Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Highs and Lows in HART’s Arsenic and Old Lace

Cast Photo

By Tina Arth

Although HART Theatre’s current offering of Arsenic and Old Lace is something of a mixed bag, the large opening night audience at Joseph Kesselring’s classic comedy laughed heartily throughout the show, and I am confident that audiences will share this enthusiasm throughout the play’s run. Director Sarah Ominski Kearney has drawn some superb actors who deliver tightly crafted performances, and the play’s great bones shine through despite a few rough spots.

The play was written in 1939 and premiered in early 1941, so while Germany and Japan were kicking up trouble around the world the US had not yet entered into WWII. All action takes place in a living room in Brooklyn, where sweet old spinsters Abby and Martha Brewster live in the old family home with their nephew Teddy. Mental illness does not run in the Brewster family, it gallops – Abby and Martha’s secret hobby is murdering lonely old men with their potent and poisoned elderberry wine, while Teddy (who believes that he is Teddy Roosevelt) helps by burying the bodies in the Panama Canal that he is digging in the cellar. Another nephew, homicidal maniac Jonathan, appears on the scene with Dr. Einstein, an alcoholic plastic surgeon whose recent attempt to alter Jonathan’s appearance has left him resembling Boris Karloff. And then there’s the hero, drama critic Mortimer, who has been spared the worst of the family’s murderous quirks (although there may be those who would argue that drama critics are monsters, too…). Mortimer is in love with Elaine Harper, the minister’s daughter who lives next door, but he worries about marrying her given his family’s unfortunate genetic heritage. Much of the play revolves around Mortimer’s attempts to shield his lunatic kin (except Jonathan – nobody likes him!) from an unforgiving world.

Diana Lo Verso and Robin Reece Michaels are everything you could ask for as the maiden aunts. Their timing, inflection, and wide-eyed innocence are utterly convincing and completely unselfconscious; nothing is overplayed or annoyingly stereotypical, and it’s worth the price of admission just to watch these two veterans ply their trade. Tony Broom completely commits to Teddy’s delusions, and watching him charge up the stairs (naturally, yelling “CHARGE’) and blow his bugle is guaranteed to perk up even the droopiest in the audience. Sarah Thornton’s “Elaine” is a fine mix of propriety and “minister’s daughter” freethinking; she manages to blend skepticism of her unusual neighbors and fondness for their quirks.

Tanner Morton draws a lot of laughs with his portrayal of Mortimer Brewster, and he captures the character’s protectiveness and affection for his family, indecision about Elaine, and frustration/disbelief as he learns about his aunts’ unfortunate hobby. Given the stress in Mortimer’s life, it’s not unusual that he flies off the handle – but I think his performance would be enhanced if he reeled in the volume and frenzy of his outbursts. Another strong comic performance that would benefit from a touch of restraint is Erin Bickler’s “Officer O’Hara” – she’s definitely funny, but her Irish cop affect is a bit too broad and distracting, especially when she intermixes touches of Scots with her Irish accent.

Master Carpenter William Crawford has delivered another of his striking sets – he is miraculously skilled at making the most of the limited space on the HART stage, and somehow manages to smoothly fit in the requisite number of doors as well as the all-important windows and staircase. However, I would have like to see a bit more set dressing – Crawford provided a fine palette that would provide a great backdrop for more of the tchotchkes and knickknacks that Abby, Martha, and their predecessors would have acquired and displayed over a lifetime in the family home.

Kelcey Weaver’s costumes are generally inventive – a nice mix of thirties/forties styling with the turn-of-the-century dresses for Abby and Martha, who clearly live with Teddy in the past. The gold-buttoned bibs that convert regular men’s suits into cop attire are especially creative, although the difference between the black bibs and the dark navy suits is a bit jarring. Three other tiny quibbles: I would have preferred if Michaels had followed Lo Verso’s lead and stuck with her natural hair, as the wig is just a little too obviously fake; Tyler Hulegaard’s single, oddly placed scar does little to convince us that he is a dead ringer for Boris Karloff (or any other movie monster); the program shows only one intermission, but there are actually two – and the second one is entirely unnecessary, only prolonging an already long show. The hair and makeup issues could both be resolved fairly easily – as, perhaps, could the spare intermission. One final note, on behalf of playwrights everywhere – a little proofreading might have caught the error in spelling Kesselring’s name on the cover!

While I found a number of small problems, HART’s current production definitely captures the humor and charm that has made Arsenic a staple of community and high school theater for decades.

Arsenic and Old Lace is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, March 31st, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

ROFL While Taking Steps

Christy Drogosch and Garland Lyons

By Tina Arth

Sunday, March 10: Lakewood Center for the Performing Arts was the scene of a small miracle – I saw a farce that I did not hate. In fact, I loved it! Alan Ayckbourn’s very British, utterly ridiculous Taking Steps, with a brilliant cast under the careful directorship of Brenda Hubbard, is simply hilarious. Although it may sound counterintuitive, clearly the trick to farce is to take it exceptionally seriously. Hubbard’s Director’s Notes specify that “as a form it requires great acting skill, a high degree of commitment to the moment, split-second timing and a certain kind of athleticism…” and the cast and director of this production delivered in spades. The result is an often side-splittingly funny show, deficient only in the plethora of “if only” moments that plague lesser attempts at the genre.

The story is satisfyingly absurd and revolves around six characters incessantly coming and going in a seedy three-story Victorian house that is reputed not only to be a former bordello, but also to be haunted by a long-deceased prostitute. Tenants Elizabeth and her husband Roland are in a mess – former dancer Elizabeth is in a stew, trying to decide whether or not to leave Roland, an alcoholic who has made his fortune in the bucket industry. Local builder Leslie hopes to salvage his flagging company by selling the house quickly to Roland – but he must have the approval of Tristram, Roland’s amazingly inept solicitor, to seal the deal.  Rounding out the cast are Elizabeth’s brother Mark and his ex-fiancée Kitty. Elizabeth has summoned her brother to comfort the soon-to-be abandoned Roland, but he is more concerned with convincing Kitty, who has been picked up for soliciting, that she should go through with marrying him.  The show’s title is, in part, an extended gag - all three stories of the house are actually presented on one level, so we are constantly watching characters mime climbing stairs, passing each other unnoticed on the (nonexistent) levels of the staircases as they move about. However, it also captures the indecisiveness of four very assertive, yet ineffectual characters and the real progress made by the seemingly meekest of the lot.

