‘Possession.” What a curious word. It can mean a solid, tangible object, or it can mean a state of romantic, spiritual, or even demonic thrall.
We can possess something – a thing, a memory, an art, a self – and we can be possessed (or dispossessed) – by, or of, a person, idea, memory, system, a story, or object.
We can be intrigued or overwhelmed by the possessions of a stranger and what they might reveal. We can consider possession so intently that the word itself starts to look strange, unreal, un-word-like.
We might start to wonder whether we really know what possession means at all, whether it actually means something a lot more complicated than we thought, or maybe, after all, a lot simpler.
In many ways, that’s the emotional, sensorial, and cognitive experience of “[Storage],” the exhilaratingly disorienting new devised work by the site-specific performance collective Bare Portland.
A combined performance and installation staged at the Stevens Square Community Center, “[Storage]” is the culmination of a year-long project: Bare Portland members acquired the contents of a stranger’s unclaimed storage unit, then began a collective exploration about what they could, should, and should not do with the stuff inside – and, more importantly, about how to think about stuff.
In inviting us into a re-imagined “Unit” (designed by Dana Hopkins) for this immersive performance (scintillatingly directed by James Patefield), “[Storage]” is experimental in the truest sense: “It’s an experiment,” a sign in the lobby tells us, hung amidst a project timeline and found objects. “Welcome.”
Four actors in coveralls (Meg Lynch, Mackenzie O’Connor, Mario Roberge-Reyes, and Maya Williams) beckon us into the Unit. In this dizzying installation, everything we see was found in, made from, or imaginatively inspired by the original storage unit. A quilt-cape made of powdered-milk packaging. Cathedral-style vitrines collaged with porn. Leftist political pamphlets, Christian texts, and many issues of Penthouse. (Content warning: “[Storage]” deals explicitly with sex, pornography, and sexual violence.) “Keep your eyes up,” admonishes an in-our-faces preacher, slipping between DIY phallic-looking sculptures. “You don’t want to miss a lick of potential possession.”
We move freely through the Unit as the quicksilver actors enact the fragmented, stylized, marvelously strange script (by Douglas Milliken, Christina Richardson, and Marissa Sophia Schneiderman). We hear a frantic eulogy for a favorite pair of cut-offs. An analysis of the role of used pizza boxes in human loneliness. A screed about women who expose their breasts while nursing. The reasons why a character obsessively collects, and the question of whether the rest of us can understand and judge those motivations. Stories of a drugged cruller, a lobotomy, a broken martini pitcher put back together with tape. There is much cataloging, counting things up, and counting down. And these four actors are electric, protean, and all-in.
Amid glorious visual and verbal overwhelm, certain motifs emerge to ground us: The maniacal preacher sets up a tension between spiritual and corporeal possession, between the in-God’s-image body and its shameful desires. A political paranoiac in a tin-foil box, who launches into harangues to a “secret president,” seems to speak to possession of the self vis-a-vis the state or larger systems. (“All citizens are citizens,” they announce, but some are “jailed and property.”) And the narrative of a seizure survivor, in their telling of a dream and of sexual assault, raises the specter of non-consensual possession of one’s own body.
Throughout, ever-shifting movement (enthrallingly dynamic choreography by Kerry Anderson) spans dance, physical comedy, percussion on pizza boxes or a typewriter. Particularly hypnotic motifs come as the actors move in the circles of a children’s game, waving egg cartons or crucifixes, one by one chanting fragments of speech and counting down, more or less, to one. “Fear of trash” “becoming” “uninhibited” “joy”, we hear disjointedly. Then: “Let me show you how to sift.”
It’s a lot to take in, and perhaps most thrilling about “[Storage]” is how willing the enterprise is to let us sit with all of it without connecting the dots. It’s not that we have to work extra hard to grok “[Storage],” exactly. In fact, it’s more that we need to relent to it, to give in to its multiplicity of meanings, to shift expectations about what it means to “understand” – like how “solving” a Zen koan requires transcending the question itself.
