there – or a Charles Perrault world; the 17th century French fantasist seems to be the first to have written the Little Red Riding Hood story down. Spotswood has done a neat job of recalibrating it for the 21st. And some things don’t change. In the Forest She Grew Fangs taps into the violence and wildness of the soul, rising and falling like the heartbeat of humanity.

Carl Larsson, "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the Forest," 1881, oil on canvas, 14.6 x 17.7 inches/Wikimedia Commons

Carl Larsson, “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the Forest,” 1881, oil on canvas, 14.6 x 17.7 inches/Wikimedia Commons

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