Christy Drogosch and Jeremy Southard, as the soon-to-be-split (maybe) Elizabeth and Roland, are a delightful mismatch. Drogosch reveals breathtakingly funny flexibility as she practices The Art of the Dance, literally bringing parts of the house down with her pretentious but awkward exercises and chattering incessantly with just the right faux-upper class, utterly self-absorbed British disdain for everyone around her. Southard as the cheerfully blustering and oblivious alcoholic does a fine job of growing gradually drunker in every scene, and he captures nicely the classless bonhomie of a formerly working class Brit who has made buckets of dough selling plastic buckets. Eric Nopom’s “Leslie” is at his best when we see the least of him – fully clothed and helmeted for his motorbike, he’s somewhere between The Fly and Darth Vader, but his lack of awareness gives the role a delightfully lighthearted menace. While Garland Lyons’ character, Mark, puzzles over why people always fall asleep when he talks to them, he has the opposite effect on the audience – whenever he opens his mouth we go on high alert to follow his circular reasoning and wait for the moment when his conversational partner nods off.
The real protagonists in Taking Steps are the hapless and loveable Shawna Nordman (Kitty) and Spencer Conway (Tristram). Nordman spends much of the play trapped in a wardrobe that can be taken to symbolize the entrapment of introverts in an extrovert’s world – her huge-eyed naiveté and halting delivery are perfect. Conway is so convincingly her male counterpart that we just know these two characters are meant to be together; their apparent inability to express their thought leads, ironically, to the only real communication in the play.  Conway’s tortured delivery and mobile face enhance the character’s crippling shyness, and make his final decisiveness, courage and decency all the more sweet.

The show’s production values echo the seriousness with which Hubbard has approached the show – Demetri Pavlatos’ set is gloriously dank, and even though the show is on one level we really feel that we have entered an attic whenever the action shifts to the “top” floor. Kurt Herman’s lighting also plays a huge role in both setting the mood and directing the audience to key moments and locations.

It’s impossible to express how utterly charming and hilarious I (and the rest of the audience) found this Lakewood production – do yourself a favor, grab a ticket, and see for yourself what can happen when farce is taken seriously!

Taking Steps is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, April 7.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Twilight Delivers an Elegant Elephant Man

Anna Hayes and Blaine Vincent III. Photo by Alicia Turvin.

By Tina Arth

Many of the community theater productions I see are in small ways weakened by oft necessary, but still jarring compromises. Gaps in an overall fine cast may be rounded out with the regular suspects, sets or costuming may bow to the strictures of budget, timing, or space, or the director and production team may recognize at the last minute that some small, missed detail needs to be figuratively swept under the rug – and I shudder to think how often the program is treated as an un-proofread afterthought. Playwright Bernard Pomerance’s lovely The Elephant Man deserves much better, and I was thrilled last Saturday to see the sensitive, precise and thorough treatment the show is being given by Twilight Theater Company. Director Chris Murphy clearly loves, and more important, understands both Pomerance’s work and the underlying true story of Joseph Merrick, and he has selected a cast fully able to bring his vision to the stage.

The play is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman afflicted with horrible deformities that led to his being displayed in a freak show as “The Elephant Man.”  Abused, robbed and abandoned by his manager, he was rescued by Frederick Treves, a young doctor who brought him into London Hospital where he lived for the remainder of his life.  From being an outcast, Merrick became a favorite of London society, with visits and gifts from many prominent citizens, including a meeting with Alexandra, Princess of Wales. The play in many ways adheres to the truth, but of course the playwright took dramatic license – beginning (quite inexplicably) by changing the Merrick’s name from “Joseph” to “John.”  While Merrick may, in real life, never have met the actress Mrs. Kendall (much less, seen her nude) he was supported, visited, and admired by a host of upper class Londoners, he was close to Treves, and his eventual death is tastefully, but accurately, portrayed. The core message of the show is not just Merrick’s tragic life, but also the reactions of the people who see him. To spare Merrick’s sensibilities, Treves required that there be no mirrors in his patient’s rooms – but in one key scene, a series of visitors seem to see themselves reflected in Merrick, with each of the visitors able to identify in Merrick qualities that they ascribe to themselves, so that each little monologue puts a mirror up to a flawed society.

The lead role is traditionally played without the use of makeup or prosthetics, and Blaine Vincent III does an amazing job of capturing both Merrick’s deformities and the man beneath with just his voice and body. The audience is transfixed as they watch the tall, sturdy Vincent transform, one feature at a time, into the grotesque character he will play for the rest of the show. Most remarkable is his ability to express emotion while keeping his face twisted into Merrick’s hellish grimace. 
Alec Scott Henneberger provides the perfect contrast – his Treves is a self-assured, physically and figuratively erect figure who is much more than just a physician – he is a friend and guardian. Henneberger radiates compassion and moral outrage, but still has trouble seeing his charge as an adult man with free will, and he captures neatly the lingering Victorian ethos that constrains his character.

Among the rest of the cast, the performance that demands mention is Anna Hayes’ portrayal of Mrs. Kendal. While her character is a famed Shakespearean actress, Hayes convinces us that Mrs. Kendal is not acting when she shows fondness and respect for Merrick, and she manages to make the nude scene sensuous and moving without even a hint of seductiveness.

I mentioned the attention to detail that made the show so powerful – one small but brilliant example is the tights on the three Pinheads. The tights were soiled and tattered just like one would expect in a tacky freak show – the type of costuming that subtly enhances the actors’ effect. Sets, lighting, and sound are similarly precise, and the net result is a genuinely elegant Elephant Man that demands full houses and standing ovations. Chris Murphy should be very, very proud of the show he has built on the Twilight stage.

Twilight Theater Company’s The Elephant Man is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, March 24, with performances at 8 on P.M. March 15, 16, 21, 22, 23 and 3:00 P.M. on March 17 and 24.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bilingual, Bicultural Moment at Bag&Baggage

Shelley B Shelley and Anthony Green

By Tina Arth

The Winter’s Tale is among the least-produced plays in the Shakespearean catalog, so I am sure my ignorance about this work put me among the opening night majority at Bag&Baggage’s world premiere of The Island in Winter or, La Isla en Invierno. The adaptation by Cuban-American student (and Hilhi alumnus) Carlos-Zenen Trujillo superbly captures the magic and heart of the original while bringing it squarely into the 21st century, with the author drawing on his own immigrant experience and expanding the story to encompass critical themes for our time in an accessible and charming tale.

