Thursday, December 19, 2019

It’s A Christmas Miracle (Worker) at Twilight!

 Nina Monique Kelly and Olivia Holmstedt

By Tina Arth

To further embed its reputation for playing way outside the borders of the sandbox, Twilight Theater is presenting playwright William Gibson’s Tony award-winning The Miracle Worker in the wintry timeslot traditionally reserved for holly and mistletoe, Scrooge and Cratchit, or at least Santa and an octet of tiny reindeer. For this I offer up heartfelt thanks – there are a lot of great plays out there, and it just doesn’t make sense to dedicate 1/8 of the year to one particular (if large) genre. Several years ago, Director Doreen Lundberg led a fine Washington County cast through a multi-award winning production of The Miracle Worker, and I suspect that she has been hankering to take another shot at the play ever since. Now that I’ve seen her 2019 take on the show, I’m glad she did – the Twilight production is a lovely way to conclude Twilight’s 2019 “In the Buff” season (and no, there are no nude scenes!).

For the uninitiated: The Miracle Worker is based on the true story of a woman named Anne Sullivan who in 1887, when not much older than child herself, moved from Boston to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to tutor a young blind and deaf girl, Helen Keller. The Kellers have no idea what to do with their daughter – half brother Jimmie wants her institutionalized, mother Kate wants to shelter and indulge her, and her father, Captain Keller, wants peace and order in his family (and subservience from his employees). Sullivan brings her own experience with blindness, fierce intelligence, persistence, and utter lack of deference to a seemingly impossible task – breaking through to Helen’s brilliant but trapped mind. Using innovative teaching methods, in a few months Sullivan succeeds in transforming her charge from a completely spoiled wild animal into a child able to learn, and ultimately to understand the roots of language, communicate with those around her, and connect with the outside world.

The show can be tough to cast well – in particular, the role of Helen is critical, demanding a young actor able to tell her whole story without the use of words. Olivia Holmstedt handles the part superbly – she is on stage almost constantly for three acts, and carries off the physical demands flawlessly. Her eyes never focus and she responds to stimuli with her entire body. More important, she somehow radiates the inner turmoil, sly cleverness, fierce temper, confusion, and emotional neediness of her character. While the roles are less demanding, the play also requires several other young girls to portray household help and blind girls in Boston. Director Lundberg managed to find 5 fine actors ranging from 7 years old to early teens to fill these smaller, but still significant roles.

The adult cast is similarly strong. Valerie Asbell’s “Annie Sullivan” is a complex mixture of self-doubt and obstinacy – tough, yet vulnerable and, like Helen, seeking connection. Asbell maintains a consistent and nicely underplayed Irish accent that reinforces her character’s essential traits, and she delivers even the sassiest lines with style. Nina Monique Kelly’s “Kate” seems like the polar opposite – conciliatory, gracious, calm, positive – but she also reveals a core of inner steel that allows her to fight for Helen and, ultimately, to make hard choices her daughter ‘s future.  I really enjoyed Rick Barr’s “Captain Keller” – his hair trigger temper, bluster, and military mien are at odds with an inner softness, and Barr transitions nicely between his interior and exterior selves.  Blaine Vincent III’s “Jimmie” is similarly divided and nuanced, as he fights for respect and love from a father who doesn’t have a clue and gradually achieves détente with his stepmother – the contrast between Blaine’s expressive eyes and Olivia’s sightlessness subtly emphasizes the problems each has in learning to communicate.

The decision to perform The Miracle Worker in an essentially black-box set was inspired. Twilight’s facility is small enough for a really intimate audience/cast relationship (even more so if, like me, you sit in the front row), and much of the story is told not with the words but with the actors’ facial expressions. The absence of a detailed set forces us to focus with laser-like precision on their faces, allowing us to discern the inner dialogues that most accurately project the characters’ feelings and reactions. In addition, eliminating lengthy scene changes supports Lundberg’s overall pacing, which keeps a longer show from dragging.

Without much in the way of a set, Robin Pair’s lighting design works overtime to create mood and to shift our attention from one part of the stage to another as the action demands.  Finally, Karen Roder’s costume design is generally precise – accurate for the period, appropriate for each character’s social status. I am a bit curious about Olivia’s footwear choice (roughly akin to combat boots) but can imagine a rationale for the decision.

I have seen, and enjoyed, several different versions of The Miracle Worker, but this one affected me with unusual emotional power, and kept me near tears toward the end. There’s only one more weekend to enjoy it – by all means trek to Twilight for a three-act break from The Jolly Season.

Twilight Theater Company’s The Miracle Worker is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through December 22, with performances at 8 P.M. on Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday. 

