At Third Rail, a bright new beginning

On tech night, the wild and woolly particulars of 'A Bright New Boise' get a final turn of the screw

Lee-Hillstrom (background) and True: alone together. Photo: Owen Carey

Lee-Hillstrom (background) and True: alone together. Photo: Owen Carey

John Vreeke, director of Third Rail Repertory’s new show “A Bright New Boise,” smiles ruefully. “A lot of actors think a director is looking for something very specific,” he says. “They’re not. They’re just looking for something interesting.”

It’s Tuesday night at the Dolores Winningstad Theatre, Third Rail’s home space, and the search for something interesting is entering the home stretch. Tech night. Two hours of tough work, ratcheting things into place, followed by a full run-through and dissection afterwards. On Wednesday night, the first preview audience shows up.

Friday – tonight – is opening night. It’s the payoff for a long, exploratory, and sometimes extremely technical process that, like so much in the theater, is embedded in a contradiction: to feel free and easy, a show must also be tightly plotted and elaborately sprung. Too loose, and it’s sloppy. Too tight, and it loses its life.

On this tech Tuesday there’s excellent reason for optimism. “Boise,” by the rising young playwright Samuel D. Hunter, is rippling with interesting possibilities. The story, about a decent but obsessed man trying to reconnect with the 17-year-old son he abandoned as an infant, is biblical in its sweep and implications. It’s set in an American wilderness – the big-box retail world of low pay, low hopes, and dead-end jobs – and its hero is a man whose body is moving through the contemporary world but whose heart and mind are trapped inside the medieval terrors of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Will is waiting, praying, pleading for the Rapture: that glorious, awful moment when the saved will rise and the rest will be swept toward the fires of Hell. In a deep sense, “Boise” is about America’s lost mass of people who’ve been left behind, not by God, but by a swiftly moving culture they can’t keep up with. It’s about a hole of despair and America’s obsession with obsessiveness. But it’s told with humor and compassion and – this part’s important – respect for its lost but searching characters.

Will, the good medieval man, is played with a starkly moving balance of earnestness and wishfulness by Third Rail regular Tim True. The often electric ensemble also includes Andy Lee-Hillstrom as Alex, the kid who’s none too pleased to be reunited with his biological dad; Chris Murray as Leroy, Alex’s protective big adoptive brother; Kerry Ryan as Anna, a store clerk who hides in the aisles after closing so she can read alone at night; and Jacklyn Maddux as Pauline, the store manager who, a little like a theater director, keeps the whole improbable enterprise spinning.

Vreeke, who lives in Seattle but directs regularly for the rambunctious and renowned Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., is getting his second whack at the material. He also directed the second production of “Boise,” with Hunter deep in rewrites, for Woolly Mammoth, and he’s eager to get another crack at it.

Now the trick’s to make sure the telling of the tale runs smooth.


Actor Kerry Ryan (left) and director John Vreeke go over a scene at tech. Photo: Owen Carey

Actor Kerry Ryan (left) and director John Vreeke at tech. Photo: Owen Carey

Vreeke stands stage left on the main floor, slotting himself between the far seat in the front row and a runway-like stage extension that juts into the auditorium. Above him, True and Lee-Hillstrom are running softly through a crucial scene. “What was Mom like?” Lee-Hillstrom demands. True stays silent for a moment, a little taken aback. While they’re going over their lines, technical director Demetri Pavlatos, hammer in hand, is pounding away at a recalcitrant door handle, prying it off. Bang-bang-bang. He’s got to make sure the door swings right and stays closed when it’s supposed to be closed. Everything’s sotto voce, anyway. The first-tier side section stage left is a garage worth of handyman clutter, from paint cans to carpenter’s level to power tools to shop vac. At this point in a production, lots of stuff happens, sometimes noisily, on separate and sometimes overlapping mini-stages.

Vreeke, who’s 63 and has about 40 years of this sort of evening behind him, is comfortable in a practical, on-the-job way. Worn jeans, blue jacket with the sleeves pushed up, low-cut sneakers, cardboard coffee cup in one hand. His gray hair and beard are slightly mussed in that I’ve-got-more-important-things-to-think-about way, and he’s listening closely. A working man at work. He watches as True and Lee-Hillstrom walk through a scene, suggesting small adjustments to the blocking and deliveries. “I was molested by my fourth-grade teacher,” Lee-Hillstrom begins. Backpack on, he walks quickly away from True, heading upstage into the parking lot. Then he turns and strides close into True’s space. The enormity of the moment sinks in, and True slumps onto the floor, leaning against the concrete post of a tall light pole that reaches above the third tier of the matchbox theater space. “OK! So, great! So, great!” Vreeke says. He turns to Lee-Hillstrom. “Now we’ll focus on you, young man.”

