Spinning Into Butter
CoHo Theatre
Through Nov 24, 220-2646

Until recently, CoHo Productions was probably the most profilic homeless theater company in Portland. The program for its current show, Spinning Into Butter, claims to have performed "eight shows in eight different venues, including the basement of the Benson Hotel, an abandoned warehouse, two empty condominium storefronts, a church parish hall, and an art gallery."

Finally, CoHo has acquired enough recognition and financial resources to build a space of their own, a sparkling blackbox theater on NW 23rd and Raleigh. It truly is a beautiful venue. So beautiful, in fact, that it shoves CoHo from the position it once occupied as the unassuming theater-on-the-run underdog, right into the spotlight with the big boys. The challenge of finding space is gone, but following right on its heels is a fresh, and possibly even greater challenge: CoHo must prove they deserve the space they got.

Their season opener, Rebecca Gilman's Spinning, is a step in the right direction. It's a study of what happens when a predominantly white, yet supposedly racially liberated and enlightened liberal arts college finds itself dealing with incidents involving real racial intolerance. Gilman poses the question: Is being aware that one is supposed to be tolerant the same thing as being tolerant?

This play is about intellectual white people. A black student receives hate mail, but that student is only talked about, and never actually appears onstage. The drama centers around Sarah Daniels (Laura Faye Smith), the new Dean of Students at Belmont College in Vermont, who must deal with the situation. Daniels is white, well-educated, and thanks to a recent stint working with students at a mostly-black college, supposedly the epitome of caucasion awareness and tolerance.

Right from the start, however, she appears out of place, as she botches an attempt to recommend a Hispanic student, Patrick Chibas (Francisco Garcia), for a scholarship by making him check the box for Puerto Rican, when in reality he is Neurican. "But I've never even been to Puerto Rico," he says. "It's a 12,000 dollar scholarship," she replies. Later, the student returns, angry about having to fudge his ethnicity in the name of money. His indignance surprises her, and forces her to examine the way she truly sees races different from her own.

The more Daniels tries to defend her previous actions, the deeper she digs her own hole. Smith is brilliant as Daniels, and it is fascinating to watch her smooth-talking, liberal facade crumble line by line. After being reduced to a blabbering mess, she follows up the scholarship scene with the show's key monologue, in which she confesses to being afraid of sitting next to a black man with a puffy coat on the bus. Again, Smith is convincing; the speech made me--and the rest of the mostly-white audience--squirm. "I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way!" Daniels cries at one point. I could sense we all wanted to brush her off as a reactionary, but deep down wondered if she is was the only white "liberal" being honest with herself.

Gilman's script is an eye-opener and also, very humorous. She takes marvelous shots at the liberal arts college establishment, surrounding Daniels with uppity, over-sensitive, intellectual faculty buffoons that could be lifted from any humanities department in the nation. Bob McKeehen, as the nauseatingly earnest and open-minded Prof. Collins, is especially strong. Karin Magaldi-Unger's direction handles the humor with the same skill it handles the serious moments: unobtrusively. You can tell a play is well-directed when you forget, while watching it, that someone had to direct it at all.

At the very least, Spinning will get you thinking. This production is subtle and effortless, building with an unassuming, unexpected power that lingers with you long after the show is over. It's smooth, tight, and very professional. CoHo Productions: Welcome to the ranks of the big boys. JUSTIN SANDERS