Thursday, March 22, 2018

LOoP’s The Student Prince – Not G&S, Still Fun

Lindsey Lefler and Jacob Mott
By Tina Arth

My background in light opera is very, very light – so much so that I didn’t realize that The Student Prince was not a Gilbert and Sullivan work until I saw the program at the Light Opera of Portland (LOoP) production Sunday evening. When I talked to some cast members after the show I understood – Dorothy Donnelly and Sigmund Romberg’s 1924 operetta, billed on the program as “A Spectacular Light Opera,” is exactly the kind of thing that Gilbert and Sullivan so brilliantly skewered in their slyly subversive body of work. It is a real tribute to director Dennis Britten and his cast that I was able to thoroughly enjoy the production despite its markedly aristocratic bent.

While the book lacks the relentlessly witty patter of G&S, the story is structured exactly like some of their best-loved classics – the wealthy prince/king falls in love with the beautiful, but humbly-born barmaid, while the lovely and high-born princess (the king’s betrothed) seems to have given her heart to the soldier assigned to be her companion and bodyguard. I fully expected the king to abandon his throne, or at the very least to discover that the barmaid and princess had been switched at birth – but alas, in The Student Prince duty trumps passion, and it is honorable to uphold class distinctions. The play is by no means dry – it’s actually a joyous celebration of the freedom and exuberance of youth (at least, for men of the right background) expressed through their enthusiastic embrace of wine, women and song at the University of Heidelberg. It is loaded with rousing songs, stirring harmonies, familiar melodies, nostalgia, melodrama and beer-swilling frat boys (or the their 19th century Heidelberg predecessors), with a nice touch of pathos as the prince’s loyal tutor/mentor rescues him temporarily from the chains of his noble birth yet counsels him ultimately back into the life of civic obligation into which he was born. Better yet, the vocals are every bit as challenging – sometimes simply breathtaking (quite literally for the artists, I’m sure).

 Bill Wuertz’s work as Doctor Engel, the tutor, is a real highlight. His voice occasionally wobbles, but no more than one would expect of an old man who spends his last days briefly recapturing his lost youth, and “Golden Days” is genuinely touching. For comic relief, we have both the prince’s valet Lutz (Rob Patrick) and the valet’s valet, Hubert (Linh Nguyen), jointly painting a picture of snobbery taken to hilarious extreme. On the distaff side, Pat Lach (as the Grand Duchess Anastasia) sweeps around the stage with delicious grandeur, and Gabrielle Widman (Gretchen, the maid at the Inn) counters with earthy humor until her reappearance in Act III, when she dons a fine dress and puts on lofty airs of her own. Becca Stuhlberg plays a key role as Princess Margaret; she is a deft vocalist, dances gracefully, and tackles perhaps the most challenging acting in the show as she grows from a spoiled princess into a dedicated and dutiful future queen.

The real stars, however, are Jacob Mott as Prince Karl Franz and Lindsey Lefler as barmaid Kathie. Mott and Lefler have nice chemistry, and they are more than equal to their demanding tenor and soprano roles. Lefler’s soaring coloratura work, often delivered from her perch atop a barroom table, leaves the audience breathless yet never betrays the humble origins of her character. Mott’s vibrant tenor voice handles the songs with ease, and he is equally adept at expressing his character’s shifts: sheltered prince, free-spirited rake, ardent lover, and ultimately mature monarch.


The LOoP production is blessed with a fine orchestra, under the direction of the remarkable Dr. Linda Smith. I was particularly happy to see that each of the musicians is given a separate bio in the program – these hard working, talented folks deserve all the attention they can get. Lucy Tait’s costumes are really quite stunning – the ball gowns elaborate and authentic, and the costumes for the Rheinisher and Saxon Corps as well as the members of the court add a great deal of color and character to the production.


Dennis Britten’s love of light opera fuels this almost unprecedented opportunity for locals to experience an amazingly entertaining art form. With only a two-week run, there’s not much time. Luckily, the Alpenrose Opera House is huge, and there’s ample space for all.


The Student Prince plays Friday, March 23d and Saturday, March 24th at 7:30 PM and Sunday, March 25th at 2:00 PM at the Alpenrose Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

Monday, March 19, 2018

HART’s Nana – Not Quite Your Cherished Childhood Memories

Ted C. Schroeder, Phyllis Lang, Lauren Loomis, and Pam S. Hough

By Tina Arth

By all rights, a play with a title like Nana’s Naughty Knickers ought to be not just bad, but appallingly, mind-numbingly bad. However, a decent script, several seasoned actors, and a comedy-loving director are defying the odds in HART’s current production. The resulting show by playwright Katherine DiSavino fits perfectly with this season’s theme, “Laugh Along With HART.”

