Nathan Dunkin

‘World Builders’ review: when worlds collide

Badass Theatre Company’s production of Johnna Adams’s play explores alternative mental universes before falling back down to earth

As the audience files in, Whitney and Max sit silently at opposite corners of the stage, lost in thought.

In fact, we soon learn they’re deeply immersed in their respective fantasy worlds — the condition that, Whitney informs us in relatively clunky blatant exposition, landed them both in this sterile patient lounge. As part of a research project they’ve been reluctantly enrolled in, they and the (unseen) other patients must take their prescribed experimental medication intended to eliminate their fantasizing — or face involuntary commitment to a mental institution.

Dunkin and Tidd in Badass Theatre’s ‘World Builders.’ Photo: Russell J. Young.

But what if they don’t want to give up their imaginary worlds? And even if the treatment works, how will these damaged people cope with mundane, messy reality?

That’s the provocative set-up for Johnna Adams’s World Builders, which Badass Theatre is staging through June at southeast Portland’s Shaking the Tree Theatre. It’s a fascinating concept and a promising play that offers tantalizing glimpses into alternative mental realities, before losing its way when reality returns.

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‘Death and the Maiden’ review: a history of violence

Bag & Baggage's production of Ariel Dorfman's play about confronting the consequences of repression makes more persuasive political analysis than drama

A man bound and gagged. A woman pointing a gun at him. Confess his crime against her, or else.

You can’t ask for a much tenser set up than that. Death and the Maiden keeps the audience wondering throughout: did he do it, and will she do it? One of those questions will be resolved before the show is over.

But although they drive the plot, those aren’t the main questions raised by Ariel Dorfman’s provocative 1990 play now running at The Vault Theatre in Hillsboro. How do people, and by extension society, heal from past violence? Is confession enough? Or confession plus repentance? How about vengeance? Or should we just leave the past buried and move on?

Mandana Khoshnevisan as Paulina and Anthony Green as Roberto in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Death and the Maiden.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Dorfman’s play purports to dramatize this recurring conundrum by reducing it to three characters: A vengeful victim, blindfolded, tortured and raped years before by minions of a now-deposed military dictatorship. Her maybe-victimizer, whose voice resembles that of the man who, during the depths of the repression, tortured her to the recorded strains of a string quartet.  Her husband, who happens to be involved in the country’s efforts to confront its repressive past.

But even as the plot, and the ethical arguments, unfold, Dorfman’s script, and this production, leave those characters pretty much where they started. While Death and the Maiden poses some still-urgent questions, here it dutifully proceeds more like a combination formula thriller and a detached classroom ethics debate than an emotionally gripping character drama.

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Portland Mini Musical Festival review: brief encounters

Fertile Ground Festival musical showcases benefit from focus on relationships

It’s hard enough to produce believable character relationships in a full length musical, what with the characters breaking into song and dance in the midst of their encounters. Yet even in under 15 minutes each, most of the six short works in this year’s edition of the Portland Mini Musical Festival at downtown Portland’s Brunish theater managed that difficult trick, mostly by focusing on a single relationship each.

Raimer and Carver in ‘Work Friends.’ Photo: David Kinder.

Work Friends, the most thoroughly successful of the lot, showed how even in just a few minutes, deftly drawn characters can evoke real sympathy — all while singing and dancing. Aubrey Jessen’s touching and hilarious office bromance earned genuine guffaws for its beautifully blocked cubicle dance, Jessen and composer Mont Chris Hubbard’s uproarious lyrics, and a winning, multifaceted (singing/dancing/acting) performance by Collin Carver. Kurt Raimer and Courtney Freed also excelled. An office worker longs for a closer connection to his charismatic but oblivious office mate, but doesn’t know how to make it happen— until an eavesdropping colleague stages a welcome intervention.

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Strange days: It’s ‘Carnivora’ time

Preview: Matt Zrebski's new gothic horror play at Vertigo grapples with "a 21st-century ride that’s out of control"

Winter, as Portlanders have recently been reminded, can be home to strange and powerful forces, to elements as seductive as they are potentially deadly. So to find yourself, caked in blood yet with no clear memory of what’s happened, dumped in a burlap sack in a woodland clearing, in the middle of a hard winter, you might only imagine the kind of fears that would visit you, the creatures of myth and psyche that could stalk such vulnerable moments.

Such is the predicament of Lorraine, the protagonist of “Carnivora,” writer/director Matthew B. Zrebski’s new play for Theatre Vertigo, opening Friday night at the Shoebox Theatre. Beset by fantastical beasts, haunting illusions, and fragmentary memories, Lorraine undergoes a harrowing adventure to rediscover her past and her own terrible secret.

Swathed in lurid atmosphere, flecked with colorfully profane language, almost writhing with a twisting narrative structure that reflects Lorraine’s confused and conflicted state, it’s what Zrebski calls “a psychological horror-tragedy.” However, he’s quick to point out that “this isn’t a creaky old slasher play.”

“From a marketing perspective, I suspect it’s great to call it a horror play — I’ve been calling it my 21st-century ‘Scream.’ But I did not set out to write a horror play….Horrific elements have been used forever. But because of too much cheap cinema we’ve devalued the genre.”

Zrebski

Indeed, as Zrebski points out, his script draws as much from surrealism, magical realism and mythology as it does from the tension-ratcheting tropes of contemporary American horror. The story is set in the Ozarks, which allowed Zrebski to draw on family cultural roots in Northern Arkansas for what he calls the play’s “mountain gothic” style. At the same time, he’s no stranger to the genre. “You can’t really have a conversation with him that doesn’t touch on ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘American Horror Story,’” says Vertigo company member Nathan Dunkin.

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