Saturday, December 14, 2019

TITG’s A Christmas Carol – Santa Delivers a Mixed Bag

Michael Colvin and Chandano Fuller

By Tina Arth

For this year’s holiday season Theatre in the Grove is presenting a relatively new adaptation of Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol by playwright John Mortimer. This version, first performed in 1994 by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, is essentially faithful to the original story (and the host of subsequent stage and film versions). However, it is a very distinctive approach – and the changes make it especially challenging to stage effectively in a community theater setting, where limited human and technological resources can be a handicap. Director Jeananne Kelsey’s valiant effort to reproduce both Dickens’ and Mortimer’s vision is neither an unqualified success nor an abject failure – some things work very, very well and others seem a bit forced or awkward.

The principal difference I perceived between this and other adaptations I have seen is the attempt to tell a lot of the story through the eyes of the people of London. A great deal of the action takes place in London street scenes, and much of the story is told by using the large cast as group narrators, each delivering short sequential bursts of exposition. The approach makes it clear that the story’s poverty and greed is not endemic to a particular time, place, and people, but a problem perpetrated by and victimizing all; this makes more possible the connection that the story’s moral is not limited to 19th century London, and can be applied just as easily to our current political and economic systems.

So – what works, and what doesn’t? The first thing the audience sees is the set, and Zachary Centers’ design is superb. He and his carpenters manage with paint and plywood to recreate the look of a street of Victorian row houses, including the varying textures and styles of the era and locale. The use of large folding doors and windows, combined with props on wheels, allows the scene to shift fluidly from indoor to outdoor settings. Just opening the huge second-story windows into the second story brings the audience directly into Scrooge’s bedchamber and allows critical features like his crimson bed-curtains to assume their proper prominence. The scene where we are able to watch Scrooge disrobe and dress behind a translucent screen is one of the most effective in the whole show, and it is made possible by this clever set element. Another effective choice is the casting of Tanner Morton as both Bob Cratchit and Young Scrooge. Morton manages both parts nicely, but is easily recognized as being the same actor, which really enhances the fundamental relationship between two seemingly very different men.  

While the role is not huge, Lura Longmire does a nice job of capturing Mrs. Cratchit’s anger toward Mr. Scrooge and her tenderness toward her family, and Zach Centers totally nails the goodness and optimism of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Many of the best moments are those involving the children in the cast – their irresistible cuteness softens the edges of practically every scene, and if space allowed I would rhapsodize about each of them. Special props to Izzy Swendig as Tiny Tim. Tim is often played so melodramatically that A Christmas Carol starts to feel like “The Tiny Tim Show,” but Swendig shows restraint, allowing us to perceive that illness and poverty are by no means limited to members of the Cratchit family. Little Emma Klingler also demands recognition for her three roles as a small Cratchit, Fan, and the haunting Want.  Finally, all three ghosts (Wendy Bax, Ron Hansen, and Michael Feuerbach) are fun – the audience clearly loved seeing their friends done up in over-the-top costumes, exuding spectral excess.

What doesn’t work quite so well? First, the multiple narrators are a problem, given the cast.  The 100% professional cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company may be able to pull off the choppy narrative structure of these segments, but the TITG actors are not all up to this challenge. Thus, some lines were lost from failure to project, garbled accents, and the absence of the split-second timing necessary to carry it off. Another problem area is Michael Colvin’s generally effective, but sometimes rocky, performance as Mr. Scrooge. Colvin has the affect, the attitude, the look, even the walk – but when I saw the show, he appeared to occasionally forget his lines, which led to some awkward pauses and to other actors filling in or trying to give him appropriate cues.

Should you go? Yes, but with the understanding that this is not the traditional A Christmas Carol you might expect. Had I boned up on the Mortimer version in advance, or had the program included a director’s note that explained why it was structured the way it was, I would have had a much better experience. It’s probably much too late for that director’s note, but there’s plenty of time to do a Google search and read up on the show ahead of time. The production retains the essence and importance of Dickens’ themes – may it always be part of our Christmas story!

A Christmas Carol is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through December 22 with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Little Women – The Musical at HART Surprisingly Fun!

Kathleen Taylor, Aaron Morrow, Sarah Nolte, Samuel Alexander Hawkins,
Elise Byrne, Robin Reese Michaels, Bronwyn Jones, Jessica Gerson, Noah
Miller, and Andy Roberts (on floor)

By Tina Arth

Based on my personal attitude toward the book, movies, and conventional play, I was not terribly optimistic about HART Theatre’s holiday offering, a comparatively new (2005) and very different approach to Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women.  However, the book (by playwright Allan Knee), lyrics (by Mindi Dickstein), and music (by Jason Howland) caught me completely off-guard. Instead of two acts of maudlin musical soap opera, I was treated to a fast-paced, almost Cliff’s Notes version of the book, leaving room for plenty of music, exploration of heroine Jo’s experiences outside the March household, and several really engaging (and funny) fantasy sequences drawn from Jo’s vivid imagination. Director Chris Byrne and vocal director Lindsey Lefler have whipped their cast into a singing, dancing, swashbuckling machine that provides some really first-class performances.

