Monday, February 29, 2016


The ensemble in TITG's RENT. Photo by Ward Ramsell.

By Tina Arth

More than once Saturday night I had to remind myself that I was sitting in a community theater in Forest Grove. TITG’s production of Rent is that good. Author Jonathan Larson’s rock musical, loosely based on the Puccini opera La Bohème, is not for the faint of heart – it’s loud, edgy, sometimes raucous, and filled with characters whose lives seem to run the gamut from merely awful to truly tragic. Producing it in a smaller community means that moms and dads, sons and daughters who may not usually use that kind of language (or wear those clothes) have to overcome their inhibitions, leave Forest Grove behind, and throw themselves into Larson’s dark vision of New York City’s East Village, circa 1990. Neither the show itself nor this production is perfect, but suggestions that Rent is somehow outdated are shortsighted. Artistic integrity vs. crass commercialization? Check. Rent control and broader issues of social and economic injustice? Check, check. Clearing out urban homeless camps in dead of winter? Huge check. HIV? Still check. Gay/lesbian/trans? Did you miss the hoopla about Pacific University’s first all-gender bathrooms? The show can be viewed as a reminder of where we have been, a celebration of how far we’ve come, and an illustration of how far we still need to go to achieve a truly humane society.
Jonathan Swartout (Roger), Tyler Oshiro (Angel), and
Travis Patterson (Mark). Photo by Ward Ramsdell.

The show starts out fast, so a little preliminary guidance is in order: we are watching a group of starving artists over a one-year period in the early 1990s. It’s Christmas Eve in the East Village. Filmmaker Mark (Travis Patterson) and songwriter/musician Roger (Jonathan Swartout) are squatting (and freezing) in a derelict apartment owned by their former friend Benny (Tanner Norbury), who is trying to collect rent for the entire last year. Friend Tom (Jared Warby), a philosophy professor and anarchist, is mugged on the way to visit, and he is helped by drag queen Angel (Tyler Oshiro). Mark is miserable – his girlfriend, performance artist Maureen (Alison Luey), has dumped him for lawyer Joanne (Lalanya Gunn). Neighbor and exotic dancer Mimi (Cassandra Pangelinan) wanders in and tries to start a relationship with a reluctant Roger. Of the eight main characters, four are HIV positive, one is bisexual, three are gay, and four are straight. Yes, it’s complicated – but as long as you pay attention, the story tells itself quite nicely, loose ends are tied up, and in the end love may not conquer all, but at least it provides a framework on which the characters can construct their lives.

While all of the leads are pretty strong, the cast feels uneven – not because of obvious weaknesses, but because of the overwhelming strength of a few performances. Pangelinan’s “Mimi” is a knockout. She is beautiful, her expressive eyes riveting, and her dancing is suggestive, agile, physically daring, and a sheer pleasure to watch. Luey’s “Maureen” reveals a seemingly limitless versatility as an actor and a vocalist – she is hilarious in “Over the Moon,” and “Take Me Or Leave Me,” her duet with Gunn, is simply exquisite. However, there are two real stars of this particular production. One is Oshiro, who has the audience eating out of his hand from the minute “Angel” dons his zebra tights, and whose appearance at the end of Finale B brought Saturday night’s audience to its feet. The other is the entire vocal ensemble, guided by vocal director Justin Canfield. The arrangements and timing are tight and powerful, and fill the theater with the show’s passion.

The set is perfect – designer James Grimes has created a near-dystopian ruin of brick and metal reminiscent of the finale in Oliver and able to accommodate the show’s scenic demands. Jess Reed’s costumes range from Benny’s yuppie scum look to Angel’s amazing holiday attire, with a suitable range of grunge and funk in between. I was told after the performance that there were serious keyboard problems, but musical director Justin Canfield and the band managed to cover nicely. However, there are times that the balance is off, and solo vocalists fight to be heard over the sometimes very loud music.

After 23 years of involvement with Theatre in the Grove, director and Portland theater mainstay Darren Hurley is packing his bags and will be heading south for the spring (and beyond). Rent may not be a perfect show, but it is a perfect vehicle for his area swan song – he has done a masterful job, and we will miss him until he comes to his senses and heads back home.

Rent runs through Sunday, March 13th at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Saturday, February 27, 2016


Rebecca Rowland Hines ("Carrie"), Blake Isaac ("Ludie"), and Jayne Furlong ("Jessie Mae"). Photo by Al Stewart.

By Tina Arth

I am consistently amazed at the diversity of offerings from local community theatres. Mask & Mirror’s latest, The Trip to Bountiful, is a radical shift from the group’s frequent feel-good fare, and it provides a depth of theatrical experience one hardly expects to find on a stage in a church auditorium. Director Joe Silva had an ambitious vision for the show, and he has attracted and directed a cast that rises to the task.

Author Horton Foote’s powerful play is set in the 1950s, and tells the story of elderly Carrie Watts, who has spent the last twenty years living in a cramped Houston walk-up with her spineless son Ludie and despicably narcissistic  daughter-in-law Jessie Mae. Miserable, trapped by age and circumstances in a world she hates, Carrie wants nothing more than to return to Bountiful, her tiny hometown on the Texas Gulf. Carrie hides her pension check and, with the help of a few sympathetic folks, makes her way back to Bountiful, only to find that her hometown and best friend have both died. A worried Ludie and furious Jessie Mae borrow a car, pick her up, and take her back to Houston – but a story that should be depressing turns heartwarming as Carrie comes to terms with her reality, Ludie finds the strength to support his mom, and Jessie Mae, stunned by Carrie’s warmth and forgiveness, unbends a little.

Rebecca Rowland Hines ("Carrie") in the family graveyard.
The show demands strong female leads, and both Rebecca Rowland Hines (“Carrie”) and Jayne Furlong (“Jessie Mae”) really deliver. The intimacy of the small theater allows the audience to absorb every nuance of Hines’ character as she shifts from wistful to sly, from angry to anguished, from obsequious to defiant, and ultimately from tragic to strangely fulfilled. Hines holds nothing back, and her performance in the family graveyard is shattering in its intensity. Furlong manages to endow the potentially one-dimensional Jessie Mae with enough depth that the audience, while despising her shrill dominance (these days, we call it “elder abuse’), still finds some empathy with the emptiness of her life. Furlong’s subtle double takes in the final scene brilliantly convey the possibility that her character will find some measure of happiness.

Blake Isaac (“Ludie”) deftly conveys his character’s dilemma - a man who hates confrontation trapped between the two women who hate each other as much as he loves each of them. With brief flashes of fire and some gentle interactions with his mother, he prepares the audience for the backbone and nascent hopefulness he displays in the final scene.

Of the five supporting roles (all people who give us glimpses of a kinder, gentler world outside the Houston apartment) Rebecca Raccanelli (“Thelma”) demands mention - she brings a poignant warmth that contrasts beautifully with Furlong’s brittle shell.

The set design (led by Woody Woodbury) is clever, with elaborate detail in the key first and last scenes and  minimalist sketches in between, keeping scene changes quick. The apartment contains some beautiful pieces that will be auctioned off at the show’s conclusion – unfortunately, not the eye-catching bench at the bus station! Viola Pruitt’s costumes are, as always, so period perfect that they don’t just support the production, they enhance it.

The Trip to Bountiful has a four-week run, so there’s no excuse for missing this nostalgic look at a small-town past that tells larger truths about love, family, and home.

Mask & Mirror’s The Trip to Bountiful is playing through Sunday, March 20th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 Canterbury Lane, Tigard. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. There are no Friday night performances.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

HART’s Women and Wallace Dark, Funny, Moving

Pat Lach (Psychiatrist), Dalene Young (Grandmother), Carter Howard (Wallace), 
Carson Bell (13 year old Wallace), and Courtney Bell (13 year old Victoria)

By Tina Arth

When faced with a show that is completely new to me, I deliberately go in with a blank slate – no internet research to learn about other folks’ opinions. In the case of HART Theatre’s current production of Jonathan Marc Sherman’s William and Wallace, this was definitely the right approach – nothing I read would have prepared me anyway! Novice director Eric Lonergan admits that he had no idea what he was getting into when he agreed to take the helm of this complex, funny, darkly troubling play. With the help of some mainstays of the HART community and a remarkable cast, he has succeeded in presenting a riveting, entertaining, and thought-provoking show that grips and holds the audience through two very intense acts.

