A hunger for a new mythology

Defunkt's "The Udmurts" comes from somewhere over there, riding on horses and a sense of possibility

Once upon a time there was a place called Europe, a place called Russia, a place called the U.S.S.R., and finally, all the places that fell in between. Somewhere it happened that a great migration of people came over to the United States and brought with them their lanterns of culture. Defunkt and playwright David Zellnik dip into the warmth and adventure of this uprooting in their unlikely (of course, that’s how all fairytales begin) play The Udmurts.

The first things you should know are that the Udmurts are a people, and that horses may house spirits. Horses in their elegant frames have travelled with us across regions: in their large and fiery eyes, through millennia and breeding, hoof by hoof, they counter us. We test our freedom, in our companionship with horses, by aligning ourselves with these almost domesticated animals. It is in this wildness, the canter of it, where  Zellnik’s tale begins.

Syharath and Geesman, bonding in otherness. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Syharath and Geesman, bonding in otherness. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

When wild people are settled in and grow older, their habitats seem unreal; they contain an uncomfortable ground. No one likes to sit with the dead. More than that, no one likes to sit with people who live between the living and the dead.

Mrs. Huff (Jane Bement Geesman) is such a person, living out the end of her days from the chill winds of Soviet politics and the regime’s industrial disasters in a humble, rent-controlled apartment. Her place is 1970s chic sprinkled with dusty magic icons of the old country; a collection of blankets and pillows from a long lifetime stand out in her clutter.

Nate (Samson Syharath) is up from the South, specifically Florida, that strange state where anything can and does go wrong in the news each day. Further: he’s from the South that the South doesn’t claim, because his yard didn’t roll by the Mississippi and his ancestors didn’t gather willow switches or sip mint juleps on the porch. Nate is new, a part of the recent migration of Asians to the American South, that now makes up a large, but underrepresented population in the nation’s imagination. Nate is from a kind of nowhere, with an indescribable but strict background, and he shares his outsider origins with Mrs. Huff.

Nate is cautious in his speech and timid in most of his actions. Syharath captures his youthful awkwardness – first time in the big city, about to try out his identity with a gentle honesty, which endears him to us, to Mrs. Huff, and to his new friends. Mrs. Huff, on the other hand, knows exactly who and what she is. Geesman plays her with ease as a stonewalled eccentric who comes and goes in a matter-of-fact fashion, without any regret or care of public opinion. Geesman is so convincing as an actress that you’re left wondering what she really looks like as a person in the flesh. Her Mrs. Huff dredges up fantasies of grandmothers at whose feet you might have played as they napped off a weary night of casting spells, making a few agreements with black cats or spotted owls to set the balance of nature back to its right course.

White, Syharath, Vanderzee, young in the city. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

White, Syharath, Vanderzee, young in the city. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Steve Vanderzee is Clem, the possible devil to Nate’s Faust. He’s a clean-lined, urban, more masculine metrosexual, clinging to his own petty shock doctrine because he’s afraid the stability of opulence might make him a bore. He whisks between a quiet desperation and the command of a spoiled kid. His character is almost vacant next to the rich and gnarled roots of Mrs. Huff, but Vanderzee plays Clem with a delicate touch: the longing in his eyes and his youthful pomp betray the possibility that his quest is just sidetracked.

Rain (Andrea White) is a titanic personality, the brassy twentysomething who’s built up a wall of confidence that rests on needles and pins. She’s sure about her sexiness, how to navigate and negotiate the streets, but her outspoken demeanor is a refined act for attention. Compared to the meek Nate and war-witnessed Mrs. Huff, she’s a woman in practice: she is waiting to be.

Nate needs Clem and Rain at first because he’s all alone in the metropolis. Clem and Rain need Nate because he’s unusual. He’s got a flicker of personal power, which they emulate from years of training as city-wise privileged kids, but don’t know how to arouse within themselves. As in so many good stories, a bunch of at-odds personalities go through a few initiations by fire, and through their shared odyssey discover what attracted them together and why.

The end of the world is coming, and we are privy to it by pictures of ragged-boned and starving Polar bears on ice drifts, heat waves that creep in before the Spring equinox, and the mountains of paper-printed conclusions that say we’ve gone too far too be comfortable with the near future. Will we struggle and fight to survive, or dance in ecstasy during the last moments of humankind? The Udmurts, directed by Andrew Klaus-Vineyard, raises the question, can we do both?

Defunkt is known for casting a critical but sophisticated eye toward the fault lines where humans are navigating their course. The company rounds up this season with a little helter-skelter blood-warming. Regular Defunkt audience members are sensitive to the company’s approach, knowing that throughout the season they will have come, gone, appreciated, transformed, struggled, and emerged a little ragged, but alive from their theater adventure. They know the ebb and flow, and The Udmurts makes a sweet, and important, last remark in the current season of plays: Defunkt has high regards for its audience and works to make its productions not only present, but also meaningful over the long haul. Defunkt wants us to go through their process with them, to participate and debate the almost real-life conflicts in its plays. It’s a dangerous, brave, and challenging approach, and through it, Defunkt lives up to its place in Portland’s theatre scene.


Defunkt Theatre’s The Udmurts continues through June 18. Ticket and schedule information here.




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