third rail repertory theatre

‘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.

Continues…

‘Mr Kolpert’: O to be young and alienated

Third Rail Rep delivers the splendidly macabre comedy along with the pizza

Maybe we should look at German playwright David Gieselmann’s Mr. Kolpert as a period piece. One of the first plays that Third Rail Repertory Theatre wanted to do when it started in 2003, the play’s technical difficulties made it difficult to mount back then. The company has waited more than a decade to put it onstage, and now Mr. Kolpert finally receives a smart, deliciously evil production, with carefully blended performances from its cast under the direction of Scott Yarbrough.

The dinner party of Kelly Godell, left,   takes a turn when thumping comes from the trunk. Leif Norby investigates because Rolland Walsh is all tied up./Owen Carey

The dinner party of Kelly Godell, left, takes a turn when thumping comes from the trunk. Leif Norby investigates because Rolland Walsh is all tied up./Owen Carey

So, right, Mr. Kolpert was written at the end of the 1990s, as a tech bubble filled with air, and Western culture achieved something like Peak Vapidity. Or so we thought.

With vapidity came awareness of vapidity. And that awareness resulted in a generalized ennui, an emptiness. Then the bubble burst and we were saved from ourselves. Temporarily at least.

Continues…

Third Rail crosses the river

The Portland theater company moves to the east side and changes its business model

I met Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s Scott Yarbrough and Maureen Porter outside Third Rail’s new home at Imago Theater, a half-block south of East Burnside on Southeast Eighth. If you’re new to the city, that’s a far cry and a river crossing away from their former home in the Winningstad Theatre downtown, even though lower Burnside has spiffed up a lot in the past ten years or so.

Anyway, they led me into the familiar, friendly confines of Imago, where Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad concoct peculiarly engaging theater on a regular basis. Instead of going to their new office space, though, they took me into the theater proper. Good gravy! New seats!

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail's "Static"/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail’s “Static”/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

As much as I enjoy my frequent visits to Imago Theatre, the old chairs with the separate cushions attached to the seats haven’t been part of the thrill. Their replacements are of very recent vintage, pulled from a Seattle area Bollywood movie theater that lost its lease, trucked down to Portland and installed over a very long day and night, by Third Rail with some help from Imago. Hey, we now we have both a very comfortable chair AND a spot for one of those gigantic cups of Sprite you get at the movies.

Yarbrough and Porter knew they had me at the seats, but then they explained the thinking behind the two major changes Third Rail made this summer—moving to Imago and launching something they call a membership program—and it all made good sense. It still does a day later, which perhaps means the new creature comforts at Imago aren’t totally responsible for the judgment.

*****

To understand the gravity of the move from the Winningstad Theatre to Imago, a little, condensed Third Rail Rep history may be in order.

John Steinkamp takes aim on Tim True in "The Lonesome West"/Owen Carey

John Steinkamp takes aim on Tim True in “The Lonesome West”/Owen Carey

The company’s first production was at little CoHo Theatre in 2005, and it was a hit—Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events, which won a barrelfull of Drammy Awards and glowing reviews. It’s third was another big hit, Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West,” bitter, dark, mordantly comic. That production won three major Drammy Awards—best production, best actor for Tim True’s performance, and best director for the company’s producing artistic director, Yarbrough, and set the stage for the company’s first full season in the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center (now the the home of Ethos) on North Interstate.

The company’s onstage “brand” was set by those early triumphs: theater that was literate, contemporary and darkly comic, sharply designed by and cast from an excellent permanent company of theater artists. The permanent company distinguished Third Rail, too. It was large and included some of the city’s best actors and designers. More than that, the company of actors and designers also performed the company’s administrative tasks, from box office to public relations to grant writing. That meant a huge chunk of the company’s revenue went directly to the artists in the company, a model that continues today.