And as it counts up and down to what might be at the heart of the human impulse to possess, “[Storage]” does have a narrative arc, with a resolution – one that’s transporting, deeply empathetic for how hard it is to be at once bodies and spirits in a material world.
Bare Portland’s exuberant, beautiful, bonkers, experiment recognizes and affirms us as those multitudes-containing selves, the profane and sacred collections, that we all are.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
‘The Mother’ at Dramatic Rep
In the aftermath of a school shooting, we ask first about the number of victims. Then about the shooter’s state of mind. And then we ask about his parents.
More specifically, suggests the new show onstage at Dramatic Rep, we ask about his mother. It’s a shooter’s mom who is the focus of “The Mother,” by Lynne Conner, in a play that physicalizes her complex trauma by putting onstage two Mothers – the Mother Before the shooting (Abigail Killeen), and the Mother five years after (Mary Fraser).
The poignant but uneven show has its world premiere production through March 15 at the Portland Stage Studio Theater, under the direction of Lisa Muller-Jones.
Against a back wall hung with portraits of mothers and children, “The Mother” presents an appropriately fractured experience of trauma via two interwoven timelines: One leads up to the shooting as Before Mother, a theater professor, and the boy’s Father (David Pence) struggle to help the Son (Nolan Ellsworth) as he grows, becomes distant from his best friend (Robbie Harrison), and enters a troubled but not obviously abnormal adolescence.
The other timeline follows the After Mother as she navigates her grief and everyone’s need for an explanation, eventually appearing on TV and submitting to the insensitive questions of a news anchor (Michela Micalizio, with a sharp ear for broadcast vocal tropes).
Also pacing the countdown to the zero-time between Before and After are scenes of acute commentary by a forensic psychologist (Molly W. Bryant Roberts), who resists family-blaming, and episodes of the Son’s pre-rampage vlog, “The Thanatos Diaries,” which Ellsworth enacts with chilling charisma.
All these interwoven short scenes make for a restless, cinematic style that nicely emulates the jagged rhythms of traumatic memory, but frequent slow fade-outs and set changes stall the show’s momentum; faster light cues would keep things moving.
The device of the two Mothers has rich psychological potential, as they sometimes slip into each other’s scenes, sometimes talk to each other directly. Before’s role is generally to convince the more distraught After that she’s not to blame, and sometimes they sit together in shared grief. The effect is moving but becomes a bit static; I’d love to see more complexity written in the Mothers’ dynamics, in what the two selves seek from and bestow or inflict on each other.
With Killeen and Fraser costumed similarly, but not identically, there’s no obvious visual cue that these are the same woman, which seems a wise choice; we know them only by their dialogue.
In their scenes alone together, that dialogue can be a little on the nose; the two-Mother device is most evocative when one Mother lingers near the other’s conversation and just listens, arch or wistful, sometimes interjecting a word or two – as when After lays on the ground near where Before sits on a bench with her friend (Micalizio) talking about boys, men, and war.
As that pre-horror Mother, Killeen convincingly and with humor portrays an academic’s wry, awkward anxiousness in relating to her teenage son. As After, contending with overwhelming emotions, Fraser has a devastating, brave, all-revealing gaze – face crumpled and eyes vulnerable, exhausted, expecting yet more hurt but holding her gaze anyway.
And as the person that has brought all this upon her, Ellsworth gives superb range to the Son’s evolution – ebullient as a child, taut and sullen with his parents as a teen, jocular then wary and artificial with his friend, and – in shocking contrast – electric with confidence in his vlog.
Adolescence, masculinity, and gender scripts are among the many lenses “The Mother” very acutely employs to explore school shootings, along with nature-versus-nurture, cultural representations of death, parents in Shakespeare, the observer effect in physics, the media, the systems described in Arendt’s “banality of evil” concept, and everything that mothers have been blamed for – homosexuality, autism, etc. – over the years.
Of course, none of this can explain away the horror of a school shooting, and “The Mother” and Dramatic Rep’s deeply felt production is most wise in acknowledging how hard it is to give up our fundamental human urge to explain the impossible.
— Megan Grumbling