Wednesday, December 7, 2016

TITG Tells A Seldom Seen Christmas Story

 David Reece, Carter Dawes, Sam Ruder, and Patti Speight
Photo by by Nicole Mae Photography

By Tina Arth

It seems like everybody is familiar with the 1983 “instant classic” version of A Christmas Story, and 2012’s A Christmas Story – The Musical can be found on stages all around the country. Often overlooked in all of this rush to holiday nostalgia is Philip Grecian’s utterly charming 2000 play version, but Theatre In the Grove is doing a great job of addressing this slight with their current offering. The play is small, intimate, and just loaded with both comedy and real heart - a perfect way for families old and young to spend a few hours getting into the spirit of the season.

Like the larger and flashier movie and musical, the straight play explores the magic and peril of getting what we want, primarily through the tale of young Ralphie’s obsessive pursuit of the perfect Christmas present, a Red Ryder BB Gun, in the face of relentless opposition. Everyone in his life – his parents, teacher, friends, even Santa Claus is sure that he’ll shoot his eye out (which, naturally, he very nearly does).  Ralphie’s quest is echoed by his father’s addiction to entering contests, including the one where he finally wins a hideous lamp (we’ve all seen it – the leg with mesh stockings disappearing into a fringed antique shade). Because the tale is being told through the eyes and memories of adult Ralph, everything we see is colored by the mists of a past recollected. Was the lamp really that hideous? Was little brother Randy really that pathetic (and more important, did he really wet himself while sitting on Santa’s lap?) Did the Old Man really swear constantly, and did Mother manage to overlook it while stuffing a bar of Lifebuoy soap into Ralphie’s mouth for uttering, just once, the “F” word? In the end, we are sure only that Ralph’s most enduring memories are of the warmth, understanding, and love of family and good friends.

While I saw a number of fine performances, the team of adult Ralph (Travis Schlegel) and Ralphie (Sam Ruder) fill their respective roles with real distinction, constantly passing from Ralph’s narration to Ralphie’s action. At first I had a hard time seeing them as the same person, but Schlegel gradually grows more childlike as the show progresses, and by the end he is every bit as much a kid as his much younger alter ego. Ruder is developing into quite a comic – his turn as a pathetic victim of Lifebuoy poisoning is particularly funny.

Patti Speight and David Reece (as Mother and the Old Man) face the challenge of portraying characters as they are in Ralph’s constantly evolving memories. Just like with real parents, they are sometimes harsh, rigid authoritarians and at other times surprisingly understanding allies, but every word and emotion has to be filtered through the lens of Ralph’s recollection. Reed does an amazing job of delivering the faux curses that lace the script – not a single dirty word is uttered onstage, but the range of homonyms is hilariously imaginative. Young stage veteran Carter Dawes (as little brother Randy) demands special mention, not only for his skill at portraying a truly screwed up little kid but for his courage in constantly crying out in front of a theater full of strangers that he “has to go wee-wee.”

Director/set designer Ron Hansen and set dresser Samantha Swindler have just the right touches in the set. The necessary 1940’s ambience is nicely captured with dreary colors, an old radio, and a period kitchen that could have been in any working class Forest Grove household of the era.

This version of A Christmas Story is a lot of fun for adults and kids, and will make a great holiday theater outing for local families and those of us who just like remembering how Christmas used to be in the good old days before the advent of the internet, cell phones, video games and a host of other modern marvels.

A Christmas Story is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through December 18th,with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Have A Holly Jolly Christmas With HART

 Front row: Sarah Fuller, Christie Quinn, Rachel Thomas, Chris Byrne.
Back row: Spencer Masson, Heather Sutherland, Nick Serrone, Max Powell, Carl Dahlquist

By Tina Arth

By some standards, the Holly Jolly HART Family Christmas Variety Show may not be the best holiday show on local stages for 2016, but it is unquestionably the most fun. Co-authors Sarah Fuller and Chris Byrne have pulled together more than a dozen snippets from some of the best loved holiday TV shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s and transformed them into a nonstop montage of live theater that hits all the right notes. The material is tied together in two ways – first, by the TV-addicted “typical” Hart family and second, by projecting several authentic period commercials on a giant TV screen backdrop.

The wraparound story is simple. It’s Christmas Eve, and the Hart family is gathered in classic seventies style right in front of their living room television. In keeping with family tradition, mom Barb (Henley Slepyan) wants to read “The Night Before Christmas” but the kids think that’s boring. They’d rather watch their favorite TV specials, but can’t agree on which show to watch. Michelle (Courtney Bell) wants to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas Special” but brothers Greg (Cameron Bell) and Jeff (Carson Bell) are lobbying for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The kids fight over the remote, triggering a wonderful live action clash between the casts of the specials. By intermission, the kids have gone off to bed, so Barb and husband Phil (Mark Putnam) settle in to watch more adult Christmas fare, with their own disagreement: Phil wants to watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” while Barb prefers classic musical holiday specials featuring stars like Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Mel Torme. Soon the restless kids wander back downstairs, where they eventually fall asleep while awaiting Santa’s arrival.

