Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Becky’s New Car Crashes Through HART’s Fourth Wall

Bryan Luttrell, Karen Huckfeldt, Carl Dahlquist, Paul Roder, David Roberts, and Patti Speight. Photo by Nicole Mae Photography.

By Tina Arth

HART Theatre’s latest offering, Becky’s New Car, asks a question rarely addressed in theater (but all too often encountered in real life): how should we react when a good person does a bad thing? Does the good person become a bad person? Does the bad thing become OK? Or do we just roll with clichés like “nobody’s perfect” and get on with our lives? Director Dorinda Toner and her cast have a great deal of fun delving into playwright Steven Dietz’s script and milking it for both its comedic and philosophical richness.

The story is convoluted and implausible, rife with stereotypes and characters whose quirks and neuroses would seem way over-the-top in a more conventional production. The show’s salvation is twofold: first, there are lots of just plain funny lines (“so there you have it – my son was loaded and the dishwasher was not”). Second, the show is self-consciously theatrical, with no pretense at maintaining the “fourth wall.” As the audience is actively incorporated into the show at several points, we are insiders rather than spectators, engaged with the cast and relieved of the burden to suspend disbelief.

Middle aged, middle class Becky is having an “is that all there is?” moment, fed up with her roles as office manager at the auto dealership and chief cook and bottle washer at home. Husband Joe is a hard-working roofer, steady and loyal but taciturn to a fault, and uncomfortable with sharing his feelings – as he says, “I’m a roofer. I cover things up.” Son Chris, a twenty-something psychology grad student, lives in the family basement and expresses himself only in pretentious psychobabble while driving his mother crazy with his slovenly habits and self-absorption.

Late one night at the dealership, in charges multimillionaire Walter Flood, a socially inept widower who suddenly sees Becky as the pathway out of his grief.  A comedy of errors follows – Walter thinks Becky is a widow, and relentlessly pursues her.  Becky never quite gets around to correcting Walter’s mistake. She begins a secret double life on Walter’s remote island estate that cannot possibly last. When Joe, Walter, Chris, and Walter’s daughter Kenni discover Becky’s duplicity, chaos naturally ensues.

Patti Speight is brilliant as Becky – outgoing, scattered, and so darned likeable that we just can’t be mad about her tangled web. She’s dead wrong in her prediction that the audience will end up liking her less than husband Joe (David Roberts), although he’s a pretty sympathetic character too. Roberts is definitely at his best in Act 2, when things get serious and we see a bit of the impassioned man beneath the shell. Carl Dalhquist (“Chris”) is annoyingly funny in Act 1, but has the most impact when he loses it – like Roberts, Dahlquist sheds his composure in the second act, moving from smug observer to an emotionally engaged participant in his own life. The other key performance is Bryan Luttrell’s “Walter.” It can’t be easy to be that befuddled, clueless, and harmless while playing the role of the other man, but Luttrell pulls it off. It helps that there is so little sexual chemistry between Becky and Walter that the audience is not forced to imagine them in the throes of an affair.

The set is simple, in keeping with the surrealism of the script. Becky’s office and living room share the stage with Walter’s terrace, and two chairs serve as Becky’s car(s). Lighting, with some cues called out by the cast, directs the audience’s attention to the right zone. This adds up to zero time lost to scene changes – always a plus!

Director Toner has assembled a fine ensemble cast and given them the space they need to express both the comic and more serious elements of this unusual show. It is safe to say that first-time audiences cannot be prepared for everything they will see – and it’s a show that may well merit a second visit to catch nuances missed the first time around.

Becky’s New Car is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through April 3, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.

Monday, March 7, 2016


Joey Copsey, Jessi Walters, Kymberli Colbourne, Peter Schuyler, Arianne
Jacques, Eric St. Cyr. Photo by Casey Campbell.

By Tina Arth

In the proud tradition of generations of English majors, I always hated Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s massive 19th century whaling novel. I had no opinion at all about Orson Welles – he wasn’t in the syllabus, and I never really got the fuss about Citizen Kane. Thus I walked into the Venetian Theatre for opening night of Moby-Dick, Rehearsed, expecting a well-staged, well-acted, well-directed (it is, after all, Bag & Baggage) evening of wordy pretentiousness with a few gems of real story buried in a mass of ponderous blubber. I was dead right on the first three counts, but amazed to be completely wrong about the last part. Welles’ adaptation for the stage may not be everybody’s cup of krill, but it provided me with a couple of hours (barely enough time to get through Chapter 1 in the book) of challenging, moving, sometimes fun theater.

