A Deep, Dark Well

In All Well, audiences will go sightless inside an arctic shipwreck.

Lie back in your hammock and listen.

That's the invitation of Portland's oddest fall theater offering, October's Wild Card collaboration between Third Rail Repertory Theatre and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

In Portland, companies have to get increasingly wild to survive the city's crowded field of midrange troupes fighting to get the same butts in their seats. Many are offering pay-what-you-can nights. Post5 Theatre rolled out theatrical trailers on its Facebook page. Actors in dinosaur suits threw Tootsie Rolls into the audience during a musical number at Triangle Productions. This summer, PETE offered its audiences drinks in their seats during the sea-shanty cabaret Drowned Horse Tavern

Third Rail Rep’s solution is twofold: a Netflix-style subscription model, and a series of short-run Wild Card productions like All Well, the “sightless” piece that will seat audiences in hammocks, in pure darkness, and play with their senses. 

"We try really hard to do plays that not everybody will like," says Third Rail's Isaac Lamb.

In this case, it's a play about a doomed 1847 Arctic expedition. 

"I immediately thought of these guys trapped for three years in the ice, until they finally ate each other and died," says director Jacob Coleman.

But essentially tormenting audiences—subjecting them to sound experiments in a dark basement while tucked into hammocks and blasted with smells like wet moss—is a risk in more ways than one. The director and sound engineer Mark Valadez are still dreaming up the specifics, meaning that both subscribing audiences and Lamb himself are buying into the production sight unseen.

"The best part is going to be playing with [theatergoers'] senses," says Coleman. Valadez is delving deep into his repertoire of sound effects to play out of mini speakers near the audience's ears and massive ones that could blast out the room. Coleman is toying with the idea of leading audiences through Imago's winding space in a "traveling installation." He wants people to feel the play through fabric textures and temperature changes.

"There's that morbid interest that we have as children in the dark and unknown," says Lamb, retelling how he used to close himself in his aunt's pitch-black closet until he freaked out. "We're going back and poking that monster."

Hallucinations are likely—“the human brain wants badly to see, so after too long in the dark it will start to make light,” Lamb says. That’s a psychological game PETE’s members are playing themselves as they develop the play, rehearsing in the lightless black box at Reed College, where actors satellite in and out of tiny light spots to toy with each other’s sense of perception.  

“We all have this fascination with dark things,” says Coleman. Creepy sea stories and the weirdest part of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick—a notoriously boring section about whale anatomy—were the cast’s biggest inspiration. Analyzing how whales see when their eyes are on opposite sides of their wide heads inspired company members to test what happens when you amputate one sense at a time. The audience is their guinea pig. 

Lamb is betting Third Rail's season on the hope that Portlanders still buy weirdness. For one low monthly payment of $29.33, they get cheap buddy tickets, entry to closed events and mainstage shows, and can even come back if something hooks them. But the hook is short-run Wild Cards that source multidisciplinary talent from acts like Portland's musical duo the Bylines, former BodyVox dancer Éowyn Emerald, and PETE. 

Risk is the whole point for Lamb, who says he has no interest in inviting audiences to play it safe: "The whole point of Wild Card performances is to introduce unexpected, even unsettling things."

All Well promises to be nothing if not unsettling.

“We’ll take people on a journey,” says Coleman. Destination unknown. “The sea is this great unknown, an ancient expanse. It will kill you in a second and not give a fuck.” 

GO: All Well is at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., 235-1101. Oct. 27-Nov. 1.

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