Shoebox Theatre

Close up and burning bright

Asylum Theatre reignites Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" with intimate staging and palpable emotion.

In Asylum Theatre’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, everything happens a few feet from your face. In the aptly named Shoebox Theatre, the seats are situated so close to the actors that it almost seems possible to touch each feeling—joy, lust, rage, agony—that bursts free of their bodies. There’s no hiding from the propulsive intensity of their performances, and that’s terrifying.

It’s also exhilarating. Burn This seizes you, jostles you and moves you, frequently daring to break and repair your heart at the same time. Director Don Alder and his cast recognize that Wilson’s play isn’t meant merely to be watched and analyzed—it’s a meditation on love, grief and identity that is meant to be felt, even (and especially) when it’s almost too much.

Feel the burn: Heath Koerschgen and Brianna Ratterman come together through grief in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, staged at the Shoebox by Asylum Theatre. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Asylum has assembled a cast worthy of joining that daunting roster. Brianna Ratterman plays the conceited and traumatized choreographer Anna and Heath Koerschgen plays the furious and irrepressible Pale, who charges into Anna’s world like a bulldozer with the breaks cut.

Burn This begins with an anguished Anna being soothed by her roommate Larry (Michael J. Teufel) and her boyfriend Burton (Jason Maniccia). Anna has just returned from the funeral of her friend Robbie, a dancer who was killed with his partner in a boating accident. Your first instinct is to cry for Anna, but there’s something off-putting about her snide remarks about Robbie’s family and her conversations with Burton, a screenwriter who spends much of the opening scene moaning about the rewriting of a script he wrote called Far Voyager.

Anna and Larry’s Manhattan loft is a static kingdom that begs to be shaken up, and Pale—who is Robbie’s brother—is more than happy to help. In the middle of the night, he bangs on the door, demanding the remainder of his dead sibling’s possessions. Bound by both grief and chemistry, Pale and Anna begin a romance that (depending on your perspective) is either a genuine connection or a destructive intertwining of two damaged souls.

To watch Burn This is to be, in a good way, trapped. You don’t just sit close to the stage—you sit on the same level as the stage. Instead of staring up at a raised platform, you stare straight into the lives of the characters, noticing details that would have been easy to miss in a larger arena, such as Anna lightly touching Pale’s mustache or Pale gently brushing Anna’s hair behind her ear.

Anna initially sees Robbie as a martyred saint and the relatives who were ignorant (deliberately or otherwise) of his work as a dancer and his life as a gay man as callous villains. The reality is more nuanced, and that confuses and terrifies her (“She’s had a very protected life,” Larry tells Burton. “I mean, she’s never had to carry her own passport or plane tickets—she’s not had to make her own way much”).

Heath Koerschgen’s Pale (foreground) is the bull in the China-shop life of roommates Larry (Michael J. Teufel) and Anna (Brianna Ratterman), in Burn This. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Gradually, Anna begins to recognize that the identities of everyone around her are forever in flux. Pale may be a bully who hurls homophobic slurs, but he is also a tormented brother who irrationally blames himself for Robbie’s death. His signature line—“I’m gonna cry all over your hair”—is the play’s manifesto. Each tear in Burn This is a physical manifestation of the forces that expand the souls and perceptions of Anna and even Burton, whose journey goes far beyond the trials of being one point of a love triangle (despite his apparent heterosexuality, he fondly recalls receiving a blowjob from a man in the snow). 

Just as the events of Burn This disrupt each character’s life viscerally, the play itself leaves you thrillingly unmoored. I’m still mentally replaying its images (from Anna excoriating Pale and Burton while wearing a silky purple bathrobe to Burton holding a screenplay he has written, looking as vulnerable as a little boy clinging to a toy truck), trying to understand them and knowing that I’m not entirely meant to. Stories, Burn This insists, are as undefinable as people. No matter how hard we try to stay dry, to be human is to have tears in your hair.

DramaWatch: Tina Packer’s feminine forces of Will

"Women of Will" charts Shakespeare's growth through his portrayals of female characters; Theatre Vertigo peers over the edge; plus shows and more shows.

Since its founding in 2008, Portland Playhouse has yet to stage a full production of a William Shakespeare play, leaning instead on August Wilson and Charles Dickens, and showcasing 21st-century playwriting stars such as Theresa Rebeck and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Yet Shakespeare has played a central role in the company. Two of the company’s founders, Brian and Nikki Weaver, worked together early in their careers at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. The educational model the Weavers learned there to work with high school students they’ve since replicated here with the Fall Festival of Shakespeare.

