Monday, October 31, 2016

Murder by Indecision – Fun Fluff as Autumn’s Days Grow Darker

Jordan Wilgus ("Ken Steele") and Jean Christensen ("Gwen Hubbard")

By Tina Arth

HART Theatre’s current production of Murder by Indecision goes way over the top to transform playwright Daniel O’Donnell’s often-clumsy Agatha Christie spoof into a worthwhile evening – and it actually works!  First-time director Aaron Morrow confronts head-on the challenge of making the audience laugh when presented with a “parody” that is long on lame jokes and short on real wit. By allowing his actors free rein to play their thin roles to the hilt, he brings the audience in on the joke (much like the deliberate overacting in a melodrama), and the cast is rewarded with abundant laughs that mark a genuinely entertaining production.

The premise for Murder by Indecision has real promise – imagine an iconic writer like Agatha Christie struggling with writer’s block, working and reworking a script, while her characters act out the constantly evolving scenes in front of the audience. The tantalizing possibilities are lost in a sea of characters like author Agatha Crispy, agent Ruth Less, intrepid sleuth Miss Maple, and the evil industrialist Victor Greedly – the author’s choice of names alone telegraphs the futility of going for comic subtlety.  While Murder by Indecision’s humor is extremely broad, and the cast large, the actors succeed in bringing diversity (and some moments of exquisite timing) to their individual roles.

Patti Hansen does a fine job of portraying the aging and desperate Agatha Crispy as she lies to her agent and chats with her only real friend, her trusted typewriter. However, the most memorable roles are the people who populate Crispy’s imagination and come to life on the stage.  Inspector Dryfus (Michael David Allen) is thick, none too bright, but relentless – a nice foil for the quiet intelligence of Miss Maple (Phyllis Lang). The Greedly clan delivers some of the best performances – my favorites are the two children, Victoria (Karen Huckfeldt) and William (Nicholas Granato). Huckfeldt’s comic timing, combined with her dry delivery, bring real panache to the role of the impossible spoiled little rich girl. HART newcomer Granato has just the right touch as the disaffected young hipster, self-righteously rejecting the family’s materialism while quietly accepting the privileges of wealth. Leslie Inmon is clearly having fun taking the role of Victor’s wife Sophie up to and over the top, and the audience cannot help but respond to her evil enthusiasm as she stridently makes the most appallingly inappropriate demands.

Since the play Crispy is writing is a boilerplate whodunit, the rest of the cast fill a variety of the genre’s most beloved stereotypes.  The role of Officer Bently, Dryfus’ assistant, was played on opening night by understudy Corinne Brock - who seemed so charmingly befuddled that she managed to make Dryfus look almost intelligent by comparison. Jordan Wilgus, as corporate whipping boy Ken Steele, gives a performance that is consistently and compellingly groveling (both literally and figuratively). The obligatory scheming secretary (Gwen Hubbard) is played by Jean Christenson with just the right touch of tightly wound iciness.

HART’s set, as usual, is detailed without being overdone. A simple riser at the side of the stage easily accommodates the scenes where Crispy is writing, eliminating the need for scene changes as the action shifts from the author to the characters of her imagination. Ray Hale and director Aaron Morrow’s lighting design complements these shifts by moving the audience’s attention as necessary.

Murder by Indecision is definitely not great art, but Morrow and his cast succeed in making it a family-friendly farce that asks only that we sit back and laugh. There are times (and this is definitely one!) when this is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Murder by Indecision is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through November 13th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Nowhere Men – On the (Abbey?) Road, But Not Quite There Yet

Konrad McKane (Paul McCartney), Chandano Fuller (John Lennon), Elizabeth Champion (Yoko Ono), 
Dawn Horstead (Brianna Epstein), Brian Howelton (Ringo Starr), and Nick Liepman (George Harrison)

By Tina Arth

The producers of Nowhere Men graciously allowed me to watch a dress rehearsal of this original play by Shannon Doherty (book) and Borys Maciburko (book, music and lyrics). The cast were preparing for a one-night run at the Alpenrose Opera House, the second of two free local performances (the first at Hillsboro’s HART Theatre the previous week). The show is a one-act that takes place entirely on a fictional single night when the Beatles decide to break up their band. The actual breakup of arguably the greatest rock bank in history was, of course, a somewhat more drawn-out affair encompassing years of gradually escalating discord, varying rates of spiritual and musical growth, and disillusionment with the trappings of fame – but the “one night” approach contains the essence of a really fascinating story.

