Inner monologues push characters to fix themselves in [Porto]


If there is a physical form to inner thought given shape out in the world, then it would be hard-pressed to find something other than Kate Benson’s hilarious, Brechtian trek into hipster Brooklyn, [Porto], currently playing an encore run at the WP Theater after a critically acclaimed 2017 run at The Bushwick Starr.

Housed on the tiny mainstage of the historic McGinn/Cazale Theatre, [Porto] spreads its wings and takes flight in the way it wants its characters to.

The work is narrated by Benson herself, who is credited using the punctuation []; some combination of an omniscient narrator, the titular character’s inner thoughts and god-like manifestation of the work itself.

Benson’s character is somewhat reminiscent of the outside narrators who populated the works of Bertolt Brecht, though his narrators were usually people, not the insecurities of a modern woman given incorporeal voice.

Porto, played by Julia Sirna-Frest, is forever trapped inside her own head and unable to self-actualize in the aftermath of some mysterious heartbreak.

Anyone who has been hurt in love can attest that going forward after pain can be the emotional equivalent of invading Russia in the winter, and Porto is in no rush to be doing any invading.

Her thoughts, however, have some very different ideas about how to deal with the anxieties that trouble her and, by extension, themselves.

Kate Benson’s [] occasionally feels the need to take command of the situation and get Porto out of her own head, to some seriously mixed results. It is the little segments like that meta-theatrical coup d’état that make [Porto] so wonderfully irreverent and wise.

Directed by Lee Sunday Evans, the parlance and the body language of the characters that populate a “bouchey” Brooklyn bar elevate them beyond hilarious caricatures, becoming as warm as the Edison lights that hover above Doug the Bartender’s kingdom of venison jerky.

Noel Joseph Allain’s Doug exudes hipster pretentiousness with such a striking familiarity that his very swagger cannot help but incite a ripple of laughter from anyone who has met a dealer in foie gras sausage, or any other such pretentious delicacy. Raphael the Waiter, portrayed with a sassy edge by Ugo Chukwu, comes off like any normal man, until his high and incredibly specific standards come through with a shade of misogyny thrown in.

Rounding out the cast are Jorge Cordova’s Hennepin, bookish and somewhat pathetic in his seclusion, and Porto’s buddy Dry Sac, played out with a wonderful manic energy from Leah Karpel. Both bedecked in appropriately modern garb by costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter, they relay the problematic frames of the world they inhabit, whether it is through passively taking in everything like Hennepin or suffering from permanent exasperation at the world like Dry Sac.

The warmth of those Edison lights, brought about with such charm by lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker, is not enough to keep out the chill of their lives. Everyone in the play is missing something; it is merely a matter of time before they understand just what that missing something is.

[Porto] is not a play that relishes in the suffering of its inhabitants, though it would be  remiss to say that there is no hilarious suffering in the work, but the show instead actively tries to save the lives of people who are so adrift in their pretensions and worries. The narrative technique Benson employs hammers this point home very well, trying to annoy Hennepin out of his passive acceptance of the things he does and the foods he eats. Most significantly, Benson tries to help Porto escape the never-ending loop of her own thoughts. It is pretty fun to watch the play’s narrator argue and change opinions just like any other character, but one could only be so lucky as to have a work of fiction attempt to improve their lives.

Ultimately, [Porto] is a rare sympathetic comedy that strives to make one feel more alive after experiencing it. Meanness is easy to mine comedy out of, but kindness produces a much rarer gem.

The ways that the work makes the characters suffer feel less like throwing stones when they are not looking and more like good-natured, if pointed, teasing meant to incite some sort of action.

Action and change are the goals of anyone trying to step out of a rut, it is just a matter of getting that push. What no one ever remembers is that the push comes from inside, not from an exterior happenstance that will change everything. Taking a break from the usual might actually yield something decent, if anything.

Benson’s finely-tuned machine of a comedy proves itself to not only be funny but incredibly timely in its skewering of hipster culture and the isolation it has managed to breed. The static noise of anxiety never quite goes away but the inability to recognize it and deal with it only makes that noise much worse.

It does not take a huge step to escape the noise, but in the case of Porto and [Porto], those steps seem very long, arduous miles of internal debate and second-guessing. If only everyone had an inner voice with absolute power to guide them when times get tough and a drink enough to warm them.