The connection bears juicier fruit this fall as the Playhouse presents a show — or rather a series of shows, really — called Women of Will, by the justly acclaimed Shakespeare and Co. founding artistic director Tina Packer. 

British-born actor-director Tina Packer unpacks Shakespeare’s views of women and society in Women of Will. Photo: Kevin Sprague, 2011.

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David Mamet, plowing through

Why, in the #me too age, revive tough-guy Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow"? For Asylum Theatre's Jason Manicchia it's the thrill of the language.

David Mamet.

The name evokes images of hard-swearing, fast-talking, testosterone-dripping, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing, scam-running, angry white men spiritually crippled by existential angst and taking it out on everybody they come into contact with, even – or especially – each other. There was an extended moment, lasting some thirty years, when Mamet was the popping, crackling heartbeat of the American theater. His plays were known for tight plots, scintillating dialogue with trademark staccato musicality, and scathing satirical wit.

But the world changed and Mamet didn’t. Or rather, he became even more Mamet than he was before. Something happened, something that had been hovering around the edges of the Mamet legend at least since the incendiary theatrical stacked deck called Oleanna burned its way across the American stage. In the 2000s, Mamet had a very public split with, as he called them, “Brain-Dead Liberals.” That tough-guy, cigar-chomping persona had curdled and hardened into a neo-con. Or, as Christopher Hitchens put it in his scathing review of Mamet’s 2011 book The Secret Knowledge, Mamet became “one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason.”

And when, in that book, Mamet apparently states that “Part of the left’s savage animus against Sarah Palin is attributable to her status not as a woman, neither as a Conservative, but as a Worker,” (italics mine), you begin to see just how unerring Hitchens’ assessment might be.

Brianna Ratterman and Jason Maniccia, sealing the deal. Photo: Gary Norman

So what, if anything, does this prodigiously gifted and deliciously controversial playwright still have to say to 2018 America? Well, the new (old) theatre company Asylum Theatre sought to answer that very question with it’s production of Mamet’s popular and wickedly black comedy, Speed-the-Plow, which is continuing through Dec. 23 at the Shoebox Theatre.

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A bird’s-eye view of terror

With chillingly understated performances and one monstrously masked character, Theatre Vertigo's "A Map of Virtue" will haunt your dreams.

What terrifies you the most? Ghosts? Snakes? Serial killers? Whatever your answer, I guarantee that if you go see Theatre Vertigo‘s profoundly disturbing new production of Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue, the image of a new monster will be carved into your psyche: a hulking man who wears a bird mask that has wide, circular eyes and a beak as sharp as a meat hook.

It would be foolhardy to say that A Map of Virtue exists solely to frighten its audience—it is also a potent rumination on romance, childhood and PTSD. Yet there is no denying that director Emilie Landmann and her incomparable cast have latched onto the most hellish passages of Courtney’s play and brought them to freakishly vivid life. The result of their efforts is an intoxicatingly intense vortex of pain and fear. As I was sucked in, I both savored the experience and longed to be released.

That was partly because I didn’t know what I was getting into. The opening scenes of A Map of Virtue introduce you to Sarah (Paige Rogers) and Mark (Samson Syharath)—two people who forge an intense friendship through a series of chance encounters—and prime you to expect a moody but relatively lighthearted play about people and their feelings. Yes, there are unsettling references (to a Hitchcockian swarm of birds and the sexual abuse Mark endured as a boy at boarding school), but nothing that prepares you for what comes next.

Paige Rogers (from left), Jacquelle Davis, and Samson Syharath in “A Map of Virtue” by Theatre Vertigo. Photo: KKelly Photography.

A Map of Virtue starts to reveal its true nature when Mark and Sarah and her husband Nate (Joel Patrick Durham) are invited to a party in the countryside by June (Kaia Maarja Hillier), who they have just met. She seems pleasant enough, but when the play’s heroes arrive at June’s house, they find themselves locked in a room, stripped of their phones and guarded by Ray (Gary Strong), June’s gun-wielding henchman (and the wearer of the aforementioned bird mask).

Eventually, we realize that June and Ray probably want to terrorize Mark, Sarah and Nate until there is nothing left of them to hurt (a torture scene that begins with June barking at Ray, “You! Get the buckets,” is one of the most alarming things I’ve seen onstage). Yet unlike so many horror stories, A Map of Virtue doesn’t demand that we relish the torment of its characters as punishment for sin or stupidity—we are invited to feel their anguish as our own, which is both more satisfying and more disquieting.

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