Tuesday, December 12, 2017

GODSPELL at HART – A Christmas Miracle!

(top row) Sarah Thornton, Jean Christensen, Rylie Bartell, Bri Edgerton, Mikayla Albano, Arielle Scena-Shifrin
(middle row) Joseph Vermeire, Prince AV (bottom row) Aubrey McLain, Grace Proschold

By Tina Arth

I have made no secret of the fact that I am not a fan of Godspell, Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s 1971 entry into the counterculture “Jesus Freak” theater scene (preceded by 1968’s Joseph and 1970’s Jesus Christ Superstar).  Thus, when faced with five shows to be reviewed in a four-day period, the decision of which one to postpone was easy – HART’s Godspell would have to wait. When I finally made it to the show last Saturday, it was a true Christmas miracle – I actually enjoyed the production! While the show itself is still kind of an empty shell, the talent, enthusiasm and energy from HART’s 13-member cast completely filled the vessel and made for an impressively entertaining evening.

Godspell isn’t really a play, or even a traditional musical, but rather a series of parables (what we might now call “teachable moments”) drawn from scripture, acted out by Jesus and 12 others (see any parallels with the Apostles?). In lieu of conventional dialogue there is a recitation accompanying each of the parables plus a generous helping of pop music (at least, pop by 1971 standards) – some catchy, some big dramatic ballads, and some hauntingly beautiful when delivered with delicate harmonies. Act I works its way through loose and often light-hearted renditions of the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, Lazarus, and other stories, while Act II leads inexorably toward the crucifixion. The actors play a wide variety of parts, mostly independent of age or gender, with the exception of Stephen Radley (Jesus) and Evan Tait (John the Baptist/Judas).  Costuming, face painting, blocking, choreography, and attitude all make it clear to the audience that the players are telling a story, not seriously taking on a role.

Here are some of the reasons why, even if your first reaction isn’t “Yay! Godspell!” you should still go:  (1) Fine vocals delivered with skill and passion. When Sarah Thornton and Jean Christensen team up, the result is pure ambrosia. Evan Tait and Prince AV share powerful voices to keep us awake and engaged. Instead of a freak flag, seductress Arielle Scena-Shifrin lets her pink boa fly along with some soaring vocals that lift the production to new heights.  (2) Stephen Radley. Surrounded by cartoon characters, Radley gives us a subtle, serious Jesus – a man, not a god, a teacher, not a preacher. Despite the absence of a real script, he manages to make us care about his message and his fate. 3) Quirky, gleeful costumes. You don’t want to miss Joseph Vermeire in his denim overalls and pink ribbons, Sarah Thornton’s octopus-adorned tunic, or some of the flashiest leggings in Hillsboro history. The eccentric costuming (with no clumsy early seventies hippie overtones, thank you very much…) is an unmistakable reminder that the story of Jesus is, ultimately, a tale of good news. (3) Fiercely energetic and uninhibited performances. Each actor, no matter how silly the scene, commits 100% to telling the story – it is clear that they are having an incredibly good time, and their passion for the material is infectious. (4) Aubrey McLain’s smile. I won’t try to explain it – you’ve got to be there! And – (5) This may be your last chance to see a show directed by Ray Hale, as he will be retiring and moving to Florida next year. He has given countless hours of time and tons of talent, patience, and dedication to ensure that HART remains a real asset to the local theater scene. He will be greatly missed, but you don’t need to miss this great show!

Godspell is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro through Sunday, December 17th with a 7:30 p.m. performance on Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2:00 p.m.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

BCT’s Annie A Sell Out and Stand Out

Nina Takahashi and Jordan Morris with ensemble

By Tina Arth

Annie – most theatergoers either love it or hate it, and judging by local response, Beaverton Civic Theatre fans definitely trend toward the “love it” side. Initial response to ticket sales for BCT’s 2017 holiday show was so strong that they added two extra performances, which also sold out before opening night. My attitude toward Annie is mixed – sort of love/angst. I will never tire of this heartwarming tale of love lost, found, lost, then found again, yet parts of the show invariably make me sad. Thus I watched opening night of Beaverton Civic Theatre’s holiday production of Annie fully dressed with a smile, yet simultaneously fighting back twinges of melancholy. Luckily, the gleeful Annie/Warbucks chemistry at the end of the show (just look at that picture!) won the day, and I can honestly say that I really enjoyed BCT’s take on the story. Director Melissa Riley has found countless ways to squeeze her 48-person cast (plus one large dog) into the limited space available in the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, and the resulting show delivers a full musical theater experience for her audience.

For that theoretical reader who isn’t familiar with Meehan, Strouse and Charnin’s 1976 musical based on Harold Gray’s original comic, “Little Orphan Annie,” the story goes like this: Annie was abandoned as an infant at a New York City orphanage. Eleven years later, at the height of the Great Depression, she still optimistically waits for her parents to return as promised. The orphanage matron, Miss Hannigan, despises little girls, Annie most of all. When billionaire Oliver Warbucks wants an orphan to visit his mansion during the Christmas holidays, he sends his assistant to fetch one – and she picks Annie. While Warbucks is initially put off (he assumed that orphans were boys) he quickly bonds with the feisty little girl, and wants to adopt her. However, Annie has different plans – she wants to find her parents, and Warbucks agrees to put all of his financial and political muscle into locating the missing couple. He also offers a $50,000 reward to Annie’s parents – which fails to bring out Annie’s parents, but does bring out hundreds of liars, including Miss Hannigan’s con-man brother Rooster and his girlfriend Lily. Disguised as Ralph and Shirley Mudge, the crooked couple provides “proof” (gained from Miss Hannigan) that Annie is theirs. Of course, several songs later the sad truth is revealed, the evil plot foiled, and everything works out just fine.

Nina Takahashi plays Annie as a diehard optimist with spunk to spare, with none of the whiny, manipulative side sometimes seen in the role. She sings, dances, and acts like the pro that she is, and her outlook sets the tone for the whole show. Once I got past the sense that I was watching a young Patrick Stewart, I also really enjoyed Jordan Morris’s approach to Daddy Warbucks – not so much a cartoon as a real human, able to openly display the vulnerability that Annie hides so well. His rendition of the often-omitted “Why Should I Change A Thing” really establishes the depth of his character.

The always-amazing Erin Zelazny gives her all to Miss Hannigan, blending her character’s fundamental sadism with just a touch of pathos and nailing the iconic “Little Girls.” Zelazny also picks up on a critical moment often misplayed, her timing perfect when she calls Lily St. Regis a “dumb ho…tel.” Speaking of hotels, Kelli Bee is an utterly captivating Lily, and even when she’s stuck in the background she’s never upstaged. Richard Cohn-Lee is fun as the evil Rooster, although he never quite reaches the level of malice I expect in a wanna-be child murderer.

There are lots of other solid performances – too many to mention – but I cannot overlook Kathrynn Gerard’s flawless singing, dancing “Star-to-Be.”  This is a role often delegated to a solid, but second-rate performer, and Gerard brings the kind of star quality that makes me think she’ll be in a lead role when next I see her. Sherman’s “Sandy” is also destined for stardom, but first he needs to master the art of ignoring the treats he knows are coming!

The show is long, and I am grateful for Alex Woodard’s impressive single set design that virtually eliminates set changes. Switching from orphanage to Hooverville to mansion to radio station is all accomplished by changing the lighting, but perhaps calls a little too much on audience imagination – a few video projections to provide an appropriate backdrop would have been helpful.

There’s no point in exhorting you to buy tickets to a long sold-out run, so if you haven’t got seats yet all I can suggest is that you buy early for the next BCT show!

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of A Little Princess runs through Sunday, December 17th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Twilight’s Christmas Offering Just Too Funny…

Craig Fitzpatrick (Jim), Rob Harris (Michael), and Greg Shilling (John)

By Tina Arth

All hope of a serious and respectful holiday show flew up the chimney when I saw that Twilight Theater Company was doing Carleton, Alvarez and Knapp’s Every Christmas Story Even Told (and then some) – but then again, pious inspiration really isn’t consistent with Twilight’s quirky brand anyway. Director Dorinda Toner and her three-man cast (the hardest working guys in show biz, imho) instead deliver two hours of seriously sidesplitting humor as they zip in and out of every Christmas carol and story you can think of (and several more).

