Tuesday, January 16, 2018

God of Carnage – Dark Humor in The Grove

Benjamin Philip, Kate Barrett, Teri Lee Scoles, and Brandon Weaver.
Photo by Jenn McFarling.

By Tina Arth

Theatre in the Grove’s current offering, God of Carnage, is a beautiful (but not pretty) and hilarious (but not always fun) piece of theater that inhabits a grey area between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Married with Children. This vision of marriage is softened only by author Yasmina Reza’s incessant dark humor – the sort of show where you don’t really know whether to laugh or cry, but come down on the side of laughter (and feel a bit guilty about it). Director Zach Centers is no stranger to gut-punching theater, and I still have flashes of PTSD four years after he brought August, Osage County to Forest Grove, but he and his cast find in Carnage a much less painful way to celebrate the savage potential of urbane American society.

The plot is secondary – just a set-up to bring the cast together to illustrate what four people can do with a sparse, sharp script and some really brilliant acting. Brooklyn residents Michael and Veronica Novak are hosting an awkwardly civilized meeting with neighbors Alan and Annette Raleigh to discuss an unfortunate incident – a disagreement between their eleven-year old sons that culminated in the Raleigh boy whacking young Novak with a stick, knocking out a couple of teeth. The two women are, at first, determined to have a reasonable discussion about how they should respond. Through facial expressions, tone of voice, and exquisite timing we gradually detect hostile undercurrents that fight their way to the surface as the show evolves. Bleeding-heart Veronica just wants everything to resolve with a kumbaya moment of sincere apology in a meeting between the two boys, while Alan, convinced that his son is an unrepentant savage, sees no point in trying. Annette, like Veronica, initially aims at civility, and Michael, while a bit crass, seems to have some human potential until we learn about an unfortunate hamster-related tragedy. Alliances constantly shift throughout the show, and as the cast moves from espresso and clafouti to rum and cigars they show us exactly who they are. What begins as two couples confident that their spouses have their backs ends up as an expose of the dog-eat-dog character of their marriages and lives, ruled more by a god of carnage than a god of love.

Tori Lee Scoles is quite wonderful as the initially nervous Annette, who murmurs all of the right sentiments while her eyes send death-rays of contempt at her hostess (who puts apples and pears in clafouti?) and her disengaged, cell-phone addicted ass of a spouse – and she’s even more fun when the rum kicks in.  Benjamin Philip’s Alan is the man we most love to hate – a snide, disengaged “wealth manager” who has offloaded all responsibility for home and parenting on his wife. Even before we see the cell phone, he is clearly despicable, and his frequent phone interruptions of the group’s discussion reveal a fundamental vileness that goes way beyond poor manners.

Kate Barrett brings a hefty dose of self-righteous confidence to her portrayal of Veronica, occupying the moral high ground across the spectrum of human interaction from schoolyard spats to genocide in Darfur. Barrett captures the spirit of her comfortably suburban pacifist humanism until a little rum and a lot of anger finally push her over the edge, and her explosion is intensely believable.  Brandon Weaver gives husband Michael a sometimes-dizzying combination of blue-collar machismo, clumsy upscale snobbery, and appalling heartlessness, all leavened with unpredictable touches of tenderness and concern that keep the audience off balance and remind us that the world is far from black and white.

Centers has designed a stunningly spare set – just a few pieces of furniture, a spectacular floor, and one huge abstract painting, combining smartly civilized décor with a background of red and black splashes to capture the dichotomy between order and chaos. Lighting designers Sandy and Tom Cronin deliver an incredible moment at the end, spotlighting just the vase of tulips to bring a flash of hope to the show’s grim message.

God of Carnage delivers some of the best acting you’ll see this season, wrapped in a compelling show that builds steadily and combines raw humor with a thought-provoking look at “civilized” behavior. Expect to be utterly riveted for slightly less than an hour and a half (one long act) – and by all means, go see this show. Because of mature themes and strong language, the show is not appropriate for children.

God of Carnage runs at Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove through Sunday, January 28th with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

GODSPELL at HART – A Christmas Miracle!

