Tuesday, February 25, 2014

It’s a Dog’s Life at Mask & Mirror

Sylvia -Amelia Morgan-Rothschild; Greg-Michael
Allen; Kate-Phyllis Fort
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

As reviewers, we never cease to marvel at the talent that is found on even the smallest of Washington County’s stages. This was driven home to us Saturday night with Mask & Mirror’s hilarious production of Sylvia. Director Gary Roman has drawn a group of fine actors to “The Stage” at Tigard’s Calvin Church, and the opening night audience clearly appreciated this great team effort.

Author A. R. Gurney’s basic story is not terribly new or terribly complicated. A middle-aged couple (Phyllis and Greg) with empty-nest syndrome work through their respective mid-life crises – Kate by pursuing a lofty and rewarding career, Greg by abandoning a corporate job that he finds increasingly meaningless, instead seeking to get “back to nature.” Greg finds an abandoned dog (Sylvia) in the park, and brings her home to their New York City apartment. Kate is not amused – although not a dog-hater, she has been looking forward to a nice, clean adult world for the post-mommy phase of her life. The story revolves around Sylvia’s impact – first in tearing Greg and Kate apart, ultimately in bringing them back together.
Sylvia -Amelia Morgan-Rothschild; Greg-Michael Allen

W. C. Fields once warned fellow thespians never to share a stage with dogs or children (scene-stealers all), and although Sylvia is played by a human (Amelia Morgan-Rothschild), she poses the same threat. This relative newcomer to the Portland area is one of the finest actresses we have seen in recent years – her performance is agile, cute, brash, powerful, and mercurial, and she manages the frequent transitions from almost human to utterly dog with aplomb.  An added bonus is the few brief moments of a cappella work that give the audience a hint of her marvelous singing voice.

Luckily, the rest of the cast members carry their own weight quite nicely. Michael Allen and Phyllis Fort give solid performances as Greg and Kate. While Greg is clearly enamored of his lively new companion, he makes it equally clear that he really cares about Kate, despite her inability to accept his changing needs. Allen creates a likeable guy who captures the audience’s sympathy for his plight – trapped between two women, and wanting to keep both in his life. Fort has the greater challenge, at least in a room full of dog-lovers. She can be, as Sylvia points out, something of a bitch (ironic, eh?), and her relentless campaign to drive Sylvia out of their lives wins her no brownie points. However, her finest moment in the show is the one where she wins back the audience while obsessively searching for Sylvia’s red ball. In this scene, she believably reconnects with the maternal side that seemed to have vanished from her life.

The other members of the tiny cast include Diana LoVerso, who shines in her tiny role as Phyllis, Kate’s college friend - we hope to have the chance to see her do more. Tom, a man in the dog park who philosophizes about the importance of spaying Sylvia (but would never consider neutering his manly Bowser) is played by a woman, G. Moshovsky, who brings a convincing machismo to her sexist role. Continuing this gender-bending trend is B. Hare as Leslie, the marriage counselor. While Hare is male, the character is deliberately ambiguous about his/her gender, asking clients to assign gender based on their own preconceptions. Hare’s few minutes on stage effectively summarize the play’s broader themes about how gender roles can shift (with or without the services of a good veterinarian!).
Sylvia -Amelia Morgan-Rothschild; Greg-Michael
Allen; Kate-Phyllis Fort; Phyllis-Diana LoVerso
The humans’ costumes, while appropriate, are basically just clothes (although Leslie’s is gaudily sexless).  Sylvia, however, is nothing short of spectacular in her various incarnations, from tattered street-dog to post-grooming, prancing diva. The set is basic, but functional – a simple living room, a bench, and the New York skyline, all surrounded by U-shaped seating that brings the audience within a few feet of the action. The lighting supports the show’s shifting moods, especially at the end (dog-lovers, bring your hankies).

