I was all kinds of excited when I heard that Fever Theater and Hand2Mouth Theatre had teamed up for The Portland Catacombs. Unlike a dismaying number of companies in this town, these kids share a knack for making theater feel relevant, and I always look forward to their boundary-defying work. This time, along with the Portland Art Center, they've created an engaging spectacle that prompts visitors to interact with the ghosts of Portland past.
The Portland Catacombs is essentially an interactive haunted house, but here the "ghosts" are personalities from Old Town's past. Historical characters include Bernard Goldsmith (mayor during the 1870s), a prohibition-era saloon owner, and a gypsy fortuneteller. The entire Portland Art Center building has been transformed for this: The space has been creatively partitioned into an elaborate warren of hallways and rooms, populated by performers from Fever and Hand2Mouth. The actors were provided with historical information and background on their characters, and left to improvise the rest; thus, their relationships to one another, the space, and the audience are constantly evolving.
It would probably be possible to just walk through the installation, checking out all the freaky shit, and trying not to get too involved, but that would be a shame. All these characters have backstories, which they'll gladly tell you about—all you have to do is ask. One character will tell you how she was shot 22 times by the police; another might ask about your sexual proclivities, then offer you some pornography. These actors can handle whatever you throw at them, and the unscripted interactions add volumes to the experience.
The Catacombs also possess a strong arts component: A legion of video, sound, and visual artists teamed up to create the Catacombs' uniquely unsettling environment.
Art, sex, drugs—it's all here. After interacting with all the crazy but harmless characters who populate the exhibit, it's disconcerting to leave the building and step out into the Old Town of today. It's fair to say that after The Portland Catacombs, reality looks a little bit different.