One of the most talked-about and transporting shows of this year’s PortFringe was Bare Portland and New Fruit Art Collective’s exploration of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper. Beautiful and eerie, the immersive short work merged theater and installation in the ballroom of the Mechanics Hall. Now, members of the two groups return with a full-length production, staged in a mystery venue that’s far less grand (theater-goers are asked to meet at a pop-up box office called “The Grotto,” at 229 Anderson Street, where they will be led to the site). Devised by Bare Portland’s six-member ensemble and Diana Clark, directed by JJ Peeler, and with set design by Kelly Sue and Gelsey Amelia of New Fruit, this collaboration is one of the most adventurously conceived, bracingly executed theater works I’ve seen in a long time. At once edgy and ethereal, fraught and disarmingly funny, it conjures empathy by some surprising means, and it’s not to be missed.
Gilman’s original text uses journal entries to tell of a woman’s post-partum depression in the late nineteenth century, when the treatment is worse than the disease: forbidden from writing, kept to a regimen of phosphates and bed rest, the woman withdraws into her own increasingly disjointed reality. Bare Portland’s loose, associative treatment imaginatively elaborates on the world of this woman. Unnamed in the original text, she is here called Charlotte (aptly, as Gilman was writing from experience). The script takes Gilman’s first-person narrative and refracts the experience, like a prism, into myriad voices and forms.
Some of these forms, like the journal entries, are present in the short story. But very many are not, like the booming pronouncements of Charlotte’s doctor husband John, who is said to like “clarity and red meat,” and some innovations are whimsical or downright anachronistic — a game of hangman, a TED Talk. The ensemble (Catherine Buxton, Tarra Haskell, Allie Freed, Mackenzie O'Connor, James Patefield, and Peeler), clothed identically in black shirts and white petticoats, nimbly trade off lines and roles, executing sequence after sequence with a breathtaking cohesion of vision. The cumulative effect feels like ritual, and it feels like a strange vaudeville, in its deliberate shifts between forms and its curious, knowing humor.
In the venue’s concrete space, strung with unraveling lace and paper, simple domestic objects become haunted and haunting — and most particularly ingenious is the use of a bedsheet. Charlotte herself is often represented as a sheet twisted and bundled into the shape of figure, like a doll or a ghost. Sometimes bedsheet Charlotte, being talked at by John, drops abruptly into pile on the floor. Sometimes another human figure, as Charlotte, is wrapped into a sheet like a straightjacket. And sheets also become screens for a roving overhead projector, by which are projected acetate slides of instructions, puzzles, journal entries written live.
Sound, in this mystery space, bounces as if we’re in a concrete drum, and the company uses this quality fully, sometimes to lull us — as with a Tibetan singing bowl or a lullaby-like chant — sometimes to jolt us, with loud knocking or the sudden, self-conscious tittering of parlor laughter. The ensemble barrages us with voices in quick succession about John’s rules or what the help is saying, then leaves us swimming in silence. Such listening is almost physically affecting. Even a broom’s sweep is rich in texture and significance we can somehow feel in our skin.
Perhaps most illuminating and unnerving in Bare Portland’s exploration is how it contrasts internal and external relationships. Its immersive and interactive elements make us now empathize with Charlotte, now feel complicit, merely by our watching, in the social pressures put on her. We are sometimes her witnesses, sometimes her judges, sometimes consumers of the culture that drove her where she is. And sometimes, with a hair-raising new understanding, we are her. It’s a rare work of theater that so contorts and sunders us, and yet leaves us feeling more whole.
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