As I walked through paradisal Southeast Portland last Friday night, I grew afraid. The burgeoning hydrangeas, the laughter of children, the interminable rows of tall trees, scared me.
For some reason, I found myself reflecting on the upcoming two-year anniversary of the 2017 Portland MAX train attacks. This made my palms sweaty and mouth dry. I began averting eye contact with every white person I passed. I almost jumped out of my skin (pun intended?) when, on three occasions, cars pulled slowly up beside me (a la Get Out). The cars were harmless: Uber drivers, delivery people, etc. The fear was real.
As a young black man, the sense of alienation I felt on that walk was, in a strange way, sublime. A blend of beauty and terror. The sublimity of a fairy tale, where beneath the calm grass swaying in the breeze, a murderous troll lurks. This sense of danger brimming beneath the veneer of the idyllic is enough to make you think you’re crazy. After all, it’s a lush spring evening in Southeast Portland.
What is there to be afraid of?
That evening I was on my way to the West Coast premiere of Escaped Alone, by Caryl Churchill, at Shaking the Tree Theater.
When I entered the space it seemed like the outside had followed me inside. The dusk light, chirping birds, the grass, the happy white people, were all there. The simple, warm set design put the audience at ease. Someone next to me said: “Wow, this set makes me feel calm.”
I felt calm, too. But then I remembered that haunting title: Escaped Alone.
Escaped? From what?
And why Alone?
What followed was an exceptional production of a play about fear.
Escaped Alone follows four women who are innocently chatting in their garden. Punctuating their idle conversation are long post-apocalyptic monologues, a cappella karaoke, and harrowing soliloquies. These disruptions of linear action are hallmarks of Churchill’s work: She refuses to let you be a passive observer. She wants you to constantly have to reorient yourself, inside and outside of the theater, to what is happening, and to ask yourself, why? As a result, each audience member walks away with a unique interpretation of how all the pieces fit together.
A Churchill play is often like an alley-oop. She tosses up a perfectly placed floater and asks others to jump up and bring it down. She asks those producing, directing, and acting in her plays to bring it to life by trusting their own interpretations. One of her best plays, Love and Information, doesn’t even have assigned characters or set scene orders. She trusts the production team to figure that out. Her job is to make sure the ball is in the right place at the right time.
Well, Churchill tossed up the floater and Shaking the Tree slammed it down.
The cast of this play kept this political piece grounded and personal. In particular, Joann Johnson stood out as Vi, a woman who slowly reveals herself to be a murderer. Or maybe she isn’t … she can’t remember. Johnson, who has a lot of great one liners (“Eagles are fascists”), is hilarious. But Vi’s compelling, violent backstory anchors her performance in horror and drama. At one point she starts singing a song, and someone asks, “What’s that?” Johnson pauses and replies, “I don’t know…I just remember it.” Her performance reminded me that there is so much we carry inside us whose origins we can’t trace. Fears, desires, prejudices, songs. Johnson’s pacing and utter commitment make a simple line deeply upsetting.
Lorraine Bahr is also terrific as Lena, who is agoraphobic, with a fear of going into public spaces. Lena doesn’t talk with her friends about her deepest fears. Instead, she turns to us, the audience. In a powerfully slow monologue, Bahr speaks to the audience while her friends continue on, chatting mutely in the background. Bahr’s eyes whelm with tears; nostalgic music underscores her expressions of existential emptiness. “Why talk about that?” she says. “Why move your mouth? Why do talking? Why know anyone?” I saw the play twice just to see Bahr deliver this monologue a second time.
Much credit is due to Artistic Director Samantha Van Der Merwe. Earlier in her career Van Der Merwe was influenced by Frida Kahlo and Joseph Campbell, and she understands the power of color and imagination. She’s also a talented visual artist. The visual projections she designed for the show are subtle, shape-shifting, and beautiful. Van Der Merwe also has an extensive history with fairy tale and feminist theater. All of this makes her a great choice to direct the West Coast premiere of a Churchill play.
On the walk home that night I found myself remembering the MAX train attacks again. I remembered how those attacks happened in May, in Northeast Portland, very near. I thought about Oregon’s horrific racial history. I thought about Joanne Johnson’s performance and what it means to possess violent and inaccessible memories. I’d like to say that after I left the show I felt changed or emboldened, but I didn’t.
I became afraid again. I stepped out of the theater; left one artificial set and entered another. I stepped into alienation, again. But something special happened to me each time I watched this amazing production. Something as deep and personal as fear and loneliness.
Please, please go see this show. As with all Churchill plays, it will refract through everyone in different light. And when you leave the show, take a moment to appreciate the sheer beauty of the Portland spring evening surrounding you.
Then ask yourself, seriously: What is there to be afraid of?
Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone continues through June 1 at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 S.E. Grant St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.