[PORTO] PUB CRAWL with Lee Sunday Evans, Julia Sirna-Frest, and Kate Benson

photo by

The show [PORTO] has traveled from our theater in Bushwick, where it premiered last January, to WP Theater on the Upper West Side, where it’s currently in previews. We thought we’d follow in its footsteps with a good old fashioned pub crawl, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, with three fabulous women of the play: director Lee Sunday Evans, Julia Sirna-Frest who stars as [Porto], and playwright Kate Benson (who also performs in the show).

Stop 1: Calabrije’s, Bushwick
Nachos & Margaritas

Tell us about the artistic journey of remounting the show. What’s new this time around?

Julia: The play is so in our bodies and we know it so well, that getting to dive back in is really beautiful because there’s this well of truth that’s already there and I feel like I’m able to trust something that I don’t know that I was able to trust before. There’s a deepening of the whole thing that’s happening.

Kate: The fear that I have is that I (as a writer) will tamper with something that was delightfully tangled in an effort to sort of brush out the hair of the wig, and lose that particular curl that worked so well. But then there’s an ultimate sense of ‘who the hell knows why anything in a theater works’? It’s a kind of dance to visit it again and figure out what to adjust, if anything.

Lee: Many of the choices we made for the last run were totally based on the space at the Starr— so one of the most exciting things about the remount has been thinking about how to bring that site specific quality of the bar to WP Theater.

Kate: I’m going to be vague about this because I don’t wish to spoil anything for anyone. There is one part of the play that we did some rethinking about, partly based on the newness of the world we’re living in a year later. And I don’t know how to talk about it past that without ruining it! But I’m hoping that lots of people come back to see it again because I’m curious to hear how it strikes them differently a year later. I also think, if I may step outside of myself as a performer for a moment, this cast is amazing. And a chance to get to see them after they’ve aged and brewed for a year— and I mean that like wine or meat— what has settled, what kind of strange chemistry has occurred to allow them to do what they do… I can tell you from inside the room, it is beautiful.

What character do you identify with most in the show?

Kate: All of them! Well aspirationally, probably Hennepin. His ability to live in the present is enviable to me, and he’s not afraid of strangers. He’s not afraid of someone approaching. As a shy person and as a New Yorker, I have various relationships with people approaching me. On the other hand, my mother was teasing me about the role I am playing in the show, and that of course I thought I should play some sort of God character. I do love the observing I get to do. I am a compulsive eavesdropper, I stare at strangers for too long— I can’t help myself, other people are so interesting!

Julia: I deeply identify with Porto, even though she’s different from me in many ways. But then I also have a bit of Rafael in my being…

Kate and Lee: Yes, you do!

Julia: I maybe live in those two characters, where some days I can go into my Porto zone and other days I can exist in the positivity of Rafael the Waiter… or maybe I just wanna be Ugo, it’s hard to know!

Lee: There’s something really amazing about the play in that every character is so relatable, and I recognize myself in all the different positions they take with each other. So it’s hard to choose. Like today when we were working on Dry Sac’s song, I felt for a moment that I wished I was that character, because she can make that little thing into something so fun and just run with it without any inhibition. But if I had to pick one character, it would have to be Porto in terms of her inner life and how she’s processing it.

Julia: It was so cool to see how audiences related to the characters. So many women came up to me after the show who I didn’t know, that felt they had to tell me, “I felt so seen, thank you”. All different kinds of women— not a certain age, not a certain type— and they were just like, “Ugh, YES!”

Stop 2: The Magician, Lower East Side
Makers Mark & Soda with Bitters

The world has changed since the original run at the Starr, in terms of the climate and conversations around women's rights and feminism. Does the show have a different reflective surface than it did before?

Kate: When we were doing this play the first time, there were expressions of patriarchy and sexism that I thought were just patently ridiculous, and I don’t feel that way about them any more. They feel much more sinister than they did a year ago. One of the expressions of an uber male chauvinism in the play that I found really easy to just brush off last year now feels like, “Oh! There are actually people who have chosen not to think about things from a woman’s point of view, and not to think about things from a feminine point of view” in a way that wasn’t clear to me last time. And then the other part is that I don’t think I’m talking to an audience that is asleep in their cups anymore. People are very aware of the political consequences of the choices they’re making now in a way that they weren’t a year ago. I don’t think we were all thinking about that together as much as we are now, and trying to figure out collective resistance as much as we are now. It’s interesting to see us trying to learn how to do that again.

