Thursday, May 11, 2017

Many Shades of Meaning in Anatomy of Gray

Catrionia Johnston, Aaron Morrow, Ted Schroeder, John Knowles, and Pat Romans


By Tina Arth

Mask & Mirror Community Theatre’s selection process in the last couple of years has yielded some real gems – and their current show, Anatomy of Gray, is definitely a rare jewel. Jim Leonard Jr.’s 2006 play is funny, touching, and thought provoking – one of those works that lingers, quietly revealing new facets long after the final curtain. Director Sarah Ominski and her cast have done a fine job with this nuanced play, allowing the actors and audience to have an enormous amount of fun without sacrificing the poignant and sometimes painful elements of this tale of love, loss, and community.

The opening scene is comfortably familiar – young Junie Muldoon, trapped in the tiny 19th century hamlet of Gray, Indiana, begins with a monologue about boring life in this boring town, immediately followed by her father’s funeral. Shortly after she writes an anguished letter to God asking for a doctor “so that nobody will ever have to die again” a massive storm arrives – and any pretense of reality goes on the back burner. The first clue is when Junie tears across the stage crying out for her lost dog – shades of Toto – followed by a huge twister that brings the mysterious Galen Gray crashing down in his balloon. Obviously, at some level we’re not in Indiana anymore.
The xenophobic Pastor Wingfield is suspicious about the newcomer, who conveniently turns out to be a doctor, and the good pastor’s suspicions are inflamed by the appearance of mysterious and deadly lesions on some of the locals. Ultimately only Dr. Gray, Junie, and Junie’s hapless suitor, the soda-pop swilling Homer, are free of infection.  A combination of hometown wit, physical comedy, and well-played pathos keeps the audience engaged as we gradually see parallels between the events in Gray and the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

There are several great supporting roles – I particularly liked Steve Horton’s guitar playing. Donna Haub’s crisp take on Tiny Wingfield and Ted Schroeder’s narrow-minded enthusiasm as Pastor Wingfield. However, the show really pivots on the performances of Aaron Morrow (Galen P. Gray), Caitriona Johnston (June Muldoon), Renae Iverson (Rebekah Muldoon), and Robbie Estabrooke (Homer). Estabrooke is perfectly cast as the awkward, love-struck suitor – his earnest overtures are just what I’d expect from a young man of that time and place. Iverson gives her performance a kind of timeless depth and enlightened sensitivity, and she manages to play the martyr without pathos or melodrama.

Morrow gets some of the best material, especially in the realm of physical comedy, and makes the most of it without ever seeming silly – he delivers his lines with a solid intelligence and honesty that allows his character to emerge organically.  Johnston’s “Junie” is a nice blend of innocence, longing, and precociousness, and she has the audience on her side from the moment the lights come up.

Speaking of lights, Brian Ollom’s work as Technical Director plus light and sound designer and operator plays an enormous role. The dreamlike nature that reinforces the play’s allegorical intent is expressed almost completely with lighting, as set and props are starkly minimal. The play moves from farm to graveyard, home to river with not much more than a few boxes; it is Ollom’s lighting that really sets each scene (and his storm is authentically terrifying in its intensity). Viola Pruitt’s costumes help to anchor the show in its time period; despite its thematic progressiveness, we always know that on one level we are still in a 19th century farm town.

Anatomy of Gray is not a show you’re likely to see again for quite awhile, and this production will definitely enhance your understanding of how theater can tell multiple stories simultaneously. Ominski and her team have worked long, hard, and successfully to bring the play to local audiences, and they deserve a run of full-houses.


