Matt Zrebski

Strange days: It’s ‘Carnivora’ time

Preview: Matt Zrebski's new gothic horror play at Vertigo grapples with "a 21st-century ride that’s out of control"

Winter, as Portlanders have recently been reminded, can be home to strange and powerful forces, to elements as seductive as they are potentially deadly. So to find yourself, caked in blood yet with no clear memory of what’s happened, dumped in a burlap sack in a woodland clearing, in the middle of a hard winter, you might only imagine the kind of fears that would visit you, the creatures of myth and psyche that could stalk such vulnerable moments.

Such is the predicament of Lorraine, the protagonist of “Carnivora,” writer/director Matthew B. Zrebski’s new play for Theatre Vertigo, opening Friday night at the Shoebox Theatre. Beset by fantastical beasts, haunting illusions, and fragmentary memories, Lorraine undergoes a harrowing adventure to rediscover her past and her own terrible secret.

Swathed in lurid atmosphere, flecked with colorfully profane language, almost writhing with a twisting narrative structure that reflects Lorraine’s confused and conflicted state, it’s what Zrebski calls “a psychological horror-tragedy.” However, he’s quick to point out that “this isn’t a creaky old slasher play.”

“From a marketing perspective, I suspect it’s great to call it a horror play — I’ve been calling it my 21st-century ‘Scream.’ But I did not set out to write a horror play….Horrific elements have been used forever. But because of too much cheap cinema we’ve devalued the genre.”


Indeed, as Zrebski points out, his script draws as much from surrealism, magical realism and mythology as it does from the tension-ratcheting tropes of contemporary American horror. The story is set in the Ozarks, which allowed Zrebski to draw on family cultural roots in Northern Arkansas for what he calls the play’s “mountain gothic” style. At the same time, he’s no stranger to the genre. “You can’t really have a conversation with him that doesn’t touch on ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘American Horror Story,’” says Vertigo company member Nathan Dunkin.


OCT’s gray and brilliant ‘Giver’: it’s humans’ theater

The children's theater's revival of the dystopian Lois Lowry tale reverberates beyond its core audience's years

Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.

In the society that author Lois Lowry imagined for her novel The Giver, only one person at a time can carry any real emotional weight at all. Therefore that person has to carry all of it. For everyone.

That person – both fortunate and unfortunate, though perhaps in unequal measures – is known as the Receiver of Memory, and serves as a sort of walking data center of human experience and natural history. The Receiver learns  or in some mysterious way absorbs – the panoply of facts, sensations and emotions that have been tamped down since society’s leaders decided to adopt Sameness, a state of superficially cheerful, pervasively gray social, sexual and even environmental conformity.

Ostensibly, this allows the Receiver to be the source of wise advice. But really, no one wants to know.


Jonas (Tristan Comella) receives a memory from the Giver (Andrés Alcalá). Photo: Owen Carey

Jonas (Tristan Comella) receives a memory from the Giver (Andrés Alcalá). Photo: Owen Carey

Not surprisingly, this bland dystopia has its dark corners. And the latest Oregon Children’s Theatre production, assertively directed by Matt Zrebski, doesn’t shy away from them. It’s harrowing, in a quiet kind of way, without being heavy-handed, and has a clarity and poignancy that make it as rewarding for adults as for the middle-school crowd it’s mostly aimed at. (OCT recommends the show for children nine years or older.)

OCT first produced The Giver eight years ago, having convinced Lowry of the theater’s passion for the story and having commissioned a stage adaptation by Cleveland playwright Eric Coble, who’d previously written the company’s 2002 treatment of  Sacagawea.

That 2006 production earned OCT national attention as a place for new-play development, and the creative relationships with both Lowry and Coble have continued to bear fruit. OCT artistic director Stan Foote talked Lowry into writing her first play, a stage version of her novel Gossamer, which the company gave a luminous premiere in 2008. Coble (whose 2010 play The Velocity of Autumn is currently on Broadway) adapted Matt Phelan’s Dust Bowl graphic novel The Storm in the Barn for OCT a few years ago, then returned to the Lowry ouevre – and to the same fictional world as The Giver – a year ago with Gathering Blue.

The stories in the set of books that’s sometimes called The Giver Quartet (it also includes Messenger and Son) take place amid societies that have taken radically different approaches in a vaguely post-apocalyptic world. The community of Gathering Blue values story, expressiveness, color, yet is socially harsh and materially primitive. By contrast, Tal Sanders’ sleek, monochromatic scenic design for this production of The Giver could be a low-rent relative of Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis, and the life that our main character, a pre-teen named Jonas, knows is boringly comfortable, devoid of not just color but also variety and choice, joy and pain, excitement and danger.

It feels appropriate, then, that Zrebski seems to have opted for an intentionally stiff acting style, except for the two characters – the Receiver and the Giver – who come to realize that there could be more to the bloodless lives around them.

As a book, The Giver occasionally has stirred controversy; its tone and content are darker than some folks think a “children’s” story ought to be. Those folks, of course, are wrong. “That’s one of the joys of working with OCT,” says Coble. “The attitude is always, ‘If we can find artistic ways to move through those things and grapple with fears, let’s do that.’ And a lot of other theaters aren’t willing to do that.”

Part coming-of-age tale, part social commentary, part “thought experiment” (as Ursula LeGuin describes her speculative fiction), The Giver centers on Jonas and his friends reaching the age at which the elders assign them their lifetime work: birth mother, caregiver, assistant-director of recreation, fish-hatchery attendant, and so forth. Sensitive and introspective, Jonas (nicely realized by Wilson High junior Tristan Comella) gets a rare and mysterious honor, the job as Receiver of Memory. Apprenticed to the Giver, Jonas learns about aspects of human experience banished to the past (from love to war), as well as some of the disquieting accommodations made to maintain the current calm.