Stripped to its essence, Women and Wallace is sort of a coming of age dramedy about a young man negotiating the murky waters of childhood and adolescence while working out his confusing relationships with a series of girls and women. While the audience sees Wallace at 6, 13, 16, and 18, the role is often played by a single actor. Fortunately, Lonergan was able to cast a group of age-appropriate skilled theater veterans (ranging from 2nd graders through young adults) to fill the roles of Wallace and the girls in his life – the majority of the cast members are not yet old enough to vote. The show’s dark edge starts when a second-grader Wallace comes home from school to find his mother has committed suicide (shortly after sending him off to school with a peanut butter and banana sandwich). Over the course of the next 12 years, things just get worse, as a deeply troubled Wallace fulfills his own prophecy (“women leave you”) by driving the girls and women in his life away whenever they try to get too close.

The character of Wallace at 18 is the key to the show, as he provides narration to the scenes involving his younger self in Act I, then carries the role solo throughout Act II. Area newcomer Carter Howard nails it with a mixture of naivety and cynicism that perfect captures not only the character’s genuinely enthusiastic, hormone-fueled adolescence but also a carefully constructed carapace and the mess of pain, terror and need that lie beneath the surface. Among his nine women, some  spectacular performances emerge from the adolescents – in particular, the cheerfully lascivious Lili (Nicolette Regina) and her sweetly sincere sister Nina (Nina Skeele). Dalene Young (as Wallace’s grandmother) hits just the right notes, seemingly dotty but with a core of iron. Fully 1/3 of the cast comes from the Bell family – Cameron and Carson as younger Wallaces, Courtney as an early girlfriend, and Julie as the “perfect” mom (except for the suicide part, of course). It’s hard to imagine how the show would have been cast without this talented local family to fill such sensitive roles.

Without frequent infusions of lots of really funny material (e.g. “She was like Sylvia Plath, but without the publishing contract”) Women and Wallace might be tough to watch, but Lonergan and his cast have found just the right balance to embrace the show’s comedy without trivializing the show’s darker elements.
With its irreverent mix of overt and covert sexual and Oedipal themes, the show is really not appropriate for children. That said, get your tickets soon – the show only runs one more weekend, and given its relative obscurity it is not likely to come around again in the near future!

Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre (HART) presents Women and Wallace through Sunday, February 28th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Claudio (L) and Beatrice (R), played by Levi Ruiz and Taylor JeanPhotography credit:  Garry Bastian of Garry Bastian Photography

By Tina Arth

People who doubt that Shakespeare’s plays are best seen on stage rather than read in an English Lit class should hop on their broncos and gallop, not trot, to Twilight Theater Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing.  As with many productions of the play, Director Sue Harris has updated the locale (and dialect, but not dialogue) to a more modern setting – in this case, a thoroughly implausible version of the wild, wild West. The result is a funny, amazingly accessible show that should appeal to Shakespeare aficionados as well as the Bard-aversive.

GradyBenedick (L) and Don Pedro(R), played by 
JJ Harris and Benjamin. Phillip Photography credit:  
Garry Bastian of Garry Bastian Photography

Twilight’s theater is perfect for this kind of show – intimate enough for the audience to see and hear every gesture, grimace, nuance, and aside. There is no danger that we will miss the obvious lurkers and eavesdroppers hunkered down behind curtains, plants or benches – and it is the broad dumb show as much as the actual dialogue that moves the play along and conveys character.

The story is fundamentally simple, but occasionally wanders (as Shakespeare’s tales often do) into convoluted side-plots.  Confirmed playboy Benedick and sharp-tongued spinster Beatrice despise each other in a way that cries out for romantic matchmaking – with that many sparks, who could resist lighting a fire? More merry matchmaking is afoot when the noble Don Pedro decides to help his friend, shy Claudio, woo the lovely and virtuous Hero.  Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Don John, resolves to muck up Claudio and Hero’s wedding; he tricks Claudio in believing that Hero has been unfaithful, throwing the nuptials into disarray. When Don John’s dastardly plot is discovered, the good guys (at this point, Beatrice and Benedick, Hero’s dad Leonato, and others) devise their own scheme, and of course all’s well that ends well (Hey! That would make a great title!) by the end of Act III.

