Entertainment » Theatre

The Oregon Trail

by Meg Currell
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Nov 9, 2016
Emily Yetter as Mary Anne, Alex Leigh Ramirez as Then Jane and Leif Norby as Clancy
Emily Yetter as Mary Anne, Alex Leigh Ramirez as Then Jane and Leif Norby as Clancy   

"The Oregon Trail" is an entertaining jaunt through the task of growing up seen through the lens of the iconic video game titled "The Oregon Trail." Starting in a middle school computer lab circa 1997 and flipping into live-action scenes from the video game, and back into modern day, "The Oregon Trail" is the tale of an adolescent grappling with intense feelings, the pressure of growing up, and a lack of skills and support to handle her feelings of being overwhelmed.

Using the video game as a means of framing the tribulations of young adulthood was clever and funny. The graphics of the game were projected onto a screen set up to make the upstage area look like a huge computer monitor. Inside this "monitor," the action of the video game was brought to life on a well-designed set that allowed the characters to "walk" across the country on their way to Oregon.

Downstage, the teenager playing the game-named Jane-roils through the roughest years of adolescence and early adulthood as her video-game counterpart-also named Jane-wrestles with some of the same issues. "Now" Jane works out some of her angst through the game, and "Then" Jane deals with the loss of her mother and trying not to die on the Oregon Trail.

They lead very similar lives.

With a script that's brash and funny, a cast of talented actors with great comedic timing, and deft set design, "The Oregon Trail" is a fun show, particularly for adults of a certain age group. This is definitely not a show for kids, despite the video game tie-in, but for anyone who grew up playing "Oregon Trail" or came of age in the '90s, "The Oregon
Trail" hits all the marks.

Two small things disappointed: the end of the play is abrupt, and offers no resolution to either storyline. In fact, the arc of the narrative is strangely truncated, and seems hastily finalized, not thought through and brought to a logical conclusion. And I was struck by how oddly situated this show was on the main stage in one of the best theatrical production stages in Portland.

Portland Center Stage has hosted some grand productions, from the stunning "Ain't Misbehavin'" to the deeply moving "Our Town," to the delightful "Little Shop of Horrors," shows with heft and import. "The Oregon Trail" lacks those qualities, its primary thesis never rising to a point of any significance. It's cute and appealing, certainly, but the meaning derived from the story seems narrow, targeted, not expansive. Its smallness seemed ill-fitted to a main-stage production.

What wasn't small, however, was the talent represented onstage. Leif Norby delivers the voice of the video game in satisfying ironic banter as well as the part of Clancy, Jane and Mary Anne's father on the road to Oregon. Sarah Baskin as Now Jane is perfectly angst-ridden and pathetic, making Now Jane a sympathetic teenager instead of just an annoying one. That's quite a feat.

Alex Leigh Ramirez was wonderful as Then Jane, a confident performer. Mary Anne, who appears as Now Jane's ultra-driven sister and as Then Jane's ultra-achieving sister, is handled capably by Emily Yetter in what must be an exhausting costume-change part. Yetter maintained a perky energy throughout, for which she deserves enthusiastic cheers. Chris Murray plays Billy/Matt, the "bro" of the cast, to loathsome effect. He was so good I couldn't stand him.

For a lighthearted evening of fun, something we are all sorely needing, please see "The Oregon Trail" with my recommendation. You'll have a great laugh.

"The Oregon Trail" runs through November 20 at Portland Center Stage, The Armory, 128 NW Eleventh Ave Portland OR 97209. For tickets and information, call 503-445-3700 or go to https://www.pcs.org/oregontrail

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.

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