BWW Reviews: THE CENTERING, Opening the CoHo 'Solo Summer' Series
CoHo productions is gearing up for their ‘Solo Summer’ series, which (to everyone interested in Portland theater) should be pretty freaking exciting. Summer seems to be most theater’s off-seasons, so the fact that we have a lineup of great shows set to rock through mid-July is fantastic. Doubly so, as solo shows are beasts of a completely different kind. More on that in a moment. To finish the pitch, Mormon Redneck Thespian: How to Overcome a Life of Drugs, Abuse, and Being a Redneck, plays from June 21-24th. From June 28th – July 1st, You Belong To Me (a new play by Steven Wolfson, so get in and be a part of it) is playing, starring Elizabeth Huffman. Lastly, Stacey Hallal (a veteran out of Second City in Chicago) is performing Irregardless from July 5th – 14th. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be doing my best to get out to Jersey Boys when it rolls into town, but you’ll be hearing about CoHo’s solo shows as well. The whole time.
Enough with the advertisements, let’s talk about THE CENTERING. Solo shows excite everyone, but they also kind of scare everyone as well, like we’re all taking a bigger leap of faith going to see one person for one hour than seeing twenty people for two hours. The entire show rests on the shoulders of a lone figure, if that actor screws up it’s not quite as easy to fade into the crowd or for another actor to cover. Like how focusing the surface tension on a pane of glass makes it easier to break. But that’s not quite the sum of the matter…honestly I think there’s just more theater involved. It’s a counterintuitive idea as theater is so inherently drawn to collaboration, but when you think about it: one actor, alone on stage, inviting us into a world that only they in the room are experiencing is as pure a molecule of theater as there is. That’s as basic and fundamental as it gets, which asks more from the actor, and more from us as an audience. No extensive cast to play along, either Andy Lee-Hillstrom was going to convince me or he wasn’t. And yes, I was convinced.
Those of you familiar with the CoHo set will know it’s an intimate space, the seats only give you about three rows, which is ideal for one-man shows in my opinion. These types of performances are by nature more confronting and it’s dull to be confronted from the 87th seat back. The production design as well was simple and intimate. Three different, basic lighting setups painted the picture for all scenes required, creating a surprisingly dynamic and impacting environment out of an otherwise empty space. The lighting for the prison sequence is one of those things that is so good that it’s obvious, and almost boring, but it’s perfect, like a Tom Petty song but even MORE obvious and perfect.
Now let’s talk about the play and the player. I only have one small concern regarding the play, and it’s actually not that small (but nor is it that concerning). THE CENTERING is a story about a man wrongfully imprisoned in a government facility that tortures potential terrorists. The facility cunningly goes unnamed, so for the sake of this article I’m going to call this facility ‘Shuantanamo Shmay’. The man is interrogated regularly and therefore he retreats into his own mind for comfort, engaging with his memories as well as his dreams of becoming a clown. In the end [SPOILER ALERT] the government does not believe in the blatant innocence of the man and kills him. Now, I appreciate topicality. I also appreciate not being bludgeoned over the head with the Huffington Post. It’s not a matter of political beliefs or leanings in the message, it’s about embracing subtlety, prompting the audience to engage with the text, and letting everyone come to the conclusion on their own. When the first five seconds of the play screams ‘this Shuantanamo Shmay place is not very accommodating!’, I have to wonder how one can even function with such a heavy hand, let alone write a script.
But rewind all that. THE CENTERING is not heavy-handed. Not really. And it’s not about a government torture prison. It almost is. All the time it almost is, because the setting of the narrative lurks there on the corner of our vision just waiting to be invited up onto the soapbox. That soapbox moment never comes though, and maybe that near-heavy-handedness is just my own dialogue regarding facilities such as ‘Shuantanamo Shmay’ rising in me when presented with the looming omni-presence of the setting. It’s hard to say, because that’s not what THE CENTERING is about. THE CENTERING is about the man. Davey. It’s about the human things we feel when presented with the dirty joy and vibrancy that another person can live with and want to live with, and the despair when we learn that none of it will ever come to pass. Solace in the human things.