House lights still on, a rags-clad crowd shuffles about the stage, looking forlorn and doing little. Suddenly, two actors dressed as riot police storm the stage and haul off one of the men, exiting without explanation. The lights dim and the orchestra begins.
It's an ambiguous introduction. Is this London, the setting for Sweeney Todd, or are we in Lownsdale Square, one of the Portland parks claimed by Occupy protesters last year? Has director Chris Coleman converted Stephen Sondheim's macabre musical into contemporary political commentary?
Not really. Though Coleman places some emphasis on Sweeney Todd's class struggles, those riot police are the only transparent contemporary reference. Otherwise, this Portland Center Stage production serves the play straight, dishing up plenty of grisly mayhem and a fair bit of gore but stopping short of wild melodrama.
It's a twisted tale: Having served 15 years on a trumped-up charge, a barber returns to London to take revenge on the judge who sentenced him. His rage grows after he misses his first opportunity. He winds up slaying heaps of unsuspecting customers, whose bodies are baked into savory pastries by enterprising pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett. Where Johnny Depp played the titular barber as a ghostly maniac in Tim Burton's film adaptation, Aloysius Gigl stays tightly clenched—clearly haunted, but never completely unhinged. Gigl's restrained portrayal makes his murderous turn all the more gruesome, but he could sometimes use a bit more juice.
While Gigl holds back, Gretchen Rumbaugh—one of few locals in the cast—does not. Mrs. Lovett becomes deliciously complex in Rumbaugh's hands, at once the voice of reason, humor and insanity. Rumbaugh brings expressive inflection and saucy physicality to the role, and her ace comic timing livens Gigl from occasional torpor.
Beyond the emotional and moral intricacies of Sweeney Todd, the show is a tough one to stage. With so many murders, where do you send all the bodies? PCS handles this deftly, with Todd's "tonsorial parlor" elevated above the pie shop and a chute that delivers victims to the ovens beneath. As Todd and Mrs. Lovett sing in "A Little Priest," this is the show's barbed perversion of traditional power structures: "How gratifying for once to know, that those above will serve those down below." Even without the disconnected Occupy prologue, that message rings plenty loud from this capable—if not consistently captivating—production.
SEE IT: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is at Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays, with alternating Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances. Noon select Thursdays. Through Oct. 21. $30-$70.