Monday, July 16, 2018

Meaning of Eleemosynary UnMasked

Jenny Newbry, Kathleen Silloway, and Katy Philp
Photo by Katherine Roundy

By Tina Arth

When I was a rock-collecting kid, I loved geodes – it was the thrill of breaking into the inscrutable exterior and finding a sparkling world of crystals nestled inside. Occasionally I’ll have the privilege of watching a play, heretofore unknown to me, that has the same thrilling effect. Playwright Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary, part of Mask & Mirror’s edgier “UnMasked” collection, is definitely a contender for top honors in my geode category.  Director Dan Hobbs clearly understands the play well (how a male playwright and a male director can “get” the complexities of mother-daughter relationships with such precision is a happy mystery to me); like the exterior of the geode, his deceptively simple staging opens up to reveal stunningly beautiful performances by the three women in the cast.

The play examines the plight of three exceptionally intelligent women (grandmother Dorothea, daughter Artemis, and granddaughter Echo) raised in three very different eras, and the strange relationships that have developed among them.  Dorothea, denied an education and forced into an unsought marriage, has chosen extreme eccentricity and magical thinking as her path to intellectual freedom. Artemis (“Artie”) escapes her mother’s overpowering personality by running away (several times) and choosing to embrace the logical boundaries of science in place of her mother’s determined rejection of observable reality. When Artie’s husband dies, Dorothea moves in and takes over the job of rearing and educating Echo; Artie soon runs away again, abandoning her daughter to the grandmother’s care. The play jumps around chronologically, but begins with the comatose and dying Dorothea being cared for by Echo and ends with Echo committing to establishing a loving relationship with Artie. In between, let us just say, ”stuff happens.” The play makes perfect sense when done properly, but a more detailed synopsis would just sound absurd.

I cannot overpraise the performances of the three women. I was particularly moved by Katy Philp’s heart wrenching take on Artie – her silent pleas for salvation from her mother’s delusions, the moments of humanity that peep out of the rigid wall she has built around her psyche, her fierce intelligence mixed with perhaps a touch of autism, her frustrating inability to stay with her daughter yet maintain her autonomy. Irrespective of age (like the others, she plays herself at several stages of her life) she conveys her character’s tortured inability to express her emotions, maintaining the same awkward posture and diction throughout. Kathleen Silloway’s portrayal of Dorothea is, in contrast, charming but maddeningly unmoored – my (perhaps too rational) self wanted to just slap her for her enthusiastic embrace of delusion and her absolute inability to see what she was doing to her daughter through the years. And then there’s Jenny Newbry’s irresistible Echo – a fine mix of her mom and grandmother, and yet somehow completely her own woman. Even in her most hypercompetitive moments, Newbry’s smiling enthusiasm and bizarre optimism shine through. One of Artie’s most poignant lines is “Never have a daughter. She won’t like you,” and Newbry’s charitable insistence on breaking this pattern finally absolves both Artie and Dorothea of their extreme shortcomings.

With minimal sets and little space on stage, the lighting is used brilliantly to create the spaces and breaks that define the show’s sometimes-peripatetic progress. Audience proximity (the Tualatin Heritage Center) is a real plus, as everyone in the room gets to see 90 minutes of superb acting up close and personal – the only way to see it, in my opinion. UnMasked productions have only a two week run, so it is essential that you get tickets right away for one of next weekend’s performances – in a just universe they will sell out quickly.

Mask & Mirror’s Eleemosynary is playing at The Tualatin Heritage Center, 8700 SW Sweek Drive, Tualatin, through Sunday, July 22, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:00 on Sundays.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Experience Theatre Project Reaches for “Time’s Up” Moment

