Do you like babka? If you do, you won't want to miss Our Ruined House, a glorious colossus of the bizarre from Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Midway through the production, a woman (Cristi Miles) directs your attention to babka-filled plastic containers placed under some of the audience seats. Were they there the whole time? Were they put there during the play? You're not supposed to know. You're supposed to eat.
The ability to face the unexpected without getting hung up on questions of how and why is essential for anyone who wants to meet Our Ruined House on its eccentric terms. Coming up with a cohesive interpretation of the play is impossible, because no single thesis statement could sum up its fusion of melodrama, espionage, slapstick and octopus-related humor. It's fun fighting the uphill battle of trying to make sense of it all, but easing into the far-out flow of the ride is even more enjoyable.
Our Ruined House, co-created by its stars and written by Robert Quillen Camp, has the barest hint of a traditional plot. The story introduces us to Slater (Denis Butkus) and Kendall (Rebecca Lingafelter), a couple in crisis. As Kendall meets with a former lover, Slater mopes at home, showing about as much life as the mountainous pile of dirty laundry on the floor.
While this setup could have been a springboard into a tale of personal growth and reconciliation, the play roughly shoves Slater and Kendall to the margins in favor of Yellow Balaclava (Andrew Start) and Pink Balaclava (Amber Whitehall), pratfall-prone mischief-makers dressed in pom-pom-topped ski masks. With rambunctious grace, they barrel through Slater and Kendall's home, tearing down walls and performing aggressive dance numbers that make it difficult to tell whether they are partners in crime or enemies locked in a seductive, destructive duet.
There is a whiff of political commentary in this playful madness. With its use of surveillance footage on multiple screens and repeated references to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (his memoir is used as a prop), Our Ruined House often seems to be re-creating the vengeful, fearful mood of post-9/11 America during the early aughts. Yet the play also features clips from the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, a blockbuster that turned Cold War-era unease into big-screen entertainment.
These scattershot references could be meant to cheekily mock anyone in the audience who would try to explain the play as a straightforward allegory of a particular moment in history. If that's the case, then the ideal viewer for Our Ruined House might be someone who can appreciate it purely as a surrealist comedy spectacle—someone whose review of the production would read, "Dude! I got to see this weird play that featured a tent that looked like an octopus for no apparent reason. How cool is that?"
Alternatively, you could look at Rumsfeld as the play's Rosetta Stone. One character describes him as "a wraith haunting us from Nixon to Iraq," a line that reminds you that the anxieties simmering during Watergate and the War on Terror may not have been so different. Maybe Our Ruined House refuses to situate itself in a single age because it's trying to tell us that American history is all of one age—the same battles repeated on a loop.
And the play is fighting a battle of its own: a war on conventional theater. Our Ruined House has no time for tidy themes or character arcs—it's too busy making sure we get lost in the rush of its magnificently strange images. If the play has a message, it's this: Sit back, relax and pass the babka.
SEE IT: Our Ruined House plays at the Reed College Performing Arts Building, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., petensemble.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, July 10-13. $20-$25.