IN COHO’S PRODUCTION of The Gun Show, the fourth wall is down, the script is onstage, the playwright is in the audience, and the actor playing the playwright is periodically having conversations with the playwright about the play. Unpredictable and absorbing, The Gun Show is, for all its ostensible complexities, a straightforward work with a minimalist set, one actor, and five autobiographical stories about guns. The stories progress from lighthearted to unnerving, and eventually to the story the playwright can’t work through or let go of, the one that’s always with her, “like I live inside a goddamn movie theater, like the movie theater lives inside my head, and there’s only one show.”
Written by playwright EM Lewis, a white woman who grew up in rural Oregon where guns were a part of daily life, and performed by actor/storyteller Vin Shambry, a black man who grew up in Portland, The Gun Show plays with expectations and preconceptions while attempting to think about guns in a way that goes beyond the current political debate. It asks the audience to consider, or reconsider, their positions on guns. And when the play ends, it asks them to talk about it.
The post-play discussion portion (“Gun Talks”) is a bold move and won’t be a hit with everyone. At the performance I went to, a few people squirmed, and a few others appeared annoyed, but the crowd largely seemed engaged and curious. Audience members spoke up about using guns in the armed forces, having lost loved ones to gun violence and suicide, and having loved ones who were still alive because they had guns for protection. Gun Talks was uncomfortable, but it would be hard to argue that it didn’t enhance the play. Seeing the range of relationships to guns in one small theater changed the effect of what just happened onstage, and required everyone to consider it from a different angle.
Regardless of whether a one-person meta-play leading to a slightly surreal community forum sounds appealing, The Gun Show is an experience, unlike other experiences, and it’s worth going if only to see Shambry’s rollercoaster performance. Soft and tender one moment, jaded and full of righteous anger the next, joking around while doing a solid impression of Patrick Swayze’s Dirty Dancing finale moves a moment later, Shambry is stunning; in many ways, he’s embodying the confusion and emotional frustration of this moment in American history.
“What I think it comes down to, this gun thing, is safety,” Shambry-as-Lewis says late in the play. “That’s what we have in common. We want to be safe.”