Picture of The Company by Casey Campbell

By Tina Arth

For rampant misogyny and sexism, few of Shakespeare’s plays can rival The Taming of the Shrew, yet it’s one of the Bard’s wittiest works, and its enduring comedy still has lots of audience appeal. How are enlightened modern theatre companies to produce a show like this without violating their own ethos of equality and inclusiveness? Alisa Stewart, artistic director at Beaverton’s Experience Theatre Project has chosen a novel approach – asking her director to develop an adaption called The Taming and the Shrew that includes most of the original dialogue and action, but is laden with lightning-fast gender-bending and open disdain for some of the original play’s most offensive passages. Director/Adapter Sara Fay Goldman sums up her hesitation at undertaking this task in her director’s note, explaining that she “was trained in a very conservative theatre tradition of professional protocols which values the ability to create personal boundaries and emotionally separate from our work.” She goes on to credit Shakespeare, who “publicly and professionally exposed a history of silenced women, perhaps taking a risk that his female contemporaries didn’t have access to.” Seen in this light, Experience’s lively, fun and very chaotic production makes sense – but probably only to an audience already familiar with the original work (or at least with the musical Kiss Me, Kate)!

A unique feature of Experience is that it delivers theatre without a theater – the current production will move from the south lawn of the Beaverton Library to a quartet of local wineries (Ardiri, A Blooming Hill, Helvetia, and Stoller).  The outdoor venue offers enormous freedom of movement, but that brings challenges like the sun (bring sunglasses AND a wide-brimmed hat to be on the safe side), competition from traffic noise (perhaps not so much at the wineries, and still much better than dueling with last year’s MAX noise at the Beaverton Round!), and fluctuations in the weather (come with short sleeves, but armed with a jacket in case the wind picks up).  Expect a lively, rollicking afternoon or evening, with a taste of audience participation facilitated by the “play within a play” nature of the original work.

The set-up, in a nutshell: drunken tinker Christopher Sly is tricked into believing that he is a lord, suffering from amnesia. To help him “recover” his supposedly lost memory, his deceivers present a play about the wealthy Baptista and his daughters, Kate and Bianca in Padua.  Student Lucentio falls in love with the fair Bianca, but Baptista will not let her marry until he finds a husband for the foul-tempered Kate. Petruchio arrives in Padua in search of a rich wife, and determines that he will tame Kate (the shrew) and make her his bride. By this point in the Experience production, Mickey Jordan (playing Sly) has assumed the role of Petruchio to Kaia Maarja Hillier’s “Kate” – but only temporarily. When Petruchio begins to “tame” Kate, Hillier soon trades parts with Jordan and has him playing the role of the bride-to-be, she the suitor (just one of a series of role changes and reversals to keep us on our toes). I won’t even try to explain the rest – just take my word that it’s nothing like any Shrew, tame or otherwise, that you’ve ever seen before.

In an outdoor setting without microphones, vocal volume can be as critical factor as acting skill in telling the tale, and both Jordan and Hillier excel at making themselves heard. Jordan also makes a great drunk, and he falls well and often (not as easy as it might sound!). I was particularly happy with Catherine Miller’s stolid yet wry portrayal of “Bartholomew” the page, and Emilie Landman’s minstrel “Soto” was invaluable in setting up the initial story and keeping us more or less on track.

The trend of bringing live theatre out of the strict confines of formal theaters is one I welcome, as it makes productions accessible and attractive to a much wider group of people. Experience Theatre Project is a local leader in this growing movement, which will ensure robust audiences able to tear themselves away from their digital realities for another generation!

Shrew performances will remain at the Beaverton Library South Lawn through Sunday, July 15th before moving on to Helvetia Vineyards (July 10-21-22), Ardiri Winery (July 27-28-29), A Blooming Hill Vineyard (August 3-4-5) and Stoller Family Estate (August 10-11-12). See the Experience Theatre Project website for times, as they vary form venue to venue. All performances are “pay as you will” with the players passing the hat for donations.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Mamma Mia! – The Perfect Summer Show


By Tina Arth

The lights gradually come up on an enchanted island setting – the whitewashed walls of the small taverna tell us that we are in Greece. As dawn brightens into day, the orchestra plays us into the mood of Broadway Rose’s spectacular production of Mamma Mia!, launching the big summer musical season with a “must-see” audience favorite that sparkles like the sun-kissed waves of its romantic setting. Music director/conductor Alan D. Lytle and director/choreographer Lyn Cramer have teamed up to present a skillfully crafted, flawlessly cast production of 1999’s megahit that augments an already light-hearted story with an extra dose of imagination and wit. The show, built around songs by ‘70s pop superstars ABBA, with music and lyrics by the Swedish group’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (with additional songs by Stig Anderson), and the book by Catherine Johnson, makes no serious pretense at realism – it’s pure fun anchored by a giant helping of concert quality lead and ensemble vocals.

