BWW Review: The Institute for Contemporary Performance Explores the Humor in Desperation in VERY POORLY INDEED
Is there anything funny about the story of the Donner Party -- the infamous group of pioneers who became so desperate on their trip across the United States that they resorted to cannibalism? My initial reaction was "no." But as I watched a preview performance of VERY POORLY INDEED by the Institute for Contemporary Performance (ICP, a training program from Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble), I was reminded that times of utter desperation are when we need to laugh the most.
Part dream, part dance, part hallucination, VERY POORLY INDEED doesn't fit neatly into any theatrical genre. It's a devised work, which means the artists created it from scratch rather than starting with a script. Their process was to create "moments" and then weave them together into a narrative. (For more on devising, see Bobby Bermea's write-up in Oregon ArtsWatch.)
The result is a show that invites the audience into a liminal space between humor and horror, fantasy and reality, human and animal. The core story centers a couple (played by Clifton Holznagel and Rose Proctor) who become trapped by cold and hunger on their journey west. They are manipulated by a spirit-like creature (Myriel Meissner), who represents the animal side of human nature, and a narrator (Jonathan Lee), who provides the comic relief but also represents something more sinister -- those who seek to profit from the suffering of others. It's heady stuff.
In my experience, watching devised works takes practice. They're not typically plot- or character-driven, which means you need to let go of any expectation of a logical overarching narrative and experience the moments as they come.
If you can do that here, you'll be rewarded. Using very simple set pieces and the movements of their own bodies, the IPC team creates some incredible moments. A few personal favorites include the moment when the snow descends, evoked by unfurling a large white sheet across the stage; the moment when Keezborg (Holznagel) completely breaks with reality; and the moment when hunger finally pushes one of the weary travelers to an act of desperation.
Overall, I enjoyed VERY POORLY INDEED. If you're up for something experimental and would like to see a new take on storytelling and performance from a group of up-and-coming theatre artists, check it out. VERY POORLY INDEED runs at CoHo through this weekend. Details and tickets here.
Photo credit: Jeremy Jeziorski