animals and plants

Chris Murray, foreground, and Joe Bolenbaugh in "Animals and Plants"

By Devin McCarthy

Recently, I saw the show “Animals and Plants” by Adam Rapp at Coho Productions, a show that is by turns hilarious and strange (especially in the second act).

Chris Murray plays Burris, a man with far to much energy for the cramped motel room trying to contain him. Joe Bolenbaugh plays Dantley, Burris’ partner, who seems more comfortable  stretched out on the bed waiting for something to happen. The smart dialog between the two is one of the highlights of  Rapp’s script. As they talk, Burris works out, using nunchucks, a shake weight, and a thighmaster (among other things), either to release some of his pent up energy or  to prepare for the event to come — a little drug deal.

Burris and Dantley seem totally stuck in this place, until Burris leaves for a bit while Dantley sleeps. And when he awakes, in the second half of the play, he finds he’s been joined by Cassandra, played by Nikki Weaver, a woman with her own strange sensibilities and a homicidal boyfriend. The show asks its audience to take a bizarre and hilarious journey, cramped inside that shabby motel room, where words and images and stories are flying almost as fast as the blizzard outside the door.

After seeing the show, I wanted to find out more about the production. “Animals and Plants” was co-produced by CoHo Productions and Chris Murray (last year they also collaborated on a trimmed down adaptation of “Hamlet”). CoHo is a unique  production company that invites local theater artists to propose projects to co-produce. Co-producers are responsible for all the artistic and technical aspects of a show, while CoHo supplies the theater itself and administrative,  marketing and revenue support.

Murray is a Portland-based actor. He is a member of Actor’s Equity (the theater actors guild) and a company member of Third Rail Repertory Theatre. He has performed in theaters throughout Portland and won a Drammy Award in 2006 for his portrayal of Shane in Artist Repertory Theatre’s Take Me Out.  Murray acts professionally full-time (though he supplements his downtime by teaching theater to teens).

I sat down with him to talk about “Animals and Plants,” theater in Portland and how he finds working as an actor here.

You have worked as an actor all over Portland: Artist Repertory Theatre, Portland Center Stage, Profile and you are a company member at Third Rail. How is producing a show different from acting? What’s drawing you to producing rather than just acting in other people’s shows?

The reason that I am producing is because Portland is a small market. It is hard to be dependent on casting directors for my livelihood and for my artistic creativity. Basically, there are just not enough roles for me as a union guy in town (though I have been really fortunate to get a bunch). I think there comes a point in time when you just have to start taking matters into your own hands and making theater happen, as opposed to waiting for the phone to ring, because as an actor that is what if feels like a lot.


Kelly (Valerie Stevens) and Clay (Damon Kupper) in "The Pain and the Itch"/Owen Carey

On my way into Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s “The Pain and the Itch,” I ran into Third Rail member Michael O’Connell, manning the table outside the Winningstad Theatre. I mentioned that I was going to see “Animals and Plants” the next afternoon, knowing that O’Connell had directed the show for CoHo Productions.

O’Connell looked up and me and said that he’d be interested in what I had to say about it, that he’d gotten so close to the play in the process of directing it that maybe he’d lost sight of what it really was about. And then he suggested that I “buckle up” before seeing it.

I didn’t take what O’Connell said at face value. He’s a thoughtful guy, and I bet he has some very good ideas about what “Animals and Plants” is about. On the other hand, I know what it’s like to work hard on something, get to a stopping place and wonder, “what the heck was that all about?” And, because we are human and can entertain two separate, seemingly mutually exclusive descriptions of our inner thinking at the same time, I think it’s completely possible that both things were true: He both knew what the play was about and wondered what it was about at the same time!

After seeing “Animals and Plants,” I think I now know what he meant, though. What was that 95 minutes about, for goodness sakes?

Fortunately, I’d also seen “The Pain and the Itch,” about which I had similar thoughts. And oddly, when I rubbed the two plays together in my mind I caught the glimmer of an idea.

Both plays are about the powerful and the weak. The powerful are immoral and hypocritical. The weak are suckers, easily bullied and/or manipulated. And the powerful believe in the wisdom of W.C. Fields: “Never give a sucker an even break.”  They never do, at least in Adam Rapp’s “Animals and Plants” and Bruce Norris’s “The Pain and the Itch.” And maybe this uncomfortable way of looking at the world is a warning to us from the Great Depression.


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