Northwest Children's Theater takes on a classic small-town drama with avant-garde touches

Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town' has become the classic high school drama society play, but Portland actor Tobias Andersen thinks it's been typecast.

Andersen, 66, plays the character of the Stage Manager in the upcoming Northwest Children's Theater production that opens Friday, April 4. The cast includes adults as well as children.

'People go, 'Oh, not that again, a bunch of high school kids with boot polish in their hair,' but if you haven't seen it done with professional, adult actors, something's missing from your life,' Andersen says.

The Stage Manager serves as the narrator, the link between the actors and the audience, and also acts out multiple parts during the play.

'It's Wilder's idea of the institution of the supreme being,' Andersen says. 'It's a glorious role.'

The play revolves around two families, the Webbs and the Gibbs, in Grover's Corners, an imaginary small town located in New Hampshire. Wilder's picture of the town, with its limited culture and economics, spans the early part of the 20th century, from 1901 to 1913.

So what can it offer to the overstimulated channel-surfers in the age of 'The Simpsons' and 'The Osbournes'?

''Our Town' is not just a touching look at what it is to be human, it's a demonstration of what we have lost,' Andersen says. 'I was born and raised in a small town in Oklahoma, with brick streets and a small school, where you could walk home at night with no fear. Eight-lane freeways were unknown when I was growing up.'

The other important factor is the play's language. 'It's extraordinarily economical,' he says. 'It rolls off the tongue because it's so logical and beautifully done. Performing in it is like playing a gorgeous piece of music. Live theater Ñ as I tell kids Ñ you can't get this on the Internet.'

'You don't do things to 'Our Town,' you leave it alone,' says John Monteverde, the director of the play. 'Writing in the late 1930s, Wilder was influenced by German deconstructionism, by writers such as Bertolt Brecht. So as the play progresses, we take away elements.'

The scenery and props gradually will be removed as the acts unfold, until there is nothing but actors on the bare stage. 'The play's about the beauty and magnificence of everyday life,' Monteverde says. 'Removing the artifice allows the actors more delicacy in their work.'

Monteverde deftly accentuates the play-within-a-play structure of 'Our Town.' The turn-of-the-century characters will wear costumes of that period, in the same earth tones as the theater is painted. The stagehands and characters planted in the audience will wear 1930s clothes in Yankee blue.

'It's interesting how American the play is, yet how much he (Wilder) experiments with European theatrical forms,' Monteverde says. 'He jumps all over in time and space and doesn't focus on the main characters until the second act.'

Despite all the avant-garde touches, the show is squarely aimed at families.

'The play's about universality. I wanted to remind people there are certain things that link us together today, that kids had the same problems with their parents and brothers and sisters a hundred years ago,' Monteverde says. 'Like today, Wilder wrote on the verge of war. It allows us to not see people as 'the other,' but to see them as us.'

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