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.”