PORTLAND EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE ENSEMBLE, or PETE, as they're known, are one of my great hopes for the future of the Portland theater scene.
Their work is unapologetically experimental, technically sophisticated, and engaged with questions about what role theater can play in contemporary culture. Song of the Dodo is only their second show, after this winter's R3; both shows are marked by ambition, risk-taking, and style.
Dodo is a show in three acts. Each act is thematically and stylistically distinct, but the parts are united into a whole that asks the audience to pause to consider the fact that death is hurtling inevitably toward us.
Cheery, right? But Dodo leavens its intensity with plenty of humor and silliness. The first act is set on an island inhabited by dodo birds—three actors in goofy padded costumes who roam the island like playful toddlers, singing together and serving as a pesky, mimicking chorus to an exasperated sailor who's discovered the island.
We know what that sailor represents, even as the dodos greet him cheerfully: His arrival heralds their extinction. The second act makes a hard detour into modernity, re-enacting mortality-focused interviews with Nicol Williamson and Katharine Hepburn. (Rebecca Lingafelter's Hepburn impression is hilarious.) Unlike the dodos in the first scene, these characters have the language and knowledge to contemplate their own demise—but it's highly debatable whether their words contain any more wisdom than the first act's muttering birds.
The first two acts are frequently funny and deliberately silly, humor working as a spoonful of sugar to make the experimental theater easier to swallow. In the final act, the show abandons all levity to confront grief beyond words via Hecuba, the queen of Troy whose many children were killed before and after the Trojan War. (Katharine Hepburn played Hecuba in a film adaptation of The Trojan Women, a throughline that probably warrants its own article entirely.)
The show can be aurally grating—there's a lot of screeching, hooting, and keening, all of which goes on a few minutes too long. But there are some indelible moments here, too—"only in the theater" moments of surprise and strangeness and raw emotion. (The four actresses in the show pretty much eviscerate themselves onstage—figuratively—in the last scene, in a jaw-dropping level of commitment to the show's emotional demands.)
For me, a big measure of the success of a non-narrative show—when there are no characters to assess, no storyline to follow—is how effectively the show engages my curiosity. Do I want to understand this cryptic piece of theater? Is there humor and rigor? Am I motivated to understand how the pieces fit together? In the case of Song of the Dodo, the answer is yes.