Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Daddy Long Legs – Welcome This Spider into Your Home!

 By Tina Arth

We’ve all missed live theater – but I didn’t realize just how much until last Saturday morning, when I started watching Broadway Rose’s beautiful, witty, and utterly charming video production of Paul Gordon and John Caird’s 2009 musical version of Daddy Longlegs. OK – still not live theater seen in person (with the exception of a small, presumably well-distanced audience) but SO much closer than any of the (impressively creative) Zoom productions I have seen since last March when the world of live theater collapsed around us. The unsinkable folks at Broadway Rose achieved their miracle by (1) finding a play that only requires two cast members, and (2) finding, within their amazing talent base, two performers ideally suited for these roles and who already live in the same Covid-19 bubble, eliminating the need for on-stage masks. With those elements in place, and the New Stage as an ideal venue, the work began – sets, costumes, music, lighting (oh, the lighting!), direction – plus one additional element: a team of skilled videographers to pull of a multi-camera shoot of the live performance. The end result is a production that comes close enough to the experience of live theater that, by intermission, I was feeling positively euphoric – and the warm fuzzies didn’t fade… 

The musical is based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster. Set in turn-of-the-century New England, it tells the story of Jerusha Abbott, “the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home.” A mysterious benefactor, trustee Jervis Pendleton, agrees to send her to college under the condition that she write him a letter once a month - but she is never to thank him, and never to expect a response. Through this correspondence, she shares her experiences of discovering literature, adventure, freedom, self-esteem, and love. Not knowing her patron's name, she dubs him "Daddy Long Legs." There is a touch of Annie, with a wealthy benefactor who normally prefers boy orphans but finds himself enchanted by this one girl, and an enormous helping of Little Shop Around the Corner/She Loves Me/You’ve Got Mail in this play that revolves around letter-writing and concealed identities – but to be fair, the original 1912 novel precedes any of these more recent classics.

Broadway Rose mainstays Malia Tippets and Joe Thiessen, a real-life couple (in fact, she proposed and they were wed on-set during tech week!), play Jerusha and Jervis with a deft touch, bringing lots of humor to the irony of Jerusha’s misperceptions about her benefactor and to Jervis’ jealousy as he reluctantly, then eagerly, falls head over heels in love despite his intent to remain a confirmed bachelor. The show is essentially an operetta, with limited dialogue interspersed among almost non-stop vocals. Tippets’ broad range is tested by countless solos and harmonies requiring solid soprano chops and immunity to vocal fatigue, and she handles the challenge with aplomb. Thiessen’s smooth baritone provides a perfect compliment – strong in his solo numbers, and the two voices blend beautifully in some complex duets. However, it is the acting that really sells the show – especially their body language as a raised eyebrow, toss of the head, longing gaze or dismissive glance tells the story of the couple’s developing relationship. Tippets’ combination of naivety, intellect, and independence is charming, and her explanation of Fabian Socialism may be my favorite moment in the whole show! 

Neither the individual songs nor the melodies are terribly distinctive, but as befits an operetta they move the story along nicely. However, Jeffrey Childs’ music direction is flawless, and complements director Sharon Maroney’s careful timing and pacing. Sean O’Skea’s set design is simple but effective – a couple of chests and a bed create Jerusha’s bare-bones environment, while the more complex and detailed desk and bookcase give the right touch of opulence to Jervis’ world. Phil McBeth’s lighting design adds immeasurably, taking full advantage of the New Stage’s rich array of lighting options and creating a series of sometimes grim, sometimes idyllic scenes.

I urge you to give Daddy Long Legs a try – the price is minimal (only $25 for 48 hours of unlimited viewing) and, since the show can be shared with everyone in your particular bubble, a great bargain. My only regret is that the production has rekindled a longing for local theater – I hope that Broadway Rose and other local companies are able to bring more of this kind of entertainment to Portland-area audiences until we can all get together again, both on-stage and off.