The story is based on a unique take on the idea of grannies gone wild; with its “ba-da-boom” jokes and suggestive, but ultimately innocent set-ups it provides classic community theater fare. Law school bound Bridget is moving into her dear Nana’s rent-controlled apartment in NYC – just for the summer, until she can get a place of her own. When she learns that Nana Sylvia is running an illegal boutique, selling racy lingerie to senior citizens from the apartment (in defiance of the landlord’s rules, zoning laws, the IRS, and any semblance of good taste) she is horrified, and insists that the operation be shut down immediately. Shrugging off the threat of jail time or worse – the landlord is dying to evict Sylvia and raise the rent – the enterprising old gal is having none of it. A shipment mix-up brings the wrong (so very, very wrong) type of lingerie to the apartment, sending Sylvia and her pal Vera into a sewing frenzy as they try to recreate their lost shipment before the arrival of their biggest customer.  Merriment ensues.

As the niece Bridget, Lauren Loomis is often stuck playing the “adult in the room” as she worries her way through the first act, but in Act II when she has committed to helping her Nana she’s able to relax and get some laughs – particularly the physical comedy as she tries to maintain the stuffing that makes it possible for her to fill out a “Saucy Slips, Etc.” item built for a slightly saggier physique. Karen Huckfeldt brings a delightfully gum-smacking nonchalance to her portrayal of (model? sex worker?) Heather Van Pree, and has no trouble filling out her outrageous outfit, a wonderfully tacky assemblage of lace corset and fishnet tights stretched to the max. While his Irish accent sometimes wobbles, Ted C. Schroeder makes a credible nervous cop, and his naïve courtship of Bridget is rather charming.

The real star turns come from the senior citizens (all veteran actors/comics): Phyllis Lang (“Sylvia”), Pamela S. Hough (“Vera”), Donald Cleland (landlord “Gil Schmidt”), Gary Romans (“Delivery Guy #1”), and Virginia Kincaid (“Clair Schmidt”) – with close to 200 years of combined experience, these folks definitely know how to milk each situation for maximum comic effect. Kincaid and Romans have very little stage time in their cameo roles, but each has honed a few minutes of stage time into a memorable performance. Cleland’s sarcastic, explosively angry landlord reveals his true colors, like all bullies, when confronted by a higher power (his wife Clair) – his sudden shift into a whiny pussy cat is a joy to behold. However, the meat of the show’s humor comes from the interaction between Hough and Lang, two of the toughest old broads to tread the boards locally for quite a while. Their timing is exquisite, and Hough’s fierce, raspy, occasionally hysterical delivery contrasts beautifully with Lang’s steely if soft-spoken determination.
William Crawford and director Morrow have built a set that, while not beautiful (it is, after all a rent-controlled apartment!), is extremely functional – there are several hiding places to conceal the lingerie, each controlled by a hidden switch or lever, and the smooth mechanisms really enhance the effect of the tawdry undergarments.

Nana’s Naughty Knickers contributes nothing substantive to our understanding of the human condition, but it provides a couple of hours of welcome comic relief. Despite the apparently adult theme, it’s really a pretty clean show, and not inappropriate for most children. They may not understand everything, but they’ll get a kick out of the bizarre clothing, clever set, general slapstick aura, and Huckfeldt’s gum-chewing acrobatics!

Nana’s Naughty Knickers runs through Saturday, March 31st with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays (plus an added Saturday matinee on March 31st) at HART Theater, 185 S.E. Washington, Hillsboro.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Twilight’s Stage Kiss: Farce? Rom Com? Brilliantly, Both

Kristen Paige and Rob Kimmelman

By Tina Arth

Sometimes those of us who are consumers, not producers, of show biz can a little irritated by the fascination theater folk seem to have with stories that revolve around their insular little world.  Some of those stories amuse us a lot less than they seem to amuse the actors. However, as millions of fans of The Producers can attest, the right script with the right acting and direction = a rare gem. Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, now playing at North Portland’s Twilight Theater Company, is the real thing – a fine combination of farce and frothy romantic comedy with just enough serious undercurrents to give us a taste of thematic depth beneath the waves of laughter. Under the direction of Matt Gibson, seven actors (portraying a total of fourteen characters) deliver two hours (more or less) of broad gags and sly reactions, resulting in a show that’s impossibly funny.

