In the world of prose, square brackets are used primarily for clarification: adding explanation or making a small correction. In Porto’s world, [ ] is the near-constant narrator and commentator of all her thoughts and actions. We are told that [PORTO] is Porto’s story, though [ ] does much to steer the ship, to the point where the punctation sometimes has the upper hand. (That in literature square brackets are not supposed to alter the essential meaning of the original statement will likely only bother the most hardcore-ist of grammarians.)The piece opens with a long detailed description of how to make sausage, delivered in the dark by the off-stage [ ] in almost musical tones. For lovers of podcasts such as Selected Shorts, this introduction elevates ones senses. Indeed we are soon to witness the proverbial sausage making of relationships — complete with soft underbellies and the occasional metaphorical entrails — as the staff and patrons of a small Brooklyn bar repeatedly come together almost in ritual with [ ] serving as a combination priestess, narrator and stage manager. That she is portrayed by Kate Benson, the playwright, only adds depth to the role. She appears omniscient until one of the other characters clearly disobeys [ ]’s directive. From then on, all possibilities are open to our players. Indeed Porto is also counseled by two titans of feminism at her kitchen table as well as a pair of dumb bunnies of the Oryctolagus Cuniculus variety.
The audience for this production skews younger than at most off-Broadway houses. Jokes aimed at modern relationships and hipsters who embrace pickled vegetables and toasted garbanzos with their happy hour received the biggest laughs. The breaking of prescribed rules throughout Benson’s script is jarring for those who prefer that their fantasy come with understood guidelines. Some of the inconsistencies are merely puzzling. For example, the character of Hennepin drinks Hennepin ale, but Dry Sac drinks Vodka. It is, however, truer to the way life unfolds: what seems established can be easily invalidated.
The quality of the acting can be appreciated at any age. Julia Sirna-Frest imbues Porto with a realistic combination of determination and hesitancy with which many of today’s young women struggle. As her frequent companion at the bar, Leah Karpel’s Dry Sac delivers loopy 80 proof stories with amusing conviction. Jorge Cordova’s Hennepin is the perfect well-meaning Everyguy. Doug the Bartender is played with measured amounts of drollness by Noel Joseph Allain. Rounding out the cast is Ugo Chukwu who arguably steals the show as Raphael, the waiter with heart and sage advice.
Obie winning director Lee Sunday Evans makes the most of the small space and unconventional storytelling devices. The steadiness of her cast is a testament to her deep understanding of how to tell this story well. Kristen Robinson has replicated a bar setting with the actors in a straight line facing the audience. Porto’s apartment is displayed above, inside a cutout reminiscent of a cross-stitched sampler. This imaginative concept lends an ironic twist to the far-from-traditional-values exchanges that unfold there. Costumes designed by Asta Bennie Hostetter give the characters a lived-in look. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting and Kate Marvin’s sound support sense of place and movement in a world in which people apparently do not need to open doors.
Whether you find [PORTO] a humorous work of art or say “alright already” like the man in front of me will very much depend on your enjoyment of intellectual play. What you will certainly come away with is an entertainment experience you won’t forget on the subway ride home. The production is presented by the WP Theater and The Bushwick Starr in association with New Georges. Tickets for performances through March 4, 2018 are available at WWW.WPTHEATER.ORG/TICKETS.