Call it the year of the loud and the clear: This season, Portland theater has something to say about what this country kills and dies for. Political plays as divergent as Third Rail's production of Dirty Story, Liminal's Far Away and Radiant's Aliens Stole Bush's Brain have championed a variety of anti-war, anti-Bush and even anti-American themes. But presenting Multnomah County theatergoers—an already staunchly liberal, anti-war bunch—with theater works that espouse arguments many of us already agree with is just preaching to the choir. Even worse, these themes sometimes make for trite or inaccessible theater. So how does a theater company talk about a topic as important as war and still make it both thought-provoking and entertaining?
Sojourn Theatre thinks it has the answer: Ditch the story line.
Let's explain: In an ambitious attempt to include new voices in Portland's heated political and artistic dialogue, this weekend Sojourn Theatre debuts The War Project: 9 Acts of Determination, just in time for the third anniversary of the Iraq war's beginning on March 19. Their project began with a question: How, as a nation, do we decide what to kill and die for? So over a year ago, this edgy little theater company (known for staging Dürrenmatt's The Visit in the creepy corridors of a Marshall High School and for its kick-ass, rooftop performance of 7 Great Loves) hit the road in search of some answers. Like diligent reporters, the company interviewed
soldiers just back from Iraq, anti-war activists and politicians in Portland, Chicago, Vermont and Washington, D.C. Then last fall they explored that raw material in six weeklong public workshops.
The result is anything but dry reportage. In fact, The War Project is
more along the lines of a concert than a play: Live music accompanies a series of seamlessly interwoven, dreamlike vignettes. In one scene, three women seem to pick through the dust of a wasteland while debating the existence of nations. The image was inspired by a Chicago interview with the first American serviceman to walk through Hiroshima after the atomic bombs were dropped. On the lighter side, other scenes seem to spoof cheesy film trailers and movie montages, and unwieldy baseball-sized bouncy balls pop up in more than a few scenes. Yes, it's weird. Given the typical Portland theater experience—a rocky mixture of staged novels, hackneyed musicals and cheesy comedies—it's very weird. But only as strange as a painting or piece of music that communicates something without telling a story.
"One of the main theories we're exploring is that stories oversimplify the complicated issues we're dealing with," says Sojourn's artistic director, Michael Rohd. "We mess with character as a way of asking the viewer to consider the parameters and limitations of story."
In other words, don't expect to get caught up in the trials and triumphs of the production's hot young romantic lead—there isn't one. In a scene inspired by a conversation with Rohd's real-life parents, Rohd plays himself, but his parents are played by everyone else in the seven-member cast. They rotate in and out of position, so that
by the end of the conversation several actors and actresses of various races have played each parent. "I think that it complicates how we view both the text and identity in what's otherwise a basically naturalistic scene," says Rohd. By refusing to pair the expected face and opinion, Sojourn might also be able to present multiple sides of the war debate with equal credibility, a rarely accomplished feat in local politically minded theater. For example, last fall a local production of John Patrick Shanley's Dirty Story went so far as to turn turmoil in the Middle East into a love triangle between a naive, then vengeful, bitch (a.k.a. Israel), a brooding sadomasochist (a.k.a. Palestine) and a reckless cowboy (guess who). Shanley's caricatures were hilarious but shopworn—once again, preaching to the choir and oversimplifying the issues. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Liminal's production of Caryl Churchill's vision of total world war, Far Away, suffered from the sin of inaccessibility. It avoided caricatures but alienated viewers by literally bullying the audience through rude, warlike ushers and abrasive sounds. The last thing Sojourn wants is to repeat Liminal's mistake by leading its audience to cover their ears before hearing what the company has to say.
Beginning this Thursday night audiences will judge for themselves whether or not Sojourn's experiment really manages to throw Portland's devoted political choir for an enlightening loop. Either way, this anti-war, anti-bore anti-story gives this critic a bit of peace—of mind, at least.
Sojourn Theatre performs
at Sojourn Studio, 215 SE 9th Ave., Suite 401, (971) 544-0464. 8 pm Thursdays-Fridays, 7 and 10 pm Saturdays, 7 pm Sundays. Opens March 16. $12-$15, $10 students, opening night is "pay what you can."