The instructional-sounding title of What the Constitution Means to Me is both a fake out—it's a lot more interesting than it sounds—and not a fake out. Your friends may slow blink at you when you say you're going, but the latest production in Portland Center Stage's 2023-24 season grabs your hand and runs headlong through the lore of our nation's founding document with incisive humor and transformative storytelling.

Then it boldly asks: Should we replace the US Constitution? And lets the audience decide.

First and foremost, it's important to understand that What the Constitution Means to Me was written by someone who loves the US Constitution. Playwright Heidi Schrek based the first arc—if I may argue that there are three short arcs of rhetoric and narrative within the tight 100-minute production—on the formative experience of presenting a similarly-titled speech at American Legion halls as a teenager.

The first arc of the play puts the audience there, in a Schrek's memory-constructed version of the halls, where a corruption of recall has interspersed headshots of Patrick Swayze between standard military portraits.

Schrek's script presents the topics at hand—the 14th and Ninth Amendments—robustly, giving the original text, historical backstory, Schreck's own interpretations, and eventually even audio recordings of Supreme Court Justices arguing over the meaning. It's all delivered with plenty of humor, reminiscent of now-defunct feminist site the Hairpin, which frequently took artistic license with history while maintaining gaze at its horrors. 

Portland actress Rebecca Lingafelter plays 15-year-old Schrek deftly, without any cloying exaggeration of youth. She's perky and bright, costumed in a yellow blazer and barely noticeable half ponytails, and drew comparisons in a post-theater discussion to  Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler). 

Lingafelter is a formidable local talent. Co-artistic director of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and a company member of Third Rail Repertory, we would never expect her to take part in anything conventional. Initially, her youthful character's manufactured poise made us question whether the role would make use of Lingafelter's extensive emotional range. But then we got to the crying.

As Schrek recounts a mannerism of the women in her family, "Greek Tragedy Crying," Lingafelter transformed. She pulled intense, racked sobs from her chest—her whole body shuddering with massive melodrama. As quickly as it began, it was over. Lingafelter lightly returned to the youthful showman character, moving easily into another of Schrek's recollections.

Lingafelter is an absolute light in this performance. What the Constitution Means to Me is not a one-person show, but the whole production sits firmly on the central narrator's shoulders. You need a real dynamo in the role and PCS found one.

Rebecca Lingafelter (left) and Divine Crane (right) in "What the Constitution Means to Me." photo by Jingzi Zhao 

Schrek's play is wonderfully constructed. Though split into two parts in text, there's a noticeable narrative shift from the exuberant Schrek introduction to adult Schrek commentary and a break-out monologue by the play's Legionaire figure (made deeply lovable by Andrés Alcalá). The sections shift in form and mood, placing us in the story, taking us deep, and then lightening everything up to test what we've learned.

The script is a living work—as many consider the constitution itself to be—and leaves plenty of room for historical updates and adjustments. In every staging there are at least two major changes. The actor playing Schrek uses their real name during the third arc, where she also calls upon a real life teenager to take part in an onstage debate. This isn't someone picked from the audience. Schrek's script calls for an actual student from a local high school. PCS has cast two teenagers for this production, Divine Crane and Alabaster Richard.

For our performance, we saw Crane in the role and felt instantly protective of the expressively-gesturing yet poised young actress. She is perfect at her part. Even as she stumbled lightly here and there, that felt built into the script. It actually includes directions like, "talk over one another sometimes, search for words, stumble, and ad-lib a bit if it makes it feel more alive and in-the-moment. "

In recent years, PCS has recognized that not every show calls for pin-drop silent rows, and the company runs a reminder in its programs encouraging attendees to share the audience space without shushing one another. That's a good thing in this instance, because multiple points in the performance caused widespread, vocal reaction from the crowd. We heard surprise. We heard agreement. At one point, a woman in front of me turned and gave the man next to her a big, sloppy kiss. It's no wonder that What the Constitution Means to Me was the most-produced play of 2023. Schreck's work of jaw-dropping rhetorical arrangement has accomplished a task set before her long ago: She took the constitution and made it personal.

What the Constitution Means to Me appears on the US Bank Stage at Portland Center Stage at the Armory,  through Sun Feb 18, $25 - $93, tickets here, recommended for ages 12 and up.