Thursday, April 27, 2017

TITG”s Bright Superstar

Dan Bahr, Matthew Brown, Zachary Centers, Zachary Johnsen, Travis Schlegel.


By Tina Arth

When Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber first released Jesus Christ Superstar as an album in 1970, they could not have anticipated the effect this powerful rock opera would have on subsequent generations of theater lovers. Theatre in the Grove’s current offering is the latest in a long string of productions bringing the authors’ vision to the public, and it definitely merits its place in the august lineup. Director Ken Centers, music director Michelle Bahr, and choreographer Jeananne Kelsey have collaborated to give the show its own unique flavor while remaining generally faithful to the now-classic words and music of the original. Quite appropriately, the solo vocals are not always pretty – often imbued with a gritty individualism – while the ensemble work flawlessly mirrors the groupthink of the adoring crowds.

The entire story is told in song (like Lloyd Webber’s earlier Joseph, some rock, some pop); with no spoken dialogue, the show is truly an opera. Although set in ambiguously modern times (wardrobe, machine guns, even a man-bun) it revolves around the period leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, seen primarily from the perspective of the title character and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot. Judas is angry – he sees Jesus as a man who has succumbed to his own hype, now betraying the original mission, and buying into the hero-worship of fans who view him as the King of the Jews.  Judas is also furious about Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene – he believes that consorting with a woman in her profession opens them up to criticism and violates the group’s principles. Jesus is exhausted from the pressure of his role – he sums it all up in “Gethsemane” when he sings “I’m not as sure as when we started. Then I was inspired, now I’m sad and tired. Listen, surely I’ve exceeded expectations. Tried for three years, seems like thirty.” Both Jesus and Judas begin to realize that they are pawns of inexorable forces– one compelled to suffer and die for a cause he cannot fully grasp, the other compelled to betray his closest friend in order to bring the story to its tragic conclusion. The story deviates pretty significantly from the Biblical version(s), but in doing so it sheds a powerful light on the age-old dilemma of reconciling Jesus the man with Jesus the agent of God.

Matthew Brown (“Jesus”) eases gradually into his role – at first a tepid participant in the crowd’s worship, then overwhelmed and frantic in the leper scene – and when he cries out “Heal yourselves!” we cannot help but empathize with his plight.  While this depressed and downtrodden Jesus has bursts of strength (especially in “The Temple”) Brown does a fine job of conveying his character’s confusion, fear, and ultimate resignation to a fate he never sought. Micaiah “Ky” Fifer is just the opposite – from his first moment on stage he is bursting with furious energy as he tries in vain to steer his friend away from certain doom.  Fifer’s strident vocals (and bulging biceps) combine to define his persona, setting us up for his moving reprise of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and, ultimately, “Judas’ Death.” The third key character is Anna McKie (“Mary Magdalene”), who simply nails every song and scene in which she appears. She’s calm and caring, with a sinewy fragility that embodies both Mary’s femininity and her quiet strength. Her voice is lovely, and her delivery of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s All Right” are the perfect counter to Fifer’s pent-up rage.

Other particularly impressive and often fun portrayals (it may not be obvious, but there are lots of comic touches) are Zachary Centers’ “Caiaphas,” Travis Schlegel’s “Pontius Pilate,” Zachary Johnsen’s “Annas” and Jeannane Kelsey (sinuously eye-catching swiveling around in her black short-shorts).

Much of the show’s ambience is created through technology, done beautifully. The video screens give Zach Centers a disembodied eeriness and enhance Jesus’ death scene with gripping images of crucifixions, while the elevator cross injects a modernist note into a barbaric ancient practice. In some places, elaborate lighting effects create a carnival-like atmosphere that works perfectly for a mindless crowd.

The importance of Michelle Bahr’s work as both music director and conductor cannot be overstated. Synthesizer, guitar, flute, horns, drums and all the rest work together to support the vocalists and to introduce shifting moods as the show progresses through the story and through a variety of musical styles.

Audiences familiar with the original 1970 Jesus Christ Superstar album or the subsequent stage and movie versions will not be disappointed with Theatre in the Grove’s 2017 take, and newcomers should be converted into fans rushing to Amazon or YouTube to explore earlier executions of the work. The show runs only three weekends, and the best seats should go fast.

Jesus Christ Superstar is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through May 7th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.









