A Small Fire

This month onstage: hypocrites, senior sex, other twice-told tales

Suddenly, Portland's stages are an echo chamber. But it's an INTERESTING echo chamber.

Say, is there an echo in here? And by “here,” I mean in Portland theater, specifically current/closing plays that I’ve recently seen: Portland Center Stage’s A Small Fire, Artists Rep’s The Motherfucker with the Hat, Post5’s Tartuffe and Spectravagasm, Shaking The Tree’s One Flea Spare, Defunkt’s Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom, and Triangle’s Next Fall.

David Bodin and Kayla Lian in "One Flea Spare." Photo: Shaking the Tree.

David Bodin and Kayla Lian in “One Flea Spare.” Photo: Shaking the Tree.

Staying well clear of cliché, these shows have been delving into a lot of relevant themes that you don’t see every day on the stage. And unless I need my eyes adjusted, I’ve been seeing double. Just for fun, with some (mostly) late-run spoilers, here’s a short list of motifs that recur at least twice:

Senior Sex

In at least two productions, One Flea Spare and A Small Fire, senior citizens climax on stage. (Seniorgasm?) In both instances, the late-life lovers have suffered a loss of sensation, and use sex to reconnect, which brings us to…

Sensory Deprivation

One Flea Spare, Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom, and A Small Fire each introduces us to a character who can’t feel like he/she used to. In Flea, the loss is due to scar tissue sustained in a fire. In Fire, a rare nerve disorder robs a character’s senses one at a time. (And, no, oddly enough, I didn’t get those titles crossed.) In Flowers, HIV meds hypersensitize a character’s skin to the point where he can’t stand to be touched.

Bible Bangers

These exaggerated characters have swooped into the current plays like a sweet chariot. In Tartuffe, they abound as the title character and his enablers. In Next Fall, they’re praying for the recovery of their openly Christian, secretly gay son. In Spectravagasm, they’re the subject of spoof, and in Hat, a different bible—the AA recovery one—stands in for the other good book. Which brings us to…


Tartuffe and Hat each shows us supposed right-living mentors who backstab their protegees. In Next Fall, there’s another twist: a religious zealot backstabs himself, alternately accepting beliefs that do not condone his lifestyle, and practicing a lifestyle that’s not supported by his beliefs.

Matthew Kern and Andrew Bray in "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom" at defunct. Photo: Heather Viera Keeling

Matthew Kern and Andrew Bray in “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” at defunct. Photo: Heather Viera Keeling

The Gay Community

Both Next Fall and Flowers center on committed long-term monogomous gay couples, and while Flowers hits a community hot button, HIV, Fall humanizes its pair with an everyman situation. Gay or straight, we can all be put down by a hard bump to the head.

Hispanic Bi

This is a great run for switch-hitters from south of the border. In both Hat and Flowers, we’re introduced to a discreet, half-closeted, het-married “Maricón.” In Flowers, a roguish shoe salesman warns his “blanquito” that he limits dalliances with men to “two times” to evade discovery by his pregnant wife. In Hat, the main character’s gay cousin is tired of being called effeminate and eager to show how tough he is (as tough as Van Damme, apparently) in a fight. But other than that, these characters are so similar they could almost trade plays.

Looking back, this has generally been a high-stakes, agony-and-ecstasy-filled fleet of dramas, with razor’s edges and gnashing teeth…and a few good laughs interspersed. It’s showed us challenging stuff—and then, just in case we missed it, showed it again.


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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Review: Lighting ‘A Small Fire’ at Portland Center Stage

Adam Bock creates an abrasive, funny, and tender modern riff on the tale of Job

Think of Emily Bridges as a modern-day Job, if instead of being a “perfect and an upright man,” Job were a hard-boozing, foul-talking, hard-hatted, exasperatingly impatient construction-company boss who’s so tough and abrasive her own daughter can barely stand to be in the same room with her. In Adam Bock’s play A Small Fire, just opened at Portland Center Stage, Emily’s all of that, and like Job, she suffers a series of rapid-fire plagues that come crashing down on her head. Well, unlike Job, who was spared personally while all of his treasures and the people around him were destroyed. Emily’s friends and family feel some of the pain, too, but the brunt of the damage falls squarely on Emily herself.

Lamb and Scott. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Lamb and Scott. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

At first that seems fitting, if a little overboard. After all, Emily’s an unpleasant person, a Type A in overdrive who’s unduly irritated by anything and anyone who gets in her way. But as the play progresses and some mysterious medical condition turns Emily into a bedridden isolationist  – like the famous monkeys, she sees, hears and speaks no evil, or anything else – a little sympathy begins to seep in; a little self-awareness, possibly, on the part of the audience: what if you were locked inside yourself, your mind working clearly but unable to communicate in any way other than a “yes” or “no” squeeze of the hand? Did Emily, like Job, do anything to deserve this? Is “deserving” even part of the equation?

 A Small Fire (the title refers to a mishap in the kitchen, a little thing near the opening of the play that signals disasters of much more moment to come) moves swiftly and compactly, a quick 80 minutes without intermission, and while it seems to spiral downward in that time it also ascends, or resolves: we arrive at a place of better understanding, which is also deeply mysterious and irresolvable. There are subtleties here, little turnings and revelations, and despite the horrible things that happen, a good deal of gentleness holds sway. In a way, Emily stands in for all of us, at least emotionally. Her losses reflect ones we’ve experienced ourselves, or ones we’ve stood around more or less helplessly and watched other people endure.


Interview: Adam Bock on ‘A Small Fire’

The playwright talks about work and play and brushing up for opening night

This weekend Portland Center Stage opens the contemporary play A Small Fire, wherein main character Emily Bridges, a tough-but-fair construction boss, faces sudden debilitation and must accept care from her taciturn husband and her resentful daughter. The rest of the show becomes an intimate exploration of infirmity, identity, and the senses.

In the preview phase, PCS ushered the show’s playwright, Adam Bock, into town from New York to surprise the cast and offer final notes. ArtsWatch sat down with Bock at the Armory to get a feel for his style and hear his take on the show’s big themes. As a bonus, Bock also shared his thoughts on director Rose Riordan, his personal experience that inspired the play, and exclusive news about PCS’s 2014-15 season. Welcome to our conversation.

Adam Bock headshot 960x742

The three plays I read in preparation to talk with you—The Receptionist, The Thugs, and of course the one we’re talking about, A Small Fire—all start in the workplace. Is that a preference for you, and if so, what’s the reason for it?

I think it is, sure. I avoid family stories because…then you’re stuck with a sofa, you know what I mean? It can be hard to make the world of the story bigger than the home. If you start there, it can get stuck in that place.

It seems odd to me that a lot of plays DON’T feature the workplace, considering the impact of work on our lives. I guess I can go ahead and say PCS is planning to do another of my plays, The Typographer’s Dream, next year, and in it I decided to say that the psychology of your job becomes your psyche. So the characters in the story are a typographer, a stenographer, and a geographer, and their issues correspond with their jobs. The typographer is caught between art and business; the stenographer can listen but can’t tell his own story; and the geographer has terrible boundaries, because she’s so aware that the lines are constantly shifting.

The workplace shows what roles we find ourselves in, and what happens when they break or change. Also, how we react if we suddenly find ourselves mismatched to our roles.


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