IN THREE YEARS and as many shows, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE for short) has certainly done some weird stuff with the classics.
For an adaptation of Richard III, "We kind of danced and jumped up and down and ran around and evoked the story out of the darkness," says company member Amber Whitehall. Last year, the group used gutteral moans inspired by Euripides' Hecuba for a climax in Song of the Dodo, an extinct-animal lamentation that also featured Rebecca Lingafelter tragicomically chomping on a raw egg.
"People either loved it, and felt that their lives had been changed forever, or they said they hated it and wished they'd never seen us do that," recalls Whitehall.
But here comes the cliché about method in madness: Each of PETE's four members—Whitehall, Lingafelter, Jacob Coleman, and Cristi Miles—has trained extensively in two movement and voice practices. The "Suzuki Method" (created by Tadashi Suzuki and not to be confused with the music teaching method of the same name) incorporates improvisation, prescribed poses, walks, and vocal exercises. PETE's members are also trained in "Viewpoints," which Whitehall describes as "a form of vocabulary or speaking about work and time and space, broken down into nine elements... a way of looking at time-based art."
The company's shared expertise in both practices is, Whitehall says, "a pretty fundamental reason why we're together. We're really committed to regular training, a half hour every day. It's not like a warmup, it's practice—like how a pianist does scales or a painter does sketching."
This weekend PETE opens their adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters, in a new translation by director Štepán Šimek that promises to "to strip away years of romantic interpretations of the text to reveal its raw, truthful heart." In addition to PETE's ensemble members, the show features local heavy-hitters Michael O'Connell, John San Nicolas, Isaac Lamb, and Chris Murray.
Next, PETE looks forward to their January production, Enter THE NIGHT, a dreamlike depiction of "the true strangeness of human relationships" by Cuban American '60s avant-garde writer Maria Irene Fornes. Though it's still a little early to say exactly what they'll do, it's probably safe to expect surprises.
"The big houses [PCS and ART] attract a certain audience," says Whitehall, "and they cater to those same patrons and allow them to return and to be content. We're also interested in people who are subscribers and love traditional classical theater, but we also want to engage people who haven't seen plays before, and people who think they don't like plays.
"We hope they'll be pleased by the quality of our shows, even if they don't enjoy what they see us doing. We're willing to be a little bit uncomfortable inside of our work."