‘Marilyn Monroe vs. Vampires’: Alien nation

Liminal Group's inventive production of R.W. Fassbinder's satirical play uses video to make humans the aliens

They’re all around us. The butcher, the cop, the wife, the mistress, the lover, the rest. All  with their insecurities, their manipulations, their schemes, their betrayals, their hopes, their fears. If you could see and hear them whining, plotting, hoping, even killing… why, it’d be enough to drive someone crazy. Especially if that someone is a visitor from another planet whose first exposure to human beings puts her in the midst of all of the above. You know, an alien like The Man Who Fell to Earth, or Starman, or Ziggy Stardust, or another 1970s character, Phoebe Zeitgeist, an alien sent to our planet to investigate how our society works — still a tough task, as last month’s election revealed.

Liminal Group’s ‘Marilyn Monroe vs. Vampires’ runs through Sunday at Portland’s Disjecta gallery. Photo: Sumi Wu.

Phoebe is the central figure in the famed German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s satirical 1972 play, Marilyn Monroe versus the Vampires, which Portland’s most inventive and, let’s just say it, wonderfully weird theater ensemble, Liminal Group, has adapted into a “360º immersive sci-fi video opera” that runs this weekend at Portland’s Disjecta gallery. Like every Liminal show, it’s a performance experience like no other, and one you won’t forget.

That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily enjoy or even understand every moment, however. At Monday’s preview performance, the company was still making final adjustments its novel presentation based on the invited audience’s reaction — that’s how unconventional it is. Even more than most shows, this one really needs to be put on stage (even if the stage is really just an open space where characters, audience members, actors, and camera operators mingle) for its perpetrators to see how it’s working. By the time a paying audience sees it this weekend, some deficiencies will no doubt have been addressed.

Some stem from the sheer unprecedented nature of Liminal’s original approach, but most are due to Marilyn’s internal contradictions: it’s mostly a film that takes place in a theatrical setting, made by a theater artist who was becoming an acclaimed filmmaker. Although he ran a Munich theater company and wrote two dozen plays in his short life, Fassbinder also created 40 films. And while the latter, especially the early ones made in the years leading up to his creation of Marilyn retain a theatrical feel, Liminal’s  production reveals his essential sensibility to be a filmmaker’s, his point of view a camera’s eye. While Fassbinder’s subsequent films would grow generally less theatrical, more cinematic, Marilyn (confusingly also known and sometimes staged as Blood on a Cat’s Neck and as Phoebe Zeitgeist) emerged right at that inflection point, so its combination of stage and screen sometimes feels awkward.

Even so, Liminal’s resourceful production, directed by John Berendzen (who also composed the music), often manages to achieve the advantages of both media. Marilyn fascinates, not so much because of Fassbinder’s kooky black comic story, barely fleshed out in Liminal’s realization, but because of how the company has staged (if that’s the word) it.

Unfortunately, I can’t go into much detail here without spoiling some of what makes it worth seeing, since so much is about the presentation. If you want the full thrill of discovery, I advise you to stop reading right here and just buy your ticket already — you won’t regret it.

It doesn’t give away too much to say that the show is divided into three segments, the first taking place in the lobby and involving characters’ monologues. The second, an overextended series of duets, happens inside the performance space, and the third plunges you into the midst of the worst party you’ve ever attended.

“Immersive” accurately describes the experience of Marilyn. The action takes place not onstage, but projected on the four walls (actually screens) surrounding the audience members, who are free to sit or stand or wander the space as images of actors (who are being filmed in real time on the other side of the screens) converse onscreen around them. So they are actually all around us, and yet we don’t see them in person, only their on-screen images. You’ll enjoy how director and media designer Berendzen even draws laughs by slyly scooting the images around the theater.

Carissa Burkett, Danielle Ross, Evan Corcoran, Eleanor Johnson (bottom), Wayne Haythorn. Photo: Sumi Wu.

We do see several crucial players in person. Phoebe, the titular vampire, sung by Carissa Burkett, watches the onscreen action, and chants, in a lovely soprano, some lines from the dialogues after the actors say them, as though she’s trying to make sense of what they’re doing. Camera operators also move throughout the space, but instead of filming the audience, they’re actually projecting onto the surrounding screens the video imagery that’s being filmed simultaneously on the other side of the space.

It may sound complex, even gimmicky, but the contrivance actually works smoothly, even brilliantly — a tribute to Liminal’s ingenious staging and deft camera work. After the initial dislocation, even though you’re surrounded by the characters in the story, you feel like the voyeur, watching each character pair off in turn with one of the others in brief dialogues that reveal their desires, needs, flaws — their humanity, in all its messy failure to live up to our ideals.

In that whirling third act party, camera and audience assume Phoebe’s point of view as she shifts from observer to participant. What happens next doesn’t really add up, but it brings the strange ride to an jolting end.

The journey isn’t an entirely smooth one. Fassbinder’s ploddingly paced second-act insistence on showing practically every combination of two actors in dialogue seems to make more algorithmic than dramatic sense; several could be trimmed. The marginal additions to our understanding of these superficially sketched characters aren’t worth the loss of momentum. The acting is at best uneven, with the ten-member cast drawn from a wide range backgrounds including dance (Linda Austin, Danielle Ross), comedy (Alex Reagan), music and more, and ranging up to accomplished theater veterans like the always compelling Todd Van Voris. Putting live actors on film, with close-ups, requires a different kind of performance than typical stage acting — yet it’s still a play, not a film. Not all cast members are able to reconcile those conflicting demands.

Granted, these characters aren’t meant to be fully realized or realistic, since the alien visitor viewing them can’t really gain a fully rounded perspective on them. As their generic names (“The Cop,” “The Mistress”) suggest, they’re archetypes who reflect mostly human weaknesses, and it’s hard to care much about them. In a way, the real stars are the camera operators and director.

But empathy isn’t really what this kind of satire is all about anyway. Marilyn vs. the Vampires focuses instead on our ultimate strangeness, not our similarities. Fassbinder, a consummate if prodigious outsider who died at 37 in 1982, was trying to show us ourselves from the outside, something that’s almost impossible for most of us, since we’re all participants in the human comedy. However inexplicable, human behavior is what Phoebe has come to study, and by forcing the audience into her alien point of view, Liminal’s illuminating production makes the projected humans, which she and we are seeing in only two dimensions, feel far more alien than they would from the safe distance of seats facing a stage.

They’re all around us. And more than most conventional theater, Liminal’s flawed but fascinating production succeeds in bestowing on us that rare gift: to see ourselves as others see us. Even if we don’t like a lot of what we see.

Liminal Group’s Marilyn Monroe vs. Vampires runs through Sunday, December 11 at Disjecta Gallery, 8371 N Interstate Ave. Portland. Performances Friday, December 9 at 7:30 & 9:30, Saturday, December 10 at 7:30 & 9:30, and Sunday, December 11 at 5:30 & 7:30. Tickets available online. Info: 503 567 8309.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: substance abuse, sexuality, semiotics, societal complacency, firearms, fetishes, structuralism, choking, privileged classes behaving badly, suicide, Hegel.

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