The program says that the show “tells the true story behind the fall of greatest band of all time” but a quick look at the cast list clearly reveals that this is a figurative, rather than a literal statement. Beatles manager Brian Epstein plays a prominent role (thinly disguised as “Brianna Epstein”) in the play about the band’s dissolution, but the Beatles’ last two albums, “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be” were released in 1969 and 1970 – well after Epstein’s death in 1967. There are other puzzling elements – for example, there is a brief love/lust scene between Paul McCartney and Brianna, yet the rumors of the time were about a sexual encounter between John Lennon and Brian Epstein. As a child of the sixties, I clearly remember my personal reaction to the final breakup of the Beatles – I blamed Yoko (didn’t we all?) and really only considered how my friends and I were affected. Nowhere Men tempts with the intriguing notion that it will tell an untold and powerful tale – the story of how each of the four Beatles felt about the band’s collapse. The core of this story is contained within the current script, but to be really effective the show needs to be work shopped with some experienced writers/performers and given the loving attention of a good script doctor.

A more difficult problem is that the authors (for good reason – it would cost a fortune!) do not have rights to use any songs from the Beatles catalogue. Maciburko worked around this by writing some original songs that have a Beatle-like flavor, including some very recognizable chord progressions; while each of the songs is fine on its own, they tend to blend together. Before taking Nowhere Men to a paying audience, the music will need to be made more distinctive.

When the show is next taken before an audience, a great deal more attention needs to be paid to costuming (in particular, the wigs), choreography (the Beatles used some choreographed movement, but the dancing in this show seemed to be reaching for something more like the Four Tops), direction (much of the acting was way over the top), and rehearsal (in particular, tech rehearsal so that audio effects can be smoothly incorporated into the production).

I hope to some day be able to see a new and vastly improved version of Nowhere Men - one that will deliver on the show’s tantalizing promise.

Monday, October 24, 2016


Gary Romans (Dr. Norton), Aje Summerly (Gin Hester), and Marty Wimborne (Leonard Scrubbs)

By Tina Arth

Twilight Theater Company is celebrating Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, Samhain, etc. with a rarely performed bit of stagecraft, Tim Kelly’s Terror By Gaslight. While actual terror is in short supply, the show provides a few shockers and a lot of fun – perfect indoor fare for a dark and stormy night. Director Doug Jacobs and his cast and crew keep the audience guessing, laughing, and occasionally flinching for two acts that seem to fly by.

The tale is set in 19th century Philadelphia, where the esteemed Dr. Cyrus Norton is assembling a museum of body parts to help medical students learn anatomy. The only legal cadavers are the bodies of hanged criminals, but the supply is inadequate and many (in particular, Dr. Norton) have turned to grave robbing as a source of fresh specimens. Local ne’er do wells Gin Hester and Leonard Scrubbs eke out a living by selling bodies newly harvested from Philadelphia graveyards, but the families of the involuntarily disinterred and the local police make this a hazardous career path, so Norton advises his suppliers to range farther afield in their hunting. Cyrus shares his home (the site of his macabre museum) with his unconventional daughter Marilyn (who, in defiance of societal norms, aspires to training as a doctor) and his oh-so-conventional sister Constance (who longs to see that Marilyn marries well and abandons her feminist fantasies). Add in a maid, a nosy detective, a jilted barmaid, several other doctors, and a very cranky widow and the pieces are in place for an evening of dark drawing-room comedy with perpetrators and victims (living and otherwise) entering and exiting, peering through windows, and generally keeping the audience guessing until the very end.

