Review: Liminal’s “Our Town”
The avant-garde theater transforms the American classic into something searingly modern in one of the most thought-provoking shows of the season.
Portland Monthly Magazine, November 21, 2013
By Aaron Scott
According to the Thornton Wilder estate, somewhere in America, every day of the year, there is a production of Our Town being staged (this month saw three in Portland). Not according to the Thornton Wilder estate, most of them are bad. I speak from experience: I played the Stage Manager in my high school production. Our production was awful, and my performance was worse. I pity the parents who had to smile and congratulate us afterward (sorry, mom; sorry, dad).
I guarantee that Liminal’s Our Town is unlike any of those meager, saccharine, three-times-baked productions. Instead of sugar snap peas and schmaltz, Liminal’s avant-garde ensemble has managed the impossible: it has transformed the American classic into something searingly modern and, dare I say, new, by paradoxically returning to the original spirit of the play. While most of us think of Our Town as an incredibly traditional show, it was in fact surprisingly experimental and post-modern before post-modern was a thing. The Stage Manager, after all, demolishes the fourth wall, talking to both the audience and the characters while defying categorization himself (is he just a narrator, an omniscient God figure, or something else entirely).
Staying true to the script, director John Berendzen’s production begins with a bare set, but then pushes Wilder’s metatheatricality one step further. Starting with a seeming clumsiness that makes a satire of bad productions, everything happens before the audiences eyes on Headwaters’ small, curtain-less stage: the actors change costumes, run through their blocking, forget their lines, and chat with each other like they’re back stage, while the sound and light men sit at the back, controlling Liminal’s creatively low-tech multimedia in between bumbling their way through bit parts.
But as the show builds, Liminal gracefully layers on sound, live video feeds, projections, and other multimedia ingenuity, electrifying the script’s strange asides and experimental flourishes, like the testimony from the professor about the geology of the area (in this case, Leo Daedalus as the Stage Manager is in an attic area, his face projected on a screen at the back of the stage as he interviews the professor).
By the second act’s wedding, the effect is overwhelming. Instead of making it a happy affair, Liminal excavates the play’s dark undertones—accentuating George’s and Emily’s fear. Decomposing projections of stained glass windows, torrential sound, and screams build until the audience is viscerally immersed in the terror of the moment. The third act in the cemetery is just as masterful, using direct video feeds to make the afterlife frighteningly haunting.
Throughout, Berendzen incorporates experimental techniques, such as silent interactions where worlds of subtext pass between the characters, that serve as small powder kegs of emotion to detonate the often simple, straight-forward dialogue into ambiguous, complex exchanges.
The ensemble on a whole is strong. Local variety show host Daedalus plays the Stage Manager as a combination of show producer, professor, game show host, and benevolent angel, bringing a naturalness to an unnatural character, although his pacing feels slow at times. The other characters walk and often cross a strange line between naturalness and marionette-like, ritualized stylization, most notable in the difference between Doc and Mrs. Gibbs (Jeff Marchant and Carla Grant), who play their characters like normal people, and Mr. and Mrs. Webb (Alex Reagan and Leslie Finch), who both give their lines through a catatonic freeze, but then occasionally burst into eerie action.
No surprise to anyone who knows Liminal’s work, this production—the most thought-provoking show yet this season—will completely reconfigure your understanding of the generally groan-worthy theater stalwart that is Our Town. Which is no small feat.