Oregonian feature: Third Rail Rep revisits its roots with a show in the intimate CoHo Theatre

In February 2005, Third Rail Repertory Theatre staged its first production, Craig Wright’s tragi-comic 9/11 response “Recent Tragic Events,” at Northwest Portland’s CoHo Theatre. The show won five Drammy Awards and put Third Rail on the map as a prominent part of the Portland theater scene. The company settled into the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center for a few years, then moved to bigger halls downtown.

But with the production of Annie Baker’s “The Aliens” that opens Friday, Third Rail returns at last to its CoHo spawning grounds. Though it mounts most of its work these days in the Winningstad Theatre, amid the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, the company added a fourth show to its season for the first time and chose to get up close and personal again.

“It does feel like an old friend,” says director Tim True, a founding member of Third Rail. “It’s a fabulous 99-seat space, just three rows and everything really close to the action.

“We’ve really tried to maximize the space in terms of having some really strong designers coming in to make the most of it. What we’re seeing is how the space limitation can spur creativity. It limits your choices, but it also focuses your choices.”

Luckily, “The Aliens” doesn’t exactly call for grand scenery. The third of Baker’s so-called “Vermont plays” to be staged in Portland (following “Circle Mirror Transformation” a year ago at Artists Rep and “Body Awareness” by CoHo Productions last fall), it’s set amid the Dumpsters on the back patio of a small town coffee shop.

That’s the chosen hangout of KJ (played by Isaac Lamb) and Jasper (Chris Murray), a pair of 30-something lost souls and would-be artists who while away their time there doing … well, as The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood wrote of a 2010 production at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, “The gently whirring exhaust fan spied through the back wall provides the only significant action … At times ‘The Aliens’ resembles a Beckett play recast as a mumblecore movie.”

While there isn’t much in the way of whiz-bang action, there is something happening in the play.

“She’s interested in change in this play,” True says of the playwright. “How people grow over a period of time, whether that’s a short or long period. She has placed a pretty significant event in the characters’ lives in there as sort of a place marker for change. But change itself doesn’t happen instantly … It’s more like the tide, going in and out, gradually.”

True relishes the deceptive, almost awkwardly authentic realism of Baker’s approach. “She has such finesse in the way she drops in points of exposition,” he says. “They don’t really land with the audience so much as just come along with the flow of the dialogue. She’s playing with how you can have a dramatic arc within a real sense of conversation, a real sense of time. It’s done in a very non-theatrical way and feels very real-life.”

Adding to the authenticity of True’s production is the 16-year-old actor Bryce Earhart, who plays 17-year-old coffee-shop employee Evan Shelmerdine, the uneasy third wheel to the KJ/Jasper friendship.

“We love him,” True says. “We had some great actors audition for the part, but to have someone who doesn’t have to try to step backward into the part is a real bonus.”

Even though the production puts Third Rail back in touch with its roots, it really is a sign of the company’s continued growth — including the development of company actors such as True into directors. This will be just the second show True has directed, following “Bingo With the Indians” a few seasons ago for Portland Playhouse. It continues a move away from the mode of Third Rail’s first several seasons, in which artistic director Scott Yarbrough handled all the stage direction.

“We wanted to establish our voice as a company at the outset and we went to what we knew were our strong suits — our acting and Scott’s directing,” True says. “But as we’ve grown, we’ve wanted to expand that and play with it. Now we can say, ‘This also is Third Rail.'”

— Marty Hughley

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