Review: ‘[PORTO]’ at WP Theater

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Now in its impressive Off-Broadway premiere at WP Theater in association with New Georges, following a critically-acclaimed run in the 2017 Exponential Festival at The Bushwick Starr (co-presenter of the current production), [PORTO] is an incisively clever, extremely funny, and imaginatively surreal rom-com by the Obie Award-winning team of Playwright Kate Benson and Director Lee Sunday Evans. Set in a present-day gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn, where the eponymous woman is a regular at a local “bouchey” bar (you’ll have to go to find out what that apropos mash-up of adjectives means), the highly-inventive work is a spot-on send-up of trendy Gen Y stereotypes, contemporary pressures of requisite behavior and taste, and ingrained feminist principles that make looking for love even more difficult than it already is for a post-modern female.

Julia Sirna-Frest, Leah Karpel, Noel Joseph Allain, and Jorge Cordova. Photo by Maria Baranova.
Julia Sirna-Frest, Leah Karpel, Noel Joseph Allain, and Jorge Cordova. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Benson creatively interweaves the angst of the Millennial generation with observations on our socio-political climate, germane historical literary references, and gruesome matter-of-fact descriptions of the callous breeding, treatment, and butchering of animals to indulge carnivorous appetites (I am a devout animal-lover and vegetarian who found those dispassionate passages effectively sickening) as a metaphor for the often heartless, frequently devastating, and always uncertain meat market of dating. Throughout the show, voice-over stage directions are provided by the playwright, as the unseen but omnipresent [ ] – as in “[insert thoughts here]” – whose running commentary is merged with the conflicted inner voice of Porto, an intelligent and lonely over-thinker filled with self-doubt and insecurities, who’s been burned in love before and has [almost] convinced herself that she’d rather be alone.

With characters that are named for their occupation or defined by their drink of choice, the terrific cast, under Evans’ expertly-tempered direction, offers hilarious yet believable performances that lampoon the all-too-familiar figures. Doug the Bartender, a pretentious hipster know-it-all who verbally abuses the denizens of his establishment, is played to parodic perfection by Noel Joseph Allain. Leah Karpel’s Dry Sac, an excessive drinker who doesn’t often eat and regularly falls off her barstool, is cute but clueless, putting the blame on others to excuse her own deleterious self-indulgences. The irresistible Ugo Chukwu captures all of the idealism of Raphael the Waiter, an attentive and pleasant dreamer with a romantic appreciation for well-read women, who has hopes of opening his own combination library-bar someday. And Jorge Cordova’s hetero-normative Hennepin is an ordinary beer-drinking guy who has just wandered into the bar for the first time, in search of a drink, some food, and, it seems, a hook-up.

Ugo Chukwu and Julia Sirna-Frest. Photo by Maria Baranova.
Ugo Chukwu and Julia Sirna-Frest. Photo by Maria Baranova.

In the lead role, the excellent Julia Sirna-Frest delivers the range of Porto’s emotions, her nagging doubts and trepidation, her loneliness and longing, with fully-accessible humor and heart. Along with the laughably real interactions, there are laugh-out-loud preternatural episodes inside Porto’s mind, in which her friends from the bar take the form of over-sized Dumb Bunnies that offer her outdated instructions on how to get a man, or morph into Simone De Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem, who use her conduct on the morning after to fuel a debate on feminist theory at her kitchen table. The format is surprising, engaging, and delightfully original.

Kristen Robinson’s spot-on set design brings all the right elements to the au-courant bar, and to Porto’s book-lined apartment, transitioning easily from one scene to another with the opening and closing of the stage curtains. Lighting by Amith Chandrashaker sets the moods, costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter fit the personalities (the big furry  bunny heads and paws are especially amusing), and sound by Kate Marvin is clear and effective.

Benson and Evans should have another well-deserved hit on their hands with WP Theater’s production of [PORTO], a razor-sharp show that speaks to the challenges of living beyond the confines of a cynical attitude, forsaking societal standards of perfection, opening yourself up to possibilities, being okay with who you are, and taking a chance – as imperfect as it might appear to be.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.

[PORTO] plays through Sunday, March 4, 2018, at WP Theater at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre – 2162 Broadway, 4th floor, NYC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.