Back to Back Theatre, small metal objects
Posted by: Dusty Hoesly
Back to Back Theatre’s small metal objects is a deceptively simple performance about a disrupted drug deal (which takes place in Pioneer Courthouse Square). While the plot is easier to ascertain, the motivations are less so: why does one of the dealers not want to work with today’s buyer? In a show that prioritizes friendship over quick cash, people over money, we see what the world ought to be. The actors with the disabilities play characters who know the value of friendship, while the actors without disabilities play characters who have yet to learn that value.
Two actors with developmental or mental disabilities, one fat (Gary) and one skinny (Steve), both wearing track suit pants, talk about relationships and their friendship. Minimalist piano and guitar work accompanies the dialogue, providing a soundtrack and a subtle ocean-in-the-distance atmosphere. They speak quietly about their ordinary lives: Gary eats a roast and watches a movie with his wife after the kids go to bed on his fifteenth wedding anniversary; Steve just wants a girlfriend but he can’t find a girl. The actors rarely use hand gestures or move much as they stand facing one another and talking earnestly. “I would take a bullet for my family.” “You want to be the best man you can be.” “If I lost you I don’t know what I’d do with my life. I don’t want to lose you, Gary.” Are we as open with our intimates as these friends are?
Their dialogue is interrupted by a man named Allen calling to buy $3,000 worth of drugs. After Gary agrees, we see Allen on the square wearing a smart-looking suit and walking like a man with purpose, young and confident. He asks bystanders if they are Gary until he finds him. The bystanders answer quickly that they are not and return to what they were doing. When Allen and Gary meet, Steve counts the money and Gary says they’ll have to go “to the lockers” to get the merchandise. Steve refuses to budge, telling Gary that he is “thinking about feelings and stuff” and “missing a feeling.” Even as Allen agitates for Gary to get the drugs, Gary refuses, instead sticking by his friend. What is it to be pressured? How do we respond to pressure? Are we as steadfast as Steve and Gary?
When Gary gets coffee to bide time, Allen pressures Steve and offers more money, to no avail. Frustrated, he dials Caroline, an office associate and psychologist, who comes to rescue the drug deal. Still, Gary refuses to help: “Steve won’t leave that spot, and I won’t leave Steve.” She tries talking with Steve, offering him more money, counseling him, and he starts to walk with her towards the lockers, telling her he’d like to find a real girlfriend. About her work, she says it’s “very satisfying helping people be more productive and efficient.” When he stops again, she offers him a blowjob, but he refuses to go along. Her perverse offering (instant sexual gratification) is not what he is asking for (a long-term relationship). What happens when people without disabilities rely on people with disabilities? How do they handle their frustration? Do we act like Allen and Caroline, rushing them instead of showing patience?
Soon after Allen and Caroline leave, Steve says to Gary, “I feel much better now.” His agency and his friendship are validated; he did what he felt he needed to do and his friend stuck by him. We witness Steve and Gary’s affecting portrayals and vitality throughout the play, as do spectators who have the patience to stay for a show they can’t hear. Our voyeurism is not the result of our prying, but rather of the actors’ invitation to overhear and watch in the open: we hear and see their private drama play out in public. We wear the headphones so we know what is going on, while other spectators on the square only experience the part of the story they see (perhaps making up their own narrative about the drama and what we’re listening to).
Pioneer Courthouse Square was a mixed bag as a location. It’s ideal in theory: lots of human traffic to possibly interact with the actors, thereby shaping the performance. In reality, however, few people gathered on the square or walked across it during the performance, except for a committed crew of hacky sackers, and their interactions were very brief. The few that lingered did so at the edges of the square, watching the audience wearing headphones as much as the actors in the show (whom they could not hear). I wish the square had been busier so that the performance could involve more people, so we could see how they interacted with the actors. Instead, on a quiet summer night in Portland’s living room, we saw a beautiful story of two friends affirming the value of their friendship.