Monday, May 30, 2016

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Alive and Well at HART

Angela Van Epps, Dan Kroon, Les Ico

By Tina Arth

Watching any play requires a certain level of attention and adaptability, but watching an absurdist, existential tragi-comedy where the characters seem to exist in three separate but interwoven realities calls for a whole new level of cognitive flexibility. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can be parsed into so many levels of meaning that a single exposure to the text is quite simply inadequate. Luckily, the HART Theatre’s current production of playwright Tom Stoppard’s classic is staged cleverly enough to provide abundant cues to shifts in perspective, and funny enough to keep the audience thoroughly entertained. Director Peter Stein’s fast-pacing (essential with this show) ensures that nobody will be bored; conversely, nobody has a chance to catch everything – I left the theater determined to find the script and read it at my leisure so that I could linger over both the philosophical and the whimsical wordplay that decorates every scene.

Pretty much everybody is familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so the root tale is in place.  However, Stoppard’s play revolves around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old school chums of Prince Hamlet whose minor roles have little effect on the outcome of Hamlet but who, like almost all of Shakespeare’s cast, die at the end. The show opens as Rosencrantz, the more foolishly optimistic and less introspective of the pair, is having a remarkable run of luck – despite the odds, his coin tosses always come up heads. The comparatively somber Guildenstern ponders the meaning of this while they try to figure out where they are, why they have been sent for, and what they are meant to do. The arrival of a wandering troupe of tragedians does nothing to help – the troupe’s leader, Player, makes it very clear that from her perspective the two men exist only to provide an audience for the traveling actors.  Ultimately, most of the characters from Hamlet appear, but with a sense of unreality that makes them the play within a play within a play. Trust me - it’s a LOT more fun than it sounds. And there are pirates – who doesn’t love pirates?

Because words are so plentiful and critical to the show, projection, timing and enunciation are especially important. Shakespeare’s original lines make brief appearances (in scenes between Hamlet and the other members of the court), but the best dialogue consists of brief monologues by Angela Van Epps (“Player”) and rapid-paced exchanges between Les Ico (“Rosencrantz”) and Dan Kroon (“Guildenstern”).  Van Epps is eloquent, charismatic, and winningly assertive – even when we (like the two main characters) are not quite sure what’s going on, she is reassuringly clear about the role of the audience and the tragedians. Ico and Kroon work best together in moments of physical comedy reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, and their puzzled haplessness repeatedly provides the evening’s biggest laughs.  An added bonus is the pacing and clarity of Ico’s delivery, which ensures that none of his character’s best material will be lost in the action.

Among the uniformly competent peripheral players, John Ollis’ “Polonius” is particularly memorable – he captures his character’s arrogant ignorance and is fun to watch while alive, while he is truly unforgettable as a corpse being dragged across the stage. Blaine Vincent III (“Hamlet”) is most effective in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene with Ophelia – the authenticity and power of his anger are an unexpected bonus.

Cassie Finley’s costuming is detailed and elaborate enough to help identify characters for a potentially puzzled audience. The set design (by Sam U. Ells – one suspects that’s an alias!) is perfect – just hanging sheets to provide ambiguity of place and time, augmented as necessary by rudimentary structures that suggests a stage, castle, and boat without introducing anything that might spoil the evening with hints of literal reality.

Despite the show’s complexity, it is terrifically accessible – one obviously pre-teen audience member was laughing along with the rest of us. Director Stein has found a nice balance between Keystone Kops antics and serious existentialism, and his cast fulfills his vision nicely.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through June 19th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Heidi Chronicles – One of the Season’s Very Best

Karlyn Weaver, Leslie Collins, Christie Quinn, and Ilana Watson.

By Tina Arth

I may not be the best judge of Twilight Theater Company’s current production of The Heidi Chronicles – there’s a significant conflict of interest (I spent the first part of last Thanksgiving myself stuffing myself silly with the family of one cast member, and ended the day with dessert and a drink or two at the home of another).  Furthermore, I inhabit the bull’s-eye of the show’s target audience, having come of age in the sixties as a bleeding heart liberal feminist – my first vote for president, in 1972, went to an African-American woman. Happily, there are some independent indices that attest to the play’s excellence – most notably a 1989 Pulitzer Prize (Best Play) and a 2015 Tony for Best Revival. For now, you’ll just have to take my word for it on the direction and cast – they are definitely up to the challenge of the script!

