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Portland's Production of Durang Show Finds Humor In Sensitive Material

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Regional theatre

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I was very disappointed at Portland's Defunkt Theatre. Oh not because of their shows...but I am so used to an 8pm curtain time that when I went to a show there the other night, I thought I was early so I enjoyed a coffee and a cookie in the lobby just waiting for it to get closer to 8pm.

Dope. Me. Dope. Defunkt's curtain is at 7:30pm. So I just bet that the show "Fewer Emergencies" by Martin Crimp was wonderful - even though I didn't go in late.

Fortunately, in honor of gay pride, the Defunkt is showcasing plays in repertory and "Fewer" plays in conjunction with Christopher Durang's "Betty's Summer Vacation," which plays on Saturdays.

Durang, who won a Tony Award last year for "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," wrote "Betty" in the late 1990s and it is not one of his most produced plays.

Betty is the only normal person to share a home in the beach summer community. Everyone else we soon learn is crazy. It takes an intelligent writer like Durang to be able to use humor in a story that deals with child sexual abuse, rape, murder and indecent exposure. And it takes a theatre company like Defunkt to be able to take these sensitive topics and get the audience to embrace them yet still being uncomfortable. It is a fine line between laughter and disgust and the cast of "Betty" balances perfectly on the edge.

The summer home is owned by Mrs. Sizemagraff, expertly played by Jane Bement Geesman. Her upbeat delivery of every line is part of the show's overall success. Her expert acting is evident when she can make you laugh as she delivers lines of how her daughter seduced her husband so was really wasn't sexually abused as a child.

Geesman keeps everything about the summer home uncomfortable. So much so that if we're not laughing from Durang's dialog then we're laughing at uncomfortable moments such as wondering if Steve Vanderzee's Keith has severed body parts in his hat box or if William Poole's Buck will ever stop talking about and trying to show his penis to everyone in sight including Mrs. Sizemagraff's special dinner guest Mr. Vanislaw (Joe Healy), a flasher she meets and brings home to dinner.

Obviously, this dinner party is more than our sweet Betty (Allie Pratt) can handle. Early on, she thought the non-stop talking of Trudy (Kelly Tallent) was going to be her big problem at the summer home. She soon learns, not only is Trudy the sexual abused daughter of Ms. Sizemagraff, but her non-stop talking is the least of her worries.

If this cast of characters isn't odd enough for you, then there's the voices. Sure, all of these insane characters likely hear voices in their head. But the house has voices that all can hear, laughing and talking back to the house guests. Kind of like Big Brother meets the Twilight Zone.

Other than Geesman who was excellent throughout (with a standout scene playing three people in a "People's Court" re-enactment), but Pratt's acting is also the glue that keeps people together. Her reactions to the insanity around her only makes their actions more creepy. She is well aided by Tallent as the tender, fragile Trudy who uses her doll as Trudy's safety net to prevent her from coming unhinged.

Vanderzee is damn right sinister in every line he utters - and when he's not speaking, his eyes look exactly what you'd see if you looked into the eyes of a serial killer. He is certainly the opposite of Poole who keeps his character Buck full of energy and humor and so hard to resist even though of his constant talk of his penis and showing his penis photo album.

This odd tale form the crazy mind wouldn't work if in the wrong hands. But director Jon Kretzu, whom I loved from last years' "Boys in the Band," manages to get brilliant, layered performances from everyone in the 10 person cast (I did count Dolly!).

The intimate small set and expert director Kretzu only proves that great theatre doesn't need to always come from New York. The staging and executive of this show is spot-on and deserves its extended run through June 21 at the Defunkt.

Get tickets and information on their low cost season tickets for 2014/15 at www.defunktheatre.com. And, oh, curtain is at 7:30pm.

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