Earlier this year, I predicted that Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s Song of the Dodo would be unlike anything else on a Portland stage this fall. It was an easy wager. From the walls and floor covered in plastic the color of Big Bird to the man in the surgical mask sweeping shredded bits of brown rubber into shapes like Rorschach inkblots, this new, original work cements PETE’s reputation as an idiosyncratic force in the local theater scene.
But if any sequence defines the alternately silly, contemplative and bleak Song of the Dodo, it’s one involving performer Rebecca Lingafelter shoving an egg into her mouth. Sheathed in a dignified gray dress, Lingafelter gapes at the audience, her lips stretched around the egg. She waits. She bites down. The egg is raw. The yolk oozes down her chin. Bits of shell hit the yellow plastic. Lingafelter spits and smacks. She grimaces only slightly. She picks up a glass of red wine and glugs, the liquid streaming down her neck and leaving pink stains on her dress. Gimmicky? Perhaps. But it’s still one of the most disgusting and arresting things I’ve seen onstage, something of a reversal of the performance-art stunt where a woman ejects an egg from her vagina (or maybe this is just something that happened at my college).
Other moments of this non-narrative work channel a similarly delicious absurdity, albeit one less likely to result in salmonella. Song of the Dodo opens with Lingafelter and two other female performers—our dodo birds—dressed in velvety, silver-hued costumes with pillowlike padding over their rumps. They preen and shimmy and squawk and sigh, flicking their feet as if they’ve just stepped in poo. Later, perched on stools like panelists on a talk show, they titter about extinction and the misery of life as tinkly music plays in the background. Lingafelter explains how people need to die in order to make room for the rest of us. “That was superb,” replies Paige McKinney with perfect self-seriousness, as Amber Whitehall bugs out her eyes and blinks maniacally.
Last season, PETE performed a strikingly sinister adaptation of Richard III,
and now it’s wonderful to see its performers exercising their
impressive comedic muscle. Pierced with Cristi Miles’ intermittent
exposition, the first hour of the show captivates and delights while
still prodding at questions about tragedy, grief and rage. But then
things plummet into full-tilt, screechy melodrama. The last 15 minutes
or so draw from Euripides’ Hecuba, with the four female
performers crouched at the front of the stage, their eyes trained on the
ground. As they wail about the extermination of the Trojan queen’s 50
children, the parallel with the extinction of the dodo is heavy-handed
and obvious. The ending strives for catharsis, but I was left mourning
the disappearance of that adorable dodo.