For Kate Braidwood, masked performance can create true theater magic. The 32-year-old, who makes up half of the Wonderheads (her husband Andrew Phoenix is the other), describes this magic as twofold. First, the cartoonish quality of the masks offers unexpected entry into darker territory, allowing the work to walk a line between the comic and the tragic. And second, despite the fixed nature of the masks—bulbous papier-mâché creations several times the size of a human head—Braidwood says you'd swear they could move.
"The most common comment we get is that the masks seem to shift expression, even though they're these static faces," she says. "That's what I mean by magic. They really do come to life in a crazy way."
And now Braidwood and Phoenix, who moved to Portland in 2010 but have spent much of the last three years on the fringe-fest circuit, are bringing that magic home. In Grim and Fischer, Braidwood plays a fragile but feisty woman living out her last days in a retirement home. Phoenix, meanwhile, is the Grim Reaper himself, a dour-faced specter with a downturned mouth and a freakishly long nose. It's a 50-minute, dialogue-free meditation on mortality and loss, with a death notice that gets flushed down the toilet and a soundtrack that spans from Mozart to "Eye of the Tiger."
That sense of humor is vital to Braidwood. "It's this cartoonish metaphor to explore death," she says, "but also to laugh at fart jokes."