Commentary

Reviews (7)
The Revolution Is a Laugh Riot

Marty Hughley | The Oregonian [26 Jan 2012]

The revolution will not be televised. But it will have a soundtrack: Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Then again, maybe it’s less a revolution than a resistance, a desperate attempt to preserve liberty, a people’s pushback against secretive, conspiratorial forces bent on oppression.

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So just as well for this humble movement to begin in humble surroundings—such as a police station in the tiny (and fictional) Southern Missouri town of Lodus. That’s where we meet Tanya Shepke, the most—let’s try to be polite here—colorful character in the Jason Wells play “The North Plan,” and the most unlikely political-thriller heroine you’ve ever encountered.

The country is in turmoil, a provisional government has taken power, checkpoints have been set up on the highways and curfews have been imposed in the cities. But Tanya’s concern is a DUI she feels she doesn’t deserve. (Sure she was blasted on Long Island iced teas, but shouldn’t she get credit, she argues, for turning herself in?)

Anyway, as long as things are changing, she figures, who better to be pictured on the new money than Skynyrd.

Tanya’s a little crazy, a lot crass, and constitutionally unable to shut up for more than a few seconds. Which makes her the perfect comedic centerpiece for the world-premiere production that opened on Friday at Portland Center Stage. Because despite such serious thematic concerns as the legitimacy of political authority, the importance of dissent and the uses of torture, “The North Plan” is a threat to public order because it’s a laugh riot.

Directed by Rose Riordan with a fine sense of timing and tension, it overcomes its rather static setting (a pair of jailhouse rooms, rendered with apt institutional efficiency by scenic designer Tony Cisek), building a headlong momentum until its sudden conclusion—which on opening night brought the crowd to a hooting, hollering standing ovation.

Considering that nothing less than the fate of the nation is at stake, you might expect the story’s protagonist to be renegade State Dept. staffer Carlton Berg (an amusingly undone Brian Patrick Monahan), who has stolen a database that might provide liberty’s last hope. But Tanya might be a more authentic representative of the people, and in any case Kate Eastwood Norris (pretty much unrecognizable from the prim professional woman she played here in 2009’s terrific “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found”) portrays her in such brilliant redneck hues that she’s the clear people’s choice.

Tanya’s profanity flows like a mountain spring, so quoting her here is pretty much impossible. But Norris gives her enough dimensions that, however outrageous, she’s no mere cartoon.

While Tanya goes about her idiosyncratic way, the other characters have more rational calculations to make. Carlton expects to be shipped to some secret prison, but hopes his database can help save “the blood of millions.” The police chief (Portland veteran Tim True, disappearing into a subtle, fully realized character role) and a lowly administrative officer (the endearing Ashley Everage) have to decide whether to stick their necks out for motormouth prisoners or just pray the new government won’t be so bad.

Then come the bad guys from Homeland Security (Fredric Lehne and Blake DeLong), invoking conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as they justify their ruthless, bloodthirsty means.

Wells, who developed the script in part at Center Stage’s JAW festival in 2010, cranks up coincidences of timing and mistaken identities, almost the point of farce. And if you might be reminded at times of a sit-com slickness, that could also be interpreted as an admirable narrative efficiency.

And if the revolution ever comes, we should all hope it offers us so much opportunity to laugh.

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Cookies, Karaoke, and Revolution

Alison Hallett | The Portland Mercury [26 Jan 2012]

The North Plan is an office comedy with the stakes ratcheted high—the office in question is a police station, where the police chief and an administrative officer debate the proper handling of prisoners in the face of a crumbling government infrastructure and shady interference from the Department of Homeland Security.

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The show’s first act—which involves a whole lot of yelling—introduces foul-mouthed redneck Tanya (Kate Eastwood Norris) to paranoid, nervous Carlton (Brian Patrick Monahan). The two are jailed in adjacent holding cells in a small Indiana town—Tanya because she turned herself in for drunken driving, while Carlton is wanted for questioning by the Department of Homeland Security, which lends some credence to his crazy-sounding claims that the government is about to start rounding up citizens and putting them in camps. As Tanya is reluctantly but inevitably persuaded that Carlton’s conspiracy theories might have some truth to them, the two butt heads both against the police chief and his assistant, and two Homeland Security officers.

