September 10th, 2009 | by MATTHEW KORFHAGE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

TBA Diary: Back to Back in Pioneer Courthouse Square

Photo by Kenneth Aaron

Small Metal Objects, by Australia's Back to Back Theater and playing through Saturday at TBA, is a bit of anomaly. There is no stage, for one thing, nor a theater. The company, city by city, finds new public spaces in which to hold their performances and makes an effort to relocate the body of the play into that of the city (though, of course--not to be helped--the players still all sport Australlian accents). Then there's the fact that half the actors have intellectual disabilities of one sort or the other, and that much of the action can be heard but not seen: audience members are privy to the action as it unfolds, even when we can't quite locate it, because we all have headphones on our heads, linked up to little portable mics like the ones Madonna wears when she power-dances cross-stage.

Much of the idea, it would seem, is to foster interactions between the lunchtime crowds at Pioneer Courthouse Square and the main action of the play, but also to decenter the action so that it seems that anybody, finally, might be a player--that no one can safely be ignored. No one, of course, except all of us and the play itself: few of the random Portlanders walking across the square even seemed interested.

As for the play itself: it's a variation on "Bartleby the Scrivener," though the interaction is not between a superior and inferior in employment. Rather, a high-powered pair of corporate types (complete with numbing superiority complexes) are stymied by the stalwart, existential "I would prefer not to" of an existentially troubled and developmentally disabled young man, about half their size, whom they need in order to buy a vast quantity of drugs--a couple ounces of "top shelf" cocaine, from the sound of it. Steve won't go, and Gary (also developmentally disabled) won't go without Steve to pick up the drugs from Union Station.

You see, Steve is troubled by his friend Gary's impending operation, by his lifelong lack of romantic love, and by his inability to be a full person in the eyes of the public, and won't move from his spot until he's finished some deep thinking about his feelings. The drama of the play, then, is in the inability of the "normals" to see Steve as a real person, and in their consistent diminishment as they continue to refuse to do so--to see him as anything but a failed implement, as if he is a tool that has malfunctioned.

The dialogue, however, is humorous, often reminiscent of Beckett in its slapstick metaphysics, and the ability of all passersby to completely disregard the proceedings despite the presence of a gallery of 100 or so headphoned onlookers helps make the public square seem every bit as desolate as Beckett's empty, near-propless stages.

"Do you have feelings for me?" asks Gary.

"Just some," Steve responds. "Not all of them."

Through his sincere literalism of emotion, Steve becomes the emotional and moral center of the play, but without ever issuing the platitudinous wisdom of bromide and truism normally attributed to such characters. By making Steve's main moral force reside in refusal, and in stubborn avoidance and even unhappiness, the short one-act play deftly sidesteps any possible exploitative sentimentalism and instead attains something that feels a little like honesty, and a little like a funhouse version of Withnail and I reflected through too many mirrors.

That is to say, it's very, very good. And since the performance I attended was only half-occupied it would seem that you still have a chance to see it before it closes out this Saturday.
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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