Broadway Rose’s Daddy Long Legs is available for streaming through Saturday, October 25th. For more information visit or call 503.620.5262.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

B&B’s Measure of Innocence a Timely Reminder

Anya Pearson, Donovan Mahannah, Phillip J. Berns
By Tina Arth

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (well, at least in the musical Annie), once said, “when people are starving, there is no long run.” In other words, when people’s lives are in crisis, it is neither reasonable nor fair to ask them to step back and look at the big picture. In this vein, Bag&Baggage Productions has picked a perfect time and vehicle to remind us that all politics is truly local and many people’s lives are always on the edge of crisis – for such people, the day-to-day challenges of real life must take priority over the big national and international issues that dominate the headlines. Our concern over COVID-19 and presidential primaries, no matter how justified, often serves to distract us from the fundamental injustices in American society that place some groups, particularly people of color, at risk every day of their lives.

Playwright Anya Pearson’s Measure of Innocence is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and it is the second of Bag&Baggage’s Problem Play Series playing at The Vault. The program provides a commission to an “Oregon-based playwright of color to adapt one of William Shakespeare’s problem plays with a diversity/inclusion lens.”  Wednesday Sue Derrico’s Director’s Notes say it better than I can: “This play is about the injustice and structural racism that guides the judicial and prison systems in America today…through a diversity of character and story lines, it sheds light on the residual effects these broken systems place onto all of us.” While Measure for Measure is generally classified as comedy, Pearson’s adaptation would never be described that way (although there are certainly some funny moments).

Give or take 500 years and some rather profound cultural and racial differences, most of the principal characters and some principal story lines reflect their Shakespearean antecedents – there’s Claudio and his pregnant fiancĂ©e, Juliet, Claudio’s very religious sister Isabel, his good friend Lucky (Shakespeare’s “Lucio”), his fellow prisoner Barnadine, and the morally corrupt prosecutor, Angelo.  Claudio is wrongly accused and imprisoned, Isabel subjected to Angelo’s sexual assault as she pleads for her brother. However, Pearson’s work is much darker – Measure of Innocence does not end with truth, compassion, and justice triumphing over systemic corruption; suffering, even death, come to characters we care about. The addition of pussy hat wearing social justice warriors, a talk show host, the playwrights themselves (both Will and Anya), and a nonsense spouting President break the tension with an element of surreal humor, but do not interrupt the play’s essential narrative.

About half of the cast comprises Bag&Baggage veterans, but most of the principal roles go to accomplished performers who are new or have made just one previous appearance at The Vault. I was deeply moved by Donovan Mahannah (Claudio) and Curtis Maxey Jr. (Lucky), the actors who fully express the terror, anger, and ultimate helplessness of the unjustly accused in a corrupt, racist system where the state holds all of the power. Kayla Dixon creates a frustratingly religious “Isabel” – I wanted to cheer when she set aside her blind faith in an all-knowing God and stood up for herself and her brother. Janelle Rae (Juliet) grabbed me in their first scene and never let go – they create the quintessential strong Black woman, fighting every moment of their life to protect and enlighten their peers. As Barnadine, Eric Island captures the essence of a prison’s version of an elder statesman, guiding Claudio in the ways of survival in an unremittingly hostile universe by keeping his head down and staying out of trouble.

James Luster is appropriately horrifying as the corrupt and lascivious Mike Angelo, but it is his brief interludes as the unnamed, yet clearly identified President, that really allow him to shine – he captures that unmistakable voice and diction without going over the top. Bag&Baggage Associate Artist Phillip J. Berns’ “Shakespeare” sparkles throughout, lending a note of levity with his mobility and agility while reminding us that we are watching an adaptation.

The starkly white, modernistic set creates a nice contrast with the darkness of the story, and Blanca Forzan’s scenic and lighting design creates the surreal atmosphere that allows the audience members to use their imaginations to fill in between the lines. The movable staircase cuts quickly through changes of scene, allowing the actors’ slow progress up the steps to the prison’s bars to illustrate the separation between the imprisoned and those on the outside.

The thematic intensity means that The Measure of Innocence is not a fun show for the actors or the (primarily white) audience – but both the author and director prioritize enlightenment over entertainment. The close-minded, and those who are unwilling to think about the role that privilege plays in their lives, might well be offended, and there is a level of violence and assault that may trigger the fragile. It is the kind of theater that calls for intellectual and emotional unpacking – if you go, see it with a friend and spend some time discussing the content and your reactions.