The rest of the cast members fill at least 30 roles as they bring the many scenes to life in front of a giant television screen. It’s hard to pick out favorite bits – but the Charlie Brown kids (Rachel Thomas as Lucy, Spencer Putnam as Charlie, Max Powell as Linus, and Christie Quinn as Sally) are particularly memorable. Nick Serrone’s Jimmy Stewart impersonation is spot on, and Sarah Fuller positively channels Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Spencer Masson has real star power as Frank Sinatra, and Carl Dahlquist does a fine job as both Mel Torme and Clarence the Angel. Co-authors/directors Byrne and Fuller show off their versatility with a spectacular tap number, and Slepyan’s vocal on the “White Christmas” duet makes it clear that some of the best talent is right in the Hart living room.

Three super stars of the show are definitely music director Sarah Thornton, lighting designer Heather Sutherland, and costumer Chris Byrne. The special effects drive the production, and the dozens of costumes (cleverly done in living color or black and white depending on when each special originally aired) define and enhance each number.

This is a show that deserves to become a holiday tradition, for both HART and the large audiences it so richly deserves. Give yourself and a friend tickets as an early Christmas present – you’ve earned it! (And if you get the chance, don’t miss Ray Hale’s Orphan Train, playing on the same stage this month. See HART’s website for show dates/times.)

Holly Jolly HART Family Christmas Variety Show is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, December 18th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

BCT Cast Pulls Out the Stops for Sorry! Wrong Chimney

Jason Weed, Sarah Ominski, Kraig Williams, Erin Bickler, Adam Caniparoli, and Essie Bertain.
Photo by Ammon Riley.

By Tina Arth

Fans of broad farce will absolutely love Beaverton Civic Theatre’s 2016 holiday offering, Sorry! Wrong Chimney. Director Meghan Daaboul has assembled a team of uninhibited comics willing to figuratively and literally let it all hang out in search of laughs, and the payoff is a cascade of slapstick merriment.

The story is set entirely in the living room of newlyweds Samantha and David’s big-city apartment. Samantha feels neglected – David is rarely home, and even when he’s there he’s too exhausted for much loving. What she doesn’t know is that he is moonlighting as a department store Santa to pay for a special Christmas present for his bride. Neighbor Natalie is full of sympathy, since her psychiatrist husband Bill is no more attentive. Enter the much-feared Santa Claus Bandit, Kris (it seems that nobody locks their doors in this city). After innumerable chases, entrances, and exits by the entire cast, including Kris’ girlfriend Sheila and an intrepid policeman, Bill’s somewhat imprecise hypnotherapy skills help to restore a semblance of order.

Both Samantha (Essie Bertain) and David (Adam Caniparoli) fill ingĂ©nue roles, so their performances are (relatively) subdued – but in this production “relatively subdued” still leaves a lot of room for sudden pratfalls (or whatever you call it when a pretty young woman throws herself atop a blanket-clad neighbor to deceive her husband and his wife) and other physical comedy – and Bertain and Caniparoli make the most of these moments. Bill (Kraig Williams) has a slightly supercilious manner that contrasts nicely with his inept therapeutic skills, and Erin Bickler’s strong, consistent New York accent helps to establish a sense of locale while making every line just that extra bit funnier. The third couple (Kris and Sheila, played by Jason Weed and Sarah Ominski) is very different – I would call them stereotypical working class, but in order to attain that status at least one has to have a job title more elevated than bumbling burglar. Weed uses his rather immense size to create a pathetically unthreatening and hapless bandit, and Ominski simply rocks the bright red wig and too-too tacky dress during an alarmingly chaste seduction scene.

The real standout performance for me is Benjamin Philip as the policeman, even though he spends much of the show in a trancelike state, victimized repeatedly by Bill’s awkward hypnosis. Philip the policeman is fine, but Philip the birthday stripper is a shining jewel who must be seen to be believed, and his third act contortions by themselves are worth the whole price of admission.

Sorry! Wrong Chimney fills a critical niche in a busy holiday schedule – pure comic relief, with no more expectations laid on the audience than that they sit back and laugh. The opening night audience had no trouble fulfilling this job description, and I am sure future audiences will also be up to the challenge.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s Sorry! Wrong Chimney runs through Saturday, December 17th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday. December 11th.