Mask & Mirror’s Anatomy of Gray is playing at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard through May 21st, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Twilight’s Latest More Fun Than A Barrell of Bridesmaids

Chelsea Read, Genevieve Larson, Morgan Lee, Danyelle Tinker, Adriana Gantzer, Emily Jeziorski


By Tina Arth

Note to self: NEVER sit between two experienced actors when reviewing a show. They will (guaranteed!) focus on the one feature of an otherwise fine show that doesn’t quite ring true – and once it’s been pointed out to the hapless reviewer, that one detail, no matter how trivial, will loom like a 500# gorilla. More on that later…

Twilight Theater’s Five Women Wearing the Same Dress lives right in the middle of my favorite nonmusical genre – dramedy. Unless you’re Neil Simon or Noel Coward, it can be tough to sustain two acts of straight comedy, no matter how wittily written. Serious drama dealing with important themes, but unleavened by a generous helping of humor, is often a bit overwhelming.  Playwright Alan Ball’s Five Women…  weaves topics like lesbianism, AIDS, child sexual abuse, bigotry, fundamentalist religion, promiscuity, and abortion into an otherwise hilariously irreverent tale of the horrors of bridesmaid’s dresses and the angst of the women condemned to wear them. While some of the language is a bit dated (one speaks of HIV these days, rather than AIDS) the fundamental story is pretty timeless.

Novice director Ilana Watson, explaining why she wanted to direct the play, points out that “there is not always a lot of variety for women on the stage, and not much opportunity to explore why women are who they are, much less explore all of the different ways there are to be a woman.” Watson’s cast members mine the script for all its worth, and despite their identical dresses (and godawful hats) by the end of the show the audience has no trouble differentiating between the five women and seeing them as individuals – just as the women come to see and understand each other.

The play is set entirely in the upstairs bedroom of the rebellious Meredith during the wedding reception of her older sister, Bridezilla Tracy. As the five bridesmaids come and go, we learn that they are hiding out upstairs as much as possible, uncomfortable with the wedding party downstairs; they dislike Tracy almost as much as their dresses; and they have plenty of issues with the wedding guests (in particular Tommy Valentine, a devilishly handsome but unseen Casanova who has slept with the majority of the bridal party, including the bride).  There are no weak links in the 6-person cast, so it’s difficult to call out any actors for special notice, but a few hit particularly high notes.

Danyelle Tinker (“Trisha”) is simultaneously the wildest of the five bridesmaids and the most sensible. Tinker give her character a breezy cynicism that precisely captures the role’s contradictions – she has matured since her bad-girl college days, but she has not lost the spirit of mischief and adventure that keeps her open to whatever comes her way.  Playing Mindy, the groom’s out-of-the-closet gay sister,  Emily Jeziorski delivers a fascinating performance, completely devoid of easy lesbian stereotypes. She seems completely comfortable with her sexuality, yet it’s not the defining feature of her life (perhaps a difficult feat in upper-class 1993 Tennessee) so she is able to bond unself-consciously with each of the women.

I feel slightly guilty choosing, as perhaps my favorite performer, Morgan Lee (the only male who actually appears onstage, as usher “Tripp”). In a play that’s really all about the women, he appears late in Act II and simply steals the rest of the show with his playful, witty, egalitarian and persistent pursuit of Trisha. Tinker and Lee instantly develop an on-stage chemistry that has the audience rooting for their budding romance/friendship – unlike all of the (unseen) male wedding guests, Tripp is obviously just a really nice guy, apparently devoid of the huge character flaws the women have found in the other men in their lives.

The costumes are predictably hideous – there would be no joke if Tracy had put her bridesmaids in less humiliating attire – and a lovely subtle touch is that Lee’s tie is a close color match to the clouds of bilious salmon in the dresses.  The set is simple and adequate to create the effect of a rebellious daughter’s lair in her wealthy parents’ home.  Now, for the gorilla: many scenes in the play involve one or more of the women looking out the bedroom window to the crowd of guests at the reception. There is a nice window upstage left, and at times the women peer out that window and discuss the scene below – but at other times, they face directly out at the audience while looking down and commenting.  Given the harsh realities of architecture, both windows cannot look down on the same group of people. Would I have noticed this without input from the folks in neighboring seats? Probably not, but once it was brought to my attention I could not get it out of my head.

Go see the show – it’s really, really funny, very touching, and Watson and her cast hit just the right notes of cynicism and hope. Just don’t think about those windows.