While Trujillo’s adaptation encompasses many elements of Shakespeare’s original, the story is distinctly original. He retains some language from The Winter Tale, primarily as poetry, and the modern dialogue shifts fluidly between English and Spanish (with both English and Spanish surtitles projected as necessary). The story begins in the village of Santa Cecelia in post-revolutionary Cuba. Communist Party leader Leonte, consumed with unwarranted jealousy, drives childhood friend Polisteno back to his Miami home. In a classic kangaroo court, Leonte convicts and executes his wife Hermione, and orders his newborn daughter to be abandoned. From that point on, the story is full of typically unlikely Shakespearean plot devices – miraculous voyages, mistaken identity, love at first sight, comic relief from clown-like characters, orphans restored to their families and old friends reunited, all sprinkled with a touch of Santeria magic that brings the story to its poignant close.

Bag&Baggage founder Scott Palmer has just left Oregon for a new post in Idaho, and The Island in Winter is his last local directorial effort. His casting is flawless – with Assistant Director Yasmin Ruvalcaba, he has drawn an amazing, truly multicultural and bilingual team that does full justice to both Shakespeare’s original and Trujillo’s adaptation. Shelley B Shelley (Hermione) is an exquisite powerhouse who owns the stage whenever she appears, and captures her character’s fidelity and integrity with laser focus. Anthony Green’s Leonte, drunk on newfound power and tortured by jealousy, is the perfect counterpart – his emotional outbursts illustrate the fundamental weakness of an egotistical petty tyrant, and his ultimate shift to desperate repentance is equally believable.

Another quietly unforgettable performance comes from Yesenia Lopez’ “Paulina,” whose reactions to Leonte's erratic behavior illustrates the core power of a strong woman who refuses to be intimidated by male tyranny. Ricardo Vazquez delivers a complex Polisteno, and he nimbly shifts from carefree friend through the hurt of his unjust rejection, and from his Miami playboy persona to disillusioned drunk. Noel Alvarez Saname and Nicky Nicholson-Klingerman are able to quickly develop the essential infatuation that sets up the final scenes, and Nicholson-Klingerman’s “Perdida” is astonishingly believable as Hermione’s long-lost daughter – it is no stretch for the audience to understand why both Polisteno and Leonte recognize her immediately.

In a nice twist, the four clown-like characters are the show’s Anglos – Kymberli Colbourne and Peter Schuyler’s swamp dwellers and Arianne Jacques and Mandana Khoshnevisan’s Miami rich girls are hilarious parodies and provide several light touches in a sometimes dark tale.

Freila Merencio Blanco’s choreography and Melissa Heller’s vivid costuming are key to creating the show’s Afro-Cuban ambience. As with many shows in The Vault, set design is flexible and sometimes minimal, but Gabriel Costales’ lighting design and Lawrence Siulagi’s brilliant projection design create the necessarily lush environment; in particular, the rippling ocean waves are breathtaking.

Seating is limited by the set design for this must-see show – buy tickets soon or risk missing something really special. It’s hard to imagine a better farewell vehicle to honor Scott Palmer’s Bag&Baggage legacy.

The Island in Winter or, La Isla en Invierno is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through March 24th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees. 

Friday, March 8, 2019

BCT’s Diary of Anne Frank a Timely Reminder

Michael Rouches, Hayley Rousselle, Valarie Brown, Sarah Felder, Kraig Williams, Kate Donovan

By Tina Arth

One advantage of seeing a play again after a long time lag is that it can seem new, but when unexpected lines pop up it can be jarring.  Has the play changed, or am I entering my forgetful dotage years? When I saw Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production of The Diary of Anne Frank last weekend, I experienced several of these moments, and was relieved to learn that it wasn’t all me. BCT’s production uses Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 adaptation of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s 1955 script, and includes material from the original diary that was omitted from earlier versions of the play. The new script reveals sides of Anne’s character that make her much more complex and, more important, authentically adolescent – and gives the entire play a chilling immediacy.

For those (one hopes) rare theatergoers who are unfamiliar with the all-too-true story, a brief overview: during the depths of World War II, the Frank family fled Germany to escape Hitler’s brutal treatment of Jews. Their safe haven in Amsterdam was lost when the Germans overran the Netherlands, so the family (father Otto, mother Edith, and daughters Margot and Anne) went into hiding in a secret annex above Otto’s office building. They were joined by another family, Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan and their son Peter, as well as Mr. Dussel, a local dentist. Assisted by two Dutch Gentile friends, Mr. Kraler and Miep, who brought them both food and news of the outside world, they stayed in hiding for over two years, until they were discovered by the Nazis in 1944 and deported to concentration camps. Of the group, only Otto Frank survived the camps. For her 13th birthday, Anne received a diary, and she used it to record the experience – and this diary and the subsequent adaptations serve as a timeless warning about the horrors of racism and anti-Semitism in a totalitarian regime.

There is no shortage of talent on the BCT stage for this production, and Director Steve Holgate has drawn some really fine performances from a mostly veteran cast. I was especially moved seeing Hayley Rousselle (Anne) and Valarie Brown (Edith) play mother/daughter roles again seven years after they first teamed up in BCT’s 2012 production of The Miracle Worker.  It is wonderful watching Rousselle in the title role – she delivers a fine mix of youthful exuberance, adolescent angst, and budding sexuality, and definitely makes us believe that she is the kind of 13 year old who could have written the iconic diary. Brown amazed me with the subtlety of her performance – she manages, without histrionics, to convey the despair of their situation while maintaining a steely exterior, and it is abundantly clear that she understands the stress and power of maternal love. One of my favorite moments (from among a large pool) is the scene where Anne abandons the mother/daughter tension and really comforts her grieving mother.