Tuesday, April 25, 2017

BCT’s Absurd Death By Design – Undemanding Fun

Greg Mansfield, Jemi Kostener Mansfield, and Sam Roberts


By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current offering, Death By Design, is a light-hearted murder-mystery-farce that asks little of its audience other than hearty enjoyment. The script, kind of a mash-up of Agatha Christie, Noel Coward, and the Marx Brothers (with just a touch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), is laden with clever one-liners, plot twists (some predictable, some not), and unabashed slapstick.  Director Susan Giberson has chosen her cast well, and directed them to go after every possible laugh like terriers with a rat’s nest – subtlety has little place on stage in this production.
Playwright Rob Urbinati’s story is set entirely in the living room of Cookham, an estate near London, in 1932. Fictional playwright Edward Bennett (Ira Korum) and his uber-diva actress wife, Sorel (Jemi Kostiner Mansfield) have retreated to their country house to lick their wounds after receiving devastatingly bad reviews on their latest play, each blaming the other for the show’s poor reception. The stage gradually fills with the arrival of unexpected and eccentric houseguests (plus the staff – a maid and chauffeur who provide a running commentary on the antics of their betters). A guest, the well-connected and lecherous politician Walter Pearce (Gregory Mansfield), is apparently slain; everyone is potentially a suspect, and it’s left to Bridget (Teresa Chrisinger), the maid and true-crime aficionado, to solve the mystery.
Korum and Kostiner Mansfield have the right chemistry to pull off their mercurial and sometimes violent relationship: when sparks fly, they may be passion or they may involve flying vases. Helped by copious quantities of whiskey, Korum is calmly sardonic throughout, despite his eccentric wardrobe choices that do nothing to disguise the wounds he has sustained from his wife’s frequent tantrums. Kostiner Mansfield moves smoothly from seductress to hellion, shifting from languor to fury in the blink of an eye. A personal favorite of mine is Eric (Sam Roberts), the fiery anti-establishment radical who inexplicably appears on the scene and spends the night hurling his social-justice warrior invective at rest of the cast.
The broadest physical comedy falls to Priscilla Howell (as the bohemian artiste Victoria Van Roth). Playing on the character’s unusual grooming choices, extraordinary dancing, and truly awful artworks, Howell succeeds in making us laugh (and groan) while repelling the houseguests (especially the uptight Pearce).
Chrisinger’s “Bridget” is the real star, and she dominates the stage (and the household) with a stolid Irish determination and a dose of common sense. Her accent is consistent (always a plus when dealing with British comedy), and her timing precise. Although she is often quietly perched stage left, the audience cannot help but watch her as she uses her mobile face to silently comment on the insanity around her; when she speaks, her sardonic disdain for her employers and their guests makes it clear that she is really in charge.
Lights, sound, costuming and technical effects all complement the scene - from the timing of the gunshot knocking down Van Roth’s beloved painting and the strobes that partially illuminate each potential murderer to the bizarre match between Sorel’s bright crimson hair color and the lavish draperies. These and dozens of other touches help to keep the comedy moving and provide an internal consistency to the absurd story.
Like many farces, the script and stagecraft sometimes wear thin in Act II – we know the characters’ quirks, we’ve seen the running gags one time too many – but Giberson has paced the show well; it runs under two hours with intermission, and this helps to keep the audience engaged. Urbinati has laced the show with enough witty throwaway lines to amuse an alert audience – I particularly enjoyed his prescient sporadic barbs about cuts in government funding for the arts. The show is generally PG-13 – appropriate for older children, although many of the best lines may be wasted on them.

Death By Design runs through Saturday, May 6th 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.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Gallery’s The Gin Game Darkly Powerful

Kathleen Silloway and Gary Romans


By Tina Arth

I rarely make the trek to Gallery Theater, as McMinnville is a hefty ride down the 99 from SW Portland – but their current production of The Gin Game was well worth the drive. Director Joe Silva and Co-Director Valerie Steele clearly understand this oddly compelling cautionary tale about the perils of aging, and they have drawn from their actors exactly the performances the material demands.

D. L. Colburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1976 play provides plum roles for two strong actors “of a certain age” - in this production, Gary Romans (Weller) and Kathleen Silloway (Fonsia). Like other shows that deal with the last act in our lives, The Gin Game delivers a hefty dose of laughter leavened with sadness, anger, and depression – but unlike many such shows, it reveals no convenient silver lining to warm our hearts as we exit the theater. Had I not been faced with the drive home, I might have been inspired to go in search of a spot of gin for myself (the beverage, not the card game).

The play revolves around two residents of the Bentley Nursing Home, old hand Weller and newcomer Fonsia. Unlike most of the home’s residents, these two are neither mentally nor physically impaired – they are just too old to live alone and apparently unwanted by neglectful relatives. Weller sums it up nicely: “I have one of the most advanced cases of old age in medical history.  The mortality rate’s incredible.” As the show progresses we get hints of the character traits that have contributed to their abandonment. They cling together over a three-week time span, at first united and ultimately divided by a series of card games (gin, naturally) that grow increasingly tense, until the final explosion leaves Weller, Fonsia, and the audience profoundly shaken.

Roman’s “Weller” is a wonderful mix of charm, persistence, impatience, anger and abusiveness, and he makes the most of every moment on stage. His comic and dramatic timing are superb, and he switches from one mood to another with Jekyll and Hyde-like precision.  Silloway’s “Fonsia” has an emotional subtlety that almost fools us into thinking that she’s just a sweet old lady, done wrong by an uncaring world – it takes time to penetrate her strategy (at cards and life). Each time she lays her cards down and says “gin” we come closer to understanding her passive-aggressively manipulative side; although she never really drops her pose of fragility and innocence, she gradually shows her hand.

James Steele’s set functions almost like a third character.  As silent nursing home attendant Jordan Mackor “fixes” the broken finial with chewing gum, breaks the flower pot, and props the window open with a roll of toilet paper we are drawn to the key details of a set – a lonely patio, cluttered with once-lovely touches now in the throes of inexorable decay - that functions as a detailed metaphor for the lives of Bentley’s inhabitants.

Co-directors Silva and Steele have paced the show nicely, bringing it in under two hours even with intermission.  Lighting designer Jason Alexander and (14 year old!) light board operator Kylee Longaker help create a variety of daytime and evening moods that complement and enhance the scene, accenting the characters’ changing emotional states.


The Gin Game is running at Gallery Theater, 210 NE Ford Street, McMinnville through Saturday, May 6 with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

BEEHIVE Takes Broadway Rose By Storm



By Tina Arth

I always expect to be impressed by the quality of Broadway Rose productions, yet their current offering still surprised me. Like many of their shows on the smaller New Stage, Beehive isn’t really a play, it’s a concert garbed in a thin wraparound story, but this is by no means a criticism.  During the brief narrative moments (and the two songs specifically written for the musical) I was chafing for them to get back to the meat of the production – a 5-piece band and 6 female vocalists delivering stunningly accurate renditions of all or part of 39 popular songs from the 1960s.  Despite its name, the show is much more than a parody of the exaggerated hairstyles, wardrobes, kitsch and melodrama of artists like Shirley Ellis, Leslie Gore, Connie Francis, and the Shangri-Las.

