BACK IN JUNE, Portland Playhouse hosted a staged, one-night-only reading of Adam Rapp's Bingo with the Indians. The occasion? Adam's brother, Anthony, was in town, playing the lead in the Broadway touring production of Rent—a role he originated—and he agreed to participate in the reading of his brother's script. Anthony, improbably, achieved pinup status for his role in Rent; Adam is a Pulitzer-nominated playwright whose plays have been produced all over the country; the reading sold out.
Fast forward a few months, and Portland Playhouse is poised to launch a full-length production of Bingo.
Only in their second season, Portland Playhouse have already made a name for themselves: They are a fresh-faced young company that typically deliver a perfectly conventional and perfectly safe theater-going experience. I described their most recent show, Fiction, as "continuing the trend established in their first season of earnestly producing Theater That Means Something."
After that review ran, the co-founders of Portland Playhouse (brothers Brian and Michael Weaver) approached me: "Bingo with the Indians is the one show this season that there's a chance you might like."
The play opens this weekend, and the script is a challenging one that could easily go disastrously off the rails. But it's undeniable that the decision to launch a full production of Bingo with the Indians is the first really bold move this company has made (aside, of course, from moving to Portland and starting a theater company in the first place). Adam Rapp is an acclaimed playwright, but Bingo is not an acclaimed play: Reviews across the country have been mixed, with some critics praising its rhythmic language, and others finding it poorly written and unduly graphic. Even Portland Playhouse's board balked at the script, and the Weavers' mother sent her sons an email expressing her dismay at the selection.
The script is profane, violent, and explicit. In the first 30 seconds, one character is referred to as a "fucking boner"; another describes losing his virginity to a Brownie while in fifth grade. ("She was tight, man.")
The show follows a gang of performance artists who decide to earn money for their new show by robbing a bingo game. There's nudity, and a scene that may or may not be a rape, and a barrage of insults and profanity that may or may not be funny.
"I'd understand if you thought it was going to be 'punk rock, fuck you' theater. But it's not gonna be as alienating as you'd think," insists the play's director, Tim True. True is best known as an actor—he's a member of Third Rail Repertory, and was recently seen in Imago's No Exit—and he makes his directorial debut with Bingo. "It's really an actor's play," he says of the script. "It made sense to work on something that's driven by language rather than by technical needs."
Brian Weaver plays Warren, a role that requires an unusual level of commitment: "I'm naked and having sex for... it seems like an hour, but it's probably not."
"For a period of time." True interjects.
"My fear is that there's gonna be an audience that's sitting there with their arms crossed, not finding anything funny, and then the sex scenes look like sexploitation, and then I'm showing them my anus for nothing," Weaver says.
"I'm not worried about how the audience responds, as long as they respond," True concludes. And from audiences accustomed to Portland Playhouse's by-the-book earnestness, there's no doubt this play will get a reaction.