Gary Romans plays Dr. Cyrus Norton as a thoroughly likeable (if somewhat pretentious and occasionally murderous) old fellow, dedicated to making Philadelphia a world-class center for anatomical education (there are some funny lines about the incompetent hacks at Harvard). Katherine Kyte (“Marilyn”) is utterly charming – her huge smile and sparkling eyes draw audience attention while initially revealing virtually nothing about the woman beneath the surface. Grave robbers Marty Winborne (“Scrubbs”) and Aje Summerly (“Gin Hester”) demand our attention with each unusual entrance. Winborne inexplicably shouts “Scrubbs” each time he appears; his slouching posture and devious mien immediately telegraph his character’s menacing persona. Summerly’s inebriated and wobbly gait combines with her high-pitched and whiny rambling to do the opposite – she sells herself until the crucial scene as a pathetic and ineffectual drunk.

The show is generally well cast – special mention is due Debra Blake (“Constance”), Rachel Thomas (impossibly cute as the maid), and Rob Kimmelman (as William Dover, Marilyn’s suitor/fellow student). The dialogue is occasionally a bit didactic, but the actors do a great job of bringing life to even the most openly expository lines.

Robin Pair’s lighting design and Ilana Watson’s sound design work beautifully, providing special effects on cue. Costumes, provided by Helen’s Pacific Costumers, are integral to creating the proper 19th century ambience – they are detailed and feel quite faithful to both the era and social classes represented in the story.

Terror By Gaslight is not the most challenging play you’ll see this year, but it’s a lot of fun, fits well with the spirit of the season, and will serve as a great way to mark the beginning of a long spate of winter-themed productions. It’s probably not appropriate for most young children, but the violence is handled with some discretion and should be fine for pre-teens.

Twilight Theater Company’s production of Terror By Gaslight is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Saturday, November 5th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Immerse Yourself in Bag & Baggage’s Latest

Bag&Baggage The Drowning Girls- Autumn Buck as Alice, Jessi Walters as Bessi, 
Jessica Geffen as Margaret- Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

What’s not to love in The Drowning Girls at Bag and Baggage? Right before Halloween, we get a true-crime story of a psychopathic mass murder, three dead brides, always-timely feminist themes, and phenomenal acting. There is, however, one problem with director Scott Palmer’s latest venture into the world of innovative local theater – the first act is simply too long for its content. Perhaps the problem is one of pacing – the Playwrights Guild of Canada lists the running time of the entire play at 80 minutes, and B&B’s first act alone runs almost an hour. Luckily, the swifter pacing, clear narrative, and disturbingly detailed exposition in Act II more than compensate for the first act’s problems, and the show ends on a series of riveting images that stay with the audience long after the stage goes dark.

The tale is set in early 20th century England, based on the crimes, trial, and ultimate conviction of George Smith, a smooth talking Lothario who made a living by marrying a variety of women young and old, rich and poor, desperate and romantic – then killing them for their estates or insurance policies. The three women whose murders led to his discovery were all drowned (“accidentally”) in a bathtub after their weddings. He was undone because, despite changing his name frequently, one girl’s family recognized the pattern after reading a news article about another drowned bride. Much of The Drowning Girls, however, is not really about George Smith (alias John Lloyd, Henry Williams, etc.) – it is about the three brides: Alice, Bessie, and Margaret. What motivated these three women, and many others, to leave their families, marry a total stranger, accept his word that he was a man of independent means, and sign all of their worldly goods over to him? As the show makes clear (and the first act reiterates, perhaps one or two times more than is strictly necessary) turn of the century England was not kind to spinsters, and a woman without a husband and family was a social and economic pariah. A look at worldwide events as well as some current American political realities makes it clear that in some ways we just haven’t come that far yet, and it may be a long time before feminist themes are passé.

The actors (Autumn Buck as Alice, Jessica Geffen as Margaret, and Jessi Walters as Bessie) play not only their principle roles, but also every other role in the play.  The eerie effect is amplified by watching the women portray first themselves (dripping, with hair like seaweed cascading in their faces), then their suitor/killer (the proposal scene is chilling), and finally the prosecutor and a surrogate drowning victim simulating a death scene for the court’s benefit. A favorite scene for me was the one where three hotel maids describe the killer’s process – the dialogue is highly expository, but delivered in hushed, confidential tones that bring it vividly to life.

