Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Masque Offers an Al Fresco Look at The Misanthrope

Troy Sawyer, Mikayla Albano, Laine Wagner (top row)
Rain Turner, Erik Montague, Fayra Teeters, Kenneth Dembo

By Tina Arth

For the next month, local lovers of Moliere, outdoor theatre, Commedia dell’arte, or just fun, live theatrical production can enrich their summer entertainment with Masque Alfresco’s peripatetic offering of The Misanthrope. (Truth in advertising: the final three performances will take place in my backyard, so I am not a completely disinterested reviewer!). Given Moliere’s penchant for satire, it is neither surprising nor inappropriate that artistic director Fayra Teeters’ adaptation incorporates an endless stream of contemporary political and cultural references, meant to remind the audience that the plague of lying and hypocrisy among power elites is no less prevalent in 2018 than it was in 1666 when the play made its debut. Director Kenneth Dembo ensures that the core story is delivered by a vibrant cast who break the fourth wall enough to ensure that the audience shares the cast’s commitment to the tale and to the lazzi (schtick) – stock comedic routines the define traditional Commedia dell’arte productions.

Despite the absence of Twitter and Facebook, Paris in the 1660s was as scandal-ridden as today’s Washington D.C. In this milieu, we meet Alceste, an “honest fellow” who consistently speaks his mind, much to the dismay of his peers. His fiancé, the coquette Celemene, provides Alceste with a slew of romantic rivals with her incessant flirting. In the meantime, the aging gossip Grand Dame Prude, Arsinoe, relentlessly pursues Alceste while slandering Celemene in her attempts to break up the affianced pair. Celemene’s bestie Eliante would also gladly hitch her star to Alceste, were he available – and Alceste’s loyal friend Philinte pines for the virtuous Eliante. In the end, of course, the worthiest find love and the rest get what they deserve.

Alceste and Celemene are convincingly portrayed by the dashing Erik Montague (yes, he does look like Adam Scott) and the lovely Laine Wagner (who looks nothing like Amy Poehler). Montague conveys his dark disdain for all of the superficial people and conventions of modern society, yet he also manages to reveal his smoldering obsession with Wagner, whose character seems to embody everything he despises. Wagner gives Celemene a complementary dual nature – she is believable as the tease who pretends to adore all suitors equally, yet she subtly telegraphs the (well-hidden) sincerity of her character’s love for Alceste.

Among the rest in a strong cast, Fayra Teeters is marvelous as the aging, conniving seductress Arsinoe, John Bryant is wonderfully absurd as would-be poet/suitor Orante, and Rian Turner captures the essence of Commedia clowning as Philinte.

Costumer Nan Frederick, resisting the ubiquitous urge to update (not a trend I always endorse), has done a fine job of recreating the necessary period attire. Two tiny glitches in an outdoor environment (not counting the brightness of the setting sun – not something over which Dembo has control): Wagner’s fiddle work is fun and effective, but perhaps a bit loud in an early scene when she is playing over the dialogue, and Mikayla Albano’s sweet Eliante is, at times, a bit too soft-spoken.
Masque Alfresco’s Moliere is staged in three outdoor locales, and all productions are free (although the cast passes the hat at the end, and donations are openly sought and gleefully accepted). Audiences can choose 7:00 pm performances on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at Lake Oswego’s George Rogers Park through August 5, Beaverton Library Lawn from August 10 -19, and at Theatre in the ‘hood (9020 SW Caroline Drive, Portland) August 24 – 27.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

As You Like It – Lots to Love in This Forest!

Signe Larsen and Roxanne Stathos

By Tina Arth

After her solo directing debut in 2018’s Death and the Maiden, it was clear that Cassie Greer was a superb choice as Associate Artistic Director at Bag & Baggage. Anyone harboring even the faintest lingering doubts should immediately buy tickets to see As You Like It or, Love in a Forest, Greer’s first independent foray into the world of B&B Shakespearian adaptations. The production is simply wonderful – witty, innovative, accessible, lighthearted yet full of heart.

As usual with B&B adaptations, the show has been streamlined (but not “dumbed down”) a bit, which allows the actors time to deliver the lines with clarity and deliberation, selectively emphasizing important points. This, combined with pacing that leaves room for plenty of physical comedy, ensures that even the most Shakespeare-phobic can understand and enjoy the story. To give added context, Greer provides detailed analytical director’s notes that discuss the evolution of the tale from 1350’s The Tale of Gamelyn through Charles Johnson’s 1723 adaptation, Love in a Forest.  In a perfect universe, these notes would be required reading for all audience members before the opening bell – but even a quick glance at intermission provides useful background.

Briefly, As You Like It tells the story of cousins Rosalind and Celia, daughters of sibling Dukes Senior and Frederick. Frederick has usurped his brother’s throne and banished him to the Forest of Arden, while allowing Rosalind to stay in court as a companion to Celia.  The noble Orlando, son of another of Frederick’s enemies, vanquishes court boxing champ Charles in a major upset victory, which makes Frederick furious. In the meantime, Rosalind and Orlando have fallen in love, which further angers the already irate Frederick. Orlando flees, Frederick banishes Rosalind, and ultimately both Celia and Rosalind flee to the forest (with Rosalind disguised as a man named Ganymede). The story continues from there, with lots of Shakespearean mistaken identities and the clever tricks that so often lead to The Bard’s women winning the day (at least in his comedies).

Bag & Baggage newcomer Amber Bogdewiecz delivers a feisty, thoroughly likeable Rosalind/Ganymede. Her weak-kneed initial infatuation gives way in the forest to a skeptical, directive trickster who is clearly having a lot of fun testing Orlando’s professed love. Orlando is played with equal skill by another newcomer, Israel Bloodgood. At first glance he is not terribly prepossessing – he is clearly the underdog in the boxing match, but he immediately telegraphs the pluck that allows him to defeat the favorite, and his transformation into a helplessly ardent suitor in the forest is absolute. Signe Larsen displays her pugilistic skill as Charles (and also serves as the show’s fight choreographer), but she really shines as the snobby shepherdess Phebe, whose obsession with Ganymede is classic Shakespearean humor. Music director/actor/vocalist Jared Mack (Le Beau/Amiens) leads the cast in a few nice bits of minstrelsy, lending his fine voice to an already strong production.

My favorite performance comes from Roxanne Stathos, a third actor making her Bag & Baggage debut. In the small role as the Marshall she absolutely rocks her skimpy attire, in particular the fishnet stockings, and she is appropriately decrepit as the ancient Adam. However, it is as the love-struck shepherd Silvius that Stathos uses her diminutive stature and wonderful voice to best effect – it would be worth it to see the show again just to watch her.

Bag & Baggage once again makes full use of the technological wonders available at The Vault, using projection of a lush forest to complement the cartoonish, bare bones trees on set. The changing signs projected on the wall set the stage for a moving and beautiful epilogue delivered by the entire cast at the end of the production – a compelling statement about current events that was unexpected, but clearly not unwelcome to the audience.

As You Like It or, Love in a Forest is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through July 29th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Shelf Life – A Bookstore Worth Saving

Isabella Steele, Les Ico, and Kira Smolev

By Tina Arth

HART  (Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre) is in its sixth year of offering “Page to Stage,” a competition among local playwrights for the opportunity to see one of their new, original works fully produced on the HART stage. This year’s selection is Shelf Life, An Adam and Cora Murder Mystery, under the direction of William Crawford.  Author William Ferguson’s entertaining whodunit has drawn a fine cast of actors brave enough to workshop an unknown product, and they do a nice job of bringing Ferguson’s vision to life.

The story revolves around events at Shelf Life Bookstore, owned by siblings Adam and Cora Vance. The store is on the verge of bankruptcy, but the pair hopes to resurrect its fortunes by bringing in a wildly popular mystery writer for a book signing. Inclement weather and old wiring conspire to cause a power failure at the height of the event, and the author’s murder during the blackout derails the promotion. Adam and Cora, aided by aggressive and seductive reporter Maggie Gloss, set out to identify the killer before news gets out and completely demolishes their hopes of saving the store. There are plenty of the usual suspects (plus one stereotypically clueless cop) – the author’s husband, agent, former agent, a determined Hollywood producer – as well as some less obvious candidates like a local dermatologist and a lawsuit-happy customer. All is, of course, revealed at the end – and I give the author and actors credit for keeping me in the dark until the last scene.

Les Ico brings his usual comedic flair to the role of Adam; his mobile face and quick-change emotions create an entertaining mix of gregarious shop keep, worried man, cheery optimist, love-struck suitor, and man on the edge as he frantically tries to keep the peace and save the store. As sister Cora, Isabella Steele is the complete opposite – a dour, antisocial pessimist in serious need of an anger management class. Steele’s physicality work fine – she rarely looks up as, shoulders hunched, as she grimly strides around the store. However, she raises her voice a bit too often and too quickly, even for someone in the grip of frequent rage – a little modulation would go a long way in establishing Cora as a fully realized character. While she is angry at the world, Cora’s particular target is reporter Maggie Gloss (Kira Smolev). Smolev, although less volatile than Steele, still fights back quite effectively – and she is able to quickly change gears when the script calls upon her to beguile young Adam.