The company developed a solid core of theater fans and continued to produce hits from unlikely theater properties. It quickly outgrew IFCC and moved downtown to the World Trade Center’s theater and kept filling the house and growing. After three years, Third Rail made the leap to the Winningstad Theatre in the performing arts center, figuring the enhanced visibility would balance out the increased expense. The company was definitely punching above its weight: Its budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, the latest available on GuideStar, was around $660,000 and its revenue was $580,000. The older, more established Artists Repertory Theatre, which staged shows in its own two-theater complex and was roughly comparable in terms of artistic ambition, had a budget of more than $2.7 million that same year (and a comparable deficit of around $348,000), again according to GuideStar.

*****

The Winningstad move didn’t work out. A year ago after a production of another McDonough play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the company decided to look for a new home after the 2014-15 season. The production just hadn’t generated the kind of heat with audiences that Third Rail wanted.

“We just got lost there,” Porter said about the Winningstad as we talked on the comfy seats at Imago. “Our patrons felt like they lost us.”

Jayne Taini in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane"/Photo by Owen Carey

Jayne Taini in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”/Photo by Owen Carey

There were two major problems. The company’s activities—mainstage productions, rehearsal space, smaller-scale shows, its National Theater Live high-definition video presentations, offices—were in different locations, which increased expenses and fractured the sense of “company” that was critical to Third Rail’s success, according to Yarbrough. And somehow the audiences didn’t connect as strongly with the shows, the actors or the company in the new space. My own guess: In the Winningstad, the shows seemed more remote, more like “entertainment commodities,” where the contract with the audience was simply to show up, sit still, watch, and depart. The Winningstad didn’t communicate the company’s communitarian values, and it didn’t create the sense of community with audience members that it had in the past.

So, the company found willing partners in Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad at Imago Theatre, a likely spot to nurture the more experimental side of Third Rail, given the kind of edgy theater Triffle and Mouawad generate. We got a taste of what a Third Rail at Imago might look like onstage in late spring when the company produced Dan Rebellato’s Static there, a very challenging show to produce in many ways, both technical and actorly, and the results were stunning. Imago’s also capacious enough to corral most of Third Rail’s activities under one roof, and in the little lobby audience and Third Rail actors will mingle together closely.

*****

The move across the river to Imago isn’t the only change, and as big as that is, another idea might be even bigger: The membership.

Like most larger theater companies, Third Rail spent a lot of its time and money chasing subscribers—people who bought tickets for the entire season of Third Rail shows. In recent years, that’s gotten harder and harder, not just at Third Rail but at most performing arts companies. A lot of things factor into this struggle, demographic and economic changes among them. But the culture is changing, too. We are becoming “when I want it” consumers (see: Netflix, et al.), and theater is more of a “when we put it on” kind of experience.

The subscription model locks you into a particular date to see a show months in advance. You can change it, sure, but that requires some number of clicks or phone calls to rearrange, and then what if you’re just too tired to go out on the night you’ve rearranged to go out? There’s no getting around that to a certain extent, but Third Rail had an idea.

“Why not do something bold and innovative and true to who you are?” Porter asked, somewhat rhetorically. “That will get us excited about doing what we do?”

So, the company is experimenting with the membership idea. You can still get a traditional subscription, of course, but you can also become a member and see a show whenever you want (assuming a seat is available for that performance, you can call ahead to reserve a seat just to make sure), and your non-membership friend can get a discount at the same time. But not only that: You can also attend the National Theater Live shows (Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Hamlet”!), open rehearsals, lectures and panels in the Salon Series, showcases for the mentorship company, new play readings, parties, and Wild Card productions, using the same membership card. Some of those are ONLY for members, too, though often you’ll be among paying customers.

You’ll be paying, too, of course—$29.33 a month. But you can go to as many events as you want with your card. So, if you like the production of Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, which opens September 18, you can see it again. And again. And again. Until it closes. Ditto the rest of the plays

I went to the August Wild Card production of The Bylines, the song-writing duo of Marianna Thielen and Reece Marshburn, augmented here by a fine horn and rhythm section, two dancers, and members of the Third Rail company. At one point Thielen asked how many in the audience were members and a solid number of hands popped up. Third Rail’s goal for the year is 125 members, and Yarbrough said 123 had already signed up, so the experiment is off to a good start.