(top row) Sarah Thornton, Jean Christensen, Rylie Bartell, Bri Edgerton, Mikayla Albano, Arielle Scena-Shifrin
(middle row) Joseph Vermeire, Prince AV (bottom row) Aubrey McLain, Grace Proschold

By Tina Arth

I have made no secret of the fact that I am not a fan of Godspell, Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s 1971 entry into the counterculture “Jesus Freak” theater scene (preceded by 1968’s Joseph and 1970’s Jesus Christ Superstar).  Thus, when faced with five shows to be reviewed in a four-day period, the decision of which one to postpone was easy – HART’s Godspell would have to wait. When I finally made it to the show last Saturday, it was a true Christmas miracle – I actually enjoyed the production! While the show itself is still kind of an empty shell, the talent, enthusiasm and energy from HART’s 13-member cast completely filled the vessel and made for an impressively entertaining evening.

Godspell isn’t really a play, or even a traditional musical, but rather a series of parables (what we might now call “teachable moments”) drawn from scripture, acted out by Jesus and 12 others (see any parallels with the Apostles?). In lieu of conventional dialogue there is a recitation accompanying each of the parables plus a generous helping of pop music (at least, pop by 1971 standards) – some catchy, some big dramatic ballads, and some hauntingly beautiful when delivered with delicate harmonies. Act I works its way through loose and often light-hearted renditions of the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, Lazarus, and other stories, while Act II leads inexorably toward the crucifixion. The actors play a wide variety of parts, mostly independent of age or gender, with the exception of Stephen Radley (Jesus) and Evan Tait (John the Baptist/Judas).  Costuming, face painting, blocking, choreography, and attitude all make it clear to the audience that the players are telling a story, not seriously taking on a role.

Here are some of the reasons why, even if your first reaction isn’t “Yay! Godspell!” you should still go:  (1) Fine vocals delivered with skill and passion. When Sarah Thornton and Jean Christensen team up, the result is pure ambrosia. Evan Tait and Prince AV share powerful voices to keep us awake and engaged. Instead of a freak flag, seductress Arielle Scena-Shifrin lets her pink boa fly along with some soaring vocals that lift the production to new heights.  (2) Stephen Radley. Surrounded by cartoon characters, Radley gives us a subtle, serious Jesus – a man, not a god, a teacher, not a preacher. Despite the absence of a real script, he manages to make us care about his message and his fate. 3) Quirky, gleeful costumes. You don’t want to miss Joseph Vermeire in his denim overalls and pink ribbons, Sarah Thornton’s octopus-adorned tunic, or some of the flashiest leggings in Hillsboro history. The eccentric costuming (with no clumsy early seventies hippie overtones, thank you very much…) is an unmistakable reminder that the story of Jesus is, ultimately, a tale of good news. (3) Fiercely energetic and uninhibited performances. Each actor, no matter how silly the scene, commits 100% to telling the story – it is clear that they are having an incredibly good time, and their passion for the material is infectious. (4) Aubrey McLain’s smile. I won’t try to explain it – you’ve got to be there! And – (5) This may be your last chance to see a show directed by Ray Hale, as he will be retiring and moving to Florida next year. He has given countless hours of time and tons of talent, patience, and dedication to ensure that HART remains a real asset to the local theater scene. He will be greatly missed, but you don’t need to miss this great show!

Godspell is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro through Sunday, December 17th with a 7:30 p.m. performance on Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2:00 p.m.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

BCT’s Annie A Sell Out and Stand Out

Nina Takahashi and Jordan Morris with ensemble

By Tina Arth

Annie – most theatergoers either love it or hate it, and judging by local response, Beaverton Civic Theatre fans definitely trend toward the “love it” side. Initial response to ticket sales for BCT’s 2017 holiday show was so strong that they added two extra performances, which also sold out before opening night. My attitude toward Annie is mixed – sort of love/angst. I will never tire of this heartwarming tale of love lost, found, lost, then found again, yet parts of the show invariably make me sad. Thus I watched opening night of Beaverton Civic Theatre’s holiday production of Annie fully dressed with a smile, yet simultaneously fighting back twinges of melancholy. Luckily, the gleeful Annie/Warbucks chemistry at the end of the show (just look at that picture!) won the day, and I can honestly say that I really enjoyed BCT’s take on the story. Director Melissa Riley has found countless ways to squeeze her 48-person cast (plus one large dog) into the limited space available in the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, and the resulting show delivers a full musical theater experience for her audience.