One of the toughest roles is that of Margot, played by Sarah Felder. Margot is so quiet and restrained as the well-behaved older sister that she is in danger of disappearing around Anne’s gigantic presence – and Felder is so successful that her performance initially seems flat. However, as the play progresses we begin to watch her understated but strongly felt reactions to the hell around her, and to mourn the full life she will never have.  As father Otto, Michael Rouches is absolutely solid, calmly playing the role of peacemaker, confidant, and pillar of strength – which gives his anguished closing monologue additional power as Rouches strips away Otto’s mask and reveals his inner hell.

Patricia Alston’s portrayal of Miep is another sleeper – we don’t really know who she is at first, but by the time she brings Anne her new red shoes Alston really expresses the depth of her love and commitment to the prisoners in the annex. Jacob Alexander creates a thoroughly believable Peter, wracked by the awkwardness of a reclusive teen trapped with his less-than-loveable parents and a group of strangers – another of my favorite moments is the scene in the attic where he hastily (and poignantly) plants a kiss on the back of Anne’s head.

The set is generally effective – the limited space of the BCT stage is actually an asset, since the goal is to create a small, crowded space. Erin and Stacie Looney’s costume design nicely captures the era and social class of the characters, and Miep’s ability to change her clothes in different scenes highlights the difference between her life and those of the Jews in the annex. However, the lack of authenticity in the costuming of the Nazis is problematic – in trench coats and fedoras the three men simply do not express the ghastly menace of the deadly raid.

While there were some children in the audience, the show is probably inappropriate for many in the younger set – parents may want to explain things in advance and gauge their kiddos’ reactions before bringing them to the theater.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank runs through Saturday, March 16th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sunday, March 10.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Mask & Mirror: Reflections on Mental Illness

Dwayne Thurnau, Les Ico, Kerry Kehoe, Ted Schroeder

By Tina Arth

Mask & Mirror’s The Boys Next Door by playwright Tom Griffin is a bit risky – a play that premiered in the mid-1980s and utilizes language of the era (e.g. “retarded”) about the mentally ill and developmentally delayed may sound insensitive to modern audiences. Contemporary theater groups presenting this work need to tread cautiously to avoid charges of callousness and mockery in asking us to sometimes laugh as they tell the story of four men with various mental challenges sharing a group home in Boston. Mask & Mirror Director Gary Romans has taken this dictum to heart, and the theatrical troupe’s current production generally avoids the potential pitfalls.

The story revolves around change (and, conversely, the absence of change) in the lives of the main characters – the home’s four residents and their social worker. At one extreme we have Lucius, an adult man who will never achieve the intellect of a 5 year old, but who clearly shares the same human need for attention and respect as any other person. At the other end of the spectrum is Barry, who really doesn’t belong in the group home at all – he is schizophrenic, but in no way intellectually delayed, and his life changes the most dramatically (and tragically) of the five men. The charming, chubby Norman, while clearly mentally challenged, is capable of working a low-level job in a doughnut shop, and he illustrates unexpected growth through his relationship with his girlfriend, Sheila. Arnold has developed intellectually to a modestly functional level, but his uncontrolled anxiety and OCD leave him unable to survive in the outside world. Finally, there’s social worker Jack, with problems of his own – he cares deeply for his charges, but is completely burnt out, planning to switch careers and be a travel agent. Through a series of vignettes over a few months, the audience learns to empathize with and care about this group of damaged men, even as we accept our powerlessness to change their lives.

The cast members deliver generally fine performances, but there are a few standouts and a few truly shining moments. As schizophrenic Barry, Mark Putnam delivers a carefully crafted character arc, revealing the troubled spirit behind his con-man façade so gradually that we are a bit stunned when, preparing for and enduring his father’s visit, he devolves into a convincingly catatonic state. Les Ico brings a consistent and believable childishness to Lucius – there’s a small but essential gap between playing a little boy and playing an adult with the mind of a child, and Ico never strays near this perilous edge. The brief monologue where Lucius briefly speaks in the voice of an adult gives a moving view into the pain of his trapped mind, and Ico’s ability to slide in and out of this moment is riveting.

The two women in the cast have some wonderful moments, too. Laurie Monday fills three roles, but it is as the profoundly disabled Clara, slack-jawed yet plagued with tics and terror, that she really shows what she can do. As girlfriend Sheila, Lalanya Gunn brings the awkwardness and impulsivity of a child to the charming relationship with Dwayne Thurnau’s Norman, and the moment when Norman gives Sheila her own ring of keys is a thing of beauty.
Two problem areas on opening night could be ameliorated. Ted Schroeder’s performance as Arnold sometimes seems to stray over the line from homage to parody, and I think the audience’s ability to appreciate the dignity of his character (to laugh with, not at, him) would be enhanced if he reeled in his overt physical and vocal mannerisms a bit. Also, scene changes were a bit clunky – in a show with many vignettes, these transitions need to be as smooth as possible.

The show is dedicated to veteran Mask & Mirror actor Michael Allen, who definitely would have been in the show had he not lost his battle with cancer. I enjoyed several moments of contemplation as I watched the play, imaging how Michael would have handled several different roles. It is a fitting homage to Michael that the cast and crew have worked so hard to give the audience a complex and challenging evening.

Mask & Mirror’s The Boys Next Door runs Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through March 24th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Long Before Gloria Steinem, We Had A Doll’s House

Kira Smolev, Travis Schlegel, Nicole Rayner, and Jeff Ekdahl

By Tina Arth

It’s easy to forget that feminism didn’t just magically appear in the late ‘60s with the advent of the Women’s Liberation Movement, nor did feminism’s roots flourish only in the United States. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s classic A Doll’s House caused quite a stir following its 1879 premier in Denmark, and it has graced stages around the world for the past 140 years. HART Theatre’s current production, while by no means flawless, still provides a fitting and thought-provoking tribute to this remarkable work.  Director Tanner Morton eschews a common trend to update and adapt the script and staging to appeal to modern audiences; the result is a show that initially feels somewhat stilted and dated, but that evolves neatly into the timelessness of its themes as the characters develop.

