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.


South Pacific - 70 Years Later the Message Still Resonates

Men's Ensemble

By Tina Arth

Theatre in the Grove’s 2019-2020 season celebrates 50 years of ambitious community theater in Forest Grove with a powerful combination of shows old and new, beginning with the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. It’s a huge undertaking – a three-hour show with 27 cast members plus a 14-piece orchestra – under the experienced guidance of director Zachary Centers and musical director Michelle Bahr, both long-time TITG veterans. The result is a show that offers some spectacular performances, strong vocal ensemble work, and really nice choreography, but is still a somewhat uneven production.

On one level, South Pacific is a tale of heroism and sacrifice on a small Pacific island group during World War II. Two brave men, one a young Marine and the other an expatriate French planter, risk their lives to hide on a deserted island and report Japanese military activity to a nearby U.S. Naval base. The real story, and the one that has made the story an indelible classic, is the courage of its authors in boldly confronting racial intolerance in a major musical – in 1949, when the show opened on Broadway, much of the American public was not perceived to be ready for a story that openly confronted the racism so endemic in our society. It is the emotional journey of two young white G.I.s overcoming their cultural biases against interracial relationships that engages the audience – we may be charmed by the show’s abundant humor, but we are moved by the way love allows Little Rock hick Nellie Forbush and Philadelphia Main Liner Joe Cable to move beyond their ethnocentric backgrounds. Comic numbers like “Honey Bun” and “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and romantic numbers like “Some Enchanted Evening” are the show’s big blockbusters, but it is the quiet “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” that carries the essential message of South Pacific.

The show is anchored by its amazing female lead, Alison Luey, whose Nellie Forbush is a nonstop delight from curtain to curtain. Luey can out sing, out dance, even out giggle any Forbush I’ve ever seen, and her presence on the stage makes the whole experience worthwhile. Another real showstopper is area newcomer Andie Moreno, an opera singer whose larger than life Bloody Mary is hilarious, heartbreaking, and utterly fierce.  Her bio indicates that this is her first major role in a musical – I find this hard to believe, and L.A.’s loss is definitely our gain.

TITG veteran performer Dan Bahr is delightfully uninhibited as the scheming, outlandish Seabee Luther Billis; he leads the men’s chorus in a rousing version of “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and lets it all hang out with abandon, displaying impressive abdominal control, during “Honey Bun.” Although his performance rarely matches that of his love interest, Luey, Seth Yohnka handles the challenging vocals of Emile de Becque nicely, especially the poignant “This Nearly Was Mine.” As Lieutenant Cable, Robert Altieri achieves believable chemistry with a genuinely lovely Kathleen Shew (Liat), but some of the songs are a bit out of his vocal range, forcing him to hold back in his key numbers. Both the men’s and women’s ensemble work is superb – fun, boisterous, embracing both the vocals and Jeananne Kelsey’s whimsical choreography and repeatedly bringing the show to life.

Even it it’s not a perfect production, South Pacific is a perfect way for Theatre in the Grove to kick off their 50th season – big, bold, rooted firmly in the past but still relevant today, and willing to tackle any challenge, much like the troupe that presents it. Local audiences are fortunate to have such a remarkable resource in their community, and they should turn out in droves to celebrate both the show and the dedicated folks who bring it to them.

South Pacific is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through October 27th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Once Upon a Time at Broadway Rose…

By Tina Arth

My one and only trip to Dublin (many years ago) was a disaster – I was very pregnant, money was very tight, and it was the dead of winter. This was not a propitious introduction, and I never succumbed to the urge to revisit the Emerald Isle. Courtesy of Broadway Rose’s production of Once, I was finally granted a glimpse into the warm, sometimes raucous, always charming Irish culture of legend, and it was a mind-altering experience. In the hands of Director Isaac Lamb and his team, the Tony winning play (Best Musical) that also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song comes to life with an immediacy that completely envelops the entire audience – the spirit of a traditional ceilidh, but in a contemporary context.

Once is based on a movie by John Carney, with book by Enda Walsh, Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The play tells the story of and Irish musician/songwriter (“Guy”) and a Czech woman (“Girl”) who meet in Dublin as Guy is preparing to give up his quest of a musical career (symbolized graphically when he leaves his guitar abandoned on the street) – he will focus on his trade as a vacuum cleaner repairman. Girl, who is an accomplished pianist, refuses to allow this, insisting that he can win back his lost love (who has moved to New York) and succeed in music. She uses a conveniently broken vacuum cleaner as her entrée into his shop, where she convinces him to continue playing the guitar. Of course they fall in love, but there are barriers to their relationship – and thus goes the story.

Once is somewhat unique among musicals in that the cast is the orchestra; of the 13 cast members, 12 play at least one instrument (the exception is Eva Hudson Leoniak, who plays Girl’s young daughter Ivonka). However, this orchestra seems to be having an amazing amount of fun – and sharing it with the audience, as they are scattered all over the stage singing, dancing, and acting their way through 2+ hours of extraordinary original music interspersed with traditional Irish tunes. Isaac Lamb’s choreography and Eric Nordin’s music direction meld beautifully, and the cast could not be better.

Morgan Hollingswirth (“Guy”) captures the essence of a wounded, guarded, slightly surly character hiding behind a bitter wall to protect himself from further loss – just the kind of damaged goods to attract a determined woman like Girl (Marissa Neitling). Neitling is astonishingly good – her character’s quirky persistence and inability to respect boundaries, combined with a gentle Czech accent and some truly amazing timing, grab the audience from her first appearance and make her both the comic and romantic center of the show.

There are truly no weak links, but a few cast highlights include Jahnava Alyssa (“Reza”), who manages to play the violin while undulating around the stage with stunningly casual sensuality. Guitar players Andrew Maldarelli (“Billy”) and Jay Tatco-Nowak (“Emcee”) inspire much of the audience interaction, drawing us into some rousing Irish sing-alongs.  Kymberli Colbourne’s “Baruska” (Girl’s mother) creates the solidly supportive mother/grandmother who holds the immigrant family together, and watching her on the accordion is way too much fun.

All of this happens on a set that faithfully recreates the atmosphere of a beautifully lit back street Dublin pub, which the audience is free to explore before the show, and to inhabit (via tables and chairs arrayed upstage) during the performance. Jamie Hammon’s costume design (from Reza’s torn tights to Ivonka’s striped pajamas) captures the essence of each character, and the sound design seamlessly copes with the challenge of a horde of musicians/vocalists wandering all over the stage (and occasionally the aisles).

A few years ago, a friend at Broadway Rose expressed to me his concern that the company needed to find a way to attract new audiences, including younger patrons, in order to flourish for another 25 years. The entire run of Once sold out before opening night – and this is not the first time this has happened this year. Clearly, Broadway Rose has found the formula to attract and retain its audience now and in the future – the secret seems to be selecting the right shows, the right directors, and the right casts. If you don’t already have tickets to Once, I can only suggest that you make plans early to welcome the holiday season with It Happened One Christmas.

Once is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, October 27th.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Vertigo’s complex – Message? Fun? Both!

Alanna Archibald and Blake Stone

By Tina Arth

For the second time this fall, I ventured out of my comfortable Westside Theatre cocoon to check out something thematically and geographically new to me – in this case, Theatre Vertigo’s world premier production of Dominic Finocchiaro’s complex at the Shoebox Theatre in the wilds of SE Portland. For the second time, I was rewarded with a great show performed by a top-notch cast. In his Director’s Notes, Connery MacRae explicitly instructs us to view the show as a comedy (which it most definitely is – and a deliciously dark one, at that), but also gives us permission to simultaneously consider it “a cautionary tale about the perils of communal living when it is divorced from the development of community.”  I followed his instructions to the letter – made no effort to discern any meaningful thematic content during the show, but afterwards I put some time into contemplating some bizarre aspects of community. I will try not to annoy you with these deep thoughts – see the show and come up with your own.

complex tells the very dark (but ultimately, strangely  uplifting) story of a massive urban apartment complex, complete with fitness center, rec room, and laundry. The play focuses on the utter anonymity of people living in close proximity to each other, but who have no real relationship – one of the fun things for me was puzzling out the names of the characters (kind of essential for a reviewer, if I’m to comment on individual performances, since there are no pictures in the program!). Finocchiaro doles out the characters’ names sparingly, revealing each at a key plot point (with two exceptions – one male, one female – whose names can be deduced by a process of elimination). To honor Finocchiaro’s vision, I will only refer to individual characters by the actors’ names.

A serial killer commits a series of gruesome murders (complete with some very vivid scenes of evisceration) in the complex, gradually reducing the cast size and forcing a shrinking group of survivors to interact with each other in new ways. Sound funny yet?  Watch for Blake Stone and Alanna Archibald, who spend most of their spare time hanging out together in the rec room, speaking but never actually communicating at even the most basic level. Enjoy a neurotic, frustrated Nathan Crosby, desperate for relief from a 12th floor neighbor’s wall-penetrating musical endeavors. Dissolve with laughter at the short-lived antics of Clifton Holznagel, the aforementioned musician (?) – brilliant stuff, that! Gape at the self-obsessed tenant rep, Eve Johnstone, whose commitment to maintaining her stunningly slim physique trumps all other responsibilities. Marvel at Clara-Liis Hiller and Kaia Maarja Hillier, real-life sisters playing out a stunningly dysfunctional (and utterly hilarious) relationship. Finally, there’s the PBR-swilling Gabe, the least effective security guard cum maintenance man since the late Pat Harrington’s memorable run as Dwayne Schneider on One Day at a Time.

Aside from absolutely flawless performances by all of the above and a taut, witty script, Vertigo’s production reflects the absolute dedication to detail required for a fundamentally weird show. The set is stark, reflecting the modernistic anonymity of the setting – but more important, it allows for split-second set changes as props move in and out to establish locales within the building. Video, lighting, and sound design work together perfectly, and the opening video establishes the overriding ambience in a stunning visual display. MacRae’s entire production staff has formed a powerful team to support the author’s vision and the actors’ interpretations – despite the fact that I almost took out a lane divider on the way home, I have no regrets for having ventured out into a dark and stormy night in SE Portland!

Three important notes – (a) the show runs about 85 minutes, with no intermission, (b) there’s actual gore, plus lots of adult language and content that renders complex inappropriate for the very young or the very faint of heart, and (c) for a really thorough exploration of Finocchiaro’s themes, check out the Oregon Artswatch review from 9/26 – author Bobby Bermea says it all!

Theatre Vertigo’s production of complex is playing at the Shoebox Theatre, 2110 SE 10th Avenue, Portland with 7:30 performances October 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26.