Among the rest of the cast, special props must be given to Karen Huckfeldt (as the irate customer Sheila Noisman).  Huckfeldt is abrasive, pushy, entitled – the kind of customer everyone in retail has learned to hate – and she captures the role perfectly. Huckfeldt and Ico have some great moments together, but Kaye Burnett (as dermatologist Harriet Price. M.D.) gets the honor of really putting Noisman in her place with one elegantly delivered insult.

Director Crawford also designed the set (primarily a simple backdrop of trompe l’oeil bookshelves that serves as an appropriate setting for both lobby and reading room in the bookstore). Author Ferguson similarly serves double duty as light and sound board designer and operator – in a show littered with lightning strikes, thunder, and blackouts he has little time to enjoy the audience reactions.

As is often found with “Page to Stage” and similar premieres by local authors, some places in Shelf Life cry out for the services of a skilled script doctor to shine an outside light on problems in the play’s internal logic. However, the HART cast and production team have done a solid job of bringing Ferguson’s light-hearted mystery to an appreciative audience. For the past six years, HART has done a real service to both authors and audiences by offering them a place to share and celebrate the rich creative potential of local playwrights and community theatre.

Shelf Life is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through July 29th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.

Meaning of Eleemosynary UnMasked

Jenny Newbry, Kathleen Silloway, and Katy Philp
Photo by Katherine Roundy

By Tina Arth

When I was a rock-collecting kid, I loved geodes – it was the thrill of breaking into the inscrutable exterior and finding a sparkling world of crystals nestled inside. Occasionally I’ll have the privilege of watching a play, heretofore unknown to me, that has the same thrilling effect. Playwright Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary, part of Mask & Mirror’s edgier “UnMasked” collection, is definitely a contender for top honors in my geode category.  Director Dan Hobbs clearly understands the play well (how a male playwright and a male director can “get” the complexities of mother-daughter relationships with such precision is a happy mystery to me); like the exterior of the geode, his deceptively simple staging opens up to reveal stunningly beautiful performances by the three women in the cast.

The play examines the plight of three exceptionally intelligent women (grandmother Dorothea, daughter Artemis, and granddaughter Echo) raised in three very different eras, and the strange relationships that have developed among them.  Dorothea, denied an education and forced into an unsought marriage, has chosen extreme eccentricity and magical thinking as her path to intellectual freedom. Artemis (“Artie”) escapes her mother’s overpowering personality by running away (several times) and choosing to embrace the logical boundaries of science in place of her mother’s determined rejection of observable reality. When Artie’s husband dies, Dorothea moves in and takes over the job of rearing and educating Echo; Artie soon runs away again, abandoning her daughter to the grandmother’s care. The play jumps around chronologically, but begins with the comatose and dying Dorothea being cared for by Echo and ends with Echo committing to establishing a loving relationship with Artie. In between, let us just say, ”stuff happens.” The play makes perfect sense when done properly, but a more detailed synopsis would just sound absurd.

I cannot overpraise the performances of the three women. I was particularly moved by Katy Philp’s heart wrenching take on Artie – her silent pleas for salvation from her mother’s delusions, the moments of humanity that peep out of the rigid wall she has built around her psyche, her fierce intelligence mixed with perhaps a touch of autism, her frustrating inability to stay with her daughter yet maintain her autonomy. Irrespective of age (like the others, she plays herself at several stages of her life) she conveys her character’s tortured inability to express her emotions, maintaining the same awkward posture and diction throughout. Kathleen Silloway’s portrayal of Dorothea is, in contrast, charming but maddeningly unmoored – my (perhaps too rational) self wanted to just slap her for her enthusiastic embrace of delusion and her absolute inability to see what she was doing to her daughter through the years. And then there’s Jenny Newbry’s irresistible Echo – a fine mix of her mom and grandmother, and yet somehow completely her own woman. Even in her most hypercompetitive moments, Newbry’s smiling enthusiasm and bizarre optimism shine through. One of Artie’s most poignant lines is “Never have a daughter. She won’t like you,” and Newbry’s charitable insistence on breaking this pattern finally absolves both Artie and Dorothea of their extreme shortcomings.

With minimal sets and little space on stage, the lighting is used brilliantly to create the spaces and breaks that define the show’s sometimes-peripatetic progress. Audience proximity (the Tualatin Heritage Center) is a real plus, as everyone in the room gets to see 90 minutes of superb acting up close and personal – the only way to see it, in my opinion. UnMasked productions have only a two week run, so it is essential that you get tickets right away for one of next weekend’s performances – in a just universe they will sell out quickly.