The story takes place on the fictional Greek Island of Kalokairi as 20-year-old Sophie prepares for her wedding. She wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but her mom, the formerly free-spirited Donna, claims not to know precisely who that might be. After reading relevant passages from her mom’s diary, Sophie narrows it down to three candidates, and (without Donna’s knowledge) invites all three men to the wedding.  Sophie’s quest for two solid male anchors, a father and a husband, contrasts with Donna’s utter rejection of dependence on a man – she has raised her daughter alone, built her taverna alone, and cannot understand why Sophie wants to tie herself down at this stage in her life. The prospective fathers, fiancé, and friends (including Donna’s two besties, former members of her ‘70s girl group) reflect and react; by the end, both Sophie and Donna have learned a lot, and in neat rom-com fashion flip the script - things end well, but on a completely different track from where they started out.

Each of the three “fathers” brings a unique perspective as Sophie auditions them for the role of father: Matthew H. Curl, once “Head Banger Harry” but now a fussy Londoner, Joey Klei as the rootless wanderer who never quite grew up, and Andrew Maldarelli as the utterly sincere Sam, immediately established as Donna’s great love who somehow got away.  All three lead men contribute to the powerful vocal ensemble, and each gets at least one big moment in the spotlight with Curl’s poignantly reminiscent “Our Last Summer” (with Donna), Klei’s lively “Take A Chance on Me” (with Donna’s irrepressible friend Rosie), and Maldarelli’s impassioned “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Poor Aaron Stewart (as fiancé Sky) does not fare as well – in typical male ingénue fashion, he is something of an afterthought in the script – but he and his pals get the most amazing dance numbers to balance out the inequity.

However, the production is really propelled by two factors: the steady barrage of ABBA songs and the women who drive these numbers. Sophie Moshofsky (as Sophie) launches the show with a huge rendition of “Honey, Honey” and closes it with “I Have a Dream” to balance her naïve, sometimes petulant approach with an irresistible enthusiasm for life – a classic ingénue with a big smile and a bigger voice.  Laura McCulloch’s portrayal of the seriously wacky “Rosie” provides a steady stream of comic relief, and Lisamarie Harrison’s slightly zaftig, libidinous “Tanya” claims her fair share of sardonic hilarity. Then there’s Peggy Taphorn as “Donna” – angry, hurt, trying (but failing) to mask her vulnerability with a brittle, cynical exterior that screams her independence.  Whether performing as lead singer on some amazingly arranged, choreographed numbers by “Donna and the Dynamos” like “Chiquitita” and "Dancing Queen” or delivering powerful, emotional renditions of “One of Us” and “The Winner Takes It All”  - whether clad in her signature baggy denim overalls or the dazzling kitsch of her old show costumes - she owns the stage throughout.

Allison Dawe’s costume design provides a huge dose of the show’s humor – the swim trunk/snorkel clad male ensemble is unforgettable, and until I saw the show I had no idea it was possible to tap dance in flippers! Cramer’s choreography is solid throughout, and the Dynamos hit just the right note of disco obsolescence, but it is the athleticism she draws from her male dancers that really marks her work as both first-rate and witty. Lytle’s vocal direction and orchestra are, as always, first-rate, but he also adds a few very funny touches rarely seen in the conductor of a pit full of musicians. Brian Boyd’s scenic design is serene, calming, lovely – and the cleverly designed revolving set eliminates almost all scene change delays. Sound, lighting, and tech combine seamlessly with these elements to ensure both a concert-quality musical experience and an exuberant, heart-warming background for the story.

Despite the size of the Deb Fennell Auditorium, many of the shows are nearly sold out, and the best seats are going fast. Buy now for one of the remaining performances – you won’t be disappointed!

Broadway Rose’s Mamma Mia! runs through July 22nd at Tigard High School’s Deb Fennell Auditorium.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Twilight’s Merry Maltese Bodkin

Stan Yeend, Paul Roder, Samuel Alexander Hawkins, and Chris Murphy.
Photo by Alicia Turvin.

By Tina Arth

Only the most vile-spirited could possibly fail to find a LOT to love in Twilight’s latest, The Maltese Bodkin. Playwright David Belke has created a lighthearted, smart, wittily ridiculous casserole, combining film noir’s The Maltese Falcon and a stage full of iconic Shakespearean characters, inexplicably linked in a 1605 London murder mystery. Director Sarah Fuller has gathered a group of actors willing to let it all hang out in service of their (art?) and the result is so funny that my seatmate thought she might have broken a rib laughing – and this from someone worried that her comparatively slim knowledge of Elizabethan era English Lit might leave her lost amid the high-toned hijinks.  To (mis)quote the Bard, “If comedy be the food of love, play on.”

The story (which happily make no pretense at making sense) is, in a nutshell: American private eye Birnam Wood returns to his 17th century London office and finds that in his absence someone has slain his partner, Archie. The distraught Wood wants only to find out who killed Archie, and he has no interest in taking on any paying clients (much to the dismay of his faithful secretary, Charlotte, who worries about mundane details like the rent). Enter the mysteriously seductive Viola de Messaline, shipwrecked far from her native land and searching for her lost brother. In return for Wood’s promise to help her, she produces the Maltese Bodkin, the weapon used to murder Archie. Without getting much closer to identifying Archie’s killer, Wood encounters a platoon of Shakespearean refugees, among them Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet), Viola and Sebastian (The Twelfth Night), Antonio (The Merchant of Venice), Iago (Othello), Donalbain (Macbeth), Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern (Hamlet), Sergeant Fang (Henry IV), and most memorably, Puck (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). As these and other characters scheme to get their hands on the Maltese Bodkin, the serpentine plot acts as a vehicle for the actors to hide and spy and drink and die with remarkable comedic flair. In the end, the mystery is resolved and the audience members leave the theater much happier, if no wiser, than when they entered.

Rather than comment in depth on the individual actors (with 9 people playing 18 characters, it might get tedious), I’ll point to several particularly unforgettable moments that you’ll want to watch for when you go (you WILL go, right?). Chris Murphy (Antonio, Donalbain, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester) does one of the most inspired death scenes in theatrical history, complete with missing churros. Chelsea Read (Charlotte) and Lura Longmire (Viola) are the yin and yang of flirtation as each tries to dent Birnam Wood’s obliviously stoic exterior. Skye McLaren Walton, while fine as Prospero and Sebastian, is on fire as the tutu-wearing Puck, and his leap into the face of an audience member (mine, as it happens) left me hanging between glee and shock. Do not miss Blaine Vincent III (Mercutio, Guildenstern) and Samuel Alexander Hawkins (Iago, Ratcliffe, Rosenkrantz) in a key scene change or the subsequent thumb wrestling. Stan Yeend (Falstaff, Catesby, Fang) takes both inebriation and cheerful self-mockery to previously unexplored heights.  Christina Taft (Nell Quickly) memorably mixes equal parts scorn and loyalty as Falstaff’s codependent barmaid.  Finally, there’s the relatively thankless role of straight man (Birnam Wood), which Paul Roder bears with the grace of a truly archetypal film noir detective. Watch for his entrances – he gives “foreshadowing” a whole new meaning…

The entire production team has worked overtime to bring this rollicking and quirky show to the stage – lighting, sound, costumes in particular. In addition to shaping her cast (and giving them the space they need to craft their almost-but-not-quite over the top performances, Director Fuller also did a lovely (if somewhat scary) job of fight choreography. The result of all this teamwork? For me, a side-splitting evening. For you, a trip to North Portland before this little gem closes.

Twilight Theater Company’s The Maltese Bodkin is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through June 24th with performances at 8 P.M. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. Sunday.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Savannah Sipping Society – Just Drink It In…

Pruella Centers, Jeanna Van Dyke, Patti Speight, and Tanja Crouch
Photo by Nicole Mae Photography

By Tina Arth

There is a certain type of comedy that works beautifully for some folks, while leaving others out in the cold. The cast of Theatre in the Grove’s The Savannah Sipping Society drew a steady stream of laughter at their first Sunday matinee from an amazingly appreciative audience, so it appears that the Forest Grove company correctly read local audiences. This is no surprise, since at least two other shows by the prolific playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten have also drawn large, happy audiences in the same venue. I am not personally a fan of much of this type of Southern humor (a notable exception was TITG’s production of Dixie Swim Club). That said, I’m still impressed with the production – Director Jeanine Stassens, her cast, and production team are doing everything possible to put lipstick on this particular pig, and the result is a very fun show that provides a very entertaining couple of hours.

The Savannah Sipping Society is an inoffensive, usually gentle little comedy about four women who find themselves adrift in Savannah, Georgia as they make their way through middle age, deprived of family through a mixture of life choices, death, and infidelity. Three of them meet accidentally, all in hasty retreat from a hot yoga class that they quickly find is not the answer to their problems. Widowed Dot and angry divorcee Marlafaye invite themselves over for cocktails at the lovely home of Randa, a career-driven architect whose job was her whole life until she lost it: first she lost a promotion, then she lost her temper, and finally she lost her job. When her guests arrive, the tightly–wound Randa is in an uproar about her confrontation with a woman who had 8 items in the 5 items quick-check line. Dot has invited a surprise guest, Jinx – and of course she turns out to be the 8-item scofflaw. Sparks fly at first, but Jinx (a beautician and aspiring life coach) quickly endears herself. Soon fast friends, the four women begin meeting regularly for drinks and adventure (egged on by the ever-exuberant Jinx) – dancing, dating, kvetching, and lubricating themselves with new cocktail mixtures as they try to make sense of the next act of their lives.

Tanja Crouch (Randa), Pruella Centers (Marlafaye), Patti Speight (Jinx), and Jeanna Van Dyke (Dot) create four unique characters who, while very different from each other, still meld nicely – there is some real chemistry among the four. Centers is trashily bitter about ex-hubby Waylon and his new trophy wife, and she gets a few real zingers (her dark explanation of the perfect weight for a man and her tale of Waylon’s most spontaneous moment of love-making are delivered with exquisite timing and inflection).  Crouch is suitably buttoned-down and uptight, and it’s a real treat to watch her gradually open up to her friends and, eventually, to life. Despite the relatively thin emotional depth in the script, Van Dyke evokes both empathy and sympathy in her portrayal of a woman who loved her husband, but wants it clear that her life did not end with his. She tells the story of how her one and only date went wrong with quiet and utterly believable dignity, and she gets the pathos of advancing blindness just right as she moves from denial to acceptance. Speight is perfectly cast as Jinx – ebullient, bouncy, and seemingly ultra-confident while hiding her inner emptiness behind a mask of unstoppable enthusiasm.
So… what worked for me? (1) Mark Farris’ beautiful set – the exterior of Randa’s lovely home and a gracious verandah where almost all of the action takes place.  (2) The four leads (and Assistant Director Kate Barrett’s unheralded cameo) – if I’m going to watch a two-hour rerun of The Golden Girls this is the group I want to see. (3) The lighting and sound design, that make the single set flexible enough to eliminate the need for major scene changes. (4) The costumes (ranging from lovely to hysterical) and the hardest working folks in the theater, dressers Gratia Minor and Debbie Davis. (5) Stassens’ direction – she managed to hold it all together and create a fun, if not terribly memorable, show.

Despite my general distaste for the Southern Comedy genre, The Savannah Sipping Society as presented at Theater in the Grove provides a solid community theater experience, replete with laughs, so if the story sounds interesting to you then it’s definitely worth an afternoon or evening!

The Savannah Sipping Society plays at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through June 17th with performances at 7:30 pm on Friday and Saturday and matinees at 2:30 pm on Sundays.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Happy Days Are Here Again at HART

Riley Irvine and Kieran Thomas with Ensemble
Photo by Carl Dahlquist

By Tina Arth

The more complex and scary the world gets, the more we all need a chance to occasionally sit back and revel in a mythical past when everything was just dandy – say, 1959? That’s exactly the experience director Chris Byrne set out to deliver with HART’s current production of Happy Days, a 2008 musical based on the iconic sitcom, and written by the sitcom’s creator, Garry Marshall (with music and lyrics by Paul Williams). For a couple of hours, “these happy days are yours and mine” and the audience is back in Milwaukee with the Cunninghams, Arthur Fonzarelli, Chachi, Arnold, Potsie, Ralph and the rest of the crew. As a work of theatre it’s not great art, but it’s a lot of fun, there’s plenty of singing and dancing, and the cast and production team pull it off with surprising panache.

As the show opens, everything is not “just dandy” in town – Arnold’s shake shop, mecca for the town’s teens, is facing the wrecking ball to make room for a proposed mall. The solution is to raise enough money to buy out the project by holding a dance contest (did they really think this through?) with additional funds expected from a titanic wrestling match between the evil Malachi brothers and The Fonz. Further complications: Richie Cunningham’s girlfriend Loribeth wants an engagement ring before the kids leave for college. Joanie loves Chachi, and Chachi loves Joanie, but neither one is brave enough to break the ice. Mrs. C bakes a mean pie, but she really wants to get out of the kitchen and help out at the hardware store.  Mr. C wants to do something great so that his lodge brothers will give him a plaque. Fonzie’s ex, Pinky Tuscadero, is coming back to town, and neither she nor The Fonz knows quite how they feel about each other. Worst of all, Fonzie has an old knee injury, and wrestling the Malachis could mean permanent damage – but of course The Fonz can’t admit to any weakness, so he’s in quite a bind. Of course everything works out in the end, and another generation of teens will be able to hang out at Arnold’s.

The show is built around Fonzie, and Nick Serrone was an inspired choice for the role. He’s an experienced actor who understands subtle parody, and he grasps the finer points of playing of The Fonz without going too far over the top – not an easy task with a character so completely associated with Henry Winkler.  Serrone’s timing, sardonic facial expressions, and overall physicality carry a lot of the show. Serrone’s principal co-stars are definitely Andrew Hallas (Richie Cunningham) and Elise Byrne (Pinky Tuscadero). Hallas plays Richie as stolid, sincere – not the most exciting guy in town, but the one you can always rely on – in other words, pretty much the same as the way Ron Howard played the role on TV. While audiences had a decade to watch The Fonz and Richie, Pinky Tuscadero only appeared in a few episodes, so Byrne has a bit more room to maneuver – she creates a hard-edged rebel with tons of attitude and a heart of gold. The role calls for a skilled dancer and vocalist, and Byrne comes out with both guns blazing as she belts out the show’s biggest numbers and dances up a storm.

Andy Roberts and Tanner Morton have a lot of fun as the Malachi brothers and in other cameos.  The rest of the cast aims for some level of restraint, but these two make no pretense of realism, and their burlesque-like performances add another element of fun to the show. Sarah Ominski and Woody Woodbury are a solid duo as Marion and Howard Cunningham, and Riley Irvine’s “Joannie” is cute as a button. Happy Days is in many ways a dancer’s show (I’d love to see it on a big stage with a huge cast for some of the dance numbers), and Kate Jahnsen’s choreography is imaginative and lively. In addition to Byrne, some of the best dancing comes from Irvine and Kieran Thomas (as Chachi), but the entire cast (even those who clearly have no dance training) manages the ensemble numbers nicely.

Sandy Libonati’s vocal direction has yielded a solid ensemble for more than 24 songs (not counting the oh-so-memorable Happy Days theme). Director Chris Byrne did triple duty (and more), and she has done a superb job of creating the ‘50s ambience with her set and costume design.  Ward Ramsdell’s lighting design nicely augments the relatively spare physical set with a series of projected images, and William Crawford’s “Arnold’s” storefront is so cute I really wished it could be center stage.

I can definitely recommend Happy Days as a fun, completely family-friendly show that rings lots of nostalgia bells for those of us who were fans of the sitcom, but that will also appeal to younger audiences who just want to have a good time watching a lively, upbeat show.

Happy Days is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro through Sunday, June 17th with 7:30 p.m. performances on Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

B&B’s Cast, Tech Pass Blithe Spirit Test With Flying Colors!

Cassie Greer, Andrew Beck, and Jessi Walters
Photo by Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

Bag&Baggage’s 2018-2019 season officially focuses on love, “LOVE. THRILLS. MAGIC. WONDER. CHANGE.”  At The Vault, the Hillsboro theater company’s final production of the current season jumps the gun with Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, show that’s just loaded with thrills, magic, wonder, and change (if, courtesy of Coward’s jaundiced view of life, somewhat bereft in the “love” department).  Director Scott Palmer is no stranger to Coward’s style of cheerful cynicism, and is thus perfectly suited to shepherd his cast and crew through a fast-paced telling of this supernatural farce that has been raising spirits (literally and figuratively) on stages around the world ever since its debut in war-torn London during the darkest days of World War II.

In the Bag&Baggage production, the story has been moved to the 1980s. Like the playwright who created him, novelist Charles Condomine is skeptical about psychic phenomena; to learn more about the language and tricks of the trade for his next book, he invites local medium Madame Arkati to give a séance to entertain himself, his wife Ruth, and two friends.  Much to the surprise of all, there are definite supernatural manifestations, and Charles is visited by the ghost of his first wife, Elvira. No one else can see Elvira, and the next morning Ruth writes the whole episode off to Charles’s inebriation until Elvira proves her presence by moving a bowl of flowers around the room. Eager to be rid of her deceased rival, Ruth asks Madame Arkati to get rid Elvira, but the medium is unable to dematerialize the spirit. The story only gets more arcane (and funny) through succeeding acts (there are three, but packed into a relatively short 2½ hours).

Arianne Jacques gets the first laughs as the Condomine’s new maid, Edith, frantically hopping up and down the stairs trying to please her new mistress. She lurks, wide-eyed, as events unfold around her, and sometimes leaves the room only in response to meaningful glares from her employers. Ruth (Cassie Greer) is utterly oblivious to Edith’s confusion, and her complete self-absorption tells us all we need to know about the brittle lady of the house. Greer’s Ruth is coldly, archly uptight, and the performance radiates suppressed rage that explodes nicely when she has finally had enough. Jessi Walters’ Elvira provides a delicious contrast – she may be a ghost, but she’s so flamboyant and mischievous that she actually seems much more colorful and vibrant than the still-living Ruth.

Andrew Beck’s portrayal of Charles Condomine is delightfully effete  – stuck between two wives and passionate about neither. He is bright and witty, but ultimately clueless about how to extricate himself from the drama of married life. When Ruth asks him if he found Elvira more attractive, his perfect, languidly delivered retort? “That’s a very tiresome question, darling. It fully deserves a wrong answer.” Kymberli Colbourne’s Madame Arkati is a stunning reinvention of the character. Instead of a ditzy, fluttering British psychic in brightly flowing clothes, she’s a hilariously energetic, somewhat androgynous American with definite overtones of Foghorn Leghorn, bringing unexpected ferocity and physicality to the role.

Melissa Heller’s costumes are perfect – from Colbourne’s quasi-menswear to the flashing lights on Walters’ gaudy gown - and Tyler Buswell’s scenic design creates a nicely 1980s version of an upper-class British drawng room. However, it’s Jim Rick-White’s lighting and technical effects that move the show from well acted and funny to mind-bending. The show is propelled by a combination of mechanical and electronic effects that capture the real magic of Blithe Spirit, constantly surprising the audience with The Vault’s capabilities in the right hands.

Blithe Spirit tickets will sell out quickly, so fans of Coward’s beautifully crafted, witty farce and Scott Palmer’s theatrical ingenuity should buy tickets soon.

Bag&Baggage’s Blithe Spirit is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through May 27th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.