Bag&Baggage’s The Measure of Innocence is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through March 22nd, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

BCT’s Charming, Family-Friendly Ramona Quimby

Isabelle Riley and Riley Suzuki

By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre is definitely playing to the hometown crowd with their first main stage production of the year. Playwright Len Jenkin’s 1994 Ramona Quimby, based on the beloved books by Beverly Cleary, is firmly rooted in the mean streets of Portland – the fictional Quimby family lives on NE Klickitat Street, and there are even statues of some of the principal characters in nearby Grant Park (definitely time for a field trip!). The play basically falls into the genre of children’s theater (there are lots of roles for kiddos, and the story line is definitely aimed at a preteen/tween audience), but the script encompasses themes that can appeal to an all-age audience, and there is room for some important adult roles. Playing to a mixed audience demands balance, since adults tend to be portrayed differently when a show is aimed at children, and director Amanda Clark has generally succeeded in picking the right actors and guiding them through the process.

The play is set, as mentioned, in an actual Portland neighborhood, and takes place over a one-year period in the 1970s. The central characters are 8 year-old Ramona Quimby and her big sister Beezus, who in classic older-sister fashion considers Ramona a complete pest. The events are localized to the Quimby family, the elementary school, and immediate neighborhood; the situations should ring true to anyone who has ever occupied the role of parent, older, or younger sibling. The bright but quirky Ramona constantly gets into trouble as she deals with an unemployed father who is trying to quit smoking, a “perfect” third-grade rival who steals her ideas, a judgmental teacher, teasing from a tone-deaf adult, the unfairness of life as a little sister, changes in her relationship with her beloved Aunt Bea, and a host of other seemingly trivial problems that loom very large in the life of a small girl. In the end, Beezus and Ramona find comfort in each other’s presence as life swirls around them.

Students, mostly in elementary school, make up about half of the 20-person cast, including the two most challenging roles. Riley Suzuki (Beezus) is already a veteran actor, last seen at BCT playing Pugsley in The Addams Family. She is confident in her role as narrator, and especially believable in her interactions (both positive and negative) with her frustrating but ultimately loveable little sister. The surprise standout, however, is Isabelle Riley as Ramona. Isabelle is no stranger to BCT – not only has she played a few ensemble roles, but she has spent a lot of her young life hanging out at the theater with her mom, Producing Artistic Director Melissa Riley. Isabelle’s performance as Ramona makes it clear that during those long hours in the auditorium, she wasn’t just hanging out – she was watching how theater works and studying the fine points of really playing a role. I was amazed at the consistency of Isabelle’s performance – quite simply, she never stops acting, and uses her face, voice and body to completely inhabit her character.

In addition to the to principals, a few other performers demand special recognition. Michael Rouches (Mr. Quimby) straddles the fine line between acting for children and realistically portraying adult situations, and he draws the audience emotionally into the challenge of dealing with adult crises while reassuring his daughters. Les Ico’s “Elephant” is predictably hilarious, but it is his portrayal of Bea’s fiancĂ© Hobart that really shines as he mercilessly teases Ramona – and displays a delightful lack of inhibition when displaying his questionable singing voice. Among the ensemble, Emma Resk’s “waitress” is particularly memorable – I hope to see more of this young woman.

Ramona Quimby is structured as a long series of mostly short vignettes, necessitating frequent scene changes. The set design is detailed – perhaps too much so, as the wheeled panels are awkward to move and don’t always line up well for viewing from the periphery of the audience. Scenic Artist Loren Hillman-Morgan has created a wonderful backdrop portraying a map of Portland, and the show might have flowed more seamlessly if some of the set details had been left up to the audience’s imagination, as was done in BCT’s production of Knuffle Bunny. However, this minor quibble is no reason to stay away from a fun production, which will work best if you go with a kiddo or two but still provides a solid community theater experience for adult audiences.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of Ramona Quimby runs through Saturday, March 14th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sunday.

Monday, February 17, 2020

HART’s Midwinter Midsummer Night’s Dream

Sam Roberts and Kelsey Ion. Photo by Bob Morrison.