The story begins on Christmas Eve in the comfortable home of Nora and Torvald Helmer. Torvald has just been promoted to bank manager, and Nora is delighted to have been able to buy gifts for the family after years of penny pinching, but Torvald still scolds her for her spending – his patronizing tone makes it clear that he sees his wife as an adorable but sometimes naughty child who needs constant supervision. As we observe Nora’s relationships with her husband, an old schoolmate, a family friend, her children, and the nanny, we get a troubling picture of what seems to be an utterly self-absorbed, devious, charming but immature woman with a tenuous grasp on reality. However, her interaction with the somewhat sinister Nils Krogstad, a bank employee, introduces an entirely different picture – and the Nora who emerges by the end of Act III is a much more nuanced, fully realized woman who has finally found the courage to take the reins of her own life. No longer willing to live the existence of a doll in a doll’s house, she realizes that she cannot be of any value to herself or those around her unless she first establishes complete autonomy.

Nicole Rayner’s performance as Nora is the driving force behind the whole production, and she does a spectacular job of moving us through a complex story and character arc.  She fully commits to Nora’s silly, almost infantile behavior and leads us believably along the path to her powerful, ultimate declaration of independence. As Torvald, Jeff Ekdahl creates an utterly disturbing husband who shifts smoothly between his indulgent, condescending, authoritarian, and passionate moods – we cannot really like him, but still empathize with his confusion and panic in the final scene when he realizes that everything he believes about marital relations is being upended by Nora’s awakening.

Travis Schlegel (as family friend Dr. Rank), Kira Smolev (as schoolmate Kristine Linde), Rebecca Rowland Hines (as the nanny) and Tyson Redifer (as bank employee Nils Krogstad) serve as effective foils, allowing different aspects of Nora’s personality to emerge through her relationships with each.

William Crawford’s set design is especially effective – clean, uncluttered, but with enough touches to clearly establish the Helmers’ relatively prosperous lifestyle (and to indicate what Nora stands to lose in the final scene), and Holly Popkin and Kira Smolev’s costumes gave the piece a nice period feel.

The show does have some problems – opening night there were glitches with both lights and sound, and a few characters needed some extra work on their lines. It’s also a bit long, with three acts and two intermissions; despite the length, once I got used to the pacing and dialogue it never seemed to drag. Overall, HART has succeeded in offering a solid community theatre production that deserves equally solid community support.

A Doll’s House is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, February 24th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Twilight’s Equus a Wild Ride

Skye McLaren Walton and Lydia Ellis-Curry. Picture by Alicia Turvin

By Tina Arth

Twilight Theater Company is kicking off its 2019 season, “In the Buff,” with Equus, playwright Peter Shaffer’s powerful and evocative exploration of the conflict between fierce passion and societal expectations of a “normal” life. The script, themes, and essential nudity make it an especially challenging play to stage in a community theater setting, but veteran director Tobias Anderson and his cast surprised me with the fluidity and accessibility of the production.

The story, condensed: child psychiatrist Martin Dysart is suffering from a psychic malaise, in the throes of what he calls “career menopause.” At a particularly low moment, court magistrate Hester Salomon asks him to take on the inexplicable and horrible case of Alan Strang, a boy who has blinded six horses by stabbing their eyes with a hoof pick. He grudgingly agrees, and slowly breaks through the boy’s defenses while the boy simultaneously breaks down Dysart’s. As Dysart begins to understand Alan’s bizarre motivation, he finds himself drawn to the emotional vibrancy of the boy’s erotically complex religious devotion, fascinated and even a bit envious of the intensity with which Alan experiences his obsessions. By shifting frequently from the present to a series of flashbacks involving Alan’s parents, his adolescent experience with horses, and his one sexual experience with a girl, the audience share’s Dysart’s enlightenment and develops some empathy, if not sympathy, for the disturbed boy as well as the troubled therapist who is reluctant to psychologically neuter his patient in pursuit of a cure.

Three standout actors move Equus, which could otherwise be a bit dry and pretentious, into the “don’t miss” category. First by a mile is Skye McLaren Walton, who commits to the role of Alan with an unforgettable, burning intensity that draws us in and commands our attention whenever he takes center stage. Lydia Ellis-Curry, as Alan’s quasi-girlfriend Jill Mason, is thoroughly engaging throughout – her eyes sparkle and her ponytail swings with good-natured mischief as she playfully introduces Alan to her equine world, and she creates an image of healthy human exuberance in stark contrast to Alan, Dysart, and Alan’s painfully dysfunctional parents, Dora and Frank Strang. In the climactic scene, Ellis-Curry clearly demonstrates the difference between “naked’ and “nude” in the completely natural, graceful absence of self consciousness, or even overt eroticism. The third, and strangest, compelling performance is given by Jeff Giberson, who delivers a silently powerful presence as Nugget/Equus, the horse who is the center of Alan’s psychosexual obsession. With little more than his regal stature, an eerie mask, and the occasional stamp of a hoof, Giberson shows the audience the majestic, godlike beast as seen through Alan’s eyes.

Greg Prosser and Rebecca Morse are self-righteously annoying – exactly what they need to be as Alan’s rigidly screwed up parents, and Christopher Massey’s dry, sometimes pedantic performance as Dysart clearly illustrates the absence of passion in his life, while offering occasional glimpses of the man he would like to be. A small point, but worth noting – Christy Quinn (as one of the horses) is definitely the best prancer in the tiny herd.

Jim Butterfield’s simple barn of a set, when combined with Robin Pair’s intricate lighting design, allows the audience to follow the moves between hospital, home, and barn with no set changes beyond a couple of constantly moving benches, and seating all secondary characters (including horses) along the sides of the stage when they are superfluous enhances the surreal feel of the production.

I cannot, in all honesty, say that Equus is an “enjoyable” show, at least in the usual sense of the word. However, it does a fine job of illuminating some key facets human condition, with special attention to issues surrounding the treatment of mental illness, and if offers some truly memorable performances – I am definitely glad I went. Due to mature themes and language, violent imagery, and nudity, it is clearly appropriate for mature audiences only.

Twilight Theater Company’s Equus is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through February 10, with performances at 8 P.M. on Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday. There is also a performance at 8:00 P.M. on Thursday, February 8.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Broadway Rose’s Nunsense – Glorious Nonsense!

