Outrage playwright, Itamar Moses, was only 23 when his play was workshopped at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and it shows. Outrage is messy, self-indulgent, and frequently obnoxious. As my opening night companion so aptly put it, it's the theatrical equivalent of watching someone jack off for three hours.
A graduate of Yale's humanities program, Moses is more than happy to show off what he learned at the prestigious institution. He lines up several important historical figures, criss-crossing recklessly between their respective time periods, and using their sacrifices/betrayals/hypocrisies to comment, allegedly, on the play's main story line, which exposes the sacrifices/betrayals/hypocrisies at a modern liberal arts college. Socrates, Gallileo, Aristotle, and Menocchio all make appearances, while Bertolt Brecht (a razor sharp Robert Dorfman) leads the charge, guiding the audience through the happenings with customary disregard for theatrical convention. Meanwhile, almost as a side note, modern slacker undergrad Steven (Cody Nickell) tries to write his thesis, deals with the evil administration's careless use of funds, and has an affair with his male advisor.
If it all sounds like too much, it is--it's suffocating. But it also burns with manic energy and crackles with sparkling wit. Now that Moses is done jizzing out everything he knows, he may be ready to pump out something great.
Susan Lori-Parks was only slightly older than Moses when she penned Venus, and yet her play feels blessed with years of wisdom. Its structure is easily as risky as Outrage, and yet tighter, and thus ultimately more innovative. While Outrage bounces around like a drunken pinball, Venus moves steadily forward like a chugging motor. Beginning at scene 31, it counts backwards to scene 1 to tell the story of the Venus Hottentot, a real-life black woman in the 1800s who was taken from her home in Africa and stuck in a freak show in London. Like Outrage, a guide leads the viewer through the events, announcing each new scene and also reading various scientific footnotes that were published at the time by leading experts fascinated with Venus' large posterior and curly black hair. The end result is part anatomical lecture, part performance poetry, and part semi-linear play--a joyous fusion of different theatrical styles and devices. Themes of sexuality, race, and historical relativity combined with a dazzling, questioning structural component propels Venus into the realm of the greats.
It would be unfair to compare the current productions of these interesting new works. Where Venus is being put on by PSU's drama department and blessed with the kind of hyperactive amateurish energy that only colleges can provide, Outrage is happening at Portland Center Stage, which has access to trained professional actors and directors from around the country. PSU is a learning institution; PCS is not.
And yet, PCS would do well to learn from PSU's stripped-down production of Venus. PCS and director Chris Coleman have a bad habit of bathing plays with manipulative music and visual effects. There is no place for a movie-style soundtrack in live theater; it dumbs down the crackling live emotional connection unique to theater; makes it too easy. Outrage at PCS may have an enormous and intricate set design, with stunning lighting and near-perfect pacing, but it's still not any more enjoyable to watch than PSU's Venus. And that, indeed, is another sign of the difference in maturity level between these two scripts. PCS can't resist coating Outrage with excessive technological wizardry, and still the play is only marginally engaging. PSU has little to no technological wizardry at its disposal. Its cast and crew bumbles, stumbles, and to balance things out, occasionally succeeds exuberantly. Most of all, they learn, and in the face of this learning Venus shines like a torch. JUSTIN SANDERS