Since Shakespeare’s time, the “play within a play” has been a time-honored device, and Ruhl doubles down by offering two such theatrical insets, each a parody of hackneyed, truly bad theater. Two actors (identified only as “She” and “He”) meet at a New Haven audition for a terrible, terribly stylized ‘30s drama called “The Last Kiss.” Turns out that they are ex-lovers from 15 years earlier, which adds some tension (sexual and otherwise) to the fact that they are expected to kiss regularly and passionately in the play. He is something of a bounder (with a girlfriend), while She now has a husband and teen daughter. In the short run, these tiny details are no obstacle to the revival of their old flame.  By the time we get to the second act (and second playlet) the now-loving and lusting couple has traveled to Detroit for leads in a gritty crime drama that presents a whole new set of conventions – the tough New York broad tangling with an IRA thug. The show’s somewhat surprising conclusion provides a satisfying reflection on the difference between love and infatuation, between living in the moment and living for the long run. Ultimately, the audience can feel that all is OK with the world – without being subjected to a cloying sentimentality that would dilute all of the lovely wit and slapstick that has come before.

While Stage Kiss is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in several years, there are no actual jokes in the script – the humor comes not from wordplay, but from the cast’s ability to infuse humor through really, really good comic acting. Kristen Paige (She) captures her character’s narcissism and neuroticism, yet she somehow manages to make us care. Rob Kimmelman (He) does some fine physical comedy, especially when on crutches, and (like Paige) he manages without mugging, overacting, or chasing laughs. In fact, much of the finest comedy comes from watching and sharing the other actors’ reactions to the couple’s make-out scenes – subtle, organic, hilarious. Speaking of osculation, some of the evening’s funniest stuff comes when Paige has to audition and later rehearse with Jason Fox (as Kevin) – the sight of the hapless, clearly gay Fox trying to master a stage kiss is an image that clings to the brain like an octopus on the mask of an unwary diver.

Much of Derek Lane and Josiah Green’s set design is functional, but somewhat bare bones – the exception is the wonderfully gritty East Village studio, where every touch from dirty dishes to grimy handprints is depicted in loving detail. Laura Cunard’s keyboard work (and original music by Cunard, Gibson, and Jonnie Torres) is an unexpected pleasure.

My first reaction to Stage Kiss was that it was only to be missed if you’re in a coma – and I stand by that assessment (as long as you’re not a child – it’s dripping with mature themes and language).  Every house should be a full house!

Twilight Theater Company’s Stage Kiss is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through March 25 with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. on Sunday.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Bag&Baggage's Death and the Maiden Riveting Political Drama

Mandy Khoshnevisan and Nathan Dunkin
Photo by Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

For its first show of 2018, Bag & Baggage presents the fierce, thought provoking, and utterly compelling Death and the Maiden. Playwright Ariel Dorfman’s 1991 drama explores the problem of how we, as individuals and as a social and political body, deal with the after effects of a period of oppression – how do we heal the victims, sanction the abusers, and move on to reintegrating both sides into a functioning society? While the play is clearly based on two survivors of Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year reign of terror in Chile, it could easily have been written about post-Nazi Germany or, on a less overtly catastrophic scale, about the “Me Too” movement and our efforts to deal with millennia of subjugation of women. Where there are no independent witnesses and the accused denies the charge, do we believe the victim?

Dorfman tells the story of Paulina Salas, a fictional Latin American woman who encounters Roberto Miranda, the man who (she believes) tortured and raped her 15 years earlier as an agent of a repressive political regime. Although she never actually saw her abuser, she recognizes his voice, smell, even the feel of his skin – there is no doubt in her mind that Miranda is guilty. A shaky democracy has been restored, and Salas’ lawyer husband, Gerardo Escobar, has just been appointed to a commission to investigate the worst excesses of the previous administration.  Much to Escobar’s horror, Paulina pulls a gun, then binds and gags Miranda in the couple’s living room so that she can “try” him for his crimes. Not only does Escobar doubt his wife, but as a representative of the newly restored democracy he is committed to reinstituting the rule of law, although he knows that the commission will serve in large part to whitewash the vast majority of the dictatorship’s crimes. As the story progresses, Paulina becomes increasingly threatening, and Gerardo (uncertain about Miranda’s guilt or innocence, but certain that Paulina’s approach is wrong) ultimately talks Miranda into “confessing” to save his life.

