A good play ought to grab its audience from the very top and take it for a ride. The way it grabs an audience can be as varied as a cowboy crooning from the wings about a beautiful morning (Oklahoma!) or a vengeful ghost skulking around a castle (Hamlet).
Well, Lisa Kron’s quasi-comic onstage argument from Profile Theatre at Portland Playhouse, opens in a well of silence with actor Vana O’Brien snoozing, or pretending to snooze, on a recliner flopped way back to sleeping position – not an action but the anticipation of an action, the tension of action’s absence.
Pebble, Carol Triffle’s new existential riff on melodrama at Imago Theatre, opens with an apocalyptic crash and boom of thunder and lightning, an absurdist clatter thrusting a mental institution, and the audience, into mind-altering darkness.
The openings could scarcely be more different. Yet Well and Pebble are both meta-theatrical shows, self-referential experiences stretching the idea of what dramatic storytelling can be. They’re plunges into pure style and the ways in which we invent ourselves, tugging at the fragile veil between fact and fiction, as we go along.
PEBBLE at IMAGO THEATRE
Triffle’s Pebble, the final play in Imago’s three-show Next Wave Festival (following Jerry Mouawad’s Leonard Cohen Is Dead and a revival of Mouawad’s lyrical fantasia To Fly Again) is both familiar and fresh, a vigorous new exploration of territory Triffle’s shown us before. It’s a place so simple and ordinary that it takes on extra-ordinary dimensions, mundanity transforming like Kafka’s unfortunate Gregor Samsa into a new reality of darkly comic horror and thwarted passion at loose ends.
The bursts of thunder and lightning at the beginning set the stylistic tone: Everything’s big, bold, broadly gestural, almost a parody of melodrama and American stage realism – the shell accentuated and the stuffing ripped out. Over decades Triffle and Mouawad have built a theater of seductive spectacle at Imago, most obviously in the company’s glorious costume-and-movement shows like Frogz, in which spoken language is either nonexistent or an afterthought, but also in the individual shows the two have created that use language extensively but usually in a disjointed manner – shards of familiarity broken off and scattered across a landscape that is altered as in an odd and perplexing dream, or a painting by Dalí or Bosch.
In Pebble, the skewed landscape is the interior of a mental institution where an emotionally unkempt woman named Pebble (Danielle Vermette) seems something like a live-in guest at an odd and slightly menacing hotel. A partly finished jigsaw puzzle sits on one table, a deck of cards at another. An easel sits to one side, with a painting of two horses propped on it. Sometimes Pebble dons a smock and picks up a brush. More often she’s making obsessive scrawls on the walls, which are covered with them. Toward the back is a reception area, the domain of Nurse Megan (Megan Skye Hale), who sometimes barks instructions into a microphone and often casts speculative glances at a medical orderly (Jon Farley), who is also the object of advances from Pebble, who’d dearly love to get her itch scratched and doesn’t trust Nurse Megan one bit. Little blue pills are passed from character to character, caretakers and inmates alike – Pebble ended up here because of an unfortunate overdose problem – and everyone prowls around like tigers in a cage. It’s all very homey, in a clinical, creepy way. Then a newcomer shows up: Nick (Kyle Delamarter), who might be Pebble’s brother (he probably is), and might be sane or as loony as everyone else, and whose arrival upsets an already unbalanced apple cart.
These things are helpful to know and yet not really all that important: They’re just the sketch on the canvas that the texture of the painting’s built on. What matters is mood, and Triffle, who wrote, designed, and directed Pebble, is working with veteran Imago performers who know and understand her approach intimately, and who seem to work intuitively in her territory of psychological strangeness and emotional yearning. Vermette (who also is a contributing writer for ArtsWatch) overreaches precisely, achieving a kind of lush but measured abandon, two steps beyond propriety as she searches for a balance she can call her own. Farley and Hale are figures of calculated exaggeration. And Delamarter’s like an unpredictable explosive, poised to go off at the slightest jostle. He’s unhinged: screaming abruptly, threateningly, without warning, in clear violation of ordinary theatrical rules of cause and effect, or sidling quietly into a sentimental memory. Again, it’s all in the family.