For that theoretical reader who isn’t familiar with Meehan, Strouse and Charnin’s 1976 musical based on Harold Gray’s original comic, “Little Orphan Annie,” the story goes like this: Annie was abandoned as an infant at a New York City orphanage. Eleven years later, at the height of the Great Depression, she still optimistically waits for her parents to return as promised. The orphanage matron, Miss Hannigan, despises little girls, Annie most of all. When billionaire Oliver Warbucks wants an orphan to visit his mansion during the Christmas holidays, he sends his assistant to fetch one – and she picks Annie. While Warbucks is initially put off (he assumed that orphans were boys) he quickly bonds with the feisty little girl, and wants to adopt her. However, Annie has different plans – she wants to find her parents, and Warbucks agrees to put all of his financial and political muscle into locating the missing couple. He also offers a $50,000 reward to Annie’s parents – which fails to bring out Annie’s parents, but does bring out hundreds of liars, including Miss Hannigan’s con-man brother Rooster and his girlfriend Lily. Disguised as Ralph and Shirley Mudge, the crooked couple provides “proof” (gained from Miss Hannigan) that Annie is theirs. Of course, several songs later the sad truth is revealed, the evil plot foiled, and everything works out just fine.

Nina Takahashi plays Annie as a diehard optimist with spunk to spare, with none of the whiny, manipulative side sometimes seen in the role. She sings, dances, and acts like the pro that she is, and her outlook sets the tone for the whole show. Once I got past the sense that I was watching a young Patrick Stewart, I also really enjoyed Jordan Morris’s approach to Daddy Warbucks – not so much a cartoon as a real human, able to openly display the vulnerability that Annie hides so well. His rendition of the often-omitted “Why Should I Change A Thing” really establishes the depth of his character.

The always-amazing Erin Zelazny gives her all to Miss Hannigan, blending her character’s fundamental sadism with just a touch of pathos and nailing the iconic “Little Girls.” Zelazny also picks up on a critical moment often misplayed, her timing perfect when she calls Lily St. Regis a “dumb ho…tel.” Speaking of hotels, Kelli Bee is an utterly captivating Lily, and even when she’s stuck in the background she’s never upstaged. Richard Cohn-Lee is fun as the evil Rooster, although he never quite reaches the level of malice I expect in a wanna-be child murderer.

There are lots of other solid performances – too many to mention – but I cannot overlook Kathrynn Gerard’s flawless singing, dancing “Star-to-Be.”  This is a role often delegated to a solid, but second-rate performer, and Gerard brings the kind of star quality that makes me think she’ll be in a lead role when next I see her. Sherman’s “Sandy” is also destined for stardom, but first he needs to master the art of ignoring the treats he knows are coming!

The show is long, and I am grateful for Alex Woodard’s impressive single set design that virtually eliminates set changes. Switching from orphanage to Hooverville to mansion to radio station is all accomplished by changing the lighting, but perhaps calls a little too much on audience imagination – a few video projections to provide an appropriate backdrop would have been helpful.

There’s no point in exhorting you to buy tickets to a long sold-out run, so if you haven’t got seats yet all I can suggest is that you buy early for the next BCT show!

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of A Little Princess runs through Sunday, December 17th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Twilight’s Christmas Offering Just Too Funny…

Craig Fitzpatrick (Jim), Rob Harris (Michael), and Greg Shilling (John)

By Tina Arth

All hope of a serious and respectful holiday show flew up the chimney when I saw that Twilight Theater Company was doing Carleton, Alvarez and Knapp’s Every Christmas Story Even Told (and then some) – but then again, pious inspiration really isn’t consistent with Twilight’s quirky brand anyway. Director Dorinda Toner and her three-man cast (the hardest working guys in show biz, imho) instead deliver two hours of seriously sidesplitting humor as they zip in and out of every Christmas carol and story you can think of (and several more).

The premise is simple – three actors are supposed to do a performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the stage lights come up on a lone actor, Jim, ponderously reciting the opening lines: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” Enter John and Michael, interrupting Jim (the first of several times he is cut off in mid-recital), to make it clear that they have NO interest in doing yet another performance of the Dickens’ classic. By the end of Act I, the three actors have not only lovingly satirized Dickens’ work, but also Dr. Seuss (the Grinch), Charlie Brown (the dance number is unforgettable – surpassed only by the severely abridged Nutcracker), Frosty the Snowman, Gustav the Green-Nosed Reingoat (no copyright infringements!) and several others, accompanied by Lola Toner’s stunning arrangement of The Most Famous Carols of All (Every Carol Ever Sung). The two audience participation numbers (where reluctant audience members are enthusiastically shepherded to the stage) are not only fun (at least for the rest of us) but surprisingly effective (on the evening I was there, Contestant #3 was so good she could have been, but wasn’t, a plant). When the actors finally get around to A Christmas Carol in Act II, the mash-up with It’s A Wonderful Life is both hilarious and surprisingly apropos.

The three actors (aided by a couple of equally hard-working crew members) change costumes and characters with dizzying speed at times. Craig Fitzpatrick’s “Jim” is the diehard traditionalist, constantly trying to bring the story back to Dickens, while Greg Shilling plays the ditzy and slightly campy “John” – always willing to throw himself into the next whacko holiday role. Most interesting at times is Rob Harris’ “Michael,” the sly instigator who undermines Jim at every turn by encouraging John’s frenetically enthusiastic performance (and then joining him in the insanity).

Josiah Greene’s minimalist sets and Chris Byrne’s seemingly impromptu costuming are invaluable in convincing us that we are watching Dickens gone awry rather than a carefully planned evening of parody.  Words like “funny,” “zany,” and “hysterical” really cannot begin to capture the quality of this show’s humor – the only way to appreciate it is to go!

Twilight Theater Company’s Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some) is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through December 17th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. on Sunday.

TITG Gives A New Look To Its Mattress

Dave Switzer (Wizard), Joanna Galvan (Princess Winnifred), and ensemble.
Photo by Ann Pastores Photography.

By Tina Arth

In place of standard Christmas fare, Theatre in the Grove is offering the decidedly non-traditional Once Upon A Mattress as its 2017 holiday show. To ensure that the mold is completely broken, Director Luis Ventura is presenting a probably unprecedented steampunk version.  Ever since Carol Burnett made her Broadway debut in 1959 in the role of the Princess Winnifred, this musical reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea has been delighting theater audiences – and the current production in Forest Grove fully lives up to the show’s august pedigree.

The play opens with a lightning-fast retelling of the original Princess and the Pea, narrated by a minstrel who, it turns out, was present for the real events on which the story is based (which were, he tells us, not exactly like Andersen’s fairy tale version).  Yes, there is a prince in search of a wife, and yes, he is having trouble finding just the right candidate. As in Andersen’s story, a rather damp woman appears, claims to be a princess, is tested by the skeptical queen, and passes by having a sleepless night on a bed of twenty mattresses and a pea. But the Princess Winnifred is no rain-soaked wanderer – she has been fetched to the castle from the swamps of home by Sir Harry, a knight with a big problem who really needs to marry off the prince before his pregnant girlfriend starts showing. Most important (especially to the suspicious and wildly Oedipal queen) – the princess’ soggy arrival, precipitated by her eagerness to meet her prince, is not due to a sudden downpour.  Unwilling to wait for the drawbridge to lift, Winnifred swam the moat! With a little help from the hen-pecked king, the minstrel, and the jester, the princess has an appropriately restless night, passes the test, and marries Prince Dauntless (who cuts Mama’s apron strings with gleeful finality in the final scene).