Between deletion of some story elements, expansion of others, and a non-linear timeline, audience members not familiar with conventional presentations of Little Women may find it all a bit confusing at first, but even for the uninitiated the story quickly gels. While most of the play takes place in the March household in Concord, Massachusetts, Act I begins in 1865 in the New York City boarding house where Jo is working and pursuing her dream to be an author – it is here that we meet Jo, Mrs. Kirk (the homeowner) and Professor Bhaer. After the opening scene, the action shifts back a year, and we meet the four March daughters, Marmee (their mother), the wealthy, independent widow, Aunt March, their neighbor Mr. Laurence, his nephew Theodore (“Laurie”), and Laurie’s tutor, Mr. Brooke.  Leave it at this: rebellious, independent tomboy Jo shares her home with her Marmee and three close-knit sisters, the conventional Meg, sweet but frail Beth, and Amy, the often bratty youngest girl. They are quite poor, a condition exacerbated by their father’s absence (he has gone off to join the Union Army and fallen quite ill).  Marmee goes off to nurse her husband, and over time the unity of the family is threatened by both illness and romance – by the end, one daughter is lost and the remaining girls have each found love. See the musical at HART for more, and watch the new movie (or an older version) or read the book for all of the details!

Expect to be blown away by the energy and talent of the HART cast – not always perfect, but giving their all and hitting some amazing literal and figurative high notes as actors, singers, and dancers.  A few high points (with no intent to slight actors not mentioned): Elise Byrne’s “Jo” brings jaw-dropping vitality to her role, displaying unexpected talent for physical comedy and hitting some show-stopping, prolonged high notes that set the stage on fire! Jessica Gerson is perfect for the role of quiet, timid “Beth” – but the real fun is seeing her transformed into the heroic Rodrigo II. Sarah Nolte, as the family’s anchor Marmee, is especially moving when she lets her guard down at vulnerable moments, as in the beautiful “Here Alone.” 

Andy Roberts’ villainous “Braxton” is high melodrama, and Noah Miller’s “Rodrigo” is hilarious as he leaps into the imaginary fray.  Miller’s sensitive performance as Laurie provides some of the best acting in the show, and his skill as a dancer sets a high bar for the rest of the cast.  Another fine performance comes from Samuel Alexander Hawkins, whose “Professor Bhaer” plays such a key role in the musical version – I had not really seen Hawkins’ vocal ability in previous shows, and was impressed with the maturity he brought to the role.  Finally, the overall vocal ensemble work was utterly lovely – powerful, accurate, and worthy of HART’s upgraded new sound system.

As usual with community theater, people off-stage wear multiple hats - Director Byrne’s responsibilities included both set and costume design, and she did an impressive job with all of her roles. Lovers of more traditional presentations of Little Women should thoroughly enjoy this unique take, and for the Little Women averse (like myself) the show is a must-see!

Little Women is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, December 22, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.  There is an additional 2:00 p.m. performance on Saturday, December 14.

The Game’s Afoot – And Remarkably Fleet!

Peter Schuyler, Signe Larsen, Patrick Spike, Phillip J.
Berns, and Arianne Jacques, with Jessi Walters (seated).
Photo by
 Casey Campbell Photography.

By Tina Arth

Yes, Virginia – there was a William Gillette, and there is a Gillette Castle. That’s about where the resemblance to reality ends in Bag&Baggage’s utterly hilarious and wildly farcical production of playwright Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays. Director Kymberli Colbourne has guided (goaded?) a superb cast to heights of melodrama and beautifully choreographed physical comedy not often seen on local stages, and the entire production team (with special props to scenic designer Shannon Cramer) has created a delightfully meta atmosphere that completely draws the audience into the fun.

The story is based (very loosely) on American actor/playwright William Gillette, whose many stage performances as Sherlock Holmes helped to make the master detective a household name in the US, as well as creating many of the stereotypes of the Holmesian mythos. Shortly before Christmas, Gillette is shot in the arm while exiting a theater after a performance. He retreats to his Connecticut lair, the elaborately designed Gillette Castle, to recuperate under the care of his mother, Martha.  Gillette invites his fellow cast members to spend the holidays at his estate – ostensibly just to celebrate, but actually in hopes of using his skills as a master detective (he sometimes confuses himself with the character he plays on stage) to solve the mystery of who shot him. Using a play-within-a-play format, he tries to uncover the identity of his assailant. Things go awry, despised theater critic Daria Chase turns up with a knife in her back, the classically inept Inspector Goring arrives to investigate, and through a series of tortured plot twists the guests and audience are led to the show’s surprise conclusion.