The premise is simple – three actors are supposed to do a performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the stage lights come up on a lone actor, Jim, ponderously reciting the opening lines: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” Enter John and Michael, interrupting Jim (the first of several times he is cut off in mid-recital), to make it clear that they have NO interest in doing yet another performance of the Dickens’ classic. By the end of Act I, the three actors have not only lovingly satirized Dickens’ work, but also Dr. Seuss (the Grinch), Charlie Brown (the dance number is unforgettable – surpassed only by the severely abridged Nutcracker), Frosty the Snowman, Gustav the Green-Nosed Reingoat (no copyright infringements!) and several others, accompanied by Lola Toner’s stunning arrangement of The Most Famous Carols of All (Every Carol Ever Sung). The two audience participation numbers (where reluctant audience members are enthusiastically shepherded to the stage) are not only fun (at least for the rest of us) but surprisingly effective (on the evening I was there, Contestant #3 was so good she could have been, but wasn’t, a plant). When the actors finally get around to A Christmas Carol in Act II, the mash-up with It’s A Wonderful Life is both hilarious and surprisingly apropos.

The three actors (aided by a couple of equally hard-working crew members) change costumes and characters with dizzying speed at times. Craig Fitzpatrick’s “Jim” is the diehard traditionalist, constantly trying to bring the story back to Dickens, while Greg Shilling plays the ditzy and slightly campy “John” – always willing to throw himself into the next whacko holiday role. Most interesting at times is Rob Harris’ “Michael,” the sly instigator who undermines Jim at every turn by encouraging John’s frenetically enthusiastic performance (and then joining him in the insanity).

Josiah Greene’s minimalist sets and Chris Byrne’s seemingly impromptu costuming are invaluable in convincing us that we are watching Dickens gone awry rather than a carefully planned evening of parody.  Words like “funny,” “zany,” and “hysterical” really cannot begin to capture the quality of this show’s humor – the only way to appreciate it is to go!

Twilight Theater Company’s Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some) is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through December 17th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. on Sunday.

TITG Gives A New Look To Its Mattress

Dave Switzer (Wizard), Joanna Galvan (Princess Winnifred), and ensemble.
Photo by Ann Pastores Photography.

By Tina Arth

In place of standard Christmas fare, Theatre in the Grove is offering the decidedly non-traditional Once Upon A Mattress as its 2017 holiday show. To ensure that the mold is completely broken, Director Luis Ventura is presenting a probably unprecedented steampunk version.  Ever since Carol Burnett made her Broadway debut in 1959 in the role of the Princess Winnifred, this musical reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea has been delighting theater audiences – and the current production in Forest Grove fully lives up to the show’s august pedigree.

The play opens with a lightning-fast retelling of the original Princess and the Pea, narrated by a minstrel who, it turns out, was present for the real events on which the story is based (which were, he tells us, not exactly like Andersen’s fairy tale version).  Yes, there is a prince in search of a wife, and yes, he is having trouble finding just the right candidate. As in Andersen’s story, a rather damp woman appears, claims to be a princess, is tested by the skeptical queen, and passes by having a sleepless night on a bed of twenty mattresses and a pea. But the Princess Winnifred is no rain-soaked wanderer – she has been fetched to the castle from the swamps of home by Sir Harry, a knight with a big problem who really needs to marry off the prince before his pregnant girlfriend starts showing. Most important (especially to the suspicious and wildly Oedipal queen) – the princess’ soggy arrival, precipitated by her eagerness to meet her prince, is not due to a sudden downpour.  Unwilling to wait for the drawbridge to lift, Winnifred swam the moat! With a little help from the hen-pecked king, the minstrel, and the jester, the princess has an appropriately restless night, passes the test, and marries Prince Dauntless (who cuts Mama’s apron strings with gleeful finality in the final scene).

There are lots of fun roles in Mattress, but if the casting has been done properly then it is the actress playing Princess Winnifred who steals the show – and Joanna Galvan is a worthy successor to Ms. Burnett and a host of other top-notch comediennes. She is tiny, fearless, feisty, agile, and overwhelmingly cute – it is clear from the beginning that the evil queen is no match for this brash but lovable spitfire. Of course, she doesn’t do it alone; there is a lot of talent on the stage with her. One unforgettable cameo appearance comes from Elise Byrne, whose Princess #12 is a masterpiece of timing, inflection and attitude – sort of the quintessential Valley Girl on steroids. Nathan Wildfire’s kilted jester provides a solid narration, but much more – his height, stage presence, and flawless delivery really anchor the show, plus he just looks the part! Relative newcomer (this is only his second show) Matthew Hampshire gives Prince Dauntless just the right touch of innocence, longing, and energetic enthusiasm, and Lauren Donovan’s Jester is marvelously sinuous as she gyrates around the stage. Gillian Wildfire has the haughty grandeur and manipulative whine needed for Queen Aggravain, but sometimes misses the boat on the Queen’s rapid-fire dialogue.

The combination of James Grimes’ set design, Ward Ramsdell and Anne Kennedy’s lighting design, and Leslie Crandall-Dawes and Kya Eckstrand- White’s costumes create the steampunk look that Director Ventura sought for the show. Although it doesn’t particularly enhance the show’s central themes, this motif provides for a lavish visual feast of a set and some really diverse and intriguing costumes. Mattress is, of course, a musical – and conductor Michelle Bahr makes full use of the fine orchestra to support and augment Steph Landtiser’s always fun, often-complex vocal arrangements.

Once Upon A Mattress is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through December 17th,with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Monday, December 4, 2017


By Tina Arth

For Christmas 2017, Bag & Baggage is reprising their 2010 staging of a show described as “the most successful production in B&B’s history…” – and it is a sure-fire smash in their new location. Artistic Director Scott Palmer’s original script, Charles Dickens Write A Christmas Carol, uses seven actors to imagine and portray Dickens’ creative process as he writes what may well be the greatest Christmas story every told (with the possible exception of the Bible itself, and even that’s not certain!).  In the intimate space of The Vault the story is occasionally touching, frequently hilarious, and constantly engaging for the entire audience.

By filling multiple roles, the actors portray Dickens as well as all of the key characters who appear in A Christmas Carol. As Dickens imagines each character or scene, the actors assume the roles and play the characters evolving in his mind. Sound dry and convoluted? Heed this quote from Palmer’s Director’s Notes: “…Dickens’ unending energy, his boundless enthusiasm and his limitless creativity were only exceeded by his childish and broad sense of comedy!” It is this little-known side of Dickens’ personality that drives the tale, and anyone who knows Scott Palmer well will understand how well these qualities define both the play’s author and its subject. The witty, playful script in the hands of experienced B&B actors becomes a non-stop joy for the audience – something not to be missed. An added bonus is Palmer’s obvious respect for his patrons; many of the funniest touches are found in subtle, absurd throwaway lines shared with the audience as inside jokes, and the intimacy of The Vault ensures that everyone is fully included in these moments.

Most of the cast members play countless roles, constantly disappearing and reappearing with new hair, costumes, accents and attitudes as they shift from ghosts to turkey boys, laundresses to Mrs. Cratchit. The two exceptions are Kymberli Colbourne, who adds a special note of cynicism to the already jaded Ebenezer Scrooge, and Peter Schuyler’s powerhouse take on Dickens (although it is Schuyler’s brief turn as Tiny Tim that provides some of the funniest moments in an already laugh-laden evening).  

The Vault offers little in the way of elaborate sets, and compensates with lots of state-of-the-art toys for those wonderful backstage geeks who conspire with our imaginations to deliver the necessary ambience. Jim Ricks-White (technical director/lighting designer) and Carlee Whalen (sound designer) make lavish use of these toys to create the sights and sounds of Victorian London, flying ghosts, and everything else needed to recreate the timeless characters who emerged from Dickens’ study and state of mind. Melissa Heller outdoes herself (no mean feat) with a plethora of elaborately detailed and accurate costumes.

