Kyle Delamarter & Danielle Vermette in Pebble
Kyle Delamarter & Danielle Vermette in Pebble Carol Triffle

Carol Triffle’s and Jerry Mouawad’s Imago Theatre has cultivated international attention for their original shows like the mime/dance piece Frogz, and their adaptations—from Mishima to Sartre—are among some of the most interesting experiments I’ve seen in Portland. The company's productions have loaned absurdist bathos to everything from fairy tale fantasies to Harold Pinter tinderboxes. But like any forty-year-endeavor, Imago has both hits and misses.
Pebble, a Carol Triffle original and the final play in Imago’s Next Wave Festival, is not quite one of Imago’s hits. Despite compellingly off-kilter performances, lighting, and sound design, the script leaves a bit too much up to the imagination.

Pebble, the title character played by Danielle Vermette, is a woman in a mental institution, watched over by a medical orderly and a nurse, and visited by a man claiming to be her brother. As mental institutioe mental institution is the laziest place to set an absurd play like this, and risks becoming offensive by playing mental illness for laughs or cheap mystery. In its defense, Pebble at least tries not to: Pebble’s illnesses (defined at least as far as an obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction to prescription medication) are not completely mysterious, and I don’t believe Vermette plays Pebble’s neuroses for laughs (though much of the audience, unsettlingly, seemed to disagree, giggling and guffawing throughout what seemed to me an earnest portrayal).
Vermette’s nervy Pebble and Jon Farley’s grumbly, mumbly Medical Orderly find foils in Megan Skye Hale’s winking, disinterested Nurse Megan and Kyle Delamarter’s Nick·(a wild performance that’s impossibly broad in every direction). Through a pastiche of unexpected musical numbers, odd sound design involving hidden microphones, and active alteration of the set, the production is admirably inscrutable, and often funny.
But absurdist art dancing around meaning must ultimately mean something, or at least encourage meaning. The piecing together of a mysterious plot can’t be the entire purpose of the play. When you complete a jigsaw puzzle, you don’t learn anything. You just have a bigger version of the picture on the box. Absurdism is like a puzzle with no picture to reference, in which many of the pieces may be missing, or even brought in from other puzzles. It’s a dance done not because the dance is pretty, but because the footing is treacherous, and the steps unknown. Pebble, while compelling, simply isn’t that. It’s absurd, but without the -ism.

(Playing through May 25, Thur-Sat, 7:30 pm, Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th, $15-20)