The company members are curating the membership offerings, and the success of the program will depend on their acuity at matching events to the audience. That will rely in large measure on how much they mix with the members and get a sense of what they like and need. Stand-up comedy? A jazz series? An art crawl that wanders over to the nearby studios of the Northwest Dance Project after a stop at Burnside Brewing? A late-night experimental movie series? That last one came courtesy of Imago’s Mouawad, a fount of interesting ideas—I for one would love to see a set of movies that he curated.

“We want to create a community of people with lots of options,” Porter said. “We don’t want to stick with the status quo.” And later, she added, “We want to put our revenue into work, not branding.”

That’s what makes sense to me. Even very large theater companies have a hard time projecting their brands into the cultural wind storm, where the arts are promptly sheared off by far richer and far more prevalent commercial interests. When it comes to projecting a brand, Third Rail will never be able to beat Nike or Coke. Its marketing budget will never be sufficient to compete in that sphere. So it has to find another route, offer something new, help its prospective community members find what they need at Third Rail.

Stay tuned; we’ll be tracking how it pans out.

Read more by Barry Johnson.

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News and Notes: A BCA shutdown, summer shows galore, grants

Business for Culture & the Arts closes up shop and lots of other items, three-dot style.

News and Notes has been in a bit of slumber, but we were awakened from our deep sleep by Business for Culture & the Arts, the nonprofit that links the arts with businesses. The group has announced that it’s going out of business June 30, though it will hold a special membership meeting currently slated for August 11. Declining memberships and staff transitions led the board to conduct some research with its members and stakeholders, and in late May, the board voted to start to shut things down.

BCA is looking for homes for its primary programs, including the Art of Leadership board training program, the Arts Breakfast of Champions, which recognizes successful business-arts partnerships, and Associates and Business Volunteers for the Arts. We’ll let you know what happens to these programs as soon as we know.

And now back to our usual News and Notes programming!

The Portland Piano International Summer Festival opens Thursday at Lewis & Clark with a busy schedule of lectures, workshops and performances, involving a great lineup of musicians. You’re going to have to visit the website to get the big picture…Post5 Theatre has announced its schedule for 2016 (which seem further away than it really is), and it involves a generous helping of Shakespeare or Bard-influenced plays—Lear, and all-female Othello, Richard III, The Complete Works [abridged] revised, along with a little Christopher Durang, Rashomon, and Jeff Whitty’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. We’ll get you linked up for the details once they are available on the website.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has received $25,000 from Arts Midwest’s Shakespeare in American Communities program. The money will support reduced or complimentary tickets for schools in Oregon and northern California to Much Ado about Nothing, Pericles, Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night the next two years, and also go to related classroom curricula and actor workshops, post-show discussions, tours, and teacher training classes. Since 1971, the festival’s School Visit Program has reached more than 2 million students, according to OSF…Coho Productions’ Summerfest is in full swing—this weekend’s show (June 18-21) is Deanna Fleysher’s Butt Kapinski, a sexy and gender-confused murder mystery, with a big dollop of comedy mixed into its Noir…Third Rail Repertory Theatre runs a mentorship program, and on Thursday those, um, mentees (?) will open the Off the Rails Festival, June 18-28, 7:30 pm Thursdays-Sundays at Action/Adventure Theater. The playbill includes three fully-staged productions of plays that are on the edgy side, and a reading of a new play by resident playwriting mentee, Alexandra Schaffer.

MJ Anderson, Eyrie, 2014, green onyx, 13 x 20 x 8"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

MJ Anderson, Eyrie, 2014, green onyx, 13 x 20 x 8″/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Sculptor MJ Anderson is giving an artist’s talk at Elizabeth Leach Gallery at 11 am Saturday, June 27. Anderson has sculpted stone for the past 30 years, and she’ll be talking about the process, including her shift in the current exhibition, Acqua Pietrificata, away from the female form to something more abstract and metaphorical, using rare stones, such as the green onyx above.

