The 42nd annual Waterfront Blues Festival started off with a bang July 2nd, as Gregg …
My first thought when I took my seat at Portland Center Stage at The Armory for a matinee of Wild & Reckless was that I was witnessing a band in a filtered ‘70s film. I had arrived a few minutes late, and while I’m familiar with the folk, classic, and indie-style rock that Oregon natives Blitzen Trapper have been making for over 17 years, here they were in the midst of a funky opening song with psychedelic undertones. Sitting in an amphitheatre like The Armory was also different for this kind of hazy concert experience. After a moment, I adjusted, and the music and set design began to take shape together.
Wild & Reckless has been playing at The Armory since March 16. Portland Center Stage has worked with other local musicians before, such as Storm Large on her musical memoir Crazy Enough, and have produced rock musical One Night with Janis Joplin and LIZZIE, a rock opera about Lizzie Borden. But this was the first time that they had reached out to an entire band to commision a world premier production.
In a subsequent interview, co-directors Rose Riordan and Liam Kaas-Lentz told me how they were big fans of the band and their storytelling, which is why they thought Blitzen Trapper might provide an opportunity to tell a different kind of theatrical story on stage.
“We didn’t know what kind of show we wanted to create,” says Riordan, “but we knew that the band wanted to be on stage telling the story.”
Blitzen Trapper frontman Eric Earley already had a handful of new narrative-driven songs to contribute toward a story arc. He had no theater experience, even as an audience member, but the directors felt that gave him an edge; he wouldn’t have any of the traditional confines that normally trap playwrights.
“We loved Eric’s first draft; the process of bringing it to life was really about logistics and the balancing between ambition and storytelling,” says Kaas-Lentz. “We had to find a way to tell a big story in a simple way that will resonate with a theatrical audience. It was a fantastic collaboration between the way Blitzen Trapper creates music and the way we create theatre.”
The show’s cast is the band, with the addition of two actors (Laura Carbonell and Leif Norby), who also contribute musically. The story Earley has shaped is about the “wild and reckless” life shared by The Narrator (Earley) and The Girl (Carbonell), who find each other in a very poignant reflection of Portland.
The Wild & Reckless soundtrack spans several genres, including folk, alt-country, classic and psych rock, and even heavy metal. Earley reminds many of Bob Dylan, and there are traces Springsteen, or perhaps a darker, sadder version of John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane.”
When watching the show, the songs sometimes played for what seemed a very long time to connect scenes, and some of the audience fidgeted and slumped. (But I should add that I attended a noon matinee on 4/20.)
The stage is set up to be sort of a tunnel, with screens surrounding the performance. This creates depth and movement for the bright projections of rain, lightning and backdrops to jump out at the audience. The light design from Daniel Meeker is amazing in its ability to isolate speaking parts and create mood.
Power lines drape around the stage chaotically from glowing streetlights, complete with shoes hanging from them. They streak with LED brightness perhaps to represent the energy of the city or the chemistry between our main characters, but they also violently flash to alert the audience to narrative danger.
In this reflection Portland, lightning plays a significant role in the story. It could be a metaphor for life energy or our brain chemistry. Mostly, it is addiction.
Wild & Reckless is not just a love story. Our two main characters are left pointedly nameless. They could be people we have known or anyone we have passed on these Portland streets. In a scraggly drawl, Earley talks about using his backpack as a pillow when he sleeps “down on Burnside.” There’s a spark when he meets The Girl in a nightclub. They “keep their sights set on distant lights.” Everything is ahead of them. And so off they jaunt in song about being “wild and reckless” in the city.
But then the lightning strikes. The couple’s upstairs neighbors get ahold of some “really strong lightning,” and the descent of The Girl begins, marked by her use of a huge prop needle.
Still, they remain hopeful. They work odd jobs to make ends meet and are even regulars at Chopsticks, where their go-to karaoke choice is Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.”
When The Girl is happy, she moves easily from piano to The Narrator across the stage. He admires her spirit, telling us how she tries on dresses from the fancy Northwest boutiques and steals extravagant items to give to the homeless. When she’s high, she’s “an astronaut drifting on these shores of illusion.”
In a needed moment of cheesiness, The Professor (played by Blitzen Trapper keyboardist Marty Marquis) explains The Girl is a “unicorn” of addicts, just as a projection of a unicorn gallops across the stage. She is the rare user who gives back, who takes others’ pain. But in contrast, our Narrator is suffering for her, and she sings shamefully about her “thieving heart.”
As for the other characters, drummer Brian Adrian Koch stays perched above stage in his kit much of the time, but it disappears into the wall when he descends as The Scientist. He gives statistics about the brain and addiction and where these drugs are really coming from (guys in suits). Guitarist Erik Menteer plays a childhood friend of The Girl, to whom she passes on her addiction. The only member who doesn’t have a speaking part is bassist Michael Van Pelt, but he makes the entire show heave and groove with his bass.
There is also The Dealer, played by actor Leif Norby. It’s a bit of a stereotype to see him step out in his hoodie and scowl at the audience, but we’re drawn in as he begins to direct The Girl across the stage. The Narrator explains his frantic search for her and finding her with The Dealer under a bridge. She’s hooked and deteriorating, and The Dealer is laughing about it. He begins tapping a percussion block, which sounds like a clock at first. But as the other band members join in and a downpour is projected, it becomes the very accurate sound of tapping rain.
It reaches a breaking point when she once again injects herself, causing a dead, dull, electric hum. The storm is here, and a climax of Black Sabbath heavy-metal style doom is unleashed.
The final scene is a quiet aftermath. The Narrator continues to try to rescue the girl. Everything becomes more and more surreal as he faces his pain, but she can’t escape hers. Without giving too much away, I can say it is beautiful and tragic.
The amount of work involved in this collaboration, like creating an entire album for a production, and making sure the sound, sets, and extensive movement between the cast and instruments went off without a hitch — for almost everyday for over a month.
I would like to see this tale of Portland to be shared, perhaps a tour or a scene introduced at a festival or late night show. Maybe it will return to The Armory, but Portland Center Stage representative Claudie Jean Fisher tells me “taking a show like this on tour is technically and financially challenging, so this week could very well be the last chance to catch this production—so don’t miss it!”
The final show is tonight, Sunday, April 30 at 7:30 p.m. Find tickets and more info here. Currently, the album Wild & Reckless is only available after the performances at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.