The Seven Deadly Sins

Portland Mercury, August 29, 2002

By Justin Sanders

“What is the point of anything theatrical right now? The façade is so silly and stupid. We’re all so hyper-aware of the artifice to the point where everything is the artifice, so what is the point of theater?”

It is exactly at this point in Bryan Markovitz’s passionate rant that I knock my drink over. It’s cucumber lemonade and it goes everywhere. I babble apologies as he slowly wipes himself off. A silence falls; there is nothing more I can say. Bryan looks at me, a twinkle in his eye.

“You did that on purpose,” he says, an understandable accusation. I imagine that it’s not the first time someone has thrown liquid on Bryan in response to his scathingly bleak take on the current state of live theater. After the lemonade is cleaned up, the tirade picks up again: “I mean, who even goes [to theater] anymore? This strange little coterie box of people who make it their point to buy season tickets to Center Stage. Fuck it. It’s stupid. Everybody knows it, too. I don’t even know why the discussion still occurs. Why do we all have to have a season of plays? Why do we have to sell subscriptions? Why is there this hierarchy of theaterism in a town as dumb and little and hokey as Portland?”

Yes, I imagine Bryan has had some things thrown at him. And yet, his bitterness is not completely off-putting, for unlike a lot of complainers out there, Bryan is trying to change things. As a founding member of the performance group Liminal and director of their current show, The Seven Deadly Sins, Bryan works day in and day out, with a group of dedicated performers, to reinvent theatrical presentation. Liminal’s defiance of traditional means of production has resulted in much longer rehearsal times (sometimes over a year between productions), a minute attention to detail (“One minute of action takes, I would say, five hours to rehearse,” says Bryan), a slew of wacky performance spaces (ancient ballrooms, night clubs, and parking garages, to name a few), and most intriguingly, an intense focus on the element that makes theater so very unique: its liveness.

“It’s the only asset that theater has, is its liveness,” says Bryan. “And yet, in rare cases do you see theater artists trying to focus in on that very special thing, and trying to figure out what it means to be live. I mean, the stuff you see at these big repertory stages, it’s all being designed to be television. It’s like you go to watch television in a big room. It smells good and has a bar.”

He pauses for reflection at this point. “The only difference between our new show and a Center Stage show is that the room doesn’t smell quite as good.”

He’s exaggerating, of course. Sins, one of the more obscure musicals of the last century, was the final collaboration between the great playwright, Bertolt Brecht, and the composer, Kurt Weill. Numerous attempts have been made to revive it. All have failed. Brecht and Weill were not getting along during its creation, and the end product is exactly what one would expect from a mental tug-of-war between two mental giants: a cacophonous mess of dance, song, and cabaret. Or, in other words, the perfect choice for a group like Liminal.

“Unlike most productions that have tried to smooth out the rough edges of the work and beautify the gaping contrasts in tone,” reads Bryan’s eloquently worded press kit, “Liminal’s version will embrace the fractured, disintegrated nature of the performance in order to amplify the simple idea that goodness cannot exist without evil.”

“By drawing attention to the construction of theater itself, Liminal forces its audiences to be critically engaged in the performance. You can’t watch [Sins] and get emotionally involved at all times,” Bryan tells me, “because there are so many things that we do to distance you from that or to cut you off from what should be a visceral experience. For instance, we’ll repeat an action over and over again that should be really exciting or emotional in someway, but because we repeat it 20 times, it becomes an object for you to scrutinize.”

It’s fitting that this objectification will occur at Panorama, Portland’s definitive late-night, techno club meat market. According to the press kit, the music for the show is evocative of early 1980s art-pop music, and yet maintains the integrity of Weill’s fusion of opera, folk, and jazz idioms. The result is a Brechtian operatic riff on sexual exploitation that is “at home in the concert hall or on a house dance floor.”

You can rest assured that, love it or hate it, you have never seen anything like it. And that’s exactly how Bryan Markovitz and the good folks at Liminal want it.