Twilight Theater Company’s Five Women Wearing the Same Dress is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, May 14th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. Sunday. There is an additional performance Thursday, May 11th at 8:00 P.M.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Secret Garden Blooms at STAGES



By Tina Arth

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved children’s novel The Secret Garden has blossomed in many forms since she first wrote it – in 1910 as a serial, in 1911 as a single novel, and countless times since as a movie, stage play, and musical. While the story is always oriented toward young audiences, some of the adaptations go the next step and are appropriate for productions run not only for children, but also by children – true educational children’s theater. The STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy’s current offering fits neatly into this category. Producer Cindy Wilkins and Director William Crawford are practically the only adults with any involvement in the show (other than parents whose chauffeuring services are recognized several times in the program). Other than that, all major roles (on and off stage) are filled by teens and tweens, many of them doing multiple jobs as cast members and in design and production.

The story: young Mary Lennox (Tia Green), orphaned after her wealthy parents die of cholera in India, is sent to live with her Uncle Archibald Craven (Michael Koach) at his estate in Yorkshire. When he is at home, Craven lives in isolation, never having recovered from his grief at the loss of his wife; Mary’s care is entrusted to the stern housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Jessica Woolfolk). Mrs. Medlock basically restricts Mary to her room, barring her from exploring the rest of the house. A good-hearted maid, Martha Sowerby (Anika Hyatt), befriends Mary and expands her world, introducing her to the gardens and the moor.  Mary meets gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Damian Woodruff), who warns her away from one locked garden that has been hidden and deserted since Mr. Craven’s wife died. A helpful robin directs Mary to the garden’s lost key, and with the help of Martha’s brother Dickon (Cody Burkett) she secretly brings the lost garden back to life. In the meantime, Mary has discovered a bigger secret – in the forbidden part of the house, she finds young Colin Craven (Riley Reynolds), confined to his room and convinced that he is helplessly crippled. With Mary’s help and encouragement, Colin ventures out to the secret garden in his wheelchair, where Dickon and Mary show him that he can indeed walk. Not surprisingly, all turns out fine – Archibald is thrilled to see his son doing well, and the lovely garden is again open to view.

Green’s portrayal of Mary Lennox is impressive – she does a nice job with the upper class British accent, and she handles the transition from spoiled aristocratic brat to caring cousin and friend smoothly. Like many other cast members, she occasionally delivers her lines just a little too quickly; this, combined with the accent, means we lose a few of her words. Hyatt gives a first-class reading of Martha – she’s bubbly, talkative, and her Yorkshire accent is intentionally harder to understand (even Mary can’t always follow her) but she manages to sell every line.

Burkett’s “Dickon” and Woodruff’s “Weatherstaff” are an interesting pair – both love the earth and have a natural affinity for her creatures, but where Burkett is young, winningly elfin, bursting with energy and optimism, Woodruff at first appears to be a gruff and taciturn old man. In a story of transitions, Woodruff evolves neatly into an older version of Dickon who clearly shares his passion for all living things. The biggest transition by far is reserved for Reynolds, who has to move Colin’s character from a self-pitying, often hysterical whiner into a boy with hope, finally able to experience real friendship and a full life. The audience cannot help but first pity, then admire the young boy and the actor who portrays him.

Hope Edwards’ contribution demands special mention – her solo work on the flute not only introduces the show, it also highlights the shifting moods throughout, and adds immeasurably to the production.

Sets, costumes, and special effects are all primarily the work of STAGES kids. Hannah Vertner’s costume designs are detailed and appropriate, and Nathan Robinson’s work on lights and sound display a level of stagecraft well beyond what I might expect of a 13-year-old. The sets are mostly simple, but the garden wall (inside and out) is quite detailed, and the set design for the fully restored secret garden is stunning. The play is written with many short scenes, and although set changes are done quickly, the effect still makes the show seem a bit episodic – perhaps the audience should be required to rely more on imagination and suspension of disbelief to keep the story running smoothly.

The Secret Garden offers good, family-friendly entertainment and a solid grounding for the STAGES kids in all aspects of the theater arts. There are only three more performances to go – so rain or shine, pack up the whole family and head to HART Theatre next weekend!


STAGES’ production of The Secret Garden runs through Sunday, May 7th at HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro with performances at 7:00 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.