These Were the Best Portland Plays of 2023

From gruesome weddings to goth cabarets, our city’s theater companies went wild in the face of sobering odds.

Blood Wedding (Courtesy of Shaking the Tree Theatre)

Is Portland’s theater community the same as it ever was? Yes and no.

COVID concerns and financial struggles have certainly changed the game. Some theater companies have been sidelined (amid a costly renovation, Artists Rep suspended its season and laid off its artistic director) while others may be gone forever (RIP, Defunkt).

In times of uncertainty, giants often stumble while seemingly modest heroes rise. That was certainly true in 2023, the year of small, scrappy Portland theater companies, like the daring Shaking the Tree and the ascendant 21Ten (which was born when the legendary Ted Rooney, aka Morey on Gilmore Girls, brought his singular vision to the former Shoebox Theater).

Of course, that status quo is nothing new. Portlanders may love big, brash productions from Portland Center Stage and Broadway Rose, but the plays we obsess over are often performed in black box venues where we sit a few feet away from the actors, savoring the exhilarating intimacy that a low budget and a cramped space ensures.

There’s reason to hope that 2024 will be a banner year for Portland theater. After a hiatus, Fertile Ground, the annual festival of new works, is returning, granting local theater artists a long-missed opportunity to introduce fresh talents and stories to the community.

But before we look at the future, let’s look back at 2023, a year when great art endured and flowered in the face of sobering odds.

1. Blood Wedding (Shaking the Tree)

After In a Different Reality She’s Clawing at the Walls, a deeply idiosyncratic rant against the evils of technology, Shaking the Tree turned its attention to Blood Wedding, Federico García Lorca’s savage and satirical chronicle of patriarchal tyranny. The first act was a riotous romantic comedy, the second a visually abstract tragedy. Inspiring fear and wonder alike, the production was a reminder that few of the city’s theater artists are bolder or cleverer than Shaking the Tree’s artistic director, Samantha Van Der Merwe.

2. Cardiac Organ: A Goth Cabaret (PETE)

Only the people at Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble know what the heck goes on at PETE. Yet for all its joyously weird flourishes (impish spirits, lusty millipedes), Cardiac Organ was a poignant tale of sadness revealing that even ghosts grieve. And the ending, which led the audience on a journey from shadow to light? Astounding.

Cardiac Organ (Owen Carey)

3. Christmas in Christmasville (Twilight Theater Company)

Twilight has never been afraid to get dark, but in this spoof of holiday Hallmark movies, it got boldly, gleefully light. Packing in every trope imaginable (from an embattled inn to secret twins to a prince with amnesia), writer-director Chris Byrne delivered a festive delight, even filling the role of business bro Cole Stockington (that name!) when one of the actors fell ill.

4. My Bedroom Is an Installation (Imago)

Imago is renowned for beloved hits like ZooZoo, but artistic co-director Jerry Mouawad loves testing an audience’s appetite for innovation. And theater is rarely more innovative than My Bedroom Is an Installation, a brilliantly batshit tale of insomnia, puppetry, and existential anguish. Actor Anne Sorce’s apocalyptic charisma brought the story to bristling life, infusing Mouawad’s spiky cosmic vision with pathos and wit.

5. 52 Pick-Up (21ten)

If (500) Days of Summer were good (#SorryNotSorry), it’d probably be akin to playwrights TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s chronologically scrambled romance 52 Pick-Up. As a comically mismatched couple, actors Annie Trevisan and Brian Pater were so lovable that they made us root for the doomed romance, even as it died with stubborn, agonized breaths.

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