Most of “A Bright New Boise” takes place in the break room of a Hobby Lobby store on the concrete outskirts of town, and in the parking lot that abuts a freeway or thoroughfare that drones and blares and sometimes screams traffic sounds, like God wreaking vengeance on a wicked world. The room has a folding table and folding chairs, old fridge and decrepit microwave, a coffeepot and accouterments. A flat-screen TV with a balky signal alternates between vaguely inspirational sales pep talks by a couple of guys from corporate (Third Rail company members Damon Kupper and Isaac Lamb) and, weirdly, video clips of nose, ear, and throat surgery from a medical channel that keeps cutting in. All in all it’s a depressing place, but also, for the workers, a refuge and a solace. Like much of Idaho itself, it’s out on the edge. Wide open and innocent, sprawled over and spoiled. The concrete parking lot. The freeway whoosh. Human scars on a dry brown beautiful land. Designer Larry  Larsen’s set includes a scrim wall so you can see, in certain lights, the shadowy promise of the mountains in the background.

In some ways the triple-tiered Winningstad Theatre is a familiar fit for Vreeke. Like Woolly Mammoth’s 250-seat theater in Washington, the Winnie isn’t a big hall to begin with. At full capacity it has 330 seats, but companies rarely use it that way, preferring to stretch the stage configurations and cut down on capacity: around 250 to 280 seats is more common. On tech night, the last few rows of main-floor seats are taken over by long tables for the designers and tech operators, further reducing the bandbox feel to a shake-hands-with-the-audience intimacy. Stretched along the length of the tables are five glowing computer screens, sound and light boards, a couple of gooseneck table lamps, various plugs and cords and smart phones, tissue boxes, snacks. Notebooks with color-coded markings. And quiet conversations about what still needs to be done, when. At the table are the people who keep things running and, with the actors and director, turn what began as a piece of writing into three-dimensional, multi-sensory art. Light board operator Jennifer Lin. Lighting designer Kristeen Crosser. Sound designer Cecil Averett. Stage manager Michelle Jazuk. Production manager and video engineer Cameron McFee. Video designer Isaac Lamb, the company actor who also plays one of the guys from corporate on the TV screen. Scenic designer Larsen. Also around and about are tech director Pavlatos, deck hand Jen Raynak, props master Drew Dannhorn, and artistic director Scott Yarbrough.

Everyone’s working hard, and everyone’s playing hurry up and wait. For the designers, there’ a lot of fiddling with cues. For the actors, there’s a lot of stopping and starting and re-doing and shifting, getting a newly revised sequence for a certain scene settled into their minds and bones. You can crack a joke one moment and be deep into a scene the next. While he’s working with the technicians, Vreeke’s also making adjustments with the performers. Your character’s 17 years old, he reminds Lee-Hillstrom. Be 17. Don’t be 29 acting like your 17. Same advice for the perpetual Peter Pan-faced Murray, who’s in his early 30s but is playing a 23-year-old: He looks the part, but needs to remember to shave a decade off the way he views the world. Murray’s known for keeping things loose on set, and every now and again he pulls out his smart phone and snaps photos of the other actors. (“These kids,” Vreeke says later, shaking his head and laughing. “They put everything on the Internet. I don’t understand it.”)

Vreeke runs a scene again, then talks to Lin and Crosser, the lighting team, about when to start a fade on Lee-Hillstrom. An extraordinary amount of choreography goes into any stage production, and any shift in time and place effects not only the performer but also the design: if an actor’s entrance is delayed, or he’s moved upstage or down, or if the space between performers is shortened or lengthened, then the light and sound have to follow suit, and that can complicate a well-plotted plan. It’s the director’s job to know what he wants. It’s the designers’ and techies’ job to know whether what he wants is practicable, and if so, how to make it work. The three talk it over quickly, and arrive at a solution. It’s the kind of little adjustment that’s both common and necessary at this stage of the game. “As long as I can get them in a good dark silhouette,” Vreeke says, satisfied.

Throughout the evening, similar periods of adjustment arise. “Could you bring the traffic noise up a little more obvious?” Vreeke asks Averett. Again: “Elevate the level of the Hobby Lobby video. AND, increase the volume on whatever that traffic noise is. So it gets almost painful.”

