A subtle aesthetic is starting to emerge at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, which for the past couple of seasons has mounted a series of tight, powerful works by playwrights (some with ties to Eugene or the Northwest in general) who tackle the prickly issues of what it means and how it feels to live in this world right now.
Call the aesthetic postmodern-domestic, or perhaps urban-erotic. Taking a cue from masters like Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, these plays burrow into our deepest intimacies, gathering their dramatic force not from grand gestures but, rather, from the crackling connections of close relationships fraught with love, loss, humor and anxiety.
OCT’s latest production fits snugly into this contemporary aesthetic while also pushing the envelope in thrilling ways. Jason Robert Brown’s musical play, The Last Five Years, tells the sad-happy story of Cathy (Evynne Hollens) and Jamie (Ethan Crystal), who meet, fall in love, get married and then fall apart. But there’s a twist, and the twist is everything.
The play, directed by OCT artistic director Craig Willis, is narrated inversely: Jamie, an aspiring novelist, starts his story at the beginning of the romance, and Cathy, an aspiring actress, begins the play at the end of the marriage. Despite sharing the stage, the characters only interact once, as they meet in the middle of their reversed timelines.
Hence, as Cathy and Jamie react to this and that moment, we are given a kind of counterpoint, an echo that moves back and forth across time. The thrill of one is chilled by the heartbreak of the other. The effect is bracing, as though fate is at once foretold and undone.
The musical pieces, written and composed by Brown and accompanied by a live chamber orchestra, are fantastic, by turns hilarious and haunting. The play is narrated almost entirely in song, even more so than in classic musicals, and both Hollens and Crystal carry the show — so much so that the reverse-chronological-singing about a busted relationship by two people who only meet once in real time comes across as not only coherent but perfectly natural.
OCT’s The Last Five Years is an innovative piece of theater executed with confidence and grace. It funnels the propulsive drive and infectious rhythms of musical theater into the tighter spaces of romantic drama, and the tension gives off sparks.
The Last Five Years plays through Feb. 6 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre; $15-$30, tickets at octheatre.org or 465-1506.