A-WOL takes its circus to the trees in Art in the Dark.

A-WOL takes its circus to the trees in Art in the Dark.

One of the best adaptations by an arts group to Oregon summer (and lots of successful one exist including Third Angle’s Porch Music and Bag & Baggage’s outdoor summer Shakespeare, Richard III this year) is A-WOL Dance Collective’s August Art in the Dark show in West Linn’s Mary S Young Park. This year’s performances are August 7-9 and 14-16, and they start at dark. The theme involves Old World circus acts—and since it’s an aerial company, they’ll be hanging and swinging from the trees…Richard Maxwell is the artistic director of the New York City Players, a band of theater experimentalists, and he’s going to be in town for a series of performances of his Showcase, a play in which “a businessman alone in his hotel room reflects on his day, and his life.” It plays 7, 8, and 9 pm Thursday, June 18-20, in the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower, 921 SW 6th Ave. It’s free, but you have to RSVP, because seating is tight in the actual hotel room where Maxwell will perform it. Yale Union is the sponsor—visit the site to RSVP.

Third Rail: The ghost in the ‘Static’

Third Rail Rep takes on a rock-infused play full of signs

My first thoughts about Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s production of Dan Rebellato’s Static involved the technical aspects of the show. How many sound cues this rock’n’roll drenched play must have, for example. And then after a bit, a bit of wonderment at how adept the four actors in Static had become at American Sign Language, signing and talking, sometimes at the same time and sometimes not. How did they keep all that straight?

So, right, my response began in admiration, but then it morphed to something else—affection. A lot of that was technical, too, I suppose. The craft of Reballato’s play, director Scott Yarbrough’s integration of its elements, including Kaye Blankenship’s stunning abstract set and Jennifer Lin’s deft lighting design, and the skill of the actors. But if there’s magic in theater, it happens when skill turns into something deeper. That happened to me during the Sunday matinee of Static.

*****

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail's "Static"/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail’s “Static”/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Rebellato is a London playwright and academic (he is the theater department chair at Royal Holloway, University of London), and he writes for the Guardian’s theater blog. He developed Static in collaboration with Graeae, a company that champions experiences and opportunities for deaf and disabled audiences and practitioners, according to director Yarbrough, so signing was fully integrated into the show. Rebellato gave Third Rail permission to craft how signing and spoken language were balanced and presented in this production, but it had “to honor a primary goal of the play: that all members of the audience would not have access to all the information communicated in the play,” Yarbrough said.

Static, then, as the title implies, is a play at least partly about communication or the lack thereof, how we try to translate the enigmatic messages we receive, solve the problems they pose. At the heart of the play is a mixed tape discovered among Chris’s possessions soon after Chris has died, addressed to his wife Sarah, a pretty random compilation of songs dating back to the ’60s, some ridiculous and some sublime, with no apparent unifying theme or point. How can she and Chris’s rock journalist buddy Martin make sense of it? It even includes country songs, for crying out loud, and Chris was no fan of country.

Kelly Godell comforts Maureen Porter as Rolland Walsh looks on in  "Static"/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Kelly Godell comforts Maureen Porter as Rolland Walsh looks on in “Static”/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Even after Martin has given up on the project, Sarah continues with it, a testament to how deeply she loved Chris, maybe, to make sense of this last “message.” So where does the sign language come in? Well, Chris had become deaf after a car accident, though his love of rock music abided. Chris was deaf when he compiled the tape (and it IS a tape: Chris and Martin are confirmed anti-digital guys), and we see him in frequent flashbacks that go back before he became deaf as well as inhabiting his new state, which he adjusted to quite well, it turns out.

