POST NEWTOWN and post Aurora, The Huntsmen hits close to home: It's about a young white man with violent impulses, a bizarre and secret inner life, and parents who're completely out of touch with how troubled their son is. The only catch? The inner life of the kid in question isn't shaped by videogames, or pornography, or any other bogeyman feared by parents and pundits. Nope, the trigger here is an older, more innocuous pop-cultural manifestation: the sweet sounds of doo-wop.
When the show begins, young Devon (Dean Linnard) is having trouble sleeping, so he skulks into his father's office for a reluctant heart-to-heart. What begins as an innocent chat soon takes a dark turn, as Devon haltingly explains that he's a member of a secret club called the Huntsmen, a name that evokes both old-timey music groups and sinister, cloak-and-dagger secret societies. He explains that he maybe raped a girl. And maybe killed her. And then he murders his dad.
As portrayed by Linnard, Devon is a squirrely, jittery kid who only seems at home when he's singing lead vocals in the doo-wop numbers that dominate his inner life. Linnard's got a great voice, and he's capably backed by the rest of the ensemble in original songs that easily pass for doo-wop standards.
It's not clear why he's compelled to off people with a machete—or what the connection is between music and murder—but that's not really the point: The point is to capture a psyche that's come unhinged, a mind in which the rules have been entirely rewritten. To that end, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred to convincing (if occasionally confusing) effect, as Devon drifts into increasingly elaborate, music-fueled reveries.
Michael O'Connell and Sharonlee McLean are so good as Devon's estranged parents that it's frustrating more of the show doesn't take place in the reality they occupy. Also great is relative newcomer Jared Miller, whose performance here as an exasperated detective joins his strong recent turns in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Artists Rep's Next to Normal.
Portland audiences first got a look at The Huntsmen back at the JAW playwrighting festival in 2011, and Portland Playhouse deserves props for picking it up and fully staging the world premiere. When JAW serves as a script feeder for Portland companies, it's nothing but good for local theater audiences: Scripts at JAW are vetted, workshopped, and read for audiences with an eye toward soliciting feedback. The best-case result is plays like this one: provocative, relevant, and original.