Review: Lauren Weedman’s ‘The People’s Republic of Portland’
Weedman's one-woman world premiere production of The People’s Republic of Portland begins with her first touching down in our city two years ago for her debut at Portland Center Stage in another one-woman show, Bust. The next 90 minutes are a caffeine-fueled travelogue through Portland Weird, over the course of which her mispronunciation of WILL-e-mette and ignorance about LEED transform into a tender love of bike paths and farmer's markets. But although the show is exuberantly funny, in the end, like all vacation recounts, it doesn’t go much of anywhere at all.
Daniel Meeker’s set, bare white with two TV monitors and PDX in giant white letters, has all the slickness of a TV studio, which sets the perfect stage for the Oprah level excitement of the audience's applause. And there’s no question Weedman's flair for characterizations and energetic physicality fills it, her body bounding across the stage like a champion boxer and then breaking down for dance party interstitial moments colored with concert lighting by Don Crossley.
The problem is: her story, commissioned by PCS and directed by Rose Riordan, almost entirely lacks stakes and a narrative arc. There’s no tension or conflict beyond Weedman's "isn't it a little weird" resistance to Portland’s stranger quirks. Like some LA pop culture anthropologist confronted with lesbian cyclists and a little ecstatic dance, she strings together satirical vignettes of Portland culture, but never to any greater end.
The People's Republic of Portland
Portland Center Stage
April 23–June 16I didn't have the fortune to see Bust, but the power of Weedman's show last November, No…You Shut Up, was the grounding of her outrageous performance style in her vulnerable, morally ambiguous, and very personal narrative about an unstable Los Angeles performer returning to her Midwestern hometown where nothing (and everything) had changed, combined with a recurring cast of colorful characters. People’s Republic mostly lacks that vulnerability, personal exploration, transformation, and recurring cast. Weedman weaves in her two-year-old son (nicely jabbing the Pearl's elevation of dogs over babies) and a storyline about her relationship with her husband, who goes away every summer to work on a commercial fishing boat, but they feel tangential at best.
The most unexpected and ambiguous, and thereby substantial, part of the show is when Weedman asks, “Where are all the black people?” (and I don’t just say that because she cites our article). Upon visiting the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, toying with the idea of raising her son in a black church, she finds the first Portlanders who don’t love Portland. When she tells them she wants to visit their neighborhood, they say, “Why don’t you go to Mississippi? You’ll like it there”—leaving us to wonder uncomfortably at whose neighborhood exactly they mean to say it is now.
My companion was touched by the fact that, ultimately, Weedman seems to "get it" (Portland, and all us wacky Portlanders, that is), which is nice and affirming and all, but I kept waiting for her to give us some reason for why we should care. Instead, we get exactly what I feared: another comic parachuting in to skewer all of Portland's peculiar proclivities. Weedman has the love and the skill to do PDX right, but she’s got work to do before her story touches down.
Read my conversation with Weedman about how she planned to set People's Republic apart from the rest of the Portland pillory, as well as about her raging exhibitionism and the process of creating one-woman shows.