To honor Sylvia’s animal-loving themes, Mask & Mirror has identified five animal welfare groups (Animal Aid, Fences for Fido, Indigo Rescue, Oregon Dachshund Rescue, and Pacific Pug Rescue) as beneficiaries. The theater will donate $1.00 for each attendee who mentions one of these great non-profits when tickets are sold.

Sylvia runs through Sunday, March 16th at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays. 

Monday, February 17, 2014


By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
“In the 20th century, no movement will be as beautiful as the movement of the line across the paper, the note across the staff, or the idea across the mind” – thus does bartender Freddy express the central theme of H.A.R.T. Theatre’s current production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile. However, author Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) modestly omits from this triad of the 20th century’s dominant cultural influences a fourth, equally powerful and subversive force – the force of comedy.

Damien Siemer as Einstein and Seth Rue as Picasso
Director Peter Stein has a clear grasp of the importance of humor in captivating and enlightening his audience, and he has assembled a formidable cast to express his vision.

Paris, 1904. What if Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso had turned up at the same Montmarte watering hole, the Lapin Agile? The answer (at least in the hands of a comic/philosopher like Martin) is simple – lots of absurd stuff that somehow manages to express a whole bunch of profundity. Want to know more? Go see the play.

While the show is defined by the relationship of creativity and genius at the dawn of a new century, it is anchored by the common man (and woman) – Freddy the bartender (Dan Kroon), Germaine the waitress (Ilana Watson), and Gaston the regular customer (Carl Coughlan).  Kroon and Watson are citizen philosophers of a type often found in depictions of working class Parisians – not overly well-educated, but still willing to trade philosophical banter with their esoteric clientele. Their timing and delivery do full justice to Martin’s witty dialogue, and the characters they create are appealing and believable (given the absurdist tone of the entire play). Coughlan’s portrayal of the prostate-challenged, newly old Gaston is consistently funny – his mobile eyes convey a wealth of commentary on the passing scene even when he is silent, and his clear delivery ensures that we do not miss a thing.

Aaron Morrow, Jake Beaver, and Seth Rue
Portland newcomer Trinka is a delight in each of her three roles as Suzanne (one of Picasso’s lovers), the Countess (a friend and confidante of Einstein), and “the admirer.” She’s cute, slightly elfin, and flexible enough to shift from spitfire lover to  intellectual soulmate to uninhibited groupie with little more than the switch of a wig.

Damien Siemer shows admirable restraint and superb timing in his depiction of a young Albert Einstein –he is by turns abstracted and engaged, but he does not succumb to the urge to overplay his character’s Teutonic genius. By contrast, Seth Rue’s Picasso is painted in broad strokes – like the character he plays, Rue is an uninhibited extrovert whose energy mines the role for its full comic potential.

Rounding out the cast are cynical art dealer Sagot (Patrick Brassell) and his assistant, Andre (Greg Baysans), whose quirky characterization adds a lot to the surreal ambience of the show. Aaron Morrow (Charles Dabernow Shmendiman) and Jake Beaver (the Visitor) provide an anachronistic contrast to the rest of the show’s characters. Shmendiman, the egotistical and bombastic (but utterly clueless) inventor is an expression of the author’s contempt for industrialism; Morrow gives the role a horrifyingly comical Ugly American flair. Beaver’s Visitor captures the self-effacing humility of an unnamed, mid-century rock star, along with his pompadour hairdo and blue suede shoes. Where Shmendiman is in the wrong place at the right time, the Visitor in the right place (with other cultural icons), but at the wrong time.

The set and costumes are up to the H.A.R.T.’s usual high standards – detailed, appropriate, attractive, and functional. The complex lighting and special effects are equally impressive, and contribute a great deal to the exposition of the show’s themes.

 A minor, and easily addressable opening-night problem was audibility – a few of the lines were lost because of a lack of vocal projection, especially when there was music in the background. There are no throw-away lines in the show, and the audience deserves to hear every word.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile is playing at Hillsboro’s H.A.R.T. Theatre, 185 SE Washington, through March 2 with performances at 7:30 on Friday and Saturday, 2:00 on Sunday.