Mandan Khoshnevisan (Paulina), Nathan Dunkin (Gerardo), and Anthony Green (Miranda) give commanding performances, and the contrast between their styles allows the story to flow with unbroken tension, yet not seem like a one-note show. As the dismayed husband, Dunkin displays a constantly shifting combination of frustration, disbelief, egotism, and solicitous compassion for a woman he obviously loves, yet cannot trust. The moment when he begins to consider the possibility that Miranda may actually be guilty is brilliant – just a flash of insight that comes and goes so quickly that he barely acknowledges it even to himself. Green’s performance is colored by shifting emotional reactions as he consistently denies his guilt – self-righteousness, anger, pleading, wheedling, conniving, just convincing enough that we are kept a little uncertain. However, it is Khoshnevisan who delivers a real tour de force. It’s a total joy watching her discard 15 years of terrified victimhood as she claims power over Miranda; she displays a wicked sense of humor, and her fiery strength and often-sadistic attitude drive home the message that karma’s a bitch. While there are elements of ambiguity about the conclusion, it is absolutely clear in the final scene that she has found the healing she sought, and we can only rejoice with her.

Jim Ricks-White, Jeffery A. Smith, and Tiffany Rousseau have teamed up on sound, lighting and technical design to make the walls of The Vault a place of magic as the ocean, impossibly starry nights, and a small taste of a Schubert concert surround the audience with the evocative sights and sounds of a South American coastline.

While Bag & Baggage Associate Artistic Director has co-directed several previous productions, Death and the Maiden is the first show she has handled as solo director. It was a challenging maiden voyage that she handled beautifully; Greer and her team have delivered a powerful show that lingers long after the lights go out.

Death and the Maiden is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through March 25th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Mask & Mirror’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Jayne Furlong, Chuck Weed, Erik Montague, Steven Sennett, Adriana Gantzer

By Tina Arth

So – a physicist and an artist walk into a bar…could be the beginning of a terrible joke or a wonderful play. Picasso at the Lapin Agile, by the mega talented comic/actor/musician/writer Steve Martin, is definitely the latter. In Mask & Mirror’s current production of this multi-layered work, director Benjamin Philip and his cast capture most of Picasso’s philosophical nuance while delivering a terribly funny evening of sometimes very broad comedy.

Imagine a Paris bar, the Lapin Agile, in 1904. Bartender Freddy is setting up for the evening’s business as a series of characters wander in. First is the curmudgeonly Gaston, grumbling about his status as “newly old.” Next comes Freddy’s girlfriend Germaine, the smart, cynical barmaid. What looks like an ordinary evening shifts with the arrival of a young, socially awkward patent office drone named Albert Einstein. Two more arrivals are the nubile Suzanne and Sagot, a mercenary but thoughtful art dealer – both in thrall to the as yet unseen but much talked about Pablo Picasso. Suzanne wants his body, Sagot the body of his work. Finally, in struts Picasso himself – and thus begins a surreal mental duel between two very different geniuses, each on the verge of work that will set the tone for both the scientific and artistic earthquakes that shake and shape the 20th century.

While the show is in many ways dominated by the interaction between Picasso and Einstein, some of the evening’s best performances come from comparatively minor characters. Steven Sennett is quietly riveting as Freddy, seemingly a bit dense and plebian but always watching, commenting with his eyes on the absurdity around him. It is no mistake that playwright Martin gives Freddy the best line in the play – the one that neatly encapsulates the whole theme – and Sennett’s performance is worthy of this honor.  Diana LoVerso turns in another fine, low-key performance, creating a wryly-intelligent Sagot, a mercenary with heart and taste; her timing is superb and she moves around the stage with the grace of a dancer. On the other end of the spectrum, one character in the show must be played over-the-top – loud, gauche, and just so pathetically wrong – and Les Ico’s Charles Dabernow Schmendiman is all that and more. Ico is a born comic, and he brings all he’s got to this marvelous little cameo of a role.

Erik Montague (Einstein) is earnestly funny in Act I, treating his character with a gently appropriate mockery. As the play progresses, Montague’s performance gets broader, and at some point he crosses the line between absurd and ridiculous (as when he enters with glasses askew after the amorous interlude with the Countess). A little restraint would go a long way toward helping the audience accept that this is, while surreal, still a young Einstein and not Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor. Even in mid-run this slight shift could be easily achieved. His artistic counterpart, Blaine Vincent (as Picasso) skirts with excess in a few places, but overall manages to rein in the slapstick while delivering his character’s stunningly egotistical lines with a nonchalant enthusiasm.