Tanya is Storm Large in 20 years, a raucous bad girl with fading looks and a dirty mouth—an unlikely revolutionary, as the show delights in pointing out. We’re meant to cheer when she comes out guns blazing, but the show’s real strengths are its smaller character movements—Homeland Security sidekick (Blake DeLong) fretting that his partner doesn’t respect him, or the deliberations of a small-town police chief (Tim True) in the face of government pressure. For all the gunfire and high-volume shouting, the real intrigue here is the idea that bureaucracy persists even in the face of government shutdown—that some people will continue “just following orders” even when it’s no longer clear what the orders are, or who’s issuing them.

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Tanya and the Duchess: How to kick a man’s world in the teeth

Barry Johnson | Oregon ArtsWatch [25 Jan 2012]

Both Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre started the year off right with sharp, boundary-pushing world premieres. They both starred women, and what women they are — powerful, revolutionary women with enough sass and moxie to kick back and kick back hard.

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[…]

Fisher has his Duchess, who has endured the depravities of her dead husband and her brothers and emerged intact. Jason Wells has Tanya Shepke, an Ozark gal with fire in her belly, a few outstanding warrants, a sharp tongue and a foul mouth. And yes, she does know how to handle a firearm, thank you very much.

As the play begins, Tanya has managed to talk herself into jail, because that’s what she does — talk herself into trouble, no matter what, a spew of language that is both revelatory and hilarious. Her jailer, Shonda, tries to keep her composure and so does the Chief, but come on, Tanya is just a little too much, especially given the circumstances — martial law has been declared in the United States and a Right Wing cabal is attempting to take over. The Chief, even in this small Missouri town, has some serious government business to attend to, especially when Carlton turns up.

Carlton has a list of the people the cabal is going to arrest and dispose of, millions of them, but he can’t get the Chief to listen, maybe because the Chief is part of the cabal? Anyway, he attempts the impossible — to break Shonda’s sense of duty and to have enlist Tanya in the revolution. Both are hard, but the latter seems impossible. How can you possibly have a conversation with the motormouthed Tanya long enough to enlist her in anything?

“The North Plan” is funny and deeply political (so is “(I Am Still) The Duchess of Malfi” for that matter), but the main thing it has going for it is Tanya and Kate Eastwood Norris, who plays Tanya with the right mixture of cunning, pathos, fury and pure country stubbornness and then jolts her into life with an electric performance that lights up the stage.

Not that she doesn’t have help. Ashley Everage as Shonda finds a nice line, one that emphasizes her “correctness” but makes her conversion seem genuine. Brian Patrick Monahan as Carlton takes the frustration we’ve all felt at trying to convince someone of something improbable but true and forms a real character out of it. His byplay with Norris is a highlight of the show. Tim True as the Chief is terrific at stringing along the two federal agents who arrive to take custody of Carlton as he tries to get what’s really going on. And Blake DeLong an Fredric Lehne add a nice comic dimension to their characters, even though they’re the bad guys.

A warning to future directors of the play: It would be easy for all the characters to lurch into stereotype. Director Rose Riordan manages to help the actors find enough texture and complexity to keep this from happening.

Maybe you find yourself in conversations about the paucity of strong women’s roles in Hollywood? If you are, the antidote is in a theater near you, where strong, smart, funny women await you.

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Favorite of Playwrights Festival Now a Featured Production

Chloe Hagerman | Be Portland [25 Jan 2012]

Friday was the opening night for Jason Wells’s The North Plan at Portland Center Stage. A fan favorite of the PCS Jaw Playwrights Festival in 2010, PCS was very excited about the world premiere of The North Plan, and Wells himself was in the audience at Gerding Theater for the opening night of his work.

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The North Plan centers on conspiracy and revolution. A new provisional government has taken over Washington after a mysterious “emergency situation,” and they are intent on rounding up people they consider to be enemies. They even have a list. Carlton Berg has a copy of that list and he is on the run from the Department of Homeland Security, until he ends up in a police station in Lodus, Missouri, where his fate and the fate of the names on that list depend on police chief Swenson, administrative assistant Shonda Cox, and Tanya Shepke, a local alcohol enthusiast with an opinion about everything and, possibly, attention-deficit disorder. Opportunities for hilarious misunderstandings and miscommunications abound.

As audience members took their seats, I had a chance to look through the program. I was struck by the section where director Rose Riordan commented on the play, and one character in particular. “The unleashing of the character Tanya Shepke will go down in PCS history,” Riordan said in her Director’s Notes. “We’ve never had anything like her on stage and probably never will again.”

As soon as the play began, we all realized exactly what Riordan meant. The very first scene features Shepke in a prison cell ranting about how she reported herself for drunk driving. With those first few lines the audience knew she was something else, and there was hardly a line actress Kate Eastwood Norris spoke for the rest of the night that didn’t have us all rolling with laughter. During intermission, flattering adjectives such as “fabulous” and “hysterical” were flung freely back and forth.

And it’s absolutely justified. With her frequent foul language and unwavering tough attitude, Shepke’s character stole the show. Though she appeared to be the one least able to influence the plot, she literally took the status quo and made it her own when she burst back into the police station with a hunting rifle to rescue Carlton and ended the play firing a pair of pistols into the air. She embodies the tough, rebellious underdog American spirit served up with plenty of laughter. No wonder Norris received the greatest applause at the end of the evening.

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A comedy of extraordinary rendition.

Ben Waterhouse | Willamette Week [19 Jan 2012]

It’s a terrifying time: The president of the United States has been granted legal authority to hold anyone deemed a threat to the nation indefinitely, without trial, and even to order the assassination of U.S. citizens. In Congress, some legislators have seriously discussed the possibility of turning off the Internet in the name of national security. Reports surface daily of innocents kidnapped by U.S. agents and tortured in secret military prisons. And that’s just this morning’s RSS feed.

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In The North Plan, playwright Jason Wells takes the unchecked growth of America’s security-surveillance-detention complex to its worst possible conclusion, as the U.S. government is torn asunder by a military coup and the flag-waving goons behind it begin rounding up anyone who might be a threat to the regime. The only hope for the future is a single State Department employee (Brian Patrick Monahan), who’s ready to go public with the enemies list. But he’s stuck in a small-town jail, and his only hope is the foulmouthed redneck waitress (Kate Eastwood Norris) he begs to sneak the list out from under the noses of a pair of Homeland Security thugs and expose the plan.

The North Plan is light entertainment at heart, leaning on creaky stereotypes and well-timed vulgarity for laughs and textbook thriller tropes for tension. All that elevates it above a Steven Soderbergh-directed Greater Tuna, besides Norris’ endless bouncy energy and Tim True’s spot-on performance as a small-town cop, is its awful plausibility. Like The Manchurian Candidate or Three Days of the Condor, Wells’ drama is, right up to its abrupt and ambiguous conclusion, an escapist fantasy with no escape. You should leave the theater worried.

But you won’t get any hint of that from Portland Center Stage, which has included in the show’s program a frivolous essay on famous conspiracy theories that compares the play’s authoritarian machinations to Roswell and the faked moon landing. It’s as though Stanley Kubrick had kicked off Dr. Strangelove with a friendly ICBM puppet reminding us that nuclear annihilation isn’t really likely. Not only is the frivolous tone unfair to the playwright, it’s a dereliction of political responsibility.

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Uproarious New Comedy

Anne Adams | Portland Monthly [17 Jan 2012]

In an all-too-plausible dystopian future, the US government has gone into “red alert.” As Facebook, Twitter, and online bank accounts flicker and founder, high-ranking government agents use the chaos to cloak a coup, targeting and detaining civilians as part of a master plan called Readiness Exercise 1984, penned by one (naive, heroic or Machiavellian?) Ollie North. (Famously testifying in ‘87 that he thought Reagan’s Iran-Contra scheme was “a neat idea,” has also apparently hypothesized that mass incarceration of America’s peaceful political dissidents might be neat.)

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Playwright Jason Wells wisely contains the hypothetical national conflict in a microcosm, a police precinct in small-town Missouri with two temporary prisoners: loudmouthed redneck gal Tanya Shepke (Kate Eastwood Norris) who’s being locked up for DUI, and neurotic Jewish gay State Department worker Carlton Berg (Brian Patrick Monahan) who fears that he’s about to be disappeared by G-men for his attempt at whistle-blowing. While their guards try to remain stoically impartial, it’s obvious where their allegiances lie. A part-time law student, police clerk Shonda’s (Ashley Everage) conscience is pricked by Carlton’s plight, but her boss, good ol’ boy police chief Swenson (Tim True) makes it clear that he implicitly trusts the governmental chain of command, and doesn’t cotton to Carlton’s kind.