Monday, February 3, 2014

New Season, New Show, (Lots of) New Cast Members at Broadway Rose!

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
The theme for Broadway Rose’s 23d season is “Brass ‘n’ Sass” – and their current production of Band Geeks is a perfect way to start the music. This captivating new show is having its West Coast premiere at the New Stage in Tigard, and authors Tommy Newman, Gordon Greenberg, Gary Alter, and Mark Allen must be thoroughly jazzed about the quality of the production.

Band Geeks draws upon themes familiar to anyone who ever had the misfortune of attending an American high school – as Director Isaac Lamb says, “high school is proof that God has a wicked sense of humor.” While the material is certainly accessible to young people, the show’s appeal is by no means limited to this audience. We each find our own geeky way through adolescence, be it marching band, yearbook, drama, choir, debate, or 4H. The relationships we forge during these crucial years not only help us to survive the slings and arrows of a popularity-based social structure, they guide us toward the people we’ll become as adults.

The story is loaded with familiar elements – Elliott, the chubby and awkward tuba player who falls for the beautiful baton twirler (Nicole); Laura, the girl next door who is everybody’s buddy, but nobody’s prom date; Jake, the angry jock; Natalia, the out-of-touch foreign exchange student; Molly, the alienated Goth girl; Alvin, the cheerily snarky gay guy, and more. The story is familiar – beefy football players bullying the band geeks, lots of unrequited passion, underfunded arts programs saved at the last minute by inclusion in regional competitions, the one cool teacher (Mr. Hornsby) who understands and supports his crew of drifting hormones, Stewart, the pathetic mama’s boy, and Ms. Dixon, the mama who made him that way.

All in all, it is a simplistic, formulaic show that somehow kept the entire audience (including us) enthusiastic and engaged, with a heartfelt and sincere standing ovation at the end. The songs are plentiful and rarely memorable, but they serve the show well – as with all Broadway Rose productions, the arrangements and vocal ensemble lend a concert-like air to the evening. There are no weak performances, but a few of the players particularly sparkle.  Zach Cossman (Jake) does “anger” convincingly – but it is through his prowess on the drums that he really finds his rhythm. Ryan Andrews (Elliott) manages to remain loveable despite the character’s nerdy neediness – he brings a na├»ve enthusiasm that tempers his self-absorption. The biggest laugh of the evening (it literally stopped the show) was a throwaway line delivered by David Swadis (Alvin), whose comic timing and delivery are impeccable. From her first moment on stage, the audience knows that Danielle Purdy (Laura) is the real star despite her unassuming affect. She quietly hovers in the background, ensuring that things go (relatively) well, until finally Elliott gives her the credit she deserves by giving her the position of bandleader. Her marvelous voice easily sells her solos, and provides an anchor for the ensemble numbers.

The two “adults” in the cast, Amy Jo Halliday (Ms. Dixon) and Joe Thiessen (Mr. Hornsby) play very different roles in the production. While Thiessen is given a meaty part with some real depth (and a great song, “If I Had a Stage”), Halliday’s character is little more than a cartoon, and her spectacular voice is wasted on her big number, the formulaic “For the Greater Good.”

An unexpected high point comes at the curtain call, when the real band geeks (the band, led by musical director Mont Chris Hubbard) join the cast at the front of the stage. Their appearance played no small part in motivating the opening night standing ovation.

While Band Geeks is in many ways classic Broadway Rose fare, it is exciting to see this venerable group tackling a completely new show (this is only its third professional production). We saw lots of fresh faces on both sides of the curtain – seven of twelve of the actors are new to Broadway Rose, and a lot of the audience looked like they were new to the New Stage (and will be coming back for more!).

Band Geeks runs through March 2 at the Broadway Rose New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard.