Tuesday, July 26, 2016

MR. MARMALADE – Just When You Thought It Was Safe…

Scott Walker  as Mr. Marmalade and Jayne Furlong as Lucy

By Tina Arth

An almost empty stage, with white drapery along the walls and covering a few pieces of furniture, creates a dreamlike setting for Twilight Theater Company’s current offering, Mr. Marmalade.  The next two hours deliver an amazing combination of satire, horror, comedy, surrealism, fantasy, violence - even love. Playwright Noah Haidle’s 2004 work about the harsh realities and vivid fantasies of a disturbed four-year-old girl delivers a thought-provoking take on the world as it might look if unfiltered by the loving support of responsible adults. Director Jo Strom Lane has attracted a solid cast and given them the guidance they need to fully realize the potential of an odd, but compelling, script.

The show revolves around two very screwed up kids. There’s young Lucy, who is being raised by Sookie, her emotionally, and frequently physically, unavailable mom. Additional minimal supervision is provided by a hormone-riddled babysitter Emily, who spends more time in the bedroom with her boyfriend George than she does with Lucy. Lucy’s world revolves around her real babysitter (the television) and a couple of quite corporeal imaginary friends, Mr. Marmalade and his long-suffering assistant, Bradley. Conflict arises in Lucy’s world when she makes an actual friend, five-year-old Larry, who proudly proclaims that he is the youngest child in New Jersey to attempt suicide. Mr. Marmalade, who seems like a fifties’ sitcom dad at first, is unwilling to share Lucy’s attentions with a real friend. As the show progresses it is clear that Mr. Marmalade is not filling the role of an absentee father, but rather a warped love interest. Lucy’s reality has been shaped by Law and Order style dramas and sitcoms about dysfunctional families (the theme songs and emblematic recliner from Married With Children and All In the Family ensure that the audience will catch this point). Mr. Marmalade makes the transition from a Ward Cleaver to an Al Bundy, and after an unfortunate incident with Larry’s (much more benign) imaginary friends, Lucy sends her young friend away, choosing to inhabit Mr. Marmalade’s bizarre imaginary world filled with violence, cocaine, and pornography.  Trust me – it’s a lot more fun than it sounds, and some truly cringe-worthy moments are leavened by really funny physical comedy and the pleasure of watching a group of extraordinary actors ply their craft.

Jayne Furlong is hilarious, touching, and sometimes maddening as the tutu-clad Lucy. It’s not easy for an adult to play a four-year-old, especially a precocious one like Lucy who shifts without notice in and out of her fantasy world. Furlong pulls off the voice, diction, clumsiness, and pathos so consistently that we easily forget that she is not a tot.  Jay Dressler (“Larry”) is her perfect counterpart – serious, lonely, intense, but somehow still only five. The biggest casting coup may be Scott Walker (“Mr. Marmalade”) – he is old enough to be paternal, attractive enough to justify Lucy’s love fantasies, and makes a smooth transition from buttoned down busy executive to a coke-snorting low-life whose “wife-beater” undershirt accurately reflects the abusive side that fully emerges as the play develops.

Special notice is due to costume designer Amanda Ryan, particularly for the thoroughly childish apparel that helps us define Furlong’s character and provides light notes to brighten a frequently dark script.

Director Jo Strom Lane is continuing Twilight’s recent trend toward challenging, thought-provoking theater that entertains in the moment but lurks in the mind long after the stage goes dark. Mr. Marmalade is not standard fare for local theaters, so theater lovers who miss this production may be permanently out of luck. Because of mature themes and language, the show is not appropriate for younger audiences.

Twilight Theater Company’s Mr. Marmalade is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Saturday, August 6th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday. There will also be an 8:00 performance on Thursday, August 4th, and a matinee at 3 P.M. on Sunday, July 31st.

Monday, July 11, 2016

HART’s “Page to Stage” Comes of Age with Continuing Education

Christie Quinn ("Layla Bainer"), Kaitlynn Baugh ("Megan Horne"), and Kathleen Silloway ("Rose Hawthorne")

By Tina Arth

Hillsboro Artists Regional Theatre (HART) not only gives local actors a chance to perform, it also offers the unique opportunity for local playwrights to see full productions of their original works. From the entries in last October’s “Page to Stage” competition, HART selected Continuing Education for this summer’s play, and there was no doubt in the minds of the opening weekend audiences that they made the right choice. Author Sharon Gavin’s work is brought to life by novice director Carl Dahlquist and informed by the mad skills of a cast that (collectively) brings perhaps 100 years of acting experience. It is smartly written and loaded with unexpected laughs; although absurd, the internal logic is sound – overall, it is a sheer delight.

