By Stanford Friedman
Sometimes a sausage is just a sausage and sometimes a sausage is more than the sum of its parts. In her quirky quasi-comedy, [Porto], Kate Benson tries to have it both ways. This metaphysical work, which had a successful run at the Bushwick Starr last year, features sausages that are created and consumed, debated and adored. Of course, by sausage, Benson actually means the amalgam of lust, sex, fear, rejection and loneliness that boils up whenever two people find each other attractive. Or, she means the ridiculous lifestyle choices of the young adults who have stuffed themselves into the gentrified neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Or, she just means that foie gras shoved inside an animal intestine and served on a bun is delicious.
More a lab experiment than a stage play, the piece begins in rumbling darkness. Then the voice of Benson herself fills the theater as she describes, in vivid detail, proper sausage making techniques. The word “underbelly” takes on particular resonance not only for its seamy connotation, but because, once the lights have come up, the word again is used in introducing the title character, Porto (Julia Sirna-Frest), an attractive woman of “rather substantial girth.” She enters her neighborhood bar where we meet the remaining central characters. There is Doug the Bartender (Noel Joseph Allain) who is always referred to as Doug the Bartender, Raphael the Waiter (Ugo Chukwu) who almost always is called Raphael the Waiter, Hennepin (Jorge Cordova) a newcomer to the bar, so named because he drinks Hennepin beer, and Dry Sac (Leah Karpel) a pretty, young floozy whose name is open to interpretation. The narrator, essentially Porto’s subconscious mind made gabby, is listed in the program simply as “[ ].”
If that all seems a tad pompous, that’s because it is. The entire night walks a fine line between pretentious and high satire. Benson’s narrator is more a commander issuing orders to Porto and Hennepin, than an observer of the action. Thus, the duo are more like pawns than lovers as they meet and eat, eventually finding their way into and out of each other’s arms. Benson’s writing is most accessible when she’s making fun of Millennials and their penchant for “serious” bars and anything pickled. And it’s at its most bizarre when we suddenly find ourselves witnessing a discussion about romantic satisfaction held between Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir (Allain and Chukwu, in semi-drag). Here’s a typical quip from Simone (Did I mention pretension? The script is written completely in stanzas.):
she thinks it is pleasure that he has delivered
like a bowl of stew
and having tasted it
she will pay the check
no matter how high the bill
Benson does not think that her audience is a bunch of dumb bunnies. We know this because two human-size dumb bunnies, complete with masks and paws like something out of Donnie Darko, also visit the bar, rising out of Porto’s storehouse of insecurities to lecture her on why she needs a man. Kristen Robinson’s scenic design apparently omitted a “No Bunnies Served” sign. Oddly, beer taps are also missing in this otherwise beautifully designed set. A high end Brooklyn gastropub without draft brew? How much willing suspension of disbelief are we expected to muster?
As directed by Lee Sunday Evans, the cast all inhabit their characters earnestly. Mr. Chukwu stands out for creating a sympathetic Raphael, while the others, in a work that is funny-strange instead of funny-ha-ha, tug more on the brain than on the heart.
[PORTO] – By Kate Benson, directed by Lee Sunday Evans.
WITH: Noel Joseph Allain (Doug the Bartender), Kate Benson ([ ]), Ugo Chukwu (Raphael the Waiter), Jorge Cordova (Hennepin), Leah Karpel (Dry Sac) and Julia Sirna-Frest (Porto).
Set design by Kristen Robinson, costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, lighting by Amith Chandrashaker, sound design by Kate Marvin. WP Theater & The Bushwick Starr in association with New Georges at the WP Theater at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway, (212) 352-310, http://wptheater.org/show/porto/. Through February 25. Running time: 85 minutes.