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Reviewer Tina Arth enjoys local playwright Brianna Barrett's complex '36 Perfectly Appropriate Mealtime Conversations.'

COURTESY PHOTO: CARL DAHLQUIST - Left to right, Les Ico, Ami Ericson, Rachel Thomas, Skye McLaren Walton and Kaitlynn Baugh  play in HART Theatres annual summer Page to Stage offering. One of the best things about live theater is that no two performances are exactly the same, so there's always the prospect of getting new perspectives on the material each time you see a show.

HART Theatre's current offering, "36 Perfectly Appropriate Mealtime Conversations," takes this concept to a whole new level. Never heard of it? Not surprising – it's brand new, this season's winner of HART's annual "Page to Stage" competition, which gives local playwrights a chance to see their work in full production.

Author Brianna Barrett decided to explore the complex topic of gender roles in theater by writing a show about messy human relationships in which every character can be played by either a man or a woman, and doubled down by then having the core cast members play different roles in each performance.

Depending on the evening (and thus the assignments of the various cast members), one key character could be a heterosexual transsexual, a gay transsexual, a heterosexual woman, or a lesbian. While the dialogue stays the same, the subtext varies wildly — as does the humor (it's a very, very funny play).

It's not easy to condense a series of 25 vignettes into an intellgible summary.

In brief, six core cast members and two "observers" appear in a series of brief meetings in bars, restaurants and homes where they obsess over a variety of issues involving their attempts, as maturing Gen Ys and millennials, to achieve true adulthood and lasting satisfaction in their interpersonal relationships.

Only the observers (Les Ico and Ami Ericson) retain their roles throughout the run of the show (although there is still some gender-bending, in particular Ico's truly spectacular appearance singing love ballads in a fetching wig).

There is one married couple, and their discussions about love, fidelity and parenthood/adoption will take on dramatically new meaning with each separate pairing. Blaine Vincent III's effect as lounge singer Jessie will be very different when a woman plays the role, just as the bodice of his fabulous red dress will undoubtedly look a lot different when filled out by actual breasts.

I hesitate to call out any specific performances, as future audiences will not be seeing the actors in the same roles I saw.

Kaitlynn Baugh's tough talking Alex and Skye McLaren Walton's fragile, insecure Cameron present an interesting take on friendship that will undoubtedly be transformed when played by pretty little Rachel Thomas or stolid, serious Cecelia Shroyer.

Barrett's script is incredibly witty, but the funniest lines may shift nightly depending on who's playing whom. I found myself several times watching and listening on two levels, seeing and enjoying the current cast while imagining how the effect might change in future productions. It's obviously not practical to see every possible iteration, but I definitely plan to attend at least one more performance just to experience the effect of the shifting roles.

Page to Stage productions are, to some extent, works in progress. Director Carl Dahlquist has done a nice job of wrangling the complex script into coherence, but the show still runs a little too long (2 hours, 45 minutes including intermission).

The set is minimalist, and several minutes could have been shaved by just simplifying the scene changes, in particular by reducing the number of times the tables and door are moved around the stage. There are undoubtedly places where the script can be tightened up, and I'm confident that Barrett will take advantage of the HART run to evaluate the effectiveness of each vignette.

The show should probably be rated as at least PG-13 due to some mature themes and language. That said, it's an intriguing, entertaining story that should resonate with adult audiences from any generation.

"36 Perfectly Appropriate Mealtime Conversations" is playing at HART Theatre, 185 S.E. Washington St., Hillsboro, through July 23, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays.

More: www.hart-theatre.org.

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