In the generally strong ensemble, there are a few real standouts. On the comic side, Aaron Morrow (“Leonato”) fearlessly and shamelessly lets it all hang out as he sprawls, falls, and crawls – especially when he is wearing the tasteless and absurd disguise of the masked ball.  Alicia Hueni (“Hero”) injects a dose of serious drama with her believable despair at being falsely accused. Levi Ruiz (“Claudio”) is always likeable as he moves from bumbling sidekick to righteously aggrieved suitor, and Mark Putnam is consistently contemptible as the scheming “Don John.” The most fun, however, comes from watching the verbal sparring between Benedick (J. J. Harris) and Beatrice (Taylor Jean Grady). His ineffectual swagger and her constantly caustic remarks are the show’s real masks, thinly disguising an affection that can only end in true love.

The costumes are fun, but all over the map, so the Western theme plays out most strongly in the actors’ Texas drawl (which allows for slow, powerful emphasis of the funniest lines) and the music, a well-chosen series of popular country songs from recent decades.  The single set eliminates the need for time-consuming scene changes – very important in a show with three acts and two intermissions!  The almost non-stop comedy ensures that the show never drags and the audience is constantly engaged – no mean feat for a three-hour show.

Twilight Theatre Company’s Much Ado About Nothing is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Saturday, February 27th with performances at 8 P.M. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 P.M.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


By Tina Arth

Broadway Rose is celebrating its Silver Anniversary, appropriately, with a not-to-be-missed production of one of musical theatre’s most charming hidden gems, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Everything about this show just sparkles – it is young, witty, current, moving, and fundamentally honest – an energetic synthesis of low comedy and high drama woven into a whole that should appeal to, well, pretty much everybody.  The music, vocals, and choreography are all at the expected Broadway Rose standard (and that’s a pretty high bar) but it is the acting that really moves this show over the top, and authors William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin should be proud of this loving, sensitive, and unstoppably funny incarnation of their work.

Director Annie Kaiser has done a wonderful job of finding and shaping six accomplished adult performers into the show’s unforgettable group of adolescent (and preadolescent) misfits competing in the mythical Putnam County for a place at the National Spelling Bee. Guided by three equally quirky adults (and accompanied on stage by four actual audience members – get there early if you want a chance to join this group!) the competitors vie to see who will be named champion. The road through puberty is as tricky and complex as the English language; somehow in the course of one act we are led through several touching (and at times hilarious) rites of liberation and maturation that ring true to anyone who has survived the syzygy (look it up, or see the show!) of pain and pleasure that define the teen years.

Singling out individual cast members in such a strong ensemble feels perilous, but (as the show teaches us) life isn’t fair, so I’ll name a handful. Lyle Bjorn Arnason (“Vice Principal Panch”) brings a bone-dry sarcasm to his role as word pronouncer, definer, and general rule enforcer, which makes his brief descent into human decency at the end all the more moving. Catherine Olson (“Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre”) is heart wrenchingly convincing as an overachieving ten year old dying to please her two dads (as if being president of her elementary school’s gay/straight alliance weren’t enough!). Troy Pennington (“William Morris Barfée”) plays the ultimate outsider – the big, funny looking nerd in glasses who spells the words out with his magic foot – yet Pennington somehow convinces us to fall in love with him. David Swadis  (“Leaf Coneybear”) is a remarkable physical comedian who gets the biggest laughs, but still brings an appealing vulnerability to his role as the ultimate underdog.  Finally, Danielle Purdy (“Olive Ostrovsky”) just nails it – if my endorphins hadn’t been in overdrive from the comedy I would have been driven to tears by her rendition of “The I Love You Song.”

Music director/keyboard player Jeffrey Childs and his colleagues provide flawless accompaniment to the show’s 18 songs (with just a little help from one hyper-competitive speller), and Dan Murphy’s choreography is almost as witty as the topical bios and definitions that pepper the show.

The show does deal with some mature themes, and is perhaps not appropriate for young children and early teens. Unless you fall into that demographic, get your tickets (soon…) and go!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, February 28th.