At Portland Center Stage, during a positioning-focused tech rehearsal for its upcoming Wild and Reckless theater production, Blitzen Trapper guitarist Erik Menteer starts gyrating his hips. His whammy bar squeaks as it dangles and bounces.
During any of Blitzen Trapper's live concerts, the moment would have passed unnoticed—just typical rock-'n'-roll antics. But here, it was a collision of worlds.
"Is there a way to silence that?" asks a voice over the sound system.
Menteer complies, smiling.
For the band, Wild and Reckless: A New Concert Event With Blitzen Trapper, is at once a step into unknown territory and a return to familiar ground. The play has the band learning the language of theater, but its key themes and imagery are drawn from the Portland of old and provide a commentary on modern American society.
"In theater, everything is so planned out," says Blitzen Trapper singer and primary songwriter Eric Earley. "At a rock show, we're totally nonverbal."
The play features classic Blitzen Trapper tunes like "Black River Killer," along with new material. Earley says the production—co-directed by Rose Riordan and Liam Kaas-Lentz and featuring professional actors Laura Carbonell and Leif Norby—bridges a gap between "low" and "high" art forms.
"Rock shows are about passion, energy and alcohol," Earley says. "Theater tends to be more about this controlled ideological presentation. But also, there's like an age thing that's going on. In theater, generally the age is much older. Rock'n'roll covers every age."
Promotional materials bill the play as a "futuristic vision of Portland's past." Earley says the look of the play was inspired by sci-fi horror films of the '80s, and Blade Runner specifically. The PCS creative team's video-based set design displays a simulacrum of colorful graffiti and photos, including the underside of the Hawthorne Bridge. Beloved spots like Satyricon and Chopsticks are also part of the play.
"It's not really about Portland, it just takes place in Portland," Earley says. "I'm still undecided as to what's better, the Old Portland or the New Portland."
The story explores addiction and homelessness, and draws from Earley's own experience with homelessness two decades ago. There's a drug, called Lightning Dust, which seems inspired by black tar heroin. And there's a girl, simply called "the Girl" and played by Carbonell, whose relationship with Earley's character he describes as "the nonfiction part" of the story. A set-design element called the Reaper features 1980s-era rusted street lights, broken glass and duct tape. When the Girl does Lightning Dust, she's scarred by lightning that travels through the Reaper. It's all meant to suggest a nation gone awry.
"I'm trying to connect it with this society that we've created that seeks power as its No. 1 priority," he says. "Like the addictions and the desperation are sort of this symptom."
The new songs written for the play will be included in a limited-edition LP sold at the show. Just before the whammy-bar incident, Earley and Carbonell perform a duet on the title song, offering a spine-tingling moment of gorgeous harmonies. Playing youth unmoored, on the run and in love, the pair sings lyrics that get at a central theme: "Are these the best days of our lives?"
Returning to that question later, Earley laughs.
"Maybe not," he says. "Exactly."
SEE IT: Wild and Reckless: A New Concert Event With Blitzen Trapper is at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., March 24 through April 30. See pcs.org for schedule. $25-$60.