In her deep grief, Sarah focuses on the static left at the end of the tape. Can you hear that? Isn’t he saying something? The static, like a cloud, must contain signs she can decipher. Martin, dubious, brings over a bunch of recording gear so she can examine the tape more minutely. She senses Chris in the tape, feels him near her. Which actually makes sense to us in the audience, because we see him, too, hovering around Sarah and Martin, and then in the flashbacks. The other character in the play, Chris’s sister Julia, is so distraught she can’t hear anything, doesn’t want to talk to anyone, and seems to be determined to evict Sarah from her apartment. Yes, Static is about grief, too.

Is it also about the supernatural? How seriously are we supposed to take the specter of Chris? I guess I choose to make this ghost a symbol—of decoding the message, of understanding.

*****

At the beginning, I used the word “affection.” And this comes from the characters and the actors animating them. Rolland Walsh makes an irrepressible, even madcap Chris, the sort of fellow who injects every situation and conversation with life and surprise. Maureen Porter plunges into Sarah’s sadness and then her determination to complete the translation of what she believes are Chris’s last words with equal commitment and good heartedness. Sam Dinkowitz’s Martin manages to be more than a sidekick for rockstar Chris, more amiable and concerned on one hand and then more adamant in his rants about rock, and because rock to this crew is everything, life itself. Julia as a character is harder to take, primarily because we don’t see her attempts to accommodate to the loss of a beloved brother, but Kelly Godell convinces us of just how corrosive her grief must be.

Through the flashbacks, through the signed sequences without verbal translation, through the static (sometimes closer to white noise), the actors pull us along, maybe because we are confident that they (and the playwright) are searching for something we all search for. Consolation. Understanding. The good memories. I never felt that Static was going to drop me on my head, so I was fine with not knowing everything that was going on or being said, a common condition in life, after all. No, make that a constant condition in life.

Finally, although my own taste in music has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, I loved the pop songs that infuse Static with energy and vitality and, yes, meaning. We do tend to think that certain songs weren’t written exactly for us for exactly this moment or we try to squeeze some additional significance out of a song we like. It just so happens that Third Rail has compiled a YouTube set of the songs in Chris’s compilation tape, so you can give a listen if you like. Lots of other songs pop up during the play; many I knew, and the rest I was happy to hear.

And the inherent contradiction in Static, a play so set on communicating with deaf audiences that contains so much music, is resolved in the same way that Walsh, the deaf rock critic, solves it—with energy and passion.

SPOILER ALERT: In my favorite moment of Static, the “ghost” of Chris encounters Sarah’s audio equipment, which includes a big microphone. As I said, she was desperate to hear what she thought Chris was telling her in that last tape. Chris approaches the microphone…and starts signing “into” it. Just the perfect gesture on so many levels.

‘Noises Off’ is farces all the way down

Third Rail Rep pulls out all the shticks for Michael Frayn's farce

We could begin a review of Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” which is getting a swift shtick in the pants from Third Rail Repertory Theatre, with some general commentary on the subject of farces, which might take in the importance of underwear (garish for the men, revealing for the women) and the relationship between Farce, The Erotic, and Tragedy. Fortunately, the Third Rail playbill covers (or uncovers) all of that. Actually, I should say “playbills,” plural, because this show has two of them, one for “Noises Off” and one for the show-within-the-show, a farce that “Noises Off” farcicalizes. OK, yes, I just made that word.

Instead, let’s jump to Stephen Sondheim! I just saw the documentary “Six by Sondheim” on HBO, which among other things is a meditation on six Sondheim tunes. One of those is “Send in the Clowns,” of course, and this verse popped out at me, having just seen “Noises Off.”

Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want –
Sorry, my dear.

And I asked myself, are there people out there who don’t like farce? As a form? People who can resist the pratfalls, hijinks, romances on the rocks, the inevitable hilarity of watching OTHER people splutter and blanch as their desires race out of control and lead them to humiliation?

Well, of course there are. And even those of us who quite enjoy them aren’t always in the mood. So yes, if you aren’t in the mood or don’t care for farces (which I totally understand) you might steer clear of “Noises Off,” clever as it is and as well as Third Rail pulls it off.

