In production of 'Our Town', Liminal Performance Group finds unexpected experimentalism
The Oregonian, November 11, 2013
By Jonathan Frochtzwajg
Liminal's "Our Town" started as a punch line. John Berendzen, a co-founder of the local performance-art troupe, was discussing with resident writer Alex Reagan what play he should direct for Liminal's next production. "Why don't you just do 'Our Town'?" Reagan suggested — and the two broke into laughter. Liminal, one of Portland's most experimental theater companies, stage one of theater's most traditional plays? Preposterous!
Then Berendzen read the script. It was the first time he'd done so since high school, and what he discovered in Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer winner surprised him. The play, which chronicles the everyday lives of the residents of fictional Grover's Corner, N.H., and is often produced by high-school theater departments as a wholesome slice of Americana, has been "completely misunderstood," Berendzen says.
"It's not sentimental," he argues. "It's not Holly Hobbie, Norman Rockwell. It's actually written extremely experimentally."
It's not hard to see what Berendzen's talking about. Wilder, a closeted homosexual man living long before the gay rights movement, was all too familiar with the dark periphery of American life. In "Our Town," he doesn't turn a blind eye to society's underbelly: the citizens of Grover's Corner are confronted with public shames such as alcoholism, racism and suicide, as well as skepticism about social institutions like marriage.
Wilder also employs nontraditional, meta-theatrical devices — most famously, the role of the Stage Manager, a kind of narrator who directly addresses the audience — and his notes call for a radically minimalist set (the first two words of the script are "no curtain").
Although many productions are unfaithful, embellishing the scenery and making other changes, "Our Town's" experimentalism is there in its script, hidden in plain sight; Liminal's usual gonzo treatment isn't even necessary, says Leo Daedalus, who plays the Stage Manager.
"The obvious thing for Liminal to do is: we're going to do 'Our Town'; it's going to take nine hours; it's going to happen in a warehouse; people are going to be driving forklifts and speaking Mandarin and what not," he jokes. "That would be easy, but the really interesting thing is to try to do the play justice."
But Liminal is still making "Our Town" its own. Known for its multimedia performances, the company will use lights, sound and even closed-circuit video to create what Berendzen calls "a feast of the senses." In other respects, it is taking Wilder's minimalism to a characteristic extreme: not only will there be "no curtain" in the production, there'll be no backstage or tech booth either; all the actors will be onstage at all times and sound and light will be operated from the stage. "What you see is what you get," Berendzen says.
Wilder wanted "Our Town's" scenery to be simple so viewers would always be aware they were watching theater, says Berendzen: "It's so bare bones that you never forget that the real drama is actors performing something and the audience relating to the actors."
That's exactly the kind of drama Liminal has long sought to create.
"What's always been important to Liminal is this real-life situation that's happening," Berendzen says. "It's this thing that, in our opinion, makes theater interesting."