Big Art Group's The People—Portland was the first official performance
in the Time-Based Art festival—at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 6, at Washington High School—but it was not the first performance art piece of the day.
Two hours earlier, at the city council meeting on fluoridation, a woman with a somewhat ill-favored look addressed the Portland city council as someone who was against fluoridation.
While reading from a prepared speech, however, she declared herself a long-time public health scientist and advocate with a strong yen for fluoridating water, saying there was a "casual" link between fluoridation and dental health. (The page, we presume, contained the word "causal.")
The self-consciously elevated diction of her testimony contrasted heavily with her otherwise working-class manner (plus constant scratching and suspicious sniffing), and she seemed at times unaware of or indifferent to what she was saying.
It turned out—allegedly, mind you—she had stolen the bag of a lobbyist from Upstream Public Health, a pro-fluoridation group, and taken her victim's opinion for her own. She stole not just his things but his words; she briefly, disinterestedly, became him, and even reversed her own apparent opinions to do so. When confronted about the stolen bag, she denied it loudly and shouted at the security personnel for bruising her arms.
Perhaps she was being sincere, but in its own way it was a bravura performance that would not have been remotely out of place in The People—Portland. In The People, amateur Portlanders are swept into a drama that they know nothing of, are somewhat hostilely and suddenly thrown into unfamiliar roles only to have their own selves questioned in the bargain; they become silenced while Big Art Group's Heather Litteer shoulders them aside to play their own role for them (while a director still insists that they, and not Heather, are in the role.)
Heather is an intense presence as the vampish monologuist (and Clytemnestra), evoking more than anything the wild-eyed, big-piped spectacle of singer Diamanda Galas during her occasional eruptions of violent and graphic Sprechstimme.
The People is a lot of things at the same time. It's at once an intense, monologue-driven enactment of the Greek tragedic trilogy The Oresteia; a meta-play in which unprofessional actors are harassed while trying to play in the Oresteia; a merging of film and theater as actions visible within the building are projected gigantically onto the building's outer walls; and a meditation on the themes of violence, war and justice.
Though the performance was riddled with camp, humor, discomfort and disorientation, the overall effect was meditative, even sobering: all truth and emotion is held in a sort of colloidal suspension, its mess and intensity circumscribed by layerings of meta-.
Identity first becomes a phenomenon of terrible difficulty, and then is asserted forcefully through the simple assertion of voice, as various Portlanders thoughtfully try to describe their world and what's at stake in it.
Which is to say, there is much at stake in The People—Portland; it well rewards the gamble.
SEE IT: Washington High School, Southeast Stark St., between 12th and 14th Ave. Sept. 7-8, 8:30 pm. $15-$20. All ages. See pica.org/TBA for tickets and more info.