Like the decade on which it is based, Beehive is divided into two sharply different segments. Act I reflects the innocent optimism attributed to the early ‘60s, with silly or self-absorbed numbers like “The Name Game,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” and the triumphantly petty “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” Following intermission (which comes much too soon) the tone, much like the decade, is transformed. The harsh realities of the Kennedy assassination and civil rights movement contribute to darker moods and heavier themes, moving inexorably toward an awesome rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Ball and Chain.”

The 6 women who bring it (literally) to the stage are unbelievable. Their timing and harmonies are sharp, and they manage to emulate the original artists respectfully, lapsing only rarely into parody (sorry, Annette!). Narrator Alyssa Birrer sets the tone for both acts, as the audience’s cheerleader for “The Name Game” and opening Act II with the somber predictions of “The Beat Goes On.” Kayla Dixon has fun spoofing Annette Funicello and playing with Diana Ross’ well-known ego during the Supremes medley, but tears our hearts and hers out in the Tina Turner medley.

Andrea Enright masters several ‘60s genres including the haunting melodrama of “Remember” and the bubble-gum self-absorption of “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” Her “You Don’t Own Me” is a wonder of nascent feminism, and she demonstrates the depth of her vocal soul in the “Natural Woman”/”Do Right Woman” medley. Malia Tippetts demonstrates a truly remarkable vocal (and acting) range: unbearably perky in “My Boyfriend’s Back,” dripping with pathos in “I’m Sorry,” channeling Petula Clark in “Don’t Sleep In the Subway,” then dragging us into the reality of racism with an exquisite “Society’s Child.” Janis Ian would be proud.  

Two performers, Antonia Darlene and Kristen Calvin, ultimately dominate the show with their work in Act II. Darlene’s “Respect” demands the audience cheering it receives, and her part of the “Natural Woman”/”Do Right Woman” medley is earthshaking – the perfect set-up for the final Janis Joplin medley. When Kristen Calvin first appears on stage in her Joplinesque hippie attire and exaggeratedly wild hair, the audience succumbs to brief moments of laughter; as a serious aficionado I was mildly annoyed by the sense of parody - then she launched herself into “Piece of My Heart” and I knew all was well. By the end of “Ball and Chain” I was swept up in the excitement that brought the audience to its feet to honor the 6 women (and Jeffrey Childs’ band) for a tour de force that transcends nostalgia. My only real complaint is that this was not a “real” concert, so we couldn’t clap and scream for encores.

Director Sharon Maroney, choreographer Dan Murphy, and costume designer Brynne Oster-Bainnson can bask in their successful recreation of so many iconic moments from one of our nation’s most turbulent and creative eras. Seats are going fast, so buy your tickets soon!


Beehive is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, May 14th.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Funny, Funny Farm

 The cast of Born to Be a Cowboy.

By Tina Arth

In 5 years, and over 150 reviews including many youth productions, nothing quite prepared me for the Funny Farm Early Learning Center’s dinner theater production of Country Fair Jamboree. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds (including, most notably, a last-minute rescheduling from Friday night to Saturday afternoon for the one-time event) this remarkable group of staff, volunteers, and preschoolers proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that age is no barrier to immersion in the theater arts. Funny Farm doyennes Laura Rawlins and Marcy Wells (filling numerous roles as organizer, author, adapter, director, emcee, auctioneer, choreographer, and so much more) assembled a team so skilled and flexible that the 22-hour delay in opening the curtain caused no apparent snags, and Funny Farm parents, grandparents, and friends cheerfully reorganized their schedules to accommodate last Friday’s horrific windstorm and subsequent power outages.

Elouise Surmi and Axel Dubois
(as Cowboy Roy and Horse) 
If I counted right (several kids filled roles in different numbers) no fewer than 26 singing, dancing, acting preschoolers appeared on stage. They conclusively proved that they could master singing in unison (and in time with the music), blocking, dialogue, comic timing, and quick costume changes (for four musical numbers and three narrated dramas) like a bunch of tiny pros.  For most, it was their first time on stage – but it definitely will not be their last.  

Playing on the actors’ natural affinity for silliness made it possible for the cast to overcome potential stage fright and give it their enthusiastic all. Each number had its own unique charm, but while it is not easy to isolate specifics, I did have a few personal favorites. The Pie Song gave the kids their first chance to shine as individuals, and they made the most of it – they really rocked their pie faces! Born to Be a Cowboy incorporated Laura Rawlins’ skilled choreography – those of us challenged to chew gum and walk at the same time could only envy those singing, dancing little cowpokes. Axel Dubois, making his Funny Farm debut as “Cowboy Roy,” was articulate and earnest in his search for a steed. For me, the best moment in the show was when he finally located a horse (the captivating Elouise Surmi), disappeared backstage with horse and saddle, and emerged with the horse riding the cowboy – a nice plot twist, but more than that, an expression of the humane values so critical in early childhood education. 

Veteran Funny Farm performer Selina Applestill gave Axel stiff competition in the best acting category – her “Little Old Lady” was truly fearless, and kept her amazing array of followers on point. For sheer, unbridled fun nobody on stage could compete with Alex Thompson (also a veteran actor), whose “Duck” in Dooby Dooby Moo provided the perfect finale and kept the house (on and off stage) in stitches. I see a bright future for this young man as either an Elvis imitator or a flock leader – or maybe both.

On the adult side, Marcy Wells’ narration was brilliant – flexible, just slightly sardonic, and apparently (although not really) spontaneous, and her skill as an auctioneer deserves special mention. Marcy also gets credit (along with Margaret Farnsworth) for the fabulous costumes. Sets and scenery (Marcy and Margaret again, plus the multi-talented Chris Byrne) added immeasurably – I was particularly taken with the forest backdrop and the wonderful and flexible cornstalks.