Imagine sixty-something Rose Hawthorne delaying her college graduation for four decades, because her grandfather willed the family’s Victorian mansion to the college with the condition that she could live in the home until she graduates. Even taking only one class per semester, she is running out of courses to take – and the college trustees are scheming to drive her out by turning her home into a dorm for non-traditional female students. Two roommates arrive – five-time divorcee Layla Bayner and Megan Horne, a young woman using her GI Bill benefits after a ten-year career in the Marine Corps.  Add Rose’s lover (and college president) Skip Graham, Layla’s first husband David (now teaching Layla’s Freshman English class), and Megan’s lab partner Paul, a senior who cannot bring himself to dissect a cat for a required anatomy class. Finally, there is the dreaded Professor Appleberry teaching “Shakespeare in the Modern World” and holding the key to Rose’s future - she must fail his class or she’ll be forced to graduate.

Kathleen Silloway is marvelous as Rose – tall, elegant and thoroughly believable as a woman with a caustic shell that covers her fundamental insecurity. Christie Quinn (as serially monogamous Layla) is her perfect counterpart – a relaxed, outgoing and confident woman of the world compared to sheltered introvert Rose. Kaitlynn Baugh’s portrayal of “Megan” is, perhaps, overly charming – she delivers her uptight character’s lines a little too gently, just missing the clipped cadence and rigid posture of a career Marine.  Continuing Education is primarily a woman’s show, and the men (while uniformly skillful) serve primarily as adjuncts and straight men to the ladies’ laugh lines. Chuck Weed (“Professor Appleberry”) is the exception, even though he has the smallest role in the show. In response to Rose’s innovative Richard III thesis (which must be seen to be believed), Weed spews a hysterical narrative that is a marvel of comic timing and precise delivery.

HART has pulled out all of the stops for the set, and the lush furniture and gleaming “hardwood” floor effectively create the ambience of Victorian luxury that binds Rose to her home (and holds her in the past). The lighting design by Ray Hale, Carl Dahlquist and Brian Ollom is simple but effective, and the more elaborate effects during the Richard III bit really enhance the unusual nature of the play-within-a-play.

Opening weekend attendance was good, but Continuing Education is a comedy that deserves full houses. Page to Stage truly has come of age, and audiences should treat this as an opportunity to watch the premier of a really funny show!

Continuing Education is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through July 24th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

All The World’s a Stage for B&B’s Coriolanus

Cassie Greer at Coriolanus. Photo by Casey Campbell.

By Tina Arth

Up until recently, my only exposure to Coriolanus was its place at the end of a funny line in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Despite some unanticipated rain that transformed “theater on the plaza” into “theater on the concrete floor of a nearly empty bank building,” the dauntless Bag & Baggage troupe brought enlightenment to Hillsboro area theater lovers with the opening weekend of their annual summer Shakespeare offering. In any previous year, precipitation would have spelled disaster, but the company’s serendipitous migration into their own space meant the show could go on – and B&B made the most of the challenge.

Coriolanus’ contemporary obscurity is understandable – it was one of Shakespeare’s later plays, and there is no record of it being performed in his lifetime. It is an explicitly political work, and was adapted several times through the ensuing centuries, with each adaptor imposing his particular political perspective. Thus, it has appeared as an apology for oppressive tyrants (and critique of the unwashed masses) as well as an attack on the hubris of the wealthy and powerful (and defense of the common man). Given the issues in current headlines, the play is remarkably relevant, and director Scott Palmer and his cast definitely trend toward the more peaceful and populist interpretations.  Choosing (as he did a few years ago with Julius Caesar) to use an all-female cast amplifies the divide; there is something about strong women playing male warriors that intensifies the absurdity of a world where might is presumed to make right.

It is impossible to ignore the Trump/Sanders analogy as wealthy, contemptuous General Caius Marcus starves the Roman populace to feed his armies, while Tribunes/social justice warriors Brutus and Sicinius lead the populace in protests against the brilliant but arrogant general. Marcus defeats the dreaded Volscian army, and is awarded the title Coriolanus in honor of his victory. Attempts to elevate Coriolanus to the position of Roman Consul are thwarted by (depending on your perspective) an ungrateful rabble or the noble common man. Banished from the city, Coriolanus responds by betraying his homeland and joining forces with Aufidius, leader of the Volscian forces. Coriolanus’ mother, wife, and another Roman lady plead with him to spare the city, and his response leads to the play’s final tragedy.

Cassie Greer is utterly fierce as the seemingly indomitable Coriolanus, radiating the character’s strength, confidence, and complete ignorance of political realities. Bethany Mason (as Volscian leader Aufidius) rivals Greer’s ferocity, but brings a subtle and deceptive craftiness that makes her a joy to watch. Of the three women playing female roles, I was particularly taken with Lindsay Partain (Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia); the gentle grief in her expressive face draws attention time and again to the human cost of men playing at war.

Coriolanus’ relevance to today’s world is facilitated by the absence of sets that would tie it to a particular time and place, as well as by costuming decisions that include a curiously effective mix of contemporary and ancient garb. The choice to dress Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia (MaryAnne Glazebrook) in clothes appropriate to a 1960s Junior Leaguer is especially evocative, summoning up the vision of a generation of American women thoughtlessly sending their sons off to Vietnam. The addition of sporadic and ominous drumming ensures that the audience pays close heed to key moments in the show. Both the drums and the dialogue are pitched at a level appropriate to outdoor theater, sometimes a bit overwhelming for the opening weekend crowds, but balance should be restored when the show moves to Civic Center Plaza for the rest of the run.

Bag & Baggage’s production of Coriolanus runs through July 23, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Barring further rain, all performances will be held at the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza, 150 E. Main Street, Hillsboro.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

West Side Story – Something’s Coming, Something Good

By Tina Arth

When Broadway Rose produces one of my all-time favorite musicals, of course I expect to enjoy it, so it was no surprise to me that I loved the opening night performance of West Side Story. However, I was caught off-guard by the sheer beauty of this production, which left me (and many other people) in tears at the final curtain as I joined the audience’s enthusiastic standing ovation.  Of course, the show has a flawless pedigree: concept and choreography by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim – all with a bloodline that traces directly to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

It makes no sense to me to call West Side Story “dated.” The slang, clothing, attitudes and ambience are very much tied to the immigrant gang culture of New York City in the early 1950s, and the story is told through the xenophobic lens of the era (not so different from our own?). Like their Shakespearean predecessors, Tony and Maria are star-crossed lovers, determined to wed despite the ferocious social pressures of their families and peers; like Romeo and Juliet, they consummate their love but come to a tragic end. West Side Story is not the first Broadway musical to use love’s blindness to illustrate the deeply rooted racism within American culture (notably, think 1949’s South Pacific) but, unlike its theatrical predecessors, it builds the entire story around this theme, and puts its focus on the irony of our newest immigrants being demonized by those who arrived only one generation earlier.

The challenge of doing justice to a show with such a powerful story and distinguished lineage is intensified by the need for young performers, as all but a few characters are in their late teens.  However, Director Peggy Taphorn, Music Director Alan D. Lytle, and Choreographer Jacob Toth) and their cast are more than up to the task. The choreography has a few surprises, especially the male ensemble. In place of “America’s Got Talent” style dance crew synchronicity, these Jets and Sharks are distinguished by an athleticism and raw energy that eloquently tells the story of their adolescent frustration. Houston import Austin Arizpe (“Bernardo”) provides the focal point for the show’s anger and angst; a world of hurt that he cannot express in words explodes from his leaping, high-kicking performance. Another dance surprise is the exquisite ballet sequence by Mia Pinero (“Maria”) – instead of relying on an outside ballerina, she does her own exquisite dancing and leaves the “Somewhere” vocal to an amazing off-stage vocalist (Amber Kiara Mitchell).

While the dance is engaging and evocative, it’s the overwhelming solo and ensemble vocals that move this West Side to the highest level. Mia Pinero and Andrew Wade (“Tony”) move seamlessly through some of the most beautiful love songs ever written, and their duets are spine tingling. Pinero perfectly captures Maria’s otherworldly innocence, and Wade is utterly believable as her partner in a world inhabited only by the two lovers. Kayla Dixon (“Anita”) is a stunning spitfire, a fine dancer, and a spectacular singer – her work with Beknar Bermudez (“Rosalia”) and the rest of the Sharks’ girls in “America” is sharply humorous – a treat for the eyes and the ears, and as good a rendition of this number as I have seen.  

The uniform strength of the cast means that it’s difficult to select other individual performances, with one exception. The adults in West Side Story are mostly one-dimensional and tend to be played that way, but Mark Pierce (“Doc”) brings some real depth to his character, especially in Act II. His “Doc” is sensitive, fair, and loving, and his anguish at being unable to change the world around him shines through.

In case I’ve been too subtle – this show is remarkable, powerful, beautiful, moving, and definitely worth a few hours out of the life of anyone with even a hint of appreciation for musical theater. Don’t delay buying tickets – many performances are already almost sold out, and those who wait will miss out on something spectacular.

Broadway Rose’s West Side Story runs through July 24th at Tigard High School’s Deb Fennell Auditorium.