****

Isaac Lamb and Karen Trumbo stoop for laughs in "Noises Off"/Owen Carey

Isaac Lamb and Karen Trumbo stoop for laughs in “Noises Off”/Owen Carey

Is “Noises Off,” technically speaking, a farce? It certainly has the form and elements of farces, and it also wallows in their depictions of ids rampant. But it is meta-farce, farce that knows it is a force, which it announces with that whole farce-within-a-play device. Then again, the action outside the farce, among the actors playing the farce, is also a farce. So, we have a farce-within-a-farce, two farces for the price of one, if you’re looking for a post-Black Friday bargain. It’s farces all the way down.

So, back to Sondheim, I’m wondering, if the person who doesn’t “love farce,” would enjoy Frayn’s wit unleashed on the form, or would that person just think it was twice as bad?

For me, once I’d stopped chuckling, I started think some of the following thoughts:

  1. How what we are “really” feeling leaks into our presentations to the world of what we’re feeling, no matter what
  2. How little explanation we need to piece together a basic life situation (comedy)
  3. How quickly we accept “types” as somehow “real”
  4. How much we need to see pain transformed into laughter, and how instructive that is
  5. How close art is to life

Your thoughts will no doubt vary!

****

Damon Kupper and Isaac Lamb in "Noises Off"/Owen Carey

Damon Kupper and Isaac Lamb in “Noises Off”/Owen Carey

I’m not sure you need to know a darn thing about this production other than it’s very well done, right?

Maybe I’ll mention some of the actors. Karen Trumbo plays the former TV sitcom star taking one last turn with a touring show just for the money. I remember her back in the 1990s playing major roles excellently at the late great Portland Repertory Theatre, and have always enjoyed her performances, the timing (she played in David Ives’ “All in the Timing”!), the clarity, the restraint. Of course, she isn’t quite so restrained (“The sardines,” she wails) here! David Bodin, who plays the stereotypical alcoholic actor Selsdon Mowbray, is another great acting resource in the city, completely at home in almost any situation and delightful in comedy. Spencer Conway, a graduate of Portland Actors Conservatory in 1997 (which he mentions in his playbill bio and which we should probably mention far more frequently with other actors), is a member of the 3rd Floor Sketch Comedy Troupe, and that becomes immediately apparent as he negotiates the role of the actor who questions ALL the directions of the director. Damon Kupper, a core member of Third Rail, gives Garry Lejeune the crazy energy he needs to accelerate things to warp intensity.

OK, I’ll mention everyone! Kelly Godell plays the vacant blonde bombshell with just a hint of an undercurrent of camp, which maybe she picked up playing Janet in “Rocky Horror”? Amy Newman, who won a Drammy Award (lots of Drammy Awards in this cast, by the way) for supporting actress in “God’s Ear,” is the long-suffering stage manager Poppy, which she inhabits with just the right sense of romance-dashed dejection. Rolland Walsh is hilarious as assistant stage manager Tim Allgood, and I think you’ll be seeing a lot of him on Portland stages (he was splendid in Third Rail’s “A Noble Failure” last year). I write a lot about Maureen Porter and Isaac Lamb, and if you see Portland theater at all, you know how deft they are on stage.

Third Rail Repertory Theatre's "Noises Off"/Owen Carey

Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s “Noises Off”/Owen Carey

Scott Yarbrough, the artistic director of Third Rail, directs here, which means he has to manage more physical shtick than contemporary plays usually demand. I think that’s unfortunate, I mean that we don’t have more slapsticky bits on our stages. Our comedy tends to be SO verbal. Anyway, Yarbrough keeps the doors slamming on time, which is a feat in itself. This show is complicated: the playbill includes a dialect coach (Stephanie Gaslin), movement (Philip Cuomo) and violence(!) (Kristen Mun) directors, along with scenic (Sean O’Skea), costume (Emily Horton) and sound (Scott Thorson) designers. The stage manager and assistant stage managers, Olivia Murphy and Jory Bowers, have a TON to do. And the playbill lists yet more contributors, including seven scenic carpenters, but we’ll stop from sheer exhaustion, yes? (Well, how about Don Crossley as production manager and Demetri Pavlatos as technical director?)

