Monday, May 12, 2014



Chrissy Kelly-Pettit as Amanda and Adam Syron as Elyot. Photo by Casey Campbell.

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Long before the advent of Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber, there were spoiled rich folks whose every breath seemed to be a waste of oxygen. When he wasn’t busy acting or writing songs like the beautiful and poignant “Matelot” and the hilarious “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington,” Noel Coward put pen to paper to crucify both the bourgeoisie and the morally vapid, self-appointed crème de la crème of his era. Bag and Baggage’s current production of Coward’s Private Lives brings all of the playwright’s razor-sharp wit to downtown Hillsboro, a locale so geographically and socially removed from 1930’s Paris that the play’s characters would find it utterly appalling – that is, if they could be bothered to have an opinion at all.  Director Scott Palmer and his five cast members exploit every nuance of the script, and the result is alternatively angry, combative, passionate, ennui-laden, and on occasion just too, too civilized.

Gary Strong as Victor and Adam Syron as Elyot. Photo by Casey Campbell.
The plot is in many ways as empty as the lives of its characters. Elyot Chase is honeymooning in the south of France with his second wife, Sybil. The newlywed couple next door is, coincidentally, Elyot’s first wife, Amanda, and her new husband Victor Pryne. It is clear that Elyot is thoroughly bored with Sybil, and annoyed by her incessant harping on the details of his first marriage. The stuffy Victor is the object of Amanda’s thinly veiled contempt – at best, his clumsy ardor is rewarded with air kisses. Elyot and Amanda discover their proximity to each other, and immediately reignite the love-hate relationship that characterized their marriage.  Abandoning Victor and Sybil, Amanda and Elyot run off to wreak havoc in Amanda’s Paris flat as they wallow in an alcohol-fueled frenzy of passion and fisticuffs. When Victor and Sybil track them down the morning after a particularly violent fight, the two spurned spouses agree to wait a year before initiating divorce actions to see if Elyot and Amanda really want to continue their relationship. Victor and Sybil begin to bicker, inexplicably defending their respective spouses, and it becomes clear that they, too, are a match made in hell. The fun is intermittently interrupted by the arrival of Louise (Theresa Park), the French maid who is expected to literally pick up the pieces. Her working class voice of reason provides the show’s only moments of sanity, despite the fact that her harangues are delivered in fractured French – one does not need to understand the actual words to capture the depth of her contempt for her spoiled and self-absorbed employers.

Adam Syron (Elyot) and Chrissy Kelly-Pettit (Amanda) play their roles with venomous aplomb, moving from lassitude to frenzy and back with dizzying haste. They capture an odd sexual ambiguity that seems to be equated with intense passion. Ironically, it is the manly Victor (Gary Strong) and the feminine Sybil (Arianne Jacques), who are curiously sexless. Jacques’ tightly wound performance provides a nice complement to Strong’s blustering propriety – they are much more convincing as a couple than as mates to Syron and Kelly-Pettit.

Costume designer Melissa Heller has outdone herself with Private Lives – the period clothing captures the art deco flavor of the era with impeccable fidelity. The sparsely elegant symmetry of the first act set contrasts strikingly with the cluttered shambles we see in the second act, providing a visual parallel to the characters’ descent from order to emotional chaos in the play.

Bag & Baggage’s Private Lives is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, through May 30th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm.

Gary Strong as Victor and Arianne Jacques as Sibyl. Photo by Casey Campbell.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Rielly Peene with Leticia Maskell

By Tina Arth and Darrel Baker

A group of actors gets on a stage and performs a play in front of a room full of strangers who pay to stare at them. The play is about the effect on a deformed man of spending his life essentially earning a living by being stared at by paying strangers. Ironic? Maybe. Effective? Absolutely, as Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current offering of The Elephant Man clearly shows. Playwright Bernard Pomerance has created a powerful script, and director Jessica Reed brings his work to life in this thought-provoking production.

The Elephant Man is staged as a series of vignettes illustrating the last years of Joseph Merrick (inexplicably called “John Merrick” in the script), a horribly deformed man who briefly becomes a society darling in late Victorian London. The show opens with Merrick on display at a tawdry carnival in London’s miasmic East End. Merrick is in the clutches of his keeper, Ross, who sells glimpses of the afflicted man in a brutal freak show. Physician Frederick Treves, fascinated by Merrick’s disease and horrified by his treatment, gives him a home in the nearby London Hospital, where he spends the last years of his short life in (relative) peace and comfort but finds that he is still on public display – to a much better class of gawkers.

Rielly Peene
Author Pomerance, in his introductory note, advises against theater companies attempting to reproduce Merrick’s appearance or speech, so the actor is left to create the illusion of his character’s affliction without makeup or prosthetic devices. Rielly Peene, in his first lead role, is more than equal to the challenge. He twists his body just enough to capture the essence of physical deformity, and uses his face and voice to express the mental anguish of Merrick’s futile life.

Adam Caniparoli plays Frederick Treves as a compassionate but rigid man of science, able to sympathize but not really empathize with his ward’s awful plight. Caniparoli’s performance is a believable mixture of naiveté and professional rigidity; he shows the audience his social conscience and yet is bound by his adherence to social conventions. Steve Holgate portrays Carr Gomm, the hospital governor, as a pragmatic realist – not inhumane, but hesitant to commit the hospital’s resources to what he terms an “incurable.”  Holgate’s commanding voice and stern demeanor poorly mask his character’s fundamental goodness.

