by Ryan Leeds
Billy Lewis Jr. in ‘The Portal.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)
For more than twenty years, I have seen the best—and in some cases—the worst that the New York theater scene has to offer. In 2005, I had the misfortune of sitting through Suzanne Somers’ one-woman show, The Blonde in the Thunderbird. Since then, no other theatrical event has compared to its tragic level of badness and it has long been perched on my mantel, earning its place as the worst show I’ve ever seen on a New York stage. Congratulations, Ms. Somers. After 11 years a shaman will relieve you from your post.
The Portal, marketed as “part rock concert, part movie, and part performance” and inspired by “Burning Man, Pink Floyd, EDM, and World mythology” is completely unbearable. Within the first 20 minutes, the Front man (Billy Lewis, Jr.) sings the following lyric:
“What Am I Doing Here?”
Funny he should inquire, as I very quickly was asking myself the exact question.
The cast of ‘The Portal.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)
The disjointed show opens with two musicians, percussionist Gilly Gonzalez and guitarist Paul Casanova, whose music—at least for the first few minutes—evokes Peter Gabriel’s masterful score for the film, The Last Temptation of Christ.
With tribal, Arabic rhythms, they are soon joined on stage by three dancers (Marija Juliette Abney, Jessica Aronoff, and Nicole Spencer) and the Frontman who is dressed in meditation yoga clothes. He begins nearly every number with a primal moan, palms facing out at the hip and raising them above his head as though he were one of the “Ys” in the Village People classic, “Y-M-C-A.”
Marija Juliette Abney (foreground), Jessica Aronoff (background) in ‘The Portal.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)
The lyrics are barely intelligible and, glancing at the musical numbers in the program doesn’t clarify anything. Songs listed include, “Eclipse,” “Greeting,” “Holy Fractal,” “Space Child Fractal,” and “Reaper Fractal.” Composer/lyricists Tierro Lee, Lisa Gerrard, and Daniel Katsuk’s music offers no variety or clarity into what this any of this is all about, but one thing is certain: They really love their fractals!
The show is an interpretation of Dante’s Inferno and much of the action is meant to take place in the mind as stream of consciousness. During many of the songs, projections of Dante and Beatrice are displayed on a huge LED screen, performed respectively by Christopher Soren Kelly and Zarah Mahler.
The Frontman is apparently the spiritual advisor who is guiding their journey from the stress and demands of every day life. Every so often, Beatrice will deliver, breathy, meditative lines about surrender and letting go. One of my personal favorites, “Life is the same as death as the river is to the sea,” may be referencing the circle of life, but my unenlightened mind was still in the dark.
Other random moments include a man in a business suit who enters from upstage, walks among the cast, down the steps to the house, and flashes his illuminated cell phone to one row of the audience. Was he sharing a text message, a tweet, a gif? I have no idea. Later, he returns from the back of the house and strolls down the aisle in a grim reaper costume.
It’s hard not believe that this is simply a vanity project funded by a group of investors who are flush with cash. Peter T. Feuchtwanger and David Goldstein’s set and scenic design—while confusing as hell—are vivid, interesting, and undoubtedly costly, but they still don’t compensate for the weak material. Jessica Chen’s choreography offers very little for the imagination but I can’t blame her. She doesn’t have much inspiration. Nor can I address Luke Comer’s direction because the word doesn’t suit the outcome. I am curious to learn, however, what drew him to this project.
Never did I think I’d yearn for Suzanne Somers’ return to the stage.
Until I went through The Portal.
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Through December 31
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.