Food for Thought (and Humor) in The Bushwick Starr’s “[porto]”

“[porto]” at The Bushwick Starr. Photo by Marina McClure.

It serves pickled pomegranate, fried chickpea, and grilled sage.

No, it’s not the organic/gluten-free/farm-to-table market down the street; it’s the rustic gastropub in The Bushwick Starr’s (207 Starr St.) new play [porto] though based on Brooklyn’s artisanal food scene trends, these bites might soon appear on your go-to bar’s menu. And like those snacks, the play is a concoction of the satirical, savory, and flat-out strange.

[porto] is part of this year’s (and the second annual) Exponential Festival, a theatrical series promoting works created in New York and performed in Brooklyn. Kate Benson’s funny, meandering, and world-premiere play centers on Porto, a young woman for whom the hipness of Brooklyn’s cultural and foodie offerings has perhaps grown dull.

Porto, whose conscious is drolly voiced from offstage by Benson herself, is played (incarnate) by Julia Sirna-Frest, who refreshingly shades boredom and reveals each micro-stage of Porto’s evolution over the play’s 90 minutes. Her growth is sparked by Hennepin (Jorge Cordova), the bar-going, bearded chap who drinks his namesake’s beer and disrupts Porto’s single-in-Brooklyn ennui. Benson, in a manner that never gets tiresome, narrates each beat of their relationship, from literature bonding and lunar beguilement to fumbling apartment keys before kissing indoors. In this, Benson the writer does stellar work balancing the everyday with the possibility for chance encounters.

Still, the show takes some oddball turns — two not-so voice-of-reason “rabbits” briefly appear before Porto is to eat hasenpfeffer and never appear again, and a half-baked character (Porto’s barfly gal pal) helps bookend the play without adding much humor or meaning to it. In these scenes [porto] teeters on the absurd but not always in a way that feels welcome or jives with the rest of the piece.

These moments are mostly forgivable thanks to director Lee Sunday Evan’s efficient staging, a talented cast, and a strong troupe of designers. Kristen Robinson’s set showcases a handsome bar and apartment, and Kate Marvin’s sound design subtly repeats the same background music at the same bar Porto visits each day (though the choice to use Spanish pre-show music was less subtle and more confusing).

Julia Sirna-Frest as Porto. Photo by Marina McClure.

The rest of the cast is equally strong, including the sharp and sweet Ugo Chukwu as the waiter pining for Porto and Noel Joseph Allain as the bartender who, well, looks and acts just like a serviceable bartender I knew while living in Berkeley. Chukwu and Allain later play, in one of the show’s funnier bits, Porto’s feminist icons imagined as roommates who debate how to handle Hennepin the morning after the hookup, but it might have made more sense to have those godmother-esque roles played by the rabbit actors.

But Porto is in her own bildungsroman, so to follow others’ advice would be to, once again, succumb to her lack of self confidence. She will handle her romance, wisely or not, as she sees fit. After a play of listening to the persistent voice in her head, Porto takes steps out of her apartment and toward becoming Herself. [porto], then, is an amusing little play that — like its titular girl at the end of her little arc — tries not take itself so seriously.

The Exponential Festival runs through the end of the month, with varying shows at North Brooklyn venues including The Brick (579 Metropolitan Ave.), Bushwick Starr (207 Starr St.), Chez Bushwick (307 Boerum St. #23), CPR (361 Manhattan Ave. Unit 1), Triskelion Arts (106 Calyer St.), and Vital Joint (109 Meserole St.).

About Billy McEntee

Billy McEntee has been fortunate to work for arts non-profits in Boston, Denver, Berkeley, and now New York. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Brooklyn Magazine, Indiewire, HowlRound, Eclectica Magazine, and others. He's usually getting wine at Dandelion or eating cookies at Archestratus.

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