The dialogue that ensues is nothing short of uproarious. Tanya’s pottymouthed exclamations seem plucked from a particularly countrified episode of Cops, while Carlton’s nervous urgency and straight-man stance are classic (if not clichéd) Jewish comedy tropes. Even as the severity of Carlton’s—and the nation’s—circumstance gradually dawns on the other characters, Tanya’s self-aggrandizing antics continue to rack the audience with irrepressible fits of laughter. There’s a strong sense that we’re all complicit in cognitive dissonance, laughing while the world might very well be ending. As director Rose Riordan puts it, we’re “trying to do the right thing when no one knows what the right thing is.”

Upon the arrival of two Department of Homeland Security agents, the plot, as they say, thickens. “It’s a new world, Pal—one without consequences for us,” declares titanium-jawed Homeland henchman Dale Pittman (Frederic Lehne) to his lighter-loafered partner Bob (Blake DeLong) while calmly tasering Carlton in the balls—but he’s mistaken. Showing how swiftly totalitarian tactics galvanize resistance, Wells suddenly redraws his characters’ party lines, pitting power-mongers against freedom-lovers regardless of their prior political or aesthetic leanings. “I can call some dumb crazy redneck friends of mine…tell them there’s a couple of bureaucrats from Washington here to take their guns away,” threatens an indignant Swenson, kickstarting a darkly comic showdown that spills blue and red blood on both sides.

Philosophically akin to last October’s The Pain and the Itch and The Real Americans, and funnier than both of them combined, The North Plan ultimately unites its audience behind an unlikely hero: the blonde broad with the big guns.

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Review: The North Plan

Gigi Little | Ut Omnia Bene [16 Jan 2012]

So, there was a moment somewhere in the middle of The North Plan where I laughed that kind of laugh that shoots out of your mouth and echoes over the heads of the people in front of you and you miss the next couple lines because you’re thinking about how embarrassed your husband is.

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I want to admit that as we were sitting in the theater waiting for the show to start, as I was reading the Director’s Notes in the program*, and Rose Riordan wrote that, “the unleashing of the character Tanya Shepke will go down in PCS history,” I thought, oh no. I thought, this is going to be some overdrawn, overacted, overblown caricature who everyone’s going to think is hilarious and who’s going to get on my nerves. Nothing against Rose Riordan; anytime a character is lauded like that, I get ready to be annoyed. But she was thoroughly enjoyable. Total off the wall ADD motormouth, shooting f bombs with perfect timing. When she was hilarious right away, I thought, OK, when’s this going to wear thin, and it didn’t wear thin.

I laughed through the whole show. All the characters were funny in their own way, all had this great mix of ridiculous and real. The writing was so smart, and the actors each were so good, there was such - again - pitch perfect timing. One of my favorite moments was a great deadpan back and forth between Tim True [always love him in PCS productions] and Ashley Everage in which he said ___ and she said ___ — oh, heck, I hate spoilers. Just go watch it. The play is a modern screwball comedy about conspiracy theories and renegade government, and going into it, I worried that I’d get lost in the plot-line, that I’d have to remember and interpret all sorts of complex and convoluted twists. When the pace of the show seemed so fast right off the bat, I again worried that I’d get lost in things. But in the end, it’s a simple plot and the candy in this particular show is its craft. The thing you’re sitting there devouring and loving is the craft of the writing, the craft of the acting, the craft of direction.

At intermission, I told Stephen that now was the time you had to worry if the show was going to jump the shark. All the set up was smart and hilarious, but as the plot started gathering steam and winding toward its conclusion, it might start to strain and become the wrong kind of ridiculous. There was a moment just as the second half started, when Tanya entered the scene, where a few lines were an expected kind of funny, but then it took off again, and new particular, funny characters were introduced, and things were different enough to be fresh.

If I had to take issue with anything in the play, I could take issue with the ending - it was definitely audacious but was it right or wrong for ___ to ___ and then for ___to ___? I wasn’t completely sure. Stephen and I left questioning and discussing, and in the end, isn’t that what you want to do as you’re leaving the theater? I’d love to hear what others think of the ending, and I’d highly recommend the show. It’s at Portland Center Stage through February 5.

*Can I mention that I love the PCS always includes a couple features in their program — the Director’s Notes and at least one background article about the show? When I go to plays at other theaters and don’t get this extra stuff in the program, I’m always disappointed.

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