Instead of a program, the box office hands over a folder containing 100 pre-show procedures and instructions to "look busy." The seats are 30 office chairs, with great lumbar support, rolled up next to one another in a plywood office space. Through a large pane window, you see a storage room stacked with water cooler jugs. Everyone looks busy.

Procedures for Saying No is a prequel to Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's last three shows, and the final piece in its "constellation" of plays inspired by Moby-Dick. Starting with Drowned Horse Tavern last July, PETE has staged sea shanty cabaret, a play starring multiple Ahabs and put audiences in hammocks in a dark basement.

Imagine Steve Carell riffing on Melville—that is Procedures. Loosely based on the short story Bartleby, the Scrivener, it follows a Wall Street clerk who one day refuses to work, with the only explanation being: "I would prefer not to." Instead, he moves into his office, is imprisoned and dies there.

Yet again, PETE puts you in the center of the action. Offices are sites of awkward visits to workstations, meetings that could have been done by email, hating or dating co-workers, and multifunction printer malfunctions. You've wanted out, but you haven't left.

Procedures for Saying No – photo from PETE
Procedures for Saying No – photo from PETE

The PETE company swiftly establishes this repetitive, reliable work routine, shuffling around doing average office duties. Then a tsunami of strange theatrical effects hits. Supernatural lighting, amplified vocals, hydrotechnics and ferocious costuming replace the routine. Erika (Cristi Miles), an office worker who has been shirking her tasks, transforms into a mermaid gorgon, 7 feet tall, covered in a pelt of hair and seaweed as she takes inventory of the water jugs. The asshole boss (Jacob Coleman) strips to his skivvies, hairy and howling as he pisses on a desk. The dutiful assistant (Linda Austin) becomes a barnacle attached to the desk, contorting along the surface in slow motion. As Peter Ksander's plywood set vomits up its unexpected special effects, pity the stage crew that swabs the deck every night.

see it: Procedures for Saying No is at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St., petensemble.org. 8 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 2 and 8 pm Sunday. Through July 2. $25.