To understand the play, it helps to have a basic grasp of the Moby-Dick story (from the novel, the 1956 movie, or one of several subsequent film versions). An unconscionably abridged version for the uninitiated: in mid-19th century Massachusetts, the whaling ship Pequod sets sail under the leadership of Captain Ahab, who lost a previous ship and half a leg to a huge white whale named Moby-Dick. Ahab is obsessed with killing this whale. Novice seaman Ishmael joins the crew. While scouring the seas for the elusive giant, the Pequod encounters other ships, including the afflicted Rachel. Rachel’s crew had hunted Moby-Dick but is now searching for a boatload of lost men, including the captain’s young son. Ahab refuses to help, pressing on with his own quest. Eventually the white whale is sighted and chased. Moby-Dick fights back, crushes several boats, and destroys the Pequod in a final gory battle between Ahab and the leviathan. Only Ishmael survives, to be rescued by the crew of the Rachel.

Director Scott Palmer is notorious for deliberately challenging gender conventions in his casting, and the 12-person cast is split evenly between women and men – with a woman (Kymberli Colbourne) in the role of Captain Ahab. Moby-Dick, Rehearsed provides a play within a play, with Colbourne playing the overbearing leading lady of an acting troupe rehearsing King Lear. The star suddenly decides to switch stories to Moby-Dick, thoroughly confusing the stage manager and the rest of the company. After some casual backstage talk, the troupe bravely launches into a rehearsal of the new show. Without appropriate costumes, sets or props both cast and audience are allowed only imagination (augmented by ladders, sticks, and flags) to create the illusion of the whaling ship, the vast Pacific, and the great white whale. Watching the group transform itself from a bickering acting troupe into a cohesive unit nicely parallels the ship’s crew as its members gradually unite in support of Ahab’s insane quest.

The show’s lighter moments come during the backstage banter phase, primarily from Peter Schuyler (“Serious Actor/Starbuck”), David Heath (“Old Pro, Peleg”), and Eric St. Cyr (“Cynical Actor/Queequeg”). While Welles took most of the dialogue directly from Melville’s work, this segment allows the playwright to express a few thoughts of his own, including a sly dig at critics. A particularly astute moment comes when, in response to a comment about the need for theater, a character replies, “Nobody ever needed the theater — except us. Have you ever heard of an unemployed audience?”

Once the play-within-a-play moves into high gear, the women own the wrenching emotional content, while the men hurl themselves into the demanding physicality of creating ship and sea. Colbourne’s performance as Ahab and Father Mapple is shattering; the Leading Lady gets lost in the intensity and insane passion of her roles. Insanity also drives two of the other women – Arianne Jacques (“Stage Manager/Elijah”) and Cassie Greer (“Young Actress/Pip”).  Jacques brings a keening hysteria to her prophetic pronouncements, while Greer uses a plaintive, little-boy-lost delivery that draws the audience to the quiet, touching relationship between Ahab and Pip. Of the women, only Jessi Walters (“Ishmael”) lacks a touch of madness; as the only survivor, she ends up in the comparatively flat role of narrator.

Early in the show, cast members complain about the absence of an orchestra, as they will be forced to sing the show’s songs a cappella. While Moby-Dick, Rehearsed is certainly not a musical, and there are a few outside instrumental effects, the leads and ensemble work in the vocals are exquisite. The hymn and whaling songs are hauntingly powerful, and the whale’s final lament almost brought me to tears (of course, I’m the sort who always roots for the whale!).

Successfully creating the appearance of a spontaneous production is no mean feat. Lighting designer Molly Stowe, scenic designer Megan Wilkerson, and technical director Nate Patterson all play key roles in evoking the nonexistent ship, sea, and whale. Once again, Scott Palmer has pulled together a complex, rarely seen, and compelling piece of theater that entertains his audience while expanding their understanding of the art of theater.

