Maureen Porter

‘The Events’ review: the unanswered question

Third Rail’s production grapples with the causes of mass shootings

It happened again yesterday. Whenever it happens, and it happens almost literally every day in this country now, it’s always followed by the same question.


Scottish playwright David Greig began writing his play The Events, running through November 18 At Imago Theatre, in the wake of the horrific July 22, 2011 massacre of 77 children by a right wing white male (sound familiar?) in Utøya, Norway. The story has only become tragically more relevant. Since then, the world has experienced Sandy Hook, Orlando, Charleston, the bloody list goes on through Las Vegas and doubtless more before the year is out, and beyond. And the first question everyone asks is:


That’s the question Claire, the church choir director and minister who survives a fictional mass killing, keeps pursuing in The Events, too. In fact: that’s pretty much the whole play: Claire repeatedly asking that question, as her life disintegrates around her in the months after the killing spree perpetrated at choir practice by a teenager called only The Boy. ”How can I hate him,” Claire tells her counselor, “if I don’t understand him?

Porter and Gibson in Third Rail’s ‘The Events.’ Photo: Owen Carey.

Greig uses Claire as other plays and movies use journalists or detectives: as a stand in for audience, a character charged with asking questions. And, whether motivated by PTSD, survivor guilt, or her deteriorating relationship with her partner, ask them she does. Over the course of 90 minutes (no intermission) in this production by Portland’s Third Rail Repertory Theatre, Claire (played by Third Rail stalwart Maureen Porter) obsessively seeks her answer from a variety of sources: a psychologist (including one counseling her), a journalist, a politician, an anthropologist, the killer’s father, and finally comes face to face with the instigator of the events himself. They’re all played by the same actor, Joseph Gibson, implicitly showing how the killer’s image occupies her whole life. To all of them, she poses the same question:


Along the way, Claire flirts with as many solutions: mysticism, religion, vengeance, suicide, sometimes briefly positing alternative timelines that might have eventuated had the various causes identified by all these experts been addressed in time.

Spoiler: neither Claire nor the audience find The Answer to that much-repeated question of why mass killers kill in The Events, which suffers from its sacrifice of character depth for topical breadth. But it does answer an equally important one.


Half a bright life: an unfinished tale

The time-fracturing final show in Profile's Tanya Barfield season gets to something powerful and true, and feels like half the story

You could almost consider it a cliche of the contemporary craft of narrative: Every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.

In Kim Rosenstock’s musical Fly by Night, which was given a sparkling production last month at Broadway Rose, time is a plaything, tossed about deftly by a narrator guiding us along the dramatic switchbacks of a year in the lives of three young lovers. But that’s kids’ stuff compared to the chronological legerdemain that Portland native Tanya Barfield gets up to in Bright Half Life, the closing play in Profile Theater’s Barfield-focused 2016 season. Events in the decades-long relationship between Vicky and Erica come at us not in standard forward-motion sequence, not in the reverse-engineered epiphanies of flashbacks, not even in discrete stand-alone scenes. Instead we get a splattering of small moments, an almost free-associative memory tour, as the action ricochets around the years, striking a different point of connection or conflict seemingly every other minute.

DeGroat and Porter: tale as old as (fractured) time. Photo courtesy Profile Theatre

DeGroat and Porter: tale as old as (fractured) time. Photo: David Kinder

The view of coupledom and its inner workings that results is somewhere between prismatic and scattershot, its success dependent in part on how much you relate to the characters and their particular emotional travails, in part on how well you can connect the thematic dots so widely and loosely dispersed.


Electric talk talk talk

Enda Walsh's "The New Electric Ballroom" at Third Rail Rep is a tall tale sailing on a torrent of language

Less than a minute into the opening speech of Enda Walsh’s sort-of comedy The New Electric Ballroom at Third Rail Rep I tucked my pen back into my pocket and gave up on the idea of taking notes: no way could I keep up with this thundering waterfall of words. “By their nature people are talkers,” says the spinster Breda, and talk talk talk they do, phrases tumbling and shooting and skipping and flying until your ears give up and run behind your back to hide. The gift of gab, the Irish call it, though at times you wonder – and I suspect Walsh does, too – if the gift isn’t just as much a curse.

The thing is, everybody talks in Electric Ballroom, but nobody talks with. It’s pretty much all speeches, ingrown toenail sorts of rants, in choreographed turns, and it takes a while to figure out who the choreographer is. At first you think it’s the youngest of the three sisters, Ada (Maureen Porter), who seems to be barking out odd orders like a stage manager under duress. You’re pretty sure it’s not Clara (Diana Kondrat), who speaks in elliptical staccato bursts, and is also the announcer of the obvious: “There’s a lull in the conversation,” she chirps at several pregnant pauses in the verbal onslaught, after some barb or another has landed a little too deep. Eventually the caller of the shots appears to be Breda (Lorraine Bahr), the one with the wicked past, at least in these cloistered and ritually embalmed sisters’ minds. But the truth is, not a one of ’em’s actually participated in life enough to have done anything wicked at all, except in their imaginations, which they use to turn on those torrents of language that become a sort of virtual reality, a made-up life that becomes the only life they really have. Sad’s the word for it, and it’s a word that’s short and not so sweet.

Kondrat (left) with Bahr and Porter: the three sisters. Photo: Owen Carey

Kondrat (left) with Bahr and Porter: the three sisters. Photo: Owen Carey

Walsh is, of course, Irish (Third Rail also produced his play Penelope a few seasons back, which was directed, as Electric Ballroom is, by Philip Cuomo), and this contemporary play takes place in some isolated Irish village, a place with cliffs and docks and a seafood cannery, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and secrets are both open and long-lasting, sometimes for generations. It’s enough to make any escapee from the boonies to a bigger city shudder at the memory, although if you’ve read any of Tana French’s psychological crime novels set on the narrow-minded streets of Dublin, you might also wonder if the difference is all that big.


“Or,” what? a comedy of opposites

Third Rail leaps into Liz Duffy Adams' quizzical neo-Restoration comedy, ricocheting between eithers and ors

Or, the Liz Duffy Adams play that opens Third Rail Repertory’s season, makes good on a promise included in a prologue, delivered here by the ever-engaging Maureen Porter as she enters from the back of the house at Imago Theatre. The brief speech serves to acclimate us to the heightened yet playful language of the play, as well as to hint at the method to Adams’ stylistic madness. The idea, we’re told, is to “ricochet between a dense array of opposites.”

Or you might call it a mash-up. Take an intriguing historical figure — 17th-century poet, playwright and spy Aphra Behn, noted as Britain’s first female professional writer — whip up some suspenseful plot points suggested by a sketchy biography and a tumultuous era, fold in some door-slamming farce, and wrap it all in the frisky wit of Restoration comedy. The combination plays to several of the various strengths that Third Rail has demonstrated over the years, for the thoughtful and the madcap, the silly and sublime, the sociologically resonant and the fancifully theatrical…

Maureen Porter as playwright, spy, and al-around quizzical kid. Photo: Owen Carey

Maureen Porter as playwright, spy, and al-around quizzical kid. Photo: Owen Carey

Or, — the comma purposefully included — is a fitting title. On one level, it’s a pithy snippet from the windy, wishy-washy titles common to Restoration-era plays, their alternative interpretive options hinged by that conjunction. More meaningfully, it alludes to the plethora of possibilities opening up in Aphra’s world. Should she be spy or writer? Kept woman or commissioned artist? Will she love men or women? Will she be rebel or loyalist? And are those she meets what they seem to be, or do words, wardrobes and even histories deceive? Considering the subject, who biographer Janet Todd described as “not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks,” the abundance of questions seems appropriate.

“Ors divide less than they subtly link,” asserts that aforementioned prologue. “We all embody opposites within.” And so Adams doesn’t explore choices so much as she establishes the unity of opposites, as alternatives and deceptions and intentions all turn themselves inside out, to serendipitous effect.

Or she could just be trying to show audiences a good time. The majority of the narrative centers on a single night, in which Behn juggles a budding relationship with a young actress, the amorous interests of King Charles II, and the sudden reappearance of a former lover who may or may not be involved in a Catholic plot to kill Charles, all while trying to meet a dawn deadline to finish a play she fervently hopes will launch a path-breaking career. As directed by Philip Cuomo, the action is brisk without ever feeling unduly frantic, aided by the efficiency of Behn’s rustic plank-floor lodging in Kristeen Crosser’s scenic design and the apparently protean quality of Jessica Bobillot’s costuming. And Portland theater has few pleasures as reliable as Maureen Porter in a lead role; she imbues Behn with an unforced elegance and charm, a silky-strong determination, and a social agility that would serve anyone well in either espionage or theater. Whenever Behn has a choice to make, a balance to strike between competing desires and demands, the glint in Porter’s eyes makes tactical calculation look like the sweetest of human impulses.

Or you might think that Porter doesn’t wind up as the star after all, as one audience member suggested during a post-show discussion last weekend. It’s not (as he seemed to think) that King Charles takes over, narratively or thematically; Behn writes Charles as a rather benign monarch, more a sensualist than a power monger. William Scot, Behn’s back-from-the-dead ex-lover, is a schemer, but a has-been. And Lady Davenant, whose company offers Behn the theatrical opportunity she craves, doesn’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise but only makes a cameo. Yet Damon Kupper embodies all those roles  — especially the matronly motormouth Davenant — with such relish, while never really hamming it up, that he does wind up the show’s most memorable performer.

Newman, Porter, Kupper: Ors come in threes. Photo: Owen Carey

Newman, Porter, Kupper: Ors come in threes. Photo: Owen Carey

Or you could make a case for Amy Newman as the most arresting changeling here. She appears as bearded, gnome-like jailer, and a slightly bow-backed servant woman with a put-upon air, but shines especially as Nell Gwynne, a young woman who dresses like a boy, talks with a cheeky, slangy wit and displays a sexual frankness that underlines Adams’ implicit comparison of the post-Puritan-repression 1660s with the swingin’ 1960s. Porter’s serene surefootedness is essential to ground the enterprise, but it’s the gender-and-costume shape-shifting by Newman and Kupper that provide this production its comedic zip.

Or, to take another view I can support nearly as much, does all the mad dashing in and out of doors add to the ideas Adams is working with, or does it just distract from them? At times it seems just an excuse to do the play with such a small cast, rather than something intrinsic to the material, and it calls extra attention to the manufacture of the entertainment in progress — which, along with a sprinkling of self-referential theater jokes, feels gratuitous. Furthermore, the sense of pure momentum the farcical elements engender actually saps some of the necessary tension from the predicaments the story presents. There’s that plot against the king, but never a sense of mounting danger or any danger at all, really. Behn is suddenly saddled with that ultra-tight deadline, yet there’s no tick-tock anxiety built up around it.

Ors — or at least Or, — not only subtly link but slightly muddle. And the balancing and blending of the heady and the headlong leaves this feeling less substantial than it might have been, though I’m inclined to think that’s due to the writing more than the production itself.

Or maybe I just need to see it again and keep unifying those opposites.


Or, continues through October 10 by Third Rail Rep at its new home space in Imago Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.


Third Rail crosses the river

The Portland theater company moves to the east side and changes its business model

I met Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s Scott Yarbrough and Maureen Porter outside Third Rail’s new home at Imago Theater, a half-block south of East Burnside on Southeast Eighth. If you’re new to the city, that’s a far cry and a river crossing away from their former home in the Winningstad Theatre downtown, even though lower Burnside has spiffed up a lot in the past ten years or so.

Anyway, they led me into the familiar, friendly confines of Imago, where Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad concoct peculiarly engaging theater on a regular basis. Instead of going to their new office space, though, they took me into the theater proper. Good gravy! New seats!

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail's "Static"/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail’s “Static”/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

As much as I enjoy my frequent visits to Imago Theatre, the old chairs with the separate cushions attached to the seats haven’t been part of the thrill. Their replacements are of very recent vintage, pulled from a Seattle area Bollywood movie theater that lost its lease, trucked down to Portland and installed over a very long day and night, by Third Rail with some help from Imago. Hey, we now we have both a very comfortable chair AND a spot for one of those gigantic cups of Sprite you get at the movies.

Yarbrough and Porter knew they had me at the seats, but then they explained the thinking behind the two major changes Third Rail made this summer—moving to Imago and launching something they call a membership program—and it all made good sense. It still does a day later, which perhaps means the new creature comforts at Imago aren’t totally responsible for the judgment.


To understand the gravity of the move from the Winningstad Theatre to Imago, a little, condensed Third Rail Rep history may be in order.

John Steinkamp takes aim on Tim True in "The Lonesome West"/Owen Carey

John Steinkamp takes aim on Tim True in “The Lonesome West”/Owen Carey

The company’s first production was at little CoHo Theatre in 2005, and it was a hit—Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events, which won a barrelfull of Drammy Awards and glowing reviews. It’s third was another big hit, Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West,” bitter, dark, mordantly comic. That production won three major Drammy Awards—best production, best actor for Tim True’s performance, and best director for the company’s producing artistic director, Yarbrough, and set the stage for the company’s first full season in the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center (now the the home of Ethos) on North Interstate.

The company’s onstage “brand” was set by those early triumphs: theater that was literate, contemporary and darkly comic, sharply designed by and cast from an excellent permanent company of theater artists. The permanent company distinguished Third Rail, too. It was large and included some of the city’s best actors and designers. More than that, the company of actors and designers also performed the company’s administrative tasks, from box office to public relations to grant writing. That meant a huge chunk of the company’s revenue went directly to the artists in the company, a model that continues today.

The company developed a solid core of theater fans and continued to produce hits from unlikely theater properties. It quickly outgrew IFCC and moved downtown to the World Trade Center’s theater and kept filling the house and growing. After three years, Third Rail made the leap to the Winningstad Theatre in the performing arts center, figuring the enhanced visibility would balance out the increased expense. The company was definitely punching above its weight: Its budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, the latest available on GuideStar, was around $660,000 and its revenue was $580,000. The older, more established Artists Repertory Theatre, which staged shows in its own two-theater complex and was roughly comparable in terms of artistic ambition, had a budget of more than $2.7 million that same year (and a comparable deficit of around $348,000), again according to GuideStar.


The Winningstad move didn’t work out. A year ago after a production of another McDonough play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the company decided to look for a new home after the 2014-15 season. The production just hadn’t generated the kind of heat with audiences that Third Rail wanted.

“We just got lost there,” Porter said about the Winningstad as we talked on the comfy seats at Imago. “Our patrons felt like they lost us.”

Jayne Taini in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane"/Photo by Owen Carey

Jayne Taini in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”/Photo by Owen Carey

There were two major problems. The company’s activities—mainstage productions, rehearsal space, smaller-scale shows, its National Theater Live high-definition video presentations, offices—were in different locations, which increased expenses and fractured the sense of “company” that was critical to Third Rail’s success, according to Yarbrough. And somehow the audiences didn’t connect as strongly with the shows, the actors or the company in the new space. My own guess: In the Winningstad, the shows seemed more remote, more like “entertainment commodities,” where the contract with the audience was simply to show up, sit still, watch, and depart. The Winningstad didn’t communicate the company’s communitarian values, and it didn’t create the sense of community with audience members that it had in the past.

So, the company found willing partners in Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad at Imago Theatre, a likely spot to nurture the more experimental side of Third Rail, given the kind of edgy theater Triffle and Mouawad generate. We got a taste of what a Third Rail at Imago might look like onstage in late spring when the company produced Dan Rebellato’s Static there, a very challenging show to produce in many ways, both technical and actorly, and the results were stunning. Imago’s also capacious enough to corral most of Third Rail’s activities under one roof, and in the little lobby audience and Third Rail actors will mingle together closely.


The move across the river to Imago isn’t the only change, and as big as that is, another idea might be even bigger: The membership.

Like most larger theater companies, Third Rail spent a lot of its time and money chasing subscribers—people who bought tickets for the entire season of Third Rail shows. In recent years, that’s gotten harder and harder, not just at Third Rail but at most performing arts companies. A lot of things factor into this struggle, demographic and economic changes among them. But the culture is changing, too. We are becoming “when I want it” consumers (see: Netflix, et al.), and theater is more of a “when we put it on” kind of experience.

The subscription model locks you into a particular date to see a show months in advance. You can change it, sure, but that requires some number of clicks or phone calls to rearrange, and then what if you’re just too tired to go out on the night you’ve rearranged to go out? There’s no getting around that to a certain extent, but Third Rail had an idea.

“Why not do something bold and innovative and true to who you are?” Porter asked, somewhat rhetorically. “That will get us excited about doing what we do?”

So, the company is experimenting with the membership idea. You can still get a traditional subscription, of course, but you can also become a member and see a show whenever you want (assuming a seat is available for that performance, you can call ahead to reserve a seat just to make sure), and your non-membership friend can get a discount at the same time. But not only that: You can also attend the National Theater Live shows (Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Hamlet”!), open rehearsals, lectures and panels in the Salon Series, showcases for the mentorship company, new play readings, parties, and Wild Card productions, using the same membership card. Some of those are ONLY for members, too, though often you’ll be among paying customers.

You’ll be paying, too, of course—$29.33 a month. But you can go to as many events as you want with your card. So, if you like the production of Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, which opens September 18, you can see it again. And again. And again. Until it closes. Ditto the rest of the plays

I went to the August Wild Card production of The Bylines, the song-writing duo of Marianna Thielen and Reece Marshburn, augmented here by a fine horn and rhythm section, two dancers, and members of the Third Rail company. At one point Thielen asked how many in the audience were members and a solid number of hands popped up. Third Rail’s goal for the year is 125 members, and Yarbrough said 123 had already signed up, so the experiment is off to a good start.

The company members are curating the membership offerings, and the success of the program will depend on their acuity at matching events to the audience. That will rely in large measure on how much they mix with the members and get a sense of what they like and need. Stand-up comedy? A jazz series? An art crawl that wanders over to the nearby studios of the Northwest Dance Project after a stop at Burnside Brewing? A late-night experimental movie series? That last one came courtesy of Imago’s Mouawad, a fount of interesting ideas—I for one would love to see a set of movies that he curated.

“We want to create a community of people with lots of options,” Porter said. “We don’t want to stick with the status quo.” And later, she added, “We want to put our revenue into work, not branding.”

That’s what makes sense to me. Even very large theater companies have a hard time projecting their brands into the cultural wind storm, where the arts are promptly sheared off by far richer and far more prevalent commercial interests. When it comes to projecting a brand, Third Rail will never be able to beat Nike or Coke. Its marketing budget will never be sufficient to compete in that sphere. So it has to find another route, offer something new, help its prospective community members find what they need at Third Rail.

Stay tuned; we’ll be tracking how it pans out.

Read more by Barry Johnson.

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Third Rail: The ghost in the ‘Static’

Third Rail Rep takes on a rock-infused play full of signs

My first thoughts about Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s production of Dan Rebellato’s Static involved the technical aspects of the show. How many sound cues this rock’n’roll drenched play must have, for example. And then after a bit, a bit of wonderment at how adept the four actors in Static had become at American Sign Language, signing and talking, sometimes at the same time and sometimes not. How did they keep all that straight?

So, right, my response began in admiration, but then it morphed to something else—affection. A lot of that was technical, too, I suppose. The craft of Reballato’s play, director Scott Yarbrough’s integration of its elements, including Kaye Blankenship’s stunning abstract set and Jennifer Lin’s deft lighting design, and the skill of the actors. But if there’s magic in theater, it happens when skill turns into something deeper. That happened to me during the Sunday matinee of Static.


Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail's "Static"/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail’s “Static”/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Rebellato is a London playwright and academic (he is the theater department chair at Royal Holloway, University of London), and he writes for the Guardian’s theater blog. He developed Static in collaboration with Graeae, a company that champions experiences and opportunities for deaf and disabled audiences and practitioners, according to director Yarbrough, so signing was fully integrated into the show. Rebellato gave Third Rail permission to craft how signing and spoken language were balanced and presented in this production, but it had “to honor a primary goal of the play: that all members of the audience would not have access to all the information communicated in the play,” Yarbrough said.

Static, then, as the title implies, is a play at least partly about communication or the lack thereof, how we try to translate the enigmatic messages we receive, solve the problems they pose. At the heart of the play is a mixed tape discovered among Chris’s possessions soon after Chris has died, addressed to his wife Sarah, a pretty random compilation of songs dating back to the ’60s, some ridiculous and some sublime, with no apparent unifying theme or point. How can she and Chris’s rock journalist buddy Martin make sense of it? It even includes country songs, for crying out loud, and Chris was no fan of country.

Kelly Godell comforts Maureen Porter as Rolland Walsh looks on in  "Static"/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Kelly Godell comforts Maureen Porter as Rolland Walsh looks on in “Static”/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Even after Martin has given up on the project, Sarah continues with it, a testament to how deeply she loved Chris, maybe, to make sense of this last “message.” So where does the sign language come in? Well, Chris had become deaf after a car accident, though his love of rock music abided. Chris was deaf when he compiled the tape (and it IS a tape: Chris and Martin are confirmed anti-digital guys), and we see him in frequent flashbacks that go back before he became deaf as well as inhabiting his new state, which he adjusted to quite well, it turns out.

In her deep grief, Sarah focuses on the static left at the end of the tape. Can you hear that? Isn’t he saying something? The static, like a cloud, must contain signs she can decipher. Martin, dubious, brings over a bunch of recording gear so she can examine the tape more minutely. She senses Chris in the tape, feels him near her. Which actually makes sense to us in the audience, because we see him, too, hovering around Sarah and Martin, and then in the flashbacks. The other character in the play, Chris’s sister Julia, is so distraught she can’t hear anything, doesn’t want to talk to anyone, and seems to be determined to evict Sarah from her apartment. Yes, Static is about grief, too.

Is it also about the supernatural? How seriously are we supposed to take the specter of Chris? I guess I choose to make this ghost a symbol—of decoding the message, of understanding.


At the beginning, I used the word “affection.” And this comes from the characters and the actors animating them. Rolland Walsh makes an irrepressible, even madcap Chris, the sort of fellow who injects every situation and conversation with life and surprise. Maureen Porter plunges into Sarah’s sadness and then her determination to complete the translation of what she believes are Chris’s last words with equal commitment and good heartedness. Sam Dinkowitz’s Martin manages to be more than a sidekick for rockstar Chris, more amiable and concerned on one hand and then more adamant in his rants about rock, and because rock to this crew is everything, life itself. Julia as a character is harder to take, primarily because we don’t see her attempts to accommodate to the loss of a beloved brother, but Kelly Godell convinces us of just how corrosive her grief must be.

Through the flashbacks, through the signed sequences without verbal translation, through the static (sometimes closer to white noise), the actors pull us along, maybe because we are confident that they (and the playwright) are searching for something we all search for. Consolation. Understanding. The good memories. I never felt that Static was going to drop me on my head, so I was fine with not knowing everything that was going on or being said, a common condition in life, after all. No, make that a constant condition in life.

Finally, although my own taste in music has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, I loved the pop songs that infuse Static with energy and vitality and, yes, meaning. We do tend to think that certain songs weren’t written exactly for us for exactly this moment or we try to squeeze some additional significance out of a song we like. It just so happens that Third Rail has compiled a YouTube set of the songs in Chris’s compilation tape, so you can give a listen if you like. Lots of other songs pop up during the play; many I knew, and the rest I was happy to hear.

And the inherent contradiction in Static, a play so set on communicating with deaf audiences that contains so much music, is resolved in the same way that Walsh, the deaf rock critic, solves it—with energy and passion.

SPOILER ALERT: In my favorite moment of Static, the “ghost” of Chris encounters Sarah’s audio equipment, which includes a big microphone. As I said, she was desperate to hear what she thought Chris was telling her in that last tape. Chris approaches the microphone…and starts signing “into” it. Just the perfect gesture on so many levels.

Bedraggled, grubby, and beautiful

Third Rail's 'Beauty Queen of Leenane' revels in McDonagh's great, grim humor

When first we hear the phrase “the beauty queen of Leenane” in Martin McDonagh’s mid-1990s play of that name, the moment is rich with irony and ambiguity. By this point we’ve spent some time with Maureen, seen how trapped she is in a bitterly dysfunctional relationship with her mother, how bedraggled she is by her thankless toil and loveless life, how she yearns for some romantic completion beyond the mere few kisses she’s had in her 40 years.

But then there is Pato Dooley, in her kitchen late one night, joshing and flirting, making his intentions clear.

Trying to explain why he’d never before shown an interest in her, Pato says he’d always thought who was he to approach “the beauty queen of Leenane.”

At this point in the grubby-looking but brilliantly executed Third Rail Rep production that opened last Friday in the Winningstad Theatre, actress Maureen Porter’s face registers a perfect mixture of surprise, pleasure, disbelief, caution and suspicion. Is he being facetious and mean? Or is he the answer to a life of pain and longing?

Kupper and Porter: a surprise romance. Photo: Owen Carey

Kupper and Porter: a surprise romance. Photo: Owen Carey

Neither, as it turns out. Pato is sincere, seeking a salve to his own loneliness. But, unsurprisingly, this fledgling romance faces an impediment.


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