Pebble seems, in the end, about disconnections and the difficulties of finding affection or maintaining love. As it happily shreds the expectations of theatrical form it’s also crying over the loneliness of the human race, and it expresses that in something akin to music and dance: not mute but mostly in its tones and undertones and sweeps through space; a kind of fusion beyond words. It’s theater beyond reason, and it’s not for everyone. Then again, why should it be?
- Pebble continues through May 25 at Imago Theatre, 17 S.E. Eighth Ave., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.
WELL at PROFILE THEATRE
Lisa Kron’s Well cheerfully tramples over the traditions of the well-made play, finding fresh models in the worlds of standup comedy, confessional storytelling, and memoir. Not that it isn’t theater. It is. But it’s self-conscious theater (I mean that in a descriptive, not a negative, way), in which its author is also the lead character, carrying out an argument with her mother that in the end turns out to be an argument with herself.
Kron, in fact, not only wrote Well but also was its original star (and nabbed a Tony nomination for her performance), playing a character named Lisa Kron, who is a playwright working on a play about her family and why so many of them are chronically ill, and in particular her mother, Ann Kron, who during rehearsal Kron the playwright has sitting in a recliner, dozing away, until she wakes up and begins correcting her playwright daughter on the memories she’s weaving into her show, which is in fact the show unfolding as we’re watching. Are you following me? Good.
For Profile’s production, which is swiftly and engagingly directed by Josh Hecht, Lisa Kron is played by Allison Mickelson, who has more lines than a trout stream on opening day and teases them expertly ashore. Her performance is touched with braggadocio and a streak of the con-artist appeal that all performers, especially solo performers, need to have, and most especially when they’re spinning lies and know that everyone knows they’re spinning lies, but are willing to go along with it, because a good tale’s a good tale. “This play is not about me mother and me,” Mickelson/Kron begins, and of course everyone knows that’s exactly what the play’s about, because Mom’s right up there onstage, snoozing in the recliner.
What the play isn’t about, so much, is wellness and illness, although it begins that way: Lisa wants to know why so many members of her family are mostly sick, and why she was sick but got over it, and what makes some people sick and some people well, and whether it’s genetic or biological or psychosomatic, and how and why all this sickness has shaped her life the way it has. As a medical detective story it loses interest in itself, because it’s really about its author discovering who her mother was and is, and what impact her mother’s life has on her own, and how their histories have intertwined.
Lisa Kron, the successful young playwright who’s escaped to New York from Lansing, Michigan, has underestimated her mother, placing her in a neat little box marked “ill,” and her mother quietly but insistently dismantles the fabrication. No, that’s not right, she tells her daughter. You’ve got that wrong. That’s not the way it was at all. Vana O’Brien gives a warm, funny, absolutely winning performance as Ann, scattering obstinacy and affection across the stage as she reveals how her character became a neighborhood hero in Lansing as her daughter was growing up. Lisa is the head of this story. Ann is its heart. The arc of the play is the meeting of the two, and Lisa’s resulting introduction to the exhilarations and confusions of uncertainty, of just not knowing on one level and knowing more deeply on another.
Four well-cast ensemble members – La’Tevin Alexander, Jennifer Lanier, Michael Mendelson, and Eleanor O’Brien – move entertainingly in and out of the action, playing actors hired by Lisa to play a passing parade of characters from the old Lansing neighborhood and the allergy clinic where both Krons put in time. They provide a break in the action and a spot of fun (watch for Mendelson and his now-you-see-it now-you-don’t mustache), and in meta fashion fall under Ann/Vana’s warm spell, too. Speaking of meta, I happened to see the show on Mother’s Day, and not only is it about a mother and daughter, it stars a mother and daughter: Eleanor O’Brien is Vana O’Brien’s daughter, and although she doesn’t play Vana’s daughter in the story, the truth shines through.
Mo’ betta meta: The same cast of six actors, also under Hecht’s direction, will open on Saturday, May 18, in Anna Deavere Smith’s play Let Me Down Easy, a kaleidoscopic play about health care in the United States. The two plays will continue in repertory through June 16.
- Profile Theatre’s Well continues through June 15 at Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott St. Let Me Down East joins it in repertory on the same stage, May 18-June 16. Ticket and schedule information for both shows here.