Mask & Mirror’s Eleemosynary is playing at The Tualatin Heritage Center, 8700 SW Sweek Drive, Tualatin, through Sunday, July 22, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:00 on Sundays.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Experience Theatre Project Reaches for “Time’s Up” Moment

Picture of The Company by Casey Campbell

By Tina Arth

For rampant misogyny and sexism, few of Shakespeare’s plays can rival The Taming of the Shrew, yet it’s one of the Bard’s wittiest works, and its enduring comedy still has lots of audience appeal. How are enlightened modern theatre companies to produce a show like this without violating their own ethos of equality and inclusiveness? Alisa Stewart, artistic director at Beaverton’s Experience Theatre Project has chosen a novel approach – asking her director to develop an adaption called The Taming and the Shrew that includes most of the original dialogue and action, but is laden with lightning-fast gender-bending and open disdain for some of the original play’s most offensive passages. Director/Adapter Sara Fay Goldman sums up her hesitation at undertaking this task in her director’s note, explaining that she “was trained in a very conservative theatre tradition of professional protocols which values the ability to create personal boundaries and emotionally separate from our work.” She goes on to credit Shakespeare, who “publicly and professionally exposed a history of silenced women, perhaps taking a risk that his female contemporaries didn’t have access to.” Seen in this light, Experience’s lively, fun and very chaotic production makes sense – but probably only to an audience already familiar with the original work (or at least with the musical Kiss Me, Kate)!

A unique feature of Experience is that it delivers theatre without a theater – the current production will move from the south lawn of the Beaverton Library to a quartet of local wineries (Ardiri, A Blooming Hill, Helvetia, and Stoller).  The outdoor venue offers enormous freedom of movement, but that brings challenges like the sun (bring sunglasses AND a wide-brimmed hat to be on the safe side), competition from traffic noise (perhaps not so much at the wineries, and still much better than dueling with last year’s MAX noise at the Beaverton Round!), and fluctuations in the weather (come with short sleeves, but armed with a jacket in case the wind picks up).  Expect a lively, rollicking afternoon or evening, with a taste of audience participation facilitated by the “play within a play” nature of the original work.

The set-up, in a nutshell: drunken tinker Christopher Sly is tricked into believing that he is a lord, suffering from amnesia. To help him “recover” his supposedly lost memory, his deceivers present a play about the wealthy Baptista and his daughters, Kate and Bianca in Padua.  Student Lucentio falls in love with the fair Bianca, but Baptista will not let her marry until he finds a husband for the foul-tempered Kate. Petruchio arrives in Padua in search of a rich wife, and determines that he will tame Kate (the shrew) and make her his bride. By this point in the Experience production, Mickey Jordan (playing Sly) has assumed the role of Petruchio to Kaia Maarja Hillier’s “Kate” – but only temporarily. When Petruchio begins to “tame” Kate, Hillier soon trades parts with Jordan and has him playing the role of the bride-to-be, she the suitor (just one of a series of role changes and reversals to keep us on our toes). I won’t even try to explain the rest – just take my word that it’s nothing like any Shrew, tame or otherwise, that you’ve ever seen before.

In an outdoor setting without microphones, vocal volume can be as critical factor as acting skill in telling the tale, and both Jordan and Hillier excel at making themselves heard. Jordan also makes a great drunk, and he falls well and often (not as easy as it might sound!). I was particularly happy with Catherine Miller’s stolid yet wry portrayal of “Bartholomew” the page, and Emilie Landman’s minstrel “Soto” was invaluable in setting up the initial story and keeping us more or less on track.

The trend of bringing live theatre out of the strict confines of formal theaters is one I welcome, as it makes productions accessible and attractive to a much wider group of people. Experience Theatre Project is a local leader in this growing movement, which will ensure robust audiences able to tear themselves away from their digital realities for another generation!

