Monday, May 19, 2014

Betty’s Summer Vacation—Defunkt Theatre at the Backdoor Theatre—SE Portland

The Vacation from Hell

The krazy komedy is written by Christopher Durang and directed by Jon Kretzu in repertory with Fewer Emergencies under the umbrella called States of Emergency and running through June 14th.  It is playing at the Backdoor Theatre, which is in the back room of Common Grounds Coffee Shop at 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd.  For more information, go to their site at

Durang’s purpose for his plays seem to be killing “sacred cows” of ours.  He did it to the Catholics in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and for actors in An Actor’s Nightmare.  In this one he seems hell-bent on destroying our idyllic image of a summer vacation at the beach.  His latest play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, won the 2013 Tony Award for best play.  Probably taking a swipe at the classical characters of Chekov.

In this story, or perhaps, better put, series of events, Betty (Allie Pratt), is hoping to have a relaxing vacation at the ocean during the summer of 1999.  She and her best friend, Trudy (Kelly Tallent) and her friend, Dolly, have rented a cottage from Mrs. Sizemagraff (Jane Bement Geesman), who is also staying there for the summer.  She has invited a friend, Mr. Vanislaw (Joe Healy) to stay with her, also.

Other renters consist of a beach boy named Buck (William Poole) and a rather shy young man called Keith (Steve Vanderzee).  And, oh, there are also some...Voices (Matthew Kern, defunkt’s artistic director, Lori Sue Hoffman and Adam Thompson).  All sounds almost normal except when I tell you that Trudy’s friend, Dolly, is just that, a doll, who she converses with at times.  And Mrs. S. is a drunk and is not too fussy about her bedmates.  Enter, Mr. V., who is a transient flasher, who she just happened to pick up on the road.

And Buck is a sex maniac who has to have sex at least twenty times a day or his brain goes mushy.  Quiet Keith is possibly a serial killer, who keeps the heads of his victims in a hat box.  And the Voices are in the walls/ceiling and are actually a laugh tract from 90’s sitcoms.  They also act has a sort of Greek Chorus commenting on and directing the actions of the play at times.  I can’t tell you too much about the plot of the play because much of it should be discovered by the audience.

I will say that some people die, some are raped and the finale involves a Court TV type of trial.  A real blast.  And, oh, yes, it’s a comedy.  If any of this sounds like it might be your cup of tea, then this play’s for you.  It’s absurdist, obviously, in the extreme.  And shocking.  And, yes, quite funny.  It may do to summer vacations, what Jaws did for swimming or Psycho did for showers.

The setting (Megan Wilkerson) has the audience seated in the cottages’ common room, giving one the uncomfortable feeling that you are part of the show, too.  And Kretzu, a familiar Portland name in directing, manages to wring all the crazy, subtle nuances from the script and has a masterful cast to interpret it.  I think Durang would be proud of the production of his play.

The entire cast is wonderful.  They (and Kretzu) understand the way to present comedic and absurdist characters—they must be played straight for the comedy/story to work.  In their world, this is all real.  Geesman is a delight, especially when she at one point plays three characters, all talking and reacting to herself—quite a tour-de-force.  And Tallent, as the batty friend, garners the audience’s sympathy throughout, even when she does some very naughty things.  And Vanderzee is charming and disarming in a creepy sort of way.

Both Poole and Healy play quite repulsive characters, not people you’d want to meet in a dark alley.  And Pratt, the sanest of the group, you are rooting for from the beginning.  Somehow you know she’ll be a survivor, quite literally.  And the Voices are quite annoying, as they express their views, mostly in unison.  But that’s what you’re supposed to feel when laugh tracks are used in shows, as it’s directing you on what to laugh at, taking your freedom of choice away from you.

I would recommend this show but, keep in mind, it is very adult in language and subject matter.  And best go early and have a coffee or a brew at Coffee Grounds, as the street parking is at a premium.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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