Please, return engagement for Address Unknown

The lackluster press coverage was misleading. This Portland play was a gem.
Crosscut archive image.

Michael Mendelson (left) and Tobias Anderson in <i>Address Unknown</i>. (Andie Petkus)

The lackluster press coverage was misleading. This Portland play was a gem.

I blundered through an unlocked side door onto the Dolores Winningstad Theatre main floor a half-hour before curtain time at a performance of Address Unknown, interrupting actors Michael Mendelson and Tobias Andersen as they ran lines. In the few seconds it took to back out the door mumbling apologies, Mendelson shrugged off his role of 1930s art dealer Max Eisenstein, urged me to "enjoy the show," and snapped back into character. His seamless passage between worlds was a good sign, borne out by the Readers Theatre Repertory show that followed. Address Unknown ended a nine-day run recently, and theater-goers who missed it should petition the Portland Center for the Performing Arts for a return. (The Winningstad is the intimate and beautiful Shakespearian-style courtyard stage in PCPA's downtown network of locations, a wonderful place with nary a bad spot among its 292 seats.) The modest audiences for Address Unknown can be blamed on flat previews by local media; the story behind the play, the performance, and nightly post-show "talk back" sessions with actors all belied the lackluster press. Oregonian Kathrine Kressmann Taylor published the short story "Address Unknown" (she used just her middle and last name as a byline) in 1938 and rightfully earned the sobriguet of "the woman who jolted America." Built around an exchange of letters between Max, a Jewish art dealer in San Francisco, and business partner Martin Schulse, who's returned to his native Germany in the early 1930s with his family, the story chillingly predicted the horrific rise of Nazi power. The play, adapted by Frank Dunlop and further interpreted by these producers, immerses us first in small human rituals, replaying history through an actor's single sip of wine, the scratch of his fountain pen. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, the homely details give way as a confrontation with greater issues is forced: our capacity for evil, the erosion of humanity for both the oppressor and the oppressed. At first, Max (well acted by Mendelson, also a producer of this play) and Martin (played energetically but a bit unevenly by Andersen on this particular night) are as close as brothers. Their correspondence mixes business with warm memories of shared dinners, small inside jokes, and the tender secret of Martin's past love affair with Max's sister, a spirited actress beloved by both men. Martin's initial curiosity about the Nazi machine becomes admiration, then full allegiance, while a disbelieving Max follows his friend's transition with rising terror. A plot twist follows, one which gives too much away to be shared here, but as a dramatic-arts professor in the audience observed during the post-show discussion, it ensures that Address Unknown is more than just a simple face-off between right and wrong, good and evil. The Oregon Holocaust Resource Center was a producing partner in this show; holocaust survivors and their family members participated in the discussions, ably moderated by director Mary McDonald-Lewis. The wide-ranging issues brought up by both adults and young students – from war in Iraq to domestic class warfare, xenophobia to freedom of the press – affirm the success of the Readers Theatre Repertory in meeting its mission to stage "small stories with big ideas."


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