Shrew performances will remain at the Beaverton Library South Lawn through Sunday, July 15th before moving on to Helvetia Vineyards (July 10-21-22), Ardiri Winery (July 27-28-29), A Blooming Hill Vineyard (August 3-4-5) and Stoller Family Estate (August 10-11-12). See the Experience Theatre Project website for times, as they vary form venue to venue. All performances are “pay as you will” with the players passing the hat for donations.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Mamma Mia! – The Perfect Summer Show


By Tina Arth

The lights gradually come up on an enchanted island setting – the whitewashed walls of the small taverna tell us that we are in Greece. As dawn brightens into day, the orchestra plays us into the mood of Broadway Rose’s spectacular production of Mamma Mia!, launching the big summer musical season with a “must-see” audience favorite that sparkles like the sun-kissed waves of its romantic setting. Music director/conductor Alan D. Lytle and director/choreographer Lyn Cramer have teamed up to present a skillfully crafted, flawlessly cast production of 1999’s megahit that augments an already light-hearted story with an extra dose of imagination and wit. The show, built around songs by ‘70s pop superstars ABBA, with music and lyrics by the Swedish group’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (with additional songs by Stig Anderson), and the book by Catherine Johnson, makes no serious pretense at realism – it’s pure fun anchored by a giant helping of concert quality lead and ensemble vocals.

The story takes place on the fictional Greek Island of Kalokairi as 20-year-old Sophie prepares for her wedding. She wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but her mom, the formerly free-spirited Donna, claims not to know precisely who that might be. After reading relevant passages from her mom’s diary, Sophie narrows it down to three candidates, and (without Donna’s knowledge) invites all three men to the wedding.  Sophie’s quest for two solid male anchors, a father and a husband, contrasts with Donna’s utter rejection of dependence on a man – she has raised her daughter alone, built her taverna alone, and cannot understand why Sophie wants to tie herself down at this stage in her life. The prospective fathers, fiancé, and friends (including Donna’s two besties, former members of her ‘70s girl group) reflect and react; by the end, both Sophie and Donna have learned a lot, and in neat rom-com fashion flip the script - things end well, but on a completely different track from where they started out.

Each of the three “fathers” brings a unique perspective as Sophie auditions them for the role of father: Matthew H. Curl, once “Head Banger Harry” but now a fussy Londoner, Joey Klei as the rootless wanderer who never quite grew up, and Andrew Maldarelli as the utterly sincere Sam, immediately established as Donna’s great love who somehow got away.  All three lead men contribute to the powerful vocal ensemble, and each gets at least one big moment in the spotlight with Curl’s poignantly reminiscent “Our Last Summer” (with Donna), Klei’s lively “Take A Chance on Me” (with Donna’s irrepressible friend Rosie), and Maldarelli’s impassioned “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Poor Aaron Stewart (as fiancé Sky) does not fare as well – in typical male ingénue fashion, he is something of an afterthought in the script – but he and his pals get the most amazing dance numbers to balance out the inequity.

However, the production is really propelled by two factors: the steady barrage of ABBA songs and the women who drive these numbers. Sophie Moshofsky (as Sophie) launches the show with a huge rendition of “Honey, Honey” and closes it with “I Have a Dream” to balance her naïve, sometimes petulant approach with an irresistible enthusiasm for life – a classic ingénue with a big smile and a bigger voice.  Laura McCulloch’s portrayal of the seriously wacky “Rosie” provides a steady stream of comic relief, and Lisamarie Harrison’s slightly zaftig, libidinous “Tanya” claims her fair share of sardonic hilarity. Then there’s Peggy Taphorn as “Donna” – angry, hurt, trying (but failing) to mask her vulnerability with a brittle, cynical exterior that screams her independence.  Whether performing as lead singer on some amazingly arranged, choreographed numbers by “Donna and the Dynamos” like “Chiquitita” and "Dancing Queen” or delivering powerful, emotional renditions of “One of Us” and “The Winner Takes It All”  - whether clad in her signature baggy denim overalls or the dazzling kitsch of her old show costumes - she owns the stage throughout.

Allison Dawe’s costume design provides a huge dose of the show’s humor – the swim trunk/snorkel clad male ensemble is unforgettable, and until I saw the show I had no idea it was possible to tap dance in flippers! Cramer’s choreography is solid throughout, and the Dynamos hit just the right note of disco obsolescence, but it is the athleticism she draws from her male dancers that really marks her work as both first-rate and witty. Lytle’s vocal direction and orchestra are, as always, first-rate, but he also adds a few very funny touches rarely seen in the conductor of a pit full of musicians. Brian Boyd’s scenic design is serene, calming, lovely – and the cleverly designed revolving set eliminates almost all scene change delays. Sound, lighting, and tech combine seamlessly with these elements to ensure both a concert-quality musical experience and an exuberant, heart-warming background for the story.

Despite the size of the Deb Fennell Auditorium, many of the shows are nearly sold out, and the best seats are going fast. Buy now for one of the remaining performances – you won’t be disappointed!

Broadway Rose’s Mamma Mia! runs through July 22nd at Tigard High School’s Deb Fennell Auditorium.