Julia: The night that we did the show after the Women’s March last year, when you said the line, “Being alone at a bar is a feminist act”, the play stopped. It was incredible. 75 people cheered at the word ‘feminist’ in this way that I hadn’t totally anticipated. And so now, after this year of living through all the stuff that’s hit us, it’s going to be interesting to see how certain moments land. It’s weird thinking back to the fact that I got the role the second after I voted for Hillary Clinton last year. I voted for her, I walked out, I got the email, and I remember being like, “The future is female!”. And then as that night progressed, it slowly turned into, “Well actually nothing matters and we shouldn’t even do plays”. But then I remember getting into the process and feeling that it was really important. So it’s going to be exciting to see where it hits people now.

Kate: Seeing a play is a chance to sit with something for longer than reading an article— there’s a duration in theater that I think is really important right now. And I sometimes think about this play as being a little side door into the center of the issues. Where does your consciousness sit, and what are you ready to do, and what are you seeking, and what does that mean for the ways that you’re going to participate?

Lee: Part of the revelation of women telling their inner monologues about their experiences around sex is that there’s a long history of women feeling like their inner life isn’t going to be valued when they talk about it. And so they don’t talk about it in a main stream public sphere. There is something about this play that allows a really regular night at a bar, and regular interactions with people kissing and deciding to sleep together, to show the complexity of a woman’s experience of going through those things— looking at how it’s difficult to find a sense of equal footing in relationships, no matter how conscious you are or how conscious your partner is. I think people may not have recognized some of the signifiers around sexual dynamics and gender experiences in the play before, because it’s psychological and nuanced and it isn’t didactic.  If you weren’t already bringing that mindset to the show, you might see things now that hit on a current zeitgeist in a different way. And that feels really exciting to me. Like when we were just working on the Gloria and Simone scene, they’re at once saying “You live in a patriarchal society, so you have to be able to free yourself from within”, and at the same time “You are trapped in the maze of the patriarchy and you can’t get out”. So I think there’s a new sense of us all remembering that that’s really true. And one other thing that I think is important about this play in relationship to this moment is that I’ve heard lots of people say things like, “Is this reckoning going to make people ashamed of their desire?”,  and “Is the puritanical streak in our society that’s already so strong going to take this “Me Too” movement and actually create a conservative attitude towards sex?” And part of what’s amazing about this play is that it’s celebrating desire and celebrating pleasure at the same time that it’s talking about the complexities of how you pursue desire and pleasure. Part of the sexual harassment reckoning we need to have is that women do have sexual desire and you can’t let the conversation stop at the idea that men are always the pursuers, and that men always get to be the ones who’s desire is the dominant, oppressive force. There’s something important about the way this play keeps desire and pleasure as a part of the conversation.

Stop 3: Red Farm, Upper West Side
Dumplings & Malbec

Speaking of desire and pleasure, the play connects food to our carnal yearnings, and features sensuous and decadent dishes such as foie gras sausage. It makes one character moan with bliss. When have you had a ‘this food is better than sex’ moment?

Kate: We were camping and drunk, and there was leftover ham steak, and s’mores were being made, and somebody was like, “Let’s put the ham in the s’more!” And it was so good. The smokey fire-cooked meat combined with the texture of the marshmallow was like, “Uh-oh!”

Julia: I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I was eating something chocolate once and William said something to me and I was like, “Don’t talk”. I was having a moment.

Lee: Deep comfort food like spaghetti and meatballs, grilled cheese with mustard… with pickles and whiskey.

Kate: Now we’re getting there.

Julia: The mustard is key.

Kate: Part of living in New York is about easy access to pleasure. And part of living in New York is about having your pleasures questioned. I think [PORTO] is a really gentle and fun way of engaging with some of those questions. It is less usual than it should be to see a play that is all about a woman. But it’s also appealing and relevant to many different types of people. Everybody has a say. There aren’t any characters that don’t get to speak for themselves.

Julia: It is its own love letter to New York about living in an ever-changing city and the complicated feelings people have about gentrification— it has all of that in it in a digestible way without letting you off the hook. It’s not a cupcake— it’s a steak of a play.

Kate: It might be a cupcake with a piece of steak inside…

Julia: Or a bacon-wrapped cupcake…

Kate: Yes! That’s right.

Sue Kessler