Whether you are a diehard fan or someone who thinks they have seen quite enough of this particular holiday classic, you should make time for this fun and the fascinating new perspective on a tale we all know!
Charles Dickens Writes A Christmas Carol is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through December 23d, with 7:30 p.m. performances December 7-8-9-14-15-16-21-22-23 and 2:00 p.m. performances December 10 and 17. Matinee performances include a talkback with cast and director following the show.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Holiday Hit Parade Hits Broadway Rose

Robert Head, Grace Allen, Debbie Hunter, Ryan Reilly, Laura McCulloch, and Malia Tippets.
Photo by Sam Ortega.

By Tina Arth

Broadway Rose is opening the holiday show season with a bang – a sparkling collection of songs old and new, mixing humor with breathtaking beauty, loosely bound by a thoroughly implausible wraparound script as magic-laden as the season itself. If you, like me, are sorely in need of a quick infusion of Christmas spirit, Your Holiday Hit Parade fills the bill delightfully. Co-authors Rick Lewis (also musical arranger) and Dan Murphy (also director) have assembled a festive revue and an inspired cast to deliver a family-friendly evening that should appeal to all but the most-Grinch-like audiences.

The show opens with two bedraggled travelers, Bea and Helen, on a pilgrimage to see Mt. McKinley before it officially becomes Mt. Denali. They stumble into Aurora’s Borealis, a seemingly deserted but otherwise intact tourist lodge well off the beaten track in Alaska. They need shelter while they wait for rescue – their car has broken down and both the temperature and the batteries on their phone are dropping low. A lively burst of “Jingle Bells” from the two women flushes out 4 shy, pale strangers from upstairs, apparently drawn by the mention of bells. Soon their secret is revealed – they are entertainers whose show was due to open Christmas, 1972 when a massive avalanche buried the inn, trapping them inside – they are ghosts! The rest of the evening is filled with a mixture of solos and ensemble work as the cast powers through old favorites, from their exquisite “Bell Medley” to “White Christmas” and “Christmas Auld Lang Syne,” some fun novelty songs (the entire “Cowboy Christmas Medley” and many others), and some pure silliness like “I’m Spending Hanukkah In Santa Monica” and Rick Lewis’ gender-bending rewrite, “Babe There’s A Cab Outside.” Will the ghosts be freed after giving their final performance? Will Bea and Helen’s Uber driver find them amid the snowy wastes? You’ll need to go see the show to find out!

The four ghosts, each with some exquisite solo moments but even more moving in the ensemble arrangements, are Marguerite (Grace Allen), Roy (Robert Head), Rusty (Ryan Reilly), and Marjorie (Malia Tippets).  Interspersed among the quartet’s classics are numbers by Helen (Debbie Hunter) and Bea (Laura McCulloch) with their mid-Western, down-to earth modern attitudes and consistently upbeat delivery – bringing a playfully wry note with songs like “Sisters,” “Santa Baby,” and of course Ray Stevens’ quirky “Santa Claus Is Watching You.”

The costuming is elaborate but a bit anachronistic (for the ghosts) – by 1972 even ingénues on Hee-Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show had straighter hair and shorter skirts – but it really makes no difference, and I just pretended that it was based on the styles of 1964. The set, on the other hand, is spot on – everything you’d expect in a perfectly preserved country lodge, augmented by a constantly changing video screen to help create the requisite mood. While there’s a piano on the stage, and cast members frequently respond to the cue “give me an E,” the real music comes from conductor Jeffrey Childs’ little band – and courtesy of clever use of the video projection, we occasionally get to see shadows of pianist Childs, bassist Will Amend, and drummer Mitch Wilson as they work their magic behind the scenes.

As soon as Thanksgiving hits the road, I always start to “Need a Little Christmas,” this year perhaps more than most. I am grateful to Broadway Rose for immersing me in holiday mode with their delightful show, and judging from the audience’s enthusiastic opening night acclaim I am not alone in my response. This is an evening that should not be missed.

Your Holiday Hit Parade is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Saturday, December 23d. See their website (broadwayrose.org) for specific performance dates and times.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940

 Amelia Michaels, Michael Allen, Redmond Reams, and Ami Ericson

By Tina Arth

Mask & Mirror’s latest production, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, provides some real challenges for its cast. Author John Bishop’s 1987 murder-mystery, while loaded with the murders and red herrings that define the genre, is neither a musical nor a tightly written comedy, and the script would fall flat if not for the dedication of its talented actors. While it may not be possible to make a silk purse out of this particular sow’s ear, it is possible to make an audience laugh at the silly antics, physical comedy, broad stereotypes, and absurd story – and director Rick Hoover and his cast succeed well beyond what might be expected of a community theater team.

The convoluted set-up is this: it is 1940, so the U.S. is heavily involved in the events surrounding World War II but not yet actively at war. The cops are looking for a serial killer dubbed “The Stage Door Slasher” who recently murdered three tutu-clad chorines from a Broadway musical. The composer, lyricist, director and producer of a new musical are brought together at the Chappaqua estate of a wealthy backer, Elsa von Grossenknueten, ostensibly to try out their show for her.  The audition involves the assistance of three performers: Irish tenor Patrick O’Reilly, ingénue Nikki Crandall, and comic Eddie McKuen. Also on site are Elsa’s uber-German maid and an undercover cop.  The real reason for bringing the group together is to suss out the identity of the Slasher (naturally, in a remote location where all players are trapped during the obligatory snowstorm). The show opens when a mysteriously masked figure murders Helsa the maid, then stashes her away in a closet – yet miraculously, Helsa seems to be alive and well the next morning (spoiler alert: Helsa is  not an onlychild).  Mayhem ensues, more people die, secret identities are revealed, and the Slasher ultimately found out. Aaaand curtain!

Some of the finest comedy comes from two women – Amelia Michaels (as Helsa Wenzel and her siblings) and Rebecca Rowland Hines (as lyricist Bernice Roth). While I could not always follow Michaels’ hearty German accent and rapid dialogue, she is absolutely hilarious as an uncooperatively loose-limbed corpse and later as a ferociously agile foe.  Hines has fun with her character’s gradual descent into inebriation, and delivers some appallingly bad rhymes with a straight face as she turns her focus to yet another (undoubtedly doomed) musical. Ami Ericson’s scatterbrained but likeable von Grossenkneuten is a constant, somewhat steadying if ditzy force.

As Irish tenor Patrick O’Reilly, Jeff Ekdahl issn’t much of a tenor or an Irishman – it was only after he tried out an equally unconvincing New York accent that I realized it was the character, not the actor, responsible for these lapses.  On the other hand, it was clear from the beginning that Luke Mitchell’s “Eddie McKuen” was written as a truly terrible comic. Mitchell and Michelle Wangerzyn, who plays ingénue Nikki Crandall, create some charmingly awkward chemistry that provides the necessary love interest.
Woody Woodbury’s set design makes the most of the available space, with lots of upscale touches and the requisite plethora of entries and exits (the tromp l’oeil book cases with hidden panels are both impressive and essential to the plot), and the forties era costuming is both detailed and fun.

Audiences in search of great art may want to visit Mask & Mirror at another time (perhaps one of their edgier “Unmasked” productions), but The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a fine choice for an unabashedly lighthearted, undemanding theatrical evening.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 runs through November 19th, with performances at 7:30 P.M. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 P.M. Sundays at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Forsooth, My Lovely

 Paul Roder (center) and (clockwise from top) Jason Fox, Chelsea Read, Phyllis Gurian Lang, and Lura Longmire.
Photo by Carl Dalhquist.

By Tina Arth

Hillsboro’s HART Theatre continues to fulfill its 2017-18 season’s theme/promise, “Laugh Along With HART” - this time with an unabashedly farcical, yet surprisingly erudite mash-up of hard-boiled detective fiction and Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits. Playwright David Belke’s Forsooth, My Lovely brings together these wildly disparate elements in an improbable film noir style that offers a lot of fun for either lovers or haters of both genres (or those who are merely indifferent, but not opposed to a good laugh or two). Director Sarah Fuller approaches the comedy with a very broad brush, allowing her actors the latitude to shamelessly play to their audience – and it works like a charm.

The story, of course, makes no sense at all. An obviously American gumshoe with the appropriately Shakespearean name Birnam Wood arrives (from London, not New York) in Padua to help wealthy merchant Baptista unravel a scandal – some dirty etchings showing the naked form of his younger daughter Bianca. The sharp-tongued elder daughter, Katherine (as in Taming of the Shrew and Kiss Me Kate) develops an oddly seductive rapport with the detective, culminating in a wonderful stage kiss.  Mere blackmail turns to murder most foul as the convoluted plot evolves. Lovers are star-crossed, authority figures mercilessly mocked, while jesters jest. With the exception of Wood, all of the characters are drawn from Shakespeare’s plays – mostly comic, mostly Italian, but with a soupçon of the French and a spectacular Scottish touch. Audience members who recognize the greatest number of Shakespearian twists perhaps laugh most, but there is no shortage of seriously comic touches for even the most Bard-averse.

As Birnam Wood, HART Artistic Director Paul Roder is the only actor who plays just one role, and he simply revels in the darkly cynical comedy of the Chandleresque detective. His slight form, stereotypical ‘40s trench coat and fedora, and down-in-the heels affect contrast sharply with Lalanya Gunn’s portrayal of the shrewish Kate, whose gestures, mannerisms, and projection are all truly larger than life. Both Gunn and her stage “sister” Chelsea Read (as Bianca) are fun in their primary roles, but their pairing as two of Macbeth’s three witches is simply unforgettable – perhaps the comic high point of an already hilarious show.

Lura Longmire is constantly in motion as she struts, busters, and sidles through five roles (Baptista, Conrade, Costard, Oberon, and Proteus), giving each character a unique absurdity that keeps the audience in stitches, and her death scene is a thing of beauty (I’m not really giving anything away, since I won’t tell you which one dies). Phyllis Gurian Lang gives us a satisfyingly lusty if slightly geriatric Emilia, but it is her manic and morbid take on Lear’s Fool that really distinguishes her performance.

The rest of the cast, all male, cannot be overlooked – Mark Putnam (as Oliver, Borachio, and Malvolio) delivers some wonderful moments, and Nick Serrone’s drunken Trinculo and naively star-struck (or detective-struck) Romeo are fine vehicles for the actor’s timing and pratfalls. Jason Fox is satisfyingly pretentious and uncharismatic as both Dogberry the cop and Petruchio the suitor – clearly, neither character will prevail in love or conflict.

Heather Sutherland’s lighting design sets the tone perfectly, and Fuller’s minimal set design establishes the fanciful unreality of the play while allowing for fast scene changes (always a plus). Given the variety of characters, costuming must have been a real challenge, but Fuller, Chris Byrne, and Karen Roder somehow pulled it off.

The best news of all is that HART has partnered with North Portland’s Twilight Theater Company to offer a companion play, The Maltese Bodkin, next year. Film noir, detective, comedy and Shakespeare fans should make a serious effort to catch both shows.

Forsooth My Lovely is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through November 19th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.

Friday, November 3, 2017


 Virginia Kincaid. Photo by Frank Hunt.

By Tina Arth

Several months ago, I read the script for Red Hot Patriot, The Kick-ass Wit of Molly Ivins, a wonderful little one-person show based on the life of a remarkable woman who died much too soon. At the time, I had never actually heard of the amazing columnist, a long, tall Texan who used her incisive wit and encyclopedic knowledge of the American political scene to either celebrate or skewer (depending on the demands of the day) the guv’mint titans of her home state and her beloved nation. By the time I got to the end of the script I was a diehard fan, so I was thrilled when I heard that Hillsboro’s STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy would be presenting a three-show special engagement of Patriot as a fundraiser, almost exactly one year since the November, 2016 day that so radically altered the socio-political climate of the United States. It is this coincidence that augments the show’s funny, pithy, and occasionally heart-wrenching monologue with an eerie prescience. It is safe to assume that the formidable Ms. Ivins would not have been a fan of our 45th president.

Playwrights/journalists/twin-sisters Margaret and Allison Engel build the show around Ivins’ attempt to write a column describing her love/hate relationship with her father, a fiercely conservative Texan who was the epitome of everything the columnist grew to despise. Almost every word is drawn from Ivins’ work – direct quotes from 40+ years of newspaper columns, magazine articles, and books, bound together with a few fictionalized musings and her one-sided conversation with a silent copy boy who sporadically appears bearing urgent news releases.  The show is necessarily superficial – any attempt to condense the body of Ivins’ work and the texture of her life into an evening’s entertainment would have been doomed. Director Doreen Lundberg, the authors, and actors face the challenge of delivering enough authentic humor, pain, and folksy wisdom to inspire the audience to further exploration – and between the Internets, Amazon.com, and your local public library there’s no shortage of material.

Native Texan Virginia Kincaid doesn’t just play Molly, she makes it the role of a lifetime. From her well-used cowboy boots to her flaming red wig, the lanky Kincaid embodies her character’s physicality while her soft drawl, sardonic delivery, occasional bursts of warmth and precise timing capture the substance of a complex and unforgettable woman. Kincaid’s final monologue, an impassioned (and timely) plea to her listeners, is so powerful and believable that it should leave both actor and audience in tears. Damian Woodruff, the copy boy, provides occasional moments of silent comedy, but his shining moment comes from the subtle grief as he somberly clears Ivins’ desk at the end of the show.

Lundberg realizes the show’s vision with a single set – really just a desk, chair, and typewriter. The world outside this tiny newsroom is created with some well-placed lighting and sound effects (deftly provided by Brian Ollom and Alex Rose).  Ironically, although Red Hot Patriot’s all-too-brief engagement is a fundraiser for youth theater, the show is not really appropriate for young children (older teens should be able to handle mature themes and language).  With a run time just over an hour, one of Patriot’s three performances should be easy to work into your weekend plans. Go for the STAGES benefit, stay for the moving and occasionally hilarious performance, and then commit to learning more about the wit and wisdom of one of our nation’s smartest, most dedicated and genuine patriots.

Red Hot Patriot, The Kick-ass Wit of Molly Ivins play for three performances only at the Tuality Masonic Lodge, 176 NE 2nd Avenue, Hillsboro with shows Saturday, November 4th 7:30 PM and Sunday, November 5th at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Deone Jennings and Johnnie Torres

By Tina Arth

As Halloween approaches, thoughts turn naturally to sinister themes – hence Twilight Theater Company’s timely staging of Douglas Post’s Murder in Green Meadows. The play hits all of the right notes for a classic murder mystery – lots of twists and turns, classic “perfect murder undone by one small detail.” However, the real beauty of the production is the way that director Doreen Lundberg and her little cast have mined each character for the unspoken but critical points that illuminate each player’s psychological makeup. Lundberg’s director’s note says, “ I hope that it [the show] sparks a conversation between you and someone you saw it with.”  Driving home last Friday night I was so preoccupied with a conversation about how to interpret some subtle points that I missed my off ramp!

The plot moves smoothly from mundane to macabre – successful architect Thomas Devereaux and his lovely wife Joan have just moved into the model home for Thomas’ latest development, in upscale, suburban Green Meadows. An impromptu visit by new neighbors Carolyn and Jeff Symons leads to a friendship between the two couples. However, beneath the surface all is not well, as suggested by a palpable awkwardness in all of the couples’ communications. Carolyn shares a harrowing tale of a stress-induced nervous breakdown that relegates a highly intelligent and perceptive woman to a frustrating life as a soccer mom. Jeff seems childishly distraught over his performance on the golf course with Thomas. Joan tells an odd story about burning her treasured doll collection, and is openly seductive when alone with Jeff. Thomas maintains a rigidly appropriate affect around Carolyn and Jeff, but is controlling and abusive toward Joan when they are alone – culminating when he claims that he murdered Joan’s teenaged lover in their last neighborhood. The story really takes off when Thomas demands that Joan not only stop seeing Jeff, but that she kill him. All of this leads up to a gripping and satisfying psychological showdown between Joan and Thomas.

Marcella Laasch is quite wonderful as the brilliant Carolyn Symons. Laasch gives her character an incessant superficial cheerfulness, but she allows Carolyn’s incisive mind to lurk just below the surface until it’s needed, and her confident demolition of Thomas in a poker game nicely foreshadows the final conflict. In contrast, Johnnie Torres (as husband Jeff Symons) is likeable, if somewhat pitiable, as a good-hearted, none-too-bright, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. Deone Jennings’ “Joan” is an enigma – sometimes we think she is exactly what she seems to be (immature, dim, sex-starved, dependent, and easily manipulated) but occasional glimpses suggest more. Ultimately, the audience members are left to muse about her character and draw their own conclusions. David Roberts’ “Thomas” leaves no room for ambiguity – even when he’s on his best behavior, his eerily cold affect and obsessive-compulsive disorder telegraph the thinly veiled menace of the character.

The detailed set is in many ways part of the show – the three doors each play a key role, an unseen key hook in the kitchen has a life of its own, and the pristinely hip Mid-Century furniture helps to establish the Devereauxs’ mindset and economic status. Frequent costume alterations (especially by Laash and Jennings) establish both personality and the passage of time – and are miraculously squeezed into the many brief intervals afforded by minor scene changes (by the hardest working stage crew in town).

While Murder In Green Meadows is primarily just a fun murder mystery, the question of why a modern, upper-middle class American woman would tolerate domestic violence opens the door to some fascinating conversations. Director Lundberg and her cast provide a satisfying combination of classic intrigue and intriguing possibilities that should bring large audiences during this spooky season.

Twilight Theater Company’s Murder in Green Meadows is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through November 5th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. on Sunday.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Murder at Checkmate Manor – Farndale’s Finest Back in Town!

Tyler Buswell, Jeremy Sloan, Norman Wilson, Patrick Spike, and Arianne Jacques

By Tina Arth

The days are getting short, the nights cold and dark.  Our skies now sometimes shudder with thunder, and pounding rain is back in the picture.  Fear not – just in time to stave off an incapacitating bout of seasonal affective disorder, the bizarrely talented denizens of Bag and Baggage gallop to the rescue with The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of Murder at Checkmate Manor! Playwrights David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr. have created just the right vehicle for director Scott Palmer’s somewhat quirky artistic sensibility, and B&B’s new theater, The Vault, is a perfect setting for this in-your-face cross-dressing farce. By the middle of act 2 my cheeks were numb from constant grinning (relieved only by frequent bursts of most unladylike cackling).

The show is a shameless exposé of the foibles of community theater – “what can go wrong, will” – writ large. Very, very large - almost as large as the unstoppable Mrs. Phoebe Reese (Patrick Spike, reprising the character he first foisted upon the good folks of Hillsboro in 2012). The untimely loss of a key actor means that Gordon the Stage Manager (Arianne Jacques) is drafted as part of the cast at the last minute, the unseen, exceptionally inept stage technician Adrian bumbles every cue, the “ladies” of the cast, with little mastery of their lines and no concept of blocking, are positively dripping with venomous rivalry, and the evening is punctuated with an endless stream of sight gags based on missing or misaligned props and set pieces (where IS that pesky staircase, anyway?). The plot, a very loosely woven British murder mystery, is almost irrelevant but provides a sturdy backdrop for the cast’s irrepressible comedic chops. In short, a British women’s theatrical group (longer in the tooth than talent) attempts to stage a murder mystery. Many people die. The identity and motive of the murderer are irrelevant. All of the actors are in drag (four men as women, one woman as a man). Nobody buys anything at the pre-intermission fashion show, but the bearded Jacques steals the show with her silver lamé gown. I get to drink red wine (through a straw!) inside the theater. The audience (myself included) loves every minute of it.

B&B newcomer Tyler Buswell (as Mrs. Felicity Fortescue, playing Pawn the Butler in a lovely blonde wig) is a joy to watch – how often do we get to see a man playing a woman playing a man?  However, the blonde bombshell trophy goes to Jeremy Sloan’s “Mrs. Mercedes Blower” – his long, lovely legs are accentuated by tasteful tennis attire, and his attempts at playing the ingénue are foiled by his incessant coy flirtation with any audience member in reach (when not preoccupied by his on-stage romance with the tiny Jacques). Spike’s explosively effusive  “Phoebe” contrasts nicely with Norman Wilson’s intense (and intensely disapproving) Mrs. Thelma Greenwood, whose glaring eyes and fixed moue are external signs of a rigid object apparently lodged in an unmentionable part of her (his?) anatomy.  The timing, expressions, and physical comedy from all five performers work to keep the show on the right side of the border between hilarious and ridiculous.

As one would expect with a deliberate train wreck of a show, the set and props are chaotic – a few rugs, chairs in the wrong places, a faux picture window that looks out on a series of cardboard backdrops reminiscent of pre-school theatrical productions, cocktail glasses glued to the tray, a nonexistent dog snoozing by the world’s cheapest fake fireplace. Melissa Heller’s costumes are perfect in their perfect absurdity, and the makeup design is too wonderful.

Scott Palmer, Assistant Director Cassie Greer, and the rest of the small army responsible for this Bag & Baggage offering hit every note right. It may be another five years or so before the fine ladies of Farndale Avenue come back across the pond – miss this gem at your peril!

The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production Of Murder at Checkmate Manor is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through the end of October, with 7:30 p.m. performances October 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31 plus 2:00 p.m. shows on October 22 and 29. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

You Can’t Take It With You A Solid BCT Comic Hit

Gary Anderson, Dennis Proulx, Jeanine Stassens, and Benjamin Philip

By Tina Arth

In many ways, Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t It With You is simply another version of last year’s The Addams Family – but without the music. Both plays are terribly funny (although Kaufman and Hart’s show is by far the wittier of the two), both feature a naively quirky family, completely out of touch with reality despite living in the middle of New York City, and in each play a daughter falls in love with a “normal” guy and grapples with the problem of how to introduce her family to his.  However, your affection for last year’s production should not be used as a reason to skip the one running now – it’s just too funny to miss, and every bit as appropriate a mood-lifter now as it was during the Great Depression. Director Kraig Williams and his cast clearly had a lot of fun putting the show together, and the audiences are having just as much fun watching the result.

Set in 1936 New York City, the show revolves around the extraordinarily free spirited, naively self-indulgent family patriarch Martin Vanderhof, his daughter and son-in-law Penny and Paul Sycamore, the Sycamore’s daughters Alice and Essie, and a stage full of hangers-on who have somehow insinuated themselves into the household. Alice is the only “normal” in the whole bunch, and she finds herself engaged (and madly in love) with her boss’s son, Tony Kirby. Alice and Tony plan to bring the folks over for dinner to meet their future in-laws, who have promised to be on their very best behavior, but with the help of an alcoholic actress, a Russian bear of a ballet instructor, four G-Men, a Grand Duchess, and a host of others the evening turns a bit, well, chaotic. A mass arrest and a broken engagement ultimately work out okay after Grandpa convinces the Kirbys that they need to mellow out – after all, they have quite enough money, “you can’t take it with you,” and they need a lot more fun and less work in their lives.

While there are some variations in experience and expertise, overall the cast is very strong. However, a few actors in both lead and supporting roles really stand out. Gary Anderson (Martin Vanderhof) is marvelous – calm, superficially logical, seemingly an innocent who has found a way to live life on his own terms. His demeanor never rises above lukewarm, but his deceptive calm masks a wily old guy who demands our attention every time he chooses to speak. Patti Speight (Penny) is also a treat – a loving mother, wife and daughter, she convinces us that she is completely unaware of the absurdity of her approach to life (who becomes a playwright simply because a typewrite is accidentally delivered to the house?).

In supporting roles, Les Ico (as the maid’s boyfriend Donald), Jeanine Stassens (as the uptight Mrs. Kirby), and Diana LoVerso (as the inebriated actress Gay Wellington) are particularly effective in selling the laugh-out-loud humor in their roles.  Both Ico and LoVerso augment their exquisite timing with their mastery of physical comedy, and Stassens’ tightly wound persona unwinds so gradually that we hardly realize what’s happened until she has subtly given us way too much information about her desiccated love life.

It’s tough to know whom to credit for the set – the set consultant? The scenic artist? The painter? In any case, the lights come up on an exquisitely detailed, cluttered but somehow charming living room that accurately reflects the chaotic diversity of the home’s genuinely whacko inhabitants. 

Director Williams has done a fine job of keeping the farcical elements of You Can’t Take It With You from drowning out its subtler comic moments.  Although it’s a long show (almost three hours including two intermissions) it never drags, and is well worth a few hours of your time.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of You Can’t Take It With You runs through Saturday, October 14th with performances at 7:30 PM Fridays and Saturdays, 2:00 PM on Sundays at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Taste of Neverland in Forest Grove

 Molly (Emily Smith) fighting with Black Stache (Noel Oishi) with the cast looking on.

By Tina Arth

The word “charming,” when applied to a play, is often a reviewer’s analog to that death knell of blind dates, “a good personality.” Two more potential danger signals? Try “sweet” and “silly” on for size. However, Theater in the Grove’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher (a play by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) is charming, sweet, and silly – and so very much more. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Dave Barry is one of America’s funniest (and silliest) writers, and his comic style can be found all over the play. Director Jessica Reed and her cast have fully embraced the playful, childlike (but not childish) spirit of the story, and the result is a terribly funny, touching production that makes children giggle while reminding adults how much richer our lives are when we stay in touch with that little bit of Peter Pan and Wendy that lurks in the hearts of all but the most jaded grown-ups.

Did you ever wonder about Peter Pan’s backstory? How did he get to Neverland, why won’t he grow up, why can he fly, what’s up with Captain Hook and the crocodile, and so many other mysteries? Peter and the Starcatcher answers these and many more questions beautifully, with none of the dry, reality-based pragmatism sometimes imposed by adults attempting to explain away childhood’s magical moments.  The story is way too complex to summarize, yet simple enough that the kiddos in the audience have no trouble keeping up. In a nutshell, the play is an adventure on the docks of England, ships on the high seas, and on a faraway island. A nameless orphan boy finds an unexpected friend, the compassionate and strong Molly. Together, the two children (with a little help from their friends) outwit two different bands of evildoers, including the inept pirate Black Stache. In the end, a magical secret is kept safe and the world is (at least temporarily, I’m afraid) saved from unimaginable evil.  The tale give us the genesis of Peter and most of the other fascinating characters in Peter Pan, all delivered with a nice combination of broad humor and sly wit reminiscent of the most sophisticated Warner Brothers cartoons.

Young actors Canden Clement and Emily Smith have great chemistry as Peter and Wendy. Clement is defiantly pathetic at first, lashing out with palpable anger at everyone around him, but he gradually grows into the hero we know as Peter Pan. Smith shifts gracefully between three modes – friendship, leadership, and motherly, with just enough romance to keep it interesting but not enough to make it awkward. However, it is Noel Oishi (Black Stache) who really steals the show – his odd combination of flamboyance and self-absorption is delivered in a style that wanders from utterly deadpan to over-the-top, and his star turn as a mermaid (who knew they could tap dance?) is not to be missed.

Almost every cast member has at least one sparkling comic moment, but special notice is owed to Robin Michaels, William Ferguson (his Fighting Prawn is hysterical), Heidi Share, and the small but fierce Joanna Galvan. Also not to be missed is the lovely Prudence Dawes, a tiny scene-stealer if ever there was one.

The show’s aura of playful fantasy is set as soon as the lights come up with Leslie Crandall Dawes’ amazing set design – sometimes a pirate ship, sometimes a forested isle, sometimes an undersea grotto – but always a playground for the young at heart. Ward Ramsdell and Anne Kennedy’s lighting design is inspired and lovely, and Spencer Putnam manages the complex lighting cues like a pro. Hannah Early’s work at the keyboard and Brian Lacock’s work on drums add immeasurably to the entire production, providing a range of sound effects in addition to accompanying the musical numbers that pop up occasionally in the play.

If you have kids, take them – but if not, go see Peter and the Starcatcher anyway. It’s a rare treat, and a real ray of sunshine to help with some figuratively and literally dark days ahead.

Peter and the Starcatcher plays at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through October 15th with performances at 7:30 pm on Friday and Saturday and matinees at 2:30 pm on Sundays.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Gondoliers: Another LOoPy Adventure

Tom Hamann, Becca Stuhlbarg, Anne Hubble and Rob Patrick

By Tina Arth

My first exposure to LOoP (Light Opera of Portland) – then called “The Dairyville Players” - was on stage in The Mikado at the Alpenrose Opera House in 2013 – not as a performer, but as part of the audience. At the time, the nascent group’s productions (and audiences) were so small that cast and patrons all fit easily onto the stage of the massive theater (with room to spare for the lone pianist).  LOoP’s current production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers is a startling reminder of just how far this once–tiny band of performers has come in just a few years. An accomplished seven-person orchestra, 30+ cast members, and a satisfyingly large and enthusiastic audience greeted me at last Sunday’s matinee – clearly, contemporary Portlanders are dying to avail themselves of the joys of light opera, and LOoP director Dennis Britten is doing a great job of filling this need.

Like the majority of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, 1889’s The Gondoliers tells a convoluted story filled with none-too-veiled ironic commentary on the politics and societal mores of England’s Victorian era.  Despite the 128 years that has elapsed since the show was first performed, the humorous critiques are shockingly apt today and resonate well with modern audiences – elitism, cronyism, nepotism, civil unrest, class warfare, intractable political divisions, and anti-democratic autocrats are all familiar features of modern society, and it’s delightful to see these topics skewered with melodic charm and wit.

The story revolves around newlywed gondoliers Giuseppe and Marco, who learn right after the weddings that one of them is the long-lost king of Barataria.  Barataria is in a mess, and needs leadership now – but the only person who knows which of the gondoliers is king is a missing foster mother. The Grand Inquisitor sends the men, both diehard republicans, off to rule Baritaria (sans their brides) jointly until the missing foster mother is found. He also reveals that one of the two is already married, having been wed in infancy to the fair Casilda (daughter of a Spanish nobleman, and madly in love with the servant Luiz). Things are finally sorted out with the arrival of the foster mother, who supplies a typical Gilbert and Sullivan twist that results in everybody living happily ever after.

The solo and ensemble work is often lovely, and always funny – this is definitely a show that requires serious comedic chops from the cast, and LOoP’s group earned an abundance of “bravos” from the audience for both their vocal and acting prowess. The show has an abundance of great roles, including leads Jacob Mott as Marco, John Kost as Giuseppe, Lindsey Lefler as Gianetta, Sheryl Wood as Tessa, Laurence Cox as The Grand Inquisitor, Rob Patrick as the Duke, Anne Hubble as the Duchess, Becca Stuhlbarg as Casilda, and Tom Hamman as Luiz. Hubble and Patrick share some wonderful comic moments, as do Wood and Kost, and Cox is having way too much fun creating the evil Inquisitor with his ominous bass, glowering sneers, and arrogant swagger.  Sara Rivera is only on stage for a few minutes in her role as Inez, the missing foster mother, but while she is there she captures 100% of the audience’s attention with her demented mezzo ranting and her appallingly funny lack of social grace. Special mention must go also to chorus member Gabrielle Widman, whose work on the castanets turns an already lively dance number into sheer delight.

The Gondoliers is only in town for one more weekend – if you are not already a fan of the genre, check it out and see if it changes your mind about light opera! By the way, be sure to take the time to read the director’s notes and glossary in the program – it’s well worth your time and you will undoubtedly learn a few things. Run time (with one intermission) is about 160 minutes.

Light Opera of Portland’s production of The Gondoliers is playing at the Alpenrose Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Rd., Portland through Sunday, October 1 with performances at 7:30 P.M. on Friday and Saturday and 3:30 P.M.  on Sunday.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Broadway Rose Helping to Blaze a New Trails

By Tina Arth

The Appalachian Trail stretches all the way from Georgia to Maine – about 2200 rugged miles of hiking. The road from germination to fruition for a piece of live theater is, in its own way, every bit as long and rocky as the Appalachian Trail. Broadway Rose’s production gives a huge boost to Trails, a new musical by Christy Hall, Jeff Thomson, and Jordan Mann – while allowing the audience to feel like they’ve gotten in at the start of an emotionally captivating dramatic work. Although we are not in on the earliest stages (the play has evolved through performances in New York and Issaquah since 2010), it still retains just a hint of the flavor of a work in progress, and one imagines the authors sitting in the theater busily scribbling notes about dialogue, lyrics, timing, pacing, musical arrangements, and audience reaction at every performance. That said, I can’t imagine that the authors would find many cringe-worthy moments in Director Brian Shnipper’s moving and evocative staging of their show.

Trails tells the story of Mike, Seth, and Amy, friends since childhood. The actors portray the three as children, teens, and (after many years of estrangement) in the present time. Long estranged, Mike comes back to town and he and Seth decide to complete a boyhood dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. The two set out on a journey of 6 months, often bickering like children while confronting the demons of their pasts and gradually repairing their broken friendship. Along the way, they meet some forest rangers and a few other hikers who help them to define and clarify the next acts of their lives. It’s not, of course, that simple – Amy pops in and out of the scene and we learn that the friendship was also a love triangle, while Mike and Seth explore their respective feelings of loss (through abandonment and death). The other hikers illustrate the values of lives fully embraced, helping the men to see that at the age of 34 they are half way to 68, but it is not too late for them to shed the shackles of the past and begin to develop and realize dreams for their futures. I will graciously overlook the fact that they see 68 as being old; when I was 34 I undoubtedly felt the same way!

As always with Broadway Rose, the vocals, music, and arrangements are beautifully executed – the harmonies are elaborate and powerful, and the sometimes haunting, sometimes upbeat solos allow each character a full range of expression. Each of the three forest rangers is given a second part (with vocal solo) that directly addresses the story’s themes. Two fine numbers are by a couple of gutsy, confident women who have each found the courage to grab the lives they want. Quinlan Fitzgerald (“Ranger Molly” and “Faith”) simply bubbles with glee about her impending engagement, and her “Places In Between” is a spine-tingling anthem to love, beauty, and the ability to not just live, but to revel, in the moment. Danielle Weathers (“Ranger Rhonda” and “Mama Harley”) is equally stunning delivering “The Road Is My Home” and her free-spirited plea that we must not mire ourselves in the past when there is so much world out there to be seen. The messages might seem hackneyed in dialogue, but they have amazing resonance and endurance when expressed in song. Kevin-Michael Moore  (“Ranger Dan” and “Virgil”) illustrates the alternative in his gravelly, mountain man rendition of “Purgatory Blues,” a boozily hard-hitting tale of his search for escape from past pain through sweating out the trail.

Of the three principals, Rachel Lewis (“Amy”) does the best job of switching from between childhood and maturity – just picking up a stick or donning an imaginary tiara is all it takes for her to become the bossy little girl who has set the whole show in motion. Her clear soprano flawlessly captures the intersection between dreams and reality in the lovely “Miles of Time” and we have no trouble understanding why both Seth and Mike are ensnared by memories of this charming woman/child.

Michael Morrow Hammack (as the overachieving lawyer “Mike”) and Joel Walker (as the home-bound underachiever “Seth”) are a little harder to buy as young boys, but since most of their stage time is dedicated to their adult relationship it’s really not a problem.  Hammack’s “The One That Got Away” tells a ubiquitous tale of lost love with painful honesty and directness; we can all relate to his plaintive “and I’m missing both the lover and the friend.” Of all the characters, it is Joel Walker’s “Seth” who most tugs at our hearts as he works through a lifetime of loss and of lost opportunities – he mixes anger, despair and bereavement to create a truly memorable character.

The band (under the direction of pianist Eric Nordin) is superb, and they move easily through the shows shifting musical genres. Much of the play’s magic derives from the vision of director Shnipper, scenic designer Emily Wilken (the set is truly lovely, and the rotating platform a perfect way to allow for long hikes on a short stage) and Carl Faber’s often breathtaking lighting design.

As mentioned before, this is a new play – while it is fine in its current form, some song lyrics are a bit simplistic or weighed down with forced rhymes (“loam” is something of a stretch when paired with “home”). That said, the Broadway Rose take on Trails is well worth a visit; the evocative music and siren call of the open road more than compensate for any minor issues.

Trails” is playing at the Broadway Rose New Stage Theater, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, October 22nd with performances at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday. An additional performance will be held at 2:00 pm on Thursday, October 19th.

Friday, September 15, 2017

See How They Run – Off to a Good Run

Chris Byrne, Erin Bickler, and Jason Fox

By Tina Arth

In my book, HART’s current production, Philip King’s classic British farce See How They Run, begins with two strikes against it – I am not a big fan of the genre, and British humor often leaves me cold.  Once the door is opened for slapstick comedy, community theater productions are notorious for going over the top, obliterating the fine line between silly fun and total train wreck. Thus I was quite shocked to find that HART’s offering manages to hit a home run – it’s really funny, and it just made me laugh. A lot. Even the best script can only succeed when there is a careful mixture of solid comic timing, absurd physical comedy, and a director willing to impose some restraint on the cast when they cross the line, as they inevitably will. Happily, Director William Crawford picked the right actors and he lets them mine their roles for maximum humor, but the show never descends into madcap buffoonery.

The premise is, of course, utterly silly. It’s 1949 (updated slightly from the original 1943), and the young and lovely American actress Penelope Toop has scandalized the tiny village of Merton-cum-Middlewick by marrying the local vicar, Rev. Lionel Toop.  Local spinster/prude Miss Skillon, having set her cap for the vicar, is particularly outraged. Send the vicar away temporarily, add in an American soldier, another reverend, a Bishop, a Russian spy, (all eventually adorned in clerical garb), an officious if clueless policeman, a wonderfully clever and irreverent maid, and lots of doors and the ingredients are in place for the mistaken identities, near misses, and general mayhem (including a great deal of actual running) that are essential to full-fledged farce.

Technically, the show’s leads are probably Penelope (Kaitlynn Baugh) and Corporal Clive Winton (Blaine Vincent III) – and certainly both do a great job. In a romantic comedy, they would be the fresh-faced ingénue couple that winds up together at the end of Act II. However, in this farce Penelope is happily married – so the great chemistry between this pair is channeled into friendship punctuated by enough bickering to make it clear that there will be no hanky-panky. Reverend Toop (Jason Fox) plays the classic innocent, accentuated by the fact that he spends most of the play in his underwear, and much of it locked in the closet with the love-stricken Miss Skillon.

The best roles go to Miss Skillon (Erin Bickler) and the maid, Ida (Chris Byrne). These two fierce comediennes attack every scene with such commitment that they seem to be vying for the title of Best Actor. Bickler’s piercing, consistently outraged voice and physical fearlessness (she reminds me of the great Joan Davis and may, in fact, be made of unbreakable rubber) keep the audience in stitches, and she makes a great drunk. Byrne uses her mobile face, snide affect, and exquisite timing to steal the scene every time she appears – and when she and Bickler share the stage it’s tough to know just who to watch.

The chase scenes would seem overdone if they were the sole focus, but both Ida and Penelope maintain a façade of “business as usual” while up to five real and faux-clerics tear around the set, leaping over Miss Skillon’s prostrate form  - the timing and blocking are exquisite when she’s there, and even funnier when she is gone but they keep leaping.

Director Crawford also designed the lovely and detailed set, made even finer by the stone fireplace (courtesy of Woody Woodbury) so realistic that some audience members sneaked onto the stage at the end of the evening just to check it out.  Chris Byrne’s costumes (in particular, Ida’s polka dot dress and the flowing trousers on Penelope and Miss Skillon) work beautifully to establish the time, place, and social caste of each character.

HART’s theme this season is “Laugh Along With HART” – See How They Run is a great beginning!

See How They Run is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through September 24th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Twilight Tackles Big Pharma With Rx

By Tina Arth

 Leslie Inmon and Zero Feeney
Photo by Alicia Turvin
North Portland’s Twilight Theater Company can usually be relied on to surprise me with its eccentric offerings, but the opening moments of their current show, Rx, left me a little nervous. I was not expecting the lights to go up on an otherwise pretty woman in a pretty dreadful blonde wig, baring her midriff like Daisy Mae Yokum while bravely attempting to sing Dolly Parton’s classic “9 to 5.” However, the inexplicably awkward intro was quickly followed by an amazingly funny, smartly written satire performed by a fine cast who simply litter the stage with brilliant moments. Author Kate Fodor, mining the world of pharmaceutical development and sales, uncovers a mother lode of both comedy and social commentary. Co-directors Jo Strom Lane and Samuel Ruble have assembled a cast able to adroitly work with some very sharp comedy, warm us with a bit of gentle romance, and use both to deliver the show’s message.

The premise is easy to relate to – at least, all of us who have ever been unhappy with our jobs. What if workplace discontent were not a necessary fact of life, or possibly a sign of an intractably bad attitude? What if it were, instead, a diagnosable form of depression that could be treated with a little pill? In Rx, the hard working researchers and merciless marketing execs at Schmidt Pharmaceuticals are testing just such a drug, cleverly named SP 925 (“nine to five” – get it?).  Meena Pierotti, managing editor in the piggeries division of American Cattle and Swine Magazine, is a test subject in the SP 925 drug trial, under the care of researcher Dr. Phil Gray. Meena copes with her workplace malaise by regularly indulging in crying jags in the old ladies’ underwear department at the Bon-Ton Department Store. Drawn together by their mutual misery (Meena is at heart a talented poet, Phil wants to save third-world lives as part of the Flying Physicians program) the ingredients are there for a beautiful relationship – until, of course, problems arise. Beneath the extraordinarily droll and witty dialogue, Fodor tells a story about the importance of human relationships, risk, and the dangers of turning too quickly to pharmaceuticals to pave over dilemmas that are necessary components of the human condition.

While there are some fun cameos, the show really belongs to three actors: Leslie Inmon (“Meena”), Zero Feeney (“Phil”), and Jayne Furlong (“Allison,” the passionately cutthroat marketing director).  Inmon’s direct, in-your-face style gives Meena’s confused persona an interesting twist – even when she’s at her lowest, she’s never whiny or weak, and there’s an undertone of lovable optimism that she just can’t shake. “Phil” may be the logical scientist, but Feeney gives his character a consistently awkward and loveable sensitivity that quickly endears him to the audience (if not, initially, to Meena). The chemistry between the two leads is palpable, but not sexual – it’s more like they are lost and each finds salvation and understanding, rather than passion, from the other. Jayne Furlong ‘s “Allison” is perhaps the most fun role, but it presents a special challenge.  Allison is 100% parody, and Furlong delivers the broadest satire – her enthusiasm for marketing runs the gamut from perkily gung-ho to positively orgasmic. Her timing and inflection are marvelous, but the real strength of her performance is that she plays it straight, without a hint of the over-the-top self-consciousness that so often destroys comic performance.

Among the rest of the very solid cast, two performances absolutely must be mentioned. Timothy Busch (as outside marketer “Richard”) is wonderfully droll in his fervor for an ad campaign to push Thriveon, his slick re-branding of SP 925, and his deadpan reception of Phil’s suggestion that they try Surviveon instead is stunningly underplayed. Rhona Klein moves  unflappably from helpless to giddy, and finally to stoically accepting, as the old lady Meena meets and inspires in the Bon-Ton lingerie aisle.

The set is striking in stark black and white, and flexible enough to quickly accommodate the numerous scene changes.  However, the story would work just as well with a slight reduction in props (extraneous chairs, wastebaskets, etc.) and the changes might seem less chaotic with fewer items to move. However, this (like the faux-Dolly Parton intro) is a minor complaint, and really doesn’t materially detract from an overall fine and terribly funny production. Like many Twilight productions, Rx is not appropriate for children due to both language and several adult-themed moments.

Twilight Theater Company’s Rx is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, September 24th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. on Sunday. There will be an additional performance at 8:00 P.M. on Thursday, September 21st.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Bag & Baggage Finally Opening “The Vault”

Kymberli Colbourne and Andrew Beck
Photo by Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

The long-anticipated opening of Bag & Baggage’s new performance space is finally here, and it was definitely worth the wait. Artistic Director Scott Palmer’s choice to present Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter for the inaugural show is truly inspired. The theater company’s motto: “Real. Provocative. Theatre.” takes on new shades of meaning when an overwhelmingly white, upper middle class audience spends 2+ hours watching a play about white people who are grappling with racism without actually interacting with any people of color. Capitalizing on the flexibility of the company’s new space (btw, The Vault is awesome!), the production is done as theatre in the round, which drives home even more powerfully the ethnic homogeneity of the audience – while watching the play, each of the four sections can simultaneously observe the faces of 75% of the people in the room.

The title Spinning Into Butter refers to the long verboten The Story of Little Black Sambo. Set in a fictional small liberal arts college in Vermont, the play explores the campus community’s extremely tone-deaf response when Simon, one of the few African-American students on campus, receives a series of overtly racist anonymous letters. The reactions of Dean of Students Sarah Daniels, three other faculty/administrators, and a self-absorbed pre-law student reveal the self-delusion and hypocrisy of a pretentiously liberal academic elite; the well-grounded blue-collar campus cop provides the only voice of genuine compassion and sanity. As Dean Daniels explores (and ultimately reveals in a wonderful monologue) her almost-invisible but deeply rooted racism, we eventually see that her ardent if somewhat misguided efforts to provide scholarship support to talented Nuyorican (look it up!) student Patrick Chibas are her way of compensating. Few people in the opening night audience could honestly deny sharing some of Daniels’ thoughts – the production lives up to the “Provocative“ challenge by forcing us to confront this truth about ourselves and our neighbors. Despite the weighty topics, the show is neither preachy, didactic, nor humorless – in fact, it is often quite funny, and consistently engaging and entertaining.

Kymberli Colbourne’s “Sarah Daniels” carries the message, weight, and charm of the show on her shoulders, and she does it flawlessly.  In a play laden with sometimes narrow stereotypes, she is utterly authentic and as multidimensional as only a real, conflicted character can be. Whether she is defiantly sharing her contempt for Toni Morrison’s work, explaining in detail her criteria for selecting her seatmates on public transit, or railing against idealization as just another form of condescension, she elegantly expresses facets of our society’s tortured relationship to race and political correctness.  The other fully realized character is Andrew Beck, as Sarah’s lover “Ross.” Beck evolves from a one-dimensional, hypocritical, bombastic liberal into an actual human capable of offering real understanding (both to Sarah, and about the situation) in place of knee-jerk platitudes.

The audience’s ability to empathize with Sarah is bolstered by two other key characters, Peter Schuyler (as the almost-unbelievably self-righteous Professor Patrick Strauss) and Morgan Cox (as Dean Catherine Kenney, the poster child for connivingly pragmatic administrators).  Rusty Tennant (as cop Mr. Meyers) fills a completely different role – that of the (idealized, but still somewhat believable) good-hearted blue-collar guy who’s naturally superior to the faculty elite. Tennant manages in a few lines about a bathroom soap dispenser to convey a glimpse of hope for a post-racial society, and he delivers the lines so casually that we only realize upon reflection what we have heard. The two students in the play, Nuyorican Patrick Chibas (Carlos-Zenen Trujillo) and pre-law WASP Greg Sullivan (Phillip J. Berns) also offer a ray of hope; not yet fully cooked, they subtly offer a potential for incremental change.

The set consists only of a door, one long conference table, an easy chair and a bookcase – all that is necessary to allow the actors to tell the story in a way that offers fair vantage points to the entire audience, although some tenants of south wall seating are unable to see the activity at the door. Palmer moves his actors around constantly, and the realism of watching the cast actually speaking to each other, rather than cheating to face the audience, more than compensates for any temporarily impaired sightlines. The Vault is more of a performance space than a classic theater, and Spinning Into Butter illustrates just one of the many ways that the flexibility of Hillsboro’s newest stage can enrich the community.

Spinning Into Butter is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through Sunday, September 24 with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. The performance on Thursday, September 14 is “pay what you will.”