One tiny note of criticism: I was surprised to see, in the (absolutely wonderful!) program, that folks were invited to get autographs from their “favorite actors and actresses.” In 2017, the gender distinction between male and female performers is becoming a linguistic anachronism, and I hope that Funny Farm considers moving to gender-neutral labels for future productions.


Funny Farm ELC’s production of Country Fair Jamboree played one performance only, on Saturday, April 8 in the Garden Home Recreation Center Auditorium. I strongly recommend that you buy your tickets early for next year’s show – this one was clearly a sell-out performance!

Monday, March 20, 2017

HART’S The December Man – Violence Casts a Large Shadow

Sam Ruble, Stan Yeend, and Patti Speight.
Photo by Nicole Mae Photography


By Tina Arth

On December 6, 1989, a disturbed young man went into an engineering classroom at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, ordered the men out of the room, and slaughtered 14 young women. The attack, with a body count even larger than 1999’s Columbine massacre, has had a huge and lasting impact on Canadians, but is little remembered south of the border. HART Theatre’s current production of playwright Colleen Murphy’s The December Man (L ' homme de décembre) ensures that its audience will never forget. Director Dorinda Toner (not surprisingly, a Canadian) and her tiny cast carefully hammer home the story, not of the killer or the women, but of the collateral damage done to one of the male students and his family; it is a tale that should resonate with anyone who has ever felt the impact of tragedy.

The material is presented in reverse chronological order, beginning with a scene in which fictional student Jean Fournier’s parents, Kate and Benoit, methodically prepare their home for a tidy joint suicide. Subsequent scenes show them agonizing over their son’s previous suicide, his inability to “just move on” from the trauma of being a survivor, and finally December 6, the fateful day when he escaped the immediate death visited upon the 14 women, but was nonetheless doomed by the experience. For anyone who takes a few minutes to read the Director’s note in the program and study Karen Roder’s stunning lobby display, there is no mystery to the facts of the massacre  – we know who dies, and when – but the real story is peeling away the layers to reveal and explore the inescapable despair that overwhelms Jean, Kate, and Benoit. Their story becomes a metaphor for all of us as we cope with a seemingly endless series of human crises that have become a hallmark of modern civilization.

The audience spends much more time with Kate (Patti Speight) and Benoit (Stan Yeend) than with their son Jean (Sam Ruble), so much of what we are shown (or left to infer) about Jean’s experience comes through the lens of his parents’ perceptions and reactions. Speight (who stepped in at the last moment and learned the whole part in just over a week) is maddeningly convincing as a blue-collar cleaning lady mom, clinging to both her Catholic faith and her faith in the ordinary to help her cope with unthinkable tragedy. Yeend comes closer to grasping the depth of Jean’s trauma; his nuanced performance creates a character at once intelligent but uneducated, struggling to identify the key that will allow his son to recover his equilibrium. By the time Ruble appears, the audience understands his character much better than either of his parents ever will. Ruble shifts from despair to fantasies of heroism and expresses an overwhelming, insurmountable loneliness that cannot help but resonate with the viewers.

The set is deceptively simple, a devastatingly normal detailed working class living room surrounded by a dark framework of studs (but no walls). The visual effect nicely reinforces the play’s thematic structure, suggesting physical prison bars as well as the psychological bars around a family trapped by their own, and society’s, expectation that business as usual is the key to overcoming the unthinkable.

Director Toner and her cast offer a powerful reminder that we must take care of each other, and find a way to connect in painful times, for there is no real solace in denial. There is no intermission to relieve the intensity, and the audience is encouraged to linger afterwards for a talkback session where they can explore their own feelings as well as those of the cast and crew. Because of strong language and mature themes, the show is not recommended for children.


The December Man is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through April 2nd, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Twilight Theatre Company’s Wrenching Reminder of Harsh Truths

Jennifer Bruckner and Johnnie Torres

By Tina Arth

Hey, kids! Remember AIDS? Remember red ribbons to show solidarity with people living with this vicious disease? Well, here’s a shocker: despite our obsession with 45’s tweets and cute cat videos, it’s still with us – in the world (estimated 2.1 million new diagnoses in 2015), in the U.S. (estimated 1.2 million people currently living with AIDS), and in Oregon (estimated 6605 people living with AIDS, 50% in Multnomah County). Nothing I’ve ever experienced has brought this awful truth home to me with the power of Twilight Theater Company’s current production of The Normal Heart. Under the direction of Jason A. England, Larry Kramer’s hard-hitting 1985 play about the early years of the AIDS epidemic explodes across the stage with a stark and heart-wrenching intensity, made especially poignant by the fact that we now know (as the author did not) that there was no magic solution – no latter-day Jonas Salk - lurking around the next corner, vaccine in hand.

Even before the play starts, the audience is surrounded by tragic images – the set is a near-barren stage, the backdrop a series of columns inscribed with the scrawled names of prominent AIDS victims. The lights come up on a video about the effect of AIDS on the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus; reinforcing the immediacy of the topic, we see faces of AIDS victims from this iconic local group gradually blurred in a series of snapshots. The play is angry, confrontational, and explicitly political (and not surprisingly, frequently relevant to current topics), yet the author includes compelling stories of love, disillusionment, and even triumph that transcend the overtly political and create a real relationship between the audience and the characters.

Action begins with New York author/gay activist Ned Weeks (Marvin Gray) in the waiting room of Dr. Emma Brookner (Jennifer Clevenger), a physician who is alarmed by the number of gay men who are coming to her with a mysterious batch of symptoms, and frustrated that nobody in the medical establishment or New York city government is willing to acknowledge that there is a looming crisis. Before she allows Weeks to interview her, she insists that he disrobe so that she can check him for signs of the disease – unlike the patient who had just left in tears, Weeks seems to be disease-free. Brookner insists that, until more is known about transmission, someone with a voice in the gay community (i.e., Weeks) needs to mount a campaign against gay sexual activity, in particular, promiscuity. As the show and crisis develop, new characters intertwine their stories with Weeks’; we see relationships torn apart by disease, and feel the anguish of people confronting the specter of death with no guidelines on how to protect themselves.