The point is that to make a meringue isn’t as easy at it looks, and if it looks anything BUT easy, it won’t be as funny. Yeah, sometimes we forget stuff like that, for which we apologize!

So, did I take you somewhere you didn’t want to go? My fault I fear. To console myself maybe I’ll go back later in the run.

Aliens found lurking in the human brain, heart

Third Rail Rep's "The Aliens" probes our dark matter...

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in “The Aliens”/Owen Carey

Toward the end of Annie Baker’s “The Aliens,” Evan makes a call to Nicole, another counselor at music camp he met earlier that summer. She’s a violist, and Evan starts with a little chit-chat about her orchestra and blurts out that he’s smoking, then that a friend of his has died suddenly, and finally that he wants to come to visit her in Boston.

That little speech is why I like “The Aliens” so much. Its psychology is so acute, its understanding of our condition, whipsawed by loss and its close companion desire, mystified by the process of becoming, which seems to require so much dull and self-destructive time in between the flashes of insight.

Conventional theater offers conventional characters, and those characters are nearly always a little more integrated, symbolic, and predictable than people are. That doesn’t mean that they don’t offer a lot of important stuff to us. They do. But they are compressed, simplified, embroiled in problems that have solutions, resolutions. We can learn from them, laugh at them, feel deeply about those problems and even the characters themselves, such is the power of theater. But generally speaking (and I’m painting with a roller not even a broad brush), they don’t describe our lives at its most granular all that well. Maybe because that’s impossible for Observer Effect reasons…

But that’s why I have fallen so hard for “The Aliens.” It doesn’t feel compressed and simplified. It doesn’t offer typical psychological arcs or narrative lines. It begins to pick at our intermittence, our disjointedness, our impulses and our ennui, our memories and convenient fictions. And it makes a compelling play out of them, such is the power of theater.

****

Christopher Isherwood, reviewing for the New York Times, compared the two central characters of “The Aliens,” KJ and Jasper, to a slacker version of Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, and he loves it: “Ms. Baker may just have the subtlest way with exposition of anyone writing for the theater today.”

But we always know that Didi and Gogo are fictional characters, wonderful and fictional, governed by Beckett’s logic and imagination. “The Aliens” is both more specific than Isherwood suggests in the review—I don’t see KJ and Jasper as reducible to “slackers”—and through that specificity, paradoxically enough, makes a leap toward the biggest of generalizations about human consciousness.

I don’t think those specifics are the result of “compassionate, truthful observation,’’ as Isherwood writes, though the wonder of the play is that it seems that way. I don’t think Baker sat at a cafe in some little Vermont town and reported what she saw. I think she excavated a lot more deeply than that and created a world that seems so real, especially in the cozy confines of CoHo Theater, you can touch it.

****

Chris Murray and Bryce Earhart in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Rep

Chris Murray and Bryce Earhart in “The Aliens”/Owen Carey

Third Rail Repertory Theatre opened “The Aliens” at CoHo last night, and I liked so many things about the production, it’s hard to know where to begin. Just for starters, I liked Isaac Lamb’s singing and his finger tapping, Chris Murray’s long stares and swift shifts from self-possession to doubt, Bryce Earhart’s phone message and the slump and lean of his walk.

“The Aliens” is set in a little clearing behind a restaurant, the sort of place where employees might go and smoke, take some sun in the lawn chairs, or eat lunch at the picnic table, if it didn’t smell so much from the garbage cans. KJ (Lamb) and Jasper (Murray) hang out there, for reasons never explained. Maybe it’s the last best place.

KJ’s a college dropout, though he seems to know more than average about math, and he has some sort of psychological issue that makes it hard to get any traction in his life. He treats it with both traditional meds and mushrooms and sometimes with alcohol, though that seems to end badly. Jasper dropped out of high school, has girlfriends, reads Charles Bukowski and is nearly finished with his own first novel. Together, they formed a band that had a series of names, and although I personally would have voted for The Frogmen, Baker takes her title from another of the band’s identifiers, The Aliens, taken from the title of Bukowski poem. KJ is 30; I surmised that Jasper was a bit younger.