Bag & Baggage’s Moby-Dick, Rehearsed is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, through March 20th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:00pm.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Philadelphia Story: This One’s for Laughter, Not Lamentation

Erin Bickler (Tracy), Richard Cohn-Lee (George), James Van Eaton (Sandy),
Nolan Morantte (Dexter), Dan Kelsey (Uncle Willie), Allie Andresen
(Dinah), Nate Walker (Mike)

By Tina Arth

The title The Philadelphia Story used to conjure up images of Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart on film in the classic 1940 romantic comedy. These days, people’s first reaction is more likely to be “you mean Philadelphia, the Tom Hanks movie about AIDS?”  Director Doreen Lundberg at Beaverton Civic Theatre is doing her part to redress this grievous slight by offering a thoroughly engaging version of playwright Philip Barry’s original work. The play (also starring Katherine Hepburn) opened on Broadway in 1939 and ran for an impressive 417 performances; while the overwhelming success of the subsequent movie ultimately overshadowed the original stage version, both are well worth watching.

The Philadelphia Story tells a tale of the Lord family, members of Philadelphia’s old money “main line” set. Stubborn and judgmental elder daughter Tracy has a taste for the unconventional – she wears trousers, astonished the local socialites two years previously by eloping with neighbor C. K. Dexter Haven (then added fuel to the fire by divorcing him), and is now on the eve of her wedding to the rigidly upright, very plebian and nouveau riche George Kittredge. Efforts to block an obviously unsuitable match come from several corners, including her younger sister Dinah, quirky Uncle Willie, and ex-husband Dex. Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, two reporters from a tacky tabloid are on site (supposedly incognito, but everybody is in on the deception) to write up the wedding (“The Philadelphia Story”) for their scandal rag, and their presence is tolerated as part of an elaborate bargain to keep the magazine from publishing the shocking details of an affair between family patriarch Seth Lord and a New York dancer. Tracy’s drunken midnight swim with reporter Mike throws a monkey wrench into the wedding plans – not a trivial problem, since she had already cheated everyone out of a wedding two years earlier – but of course in the end it all works out nicely, although not exactly as planned.

It must be exceptionally challenging to bring an individual take to the role of Tracy Lord, as it’s so closely associate with Hepburn’s performance (and was actually written for her). Actor Erin Bickler has the advantage that she bears little physical resemblance to her iconic predecessor, and she has enough performing experience that she knows how to pay homage without imitation. Like some other cast members, she is at her funniest when her character is engaged in deliberate parody of her position as an elitist socialite. However, the real star for me is Tracy’s younger sister Dinah (Allie Andresen). Andresen is beyond charming as the enthusiastic, slightly gawky adolescent trying to emulate her idolized sister’s sophisticated, world-weary ennui, and she delivers some hilarious malapropisms with perfect timing and naïveté.

Dan Kelsey (“Uncle Willie”) is another exceptionally fun character to watch as he melds his wicked sense of humor with his genuine fondness for the Lord girls – illustrated perfectly when he drily emulates Dinah’s mispronunciation of “illicit.”
Speaking of dry, there’s Nolan Morantte (C. K. Dexter Haven). Like Bickler, he’s got big shoes to fill – his character is most identified with the movie portrayal by the great Cary Grant. Morantte has just the right touch – cool, restrained, seemingly uninvolved and affectionately contemptuous while he subtly ensures the right outcome for his soon-to-be-ex-wife. For most of three acts it is not obvious that he still loves her – but that’s exactly how the role needs to be played.

Set designer Alex Woodard has done a nice job of capturing the “old money” feel of the Lord home, and the three-act format allows for the major scene changes to take place during intermission, so there are no scene-change delays. Tonja Schreiber’s costumes are a real asset – capturing the differences in social class between reporters and socialites, George Kittredge’s tightly wound stuffiness and Dexter Haven’s casual elan, and the rebellious flavor of the two Lord girls.

Director Lundberg has assembled a cast and crew capable of doing justice to a witty, sophisticated period piece that holds up really well. I suspect that many audience members will be tempted, as I am, to track down the movie so they can spend a bit more time with the Lord family.

The Philadelphia Story Songs runs through Saturday, March 12th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, 12375 SW Fifth Street, Beaverton, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.