While most of the characters are gay men, and each does a fine job with at least one emotionally wrenching diatribe, it is Clevenger, the only woman in the play, who gets one of the most powerful scenes. Confined to a wheelchair by childhood polio contracted just before the Salk vaccine became available, her frustration and heartbreak gradually build until her rage – at herself, her patients, and the medical community – finally erupts into a spectacular outburst that leaves the audience thoroughly shaken. Gray manages to make his relentlessly abrasive character appealing, even as he alienates almost everyone around him, and he handles rejection, love, and heartbreak as adeptly as fury. David Alan Morrison is sincere and believable as Weeks’ brother Ben, a straight lawyer who has tried for years to help “cure” Ned of his homosexuality. If your tears have not yet started, the deathbed-wedding scene with Weeks’ lover Felix (Johnnie Torres) will crack even the hardest shell.

England and his cast make The Normal Heart both a ferocious diatribe and a compelling story, with didactic elements held in check by the actors’ delivery. While it’s clearly not a fun show to watch, it is utterly captivating, and absolutely worth an evening out – it’s rare to find so much story and history packed into so few hours.


Twilight Theater Company’s The Normal Heart is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, March 26th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. Sundays. There is also a performance at 8:00 P.M. on Thursday, March 23. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Mask & Mirror’s Crimes of the Heart A Real Roller Coaster

Jayne Furlong, Adriana Gantzer, and Amelia Morgan-Rothschild


By Tina Arth

There’s just something about sisters in the South – from the gloom and doom of Streetcar Named Desire to the utterly fluffy Dearly Beloved, American theater is rife with tales of the complex relationships between siblings raised below the Mason-Dixon Line. Mask & Mirror’s current production of Crimes of the Heart is perched right in the middle of the road – not nearly as dark as Streetcar, but substantive enough to escape the clichéd slapstick of Beloved. Playwright Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize winning script is loaded with humor, but also takes a respectful look at important themes like domestic violence, depression, infidelity, even suicide. Director Linda Morris Taluto and her cast present the seemingly absurd (she shot her husband “because I didn’t like his stinkin’ looks!”) yet integrate these moments into an oddly believable reality, and the result is a compelling story that flows easily between the wacky and the profoundly serious.

The story revolves around the three Magrath sisters, the mousy stay-at-home Lenny, flamboyant and promiscuous Meg, and winsomely bipolar Babe, reuniting in the family home as their grandfather is dying. Meg’s failed singing career in Los Angeles has devolved into a nervous breakdown, Lenny is facing her 30th birthday alone (sticking candles in a cookie and singing “Happy Birthday” to herself), and Babe is out on bail after having shot her husband. The sisters have all been damaged by their mother’s sensational suicide when they were children (the event got national coverage because she also hung her cat), and they have never really succeeded in forming lasting relationships outside of their tiny family circle. We can’t completely predict how their lives will turn out after the final curtain, but it is clear that they will survive because of the strength they draw from each other.

Much of the comic relief comes from the Magrath’s cousin, Chick Boyle (Katherine Roundy). From the opening scene where she struggles into a pair of extra small pantyhose through a series of exceptionally snarky moments until, finally, Lenny chases her out of the kitchen with a broom, Roundy exemplifies the stereotypical Southern matron obsessed with the family’s good name.  Jay Dressler plays Babe’s neophyte lawyer Barnette Lloyd with an earnest naivety – he is clearly dazzled by the Magrath sisters and seriously enamored of his client. Nathan Larrabee is charmingly seductive as Meg’s now-married ex beau Doc Porter, and he delights the audience (if not Meg) with the mature backbone hidden beneath his devil-may-care exterior.

Of course, it’s the three sisters who make or break this show, and Taluto’s trio does a spectacular job of dealing with humor and heartbreak, sometimes simultaneously. Amelia Morgan-Rothschild moves the seriously delusional “Babe” through an amazing menu of emotions, integrating low comedy with high drama in a feast of bi-polar behavior. Jayne Furlong (“Meg”) has mastered the art of self-centered brassiness, both in her facial expressions and her strident voice, yet gives her character just enough subliminal warmth that we sense the pain and love beneath her hard shell. Adriana Gantzer’s “Lenny” is a perfect combination of dowdiness, disappointment, insecurity, and loneliness – humorously pathetic, but always with an undertone of real tragedy until she finds the confidence to grab the reins of her own life.

“Woody” Woodbury’s set is a thing of beauty - the classic kitchen as symbol for the heart of family – and Cindy Zimmerman’s set dressing contains dozens of tiny touches that complete the picture, and set the stage for a funny, touching, lovely play that should not be missed.


Crimes of the Heart is playing at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday March 11, 18, 25 and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday March 12, 19, 26. The role of Barnette Lloyd will be played by Blaine Vincent III on March 11, 18, 19, and 26.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Brontë Family Circulating Among the Stacks at Hillsboro Library

Picture (from top left, clockwise) is of Joey Copsey, Peter Schuyler,
Cassie Greer, Morgan Cox, and Jessi Walters.


By Tina Arth

Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage Theatre has faced some huge challenges in the past year – like opening night of an outdoor performance forced by rain to quickly adjourn to the barren concrete floor of their unfinished new theater space. However, that was nothing compared to the fancy footwork required to re-imagine the staging of their current production of Brontë from the venerable Venetian stage to the Hillsboro Public library. Guest Director Michelle Milne, her cast and crew, and the library staff are collaborating to make this production of British playwright Polly Teale’s 2005 play an amazingly engaging and thought-provoking experience. Better yet, the evening flows so smoothly, and provides such an intimate experience for the audience, that one imagines a conventional production might seem slightly static and sterile by contrast.

