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.