Vertigo goes dark and complex

The company that's "the David Lynch of Portland theater" strikes up its 22nd season with a broodingly funny world premiere

Theatre Vertigo has spent the last twenty-two years deftly, sometimes recklessly, spelunking through the dark underbelly of 21st century America. The company’s body of work from Hellcab to Poona the F*** Dog to 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan to Hunter Gatherers has provided a road map through the neuroses and psychoses of a society crazy enough to make Donald Trump the most powerful man in the world, and it’d done it with incisive intelligence and a dogged resolve to never take itself too seriously. Humor is as much a part of the company’s thematic oeuvre as its willingness to walk on the edge of madness. It’s the David Lynch of Portland theater, approaching the madness and mayhem underneath the shopping malls and manicured lawns of contemporary American culture not just with fascination but also with compassion and even affection.

The play that opens Vertigo’s twenty-second season Saturday at the Shoebox Theater, Dominic Finocchiaro’s complex, is right in its wheelhouse. It’s funny, lyrical and not for the faint of heart. At times it feels like all of American pop culture of the past forty years appears, from pop music to reality shows to serial killers (one of the leads is even named Jeffrey – just sayin’), is referred to or makes an appearance in complex. It’s like a nightmare that doesn’t terrify you but leaves you profoundly disturbed. You laughed but you’re not sorry you’re awake. It’s a natural fit for Vertigo.

Life in the complex? It’s complex. Theatre Vertigo photo

Which is all the more interesting because Vertigo, despite the many years of changing roster and sensibilities, has made its bones doing the plays that the larger companies just won’t do. complex, however, received its first professional workshop at Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival some six years ago.

Dominic Finocchiaro is Brooklyn-based but has West Coast roots. He grew up in California and then attended Portland’s Reed College. “I did everything,” he remembers, “I wrote. I acted. I directed. Did design stuff. Was the master electrician for a while. My thesis there was I directed a play that I wrote.” After receiving his BA at Reed, Finocchiaro got his MFA in playwrighting at Columbia University. Currently, he’s studying and teaching at Juilliard.

JAW was the “first professional workshop I ever had of a play,” recalls Finocchiaro, “I guess I must have been twenty-five. It was a great experience.” Since then, complex has had numerous workshop explorations, including one most notably at Next Door New York Theatre Workshop, but Vertigo’s show will be its world premiere. “It’s great,” says Finocchiaro, that complex “is going to have its first production in the city that means so much to it.”

Talking to Finocchiaro after reading his play is a complicated experience. He seems remarkably well-adjusted considering the boundaries his play pushes. But this personal equanimity has been hard-earned. “I am a person who has suffered,” he says, “– struggled throughout my life with panic disorder, depression and ocd and such.” Playwriting has not just given Finocchiaro solace but has given him the ability to turn these challenges into something productive and meaningful. “I think there’s a lot of darkness that, by nature, is in my work,” he says, “as a writer you want to put yourself in all of your characters. I think writing for me is definitely a way to channel my own feelings of alienation or awkwardness or neuroses into art. I am at my best when I’m writing.”

All of those demons of contemporary culture – alienation, awkwardness, neuroses – make their way into complex. The complex of the title could be about the numerous emotional and psychological complexes possibly experienced by some or all of the characters in the play, or it could simply be about the building in which all these strange, vaguely dangerous (and hungry) people reside.

Playwright Dominic Finocchiaro: a homecoming. Photo courtesy Theatre Vertigo

complex and this first production are fascinating if for no other reason than for what it says about Portland at this moment in time. Twenty, ten, perhaps even five years ago, the play wouldn’t have made sense in Portland. It could have been produced but it would have to be about another city. Today, complex feels relevant, immediate. Perhaps Portland’s defining characteristic for years was that Portland always felt like a big small town. Portland felt knowable, humanist, familiar. At least, that’s what the city and its residents told themselves.

But Portland’s been growing at the rate of ten thousand people a year for the last decade. Everywhere you look there’s another giant block being erected, blotting out still more of the ever waning sun. When Finocchiaro says, laughing, that “life is dark” it’s no longer just a metaphor in the Rose City. It’s becoming a physical reality. And that evolution feels inevitable, inexorable, ruthless. Many more people than used to are choosing to live in buildings just like the one in complex.  More and more often those people are some segment of the new ten thousand that showed up this year and will show up next. A lot of times, “they” don’t know each other and “we” don’t know “them.” Strangers do, in fact, become stranger when you’re alone. complex, it turns out, is not about who we are but who we’re becoming.

Not that complex is all doom and gloom. At least, Finocchiaro hopes that audiences find the play’s doom and gloom funny and entertaining. “I hope [audiences] enjoy themselves first and foremost,” he says, “it is supposed to be a good time and an imaginative theatrical experience for them. And I hope, on the back end, it makes them think about the way we live in contemporary times and especially contemporary urban cities and the ways we can become isolated from each other. We’re striving to make these connections and failing more often than not. That’s always a question I’m interested in: the new or deeper ways we can think about community and human connection.”  

Finally, complex is a piece about language, constantly moving and changing, twisting and breaking and reforming itself to suit the needs and/or desires of the moment. Finocchiaro counts among his influences, at the time he was writing complex, playwrights like Gregory S. Moss, Lucas Hnath (who wrote A Doll’s House 2, recently produced at Artists Rep), and Jenny Schwartz “and the way she uses language.” Words made an impact not just through their meaning, but also through their individual, aural qualities. “I was influenced by this certain generation of playwrights,” says Finocchiaro, “that are really pushing how you use words, how you use rhythms and how you use sonic qualities of words and line breaks. And how you can create a symphonic sound.”

Just hanging out in the no murder zone. Theatre Vertigo photo

For Finocchiaro, complex is an “old play” written when he was a “very young man” (he’s a doddering 31 now). It is representative of a stage in his growth as a playwright. His play The Found Dog Ribbon Dance will be produced at CoHo later this season and represents a place that Finocchiaro’s writing has progressed since. He feels, with their mirroring themes of alienation, loneliness, paranoia and the human need for connection, that the two plays have a lot in common thematically, if not in structure. He thinks they make good companion pieces. As Finocchiaro grows older, he hopes audiences detect threads of “hope” and “altruism” running through his work alongside his customary neuroses. And certainly, Ribbon Dance appears to feature those facets prominently, its subject matter being “professional cuddling.”.

Regardless, Dominic Finocchiaro, burgeoning young playwright, stays committed to being unafraid to “live in the darker elements of humanity.” And therein is where you’ll find Theatre Vertigo’s production of complex.

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