But these quick capsules of them? They aren’t that useful, because they lead to the very compression that the play undermines. They are an armature and a form of coloration. Baker doesn’t tell their stories; she shows the restless twitches of their minds, sublime and silly, and their efforts to understand what is happening to them, or, really, what is NOT happening to them.

A new employee at the restaurant enters this no man’s land to drop off the garbage and tell KJ and Jasper to scoot. Evan is still in high school, though he’s headed for Bates, a musician who is friendless and uncomfortable with himself and with that brittle self’s place in the world, the kind of kid you feel safe looking past because he seems so harmless. And they become friends of a sort, because despite their sparring and impulsiveness, both Jasper and KJ are warm-hearted, and their stories about themselves and the wisdom they’ve harvested from those stories amaze and inform Evan.

Lamb’s eyes are soft and safe. Murray’s moments of ease and kindness are punctuated with something more definite and pointed. And Evan becomes one of the gang, because with these two, awkwardness isn’t a problem. The only thing that’s important is honest reflection, maybe the only utopian aspect of “The Aliens.” Jasper reads from his novel; Lamb sings an old song of the Frogmen; they share and they enjoy the sharing.

****

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Rep

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in “The Aliens”/Owen Carey

Portland has had a couple of fine productions of Baker plays, Artists Rep’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” and Portland Playhouse’s “Body Awareness.” She’s a young playwright, born in 1981, who grew up in Amherst, Mass., graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and earned an MFA from Brooklyn College. Since graduating she’s been on a steep trajectory, winning various fellowships and getting the kind of early reviews for her plays that a playwright could only dream about.

Both “Body Awareness” and “Circle Mirror Transformation” dealt with “issues”—compassion, love, desire, the place of women, relationships—but they did so deftly, almost gently, with a lot of humor that managed to add to our understanding of what she was exploring not simply to divert us. They were also more conventional than “The Aliens,” in the style of the contemporary American play, with its short, sharp, occasionally oblique episodes.

They weren’t as crunchy as “The Aliens” or as risky. At one point in the second act, which takes a disturbing turn that I won’t go into here, at the beginning of the run, KJ talks to Evan about how, when he was five, he used to say the word “ladder” all day. He couldn’t stop. And one night, his mother (the only mention of his family in the play) came to his bed and held him. She told him he could say “ladder” all he wanted as loud as he wanted, and KJ re-enacts that moment, all the pain in it and all the pain since, maybe the best song of The Frogmen.

Lamb is transcendent in this moment, pushing himself and us many beats and decibels past what we’d consider appropriate. I wanted him to stop. I didn’t want him to stop. Director Tim True has a sense about these risky moments, and it will come as no surprise to those who’ve seen him perform himself to hear that he never underplays them, never glides past them, encourages the actors to take the leap.

The silences are long in “The Aliens,” too, as long as Pinter or Beckett, not that I’m making any direct comparisons. And I have no idea if this is just another experiment by a young playwright or something more programmatic, the attempt to bring our current insight into our psychology and its fragmentary nature, to the stage.

****

Do real young men talk this way, think this way, joke this way, grieve this way, dream this way? The implication of Isherwood’s review three years ago (which, by the way, I think is really a good one) is that they do, and that Baker caught them in the act somehow.

I have no idea. Which young men? Pressed, I’d say that I don’t think any particular three young men would manifest this particular set of neuronal responses, I guess. But that’s not the point. What I recognize is the pattern (or maybe the lack of a pattern). How Murray’s Jasper can brood in the most profound way about his lost girlfriend one moment and flip into another mode the next, charming and dry and engaging. How we can almost see the wheels spinning inside Earhart’s head as his Evan contemplates the information he’s receiving, the behavior he is observing.

Recognizing the pattern, I’m willing to follow the particulars wherever they might lead, such is the power of theater.

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