A lot of us have the feeling that there's something wrong with our country. And also that the wrongness runs deeper than our elected officials. How could anyone make a single play about that? You can’t. So instead, Asher Harman and the Gawdafful National Theater are creating a six-part play/gallery installation/livestream called The Dope Elf.
My best advice for navigating The Dope Elf is as follows: 1) Keep your eyes on Hartman. He introduces himself before the show. When he starts to move, follow. 2) Move around the sides. Circle behind the actors. This leads to the most interesting and unobstructed views. A large portion of the audience drifted back and forth in the middle of the room, but the actors don't mind if you spread out. 3) Don’t try to make sense of what’s going on. Instead, tap into the emotions of the characters. 4) Bring a fan. It gets stuffy in there.
Upon entering Yale Union’s exhibition hall, you'll see a collection of structures that serve as surreal set pieces and stage for the The Dope Elf's performance. They're also beds because the actors have been living in the space as part of their residency. Go ahead and get a closer look. While examining a tower of light boxes, I was approached by a few actors who were more than happy to chat about the show.
Besides the small set pieces—which sometimes shift around the space during the performance—the barriers between the audience and the actors are undefined. You can be as close to or as far away from action as you want, but moving will definitely enrich your experience. If you sit, don’t get too comfortable. Scenes travel from one end of the hall to the other, sometimes very quickly. But unlike immersive shows like the very famous Sleep No More, there's a singular focus to The Dope Elf. You could stay with one actor for the whole show, but they won’t always be doing much.
Following the actors around, and inhabiting the same space does playfully threaten to break the fourth wall. But no one in the audience is ever called on to do anything. This is a scripted show and the actors work around the attendees. The shows rotations occasionally create very visually striking imagery. At one point, the entire audience was crowded in one part of the space only to turn around and see another character, waiting for us at the other end, in a pool of light.
There's no plot to The Dope Elf. Hartman explains as much at the beginning of the show. Instead we follow a community of characters through their lives. Some are mundane and some mystical, but all have their own trauma and baggage that come from the world we live in. At the center of the show is the titular Dope Elf (Jacqueline Wright), a magical elf hillbilly, who alternates between trickster guide and terrifying force of nature.
There isn’t a traditional narrative arc to The Dope Elf, but there is an emotional one.
Most of the six actors play multiple roles, and though it’s not always clear who they are, each one feels distinct. There isn’t a traditional narrative arc, but there is an emotional one. The characters struggle with their relationships to each other and themselves, which builds a sense of wonder and frustration, culminating in an explosive final monologue on gentrification. (I think.) The Dope Elf is more of an experience you let wash over you than a story or a lesson.
The opening night of The Dope Elf was actually only the first installment, one sixth of the entire piece. So I can’t speak to the the totality of the entire series. The first three episodes will be performed at Yale Union through October. Whether the later episodes will return to Portland is still undetermined. After this residency, Gawdafful National Theater is traveling with this show, back to California for a while.
(Parts 1-3 of The Dope Elf play in sequence—Friday is Part 1, Saturday is Part 2, and Sunday is Part 3—on Fri Sept 20-Sun Sept 22, Fri Oct 11-Sun Oct 13, Fri Oct 18-Sun Oct 20, 8 pm, Yale Union, 800 SE 10th, $10 suggested donation)
We're wrapping up our 2019 TBA coverage, but we have a few more things to say! Read our reviews and critical impressions at: portlandmercury.com/tba