The highlights of 2011’s theatrics

From madness to mealtime
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  December 21, 2011

PRIMAL SCREAM Michael Dix Thomas (left) in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.

Some of the most exhilarating moments in theater this year happened in the Apohadion, as a pale and schizoid Michael Dix Thomas shrieked the opening strains of "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," summoning to stage the lurid, ghoulish menagerie of Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. This universally acclaimed show, a LOREM IPSUM production directed by Thomas and Tess Van Horn, overran with virtuoso performers, including Ian Carlsen as Mack, Claire Guyer as Polly, Mariah Bergeron as Jenny, and a slew of musicians under the savvy direction of Jimmy Dorrity.

Equally dark was the depraved, anesthetized brutality of Killer Joe, the first play by Pulitzer winner Tracy Letts. SPACE Gallery hosted and Sean Mewshaw produced and directed a staggering production of this modern Southern Gothic, in which a young Texas fuck-up (Christopher Reilling) tries to cover debts by hiring the title hitman (Brian Chamberlain) to off his mother, then pays for the service with his virginal, mentally-challenged sister (Casey Turner). The show's impeccable casting was rounded out with Brent Askari as trailer-trash patriarch and Shannon Campbell as the flesh-pot step-mom; set, lighting, and technical effects were arresting; and the performance of Turner, a stunningly intuitive and versatile young actress, continues to haunt.

Turner recently portrayed a completely different young woman in Tigers Be Still, the season closer of the new DRAMATIC REPERTORY COMPANY, which is wrapping up an impressive inaugural year. After opening with Blue/Orange, which deals with race, truth, and psychiatry, and then mounting the ambitious Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, Dramatic Rep closed with this comedy of a recent college graduate battling family dysfunction, depression, and a roving tiger.

The young people of Spring Awakening face an even more primal dissonance: The vicissitudes of adolescence, and in 19th century Germany, no less. At MAD HORSE, under the direction of Christine Marshall, a cast of a dozen exceptional young actors portrayed teenagers exploring the dynamics of sexuality, power, and pain. Particularly notable were Grania Power, startlingly luminous; Nate Speckman, as a smoldering cynic; and the captivating Joe Bearor, during whose remarkable monologue-cum-act-of-onanism I barely breathed.

In a switchboard room of American Bell Telephone in 1919, workers are on the cusp of a different shift: Three switchboard operators are about to lose their jobs to an automaton in Switch Triptych, Adrian Shaplin's provocative, very smart tragicomedy about early corporate America and the American worker. Roger Bechtel produced an excellent, dizzying production at PORTLAND STAGE under Big Picture Productions, with superb performances by Abigail Killeen, who is a cold burn as a mysterious new hire, a hangdog Hal Cohen as an ineffectual manager, and Janice Gardner as a boozy, rhapsodic Italian queen bee in black veils.

Another dark and stellar show hosted by PSC this year, under the auspices of its internship program, was a hair-raising production of The Maids, Jean Genet's study of power, self-loathing, and ritualized violence. With exquisitely terrifying acting by three of Portland's most formidable young male actors — Ian Carlsen, Bari Robinson, and Michael Dix Thomas — and an eerie directorial innovation by Caitlin Hylan (setting them in a mid-century psychiatric ward), this production of the dark classic was one of the most unnerving shows I saw this year.

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