My favorite form of stage theatre is the Theatre of the Absurd. With its nearly-inaccessible, meandering antics, characters who are seldom able to communicate with each other, and seemingly meaningless plotlines, its an excellent mirror to an equally meandering and meaningless reality. But, alas, the Theatre of the Absurd is nowadays a mere phrase referring back to a dramatic movement during the 50's (Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter).
Modern theatre, although possibly staged right around your block, goes comparatively unnoticed these days. The problem with getting one of my contemporaries into a discussion about current stage theatre trends is that hardly anyone fancies stage productions at all, much less on any sort of a regular basis. Im sure, in a year or so, Exotic Magazine will be able to fly me weekly from Portland to San Fransico to New York to Paris for reviews on the most stimulating playwrights and performances of our day, but until then Ill make do with this Portland scene.
While the Theatre of the Absurd may only exist today in our bedrooms, the theatre of the adult is a movement which Ill peg before its time.
Adult theatre refers not to film halls, coin-ops, or dance/striptease clubs. Its actors onstage following a play format, enacting taboo-cracking, mature situations for a sometimes uncomfortable, squirming audience. Adult theatre often involves frank language, sexually riveting scenes, and maybe nudity; yet its purpose is to tell us something about this human condition were stuck with.
I use Theatre of the Adult to refer to plays pushing this form to the fullest, examining how life events can mold us into something shocking, unlikable, or misunderstood. Like Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs in literature, redefining form. Like Naked and Bad Lieutenant in film, redefining content. Like some of the plays Ive seen around town recently, pushing stage text.
Nineteenth century playwright Henrik Ibsen caused a fuss by throwing venereal diseases into his play Ghosts, and Alfred Jarry caused a ruckus by beginning Ubu Roi with the single word shit. But our adult shock standards now far exceed those of the wimps of stage days past. Modern plays commonly include homosexual sex, rape scenarios, domestic violence, and even fellatio.
Portlands Stark Raving Theatre, currently situated on Southeast Hawthorne behind the Common Grounds Coffeehouse, has the best track record so far in being able to perform mature works with sexual situations. This past spring, their Lower Rooms production dealt with a young girls flirtations with an underworld of crime and deadly thrills. Her nervous, upstart boyfriend gets her into more than she bargains for, and her rejection of the bossman leads to a you can never check out, near-rape scene. In Stark Ravings comfortably small theatre, this scene was too close and too real. You can tell yourself that its just a play, a fiction, but live theatre delivers uncomfortable punches which cant be found in any other outlet. Theatre is unique because good actors can make it seem too real.
Belly Ache Productions is a year-old Portland troupe which has performed original pieces at the Clinton Street Theatre and Rexall Rose. Its newest play, The Monkeys Eye, will be showing at the Paris Theatre through mid-November. This is written and directed by Michael Destro, a 28-year-old from Grants Pass, Oregon. Destro moved to Portland a year ago with the hope of starting a theatre troupe to perform original, cutting-edge productions. In the year that hes been here, Belly Ache Productions has already put on two plays and has a small but dedicated crew of seven actors and technical workers.
In starting up a new troupe, Michael Destro found that the hardest part about getting off the ground was realizing that there wasnt anyone here whod help him up. The idea that I get from well established, older theatre companies, says Destro, Is that they see other, younger companies and just say `Fuck you, your stuff is too outrageous and you have no experience. ` Its also hard for a new group to get properly publicized and marketed with only a handful of people (most being full-time workers) trying to get the word out. Portlands also not as open to outrageousness as I expected, Destro adds, "Not as open as New York or L.A." After the first Belly Ache play, which ended in a hard bondage act, Destro directed a summer comedy. His current play, The Monkeys Eye is a sort of psychological trauma/sex game scenario, and the next Belly Ache piece will be a trio of short science fiction farces.
The Monkeys Eye revolves around a 30-ish manchild, Harry, who kidnaps Archie, a loving father, and Olivia, an abused girlfriend, planning to keep them caged in his basement in the hopes that theyll get along and become his parents. Harry believes in a simple code of life which echoes Darwins survival of the fittest belief and Edgar Rice Burroughs law of the jungle. The subplots deal with Archie and Olivias lives outside of and before this nightmare, but the meat of the story involves their attempts to outwit the upper hand of their captor. After Harry leaves them without food for five days, the hunger that the characters feel, both to eat and to escape, seems posed to reflect the hunger every man feels in himself to have a chance to let loose his primal, angry self.
Amidst the trauma of being kidnapped, Archie tries to get out of the situation by brute force and cunning, while Olivia uses sex. The adults-only aspects of this play include Olivia masturbating and later seducing her captor in attempts to get herself freed. Like the above-mentioned rape bit in Stark Ravings Lower Rooms, I expect elements of this work to also make the audience squirm uneasily. Part of the fun of adult theatre is getting such a powerful charge in the air. About onstage sex and violence, Destro states, Its in your face, and youre not as comfortable. Theres no possible way to stop it, like with pause on a VCR. On stage, you know these people are tangible, and theyre right there.
As Archie loses his physical abilities due to starvation and torture, Olivias desperation gives her a heightened awareness as to what her sex can accomplish. When having sex with her captor appears to be the only thing thatll get her out of her cage, she thinks that its all she can do. Sex is the only way for her to get power, says Destro. Its a sex game, and I want women to walk away mad. I want women to walk away angry at what happens to both Olivia and Cynthia. Cynthia, a woman from Archies life, appears as a ghost-like spectre in Archies hallucinations and dreams, and spends the second act of the play as a dead body in Harrys basement. Cynthias attempt at self-abortion becomes a incident in Archies past that he obsesses on as his sanity seeps away.
Plays like The Monkeys Eye ask How much can you get away with in theatre?" From freakish musicfest puppet shows to the Paris Theatres Fetish Night stage skits, Ive seen several acts which, though entertaining, seem to have been done for shock value alone. You can find this in any creative medium. Works which can incorporate this dance of shock attack into their whole and still leave us thinking about something larger than, or in, ourselves are the ones that succeed in making their point. If youre not finding creative adult theatre like this in your burg, you should ask for it, or, like Michael Destro, start your own troupe.
The Monkey's Eye opened at the Paris Theatre on October 30, starring Jay Williamson, Maxwell Erikson, and Suzanne Sorely, and runs through mid-November. Call (503) 295-6749 for ticket and reservation information.