Andrés Alcalá as the Giver provides the full-spectrum performance this show needs at its center, showing us the sweetness in such simple pleasures as a memory of snowfall, yet also conveying the weariness and worry of someone carrying the burden of history’s accumulated horrors and humanities hurtful tendencies. That you have to take the bad with the good in life may not be the most surprising of insights, but there’s a deep poignance to Lowry’s stark presentation of the notion, and to the elegant simplicity of Zrebski’s staging – to which Sanders’ scenic and lighting designs and Jeff Kurihara’s video projections are essential.

This is the sort of show that OCT has excelled at in recent years, but has struggled to sell. The kiddie crowd that flocks to the likes of Pinkalicious isn’t quite ready for this, but OCT would like to draw more of the inquisitive middle-school audience. But even though the bulk of OCT’s work proves that “children’s theater” shouldn’t be considered a pejorative, the term doesn’t quite fit a production such as The Giver, anyway. Consider this humans’ theater.


Teens in heat: ‘Ablaze’ lights up the stage

Matthew Zrebski's musical thriller is like a YA novel in the flesh

Reaching for the light. Photo: David Kinder

Reaching for the light. Photo: David Kinder

“Ablaze” has been doing a slow burn since 2004, when playwright and director Matthew B. Zrebski began gathering ideas for a new show from students at Lincoln High School. “The idea was to create a high-tension, terrifying situation – and in doing so, to lift the veil from difficult subject matter,” Zrebski writes in his production notes for the play’s most recent and perhaps ultimate incarnation, which attaches the words “an a cappella musical thriller” below the title.

The subtitle isn’t kidding. Other than a bit of percussive sound here and there, the entire play is sung in pop-operatic style, without instrumental accompaniment, by 24 young performers. Everything’s either song or recitative, except for some short and welcome breaks of spoken dialogue from the four actors playing “The Watchers,” a sort of high-school Greek chorus that frets over the play’s frenetic action. The original production wasn’t a musical. “Ablaze” became one later on, in a further development workshop with students from Wilson High School (some of them are in the current cast). Now, after a run in last year’s Fertile Grounds new-works festival that generated a lot of buzz, it’s reached the stage of the Brunish Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, where Zrebski and the musical-theater production company Staged! have brought things to a spectacular boil. The kids in the cast – most are in high school; the oldest is a recent college grad ­– have the vocal chops, and they move like a single leaping flame through choreographer Jessica Wallenfel’s vivid and complex movement patterns. (The 12-member dance team, costumed in flame-like appendages, is referred to simply as “The Fire.”) Whatever you think of the music or plot, you might not see a more earnest and committed show all season.

But what’s “Ablaze” about? In the end, it seems more about a feeling, an intense group emotional passage, than anything particularly narrative, and that’s why turning it into an extended musical work makes good sense. “Ablaze” is more mood than story. A group of high-school kids is lured to the abandoned grounds of an old school, where somehow they’re trapped in the smoldering underground and held hostage for 19 days. Who’s holding them and watching them? Why? The answers burst out eventually, if a little confusingly, but they really aren’t the point. A little like the station in William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” the hidey hole in “Ablaze” exists mainly as a psychological and emotional testing ground for the people stuck there. If Inge’s sensitive American realism is amped up in “Ablaze” with a heavy dose of modern horror-movie paranoia – well, this is a play about teens and their hopes and fears, after all.

Watching and listening to this fresh-scrubbed production, it struck me that Zrebski has created a musical-theater version of a YA novel, and that could be a good thing: right now the young-adult market is the hottest thing on literary wheels. YA is where traditional kids-lit falls away and the urgent pump of estrogen and testosterone takes over. A lot of YA books read, almost literally, like a fever, and that’s what Zrebski’s injected into “Ablaze.” There’s the nominal thriller-mystery. Beyond that, there are urgent teen issues ranging from pregnancy to popularity to geekiness to being gay.

I’m not ordinarily a big fan of through-sung musicals – I prefer a little breathing space, and a little interplay between plot and music – but these days they’re the way of the musical-theater world. To my mind it’s a rare pop score that can manage the weight and sophistication that allows opera to be sung through successfully, and besides, good dialogue can provide both cleverness and insight to a play. Something gets lost when everything’s told through music, especially when overamplification so often drowns out the lyrics that are supposed to be telling the tale. Partly because there is no band, that’s not a problem in “Ablaze.” Zrebski’s lyrics can sometimes feel a little forced, as if they’re searching desperately for the right rhyme and not quite finding it, but they come across crisply and clearly, and in the main they do the job well. And his songs have a nice pop lyricism and a natural-sounding way with a hook: this is a legitimate musical-theater score. Musical director Eric Nordin has done an excellent job of keeping all of it focused and pushing forward.

It’s a little tough to pick standouts in what’s truly an ensemble show, but Christopher James as sensitive Saul, Jessica Tidd as tough Tess, Austin Mahar as Chaz, and Charlotte Karlsen as Cassie do a fair amount of burning. “Ablaze” isn’t really meant for me, and may or may not be meant for you, and that’s perfectly all right. It’s not a grown-up play: that is, it lacks subtlety and analytic detachment. But that can just as easily be an advantage for an audience looking to immerse itself in pure feeling. “Ablaze” obviously connects deeply – enthrallingly, on the evidence of the night I saw it – with its intended audience, which experienced something fresh and personal and appealing. I tip my geezerly hat to that.


  • “Ablaze” continues Thursdays-Sundays through May 5 in the Brunish Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 S.W. Broadway. Ticket information here.
  • Kaitie Todd’s review for Willamette Week is here.
  • Holly Johnson’s review for The Oregonian is here.


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