Worst Monday Ever

Portland Experimental Theater Ensemble pushes the manila envelope in Procedures for Saying No.

While the Portland Experimental Theater Ensemble (PETE) brings a good amount of anarchy to any topic, it’s clearly carried out with an extra degree of relish here, as they set their sights on workplace manners. Smart-casual clothing is abandoned along with all real sense of reason or order. What’s left when you strip away all the civility, jargon, and group-think of your standard office? You’re better off experiencing it first hand, but it’s safe to say that whether or not you enjoy Procedures for Saying No, it’s unlikely you will mistake it with any other play in your memory. And this kind of singular experience is at the heart of every chaotic moment.

It’s unlikely you will mistake it with any other play in your memory.

This concludes PETE’s four-part programming block, confoundingly titled, THE JOURNEY PLAY IS THE WHOLE THING: A CONSTELLATION OF ART OBJECTS, EVENTS AND EXPERIENCE, inspired by a single sentence from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” The series was built around a stunning rendition of Juli Crockett’s Or, the Whale, which ran in the winter as part of the Fertile Ground Festival, and further established this group as a nerveless force in the local theater scene. With so much gravitas having been processed, there is the distinct feeling throughout this final piece that you are witnessing an attempt to blow off not a little steam.

But first, there’s work to do.

Upon entering the Shaking the Tree Theater, whose industrial location makes for the perfect venue, you are given a substantial packet of tasks to complete. You are informed that the tasks are purely optional, but based perhaps on that innate human impulse to please some omniscient leader/boss/god above, you dive right in.

There are 100 tasks, along with additional work and several schematics of the theater, but it’s nearly impossible to get through it all. Eventually the cast, which has been milling around the plywood office set adorned with steel desks  (so oppressively large and heavy that once they enter a room they tend to stay for decades), takes their places.

A meeting is called. Then another. Then another. And by about the fifth meeting, it has become apparent that something is most certainly not right. While there is a lack of explanation as to what, the result is we see so many of the irritatingly familiar office tropes begin to break down, beginning with language.

“Let’s create a space for dialogue.”

“Let’s mitigate this issue.”

Let’s rock this meeting.”

What do these things really mean?

By taking these phrases all the way to their logical, non-hyperbolic conclusions, “rocking a meeting” might become an all-out free-for-all cage match set to “Working for the Weekend” by Loverboy. The choice of this particular song —which has long been emblematic of the kind of innocuous jargon we associate with 1980’s yuppiedom — is a perfect example of director Rebecca Lingafelter’s desire to return meaning to language.

What if the weekend wasn’t guaranteed?

What if working for it meant killing a co-worker in cold blood, lest they kill you first?

Not so innocuous now.

Lingafelter, a PETE founding member, handles playwright Robert Quillen Camp’s material without breaks, safety nets, or another metaphor you might use to describe moderation. Joining PETE’s other principal members — the always-excellent Jacob Coleman, Cristi Miles, and Amber Whitehall — are Murri Lazaroff-Babin and Portland contemporary dance legend Linda Austin, in an excellent crossover performance. Austin lets her on-point portrayal of the uptight, timid and sweet Hailey spiral into a quiet sequence of fluid movement atop a desk. Her dexterity making for an engrossing interlude, and Hailey becomes as complex and agile a character as Austin is a performer. Coleman is given the juiciest role as Peter, not only because his actions are the most extreme, but because with his smart haircut, goatee, and sweater vest, he has perhaps the longest road to travel from drone to… well, let’s just say your relation to Coleman’s character will have the greatest bearing on whether this play is for you or not.

Linda Austin in the foreground, as the others carry out a “meeting.” Photo by Owen Carey.

These are inspired additions to a cast that is not only kept on its toes by the material, but by a kind of disembodied Ira-Glass-as-God voice that throws a variety of different wrenches in during the first half of the play. This is one of several tropes that is ultimately not fully committed to. The play lacks a concise inciting incident, but acquires a new one nearly every scene. The result is a handful of transcendently funny, unexpected, and cathartic scenes, but a lack of common spine connecting one to the next.

But, make no mistake, this is what you go to live theater to see. PETE’s lack of fear is its greatest asset as a troupe. They either hit or miss — there is no middle ground.

To be sure, Procedures for Saying No falls squarely in the not for everyone bucket. You feel almost painfully involved: you’re right there, you’re sitting in an office chair on the same floor, you’re there to do work.

And work can be hell.

Images courtesy of Owen Carey.

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