Portland Actors Conservatory, 1436 SW Montgomery, 274-1717, Thurs 7 pm, Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through May 4, $18-$20

T here is so much in Handler, Robert Schenkkan's play about a sect of Pentecostal snake handlers in Tennessee, that makes it difficult to stage. The story of a man's return to his wife and former congregation after a stint in prison has scenes with actual snake handling. There are also Southern accents involved, which can be trouble for many professional actors, let alone students. And then there is the style of the play, which bounces from audience-involved realism to spiritual fantasy; and this element is the undoing of Portland Actors Conservatory's production.

The snakes are obviously fake, and the accents waver at times, but the snakes aren't as obtrusive as some inconsistent choices by director Antonio Sonera, nor do the accents waver nearly as much as the style. I'll get to the inconsistencies. But first, the style, which for most of the production seems to teeter uncomfortably on the transitional line between realism and fantasy, and dissolves by the end into TV drama complete with strobe lights, a musical soundtrack, and, during one final immoral act, a back drop of flames as a character shouts, "Forgiveness!"(or at least, that's what I think he yelled; it was hard to hear anything above the thunder).

The last fifteen minutes of the play are laughably melodramatic, and wipe away any emotional gain made by the events leading up to them. It's hard to understand what Sonera had in mind for much of the show. Why, for instance, in a play where most of the action is pantomimed and so many aspects symbolized, is there fake blood used several times? Why is there nudity onstage when a character dresses, yet the characters sleep on a wooden floor with their clothes on? Why does a back woods, snake handling hillbilly character perform a song that is--albeit good--indie rock?

The production is not without its quality moments, nor is it devoid of quality performances. The cast shares a realistic and believable chemistry, and embody their characters well, as is exhibited in the ad-libbed interactions with the audience that lead into the show's opening. It's just that the production's overall lack of a clear and consistent directorial vision is corrosive to all aspects of the play. M. WILLIAM HELFRICH

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