The Heidi Chronicles follows Heidi Holland from the mid-1960s through the 1980s, from naïve, slightly gauche but self-possessed high school student through a Ph.D. and faculty career as an art historian.  The heroine is at ground zero of the nascent feminist movement – as did many of us, she begins as an inadvertent feminist, drawn to the seemingly obvious concept that “all people deserve to fulfill their potential.” As the show progresses, Heidi moves from “Clean with Gene” privileged liberalism to a more radical feminism, but she is more of a grounded spectator than a fierce warrior - never really angry enough at men to burn her bra or anything else. Her friends are all over the map – including the loyal but mercurial Susan, furious Fran, insipid Lisa and Lisa’s clueless yuppie younger sister Denise. Her best male friend, the adorable Peter, turns out to be gay (we all had our first openly gay friend back then!). She spends two decades in an on-and-off relationship with her “bad boy,” Scoop Rosenbaum, a smarmy, superficially radical leftist with the soul (and ultimately life) of a conventional, aggressive entrepreneur. Along the way, Heidi sees the ideals of her youth gradually abandoned by their most outspoken advocates, and she is left to work through her disillusionment and find her own path to contentment.

It’s not easy to single out individual cast members for recognition, as the ensemble is uniformly strong, but there are a few real standout performances.  First, of course, there is Karlyn Weaver as Heidi. Weaver finds just the right combination of vulnerability and strength, bewilderment and intelligence – we cannot help but care about her. The scene where she throws aside any prepared script and speaks from the heart to her high school alumnae group is a heartbreaking and powerful illustration of her plight. Ilana Watson’s “Fran” captures the sloganeering, nuance-free anger of the early movement with a vengeance – “you either shave your legs or you don’t!” Lalanya Gunn (as talk show host April) is hilarious proof that some things never change – she is as thoughtlessly self-confident and perky as any currently syndicated news host. However, my favorite performance is Nichols Paine as gay pediatrician Peter Patrone.  He is snarky and sardonic, and maintains a careful balance between sensitive intellectualism (acceptable) and a whiny effeminacy (unacceptable, and liable to get him beaten up in the bad old days). His timing, smile, and self-effacing humor make him the perfect safe male friend, and Paine captures the role perfectly.

Music and visual representation of art are important in this production, and the lighting and sound designers (Robin Pair and Ilana Watson) contribute immeasurably to the continuously evolving ambience.  Chris Byrne’s costumes accurately capture the shifting fashion designs over the play’s 25-year span, helping the audience to keep track of the decades. Director Toner presents, at least for me, one of the most moving and well-executed shows of the season, and I hope audiences will find their way to this wonderful corner of North Portland.

Twilight Theater Company’s The Heidi Chronicles is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Saturday, May 21st with performances at 8 P.M. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 P.M.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Mask & Mirror’s Latest – Catch It If You Can!

Fred Cooprider, Sarah Higgason, Ted Schroeder, Benjamin Philip, and Mark Putnam.
Photo by 
Al Stewart Photography.

By Tina Arth

Sometimes a trip to the theater is just for fun – no deep themes, no profound statements about the human condition. Mask & Mirror’s current production of Weinstock and Gilbert’s Catch Me If You Can is a perfect example – smart, engaging, light fare for audiences of all ages. This whodunit has characters balanced nicely between parody and drama (kudos to director Harvey Brown for this!) and enough red herrings, twists and turns to keep the audience guessing. An added plus is a surprise ending that leaves you going over the earlier scenes in your mind, wondering what clues you might have missed along the way.

Based on a French play by Robert Thomas, the Mask & Mirror version made its Broadway debut in 1965. It can be done with a single set and requires only seven cast members, making it particularly appropriate for community theater productions. The set-up is novel: newlywed Daniel Corban, honeymooning in a borrowed home in the Catskills, has notified the police that his bride Elizabeth has disappeared. The very laid-back Inspector Levine doesn’t seem to take Corban’s plight too seriously – wives, after all, run off all the time. A priest shows up and asks Corban if he will take his wife back, no questions asked, and he agrees – but the woman who comes in claiming to be his wife is a stranger. Corban cannot find any proof that she is not his wife, leaving open for a while the question of whether he is crazy or she is a fraud. After a couple of murders and lots of angst (mostly from Corban) the surprising truth emerges and justice wins the day.

Benjamin Philip is an ideal candidate for the role of Daniel – he is consistently tense and anxious, with just enough bursts of anger and hysteria to make his instability plausible. Fred Cooprider does a masterful job as Inspector Levine, and he gets most of the good lines, wisecracking his way around Corban’s anxiety and playing the role of the inept but lecherous detective while making sure the audience knows he’s actually got a lot on the ball. Jayne Furlong (Elizabeth Corban) is sharp as a tack, and switches smoothly from concerned wifey (when others are present) to murderous con. As Father Kelley, Elizabeth’s apparent partner in crime, Mark Putnam has fine timing and maintains his fake Irish accent consistently as his character shifts from saint to sinner – and he dies really well! Perhaps the funniest character in the show Diana LoVerso as Sydney, the hapless Jewish-momma who owns the local diner and makes the best coffee in the Catskills.

Mask & Mirror generally compensates for their less-than elegant location (essentially a church rec room) by building some of the best sets in town, and this show is no exception. Brian Ollom’s set design and Cindy Zimmerman’s set dressing are detailed and attractive – more than enough to make us forget where we are and buy into the story without reservation. The cast of Catch Me If You Can present a thoroughly entertaining, fast-paced evening of murder-mystery that should not be missed!

Catch Me If You Can runs through May 22nd at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Bag & Baggage Delivers Emma In Abundance

Joey Copsey, Clara-Liis Hillier, Andrew Beck.
Photo by Casey Campbell.

By Tina Arth

Bag & Baggage’s 2015-16 season brought downtown Hillsboro two classic works of 19th century fiction, Moby Dick and Emma, both adapted to theater and presented as a “play within a play” by a strong cast of seasoned professionals. The March production of Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed stripped a ponderous work to its essence, providing a thoroughly compelling evening of intense drama. The current production of Emma would definitely benefit from an aggressive Wellesian culling. The show is charming, often very funny, but at just over three hours (including intermission) it is simply a bit too long.

The problem is not director Patrick Walsh’s pacing – there’s just an overabundance of material in Michael Fry’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s iconic comic novel. Despite the cast’s often fast and furious delivery of dialogue and snappy character changes, my guest and I found ourselves glancing at our watches as 9:00 p.m. came and went before the end of Act I.

The premise is both fun and appropriate (to Austen’s sensibilities) – three young women, stuck indoors, find everything they need to put on an impromptu play in a crowded and rambling attic. They drag two young men into the game, Emma is chosen as their vehicle, and they perch three stuffed animals at the edge of the stage as their audience (the lion and tiger seemed to enjoy it, but I think the koala bear fell asleep). The five manage (aided by a rather extensive collection of old clothing and prop material stored in the attic) to portray all of the characters in the novel. The fact that they are working directly from the book, rather than a play script, provides both the principal strength and the main weakness. On the plus side, the recitation of much of Austen’s dialogue preserves the work’s original comic sensibility and period feel. On the minus side, the frequent utilization of the novel’s narrative segments, while necessary to clarify the story, lends a sometimes-annoying expository tone.

The five-person cast does an impressive job of breathing life into the script. Clara-Liis Hillier (Sarah) fills but one role – that of the overbearing, inadvertently snobbish, manipulative, self-centered but lovable Emma. Sarah, like Emma, knows better than anyone what’s best, and Hillier beautifully captures all of her character’s quirks and airs as well as her puzzlement when things begin to go awry.  The other four cast members are exceedingly nimble and often hilarious as they change parts, social classes, and sometimes genders with little more than their bodies, voices, wigs and accessories to mark the fast-paced character shifts.  Cassie Greer (Jane) is a wonder as she shifts from the naïve and simpering Harriet Smith to the motor-mouthed hysteria of Miss Bates, and Arianne Jacques (Elizabeth) seems convincingly unrehearsed as she cheerfully bobbles her transformations from Emma’s former governess, her frenemy Jane, and her father Mr. Woodhouse. Joey Copsey (Robert) is consigned to the role of straight man (and woman) – he quietly shines as the restrained and intelligent Mr. Knightly. Finally, you can’t miss Andrew Beck (William); his height and good looks make him equally memorable as the foppish Mr. Churchill, the self-righteous Mr. Elton, and the sturdy but unexciting famer, Mr. Martin.