There are lots of fun roles in Mattress, but if the casting has been done properly then it is the actress playing Princess Winnifred who steals the show – and Joanna Galvan is a worthy successor to Ms. Burnett and a host of other top-notch comediennes. She is tiny, fearless, feisty, agile, and overwhelmingly cute – it is clear from the beginning that the evil queen is no match for this brash but lovable spitfire. Of course, she doesn’t do it alone; there is a lot of talent on the stage with her. One unforgettable cameo appearance comes from Elise Byrne, whose Princess #12 is a masterpiece of timing, inflection and attitude – sort of the quintessential Valley Girl on steroids. Nathan Wildfire’s kilted jester provides a solid narration, but much more – his height, stage presence, and flawless delivery really anchor the show, plus he just looks the part! Relative newcomer (this is only his second show) Matthew Hampshire gives Prince Dauntless just the right touch of innocence, longing, and energetic enthusiasm, and Lauren Donovan’s Jester is marvelously sinuous as she gyrates around the stage. Gillian Wildfire has the haughty grandeur and manipulative whine needed for Queen Aggravain, but sometimes misses the boat on the Queen’s rapid-fire dialogue.

The combination of James Grimes’ set design, Ward Ramsdell and Anne Kennedy’s lighting design, and Leslie Crandall-Dawes and Kya Eckstrand- White’s costumes create the steampunk look that Director Ventura sought for the show. Although it doesn’t particularly enhance the show’s central themes, this motif provides for a lavish visual feast of a set and some really diverse and intriguing costumes. Mattress is, of course, a musical – and conductor Michelle Bahr makes full use of the fine orchestra to support and augment Steph Landtiser’s always fun, often-complex vocal arrangements.

Once Upon A Mattress is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through December 17th,with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Monday, December 4, 2017


By Tina Arth

For Christmas 2017, Bag & Baggage is reprising their 2010 staging of a show described as “the most successful production in B&B’s history…” – and it is a sure-fire smash in their new location. Artistic Director Scott Palmer’s original script, Charles Dickens Write A Christmas Carol, uses seven actors to imagine and portray Dickens’ creative process as he writes what may well be the greatest Christmas story every told (with the possible exception of the Bible itself, and even that’s not certain!).  In the intimate space of The Vault the story is occasionally touching, frequently hilarious, and constantly engaging for the entire audience.

By filling multiple roles, the actors portray Dickens as well as all of the key characters who appear in A Christmas Carol. As Dickens imagines each character or scene, the actors assume the roles and play the characters evolving in his mind. Sound dry and convoluted? Heed this quote from Palmer’s Director’s Notes: “…Dickens’ unending energy, his boundless enthusiasm and his limitless creativity were only exceeded by his childish and broad sense of comedy!” It is this little-known side of Dickens’ personality that drives the tale, and anyone who knows Scott Palmer well will understand how well these qualities define both the play’s author and its subject. The witty, playful script in the hands of experienced B&B actors becomes a non-stop joy for the audience – something not to be missed. An added bonus is Palmer’s obvious respect for his patrons; many of the funniest touches are found in subtle, absurd throwaway lines shared with the audience as inside jokes, and the intimacy of The Vault ensures that everyone is fully included in these moments.

Most of the cast members play countless roles, constantly disappearing and reappearing with new hair, costumes, accents and attitudes as they shift from ghosts to turkey boys, laundresses to Mrs. Cratchit. The two exceptions are Kymberli Colbourne, who adds a special note of cynicism to the already jaded Ebenezer Scrooge, and Peter Schuyler’s powerhouse take on Dickens (although it is Schuyler’s brief turn as Tiny Tim that provides some of the funniest moments in an already laugh-laden evening).  

The Vault offers little in the way of elaborate sets, and compensates with lots of state-of-the-art toys for those wonderful backstage geeks who conspire with our imaginations to deliver the necessary ambience. Jim Ricks-White (technical director/lighting designer) and Carlee Whalen (sound designer) make lavish use of these toys to create the sights and sounds of Victorian London, flying ghosts, and everything else needed to recreate the timeless characters who emerged from Dickens’ study and state of mind. Melissa Heller outdoes herself (no mean feat) with a plethora of elaborately detailed and accurate costumes.

