April 15, 2008

Theater: Specific Gravity stages ‘The 5/7 Project’ in U.S. Marine Hospital

[img_assist|nid=6649|title=“The 5/7 Project”|desc=Photo Courtesy of Specific Gravity Ensemble Christopher Shiner, Lucas Adams, Sarah Feldman, Parker Bowles and Stefan Gearhart star in Specific Gravity Ensemble’s “The 5/7 Project.”|link=|align=left|width=200|height=150](Specific Gravity Ensemble presents “The 5/7 Project,” through April 20 at the U.S. Marine Hospital, 2215 Portland Ave. Directed by Corey Long and Julia Leist. For tickets and info, call 384-2743 or visit www.specificgravityensemble.com.)Specific Gravity Ensemble, known for its versatility and inventiveness, likes to challenge audiences by staging plays in unusual settings. Its current offering, “The 5/7 Project,” is no exception. The “project” consists of two plays written by company members, each set in a prison. The basement of the former U.S. Marine Hospital in Portland makes a perfect jail, what with its crumbling walls, rusted wrought iron and shackles hanging from the tall ceiling. If you listen closely, you might hear the wails of injured sailors being treated in this 130-year-old structure. Christopher Shiner’s “The Fifth Wall” involves two women locked in a tiny cell, enduring each other’s opposing natures, much like the characters in Sartre’s “No Exit” and Craig Wright’s “The Unseen.” Clay (April Singer) is a hard-headed atheist rationalist, while Bell (Julia Leist) is equally stubborn about her beliefs in higher-dimensional realities, pan-determinism and quantum abilities of mind over matter. Listening to them shout and argue in an echo-filled chamber about these philosophical issues is wearying, and fails to engage.Christie Baugher’s “Sevens,” likewise, consists of people arguing over philosophy in a prison cell. In this alternate universe, the Revolutionary War was won by the British. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson argue and sing ditties while waiting for the executioner. A more powerful impact might result if the play ended after Adams’ last line.Both plays sprouted from good ideas but don’t live up to their potential. Plays that consist mostly of yelling, angst and heated discourse are difficult for audiences. Even David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” has moments where you wish everyone would just chill out. “The Fifth Wall” and “Sevens” suffer from the numbing weight and torpor of talkiness and trite endings. There are moments of poetry and brilliance in each play. But I’m afraid most audiences won’t enjoy them in their current state. Poor sight lines and a lack of graduated seating don’t help. This was especially annoying in “The Fifth Wall,” where the actors are often kneeling or sitting on cots. Patrons in the back rows can see almost none of it. A simple chevron-shaped seating plan might double the number of front-row seats. Having said all this, I applaud SGE for taking chances on new material. The actors wrought some genuinely powerful moments, as when Ben Franklin is led to the gallows. There was a surprising sense of realism in the players’ interactions, all the more admirable because the surroundings and situations were so unrealistic. For better or worse, “The 5/7 Project” is at least memorable. And in theater, that’s not bad. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com