Monday, March 25, 2019

LOoP Premieres We Met in Moscow

 Lindsey Lefler and Tom Hamann in a scene at the
Tchaikovsky Concert Hall Cafe in Moscow
By Tina Arth

Light Opera of Portland (LOoP) is offering a two-week world premiere of the new musical We Met in Moscow, a love story based on the actual experiences of Portland State University Professor Emeritus Ralph Bunch and his late wife, Eleonora Andreevna. Bunch commissioned LOoP Artistic Director Dennis Britten to write the book and lyrics, with music by troupe member Kevin Lay, and the show is directed by Britten with musical direction by Lay. I have co-written two musicals, and having survived the bizarre highs and lows of the seeing my babies exposed for the public, I know what a thrilling but excruciating experience it can be. The main thing I learned from the experience is that any musical is extremely unlikely to debut in its final form – for authors who are open to it, seeing their words and music through the eyes and ears of an impartial audience highlights the strengths and weaknesses in a way that table reads and rehearsal just cannot do. It was in that spirit that I approached the opening night of We Met in Moscow, and in that spirit I was neither surprised nor disappointed with the production.

The story is a lovely one – around 1990, middle aged PSU Poly Sci professor Richard Ballad is nearing the end of a long marriage marked by growing estrangement when he travels to Moscow, meets, and soon falls in love with one of Russia’s premiere computer scientists, Eleonora Andreevna. Both are still married, and when Richard returns to Portland neither has admitted their feelings for the other. The long-distance relationship gradually develops, helped along by Eleonora’s discovery of a rare viola in the Tchaikovsky Museum that Richard buys for his son Hanzo. Richard eventually takes a temporary teaching position in Moscow to be nearer to Eleonora. When Richard develops a near-fatal case of meningitis in Russia, Eleonora intervenes to get him the best medical care possible until he can safely return to the U.S. – but she is unable to get a visa to come with him, and they cannot marry until his divorce is finalized.  Instead, Eleonora moves to Vancouver, Canada, where Richard can visit regularly until they are finally able to be married.

Neither the songs nor the script are 100% ready for prime time, although the potential is definitely there. It’s a complicated story, and some of Britten’s dialogue is unnecessarily expository and repetitive – often we find the actors telling us how they feel, and why, instead of allowing the key points to emerge organically. Lay’s music is consistently lovely, but at times so complex that the orchestra and vocalists find it challenging to mesh – in fact, one of the show’s songs was deleted after the dress rehearsal. Twenty scenes (ten in each act) with lots of associated scene changes slow down the action, and the extensive use of audience-level platforms at the far right and left sometimes leaves us craning our necks to see what’s going on.

That said, the cast (many of them LOoP regulars) deliver some fine performances. As Eleonora Andreevna, soprano Lindsey Lefler handles even the most soaring high notes with aplomb, and she captures her character’s grim resignation as the Soviet Union is collapsing yet shows traces of real fire when love and hope come into her life. Tom Hamann (as Richard Ballad) provides a nice contrast – never having been denied freedom, he has more of an American “can-do” attitude, yet we see touches of the dulling effect his loveless marriage has on his (pre-Eleonora) life.  I think I might have enjoyed Linh Nguyen’s broad take on the teenage Hanzo had I been able to see him, but I was sitting front row, center and the placement of his key scene on a platform beyond and below stage left meant that even by craning my neck I could watch only his back. One of the finest moments in the show arrives in a Scene One flashback where Eleonora’s mother, played by Gabrielle Widman, comforts her nightmare tortured daughter with the haunting and beautiful “Lullaby for Eleonora.”

As always with LOoP productions, the vocal ensemble work is rich, powerful, and consistently lovely. Choreographer Rachel Brown has done an admirable job of crafting performers with wildly variable skill levels into competent dancers, although the stage gets dizzyingly full at times – this is a case where fewer dancers would yield greater results. Given the number of scenes (and the number of lamps on the stage) Carl Dahlquist does a remarkable job working the lights, so we can forgive him for one slight (and pretty funny) slip on a telephone sound cue (kudos to Widman for saving the day!). As mentioned, the show has a complex score, and conductors Kevin Lay and Becca Stuhlbarg ensure that the orchestra does full justice to Lay’s compositions.

Should you go? Yes, but only if you can bring an open mind to the fact that you are seeing a work in many ways in its infancy. The sometimes exquisite vocal and orchestral performances, combined with the bones of a beautiful love story, will be adequate justification for those interested in seeing a nascent work with so much room to grow.

We Met in Moscow plays Friday, March 29 and Saturday, March 30 at 7:00 PM and Sunday, March 31 at 2:00 PM at the Alpenrose Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

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.