Monday, May 26, 2014

Maple & Vine—CoHo Productions—NW Portland

Waxing Nostalgic

This production ends this weekend.  This strange fantasy is written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Megan Kate Ward.  It is playing at the CoHo theatre site at 2257 NW Raleigh St.  (Best get there early as finding street parking is dicey.)  For more information on this show and next season, check their site at www.cohoproductions.org.

So, answer me this, if you could go back to any other era to live, when would it be?  Of course the grass always appears greener on the other side.  Some films have broached this subject like Westworld, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, even the scarier, Seconds or Steppford Wives, and even a couple episodes from the terrific Twilight Zone TV series.  Well, this show has touches of all of those films.

It supposes that there is an organization called SDO (Society of Dynamic Obsolescence), which operates in the mid-west of good ole U.S.A.  There, the time is always 1955.  If you want to join their community, you must relinquish all devices, clothing, attitudes and language from this so-called progressive world we live in now.  Ah, the 50’s, easy to wax nostalgic about them, quieter, simpler life style, slower pace, et. al.  But, also, little rights for women in the work world or people-of-color and no electronic toys.

It is a place where the little woman is at her place in the home, doing housework and cooking meals for her husband, the breadwinner.  Operators still direct long-distance calls, the milk-man brings your dairy products every morning to your door, the library is the main source for any information outside your little burg and everybody knows everything about their neighbors.  And you are actually forced to talk to one another face-to-face.  “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

So, to escape the frazzles of this modern rat race, a couple Ryu (Heath Hyun Houghton) and his wife, Katha (Melissa Schenter) decide to join the SDO.  Their sponsors, Ellen (Jill Westerby) and Dean (Sean McGrath) fill them in on all the rules they’ll have to abide by.

Being that this is 1955, mixed marriages were frowned upon, so Ryu, a Japanese-American, will have to put up with earning lesser wages, and slurs by other workers.  He will have to take a less demanding job, too.  In the modern world he was a plastic surgeon, now he must work as a laborer in a box factory, managed by Roger (Spencer Conway), a closet bigot.

And his wife, a powerhouse manager in the fashion industry in the other world, must now content herself to be a lowly housewife, learn to cook her husband’s favorite foods, abstain from more inventive sex practices and go to women’s committee meetings.  There is only B&W TV shows, no internet or cable or cell phones, foods with lots of MSG and salt, Tupperware, and, of course, in a pinch, TV dinners.

There is also no Gay, women, or people-of-color rights.  Everything, on the surface, at least, must look spic-and-span.  Call it role-playing, pretending, or play-acting, you must abide by the customs and norms of this Edenistic-like world.  Obviously, not everything will go according to Hoyle, but to tell you much more about the plot, would spoil the surprises.

The script, by Harrison, is very clever and raises some important questions and issues.  We are all in the pursuit for happiness.  And, when we dream, we may imagine a simpler world and time to escape to.  But, in reality, I believe, the secret to happiness lies not “out there” somewhere, it lies within.  The trick  is to expand that inner peace of mind to our busy, outward world.  I think that is the theme of this piece.  Well done, I say, as it does give much food for thought.

Ward has done a wonderful job of using the small space to create such a large world, as well as the scenic designer, Sarah Lydecker.  And her cast is up to the challenge of jumping back and forth in time periods.  Conway must leap from being an outwardly gay man in one world, to a rough-and-tough he-man of another time.  Westerby, too, must balance her character’s personal frustrations with the calm exterior she is supposed to exhibit.

McGrath must balance at least three personas and does them all well.  Houghton is very convincing as a frantic husband trying to salvage his marriage and dealing with the degradation of a past era.  And Schenter is a marvel, as she tries to hold onto sanity and yet appear to conform.  The whole cast and the director must be commended for presenting such challenging material so well.

I recommend this show.  As mentioned, this is the last weekend, but if you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.