The play’s primary antagonists, both peddling enigmatic wares, are drawn with a fine sense of irony by Laurence Cox  (carney/con-man Ross) and Dave Paull (the sanctimonious Bishop How). Cox portrays a classic bully – loudly arrogant and domineering when he’s in control, sniveling and whiny when the chips are down, but always self-serving and sleazy. Paull’s take on How is eerily creepy; he delivers his lines in a soft monotone that highlights the emptiness of his platitudes.

Letitia Maskell as the actress Mrs. Kendal runs a serious risk of stealing the show. She is truly lovely, and brings more real compassion to her interactions with Merrick than any of his other would-be “saviors.” Externally, she is as extraordinarily lovely as he is ugly, yet she forges the strongest connection in the play with the tormented Elephant Man.  The scene where she partially disrobes to give Merrick a glimpse of the female anatomy is handled with a subtle grace - almost inadvertently seductive, yet gentle and ladylike.

The production team has created a remarkably effective staging in the small space available. Sets are colorful but minimal, and the use of projection to express the central theme of each scene is clever and illuminating.  Perhaps the best touch is the inclusion of two large pictures of the real Elephant Man, shown whenever the character is on stage. These pictures serve as a constant reminder of the devastating effects of Merrick’s physical deformity, yet the audience’s focus gradually shifts away from the horrific images as the character becomes fully human.

The Elephant Man runs through Saturday, May 17th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Mask & Mirror’s Latest: Theater for the Whole Famiglia

Photo by Al Stewart

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Thousands of wonderful plays have been written in the English language, so it should come as no surprise to us when we see a show that has been around for years but is new to us. Sometimes, however, we are shocked that we’ve overlooked a gem. Many thanks to Mask & Mirror Theatre Company and director Sarah Ominski for adding Over the River and Through the Woods to our play-watching repertoire!

Opening night was an eye-opening evening of firsts. As noted, it was the first time we had seen Over the River And Through the Woods. It was also a first for Ominski – the Mask & Mirror production marks her directorial debut with distinction. Finally, it was the first live Portland-area stage appearance of Jason Wilkinson, a mega-talented young actor whose performance as grandson “Nick” anchors the entire story.

The Italian phrase “Tengo Famiglia” translates literally as “I have family” – but in the context of the play it expresses the rich cultural importance of family love, loyalty and cohesiveness that infuses author Joe DiPietro’s beautiful story. Young marketing executive Nick Cristano has Sunday dinner (every Sunday!) with his two sets of very Italian grandparents in New Jersey. The rest of the family has fled – Nick’s parents to Florida, his sister to San Diego – so Nick bears the brunt of his grandparents’ overwhelming and sometimes overbearing love. Their hopes for the future are all pinned on Nick, whose failure to marry and produce offspring is a source of continued angst. When Nick informs them that he’s been offered a promotion that will involve moving to Seattle, Washington (not the close-by Washington, the one that’s all the way across the country next to California!) panic ensues. How to hold him in New Jersey? The cagy grandmothers agree – find him a good woman and he’ll stay.  What starts out in Act I as a terribly funny, but potentially predictable, romantic comedy morphs in Act II into a deeply moving story that captures the essence of “famiglia” in any culture, celebrating both the ties that bind and the importance of loosening those ties to make room for personal growth.

Aundria Pluck plays Caitlin O’Hare, the “good woman” selected to bind Nick to the family roots. Pluck is a lovely actress who gives her character an irresistibly appealing, down-to-earth charm, and her calm demeanor contrasts nicely with the Italian-American exuberance of her hosts.

Nick’s maternal grandparents, Frank and Aida Gianelli (Gary Romans and Robynn Hayek), create a classic comedy duo – the doddering old immigrant clinging madly to his manhood, and his loving, protective, but domineering wife trying to control a world she barely understand. Romans is a master of the old man’s confused, slump-shouldered shuffle but don’t let him fool you – he displays moments of impish wit and the monologue about his father provides one of the show’s best moments. Hayek gives her character a hilarious self-absorption, and is utterly believable as the spoiled and clueless, stereotypically Catholic queen bee of a constantly diminishing hive.

The family dynamic of the paternal grandparents, Emma and Nunzio Cristano (Jan Rosenthal and Fred Cooprider), is a bit more complex. Nunzio is dying of cancer, a fact hidden from all but his wife.  Rosenthal’s “Emma” is a high-energy dynamo, slightly more grounded than her counterpart Aida but no less humorous.  Cooprider has, in some ways, the best role in the show, and he makes the most of it. He brings a solid integrity and dignity to the serious moments (and there are several) but his unorthodox approach to solving a Trivial Pursuit question earns him some of the evening’s biggest laughs.

Jason Wilkinson’s portrayal of Nick Cristano captures all of the love, guilt, ambivalence and confusion of a man torn between two worlds. Throughout the show, Wilkinson easily navigates the personal growth and maturation that takes his character from spoiled post-adolescence to true adulthood, able to make his own life without abandoning the precepts of famiglia.

We are, as always, amazed at the ability of Mask & Mirror to transform a church rec room into a theater, with ample seating, good sight lines, and sets that are both effective and authentic. The simple combination living room/dining room, with lace curtains and pictures of Sinatra and the Pope, perfectly captures a contemporary household mired in the décor and ethos of the post-Korean War 1950s.

Director Ominski, supported by a powerful script, her production staff, and a uniformly fine cast, has created one of the very best Mask & Mirror productions we’ve had the privilege to see.

Mask & Mirror’s production of Over the River and Through the Woods runs through Sunday, May 18th at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard with shows Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm.