Black-box results show success

Test flights
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  February 20, 2013

BREAKING DOWN Still, stark, brutal: Lorem Ipsum’s If We Were Birds.
It's an on-stage-off-stage winter in Portland Stage Company's Studio Theater, where PSC has just launched its new Studio Rep Series, rotating between productions by three different companies: Lorem Ipsum's If We Were Birds, Horn and Ivory Productions' For the Lulz, and Bess Welden's Big Mouth Thunder Thighs. In addition, during the dark nights of that multi-threaded run, a fourth company, the Seeing Space, mounts two one-acts billed as Moments as Inertia.


The ancient Greek myth of Philomela is one of blood lust and sexual violence: Athenian princess sisters Procne and Philomela are separated when the elder, Procne, is given in marriage to Tereus, the warrior king of Thrace. Later, at his new wife's request, Tereus sails to Athens to bring Philomela for a visit, but seized with lust, he rapes her, cuts out her tongue, and leaves her in the woods. Philomela and Procne enact a horrific revenge and finally, desperate, beseech the gods to turn them into birds. In Erin Shields's harrowing 2011 retelling, she uses birds to present a Greek chorus of brutalized women both ancient and modern, in the unflinching If We Were Birds, directed by the Phoenix's own Deirdre Fulton, in a devastating production by Lorem Ipsum.

Fulton and her cast enact the story's fraught relationships with breathtaking physicality. Early on, bathing and confiding in thin white undergarments, sisters Procne and Philomela (Ellen White and Heather Irish, both superb) have a fluid intimacy; they're beautifully paired, White's curves and coy, measured voice against Irish's nymph-like frame and giddy shrillness. As a girl teetering on the cusp between child and young woman, Irish is arresting, slipping between myriad postures and gestures to reveal Philomela's every volatile emotional shift, including her agony when their loving but patriarchal father (the excellent Corey Gagne) gives away her sister.

Meanwhile, Procne uses the lust of Tereus (Nicholas Schroeder, also a Phoenix scribe) as leverage; the two slink around the stage in a dance equal parts eros and skirmish. As the warrior, Schroeder conjures Tereus's lust — especially toward Philomela — as a frighteningly tangible, uncontainable force, his mouth agape as if in helpless thrall. Tereus's hair-raising monologue before the rape ("It's not me, it's my blood," he tells himself) is so coolly spoken, so devoid of accountability, that it's terrifying. The rape itself, riddled with obscenity and throbbing with the chants of the bird chorus, is excruciating.

The birds whose ranks the sisters will join (Karen Ball, Mariah Bergeron, Emma Payton Cooper, Amanda Huotari, and Lisa Van Oosterum) evoke both the archetypal and the particular, color the action with chirps and twitches (along with Emily Dix Thomas's quietly melancholic cello), and build the tension with even the sound of their synched breaths. And in Shields's most agonizing innovation, the birds relate actual accounts of women brutalized during 20th-century conflicts, tortuous monologues delivered with the stillness and starkness of bones.

Both dramatically and rhetorically, Lorem Ipsum's brutal but tender production is consuming. The nuances of its characters reveal how ambivalent and how culturally embedded their attitudes toward war and women, blood lust and sexual lust. By the end, even given the gods' consolations of wings, expect to feel battered, numb, and sad. The story's best recourse against the horror is to "Speak it," and the sounds that come out of those birds' throats are haunting: part song, part sob.

LULZ, IN PERSON Horn and Ivory go analog, IRL, for digital points.


The title idiom of For the Lulz is a deviation of LOL: The abbreviated Internet comment "Laugh Out Loud" has become a plural noun, for the sake of which — i.e., "for the laughs" — one might post or do something online. And "for the lulz," indeed, seems to be the cloudy m.o. of one determined young hacker, in this cyber-thriller by Ben Ferber (directed by Todd Brian Backus).

Online realms, including blogs, Twitter feeds, and IRC (Internet Relay Chat) conversations, constitute the main "settings" of For the Lulz, the plot of which concerns cyber-attacks carried out by the hacker "poof" (Shannon Stockwell), and the attempts of cyber-vigilante MrJ (Eric Worthley), tech journalist Fay (Ella Wrenn), and ex-con hacker/professor Gale (Caroline O'Connor) to identify, expose, and/or shut "poof" down.

Their fast-paced dialogue abounds in the clipped syntax of Twitter, technical explanations (DDoS, "freaking"), and the wild-west obscenities of the blogosphere ("Nice tits, cuntmuffin!"). It's exhausting, but it does nicely express the thrills of online anonymity and alliances, as do its capable actors, who are energetic and quirkily comic.

The larger problem with Lulz, as its characters "meet" online or on the phone, is that we really only ever have a shadowy — a virtual — sense of the emotional stakes. It's difficult to emotionally invest in anyone: a fundamental dramatic weakness. Cyber-thrillers often succeed by juxtaposing the virtual and the physical, the text (often so limited, especially online) and the subtext beneath what a character says (or types). Some more play with these ideas might help For the Lulz ground its virtual dramas more solidly in the stakes of its actual world.

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Related: Suspend your disbelief this fall, W. gets a B, Why so serious?, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Lorem Ipsum, Bess Welden, Portland Stage Company,  More more >
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