In Portland, if you see a person dressed up as a character from Alice in Wonderland, they might just be chasing their bliss.
However, when Rebby Yuer Foster—who plays Alice in Shaking the Tree's experimental new play Forbidden Fruit—moves through a room, they draw the audience with a presence that approaches gravitational pull. Before the show, Foster weaved through the din of a mingling pre-show crowd, intermittently pausing and holding statuesque poses. Were we not instructed to follow them, it's likely some of us would have anyway.
Was that the beginning of Forbidden Fruit? The work feels like a constant beginning. Was it the walk from Shaking the Tree's newly acquired offices to the door of their warehouse performance space? Did it begin when we poked cautiously through a corridor of tightly packed cardboard boxes, or when we split into groups and entered one of the eight rooms that hold the play's juicer bits?
A longstanding Midgard of Portland theater, Shaking the Tree makes both boundary-pushing and wonderfully relatable projects. We expect grand things, and the company consistently delivers. With Forbidden Fruit, Shaking the Tree has raised the bar once again.
The hybrid play/installation is ambitious in scale—the product of twelve performers, six playwrights, one choreographer, with multiple cast members devising their own scenes, and at least one actor (Joellen Sweeney) composing her room's music. That's not even getting into the director Samantha Van Der Merwe, the show's creative team, and incredible set makers.
Not to be capitalist, but the show feels valuable.
Each of the eight rooms has an entirely different look, story, and emotion on display. And all of it is awesome—scary, illuminating, funny, sorrowful. Every eight minutes, a bell chimed and the audience moved clockwise to the next monologue, dance, and/or serenade. Though the room-hopping felts like musical chairs, it was never overwhelming.
There's an unrepentant lack of direction, but our pod of six were lucky: When we opened our first door, an herbalist (Vana O'Brien) beckoned us into a cozy hut filled with natural medicines. We sat around a table and she told us the Midrash-inspired story of Adam's three wives, and what items we should prepare to stop a pregnancy. Her greeting made sense for her character, but would not have worked for the next room, where performer Claire Aldridge shrank and scribbled in the corner as if terrified of our presence.
It's interesting to think about the order of the doors—each with a fruit or other mythic food item painted above the frame—and how starting in different places inevitably leads to different emotional landings at the cycle's conclusion. The six people you start with will be your pod for the entire show, and while there's an instinct to stick together with friends, it might be interesting to separate, begin in different places, and compare notes.
As the audience moves from room to room, they happen upon Foster and Rabbit (Kai Hynes) in unmoving impressive poses: eg. fighting over a spilled goblet of wine, Alice gesturing towards Rabbit with a sword, Alice holding a rabbit in a bed of flowers. The progression of powerful images was the show's most striking visual. Aldridge's Pina Bausch-style dance, choreographed by Amy Leona Havin, was a close second.
Forbidden Fruit is a masterful production and a perfect way for Shaking the Tree to celebrate 20 years of treating Portland to exciting and interesting theater. The concept actually feels like a further exploration of what Van Der Merwe was working on in the company's 2018 production _____ the wolf, which took a single pod of audience members through six dioramas. It's a bigger, better version with more voices, stories, and perspectives. And a great representation of all that Shaking the Tree has grown to be.
Forbidden Fruit runs through Sat April 1 at Shaking the Tree, 823 SE Grant (but it begins in the office next door, 2136 SE 8th), $5-33, tickets here, 16+. While the show is SOLD OUT, there's an active waitlist.