All eight cast members deliver memorable parodies of 1930’s stars noir, and the show begins by setting up their performances with a series of appropriately melodramatic film clips. Andrew Beck’s William Gillette is simply wonderful  - dry, sardonic, and much larger than life – he makes it clear to everyone that he is the star. Arianne Jacques as Aggie Wheeler is the quintessential wide-eyed starlet, whose apparently innocent mien barely masks her ambition – and she absolutely rocks an art deco gown that evokes the top of the Chrysler Building.  The always-exquisite Jessi Walters is delightful as the thoroughly despicable Daria Chase, and she earns every epithet ever thrown at a venomous (if perhaps accurate) critic.

Phillip J. Berns, who plays the charmingly overt social climber Simon Bright, uses his energy and mobile facial expressions to silently comment on the action even when he’s far from center stage, and he is thus eminently worth watching.  Speaking of watchable, a cross-dressing Patrick Spike gives Martha Gillette a fabulously campy affect – ludicrously bewigged and attired and clearly having fun portraying a much larger-than-life mother hen.

The action takes place almost exclusively in Gillette’s living room, one of the cleverest sets I’ve seen. Instead of creating the lavish splendor one might expect, designer Shannon Cramer fills the stage with life-sized sketches of the room’s design elements, utilizing what appear to be giant chalkboards for crude drawings, augmented by detailed notes. I particularly liked the giant Victorian Christmas tree and the arrow pointing to a trick latch, but the bookcases augmented by the proposed color palette are no less fun.

The Game’s Afoot requires elaborate choreography – the characters are constantly executing carefully time entrances and exits, as well as the controlled chaos of a fast-paced environment where actors celebrate, drink, argue, fight, and occasionally drag a body (Walters’ proficiency at playing dead weight is simply staggering). Director Colbourne and her cast and crew create one of the funniest Bag&Baggage Christmas shows I’ve seen, and the company deserves nothing but the full houses they are earning for the run.

Bag&Baggage’s The Game’s Afoot is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through December 23d. However, all shows are currently sold out except for December 19th and 20th.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

It Happened One Christmas - Broadway Rose Delivers

By Tina Arth

While I love Christmas music, the season can find me groaning at the prospect of a seemingly endless procession of holiday shows. However, 2019 has been a happy exception. Of the five post-Thanksgiving shows I’ll have seen by December 25th, only two are overtly Christmas-themed – and only one is gifted with a hearty dose of holiday songs. Better yet, the company offering my lone dose of mangers, Santa Claus, and Bethlehem is Broadway Rose. Their musical revue, It Happened One Christmas, offers a carefully curated and unexpectedly diverse selection of standards and newer material delivered by truly amazing performers. The result is about 1½ hours of dynamite music, a bit of wraparound plot, and nothing that sounds even remotely like Christmas muzak – exactly what I wanted!

The production is the result of collaboration between Managing Director Dan Murphy (also the show’s director) and author/musical arranger (among his many talents) Rick Lewis.  It’s Christmas Eve, and after all of the shoppers have gone home, Santa’s Chalet in Grimbles Department Store is empty except for security guard Walter and cleaner Frances – or so they think. Unknown to the two, a quartet of exceptionally lively mannequins are singing and dancing their way through the evening, although they quickly disappear almost every time the humans show up. Frances and Walter build a lovely friendship as they reminisce about Christmases past, find comfort in each other’s company and chase away loneliness in this least likely setting for a holiday dinner.

All of this is, of course, just an excuse for the cast to sing and dance their way through the evening – and so they do! After an opening ensemble number, we first meet Walter (Fred Bishop) when, alone on stage, he launches into a pitch-perfect (and perfectly schmaltzy) “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” In the cleverly staged “Real Live Girl” we learn that he, like “Mannequins” Chad Cramer and Jalena Scott, can also dance – even if one of the mannequins is actually a mannequin!  Scott and Cramer follow the number with a lovely “Winter Wonderland” and a lively “Man With the Bag” that amply showcase their remarkable voices.

While the ensemble work is lovely, and the ballads are moving, it’s the addition of some gentle comic fare that keeps the evening really alive. Jennifer Goldsmith’s “Frances,” the crusty cleaner with attitude and a heart of gold, delivers some of the evening’s best light moments, with her expressive  (somewhere between Fanny Brice and Carol Burnett) face, clear grasp of physical comedy, and a voice that won’t quit. Another comic standout is “Mannequin” Megan Tudor – her “Never Fall In Love With An Elf” is a showstopper! Dance Captain Tudor displays another side when she and partner  “Mannequin” Colin Stephen Kane dance their way through “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” – the woman is a true musical theater triple threat! Kane gets a chance to show off his skill as a vocal soloist in “Beneath the Tree,” an original song by Rick Lewis that fits nicely in the program.

The holiday cheer is amplified by scenic designer Kristeen Willis’ wonderful set, evocative of the temporarily festive basement of an old-fashioned department store. Phil McBeth’s lighting design is perfect – depending on the demands of the moment, the atmosphere changes from a slightly sad “after the party” air to full-on holiday cheer. Props, as always, to musical director/pianist/conductor Jeffrey Childs, Bassist Amy Roesler, and drummer Mitch Wilson – although we never see them, they provide the platform on which the whole show is built.

Recent Broadway Rose shows have been selling out quickly, and this one is no exception – there are very few seats available for the remainder of the show’s run. Get on the website immediately, be very flexible, and you just might be able to snag a ticket.

It Happened One Christmas is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, December 22.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Man Who Came to BCT

 Jayne Ruppert, Chuck Weed, and Peter Bolger

By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s ambitious fall offering of The Man Who Came to Dinner is a huge show in many respects. Start with the playwrights – Pulitzer Prize winners George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who teamed up on this and several other much-loved works of the American stage.  Add in a massive cast, with 23 players who fill 32 roles. Top it off with a l-o-n-g script - it’s a sprawling, three-act comedy with two intermissions, three hours plus of lots of dialogue peppered with countless laugh lines and a hefty dose of physical comedy (Kaufman also wrote for the Marx Brothers, and it shows). Director Matt Gibson must have faced some profound challenges when it came time to cast his show – a classic laden with a few dream leads and lots of hilarious supporting roles that inevitably draws a plethora of eager and able auditioners, and he managed to snag a few of the area’s best comic actors for his show.

The play is set in the late 1930s in the upscale Stanley home in Mesalia, Ohio. The story (and the universe, in the opinion of the main character) revolves around the plight of Sheridan Whiteside, an utterly self-centered radio personality on a speaking tour who injures himself slipping on ice outside the Stanley home. Soon after the Stanleys bring him into their home to recuperate, they discover that Sheridan is the houseguest from hell. The Stanleys take refuge upstairs after Sheridan takes over their living room, den, telephone, and staff for the two-week period leading up to Christmas morning. When not kvetching at his long-suffering assistant Maggie, berating his nurse and doctor, and offering unsolicited advice to family members, he entertains a series of guests including several paroled ex-cons and some extraordinarily eccentric show biz types. While he thoroughly alienates Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, he does bond with the two Stanley children, the bizarre Aunt Harriet, the household staff, and local newspaper man/aspiring playwright Bert Jefferson. When Maggie finds romance with Bert and the two become engaged, Whiteside commits the ultimate transgression, using subterfuge to break them up rather than lose his assistant.  Act III is laden with surprises, and things work out pretty well, but with a final twist that leaves the family and the audience with a parting groan.

With such a large cast it’s only possible to recognize a few of the actors – starting with Chuck Weed’s fun and flexible take on Whiteside. As illustrated by his choice of friends/allies, Whiteside has no tolerance for Mid-Western pretentious mores, and Weed does a lovely job of switching between snidely pompous iconoclast, manipulative and overbearing boss, and enthusiastic supporter of the different, downtrodden and powerless (artists, actors, household help, children, and criminals). Erin Bickler’s Maggie is pitch-perfect as the brash, wisecracking assistant who takes a lot but never buckles – she reminds me of such 30s/40s comediennes as Joan Davis.

Two local comic heroes, Les Ico and Daniel Rhovan, live up to their hype and then some. Ico’s “Banjo” (Groucho? Harpo?) is a marvel of timing, delivery, and physicality – well worth waiting for, as he doesn’t appear until late in the play.  Rhovan is equally memorable as the flamboyant “Beverly Carlton” (based on Noel Coward). Virginia Kincaid once again earns my “most disturbing” award as Aunt Harriet – another character with a big Act III payoff. Speaking of Act III payoffs, watch Patricia Alston as actress Lorraine Sheldon, who has clearly earned her loose-living reputation as well as her final disposition.  For me, the real sleeper comic performance comes from Jayne Ruppert as the harassed yet stoic nurse, Miss Preen. Ruppert finds just the right level of deadpan desperation, and her restraint pays off with a solid round of applause when she finally lets it all out.

Director Gibson places 100% of the action in a detailed living room set, which allows him to eliminate lengthy scene changes that could slow down the action, and his pacing is brisk. Pam Taylor’s costume design is particularly effective, nicely capturing the 1930s era; the women’s dresses are particularly accurate, and lend a lot to the ambience.

Be prepared - even with minimal scene changes, The Man Who Came to Dinner is still a long show. I noticed a few audience members leaving after each intermission – a terrible decision, in my opinion, since Act III pays off so well – hang in there!

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The Man Who Came to Dinner runs through Saturday, November 23d at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sundays.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Lakewood’s Lovely Shakespeare in Love

Murri Lazaroff-Babin and Kelsey Glasser

By Tina Arth

Hats off to Lakewood Theatre Company for the sheer variety of their fall offerings – closing Rocky Horror on October 13th and opening Shakespeare in Love on November 1st shows remarkable respect for the resilience of their audience! The overall excellence of both productions is really the only thing they have in common – but isn’t that really all we need? If you loved the Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman movie version (Best Picture, 1998), then you will be equally charmed by Director David Sikking’s presentation of playwright Lee Hall’s stage adaptation. If you have not seen the movie, you’ll be all the more surprised at the wit and originality of the story (and you should still find a way to see the movie – I’m now scheming on locating it online or On Demand for another viewing).

The story is absurd, and rarely attempts historical accuracy, but it is laden with sly hints about Shakespeare’s future as an author, and includes scenes that express a lot of truth about the playwriting and theatrical rivalries of the Elizabethan age. The tale begins with a young William Shakespeare in the throes of crippling writer’s block. His latest play (a comedy with the unlikely title of Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter),is overdue, and the impoverished author has already sold it to two different theaters. He needs a muse, and finds one in the fair (and very wealthy) Viola de Lesseps, destined for an arranged marriage to Lord Wessex.  She nurses a private yen to be an actor, a career path closed to her due to her social station and gender (no women were allowed on stage), so in classic Shakespearean fashion, Viola disguises herself a man; it is in that guise that she wins the lead role in the as-yet-unfinished play.  Will and Viola (as herself, not her male persona) fall madly in love and lust, but the fates interfere – in addition to the utterly brutish Lord Wessex, there is the small matter of Will’s wife. The whole story comes wrapped in romance and humor, accented by a host of wonderful moments with other characters, including playwrights (Burbage, Marlowe), Queen Elizabeth and, even better, an actual dog!

Kelsey Glasser and Murri Lazaroff-Babin are captivating as Viola and Will. Their chemistry grows slowly, but by the end we really feel their pain as they stoically follow their preordained fates.  Other fun performers include Ruth Jenkins (Viola’s Nurse), Michael Streeter (a dignified if somewhat indignant Burbage), Murren Kennedy’s doomed Marlowe, and Alec Lugo’s powerful and powerfully detestable Wessex. Olivia Shimkus is hilariously tight-lipped as the Queen, and equally funny when she gushes over the fair Eliza (appropriately typecast as Dog), and Chris Murphy (in various roles) is not to be missed – watch for a larger-than-average Londoner with a killer glare.

Even by Lakewood’s lofty standards, John Gerth’s scenic design is spectacular - evocative of the grimy back streets of 16th century London yet flexible enough to allow dignified entrances for the Queen, and with levels for both horseplay and swordplay. Margaret Louise Chapman’s costumes are superb – not overdone, but definitely detailed enough to establish the time and place.  For a non-musical, the show has a lot of singing and dancing, and the cast does a fine job with Kemba Shannon’s choreography – at times the activity is so intense that the scene seems on the verge of chaos, but it is all carefully controlled. I was particularly enchanted with Rodolfo Ortega’s musical direction and sound design – at times the music magically infused the whole theater, and the vocal harmonies were so precise and subtle that I had to watch the players’ lips to see that they were actually singing.

Luckily for prospective audience members, Shakespeare in Love has a long run and there are lots of performances still to come. I highly and happily recommend this little jewel as a great way to kick off the holiday theatrical scene!

Shakespeare in Love is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, December 8th. Ticket information is available at

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Mask & Mirror Has Fun With Leading Ladies

Jeff Ekdahl and Kira Smolev
Photo by Tony Smith
By Tina Arth

Does the world need yet another production of yet another “men in drag” farce? Mask & Mirror explores this question with its current production of Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies, billed as the playwright’s “love letter to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.” The answer is, at least to me, clearly no – but at the same time, this kind of theater is a marvelously therapeutic way to get away from CNN (or Fox News – name your poison) and remind yourself of the critical role of laughter in troubled times.  The story is predictably silly; on opening night, director Janet Steiger Carr and her cast definitely milk it, generating two acts of repeated laugh-out-loud moments from an appreciative audience.

The story is set in the 1950s; Leo Clark and Jack Gable (get it? Clark Gable!) are down-on-their luck British Shakespearean actors who find themselves broke and stranded in York, Pennsylvania, a couple of hundred miles but light years away from the bright lights of Broadway. Learning that elderly Florence Snider has left her substantial estate to niece Meg and two missing heirs, Max and Steve, the two men decide to impersonate the missing nephews and claim 1/3 of the loot. Naturally, things get complicated - first, Aunt Florence is still alive and kicking, and second, Max and Steve are actually women, Maxine and Stephanie. The eager Leo and a very reluctant Jack raid their theatrical costume trunk and arrive at the estate in drag, pretending to be the missing heiresses. Leo quickly becomes enamored of his “cousin” Meg, who is inconveniently engaged to a very austere local minister – but his ability to woo her is inhibited by the fact that he’s posing as a woman. Of course it all works out in the end (except, perhaps, for two discarded suitors – Jack also falls for Meg’s friend Audrey).