The set is impressively crowded with antiques, chests, and cast-off luggage to create both the feel of an attic and the ambience of Austen’s 1815 setting. Designer Melissa Heller’s costumes are remarkably detailed, from Hillier’s thoroughly modern shorts and tights to the awkward early costumes and finally, as the characters are fully fleshed out, elaborate and authentic period attire.

Emma is an impressive accomplishment, despite its length – forewarned, audiences who fortify themselves with a cup of coffee rather than a pre-show glass of wine will leave the theater content and, like the stuffed tiger and the lion, wide-awake and entertained.

Bag & Baggage’s Emma is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, through May 29, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:00pm.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Around the World With BCT

Pictured is Priscilla Howell (Aouda)
and James Van Eaton (Fogg)

By Tina Arth

In community theater reviews, “farce” or “melodrama” can often be found immediately preceding the words “train wreck.” Combine and augment these words, as in “melodramatic slapstick farce,” and the chance of getting a decent show drops to vanishingly slim – but Beaverton Civic Theatre has beaten the odds with an utterly delightful production of Around the World in 80 Days. The witty script, talented cast, and a remarkable director combine to produce one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in years.

When Jules Verne wrote the original novel in 1873, it was almost unimaginable that Englishman Phileas Fogg would be able to circumnavigate the globe in only 80 days. Playwright Mark Brown has turned Verne’s adventure story into a cheerful send-up of both colonial and theatrical manners and mores, and director Susan Giberson has ensured that the audience and actors derive equal enjoyment from the production.  The eight-person cast is neatly split – half play a single part throughout, and the other half fill 30+ smaller roles with a controlled frenzy of quick-change (of clothing, manner, and accents). The set evolves almost as quickly as the cast – in two acts, facilitated by minimalist props, we see London, Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, the American West, New York, and Liverpool before returning to London. In Giberson’s hands, the resulting show is kind of Monty Python with touches of Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, and Inspector Clouseau.

The team of James Van Eaton (as Fogg) and Adam Caniparoli (as his faithful valet, Passepartout) is pure magic. Van Eaton’s stern, dignified mien (accented by his impressive height) starkly contrasts with Caniparoli’s hyperactive and flamboyant Gallic persona (and markedly less imposing stature); Van Eaton’s patience with his quirky sidekick gives us our first clue that Fogg is hiding surprising depths beneath his stiff exterior.  The third cog in the comic core is Jeff Giberson (as the maddeningly persistent Detective Fix), whose melodramatic investigative techniques provide a continuous flow of droll absurdity to this already funny show.

Like her male counterparts, Priscilla Howell (Aouda) gives her all to the physical comedy of the role. Within the span of a few weeks she is illogically transformed from a delicate and distressed jewel of the East to an articulate and elegant young lady suited to be Fogg’s bride – within the context of the show it all makes perfect sense.

Among the other four cast members (simply identified as “Actor” in the cast list) Allen Denison demands special recognition. As the show’s narrator, he carefully maintains a seriocomic expression but is frequently on the verge of laughter. His sparkling eyes and occasional grin provide subtle breaks in the “fourth wall,” welcoming the audience as partners in the fun. Another lighthearted touch comes from the sets/props – a few boxes, a slab of cardboard, the omnipresent clock, and (my personal favorite) a ladder and flexible dryer duct to create the hilarious Kiouni, a war elephant whose gait is so steady that one can serve tea while mounted atop her massive frame.

Sandi King’s costume design ranges from the detailed authenticity required for Fogg and Aouda to the simple touches required for rapid transformations (sometimes on stage) of the supporting cast. A special shout out also to stage manager Lisa Boudry and her backstage crew – I’ve seen the space behind the proscenium, and it is nothing short of miraculous that they are able to keep things moving smoothly given the fast pacing and complexity of the show.

Beaverton Civic’s Around the World in 80 Days will make you laugh (a lot). While one could delve for deeper themes, and find them, my personal recommendation is that you go simply for an unabashedly enjoyable couple of hours watching a truly funny show.

Around the World in 80 Days runs through Saturday, May 14th 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.