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Theatre Review: 'The Pavilion'

Class of '86 shows skills beyond script
by: JIM CLARK, Valerie Stevens is Kari, and Damon Kupper plays the narrator as they navigate the emotional minefields of a high school reunion.

Portland's theater scene offers a good case study in what a talented cast can do for a playwright, and vice versa.

Profile Theatre is in splendid form with an inspired handling of Wendy Wasserstein's 'An American Daughter,' rising to the challenge of a truly great play. Artists Repertory Theatre, meanwhile, relies on its own vision and ingenuity to make Noah Haidle's tricky dark comedy, 'Mr. Marmalade,' succeed.

With Craig Wright's 'The Pavilion,' which opened last weekend, Third Rail Repertory Theatre presents another excellent - albeit small - cast. But here is a case where the performers may have been underserved by the playwright.

Wright, a brainy Minnesotan whose uneasy, post-9/11 comedy 'Recent Tragic Events' launched Third Rail two seasons ago, is back with a ruminative comedy-documentary that keeps one eye on the cosmos and the other on a small-town high school reunion.

An unhappy psychologist, Peter (Michael O'Connell), imagines he can resurrect himself by rescuing his old high school sweetheart, Kari (Valerie Stevens), from a loveless marriage.

Before the story can unfold, a narrator (Damon Kupper) asks the audience to consider the nature of time and what, if anything, an individual can do in the face of its inexorable tides.

The answer, of course, is nothing, and the audience suspects as much early on, when Kari makes clear her utter loathing for Peter, who left her alone and pregnant when he went off to college 20 years earlier.

Kari will soften in time, but too little and too late to make a real reunion of the former Cutest Couple possible. And frankly, the prospect of it isn't particularly exciting. Peter is a sad sack, too broken by his own mistakes to present a compelling way out for Kari. She, in turn, is too resigned to her fate to break free.

This landscape of scant possibility is the prerogative of the playwright, of course, but it strips the proceedings of dramatic tension. O'Connell and Stevens bring their usual command to the stage, but Wright never gives them, or the audience, any real hope that their characters are going anywhere.

Fortunately, Third Rail doesn't send the audience away empty-handed. With just a tiny stage and three actors, the company does a stunning job of conjuring the energy and human complexity of a large social gathering

Beyond excellent sound and lighting design, most of the credit for that feat goes to Kupper, who has been one of Third Rail's less-heralded members, appearing in only one of its first three productions.

His role in 'The Pavilion' is nothing short of a tour de force. As the narrator, he's like a more accessible Rod Serling, his laser-perfect delivery conveying unmistakable authority even as he feels as familiar and unthreatening as a neighbor.

But it's as an array of characters at the Class of '86 bash that he takes flight, moving seamlessly from the dorky reunion committee chairwoman to a weed-smoking local minister and through a variety of backslapping old boys and chattering Kari confidantes.

When Kupper is absent during a long stretch of the second act, there is a sense that the play has moved away from the audience, like something seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

Wright is not a lightweight. His plays brim with powerful notions, bright language and keenly observed characters. But 'The Pavilion' is worth seeing mostly for what Third Rail brings to the party.

The playwright's inattention to the core of the story feels like a screw-up by the caterer. He provides some genuinely tasty morsels, but scrimps a bit on the main course.

- Eric Bartels

8 p.m. FRIDAY and SATURDAY, 2 p.m. SUNDAY, 8 p.m. Thursday, through Nov. 18, Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N. Interstate Ave., 503-235-1101, www.thirdrailrep.org, $15-$24