"ONLY DROWNED MEN DROWN. Everything else floats," says one character in Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's (PETE) latest, the cumbersomely-titled [Or, The Whale]. Though ostensibly a riff on Herman Melville's Moby Dick, there are no actual whales. Instead, Juli Crockett's script is a fevered, fuguelike existential crisis delivered by a trio of peg-legged Captain Ahabs embodying a single splintered psyche.
In other words, this play is really fucking weird. I'm not sure why PETE chose to produce it, and I like experimental theater. Crockett has written that rare experimental work that's so unwieldy it becomes equal parts pretentious opacity and sing-song-y nonsense, creating ample opportunity for things to go horribly wrong.
With that, I'll retire my Statler and Waldorf mustache, because somehow PETE pulls it off on the skill of its cast alone. Two of the Ahabs happen to be the always-excellent Maureen Porter (almost unrecognizable, in a good way, as a sort of Uber-Ahab) and Rebecca Lingafelter, and Amber Whitehall turns in a remarkably funny performance, bringing a disarming pathos to the role of doomed sailor Pip. As the voice of The Deep, Paige McKinney is like an un-funny Debbie Downer with the rasp of Cat Power and the soul of Sartre, wearing an old-timey diving helmet over the most enviable gold lamé outfit I have ever seen. And the play's reliance on cleanly choreographed movements elevates it from mere theater to something like (good) performance art.
That carefully pared-down minimalism permeates everything about [Or, The Whale], from Peter Ksander's perfectly-appointed set to the show's exquisite final moment, precise details that keep this way-too-conceptual play afloat (lol). In a talkback, actor Cristi Miles encouraged audience members to spread the word if they'd liked the show. "If you don't, thanks," she said drily. Experimental theater isn't for everyone, and it's easy to do badly. But PETE's latest evades disaster, even as it evokes the specter of total ruin.