BWW Review: The Office Gets Weird in Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's PROCEDURES FOR SAYING NO
When you enter Shaking the Tree Theatre for Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's (PETE's) PROCEDURES FOR SAYING NO, you're given a packet of procedures, an office chair, and instructions to "look busy." You open your packet and get to work, with tasks familiar to many of us -- making coffee, reading the wall posters, fidgeting. These pre-show procedures are essential for you to get into the mindset of what you're about to see.
The play itself begins at a typical office with four people (plus the storeroom/IT person, Erica, who defies all explanation) doing typical office procedures -- scheduling meetings, ordering lunch, fighting with the printer, navigating awkward interoffice romances. You know, a regular soul-sucking day at work.
Then an apocalypse of sorts happens, and everyone is now living at the office. Erica (played by Cristi Miles) comes out of the storeroom, where you feel she's been for a long, long time -- like since the Ice Age. Peter (Jacob Coleman) de-evolves into a non-human primate. Team bonding turns into full-contact wrestling. And then things start to get weird.
In the midst of all the chaos, the characters continue to try -- with more or less success -- to function according to the same procedures that have gotten them this far, wherever that is.
PROCEDURES FOR SAYING NO, written by Robert Quillen Camp as part of PETE's Journey Play Constellation, is loosely based on Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street," which you can read in its entirety here. Here's the short version: Bartleby gets a job in an office. For a while, he's uber-productive. Then, he starts refusing to do work. He also refuses to leave the office. Eventually, he does no real work at all. He becomes imprisoned in the office, and then he dies.
To be honest, I was unsure of this play at first. Although I've seen all but one of the performances in the Journey Play constellation, I didn't completely understand it. And then, the next night, while I was at dinner with friends, a man elsewhere in the restaurant let out an ape-like howl -- rather like Peter does in the play -- to the surprise and confusion of everyone. Just a regular-looking man in a nice suit who did something bizarre. And I started to understand that PROCEDURES FOR SAYING NO was really about what happens when, in response to feeling trapped, you stray so far from the norm that there are no procedures you can turn to for guidance. It explores what causes you to make that choice and what it's like when you get there. At least, that's what I've got.
I'm a big fan of PETE just in general. The company is stuffed with talent, and every show is a unique experience. This play is well directed and well acted, and the set is awesome. Even if you haven't seen the rest of the Journey Play constellation, I recommend you see this one -- it will give you a lot to think and talk about afterward. It might inspire you to quit your job (get out while you can!). And it might help you understand your coworkers (and random restaurant howlers) a little bit better.
PROCEDURES FOR SAYING NO runs through July 2. More info and tickets here: http://petensemble.org/event/procedures-for-saying-no/