A good director is less a dictator than a diplomat, and those skills are especially apparent during tech, when all of the design elements are laid over the acting and everything has to mesh. This is the crucial point when you get the sound and light levels right, and the actors grow comfortable with the added dimensions. Vreeke has very specific ideas about how these things should be calibrated. When to fade. When to be intrusive. The designers and operators have little fiefdoms, and even a minor change requires a small dance, a tradeoff, an implicit acknowledgement that their space has been invaded. Pardon. This needs to be done. We can make it work. Each player must stick up for her or his territory, and also know when to yield for the greater good. For all the improvisatory feeling of a good production – that thrilling sense that a story’s being freshly discovered, like Miranda’s eyes alighting with delighted astonishment on her brave new world – things are carefully laid out beforehand. And sometimes, though not tonight, a director can ask for the stars when only the moon is possible. Sometimes it’s like the engineer telling the architect that something in the drawings just won’t work.

Or something needs adjustment, quick. At one point, Ryan and True are leaning against the folding table in the break room when – wham! – the tabletop snaps away from the legs and they tumble to the floor. A quick shock runs around the room. This is not part of the plan. The two actors scramble to their feet, laughing a little nervously. Pavlatos and Raynak hustle to the stage. The table has to be fixed. For the actors, it’s break time.


It’s taken a long time to get to this point of almost-readiness. “A Bright New Boise” was cast last June, almost a year ago. Design meetings began in August, and rehearsals started April 30. Even before that, artistic director Yarbrough and his team had to choose the play, which won a 2011 Obie for its initial production in New York before moving on to Woolly Mammoth, where it benefited from an extensive rewrite. The Portland script is essentially that one, with a few minor tweaks.

From its beginnings, Third Rail has looked to Woolly Mammoth as one of its models – “the aggressiveness of attacking material,” Yarbrough says. The Third Rail hits “Recent Tragic Events,” “Grace,” and “Dead Funny” all came from Mammoth. When Yarbrough decided to do “Boise” he called Mammoth’s artistic director, Howard Shalwitz, to get a take on how Woolly approached the script. Shalwitz told him that Vreeke was now living on the West Coast, and recommended him for the directing job.

“I’ve done maybe a half-dozen shows a second time,” Vreeke says. “Every time I’ve done that I’ve thought, ‘Why on Earth do I want to do this again?’ And every time I’ve been very happy with the chance to go deeper.”

In this case, the attraction was particularly strong. Hunter, the playwright, was on hand thoughout rehearsals for the Woolly production, working on extensive rewrites: “The second act was a shambles,” Vreeke says. Eventually Hunter decided to keep the ending that had bothered New York critics, but shore up the preparation for it. It’s a much better play now, Vreeke says, than when it began. And, having gone through one production that was focused on the writing, he liked the idea of doing a second that focuses on the performances.

Vreeke also likes that the play is so personal, not in its particulars but in the world that inspires it. Hunter, whose work Portland audiences also saw last summer when his play “The Few” had a reading at Portland Center Stage’s JAW new-plays festival, grew up gay and evangelical in Coeur d’Alene. “It’s his story,” Vreeke says.

Coming to the story a second time, Vreeke says, he did something unusual for him: Rather than begin the exploration of the script together with the actors, he laid down a lot of specifics from the beginning. He’d learned a lot about the play the first time around, and he wanted to start in Portland where he’d left off in Washington, D.C. Tone is essential, he says: “Usually characters of this sort are put up for ridicule.”

In Third Rail’s interpretation, they’re definitely not. Mind-boggling things occur, but they have an interior logic. And the cast clicks, moving easily from humor to anger to generosity and even little acts of heroism. The show has a sense of the absurd, but never of belittlement. It runs quickly, not in a blind rush like a pedal-down barrel across the Bonneville Salt Flats but more like a constantly shifting, efficiently smart run through an Italian mountain race course. Tonight, at tech, we’re seeing theater as a trade. From director to designers to technicians to performers, all of the roles are familiar and understood. You can go pretty much anywhere and fill in the same blanks. It’s how you fill them that makes the difference.


 The run-through finishes, and Vreeke is happy but not satisfied. The evening’s ending, and he still wants to make some technical adjustments in the final scenes.  But not tonight. Union regulations and common sense won’t allow it.

The window’s closing. Curtain for Wednesday’s first preview performance is 7:30, and that’s a lock. “But we’ll have an hour from 6 to 7, right?” he asks. “That’s good. That’ll be plenty of time to do what we need to do.”

Time’s running out.

But it’s not the end of the world.


NOTE: “A Bright New Boise” opens Friday, May 31, in the Dolores Winningstad Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, and continues through June 23. Ticket information is here.


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