Monday, October 13, 2014

the typographer's dream at portland center stage

Friday night at Portland Center Stage, after all the applause, as my hands were trying to stop stinging from clapping so hard, Stephen turned to me and said, "I don't know what the hell that was, but it was delightful."

Three people on stage, sitting behind a long table, talking to the audience about their respective jobs. What was the setup of this play? Was it a job fair? A convention? Career day at some school? In a way, I didn't care that I didn't know what the setup was in The Typographer's Dream. It was what it was. Three people sitting behind a long table, talking to the audience about their respective jobs - which doesn't sound like the recipe for an amazing evening of theater, but Stephen is right when he sums it all up with the word delightful.

It was also smart and surprising and hilarious and thought-provoking and fast-moving.

So fast-moving. Whip-crack dialogue and pingponging themes and concepts - and all I kept thinking is, this is my kind of play. Which is to say just so slightly over my head but in a way that leaves me breathlessly fascinated.

I want to pay for another ticket for another go-round (and if you know me, you know I'm painfully cheap). Not because it was so fast moving and just so slightly over my head, but because I just want to see it again.

As a theater junkie, I can enjoy a play that has so-so writing if the players are terrific, and I can enjoy a play that has so-so players if the writing is terrific. I can like it fine. Portland Center Stage's production of The Typographer's Dream, produced with intimacy in the Ellen Bye Theater, is terrific on both counts.

And with the material as it is, the actors easily could have gone over the top. Laura Faye Smith as Annalise the Geographer easily could have been too chirpy, easily could have been irritating, but no. Delightful. And when you think you know every note of her character, she gives you new sides - care, sadness, a fabulous rant - with that same just-at-the-edge-but-not-too-far energy. And she plays an excellent drunk.

And Kelsey Tyler as Dave the Stenographer. He easily could have gotten one-note with the sweet way he keeps pulling the conversation back to what is so great about stenography. And he easily could have been the annoyingly stereotypical gay man I see so often in plays. But no. Delightful. Funnily vulnerable and real.

And Sharonlee McLean. Well, she's always delightful. I've been following her career for years, and no matter how varied her characters are, there's always something Sharonlee about it. Quirky and particular. But not in a way that takes away from the individuality of the part she's playing. She has this fabulous way of being very real (her dialogue at times feeling almost adlibbed) while she's also so beautifully odd. Her Margaret the Typographer is, I think, one of my favorite performances of hers.

I'm going to try to stop saying the word delightful now. But seriously, you guys, this thing was delightful. I laughed way more than you'd expect about a play about three people sitting behind a long table, talking - raving - about their respective jobs. And of course the play is about far more. One of the devices that I think worked really well to illustrate that far more was the creative use of the fourth wall. Through the fourth wall, the players weren't just talking to us. They were vying for us. The audience's attention became a prize they were each fighting for. Which is intriguing to me as an audience member, but also says something about the themes of the play.

I think part of what playwright Adam Bock is saying in The Typographer's Dream is that we believe we have these connections with each other, these relationships, and we can even profess to love these relationships and be terribly moved by them (as Annalise is when she talks to Dave about his partner Bob, a truth Dave doesn't want to hear), but inside we're all just vying for the spotlight. We're all about our own story.

And what is our story? A lot of the time, it's our job. I've wondered over this fact myself, the urgency with which we identify ourselves with our jobs. In the Marketing Department at Powell's Books, just taking care of business, I catch myself sometimes feeling some silly, unfounded sense of importance. I talk about being graphic designer for a small press just to enjoy that sense of importance - there, I just did it. It's a way to manufacture an identity, but it's more. When we're coiling ourselves up in the cushy security of these personally manufactured identities what we're also doing is using that love to avoid the truth about ourselves.

It's a bleak outlook that emerges from Adam Bock's The Typographer's Dream. At least in my small-brained interpretation of it. A chilly perspective on the human condition, happily, ironically served up in the midst of a delightfully funny evening of smart, smart theater.

The Typographer's Dream runs through November 16th. More information is here. Photos were courtesy of Patrick Weishampel.


  1. This has to be the most compelling of your reviews Gigi. I feel like your mind is working so quickly at running the cycle from your impression and experience with the play through the part of your brain that transforms those ideas to words and out the door it goes! There is such a freshness to your writing! I feel like I have had the good fortune to be listening to you after pushing open the door to the theater after the play - hearing you candidly processing your experience and excitement of what you have just witnessed. Such a delight to read your reviews!

  2. Oh, Lisa, what a lovely thing to say. Thank you.