The set and lighting are remarkable – a series of dangling white rectangles, properly lit, give the entire stage a rippling, underwater feel that helps the audience to imagine the horror of drowning, and the simple 3 bathtub set ensures that the audience will not lose sight of the story’s core elements. 

Despite several moments of dark humor, The Drowning Girls is not a good-time show. If you go, be prepared for an intense evening that will leave you shaken – and don’t worry about the slow first act. By the end of Act II that will be the least of your thoughts!

Bag & Baggage’s The Drowning Girls is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, through Sunday, October 31st, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:00pm.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Beth Noelle (Morticia), Jason Taylor (Gomez), and Olivia Noelle (Wednesday) with Ancestors in background.

By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s 2016 season is still going strong with their current production of The Addams Family - A New Musical, a truly hilarious send-up in the tradition of the classic Addams Family cartoons, television series, and movies. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (book) and Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics) have created a surprisingly adult comedy – still silly, of course, but with lots of funny stuff aimed way over the heads of younger audiences, plus a challenging musical score. Directors Josh Pounders and Melissa Riley utilize a blend of BCT regulars and newcomers to treat Washington County audiences to a remarkable theatrical experience – including some of the best solo, duet, and ensemble vocal work I’ve heard in recent years.

While some cartoon characters have the luxury of staying the same age forever, it is not surprising that Wednesday Addams is growing up – but shockingly, she has fallen in love with Lucas Beineke, a nice boy from an uptight middle class Ohio family. The time has come for the two families to meet, and Wednesday is understandably nervous about the intersection of Lucas’ parents with Morticia, Gomez, and the rest of the somewhat unusual Addams family. Wednesday swears her father to silence about the scariest bit – that she and Lucas plan to announce their engagement that evening. In addition to the usual cast of characters (including Pugsley, Grandma, Uncle Fester, and Lurch) the clan is aided by a troupe of Addams ancestors, barred by Uncle Fester from returning to their graves until the situation is resolved. By the end of Act II, both the Addams and Beineke families have gone through some growth and all looks suitably bleak (the Addams equivalent of any other family’s “rosy”) – a fairly standard story of young love’s triumph delivered with enough twists, comedy, and song to keep the audience more than satisfied.

The entire cast does a credible job throughout, including some really nice work by the younger players (Olivia Noelle, Riley Suzuki, and Austin Peters). However, the evening really belongs to three people: Jason Taylor (Gomez), Beth Noelle (Morticia), and James VanEaton (Lurch). Taylor’s performance is simply superb – his powerful baritone seems to flow effortlessly (and flawlessly), and even during his most challenging songs he never allows his acting to take a back seat to the singing. He is alternately charming, graceful, strong, timid, passionate, terrified – and always very, very funny. Taylor is a wonderful addition to the BCT family who will, I hope, appear regularly on Washington County stages.  Beth Noelle could not have been better as his steely, dominant helpmate Morticia. Her duets with Taylor are magic, and she somehow manages to turn her eyes into black marbles of pure fury when she’s angry.  VanEaton’s strength is not his powerful pipes (although he does have one droll audience-pleaser of a song) – it is his incredibly lanky body and absolute mastery of Lurch’s wooden affect. The few times that he shows us a hint of human emotion are quite spectacular, and his commanding rigidity sometimes makes it hard to watch any one else for fear of missing a subtle (and hilarious) wisp of life.

Stan Yeend is physically perfect as Fester, and he gives the character a surprisingly playful and lovable tone, nicely setting the stage for his ultimate declaration of love for a well-known lunar body. The ancestors are fun, and provide a stunning choral ensemble in support of the main characters. My ears were especially drawn to the dead housewife, an astonishingly clear and strong soprano – at intermission I read the program and realized that it was Erin Zelazny, an accomplished veteran of both community and professional theater.

Costume designer Sue Woodbury, set designers Alex Woodard and David Smith, and technical director Jenny Cyphers did a beautiful job of setting the scene for this loving tribute to Charles Addams’ creepy clan. Josh Pounders and Melissa Riley definitely got this one right, and the opening weekend audiences repaid them with full houses and standing ovations that will undoubtedly persist for the rest of the run.

