[PORTO] Turns the Romantic Comedy on Its Head
Playwright Kate Benson and director Lee Sunday Evans trade destiny for free will at WP Theater.
Individuals vie for power with [ ] (pronounced "brackets"), a bodiless figure who announces, predicts, and occasionally directs the action of the characters in Kate Benson's [PORTO]. Benson herself voices this ethereal presence that she and director Lee Sunday Evans have continued to hone for [PORTO]'s second New York mounting at WP Theater (following its 2017 debut at the Bushwick Starr). Like all good city dwellers, her oddly named characters congregate at a dimly lit bar where they recount the day's activities, indulge in food and drink, and plan an alternate life in which they make better choices.
Choice, however, especially when it involves romance, comes with blurred lines, imprecise rules, and impossible moral imperatives that could make you want to forsake free will altogether. This confused concept of choice lands in the center of Benson's play: an unconventional love story that not only gives its leading lady (the title character Porto) unprecedented agency, but shows how that agency is both created and undermined by all the voices swirling around her.
Kate, what was the seed of the idea behind [PORTO]?
Kate Benson: I was in grad school. It was my last play, and I was thinking, "What haven't I tried? I haven't tried a love story." I was sick of the Judd Apatow-style boy romantic comedies. They're great and funny and wonderful, but they're also really frustrating to my feminism. It just feels like men have all of the liberties and women don't get to do much more than be there and fulfill various stereotypes, so it was time to turn that upside down. I was very single and I was thinking about what I wanted from a romantic comedy and what I wanted from romance.
Lee, what was your first impression when Kate brought this play to you?
Lee Sunday Evans: My first impression was about the richness of the language and the mystery of this brackets character. It took some deep interrogation to understand how to create the right emotional and energetic and narrative arc for the piece as a whole, and how to let the piece be character-driven. We wanted to make this woman's inner life really legible and accessible to the audience watching — and at the same time celebrate what's structurally unconventional about the play.
The  character is one of the most unconventional, and one of the most central aspects of the play. Why create this disembodied, omniscient voice to oversee the events of Porto's life?
Kate: I was thinking about art as a secular kind of space. If we go there in worship of something, what are we worshipping? And then I thought, the people who have enough privilege to go out to the bar and worry about things like happiness — those people, whoever they are, they don't talk about free will as a term in the way that it is discussed in some religious arenas. They exercise it, but they also understand without talking about it that there are all kinds of things that are outside of their control. So I thought that there needed to be some kind of God character. I wanted to explore a sense of personal choice and responsibility and the idea that we might not have as much of that as we think — and we might not take as much of that as we ought to.
Lee: It took me a while to really understand how to make it effective. The thing that I learned and finally cracked was that there were some times when brackets drew the audience's attention like the panning of a camera, and other times when brackets would describe something that was just about to happen. That kind of omniscience — of brackets knowing these people so deeply and being able to see what they were about to do I found really important to understanding the X-ray vision of that presence in the play. It takes on all of this incredible meaning about fate and free will that I found really satisfying to work on.
The way it's framed in the play, personal choice seems like an impossible burden. If you eat foie gras, you're complicit in the torture of animals. If you make a man coffee in the morning, you're bolstering the patriarchy. Is free will more paralyzing than it is freeing?
Kate: When writing the play, I was thinking about the complexity of what we enjoy and the ways in which, in order to live through a day, you sort of have to turn yourself a little bit blind to the consequences of the choices that you make. What you eat is coming to you through so many complex systems. How do you eat responsibly? I actually don't know that I can. I don't know what the answers are but if we don't wrestle with this — if the answer is doled out like an ice cream cone, then what are we really doing? And who's doling out the ice cream cone?
Lee: There's this very deep cognitive dissonance that we live with in our contemporary lives. We know more about the ethical, economic, social justice-related problems of basically every aspect of our society: global warming, systemic racism, political corruption, the food industry, patriarchal sexism. We're so deeply steeped in how broken so much of our society is that it can feel impossible to function. And I think that this play captures something very particular about that experience in a way that is both hard-hitting and also cathartic. We're all in a room together talking about it, so I think the process of the play offers, if not an answer, the feeling that you're not alone.
Kate: Nobody is an island. If there's something I want people to walk away with, it's that.