Devon, the central character in The Huntsmen, is an awkward and fidgety teen, the vice president of his high school's glee club and the child of divorced parents—his father is a lawyer and his mother lives in a trailer with her West Indian boyfriend. He's a kid who still builds forts in the forest with friends, struggles with eye contact and makes the occasional questionable decision—including posting nudie pics of his mom on the Internet. He's also a machete-wielding serial killer.
Such is the teetering heap playwright Quincy Long constructs in his strange and striking dark comedy. And the issues don't stop there—this brisk and entertaining world-premiere production, nimbly directed by Kathleen Dimmick, also touches on domestic violence, mental illness, bullying and religious conflict. Sometimes Long hops over his hot-button themes too abruptly, and his characters occasionally act on inexplicable motivations. Yet he also manages to balance the hilarious and macabre in a way that recalls David Lindsay-Abaire, whose plays are as absurd as they are profound. Like Lindsay-Abaire, Long toys with questions of narrative reliability: Can we trust these characters? Where do reality and illusion diverge? Long gives no answers. "It's so real but it's not real, Dad!" screeches Devon in the play's opening scene. But it's just this sort of theater—non-traditional and non-naturalistic yet grounded by a compelling narrative and sympathetic characters—that provides a welcome shot of energy midway through the performance season.
Played with mesmerizing zeal by Dean Linnard, Devon is equal parts clumsy teen, moody murderer and smooth crooner. The Huntsmen isn't a musical, but it's peppered with catchy doo-wop tunes: Each time Devon drops his machete on a victim, he launches into song. With vocal backup and pitch-perfect choreography from the fedora-clad Jared Miller, Gavin Gregory and Michael O'Connell (who all play other roles), the songs focus rather than distract from the action. Linnard's voice is beautifully clean, and he injects the songs with surprising psychological intensity.
In the hands of a lesser cast, The Huntsmen might stumble, but with O'Connell as a hilariously cartoonish music agent, Miller as the deadpan detective and Sharonlee McLean as Devon's caring but misguided mother, this Portland Playhouse production hits all the right notes. Several days later, I'm still singing to myself.
SEE IT: The Huntsmen is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 488-5822. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Saturdays-Sundays through Feb. 17. $23-$32.