By Tina Arth

Valentine’s Day is the ideal time to open Shakespeare’s classic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a show where love is in the air everywhere: a dose of magic helps four couples find love, while a fifth couple dies tragically, but happily does so within the bounds of an absurdly comic play-within-a-play. The decision by directors Tyson Redifer and Chris White to present a story set in ancient Athens with a pervasive steampunk motif was risky, but on the whole it works surprisingly well; rather than interfering with the coherence of the play, the set design, costumes, lighting and sound actually serve to clarify elements of the Bard’s absurdly convoluted story.

How convoluted? Well, start with the impending marriage of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, former queen of the Amazons. Add in Egeus and his disobedient daughter Hermia, who is determined to marry Lysander but has been promised to Demetrius. Want more? OK – there’s the frustrated Helena, who is Hermia’s best friend and madly in love with Demetrius, who only has eyes for Hermia. For reasons that really don’t gel completely, Helena attempts to curry favor with Demetrius by revealing to him that Hermia and Lysander plan to meet in the forest and run off together. Of course, the forest is filled with magical fairies and their own drama – in particular, the estrangement between Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, over Titania’s refusal to cede her ward, an Indian changeling, to Oberon as his special henchman. Oberon conspires with the spritely Puck to use a potion that will cause Titania to fall in love with the first thing she sees, which turns out to be Nick Bottom, a foolish actor who has been given (by Puck, naturally) the head of an ass. Using the same potion, Puck mistakenly causes Lysander to fall in love with Helena, who thinks he is mocking her with his protestations of love. Enough? I’ve barely touched on the Mechanicals, a troupe of traveling actors who hope to perform at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta (remember them?). Things generally work out OK in Shakespeare’s comedies, and this one is no exception – by the end of Act 5, we are not only granted three weddings and a reconciliation, but the Mechanicals get to put on their play!

Mention of Act 5 should give a clue that this is a long show – 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. The pacing is fairly tight, so the show doesn’t drag, and the simplicity of the set plus the revolving center work well to eliminate lengthy scene changes. In fact, my biggest problem with the show is just the opposite – some of the cast, seemingly unfamiliar with the dialogue and rhythms of Shakespeare’s work, spit out their carefully memorized lines much too fast, making it tough to understand the words or catch much of the author’s Elizabethan wit.  It’s not universal – several of the actors, including but not limited to Sarah Nolte, Sam Roberts, Kira Smolev, Francis Kohler, and Kelsey Ion, know exactly what they are doing and how to do it, and these skilled performers really help to anchor the cast and keep the audience in the loop.

Humor plays a huge role in keeping the audience engaged, and there are some really fine moments. Expect a massive dose of physical comedy in the forest scenes, in particular between Kohler (Lysander), Ion (Helena), Roberts (Demetrius), and Emma Heesacker (Hermia). The show ends with some huge laughs for Lucas Ray (Francis Flute) – he’s not terribly memorable in earlier scenes, but when he goes in drag as the love-stricken Thisbe he is genuinely hilarious. Scenes between Smolev (Titania) and Frank Robinson (Nick Bottom) work well, and even when masked he sells his role as a genuine ass.

Credit for sound design is given to Jeremy Ollis, Mike Stafford, and Leslie Inmon – and their work really enhances the show. The projection of prerecorded voices is smooth and well handled in the tech booth, as is the synchronization of light and sound in several key scenes (be warned, as we were before the show started, that there are some loud noises and bright flashes of light).  Costuming by Kira Smolev, Karen Schlecht, and Mary Gow is frequently inspired – the contrast between fairies with their colorfully lighted wings and Athenians in steampunk finery helps to cleanly distinguish between the real world of Athens and the magical realm of the fairies, and Robinson’s mask (by Phyllis Lang) provides an interesting bridge between the two. Smolev and Mark Putnam (Oberon) make full use of their magnificent capes, which clearly mark them as being well above the run-of-the-mill fairies, and Sarah Felder is quite memorable in the eye-catching attire that sets her apart as the mischievous Puck.

In sum, the show is lively and entertaining, but suffers from some uneven performances – not unusual in community theater, but still worth noting. Redifer and White’s vision as directors plays out reasonably well, and they do a respectable job of incorporating the unusual steampunk and electric elements into the show.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, March 1st, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.