Whether you are a diehard fan or someone who thinks they have seen quite enough of this particular holiday classic, you should make time for this fun and the fascinating new perspective on a tale we all know!
Charles Dickens Writes A Christmas Carol is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through December 23d, with 7:30 p.m. performances December 7-8-9-14-15-16-21-22-23 and 2:00 p.m. performances December 10 and 17. Matinee performances include a talkback with cast and director following the show.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Holiday Hit Parade Hits Broadway Rose

Robert Head, Grace Allen, Debbie Hunter, Ryan Reilly, Laura McCulloch, and Malia Tippets.
Photo by Sam Ortega.

By Tina Arth

Broadway Rose is opening the holiday show season with a bang – a sparkling collection of songs old and new, mixing humor with breathtaking beauty, loosely bound by a thoroughly implausible wraparound script as magic-laden as the season itself. If you, like me, are sorely in need of a quick infusion of Christmas spirit, Your Holiday Hit Parade fills the bill delightfully. Co-authors Rick Lewis (also musical arranger) and Dan Murphy (also director) have assembled a festive revue and an inspired cast to deliver a family-friendly evening that should appeal to all but the most-Grinch-like audiences.

The show opens with two bedraggled travelers, Bea and Helen, on a pilgrimage to see Mt. McKinley before it officially becomes Mt. Denali. They stumble into Aurora’s Borealis, a seemingly deserted but otherwise intact tourist lodge well off the beaten track in Alaska. They need shelter while they wait for rescue – their car has broken down and both the temperature and the batteries on their phone are dropping low. A lively burst of “Jingle Bells” from the two women flushes out 4 shy, pale strangers from upstairs, apparently drawn by the mention of bells. Soon their secret is revealed – they are entertainers whose show was due to open Christmas, 1972 when a massive avalanche buried the inn, trapping them inside – they are ghosts! The rest of the evening is filled with a mixture of solos and ensemble work as the cast powers through old favorites, from their exquisite “Bell Medley” to “White Christmas” and “Christmas Auld Lang Syne,” some fun novelty songs (the entire “Cowboy Christmas Medley” and many others), and some pure silliness like “I’m Spending Hanukkah In Santa Monica” and Rick Lewis’ gender-bending rewrite, “Babe There’s A Cab Outside.” Will the ghosts be freed after giving their final performance? Will Bea and Helen’s Uber driver find them amid the snowy wastes? You’ll need to go see the show to find out!

The four ghosts, each with some exquisite solo moments but even more moving in the ensemble arrangements, are Marguerite (Grace Allen), Roy (Robert Head), Rusty (Ryan Reilly), and Marjorie (Malia Tippets).  Interspersed among the quartet’s classics are numbers by Helen (Debbie Hunter) and Bea (Laura McCulloch) with their mid-Western, down-to earth modern attitudes and consistently upbeat delivery – bringing a playfully wry note with songs like “Sisters,” “Santa Baby,” and of course Ray Stevens’ quirky “Santa Claus Is Watching You.”

The costuming is elaborate but a bit anachronistic (for the ghosts) – by 1972 even ingénues on Hee-Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show had straighter hair and shorter skirts – but it really makes no difference, and I just pretended that it was based on the styles of 1964. The set, on the other hand, is spot on – everything you’d expect in a perfectly preserved country lodge, augmented by a constantly changing video screen to help create the requisite mood. While there’s a piano on the stage, and cast members frequently respond to the cue “give me an E,” the real music comes from conductor Jeffrey Childs’ little band – and courtesy of clever use of the video projection, we occasionally get to see shadows of pianist Childs, bassist Will Amend, and drummer Mitch Wilson as they work their magic behind the scenes.

As soon as Thanksgiving hits the road, I always start to “Need a Little Christmas,” this year perhaps more than most. I am grateful to Broadway Rose for immersing me in holiday mode with their delightful show, and judging from the audience’s enthusiastic opening night acclaim I am not alone in my response. This is an evening that should not be missed.

Your Holiday Hit Parade is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Saturday, December 23d. See their website (broadwayrose.org) for specific performance dates and times.