Brontë tells the sometimes accurate, sometimes fictional tale of the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne), their father Patrick, brother Branwell, and curate Arthur Bell Nicholls living and dying in isolation on the Yorkshire moors.  A constant unspoken theme is the effect of Victorian sexual mores on the three women’s lives and work. Ironically, the sisters’ degree of repression and introversion is inversely proportional to the scandalous and sexualized tone of their writing. Cassie Greer’s bold, adventurous Charlotte produces the critically acclaimed, but relatively tame Jane Eyre. Morgan Cox’s brilliant but very private Emily shocks the literary world with the fierce passions of Wuthering Heights. However, it is Jessi Walters’ gentle, timid Anne who thrusts themes of domestic abuse and debauchery – hardly topics for polite society – center stage in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Without sets to create atmosphere, the audience is required to rely on imagination and a forest of books – just as the real Brontë sisters used imagination and their father’s extensive library to break the boundaries of their narrow world and create some of the most passionate fiction of the 19th century. While the audience moves about in the library, the story also moves freely, jumping forward and backward in time and interspersing frequent cameos by characters from the sisters’ most iconic novels: Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, and Jane, Rochester, and Bertha from Jane Eyre.  

The acting is every bit as good as we have come to expect of a Bag & Baggage cast – Greer, Cox and Walters capture the three sisters personas flawlessly. Peter Schuyler transitions easily from the upright and autocratic Patrick to the brooding, volatile Rochester and the timid, lovestruck Nicholls. Joey Copsey is at his best as Branwell, who moves from boyish exuberance and abandon to dissolute alcoholism when his father’s ambitions send him out of the protection of the family home and into the harsh realities of the outside world.  Jenny Newbry’s take on Cathy is spot-on – an eerie mixture of passionate abandon and barely controlled hysteria. Newbry’s Bertha is a bit tougher to accept, perhaps because in the library setting we are a little too close to her as she crawls madly around a series of rooms.

Melissa Heller’s costumes are just detailed enough to suggest each change in character, while allowing for the rapid changes required by the play’s unique staging. Violinist Taylor Neist expresses the ever-changing moods of the story, evoking especially well the darker moments, starting strong and then fading as only a violin can.

The structure of the production limits the audience to 60 people per night, so it’s advisable to purchase tickets early.  Even if Brontë should happen to be produced again locally, it may never get the kind of progressive treatment that Michelle Milne gives it. The audience is called on to walk enough that sensible shoes are strongly recommended!


Bag & Baggage’s Brontë is playing at the Hillsboro Public Library, Brookwood branch, with performances at 7:30 P.M. on March 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, and 26. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Barefoot in Beaverton

Susan Giberson, Jeff Giberson, and Amanda Clark


By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s latest is a thoroughly entertaining revival of one of Neil Simon’s earliest plays, 1963’s Barefoot in the Park. While some elements of the show are a bit shopworn, even dated Neil Simon humor is top-notch, and the play still stands as one of the funniest romantic comedies ever staged. Director Doreen Lundberg makes the right choice by presenting the play as a period piece, with attitudes, costumes, and décor appropriate to the era, and all of her cast members fully commit to their early sixties personas.

Newlyweds Corie and Paul Bratter have just moved into a tiny top floor brownstone apartment in New York City. Uptight, buttoned-down lawyer Paul seems an unlikely match for the impulsive, flamboyant Corie, and in less than a week they move from passionate young lovers to the edge of divorce as she frenetically tries to loosen him up and he tries to act like an adult in his first real job with a law firm. One wonders if this pair ever dated, or if they just moved from meeting to honeymoon without any of the usual preliminary steps. In addition to working on Paul’s attitudes, Corie is also eager to help her mother, Mrs. Banks, move out of her suburban New Jersey orbit and find a little spontaneous joy – but Corie gets more than she bargained for when her mom hooks up (in the thoroughly modern sense) with their eccentric upstairs neighbor, Mr. Velasco (aka “The Wolf of 48th Street”). Of course, in the end true love triumphs, but along the way the audience is treated to some of playwright Simon’s funniest dialogue and physical humor, delivered with split second comic timing.

There is nothing surprising about Amanda Clark’s superb portrayal of Corie Bratter. Few local actors can pull off wacky better than this funny woman, and Clark gives her all to be sure the audience is charmed, bemused, and amused by her character. BCT newcomer Conner Brown (as Paul Bratter) is Corie’s ideal match – something of a nerd, but with enough mensch-like qualities to make him an attractive counterpart to his flighty bride, and he pulls off his drunk scene with real panache.

Jeff Giberson goes over the top as Victor Velasco, but there’s no other direction for this character to go. He brings a smarmy, cosmopolitan touch to every scene, and somehow manages to make the unimaginable (accessing his rooftop abode through the Bratters’ bedroom window? Feeding them an almost inedible eel appetizer? Eel. That's why the time element is so essential. Eel spoils quickly”) seem perfectly normal for civilized sophisticates of his ilk.

It is Susan Giberson (as Mrs. Banks) who sets the bar highest in this production, while calmly stealing every scene in which she appears. She manages to capture the character’s contradictions – superficially fragile, cast by her daughter as the archetypal meddling mom, yet resilient, loving, wise, and the ultimate good sport. Her timing is spectacular, and the performance is alternatively nuanced and broad.

Mention must be made of one theatrical newcomer, Dwayne Thurnau. In his role as the telephone man, he is only on stage twice, for maybe a total of 10 minutes, usually hidden away in a corner quietly doing telephone-guy stuff. However, Thurnau turns this small role into a real jewel as he comments on the activity around him using his face and the occasional tidbit of New York style folksy wisdom.

