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'If/Then' answers, and asks, intriguing questions

“If/Then” is a schizophrenic, fantastical, hip and ultra-modern production set in a 1970s utopian version of New York City. The Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University production elevates the notions of choice, chance, consequence and infinite possibility into bipolar madness and ultimately to hope.

Elizabeth divorces as she nears 40, pushing her ex and Arizona’s desert strangeness into the past. New York is the future, and Elizabeth is there for the city’s urban renewal, neighborhood innovation and gentrification. Chance and choice intersect as Elizabeth lives two parallel lives — one as Beth, a successful urban planner who longs for love; and the other, Liz, a frustrated mother and wife who is in love.

“If/Then” is the story of early 1970s women who couldn’t have it all, who either worked and fulfilled their instincts for independence and career or who made children, husband and home the center of their lives.

The curiosity of “If/Then” is that Elizabeth chooses both paths and lives out both lives in parallel universes but is unaware of the twin tracks. SOU junior Katie Bullock has the role of Elizabeth and her alts, Liz and Beth. Two friends pull Elizabeth in opposite directions, Hunter Sims Douglas as Lucas reinforces Beth’s safe choices on work and public good, and Sarah Green as Kate lures Liz into a life of chance and excitement.

Bullock has a voice and demeanor well suited to her central role as Elizabeth; her flexible vocal and emotional stamina is superb. She commands the stage with her confusion in “What the F*ck,” and “I Love You I Hate You,” when her rage and grief span every inch of the theater.

Often, the characters Liz and Beth will perform the same scores, but from their own perspectives, which changes the rendition and intention.

Hunter Sims Douglas and Sarah Green too show their talent as they alter their approach and meaning when their characters, Lucas and Kate, face Beth or Liz, but their essential goodness and care for their friend never waver.

Two men are Elizabeth’s romantic interests, Beth’s Josh, played by Tyler Page, is loving, caring and protective; Page surrounds Bullock’s body with tenderness, literally and figuratively. And Liz’s love is Scottie Tsubota in the role of Stephen, somewhat smarmy but well-meaning and intent on good even if he sacrifices Liz on the altar of New York’s Phoenix-like rise from the embers.

There’s a large ensemble cast in “If/Then” and a full orchestra on stage directed by Karl Iverson. These two elements, along with the set, grounds the production in the place that is New York. In “If/Then,” both ensemble and orchestra fill the theater with noise, syncopated rhythms, melodies and discordant sounds.

The ensemble is a diverse mix of ethnicities represented by dress and held props that make up New York, moving together with angular, harsh steps and gestures. You feel the city’s heartbeat in their steps, sounds and movements.

The set of “If/Then” is spectacular and is a visual representation of the place and the intentions of the production. Steel cutouts fracture the backdrop and frame the orchestra. As set designer Sean O’Skea described it, the cutouts are the six degrees of separation between any two people and are a brilliant expression of cosmic relationship, chance and intention. The set suggests Central Park, the subway, and those huge beautiful windows way up high are Penn Central, now gone, or Penn Station, still frantic. In “If/Then,” these windows are filled with maps of the city, so familiar. Rounded bars, terraced walkways and textured surfaces all pay homage to New York.

The writers of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal,” Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, showcase a city they clearly love and a female actor who can carry the strong, complex role. The production is directed and choreographed by Valerie Rachelle, Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s artistic director.

“If/Then” could just as easily be titled “What If?” because its central theme of uncertainty and anxiety — given the infinite possible consequences of any choice — is a look back at what might have been. In “If/Then,” the question of “what if” is life long, and in this wonderful OCA production is softened, less fearful and perhaps more sentimental when glimpsed through the lens of time.

“If/Then” continues in the Oregon Center for the Arts Main Stage through Sunday, March 1. The March 1 performance is a matinee and will be followed by a post-show talk back. For ticket information, see OCA.sou.edu, call 541-552-6101 or visit the box office, 491 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Elizabeth (Katie Bullock), center, lives out two lives simultaneously in the Oregon Center for the Arts production of “If/Then.” She lives one life as Beth, with Lucas (Hunter Sims-Douglas), left, and the other life as Liz, with Josh (Tyler Page), right. Photo by Kim Budd