Kira Smolev’s take on heroine Meg is superb – she’s cute, expressive, and just wacky enough to sell the role without being annoyingly dumb.  Jeff Ekdahl’s Leo is a smooth con man, high-toned verging on supercilious until he falls for Meg and finds his true character – and his “Max” is an eccentric, pushy drama queen who flips the hair on his/her long black wig with abandon. Ted Schroeder is the polar opposite – awkward, negative, cautious as Jack, and clearly uncomfortable with his female persona – a discomfort amplified by the fact that he is supposed to be deaf and dumb.  Schroeder does a terrible job of impersonating a woman – but fortunately, that’s exactly what he is supposed to do.

Stan Yeend, in the comparatively small role of inept local medico Doc Meyers, delivers the surprise standout performance of the evening. His timing, inflection, and facial expressions reflect his real mastery of comedy; he is coarse, a bit sly, and consistently hilarious. Mark Putnam is staid to the point of rigidity as minister Duncan Wooley, Meg’s extremely uptight fiancé – it’s easy to understand why she so readily dumps him for Leo once the gender deception is revealed.

No discussion of this production is complete without a heaping helping of praise for the set, with design credit shared between John Knowles, Don Scorby, and director Carr.  Kudos also to set dressers Cindy Zimmerman and Roni Sidman – the end result of their efforts is an attractive, detailed set that provides a great backdrop for the action. Costumes are also the product of collaboration, and the result is sometimes lovely (like Smolev’s red dress) and sometimes funny (like Schroeder’s bloomers).

I would never suggest that Leading Ladies is a brilliant show, or that the Mask & Mirror production is flawless – but it’s solid, undemanding farce that delivers laughs where it should.

Mask & Mirror’s Leading Ladies runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through November 17th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Veronica’s Room – A Dose of Halloween Horror

Georgia Ketchmark and Paul Roder. Photo by Alicia Turvin
 By Tina Arth

I have a love/hate relationship with shows that have small casts. Love?  I relish the opportunity to really watch people develop their roles, and take great pleasure in giving brief recognition to each actor in my review. Hate? I pretty much have to mention each cast member, so a weak link really stands out. However, in the case of Twilight’s current production, Veronica’s Room, it’s love-love-love-love for the four remarkable performers who, under Alicia Turvin’s marvelous direction, bring Ira Levin’s creepy story to jarring, vibrant life.

It’s hard to give much of an overview of Veronica’s Room without spilling over into major spoiler territory. Leave it at this: it’s 1973, and a young woman (just referred to as “Girl” in the program) and her date (“Young Man”) have met an older couple, “Man” and “Woman” in a Boston café. Man and Woman are Irish, and are caretakers for an ill, elderly woman with dementia (“Cissy”) whose sister Veronica died of TB in 1935, after being locked in isolation in her room for several years. Cissy still lives in the family home, and Veronica’s old bedroom has been preserved exactly as it was when she died. Cissy doesn’t understand that Veronica died – rather, she thinks that Veronica left because she was angry with Cissy. Because Girl bears a strong resemblance to Veronica, Man and Woman have asked Girl and Young Man back to the home. The entire play takes place in Veronica’s room, where Man and Woman beg Girl to impersonate Veronica long enough to explain to Cissy that she’s not mad, thus relieving her “sister’s” anxiety in her last days. After discussing the plan with Young Man, who is not terribly supportive of the idea, Girl finally agrees to the deal, starting with choosing one of Veronica’s old dresses plus undergarments from the chifforobe and fixing her hair in a style suitable to 1935.  From this point on, playwright Levin plays with our sense of time and reality, there are a series of plot twists, and ultimately things go very badly. Perfect for Halloween, the play devolves into a tale of horror – to put it mildly, some people are a lot less charming in Act II than they were in Act I.

The play is written with four powerful roles, and each of the four actors is absolutely superb - which helps to makes a fundamentally creepy and disturbing show really compelling. Jaiden Wirth (Girl) delivers the performance of a lifetime, evolving from curious but reluctant through amused and adventurous, confused, frightened, acquiescent, and ultimately terrified. She is utterly believable throughout – and special props to her for never overplaying the role into a stereotypical hippie chick. Ryan O’Connell-Peller’s “Young Man” plays a single character with three very distinct personas, yet manages to remain distant and aloof in each – which somehow accentuates the evil.

Paul Roder (Man) maintains an aura of neurotic calm throughout, which initially tricks us into believing that he is relatively sane, even kindly, despite some unusual tics and quirky mannerisms – in particular, he exerts remarkable control of his facial muscles to create two completely different views of the same man.  As his counterpart, “Woman,” Georgia Ketchmark is the polar opposite – initially genial and outgoing, even somewhat bubbly, but evolving into uncontrollable rage as the real story emerges. Ketchmark also acted as fight choreographer for the show, and her work absolutely sparkles in Wirth’s frantic struggles.