Note – the show should be viewed as PG 13, rather than G-rated, due to mature themes, language, and darned funny innuendo that might puzzle the little ones.

The Addams Family runs through Saturday, October 15th 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.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Grace Malloy (Jojo) and Ami Ericsson (Cat in the Hat), ensemble in background.

By Tina Arth

It’s hard to imagine that anyone raised in, or raising a family in, this country could be unfamiliar with the amazing body of children’s lit by Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Horton the Elephant, the Grinch, the Cat in the Hat, Yertle the Turtle, Whoville, McElligot’s Pool, and a host of other people and places are firmly rooted in our consciousness, and Theatre In the Grove’s current offering of Seussical The Musical is a fine tribute to this legacy. Director Michelle Bahr, a remarkable production team, and 21 actors give everything they’ve got to bring playwrights Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ musical Seuss mash-up to the stage, and both kiddos and adults in the audience clearly applaud their efforts!

The musical debuted on Broadway in 2000, and quickly became a staple of child-friendly community theater. While there are characters and story lines from several Seuss books blended in, Seussical is driven by that most admirable of all Geisel’s creations, Horton the Elephant (Carl Dahlquist). Joining Horton in selling the show’s kid-friendly themes, including loyalty, compassion, acceptance, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and the importance of imagination, are Jojo the Who (Grace Malloy) and Gertrude McFuzz (Karli Winters).  Of course, no Seuss tribute would be complete without the Cat in the Hat (Ami Ericson), who fills the role of narrator with the spirit of unbridled mischief and uniquely amoral perkiness of this most troublesome feline.

Even before the show begins we know we are somewhere special - the ubiquitous director’s welcome is delivered (in clever rhyme, of course) by the Whoville Mayor (Kraig Williams) and his wife (Holly Farmer).  After a lively all-cast opening number, the show quickly turns to Dahlquist, who is alternately heartbreaking and inspiring as the most faithful of elephants – shy, brave, persistent, and of course “faithful, 100%.” When only he believes in Whoville, Horton is taunted mercilessly by his neighbors, especially the deliciously mean Sour Kangaroo and her daughter, Young Kangaroo, played with evil glee by Wendy Bax and Mylie Winters.  There is a constant struggle between Dahlquist, Malloy, and Karli Winters to see who will steal the show – Dahlquist with his soulful sincerity, Malloy with her spunky intelligence and unstoppable voice (that girl can sing!), and Winters with her gradual transition from love-struck nerd to flaming, iron-willed advocate for her beloved Horton. In the end, there’s no need to choose – each shines alone, and together they are simply brilliant. The show has lots of fun songs, few truly memorable, with the exception of Dahlquist and Malloy’s “Alone in the Universe” – an anthem to imagination and friendship the wraps up the stories’ key themes in four minutes of touching connection.

Nearly every cast member has at least one moment – Jeananne Kelsey’s lovely en pointe ballet solo, the flighty (no pun intended) and self-absorbed Mayzie LaBird (Shannon Jones), Mylie Winters’ agile acrobatics, the scene-stealing singing, dancing and sneering Wickersham Brothers’ (Luella Harrelson, Kada and Kassie Swizter) – just to name a few. Maille O’Brien and Tami Malloy’s costumes are vivid – true to the bright primary colors of the books, and carefully color-coded to the characters’ groupings. The orchestra, conducted by Stephanie Landtiser, is a nice touch – providing solid, but never overwhelming accompaniment and some truly ear-catching sound effects. Special recognition is due James Grimes, Ward Ramsdell, Anne Kennedy, and Abbi Kinzinger – the interplay between Grimes’ wonderful set and the others’ lighting creates some real magic – the evening would have been worth my time just for the McElligot’s Pool design.

Of course, this is a children’s show – much like a first trip to Disneyland, it will be best appreciated if you take along a couple of wide-eyed pre-teens who can share their sense of wonder with their more jaded elders. There’s only one more weekend to go, so buy your tickets now!

Seussical the Musical plays at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through October 9th with performances at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and matinees at 2:30 pm on Sundays.