By Tina Arth

Remember the good old days, when a musical comedy was a comedy with lots of music, and a good musical comedy was a really funny show with lots of really good music? By this rather antiquated standard, Broadway Rose Theatre Company’s production of Nunsense is a really, really good show.  Fortunately, I am a rather antiquated reviewer. Truth be told, I have sometimes been underwhelmed by the sequels in what has become the Nunsense franchise, so seeing the original (for the first time!) at Broadway Rose was a real eye-opener for me – the show is utterly charming, witty, and flat-out hilarious. Director Sharon Maroney made some spectacular casting decisions, undoubtedly helped by the fact that the company’s sterling reputation generally gives them access to the cream of the region’s musical theater artists. However, Maroney didn’t have to look far to find a surprising, and surprisingly effective, Reverend Mother (aka Sister Mary Regina) – her husband, the inimitable Dan Murphy.

The premise is that a group of nuns from the Little Sisters of Hoboken convent are staging a fundraiser. The convent ran into serious financial difficulty when Sister Julia, Child of God, inadvertently poisoned 52 nuns with a bad batch of vichyssoise. They sold greeting cards to raise money to bury their unfortunate sisters, but when the Reverend Mother spent part of the money on a 70” TV they came up a bit short, and were forced to store the last four nuns in the convent freezer. It is abundantly clear that the health inspector will not approve. Under the directorship of the Reverend Mother, four talented nuns (second in command Sister Mary Hubert, Brooklyn born wisecracking Sister Robert Anne, the mysterious Sister Mary Amnesia, and novice Sister Mary Leo) are putting together a benefit variety show (on the set of the parochial school’s upcoming production of Grease) to save the day. The show is packed with nun jokes, of course, and thus especially funny for practicing and lapsed Roman Catholics with a high tolerance for irreverence occasionally verging on questionable taste, but it’s also loaded with truly boffo secular humor – who can resist lines like “for 52, bon appetit was also bon voyage”? Add in some pre-show jokes and an audience quiz (with cool prizes like a St. Christopher medal, mass cards, even a Pope-on-a-Rope) and the stage is set for a couple of hours of seriously fun theater.

The entire cast shows remarkable restraint, playing their roles somewhat straight and allowing playwright Dan Goggin’s 1985 script to sell itself (aided by their considerable vocal and terpsichorean talents, music director Jeffrey Childs’ piano/bass/drums trio, and a liberal dose of appropriate updating to keep the material current). An especially solid choice is Murphy’s decision not to play the Reverend Mother like a drag queen – he uses his natural comic skills (the glue sniffing scene made me just a little bit high) in place of mincing, tittering, falsetto and makeup, and the result is a terribly funny character who doesn’t upstage the other actors with exaggerated parodies of femininity. Danielle Valentine (Sister Robert Anne) uses the same light touch, adorning her quest for leading lady status with a gentle Brooklyn accent instead of going over-the-top – but she holds nothing back in her marvelous delivery of “I Want To Be A Star.”

The role of second in command, Sister Mary Hubert (the only nun whose aspirations are more religious than theatrical), is ornamented by the elaborate vocal stylings of Antonía Darlene, who is solid throughout but simply soars in Act II’s “Holier Than Thou.”  Broadway Rose veteran Laura McCulloch uses her fabulously mobile face and huge eyes to create a truly memorable Sister Mary Amnesia, she nails her solo star turn in “I Could Have Gone To Nashville,” and her “duet” with the puppet Sister Mary Annette (“marionette” – get it?) is the cherry on top of her performance. Last, but by no means least, is Malia Tippets’ attack on the role of the naïvely optimistic Sister Mary Leo, who believes that she is destined to be the first nun/ballerina. She is a delight throughout, and proves in her heart-wrenching “Dying Nun Ballet” that tutus are optional when God’s on your side.

Costume designer Grace O’Malley’s job may have seemed simple – after all, it’s just a bunch of habits, right? However, these particular habits give lots of room for dancing, space for hidden puppets, a Flying Nun headdress, and other surprising qualities not found in the average convent attire, and really add an extra dimension to the show. Special notice is also due to Jeff Forbes’ lighting design, as well as the skilled spot light operators (student interns Amy Beery and Isaiah Hollingsworth), whose creativity, timing and precision are essential.

Warning – the word is out, and many shows are full or nearly so – ticket buyers should consider non-weekend performances and move quickly!

Nunsense is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, February 24th.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Steel Magnolias Blooming in Forest Grove

Emma Heesacker, Leslie Inmon, Anne Kennedy,  Patti Speight,  Yelena King, and Robin Reece Michaels
Photo credit to Nicole Mae photography

By Tina Arth

“Camaraderie” - one of the most frequently misspelled words in the English language, and the only word in the English lexicon really adequate to describe the relationship between the six characters in playwright Robert Harling’s heart-tugging dramedy Steel Magnolias. Done well, this show not only captures the essence of the bond between the cast members, it also forges a bond with the viewers. Director Jason Weed and the Theatre in the Grove crew have provided their stage full of stars with just the right environment to achieve this goal, delivering both laughter and tears on stage and in the audience.

The story is set in Truvy’s beauty shop in Chinquapin, Louisiana, and covers almost three years in the lives of six tough Southern women. The ship is run by effusive and maternal Truvy, whose mantra is “there’s no such thing as natural beauty,” helped by shy newcomer Annelle, who quickly becomes a fixture in the shop, Truvy’s family, and the group. Throughout the first scene, the other four gradually wander in – wealthy widow Clairee, looking to establish a new identity to replace “mayor’s wife,” followed by the mother-daughter team M’Lynn and Shelby. It’s Shelby’s wedding day, so she gets the first appointment, and the bickering between mom and daughter quickly establishes a key theme – diabetic Shelby’s quest for independence from a hovering and protective mother. Last to arrive is the perennially irate Ouiser – like Truvy, her heart is gold, but she keeps it well hidden and shows overt warmth only to her poor old dog. Over the course of four scenes, we experience love, marriages (past and present), religion, hope, illness, and death through the eyes of this curious and diverse sisterhood.

Leslie Inmon (Truvy) plays her down-home, small-town Southerner with just the right touch – never a stereotype, always a tribute to simple, kind women who hold the world together with their open hearts and open doors. As newcomer Annelle, Emma Heesacker cycles beautifully through her character’s complex evolution from lost waif to sassy assistant and beyond. Just when we think we’ve got her figured out, she joins the local Baptists and temporarily drains all of the joy from her character, but by closing she has achieved balance and regained her spark. Robin Reece Michaels (Clairee) and Anne Kennedy (Ouiser) play the older generation with eccentric Southern élan – Michaels’ twin obsessions with football and accessorizing are a complete contrast to Kennedy’s almost slovenly attire and faux-misanthropic sarcasm, yet the underlying bond between the two pulses throughout.