In keeping with the reality of 1904 (and well beyond – maybe “time’s up” now?) the primary female characters are drawn largely as accessories. Jayne Furlong gives us exactly what we expect – a “Suzanne” who is flirty, pouty, shallow, easily offended but eager to hitch her wagon to a star. Adriana Gantzer is quieter and subtler as the earthy but intelligent barmaid Germaine. I have seen the part played with more of a coarse, slatternly bent, and I much prefer Gantzer’s interpretation.

The single barroom set, with its lovely faux brick walls, contributes immeasurably to the show’s Parisian barroom ambience. Special props to lighting designer John Swiecick and light board operator Steve Hotaling for a series of carefully timed effects (especially with the much-maligned sheep painting) that work beautifully, enhancing both the comedic and thematic messages.

Mask & Mirror’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile runs Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through March 25th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

BCT’s The 39 Steps – Slapstick Spies and Keystone Kops

Daniel Wagner, Evan Wade, and Adam Williams

By Tina Arth

The program for Beaverton Civic Theatre’s latest reads: “The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow, based on the novel by John Buchan.” Perhaps this is technically accurate. However, a more artistically valid and helpful descriptor would be “The 39 Steps, a parody by Patrick Barlow based on the film by Alfred Hitchcock.” It is the iconic 1935 film that made Hitchcock a star in the United States, and it is Hitchcock’s take on the early motifs of murder/mystery/spy fiction that are mocked and celebrated in the playwright’s hilarious 2004 play.  Although relatively inexperienced, Director Amy Millay has done a nice job of steering her four cast members through the (literally) dozens of roles they fill in a complex, fast-moving show that combines melodrama with Marxian (the brothers, not Karl) madness.

The story is fundamentally irrelevant – the script is there only to give the actors and crew a reason to hang out on and around the stage, amusing us and working up quite a sweat in the process. A bored, seriously underemployed (but apparently well-heeled) Canadian, Richard Hannay, is swept into international intrigue when a glamorous and mysterious spy, Annabella, is murdered in his London flat. To clear his name and prevent unspeakable (if unspecified) disaster, Hannay sets out by train to look for Alt Na Shellach, a large estate in Scotland somehow connected to the assassins and their dastardly plot. Pursued by policemen and spies (and, occasionally, spies disguised as policemen), betrayed by the skeptical traveler Pamela, and aided by the amorous farm wife Margaret, Hannay eventually makes his way back to London and the truth is revealed.

The key to the show’s humor, other than some very clever writing, is Millay’s energetically farcical direction of her four-person cast. Evan Wade plays Hannay throughout, while Lesley Nadwodnik plays three key female roles (Annabella, Pamela, and Margaret). Two extraordinarily versatile lads, Adam Williams (clown #1) and Daniel Wagner (clown #2), play all of the other roles, both male and female – the amazing Mr. Memory, policemen, spies, train conductors, Scots, innkeepers, even a political organizer. Lightning fast shifts between upper-class British, Cockney, both mild and dense Scottish accents, and some vaguely Gallic and Teutonic tongues, when combined with quick-change artistry and a plethora of challenging physical comedy, contribute to two acts that keep the audience in stitches.

Nadwodnik’s three characters are all 1950s style bottle blondes, - but that’s where the overlap ends. She is a convincingly stereotyped femme fatale as Annabella, and does a fine job of flopping bonelessly about as her character’s corpse. As Pamela, Nadwodnik is suddenly veddy British and very, very upright and uptight – while her Margaret is naïve, a bit dowdy, and love struck in a calf-like way.  Evan Wade, playing only one character, misses out on most of the quick-change fun, but he still does a superb job with the physical comedy (watching him teeter across the Forth Bridge inspired just a touch of acrophobia), and his campaign speech is a wonder to behold.

It’s the clowns who really steal the show. While I have seen productions with more miraculous costume changes, Wagner and Williams have developed a tight choreography that elicited not just laughs, but occasional hoots and hollers from a rowdy opening night audience, and Wagner’s mobile face and rubber body alone would be worth the price of admission.

A stark geometric set with no fixed furniture or props allowed for quick scene changes (done with half lighting and enough frenetic hysteria so that the scene changes become part of the comedy), and costume designers Erin and Stacie Looney found just the right touch to suggest the many characters without overdoing the detail – amazing what a few hats, cloaks, and aprons can do!

The 39 Steps is pure farce – no need to look for themes deeper than BCT’s recognition that we all need to laugh. While definitely not aimed at children, the show is pretty family friendly, and many kiddos would get a real kick out of the production.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps runs through Saturday, March 17th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 8:00 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm matinees on Sunday.