During the Second Year of the Pandemic, Virtual Theater Thrived Even as In-Person Plays Returned

We’ve ranked the top 10 Portland area plays in 2021. Here’s a look back on the year’s best.

Theater as we know it was back in Portland in 2021. Or was it? Yes, there were in-person plays, sumptuous sets and curtain speeches that seemed to last as long as Hamlet, but something was amiss.

Maybe it was fear of the Delta and Omicron variants. Maybe it was the abundance of ruthlessly realistic plays in a year when we were desperate for escapism. Maybe it was that multiple theater companies thought that checking vaccine cards made it safe to pack audiences dangerously close together.

I won’t lie—the state of Portland theater in 2021 sometimes left me disheartened. Yet even as I grew frustrated by misreadings of the public mood and cavalier attitudes toward social distancing, I was thrilled by the innovation I witnessed on both stages and screens.

While many theaters reopened their doors, virtual work endured and flourished. The lifting of restrictions may have allowed for old joys—getting to see the giant yellow moon with a face at Twilight Theater Company warmed my weary heart—but it was also invigorating to see brilliant artists continue to experiment with film.

As I ranked my 10 favorite Portland plays of 2021, I felt the trauma of the pandemic shaping my choices. In the past, I might have saved the top spot for a somber drama about the human condition. This year, my No. 1 pick is one of the silliest plays I’ve seen in my entire adult life.

Some would call the play in question a comedy. I call it a public service.

1. Popcorn Falls (Clackamas Repertory Theatre)

Performed outdoors on the grounds of Clackamas Community College, this delightfully deranged political satire starred Tom Walton and Mark Schwahn as miscreants trying to save their community from being turned into a sewage treatment plant.

2. Chosen (Fertile Ground Festival)

Alissa Jessup’s virtual one-woman show about meeting her biological mother was devastating and moving. With her performance and a camera, she did more than most theater companies do with an ensemble and a stage.

3. Capax Infiniti (The Theatre Company)

What do we really mean when we call a woman “a Karen”? That question was the soul of this scorching short film, which was written by DeLanna Studi and starred Laura Faye Smith as a bigoted, grief-stricken entrepreneur.

4. Refuge (Shaking the Tree Theatre)

Goddesses, assemble! In this beautifully surreal multimedia installation, 11 deities united to deliver wisdom and warnings for a post-Trump, post-COVID-19 America.

5. Distancias (Hand2Mouth Theatre)

Theater about the pandemic created during the pandemic risks feeling instantly dated, but in this wondrous film series, Geo Alva, Robi Arce and Michael Cavazos imagined a ripped-from-the-headlines dream world that felt both strange and true.

6. The Ballad of Aurelie the Bold: A Grimm Brothers Story of Iron and Gold (Bag&Baggage Productions)

Elliot Lorenc wrote and starred in this virtual musical, which reconfigured the Brothers Grimm saga of Iron John for the 21st century. Among its many charms, it gave us the most uproarious line in any Portland play this year: “Hello, lowly village peasants. My name is Skyler and I am a talking goose.”

7. The Mineola Twins (Profile Theatre)

I’m obsessed with Paula Vogel’s politically provocative plays, so I dug her tale of two warring twins, one liberal and one conservative. I was also impressed with how Profile used virtual sets to create gorgeous, collage-style images.

8. Today Is My Birthday (Artists Repertory Theatre)

A story of isolation and connection told mostly through phone calls, this audio production of Susan Soon He Stanton’s poignant play made my heart ache in the best way possible. Don’t worry if you missed it—it’s still available on Artists Rep’s website.

9. Professor Jekyll and Miss Hyde (Theatre Berk)

A crafty mix of film noir, slasher horror and post-#MeToo revenge fantasies.

10. Bojangles of Harlem (Stumptown Stages)

Pure joy. To watch Jarran Muse tap dance atop a staircase was to be reminded of the power of feel-good theater.

Honorable mentions:

Barbecue (Portland Playhouse), Becoming Understood (Fuse Theatre Ensemble), The Carlalogues (Artists Rep), Family (Shaking the Tree), Fezziwig’s Fortune (Fertile Ground), The Last Five Years and Loch Lomond (Broadway Rose Theatre Company) and The Vertical City (Artists Rep).