Jay Mack, left, and Ashanti Williams in Antoinette Nwandu's "Pass Over," part of the Portland Theater Festival at Mayo Street Arts. (Courtesy Kat Moraros)
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On a desolate city block, near a mound of concrete, under a streetlight like a metallic tree, two Black men, Moses (Ashanti Williams) and Kitch (Jay Mack) are waiting. To pass the time, they bicker and reconcile, exercise, sleep, bemoan their sore feet, air their fantasies and fears, and play a game called “Promised Land Top Ten.”

What these men want to do, in Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” (onstage at Mayo Street Arts, as part of the Portland Theater Festival, under the superb direction of Bari Robinson) is to leave this block. They talk constantly about “passing over” into the promised land of food, beds, clean socks, and free movement through the city. But they don’t leave the block.

As you may have already guessed, Nwandu’s “Pass Over” is a riff on “Waiting for Godot.” But Moses and Kitch, as Black men, live in a different kind of absurdist world than that of Beckett’s Didi and Gogo. Written after the murder of Trayvon Martin, “Pass Over” is a dizzying, searing indictment of racial violence and thwarted lives. At once hallucinatory and devastatingly real, this PTF production is not to be missed.

As Moses and Kitch, Williams and Mack have an electrically intimate rapport as they talk shit, rough-house, imitate their old Sunday school teacher or a rich white person calling room service, and count the Black men they know who have been killed by “the po po.” As they navigate the script’s many tonal swerves, escalations, and verbal and physical antics, they make Moses and Kitch both archetypes and specific, nuanced men.

“Pass Over” nods cannily to “Godot” in not just its premise, but also some fun details. Instead of Didi offering Gogo a radish, Moses offers what Kitch calls a “wack-ass, dry-ass, nasty-ass crust” from a bad pizza chain. Rather than Beckett’s rural nowhere of the mind, it’s an urban food-desert nowhere, riddled with human threats, that these men can’t leave.

The play’s larger project becomes acute as visitors arrive.

First comes a white man in an immaculate white suit and straw boater, bearing a picnic basket and a stylized Golly-gee affect (Jared Mongeau, in a terrifying and masterfully calibrated performance). He’s Pozzo by way of a Southern Gothic villain. The second visitor is a cop, also played by Mongeau, in aviators, with overt yet equally stylized menace.

As the visits unfold, Nwandu considers the n-word, white entitlement, and quietism, and Moses and Kitch’s temptation to change how they talk to be safe from the police. In time, the play’s absurdist style also dips into Biblical passion and pointed Jordan Peele-style horror, all of which this PTF production executes with breathtaking precision and charge.

The show’s final moments diverge from Beckett in horrifying definitive ways. Like “Godot,” “Pass Over” is both wrenchingly intimate and existential. But Nwandu’s brilliant, galvanizing script, and PTF’s stunning production of it, remind us that for some people, existential dread is terrifyingly literal.

"Eurydice" at the Theater at Monmouth
A.J. Baldwin, left, Rebecca Ho, center, and Amber McNew in “Eurydice,” at the Theater at Monmouth. (Courtesy Kat Moraros)

In Sarah Ruhl’s much-loved 2003 retelling of the cautionary myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, she brings it into a 1950s-like era, gives it a sheen of magical realist comedy, and takes liberties with characters and string.

This winningly strange and lyrical “Eurydice” is onstage at the Theater at Monmouth, as part of its “It’s Greek (and Roman) to Me!” season, under the direction of Dawn McAndrews.

When she dies, Eurydice (Jamie Saunders) is transported to the Underworld via an elevator (represented by a simple frame center stage). The Stones who love Orpheus’s music (A.J. Baldwin, Rebecca Ho, and Amber McNew) are bored and snarky. The Lord of the Underworld (Trezure Coles) is a petulant schoolchild. And though Orpheus (Thomas Ian Campbell) pines for his love, it’s Eurydice – a lover of words who has experienced her own loss – who is at the center of the tale.

In the lovers’ first scenes together, lolling in vintage swimwear on a beach, Saunders and Campbell beautifully conjure the lush, warm radiance of young love – giddy, ridiculous, and all-encompassing. They let us feel viscerally the death-defying desire that binds Eurydice and Orpheus.

Saunders gives Eurydice a pleasing clarity and sweet, urgent fervor as, reunited with her dead father (Michael Dix Thomas, with affection and restraint), she strains to recall words from her old life. “I know his name starts with my mouth shaped like a ball of twine,” she says of Orpheus, in a scene acted with lovely grace and simplicity.

Ruhl’s script has a light touch and gentle, comical oddness that temper the story’s sentiment. I missed some of that ethos in this production, which sometimes feels weighed down by earnestness and lingering pacing, as when Campbell’s bereft Orpheus, writing letters to Eurydice, draws each out a little too long and with a little too much pathos.

But elsewhere, Monmouth’s production conjures well the curious weirdness of Ruhl’s play. In a plaid schoolgirl skirt, Coles camps it up vividly as the Lord of the Underworld, with puckered lips and swishing hips.

And Baldwin, Ho, and McNew upend pathos marvelously as the bored and disdainful Stones, in lacy gray rags and mycelium headdresses (fantastic costuming by Michelle Handley). The Stones tell everyone to just “act like a stone.”

That is, stop being so nostalgic and sad already.

But that’s easier said than done, as these characters and all of us know.

Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.

“Pass Over,” by Antoinette Nwandu. Directed by Bari Robinson. Produced for the Portland Theater Festival, at Mayo Street Arts, through Aug. 21. FMI: https://www.portlandtheaterfestival.org/2022-productions/pass-over

“Eurydice,” by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Dawn McAndrews. Produced by the Theater at Monmouth, in repertory, through Aug. 19. FMI: https://theateratmonmouth.org/

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