Sowelu Theater Ensemble at the Back Door Theater
4319 SE Hawthorne, 230-2090, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Dec 18, $8-15
Sowelu Theater performs a two channel ritual in honor of Megan Terry, the godmother of avant garde theater and playwright laureate of the '70s feminist movement. Here, Terry's strange gaze into power and manipulation is performed twice, the first with all female actors and the second with an all male cast. Directors Julie Akers and Barry Hunt are also assigned to their respective sides of the church, and stage two completely unique versions, like heads and tails on a lucky penny. Watching the two performances in a row is essentially like watching Gender herself/himself put on a one-man/woman show.
While Akers' cast are performing as male characters caged in a prison, they still appear as devil's daughters, as wholly feminine expressions of the darker quarters of the soul. The brilliant Lorraine Bahr is a butch alpha male, Jaden Fooks is the sad second banana, and doppelgangers Jenni Green and Val Landrum share the part of Gregory, a strange halved man. The prisoners appear in desert fatigues and play fight with imagined machine guns. The backdrop of an Iraqi prison camp was also used in Portland Center Stage's production of King Lear, borrowing from images of Abu Ghraib. Where PCS's allusion to the war crimes in Iraq seemed like self important gesture in a season of political crassness, Sowelu's experiment seems more justified in its sincerity and guts. The women of Aker's piece enact a morality tale sprinkled with night terrors, a pregnant actor wielding a plastic penis like a dowser's wand (no doubt a first and a last for local theater), and a rear-projected domestic poltergeist.
Barry Hunt's male chapter seems to run faster through Terry's play, and the actors perform as athletes with Keith Goodman's choreography really making the most indelible impression. Joaquin Lopez, Jeb Pearson, and Jared Roylance are a three-part harmony of desperation, and muster their charms and masculine wiles for the benefit of the audience. The actors are Machiavellian vaudevillians, calling on the great prison drama canon from Jean Genet to Grand Illusion to Kiss of the Spider Woman.