Director Lundberg’s pacing is swift, but not rushed, so none of Simon’s non-stop witty lines are lost in the fray. The three acts and two intermissions fly by, propelled by frequent bursts of laughter from an appreciative audience. Many of the remaining performances will undoubtedly sell out, so buy your tickets early if possible – this Barefoot provides a lovely few hours of escape from electronic media!


Barefoot in the Park runs through Saturday, March 11th 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.

Monday, February 20, 2017

LOoPY Pirates Aboard!

Laurence Cox, Ron Swingen, Lindsey Lefler, and Jacob Mott.


By Tina Arth


Light Opera of Portland (LOoP) is bringing yet another Gilbert and Sullivan classic, The Pirates of Penzance, to Southwest Portland, and the timing could not be better. Director Dennis Britten is a purist, and has resisted the urge to modernize the telling or the tale for contemporary audiences – but this production proves that Gilbert & Sullivan’s witty work has survived quite nicely, thank you. The 138 years since it first played on a New York stage may have brought mind-boggling changes in society, but Western culture’s fundamental foibles are still vulnerable to the same sly parody that the show’s authors wrought so many years ago.

Like all good G&S work, the core story is utterly absurd. Young Frederic (mistakenly apprenticed to a band of pirates until his 21st birthday) is coming of age, and is eager to resign from piracy and pursue a more conventional life, including the acquisition of an appropriate wife. His nursemaid Ruth, now way over the hill (Hey! When did 47 become old?), tries to convince him that she would be a great choice; Frederic’s skepticism is validated when a bevy of younger women (wards of Major-General Stanley) appear on the beach. Frederic instantly falls for the lovely Mabel, who reciprocates his ardor without hesitation. The pirates attack and undertake to forcefully wed all of the fair damsels, but the Major-General plays on the pirates’ sympathy for orphans to talk them out of it. Frederic recruits a local police force to round up the pirates, and prepares for wedded bliss. Alas – as the wedding plans are afoot, it is discovered that Frederic was born on February 29th, a leap year, and that his 21st birthday will not come around until 1930 – until then he must remain a pirate. Mabel swears to wait for him. After a loud, blusteringly bloodless battle between the tender hearted pirates and the cowardly police, everything gets sorted out nicely – Gilbert and Sullivan’s stories may not make literal sense, but they definitely leave no unresolved plotlines.

Light opera demands a powerful and precise vocal ensemble, and Musical Director Linda Smith has brought out the best in a large (29 actors), experienced, and proficient cast, many of them veterans of previous LoOP productions. The six principal cast members (Jason Weed as the Pirate King, Phyllis Fort as Ruth, Jacob Mott as Frederic, Lindsey Lefler as Mabel, Ron Swingen as the Major-General, and Laurence Cox as the Sergeant of Police) carry a lot of the show, but they are well-supported by the rest of the cast and the superb little orchestra (Amanda Lyons’ flute work is especially evocative). Each group (pirates, policemen, and wards) forms a separate vocal ensemble for many of the songs, but they integrate beautifully together for the largest production numbers.

Among the principals, Lefler (as always) stands out in her ability to wander around looking wide-eyed and innocent while delivering a flawless coloratura soprano performance. Her counterpart, LOoP newcomer Mott, is that rare trained tenor who can really act, not to mention being more than easy on the eyes. Weed is superbly cast as The Pirate King – his huge physical presence is mirrored by his huge bass baritone delivery, and the beard alone would sell the character. Fort is hilarious as an over-the-hill wanna-be ingénue playing at being coy and winsome, and Swingen manages to recite his tongue-twisting lines just the right touch of dithering, effete pomposity. Finally, Cox is terribly fun to watch as he vacillates between false bravado and temerity, and he delivers strong lead vocals plus a solid foundation for his team’s ensemble numbers.

The stage at the Multnomah Arts Complex is large enough to accommodate the cast nicely, even when they are all performing at the same time. The large, cartoon-like props help by providing hiding places for various cohorts throughout the show, and they help to set a lighthearted tone for the production. Costumes are remarkably authentic – the program indicates that, as with the set, it took a village to gather up the right stuff.

Once Pirates closes, you won’t have the opportunity to experience the utterly absurd yet aesthetically spine-tingling magic of LoOP’s performers until late September, so treat yourselves to the fun of light opera while you can!


Light Opera of Portland’s Pirates of Penzance plays at the Multnomah Arts Center, 7688 SW Capitol Highway, Portland through Sunday, March 5th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:00 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Inlaws are Outlaws

Mark Putnam, Blaine Vincent III, and Jean Christensen.
Nicole Mae Photography


By Tina Arth

HART Theatre is honoring Hillsboro with the U.S. premiere of My Inlaws Are Outlaws, an utterly absurd and genuinely funny new play by prolific New Zealand playwright Devon Williamson.  Based on my own reaction and the opening night audience response, I suspect that I will see more of Williamson’s work in local theaters – he has a comic sensibility that is a perfect antidote to the anxiety overload many of us are feeling these days. Director Paul Roder and his cast obviously had a great time putting this production together, and the result is a consistently entertaining, lighthearted mixture of physical comedy and dark humor. The story is extremely quirky, and might be just a little too silly if played as a farce. Luckily, Roder and cast opted to play each role completely straight, allowing the absurdity of the script to earn the laughs.

Newlywed Dane is the black sheep of the gangster Black clan, having rejected the family’s wicked ways, gone straight, and married Annie, an innocent librarian orphaned years earlier. Rather than tell Annie about his unsavory roots, Dane has lied and claimed to also be an orphan – until he is summoned home by his mother Audrey, the current matriarch of the gang. In the Black family, these invitations are not optional, so he drags his unsuspecting bride to the family homestead where she meets not only Audrey, but also the murderous Grandma, senile Granddad, and Dane’s seriously stupid sister Desiree (whose Welsh accent seems out of place until she explains that she has joined Greenpeace and is now intent on saving Wales). Dane is dragged to a family meeting off-site, leaving Annie to cope with a series of unusual assassins – Russian Natalya, Irish Finn and Donal, and the deadly Rosa Botticello, an Italian nonagenarian with a bad heart and an evil eye. Given the number of assassins on site, there is not much killing – in fact, the only actual death turns out to be quite accidental.

