Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
Playwright Kate Benson and director Lee Sunday Evans deliver a feminist take on the rom-com
When [PORTO] begins, there's nothing to see. The theatre stays dark and the curtain doesn't rise. Then an unidentified voice over the God Mic starts describing how sausage gets made in such excruciating detail that some audience members audibly groan.
According to director Lee Sunday Evans, it's a metaphor that "asks us to understand the details behind something we take for granted." For [PORTO] playwright Kate Benson, who also serves as the show's offstage omniscient narrator, one of the things we don't think enough about is the inner workings of a woman's mind.
After a well-reviewed world premiere as part of last year's Exponential Festival, [PORTO] is enjoying an encore run at the WP Theater in a coproduction with The Bushwick Starr in association with New Georges. The surreal romp focuses on a smart but lonely young woman named Porto (played by Julia Sirna-Frest) who spends an inordinate amount of time pondering the rules of modern romance while boozing in a bougie Brooklyn bar. Benson began writing the show years ago while in grad school. After working with Evans on the Obie-winning A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes in 2015, Benson decided she wanted to show "all of her writing" to the director and handed her the script.
Benson says [PORTO] began as an interrogation of the "boy rom-com," i.e. those Judd Apatow movies where the dude is complicated and charming and the lady is two-dimensional and hot. "No one was thinking about the woman's experience in those movies," she explains. "The woman who has a job and a life and walks into a room of grown men playing video games."
But as Benson continued writing, the show evolved from a critique of Hollywood's inherent sexism into something more personal: her own struggles as a woman in a male-dominated society. "I felt the rage of living in a patriarchal society bubbling up, but it was hard to manifest the proud righteousness that I wanted to in my life," she says. "I felt like that stuff was taking a long time to sink down into my consciousness so it would affect my actions."
As [PORTO]'s director, Evans says she aims to make "the experience of being a woman legible" by depicting the titular character's inner life onstage. "It's really difficult to explain," she admits. "It's about a complicated idea of self in relation to romance and sex, and how that sense of self can get distorted or overpowered or questioned in a really profound way through the experience of wanting the attention of men."
In the play, the various voices in Porto's head undermine her attempts at romantic connection. There's even a nightmarish sequence when Porto's self-flagellation is suddenly verbalized by male voices, which Evans finds particularly profound. "Those entrenched mainstream sexist ideas about how women need men and how women should present themselves in order to acquire a man are pretty deep," she says.
Toward the end, two male bar employees transform into Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir and debate what Porto should do in a romantic situation. While it's played for absurd laughs, Benson believes it represents a moment of hope. "For men to play those roles, they have to understand something of what they're saying on an experiential level," she says. "I began to see that it's possible for men and women to understand each other better."
Top image: Julia Sirna-Frest in [PORTO]. Photos by Maria Baranova.