As M’Lynn, Patti Speight navigates the tricky waters between love and pride in her daughter’s beautiful spirit and the fear of a protective mother lioness – terrified about threats to her baby, she sometimes lashes out in anger, but when Shelby’s blood sugar precipitates a crisis she shows us exactly why she feels she has to express her love through rigid control. Finally, there’s Yelena King as the lovely, fragile, yet tough-as-nails Shelby. King is charming throughout, and carries the audience along on her journey to live life to the fullest despite the risks. King’s character is often center-stage, but even when she’s on the periphery she never stops acting, giving her character a dynamic reality and creating a deep bond with the audience.

While the show is set entirely inside the salon, the outside world frequently intrudes through Leslie Crandell Dawes’ sound design, and the requisite barking, gunshots, and ringing phones are timed and executed to perfection. As with most Theater in the Grove productions, the set is authentic, detailed, and functional – the bright checkerboard floor, in particular, sets the stage for the whole atmosphere of the show, and was the first thing I noticed when I walked into the theater.

Steel Magnolias is one of those iconic shows that, done well, really moves the audience, and Theatre in the Grove’s production pays off in spades – you will laugh, of course, but come fully expecting to cry. You will not be disappointed.

Steel Magnolias is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through February 3d, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Saturday, January 19, 2019


Kathleen Silloway and Jalena Montrond Scott
Photo by 
by Katherine Roundy

By Tina Arth

Mask & Mirror was hit with every company’s worst nightmare last week, when their production of Doubt, A Parable lost its male lead to emergency surgery four days before opening. With only two-week run and no understudy waiting in the wings, Director Aaron Morrow made the only rational choice and stepped into the role, reasoning that at least he was very familiar with the script, knew the blocking, and was intimately acquainted with the director’s vision. At Thursday night’s dress rehearsal, it was clear that the show is a labor of love for all concerned and that the (we hope temporary) loss of a lead will not be allowed to cripple the production.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 work is a chameleon-like tale of suspicion, conviction, strength, pragmatism, racism, institutional chauvinism, and, of course, doubt. Set in a Catholic school in 1964, it tells the story of a fierce conflict between the school principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, and the parish priest, the charismatic Father Brendan Flynn. Father Flynn gives a stirring sermon on doubt that alarms Sister Aloysius, who suspects that the priest has inadvertently revealed his own personal weaknesses. Her suspicions are heightened when young Sister James reveals that 12-year-old Donald Muller, the school’s first and only African American student, had met alone with Father Flynn and returned to class somewhat dazed and smelling of alcohol. Based on the her years of experience and her instincts, fueled by her unshakeable mistrust of almost everyone, Sister Aloysius concludes that Father Flynn has developed an inappropriate relationship with Donald, and she desperately seeks a way to either expose the errant priest or at least get him removed from the parish. Sister Aloysius has a series of confrontations with Father Flynn, Donald’s mother, and Sister James, leading the audience through a roller coaster of reactions and leaving us with a muddy, thought-provoking picture of a troubled and sometimes dysfunctional Church as well as a mother doing her best to protect her son the only way she can.

Amelia Michaels does a fine job as the naïve, idealistic young nun who has no adult experience of the outside world. Michaels is convincingly unable to comprehend the possible evil around her, and she deftly manages to look up to her superior without accepting Aloysius’ dark worldview.

The other three roles (Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius, and Mrs. Muller) are so dense and meaty that they demand audience scrutiny of every word, gesture and look in order to discern the characters’ motivations. Kathleen Silloway (Aloysius) is exactly the nun she needs to be – stern, upright, an immoveable force who will not be deterred from her path of righteousness. At times she simply quivers with outrage, yet she never completely loses it (at least, not until the closing scene). Jalena Montrond Scott (Mrs. Muller) is absolutely awe-inspiring – watching her in the intimacy of the Heritage Center is like getting a master class in acting. Her riveting performance led me through a series of emotions as she gradually revealed her complex motivations, and she left me contemplating themes well outside the show’s central thesis. I can never completely comprehend the challenges of raising an African American child (in 1964, or in 2019) but I know a lot more now than I did before I saw her on stage.

Aaron Morrow’s accomplishment is not in giving a brilliant performance as Father Flynn (simply not an option, given the timing and the nature of the role) but in delivering a credible performance that in no way detracts from the overall power of the play. He disguises the fact that he’s still on-book with notes for a sermon and a handy Bible, and rarely reveals that he is reading his lines. Some of the best bits involve subtle physical power struggles (like his casually taking over Aloysius’ desk whenever he enters her office) and powerful emotional outbursts, and Morrow handles both with ease.

One small complaint, perhaps easily remedied – the sound design overall is fine, but the simulation of wind is confusing (it sounds like some kind of odd feedback) and unnecessary, since the windstorm in question happened the night before.

With only a two-week run, there are very few opportunities to see Doubt, and it is definitely worth 1.5 hours of your life (not counting the hours you’ll spend after the show, contemplating what you’ve seen). This is another of the UnMasked shows that might benefit from an audience talkback, if the actors are willing.

Mask & Mirror’s Doubt, A Parable is playing at The Tualatin Heritage Center, 8700 SW Sweek Drive, Tualatin, through Sunday, January 27, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 on Sundays.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Dial M for Murder at Lakewood

Heath Koerschgen, Jacob Lee Smith, and Clara-Liis Hillier
By Tina Arth

If we know the who, the why, the where, and the how of a murder, how can it still be a mystery? Lakewood Center for the Arts’ production of Frederick Knott’s classic 1952 Dial M for Murder answers the question with a smart, elegant show that keeps newbies guessing while offering Dial M veterans the fun of watching for tells. Director David Sikking and his able cast ensure that the now 67-year-old play retains a contemporary flavor, despite changes in mores and technology in the intervening years.

