Samantha Van Der Merwe is the first to admit that, when it comes to drama, she is extremely picky. When she was asked to direct something for a theater competition, she couldn’t find any script that interested her. So she wrote her own. And even now, as founding artistic director of Shaking the Tree, one of Portland’s boldest theater companies, it takes her a long time to find work that hits this elusive sweet spot where the absurd, the magical, and the real meet.
“I love it when a play hits a place kind of in-between,” she says. “A place that exists only in our consciousness. It’s this kind of archetypal place where we get to exist in this kind of dream state. There are certain writers that hit that for me: Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, especially in his older work. When I pick up a script that has that... I don’t know where that comes from, but I know how it feels.”
Since 2003, Van Der Merwe had captured that feeling in an amazing run of productions. She and her team at Shaking the Tree have given a postmodern spin on several canonized plays like Strindberg’s Miss Julie and a dark, genderbent version of Macbeth. The company has helped bring to life contemporary work as well, such as Naomi Wallace’s devastating exploration of class and gender, One Flea Spare, and SALT—their multimedia response to the current administration comprised of a series of installations that were more like museum pieces than pure theater.
For their upcoming 2018-19 season, Shaking the Tree is staging three thoroughly modern productions that provide a perfect encapsulation of what makes this theater company so daring. That should be apparent from the jump with ___ The Wolf, a piece dreamed up by Van Der Merwe that uses the tropes of fairy tales (in particular, Little Red Riding Hood) to explore, as she describes it, “desire, longing, and miscommunication of the sexes.”
She initially conceived the work as just a series of giant paintings that she would make and hang in their Southeast Portland studio. But as she thought about it more, the piece became a series of living dioramas that are visually alluring, but have a performative element—with actors in each one, and the audience physically moving around the space to experience it.
“I love the idea of these characters being stuck in their boxes and their continuing mantras, with their continuing stories,” Van Der Merwe says. “And what would happen if we made the audience come around to the back of the story and into the forest, where you would possibly get to turn that story a little bit on its head?”
Early next year, Shaking the Tree will present the world premiere of Made to Dance in Burning Buildings, a production written by local actor Anya Pearson that uses theater and modern dance to tell the story of a woman wrestling with the aftereffects of rape. Van Der Merwe has been following the creation of this work from its inception, including witnessing a workshopped version at Portland Playhouse and a preview at Joe’s Pub in New York. (Pearson has performed in several Shaking the Tree productions.)
“I was really struck by Anya’s writing and the fierceness of the piece,” says Van Der Merwe. “I loved that she had dancers, so whenever she’s talking about the violence that was done to this woman, it’s shown through dance. It’s taking the story a place where people can understand and feel it in a very different way.”
Shaking the Tree’s three productions this season can be viewed as a kind of life cycle, with ___ The Wolf suggesting one’s childhood and Made to Dance reflecting adult experience. Caryl Churchill’s play Escaped Alone is the perfect closing chord as it spotlights four senior women enjoying a backyard chat, seemingly oblivious to something horrible on the horizon.
“It’s brutal and it’s terrifying, but it’s also the reality of our future,” Van Der Merwe says of this play. “Churchill makes us come face to face with mortality, which we’re so afraid of to begin with. I mean it’s only 50 minutes long and it’s like being whacked over the head—and then you get to leave and wonder what you just saw.”