Saying yes, yes, yes

PSC's second annual Studio Rep series
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 23, 2014


ADULT PUPPET SHOW Act One, Scene Two is a collaboration between local playwrights, improv actors,
and handheld puppets 

This January brings the second year of Portland Stage Company’s Studio Rep series, a welcome initiative that brings three independent theater companies into PSC’s Studio Theater to mount new productions. The aim is to — in the words of artistic director Anita Stewart — “contribute to the ongoing vibrancy of Portland’s theater ecology.” This year, all three shows are original, locally-written works: The Brown Clouds of Courage (MTWTFSS Theatre Company); Act One, Scene Two (the Improvised Puppet Project); and
Temporary Living Arrangements (Lanyard Theatre Company).

Brown Clouds, by Philip Hobby, Johnny Speckman, and Nate Speckman, is a scatological comedy — winkingly billed as a musical — about three relationships negotiating bizarre problems (which I will not spoil here). With a youthful, exuberant cast (Joanna Clarke, Jake Cote, Kyle Robert Dennis, Jessica Fratus, Phillip Hobby, Kat Moraros, and Marie Stewart), the show’s mood is antic, silly, and gleefully sophomoric, and it employs the meta-theatrical tropes that have been trending high recently: Characters interrupt their own monologues to wonder why they’re talking to themselves; at one point the whole show collapses into a rehearsal of itself.

The show boasts some clever grace notes — one couple met in “an Ergonomics course at Burlington Coat Factory Community College,” and an unexplained phenomenon allows the interesting meditation of how Oscar Wilde might have reacted to a Bertolt Brecht festival. Make no mistake, though: this light fare is lewd. If you like your comedy riddled with cocks and excrement, The Brown Clouds of Courage is your show.

Every performance of Act One, Scene Two, offered by the Improvised Puppet Project, opens with a different Act One, Scene One: For each of seven shows, the IPP starts with a scene written by a different local playwright. Puppeteer/improvisers Keith Anctil, Tara McDonough, and Jen Whitley receive the script before our eyes, perform a cold-read with hand-puppets, then throw the scripts away for Scene Two, in which anything can happen to build and bring the story to a close.

Last Saturday, the featured playwright was Elizabeth Guffey, whose script Alien Autopsy launched the IPP into the teen sci-fi adventure genre. Siblings Robin and Robert discovered a mucous-y alien in their mother’s pantyhose (which they endearingly named Achoo). As the actors improvised the interactions of the siblings, their classmates, and the alien itself, Jon Andrews at the sound effects table and Patrick Ledwith in the light booth were also improvising adeptly, taking their cues from the actors for wriggly sci-fi sounds or a blue alien-transport beam.

The results were predictably silly and often slyly funny, and the IPP impressively tweaked the classic tropes of the genre, like the alien’s problematic particulars (it eats electronics, but isn’t satisfied with their phones), a pathos-laden mentor (a purple teacher with unrequited love for NASA), and — most importantly — the tenor of teen buddy/sibling/enemy dynamics in a time of crisis (Robert and his doofus friend Kenneth, a beaver in a Celtics jersey, were deadpan hilarious discussing “fail videos” involving deer).

It goes without saying that you should approach an improvised puppet play ready to both suspend disbelief and forgive occasional dramatic stalls, which are inevitable. But the IPP knows its stuff, is very good at saying “yes,” and offers the rare, nervy pleasure of watching theater being made up in real-time.

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