Music: Tierro Lee, Kan’Nal &Lisa Gerrard
Lyrics: Daniel Katsuk
Director: Luke Comer
Reviewer: Jonathan Alexandratos
The Portal, a self-described “modern shamanic journey,” combines film, dance, on-stage drama, and live music to give audiences an 85-minute tour of one man’s vision quest through an unnamed desert. Invoking The Divine Comedy, we follow Dante as he moves from hell, through purgatory, into something resembling an ascent. In fact, we follow two Dantes: the Dante portrayed on a screen upstage (played by Christopher Soren Kelly, who will be referred to as On-Screen Dante), and On-Stage Dante, who performs the trek, and the songs, live (and is played by Glee’s Billy Lewis Jr., billed as Frontman).
Frontman is aided by two dancers (the outstanding Jessica Aronoff and Marija Juliette Abney) and two musicians (Gilly Gonzalez on drums and Paul Casanova on electric guitar, who each handle their instruments expertly). Other characters enter and exit, both on stage and on screen: On-Screen Beatrice, an angelic figure (played by Zarah Miller), Death itself (presumably played by Nicole Spencer, who is billed only as Dancer), and a Man in a Suit who we’re definitely not supposed to like (who is perhaps Joey Calveri, billed as Frontman Cover).
If you’re wondering what all these ingredients combine to make, that seems to be the point. The text on screen at the beginning of the piece, a lengthy document that supplements other explanations of The Portal found on its website, informs the audience that plot will be secondary to the individual’s experience of the play. This asks the audience to ingest the music, psychedelic visuals, and ecstatic dance and simply make of it what they will. The trippiness of this unstructured approach will surely appeal to the Burning Man crowd, but those expecting a more traditional narrative may find themselves at a loss.
There are, though, some elements of this piece that are problematic beyond one’s personal taste. During the play’s opening, On-Screen Dante, in an attempt to wrestle with the hell he is confined to, consumes prescription antidepressants, which the piece presents as a wrongheaded move (as true salvation happens in the desert). This vilification of antidepressants insults those whose lives are saved by them. Media such as The Portal should be challenged to think more deeply about this portrayal.
Beyond this, The Portal’s focus on the spiritual quest of one upper-middle class, presumably heterosexual, white male who utilizes tropes and practices of unacknowledged, non-white groups sidesteps the dramatic complexity (not to mention, diversity) that could come from looking at a character who isn’t afforded as much social privilege in the “hell” of the play’s beginning moments. Given that modern theatre is on a mission to include voices and struggles once ignored, it is probleatic to bill a play as “modern,” and then have, as its sole earnest consideration, the plight of the financially-stable, straight, white man. It leaves one wanting more agency from the show’s female characters, the two dancers and On-Screen Beatrice, as these characters often seem present only to further the central, male character’s spiritual enlightenment.
That being said, it is still possible to have a perfectly wonderful time at The Portal in spite of the issues described. Jessica Chen’s magnificent choreography is consistently theatrical, and highly enjoyable. Even when the main action of the play comes up short, there is story to be found in the dance. Furthermore, The Portal, at its slowest moments, shows hints of character development, for example two particular moments involving Frontman’s relationship with his family. The entire cast is fully committed, and very capable, keeping most audience members engaged regardless of the production’s shortcomings.
Perhaps, then, The Portal is a play that knows its audience, and is good at satiating their needs, though that does raise a question about the show’s choice of venue. The Minetta Lane Theatre is an excellent space, but its proscenium stage does not serve this show’s intent to be immersive. Were this piece performed outside, stripped of its screens and lights and sound system, it could possibly go even further with the audience it wishes to speak to. Performed at Burning Man, The Portal might be a much different piece than it is Off-Broadway.
Runs until 31 December 2016