Fuck Shakespeare in the park. Give us some BDSM.
Everyone was thinking it—or at least the first part. Portland's newest theater company, an ambitious project from 27-year-old actors Aaron Filyaw and Amanda Mehl, is delivering deep existential masochism as counterpoint to the usual summer froth.
Public Citizen Theatre's inaugural production, The Maids, is a far cry from your other options onstage: West Side Story at Tigard High School, Cavalia's horseplay under Tilikum Crossing, or The Music Man in Oregon City. Debuting outside the usual theater season and inside an industrial warehouse-turned-theater in Southeast, it is not only a dark-horse contender for the summer's most noteworthy production, it could give legs to an emerging trend in Portland theater.
"This is a small city, but it's a theater city," Filyaw says. "You're going to start seeing more of this: theater companies operating on a show-by-show basis." That means no regular seasons, less overhead and possibly a lot more fun.
The Maids is a sadomasochistic murder thriller in which two maids role-play while their mistress is away, based on a real-life case of two homicidal sisters. It starts with the maids dressing in their mistress's clothes and makeup, and escalates to deranged ritual. Written by the notorious French vagrant and activist poet Jean Genet, the play was so explicit that the original producer had Genet rewrite the ending after its first production, in 1947. "It's been criticized for starting out at 10 and just going," Mehl says. When Cate Blanchett starred in a Lincoln Center staging, she used flowers for flagellation.
Even in Portland, which has a huge number of midrange theater companies and risk-takers like Defunkt, the theater that staged brutal rape and infantile cannibalism last season, The Maids is a hard sell.
"So many companies are closing," Mehl says. "It's not easy to go to one and pitch a work, because they're looking out for their artistic vision."
Instead, Mehl and Filyaw just decided to put on the play themselves.
"Rather than waiting around for a company and jump through all of these hoops," Filyaw says, "why not do this ourselves and have complete creative control?"
But dreams take money. Rent is $800 a week at Shaking the Tree Theatre, and Filyaw and Mehl aren't getting rich—they both work 9-to-5 jobs—and set designer Tyler Buswell is borrowing props from other theaters.
"We're flying by the seat of our pants," Filyaw says. Despite the fact that "Listservs are so, like, 2000," the pair appealed to Yahoo's active PDX Backstage group for support. They also drew funding through Fractured Atlas, a national nonprofit that has helped other local artists like Holcombe Waller, Milepost 5 and PDX Dance Collective collect donations without going through the complex process to become their own 501(c)(3).
But money is still tight for Public Citizen Theatre, and without the budget to rent Shaking the Tree for rehearsals, Filyaw and Mehl are banking on building the set just days before Thursday's opening night.
"For us not to continue, we would essentially have to just fail at this," Mehl says.
What would failure look like? "Empty seats," she says.
Success, on the other hand, might mean an escape from the nunnery that is summertime theater.