The set is cluttered and dated, which makes perfect sense once the audience gets enough information to understand the intricacies of time and place. Mark Turvin’s sound design includes music that moves with the script – alternating between the mid-thirties and the early seventies and helping to create the eerie sense that time and place are malleable. Karen Roder’s costumes perform the same function, defining each character’s current reality by shifting style.

Veronica’s Room is not, in my opinion, anywhere near a perfect script – some of the transitions seem unnaturally abrupt, well suited to a dark mystery but allowing too little time for the audience to adjust to changing realities. However, four strong of performances more than compensate for Levin’s mild authorial shortcomings. The show is definitely R-rated for language, violence, partial nudity, and sexual imagery – but definitely a must-see for sophisticated audiences who appreciate fine acting served with a hefty dose of unrelenting horror.

Twilight Theater Company’s Veronica’s Room is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through November 3, with performances at 8 P.M. on Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday.  There is an additional 8:00 PM performance on Thursday, October 31.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

A (Brilliant!) Clockwork Orange at Bag&Baggage

Photo by Casey Campbell

By Tina Arth

Prior to last night, my only experience with A Clockwork Orange was almost 50 years ago, when I saw (and hated) the movie. I have since learned that Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, like pre-1986 American editions of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novella, omitted the final chapter. The result was that an already darkly dystopian tale was deprived of a hint of redemption that puts the whole story in completely different framework.

Luckily for me (and for theater-goers around the globe) the author never really liked the way his story had been handled on film or in the U.S. print version. In 1987 Burgess released A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music (subsequently updated for an off-Broadway production in 2017), and it is this show, with the final chapter restored, that undergirds director Cassie Greer’s stunning Bag&Baggage production at the Vault in Hillsboro. I can best describe my reaction as West Side Story meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with just a hint of The Wizard of Oz.

The play retains the novella’s essential elements, but the staging and the addition of music lend a slightly lighthearted air that allows Burgess’ essential themes (principally, that free will is essential to a meaningful human experience) to shine through the story’s overt violence. A Clockwork Orange tells the tale of Alex, an angry and violent teen in a totalitarian, futuristic society. Courtesy of his unbridled aggression, he takes leadership of a strange little gang (Georgie, Dim, and Pete) who express themselves with a curious lingo called “Nadsat” that seems to be a hybrid of Russian and Cockney slang. Out on a crime spree after a night of drugged drinking at the local milk bar, Alex and his droogs (friends) fight with a rival gang, rob an author and rape his wife; later they break into the home of an elderly woman who dies during the attack. The other gang members escape, but Alex is caught and given a 14-year sentence. A few years into the sentence, Alex is subjected to an experimental behavioral modification treatment that uses aversion therapy to render him incapable of violence. The treatment is initially successful, and he is released from prison, but as Act II progresses things go (predictably) wrong.

The cast is all male, and with the exception of Aaron Cooper Swor, who plays Alex, each cast member plays multiple parts, including the roles of women. Jim Rick-White’s lighting design often assaults our senses with its harsh use of contrast, while costuming and sets are minimalist. The effect is a hard-edged but surreal presentation that features, but never glorifies, the darkness inherent in the script. The play is filled with scenes of fighting and raw violence, but choreographer Mandana Khoshnevisan has created a hybrid of gymnastics and ballet that softens the impact and lends some humor to even the harshest moments. The end result is a play where we never forget that we are watching an allegory, rather than simulated reality – and this challenges the audience to concentrate on the author’s (and director’s) thematic intent.

Swor is superb in a bizarrely challenging role where he must lead the audience through a series of reactions from utter disgust and alienation through brief flashes of empathy, setting us up to finally accept a surprising degree of transformation as he recovers the free will he lost during treatment. Watch also for Ty Hendrix’s athleticism and his skill at adapting to the needs of his many roles, and for Andrew Beck’s supremely arrogant, almost inhuman Dr. Brodsky. While you’re at it, watch them all – there are neither small roles nor weak links in this 9-person cast.

Audience members are invited to read a synopsis of the show at intermission to help them comprehend the dialogue, so peppered with Nadsat that it might seem unintelligible at times. I started to look at a clipboard, but immediately put it down when I realized that despite the odd language barrier the actors had told the story so clearly that I needed to no interpreter. If you have not seen or read any previous incarnations of A Clockwork Orange, go see the Bag&Baggage production simply for the merit of the presentation and message. Otherwise, forget everything you know about the book or film and go to see a brilliant take on a compelling tale.

Bag&Baggage’s A Clockwork Orange is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through October 27th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.