Between the lines

There’s a new theater company in town. And they mean business. Repertory business.

Complete with equity actors, a stable full of talent and an amazing debut play, Third Rail Repertory Theatre is showing itself to be not only the spark that jump-starts Portland’s persistently stumbling theater scene, but also to be part of the new core around which it will be based.

Everyone in Portland is talking about Third Rail’s debut production, "Recent Tragic Events." And everyone is excited. To have a local company present such a well-written play in such a proficient way is beyond exciting. It is breathtaking, possibly heralding an end to the local stagnation in which Portland’s theatre has been stuck for decades.

The play, written by Craig Wright, is about a blind date on September 12, 2001. The boy: a mild-mannered bookstore manager, who seems to be more comfortable as a fly on the wall than a protagonist, even in his own life. The girl: a slightly uptight professional with a twin sister, who lives over in New York, and hasn’t contacted anyone since "the Thing."

Andrew, the boy played by Tim True, was at first so mild-mannered I thought he was a boring, limited actor. But as the play progressed, and Andrew’s character became more comfortable with the people around him, we were delightfully treated to amazing new depths in the character. True was not only talented enough to show us those levels, but also to dole them out as they were necessary. His layers of subtlety, indiscernible at first, proved to be the work of a master actor.

Waverly, the girl whose apartment the play was set in, played by Stephanie Gaslin, joined True in frolicking in the pauses. The spaces between the written lines of dialogue were respected, cultured, and used to further the piece, and the world it was set in. This immense respect for silence was one of the most beautiful aspects of the play.

Michael O’Connell played the spacey neighbor Ron, and delivered one of the funniest performances I have ever seen onstage. O’Connell’s virtue was that he did not try to be the funny actor, with all the funny bits; he allowed himself to be the conduit for a genuinely funny character as it was written. He then spiced up Ron with some unique bits, but never to show himself off as a funnyman; he was never the actor trying to be funny, he was always the character who already was funny. Bravo.

Valerie Stevens and her silent character Nancy kept the knowledge of silence at the forefront, constantly doing something, never talking because it was her choice, and not because there was an absence of dialogue in the script. She also had the honor of playing author Joyce Carol Oates as a sock puppet. This convention was one of the most enchanting themes of the play; it was used and acknowledged brilliantly, and also solidified that feeling so many of us felt the day after "the Thing." We were bereft of our free will, acting in accordance with rules around us, and reacting accordingly.

As soon as the audience began to realize this, the conventions of the theater itself encroached to surround the characters, and further illustrated that this was a play, and these characters were puppets as well. Any production that can highlight its own conventions, while still maintaining the illusion of the fourth wall, has an incredible playwright behind it, and an incredibly capable cast – not to mention a director to be reckoned with.

Artistic Director Slayden Scott proved himself a master of mood, using music in moments normally accentuated only on film, taking the utmost of care with the transitions into and out of viewing time, and acknowledging the impossible while accomplishing it.

With him at the helm of this vibrant new company, Portland may soon find its theater scene blossoming to finally be a major player on the West Coast. The only real tragedy about this first play, "Recent Tragic Events," is that it closes this weekend. If you can still score a ticket, cancel all other plans. If you can’t, then go see their next show on opening night.

Local theater history is in the making. There is no reason to forgive yourself if you do not witness it.