IF YOU’RE PLANNING on voluntarily stepping out to the theater (the kind featuring real people), I’m going to assume one of the following: your fancy aunt is in town, you’re trying to impress a person on a date, or you’re me, a 29-year-old woman who reviews plays as part of her job. Because why else would you pay money to watch adults pretend when you could stay home, where the Netflix and booze youâ€™ve already paid for are free-flowing and bed-adjacent?
I’m not judging. I get it. I’m a theater critic, and even my happy place is watching hours of ShondaLand while I kill several cans of LaCroix on my couch. It’s so pleasant. It’s so relaxing. It’s so comfortable.
But as on Girls, so in life: The magic happens outside your comfort zone, and sometimes the best possible discomfort zone is the deeply misunderstood, chronically underappreciated world of the contemporary American theater.
Lucky for you, Portland is lean on Big Obnoxious Productions, and heavy on smaller companies producing plays that allow you the dignity of virtuously spending your hard-earned cash on art without also wanting to die. Here are the places where you can see a play and not live to regret it.
I wish you luck, and I hope your aunt has a really good time.
Portland Playhouse operates out of a converted church in Northeast Portland, and makes good use of their nontraditional space, transforming it into everything from a Peter Pan dreamscape to a surrealist version of North Korea under Communist rule to the inside of a scientist’s troubled, deteriorating mind.
In a very white medium, in a very white city, Portland Playhouse is where you’re likely to see diversity both in terms of who’s on stage and who wrote the script being produced (without any sanctimonious self-congratulations). The company produces a huge range of plays, including socially engaged performances like 2015’s How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes, last year’s Simpsons-informed dystopia Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, and one of the city’s only gimmick-free adaptations of A Christmas Carol.
If you’re interested in seeing strong acting in small-scale but very solid productions from a company that seems to constantly be reckoning with the role of theater in Portland, this is where you belong. Portland Playhouse is one of the only theaters in the city I’ve excitedly gone to as ANOTHER REVIEWER’S PLUS ONE. Like, on my day off. They also have Red Vines in the lobby. I rest my case.
It’s true that millennials don’t buy houses (mystery solved: we’re poor), but if you’re convinced that we don’t go to the theater because true art has been killed dead by Spotify, you’re wrong, and Action/Adventure Theatre will show you how very wrong you are. If you like your movies superhero-themed and your ghost stories funny, and you know your way around the Whedonverse, you should consider opening your heart to this eternally youthful theater company. And if you were born in the ’80s? Welcome home. You will want to see plays here. From serialized sci-fi capers to Twin Peaks-esque tales of hard-boiled lady detectives to the just-opened All’s Faire, about disgruntled Renaissance Faire employees, Action/Adventure can be counted on to deliver theater that’s funny and inventive enough to compete with your streaming video service of choice.
Shaking the Tree and Theatre Vertigo
When I first moved to Portland, I asked every theater employee I bumped into what their favorite place to see a play was, and nearly to a person, they said glowing things about Theatre Vertigo and Shaking the Tree, praise that’s 100 percent earned. I’m a hardened woman when it comes to theater—I see A LOT of plays—but I will go to literally anything at either of these spaces, because I know that it’ll be something I can’t see elsewhere.
Theatre Vertigo tends to favor work that’s experimental while remaining accessible, and pulls from a core company of actors I’m always glad to see onstage. Weird play about the politics of art school? Bachelorette party with undertones of existential dread? Count me in!
Shaking the Tree leans toward more classic or classically derived material—recent productions include A Doll’s House and Suddenly Last Summer—but it’s never, ever boring. Artistic Director Samantha Van Der Merwe’s sets are so immersive, and her imagined worlds so tangible, that walking into the theater’s warehouse space on SE Grant feels like entering Narnia.
If you’re feeling weird/brave, you’ll be richly rewarded by a visit to Shaking the Tree or Theatre Vertigo. I’ve never regretted seeing a play at either. I wish I could say that more often.