The uniformly solid cast delivers some really superb moments. Dalene Young is hilarious in both her roles (as Grandma and as Rosa Botticello). Young’s irrational outbursts and unstoppable trigger finger keep the family hopping (often literally) as Grandma, and her silent physical comedy as Botticello is a joy to watch. Patti Speight’s almost (but not quite) over-the-top Russian accent matches the unpredictable intensity of her delivery – sort of like Natasha Fatale (from Rocky and Bullwinkle) on steroids. Mark Putnam (as senior Irish assassin Finn) has a believable Irish accent and the gravitas of a real pro killer. Blaine Vincent III (as Finn’s son Donal) rivals Desiree for the title of stupidest character; he and Putnam form a really fine comic duo that snag many of the show’s biggest laughs.

However, the real star of the show is Jean Christensen (Annie). Her transformation from Act I’s meekly clueless young bride to Act II’s brilliantly crafty manipulator is carried out so subtly that, at first, we don’t even realize what’s happening, and her interactions (with Natalya, Finn, and especially Donal) make the second act a nonstop delight.

Set designers William Crawford and Paul Roder have filled the entire stage with the Black living room, giving ample space for numerous entrances and exits (including Donal’s beloved window) and creating a cheerfully lower-middle class ambience. Heather Sutherland’s lighting creates an outdoor effect when needed without the complications of scene changes, thus keeping the action flowing seamlessly.

Despite the frequent laughs, Act I does seem to drag at times – it is significantly longer than Act II, and perhaps would benefit from faster pacing to compensate. This slight problem is no excuse, however, for missing a U.S. premiere – Hillsboro owes HART a big thank-you for taking the risk of presenting an unknown show, and the community should turn out in droves to support it. There is enough violence and strong language that it should probably be viewed as PG-13, rather than G, rated.


My Inlaws are Outlaws is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through February 26th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Streetcar Named Desire – Twilight Nails An American Classic



Lynn Greene (Stella) and Dorina Toner (Blanche)
By Tina Arth


Twilight Theater Company is offering a hard-hitting, balanced production of one of the most powerful plays in the history of American theater, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Director Tony Bump actually turns the limited space/facilities at Twilight into an asset – without the distractions of transparent walls, rotating stages, hectic street scenes, and elaborate special effects, the  audience is forced to focus only on the often stunning intensity of the actors’ performances. The tiny size of the theater assures that the audience catches even the subtlest body language and facial expressions, and gives the huge moments even more impact than they would have in a larger production.

Even folks who are not familiar with Streetcar know its clichés, like Stanley’s frantic “Stella! Stella!!” and Blanche’s oft-quoted “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” The story revolves around Blanche Dubois’ decline into madness as she desperately tries to reclaim the faded glory of her life and family, Stella Kowalski’s passionate embrace of the only reality that works for her, and Stanley Kowalski’s brutally direct approach to protecting what is “his” (wife, home, liquor, bathroom, and even a strange dignity). There are no black hats and white hats, no unambiguously good or evil characters (although Stella comes close). Instead, there are way more than fifty shades of grey – a story that leaves the audience shaken by not only the fierce drama but by the absence of any neat conclusion.

Dorinda Toner’s portrayal of “Blanche” is a key factor in the production’s overall take on the story. Toner’s “Blanche” is no fading Southern belle, inspiring the audience’s undiluted sympathy as her world collapses around her. Instead, we see a delusional but devious, bigoted and manipulative woman who meets her match in Stanley, whose hardheaded grasp on reality contrasts so starkly with her universe. At the end, while we are angered and saddened by Stanley’s behavior, we feel no real regret at Blanche’s betrayal, and cannot blame Stanley for her mental decomposition. There is also not much to like in Ted Hartsook’s Stanley; his animal magnetism (lots of it!) is leavened by his crude, abusive, and often cruel behavior. Even his deep passion for Stella comes across as weakness – it is not so much love as need that brings him to his knees when she leaves him.  

The other two characters who demand mention are Lynn Greene (Stella) and Colin Trevor (Harold Mitchell). Greene walks the fine line of loyalty between her explosive husband and her increasingly demented sister, shifting sides as the moment demands. The sexual chemistry between Greene and Hartsook is palpable and convincing, and helps to justify her bond with her husband. Trevor’s performance is subtle; the slight stammer defines him as the sensitive underdog in the male ensemble, while his clenched fists and shaking shoulders convey a world of confusion, hurt, and anger at both Blanche and Stanley.

If I have one complaint, it is that the audience (many of them closely acquainted with both the play and the actors) laughed too much at lines that, while ironic, were neither written nor played for humorous effect. I am slightly guilty myself – I could not suppress a quick laugh at the completely unintended contemporary relevance when Stanley says of Blanche that  “She is as famous in Laurel as if she was the President of the United States, only she is not respected by any party.”

Set design (by director Bump, Assistant Director Sarah Fuller, and lighting designer Robin Pair) is detailed and efficient, creating just the right ambience and allowing for complex staging in the limited space. Chris Byrne’s costumes, especially for Toner, are wonderful at capturing the play’s shifting moods. Overall, this is one of the most solid productions I’ve seen, and definitely worth the short drive to North Portland. I recommend buying tickets early – a production of this quality should sell out most performances.

Twilight Theater Company’s A Streetcar Named Desire is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, February 19th,  with performances at 8 P.M. on February 10, 11, 16, 17, 18 and 3:00 P.M. on February 12 and 19.