The key to this elegant murder mystery is just this: will the villain be caught, and if so, how? Urbane retired tennis champ Tony Wendice tries to pull off the Holy Grail of crime – the “perfect murder.” The intended victim is his wealthy wife Margot, who has ended a brief affair with American TV writer Max Halliday. While Max (now relegated to the friend zone) is visiting, Tony conspires with an old school acquaintance, the corrupt Captain Lesgate, to do the deed (thus ensuring that Tony will inherit Margot’s substantial estate).  The action speeds up when Tony and Max go out for the evening, leaving Margot home alone and a perfect target for the assassin. Things go exactly as planned until the end of Act I, when Tony’s plot goes horribly awry. Act II is devoted to unraveling the murderous mess, helped along by Halliday’s imagination, a classic bumbling detective, a purloined letter, a mass of cash, inexplicably unlocked doors, and other nifty plot points to keep the audience on its toes.

Jacob Lee Smith handles the role of Tony with a light touch – charming, but not so smarmy that we initially hate him, and he smoothly lets his dark side shine whenever Margot’s back is turned. Clara-Liis Hillier is vulnerable, sensitive and sincere as Margot, and her palpable fear makes her battle with Lesgate (Tom Mounsey) a white-knuckle ride.  Heath Koerschgen (Max Halliday) really shines in Act II, as he glibly uses his screenwriter background to construct an elaborate, Hollywood-worthy explanation of how the crime might have played out – and he gives the role a subtlety that left me hard pressed to spot the point at which he starts to take his fantastic scenario seriously.

From the moment I saw Don Alder (Chief Inspector Hubbard) awkwardly kneeling in the doorway, I knew I was watching the authentic archetype for a universe of Columbo-like detectives – slightly clueless, but never an over-the-top buffoon, until he finally shows us (and the rest of the cast) the brilliance of his intellectual sleight of hand. The entire cast (except Koerschgen, the American) adroitly delivers their dialogue in the requisite, class-appropriate British accents.

John Gerth’s scenic design does a fine job of (literally) setting the scene – detailed, elegant, immediately conveying the upper-crust world Tony so enjoys (courtesy of Margot’s wealth). Grace O’Malley’s costumes fill the same role for the actors – I was especially taken with Tony’s shiny suit and Margot’s peignoir, but the hemline on Margot’s first dress is somewhat disconcerting.  Special props to Jeff Forbes’ lighting design – there is no change of scenery, yet the set is never static and the mood shifts nicely through the use of darkness and light.

Dial M can seem like a long show, but director Sikking paces his actors and uses all of the tech at his disposal to keep the audience fully involved, and he does full justice to Knox’s brilliant, tightly plotted show.  Despite the disappearance of phones with actual dials, Lakewood’s current offering is every bit as engaging and fun as in any of its previous stage, film, and television incarnations.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

2019 Open with STAGES’ Blockbuster Les Misérables

Photo by Frank Hunt

By Tina Arth

As we open 2019, I cannot imagine a better time for passionate young people to take to the stage for a powerful show about sacrifice, honor, and social justice – in other words, for Hillsboro’s STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy to present the school edition of Les Misérables. Director Luis Ventura and Musical Director Erin Riha have managed to attract a truly first-rate group of young actors (age range is 13 to 18) and molded them into a dynamic ensemble accented by powerful lead performances that do full justice to Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo story. For those not already immersed in the world of Les Mis fandom, the story is complex and sometimes confusing, moving from Digne to Montreuil to Paris, and from 1815 to 1823 to 1832 – all with no spoken dialogue. However, when the words “Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me…It is the future that they bring, when tomorrow comes!” ring out, it’s impossible to miss the passionate relevance of the tale – I could not help but think of the kids from Parkland. In short, this cast made me care about the characters and the story – high praise from someone who is, in general, not a Les Mis fan.

In a nutshell: 19th century France is wracked with poverty and social inequality. Hero Jean Valjean is released on parole after 19 of his 20-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. He breaks parole, infuriating Inspector Javert, who becomes obsessed with seeing Valjean punished. Valjean assumes a new identity, becomes a wealthy factory owner, and learns that one of his employees, Fantine, has been unjustly fired and driven to prostitution to support her daughter Cosette. Fantine dies, but Valjean vows to take care of Cosette. Valjean pays a handsome price to free Cosette from the evil Thénardiers, but is forced to reveal his real identity and flee from Javert. The Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine loves young student Marius, who falls for Cosette. Marius could flee with Cosette and Valjean, but chooses to stay to fight on the barricades with fellow idealistic rebels. The students capture Javert as a spy, but Valjean shows up, shows him mercy, and releases him. As the barricades fall and the rebels are massacred, Marius is severely wounded, but Valjean finds him and carries him through the sewers to safety. Javert dies, Cosette and Marius are wed, Valjean dies. People sing a lot, followed on opening night by a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation from a full and enthusiastic house.

Isaac Chapelle (Jean Valjean) is a real find – an accomplished vocalist who makes the challenging role seem effortless, whose robust vocals can be easily heard over the music, and who is a skilled enough actor bridge the 17-year gap in his age from prologue to closing (despite a less-then-believable beard). The show would be worth attending just to watch him, but he is ably supported by the other leads and a versatile ensemble cast. Three key women (Anna Brenner as Fantine, Ruth Hailey as Cosette, and Sherwood’s Rachel Doyel as Éponine) bring amazing vocal chops to the stage, owning their roles and giving heart-breaking authenticity to their stories.

Benjamin McGregor and Noelle Parent as the despicable Thénardiers offer spectacular comic relief, going close but never completely over the top. Zakeus Vertner seems like a classic loveable scamp as Gavroche, yet he creates a character who evokes an audible gasp when shot on the barricades (for me, the most “Parkland” moment of the show).  With my apologies to the rest of the cast – there were several other notable performances – I must single out ensemble member Annika Hyatt, who gave remarkable intensity to a series of minor roles.

Sets, costuming, and lighting all exceeded my expectations for a youth performance by a mile, and a close look at the program makes it clear that it took a village to mount this amazing production. STAGES founder Cindy Williams, along with Ventura and Riha, have given 30 young performers the chance to perform in a beautiful “bucket list” show that should nurture their love for theater while showing the world that youth theatre can rival, and even best, many adult productions. Currently, all performances are sold out.

STAGES production of Les Misérables is playing at HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro through Sunday, January 20th, with Friday and Saturday sows at 7:00 PM and Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM.