Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Narnia" at Theatre in the Grove


By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

For its foray into the world of holiday theater, Forest Grove’s venerable Theatre in the Grove tackles “Narnia,” based on C.S. Lewis’ much beloved children’s tale “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.” The production captures both aspects of children’s theater – it is theater for children, and the majority of the cast members are young people.

In order to fully appreciate the show, it is essential to see it through the eyes of a child – happily, we were able to do this because the audience contained an abundance of young people enthusiastically embracing the show’s magic. The cast consists of 20 young people (whose ages range from elementary school through college) and 8 adults. Director Michelle Friend, faced with the challenge of taking over the show halfway through the production process, has done a fine job of synthesizing this large and disparate group into an effective ensemble.

The Leopard (Iris Cebola) sums it all up beautifully in her cast bio: “…it’s cool how people audition for these plays, and then they do all the hard work of running a show, and the actors don’t even get paid in anything but the wonderful experience of acting in live theatre…it means that the actors don’t care that they aren’t earning profit, they just want to entertain the community and have fun. That…is truly awesome” – and it is!

While all of the actors, musicians, crew, and house staff contribute to this “awesome” enterprise, a few merit special mention. Natasha Kujawa (who, with her mom Carla, choreographed the show) opens the evening with the first of several ballet numbers. Her graceful movements and delightful smile set the tone for much of what follows. John Ollis (Professor Digory/Father Christmas) is charmingly avuncular and conspiratorial in his role as the children’s uncle.

Breanna Grimes (Edmund Pevensie) has perhaps the greatest challenge, playing a male role so convincingly that only the program betrays the secret of her gender. She is deliciously venal, and the incessant squabbling between Edmund and Lucy (Aubrey Crouch) provides some of the evening’s most amusing moments, despite the plaintive efforts of older sister Susan (Lindsay Partain) to mediate. The fight scenes between Peter Pevensie and various snarling foes are lively and well-executed – two younger boys were overheard at intermission marveling at the authentic swordplay.

Comic relief rests in the able hands (or, perhaps, paws) of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Tom Robinson and Dusti Arab). Often in the background, their verbal and physical interactions frequently steal the scenes, and they provide some of the strongest solo and choral voices in the cast. Pruella Centers uses her roles as Mrs. McReady and the White Witch to portray stereotypically angry and nasty (but terribly funny) old women in both the real and fantasy worlds of the play.

James Grimes is well cast as Aslan, the thematic key character of the story. Kudos to the makeup and costuming crew for giving him an other-worldly physical mystique that complements his powerful role in the bizarre world of Narnia. He delivers his lines crisply and firmly, yet conveys a compassion that justifies his martyrdom. In addition, he has a powerful and compelling voice that anchors the choral work of much of the show.

The orchestra, conducted by music director Seung Jin Bae, is really quite wonderful.  The score is complex, and the musicians never miss a beat. The sets are effective, especially the wonderful wardrobe door – only when the house lights are full was it apparent that the seemingly ornate carvings are really just painted on.

Close reading of the program reveals the extent to which “Narnia” is truly a family affair – not just for the audience children in their holiday finest, but for the cast, which is generously peppered with parents, children, and siblings. Theatre in the Grove brings something special and unique to the Forest Grove community.

“Narnia” is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, through December 23d.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bag&Baggage's 'A Christmas Carol' Twist

Farndale Avenue in Hillsboro

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Hillsboro’s Bag and Baggage Theatre Company prides itself on its ability to “push the envelope and defy expectations.” There is no question that “The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen Guild’s Dramatic Society’s Production of a Christmas Carol” (aka “TFAHETGDSPOACC”) defied any expectations we may have had as we entered the elegant interior of the Venetian Theatre – despite the fact that we had never seen a Bag and Baggage production, and therefore had no idea what to expect!

Prior to last Friday, we had not been faced with the challenge of evaluating the merits of a show that is built exclusively and overtly on the absence of any theatrical merit. However, as director Scott Palmer makes clear in his notes, and the company in its performance, TFAHETGDSPOACC’s goal is to transcend “serious theatre into farce,” and to achieve this goal via the “abysmal acting” of a drama troupe consisting of “women playing men’s parts, and all of them doing it dreadfully” – with the added twist that four of the five women playing men are actually men playing women playing men.

Driving home, mulling over what we had seen, we realized that as the show’s only goal was to make its audience laugh, the Bag and Baggage production was a raging success. The very full house was convulsed with laughter throughout the evening as Farndale thespians Thelma Greenwood (Ian Armstrong), Mrs. Phoebe Reece (Patrick Spike), Mercedes Blower (Sean Powell), Gordon Pugh (Rosalind Fell), and Felicity Boleyn Stafford (Tylor Neist) did their best to destroy Dickens’ ubiquitous Christmas classic with vile makeup, terrible costuming, an appalling set, bizarre (and bizarrely utilized) props, horrendous accents, mediocre singing (to be fair, they sang a lot better than they danced), and a level of physical comedy that would put the Three Stooges to shame. The humorous effect was heightened by a steady stream of local references (there is a surprising amount of comic potential in the word “Aloha” to a Hillsboro audience, and references to the Woodburn Outlet Mall and Gresham were similarly received – one wonders how they overlooked the hilarity that is Beaverton!).

While TFAHETGDSPOACC is clearly an ensemble show, we cannot fail to mention the astonishing performance of Mrs. Phoebe Reece, who set the tone for the entire performance (and entertained us while the majority of her cast members were allegedly stuck in traffic on “Television Highway”). The bounteous, strident and overbearing Mrs. Reece was as comfortable kibitzing with the audience as she was commanding her ill-prepared thespian troops, and her performance set the tone for an evening of brazen theatrical excess.

Despite the show’s determination to give its audience a truly terrible evening of theatre, Bag and Baggage provided quality where it counts. The crew/production team never missed a beat, and the sound, lighting, make-up/wigs/costuming, and props delivered with a professionalism that belied and enhanced the “dreadful amateur” shtick of the production. Fans of Monty Python, Benny Hill, “Fawlty Towers,” or “Keeping Up Appearances” will recognize and appreciate the lovely ladies of Farndale Avenue for bringing such an over-the-top slice of British farce to the Greater Hillsboro area. We are grateful to Scott Palmer and Bag and Baggage for undertaking this noble work.

“TFAHETGDSPOACC” is playing at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St. Hillsboro through December 23rd.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

HART's Nuncrackers has 'Heart'

Back Row, left to right: Leslie Inmon (Sister Mary Hubert), Jeannine Stassens
(Reverend Mother), Kent Upton (Father Virgil), Wendy Bax (Sister Amnesia)
Front Row, left to Right: Jennifer Yamashiro (Sister Robert Anne), Erin Zelazny (Sister Leo)
By Tina Art and Darrell Baker
H.A.R.T. Theatre’s production of “Nuncrackers” - the Christmas offering of the ubiquitous “Nunsense” franchise - provides an unapologetically wacky homage to the onrushing holiday season.
Director Butch Vandehey (aka “Brother Butch”) refers, in his Director’s Notes, to the H.A.R.T. as “a theatre that wants so much to bring the community together.” A packed and enthusiastic house plus a cast comprised of both H.A.R.T. veterans and newcomers (including seven local students) illustrates the progress that H.A.R.T. has made in achieving this goal. The plea from the stage for audience donations to help Hoboken victims of Hurricane Sandy reinforces the company’s sincerity, meshing real world community spirit with the make-believe world of theater.

The ostensible setting for the entire show is a small TV studio, recently purchased for the Little Sisters of Hoboken with Publisher’s Clearing House winnings. The nuns, priest, and schoolchildren from St. Helens School are taping their first Christmas special, under the deft guidance of cameraman/director Brother Butch. Predictably, nothing that can go right does….

As with many Christmas comedies, “Nuncrackers” relies on the skewering of holiday traditions for much of its humor – but the comic potential is expanded with typically Nunsensical slings and arrows aimed at entrenched stereotypes about Catholicism.  Where another show might seat the audience to an overture, this one seats us to a series of sometimes slightly off-color jokes being delivered by the nuns. The highlight of the opening is definitely Sister Mary Paul (Wendy Bax) who wanders around the seats presenting Secret Santa gifts to particularly lucky audience members while delivering her thoroughly unorthodox commentary on the packages.

While there are a few serious moments, the cast members are at their best when they throw caution to the winds. Father Virgil (Kent Upton) and Sr. Mary Regina (Jeanine Stassens) display surprising agility in their terpsichorean attack on “The Nutcracker,” and both are also accomplished comedic vocalists. Other comic highlights are delivered by Sr. Robert Anne (the irreverent “misfit nun” played by Jennifer Yamashiro) and the aforementioned Sister Mary Paul, whose country singing and holiday malapropisms are a steady source of laughter. More poignant moments are also deftly handled, particularly by Jennifer Yamashiro and several of the students.

Although this is by no means a traditional musical, the show relies on both the vocal abilities of the cast and skillful accompaniment – the latter provided beautifully by pianist Alice Dalrymple (Sister Margaretta) and a sorely neglected percussionist (Brother Liam Cooper?) who is buried in the shadows but adds a great deal nonetheless.

The set for the show is quite wonderful – especially the telescoping nativity scene, cleverly hidden behind an otherwise inexplicable set of barn doors. Lighting and special effects are equally impressive – especially the little touch of Christmas snow at the end of the show.

Congratulations to the H.A.R.T. Theatre at the conclusion of 2012. This year’s audiences have been treated to a wide array of productions – some experimental, some original, all entertaining, and we look forward to next year’s offerings.

“Nuncrackers” is playing at the Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through December 23d.



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Everything Xmas at BCT


Teresa Chrisinger conjures frosty.
Photo by Ammon Riley.

Beaverton Civic Theatre tells “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some)"  

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
“Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some)” is the last show in Beaverton Civic Theatre’s ambitious 2012 season, and the opening night performance demonstrated how successful BCT has been in developing a supportive audience base.

The show is a fast-paced, frenetic take-off of Christmas-themed entertainment in general, and “A Christmas Carol” in particular. While traditionally done with a three-man cast, director Tony Bump expanded his ensemble to six, and as hard as they all worked, it’s difficult to imagine pulling it off with the smaller cast.

The cast and crew. Photo by Ammon Riley.
The lights come up on a wildly melodramatic first scene from “A Christmas Carol,” but a few of the actors (including Marley’s corpse), jaded by the drudgery of endless productions, rebel and insist on doing something – anything – different. After a quick survey of audience preferences, they launch (over the objections of two die-hard traditionalists) into a first-act comic collage of Xmas artistry including The Grinch, Frosty, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and Rudolph (the “Green-Nosed /Goat” – don’t want to anger the copyright gods!). Having promised that Scrooge would appear in Act II, the cast (sort of) delivers with a hilarious counterpoint tale intermixing Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

The show requires audience participation, and the enthusiasm of the opening-night crowd guaranteed success on that score. The full-house rocked with infectious laughter in response to the comedic skills of the cast, delivering a bright and memorable opening to the holiday season.

Scott Kelly in one of his many roles.
Photo by Ammon Riley.
While the show does not require a lot of singing, someone (presumably the director) had the forethought to select a cast capable of delivering holiday songs with sophisticated harmonies – a detail sometimes overlooked in community theater!

As is often the case with well-balanced ensemble shows, it is difficult to single out individual performances. However, Scott Kelly, Kraig Williams, and Stan Yeend were given some of the funniest bits, and all three delivered with uninhibited abandon. It’s not fair, but it’s a fact of life that a man in drag is funnier than a woman in pants! In particular, Yeend occasionally captures an enigmatic W. C. Fields-like presence that really enhances his performance. Despite the comedic disadvantage of their gender (ironic that the women should be cast as the straight men!) Teresa Chrisinger, Jennifer Johnson, and Doreen Lundberg more than carry their own weight while supporting their male counterparts.

It’s quite a stretch for any theater company to go from the magic of “Camelot” to a Christmas farce in six short weeks, and we are both impressed and delighted that BCT is bringing such a rich variety of live theater to Washington County. By all means make the effort to see this show, and keep your eyes peeled for the 2013 schedule of this young and vital group.

“Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some)” runs through Saturday, December 15th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium. For ticket information, see