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Theatre in Review: The Portal (Minetta Lane Theatre)

Billy Lewis, Jr. Photo: Russ Rowland

"Welcome to The Portal" says a message on the enormous video screen that currently dominates the Minetta Lane stage. "A modern shamanic journey. An inward journey of self-discovery. The show is less literal and more allegorical and dreamy." They said it; I didn't. Clearly, the best way -- the only way, really -- to experience The Portal is to put your brain on cruise control and let its trance score wash over you, allowing your mind to wander where it will. Believe me, there's nothing else with which to occupy it. The only reason The Portal is worth discussing at all is that it unwittingly functions as a kind of warning about where stage design may be headed.

To the extent that The Portal has a plot, it appears to involve Dante (Christopher Soren Kelly) and Beatrice (Zarah Mahler), who have been lifted out of The Divine Comedy and put into a nondenominational spiritual search. He's first seen as a contemporary organization man, at work at the office and hanging out in clubs, permanently attached to his smartphone and looking thoroughly miserable about it. Then the beautiful Beatrice appears and he chases after her. All of this happens on the large horizontal video screen located upstage center; also featured are two curved screens at right and left, and another, smaller, circular video panel above the stage.

Early on, there's an image of a planet sliding sideways to reveal an opening; that, I suppose, is the Portal. Soon we're in a desert, where Dante dons leather sandals and a muslin shift, de rigueur fashions for those seeking The Truth. After that, he follows her through a variety of natural settings, sometimes accompanied by a man with a television for a head -- I'm not making this up -- and sometimes dogged by a cloaked figure, suggestive of death, both of whom occasionally roam through the auditorium. Meanwhile, live onstage, Billy Lewis, Jr., sings, accompanied by a guitarist, percussionist, and three female dancers. (The rest of the music appears to be recorded.)

The Portal is so solemn in manner and so vague in its intentions that at times it's hard to believe the whole thing isn't a joke. It's not going to clarify matters when I report that, on screen, the performers are saying things like "The lust for comfort murders the passion of the spirit and grins at the funeral. You shall not dwell in temples made by the dead for the living." (According to the press materials, much of the text is adapted from Kahlil Gibran.) Meanwhile, on stage, Lewis sings: "Welcome nymphs/Welcome sinners, lovers, fools, and madmen/If you would know the secrets of your days and nights then come with us/If you would touch with your fingers the naked body of your dreams then come with us." Actually, it doesn't much matter what he is singing, because you can't hear most of it. I refuse to believe this is the fault of Peter Fitzgerald, who has done fine work on dozens of Broadway shows; clearly, something went very wrong during preproduction.

For that matter, much of the time you can barely see Lewis and his companions, because Luke Comer, who conceived, produced, and directed The Portal, has opted for a video design of such scale and brightness that it obliterates everything else. It's a textbook example of what the projection designer Wendall K. Harrington has often written and spoken about: Modern video technology is so powerful -- and the images it presents so compelling -- that live performers cannot compete with them. Unless a production's video component is presented artfully -- there are many ways to do this -- it will become the center of attention. Compounding the problem is the fact that what thin strand of narrative the show possesses happens on screen. Given the low levels of Traci Klainer Polimeni's (admittedly often beautiful) lighting and the previously mentioned audio problems, the live performers may as well not show up.

This is becoming more and more of an issue as producers and directors insist on having projections whether or not they are needed; there's a very real danger of obscuring what theatre can do best -- the live, electric charge that comes when plays and players make a real connection to the audience -- in favor of overbearing visual effects best left to your local cinema. The Portal is really a film with live music, singing, and dance accompaniment, all of which are deployed to little effect.

It's hard to know whom to blame for such problems. The program lists Peter Feuchtwanger and David Goldstein only as "scenic design consultants" and no video designer is credited. Clearly, someone shot the equivalent of a short feature film -- which, in addition to the footage of Dante and Beatrice, includes a surfeit of trippy abstract imagery, much of which wouldn't be out of place in the film Doctor Strange -- but nobody is owning up to it. I wouldn't either, if I was in his or her place, although one can't be blamed for giving the director what he wants.

In any case, the music, by Tierro Lee, Kan'Nal, and Lisa Gerrard, is not unpleasant to listen to, and the live musicians, Gilly Gonzalez (percussion) and Paul Casanova (guitar), are accomplished. The choreography, by Jessica Chen, over-relies on lunging gestures.

At the end of The Portal, we are told, "When you return from this forgotten land no one crosses without burning you will face questions from those who can barely dream." I certainly had plenty of questions, but will confine myself to only one: Why does this production exist?-- David Barbour

(5 December 2016)

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