Wednesday, March 11, 2020

B&B’s Measure of Innocence a Timely Reminder

Anya Pearson, Donovan Mahannah, Phillip J. Berns
By Tina Arth

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (well, at least in the musical Annie), once said, “when people are starving, there is no long run.” In other words, when people’s lives are in crisis, it is neither reasonable nor fair to ask them to step back and look at the big picture. In this vein, Bag&Baggage Productions has picked a perfect time and vehicle to remind us that all politics is truly local and many people’s lives are always on the edge of crisis – for such people, the day-to-day challenges of real life must take priority over the big national and international issues that dominate the headlines. Our concern over COVID-19 and presidential primaries, no matter how justified, often serves to distract us from the fundamental injustices in American society that place some groups, particularly people of color, at risk every day of their lives.

Playwright Anya Pearson’s Measure of Innocence is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and it is the second of Bag&Baggage’s Problem Play Series playing at The Vault. The program provides a commission to an “Oregon-based playwright of color to adapt one of William Shakespeare’s problem plays with a diversity/inclusion lens.”  Wednesday Sue Derrico’s Director’s Notes say it better than I can: “This play is about the injustice and structural racism that guides the judicial and prison systems in America today…through a diversity of character and story lines, it sheds light on the residual effects these broken systems place onto all of us.” While Measure for Measure is generally classified as comedy, Pearson’s adaptation would never be described that way (although there are certainly some funny moments).

Give or take 500 years and some rather profound cultural and racial differences, most of the principal characters and some principal story lines reflect their Shakespearean antecedents – there’s Claudio and his pregnant fiancĂ©e, Juliet, Claudio’s very religious sister Isabel, his good friend Lucky (Shakespeare’s “Lucio”), his fellow prisoner Barnadine, and the morally corrupt prosecutor, Angelo.  Claudio is wrongly accused and imprisoned, Isabel subjected to Angelo’s sexual assault as she pleads for her brother. However, Pearson’s work is much darker – Measure of Innocence does not end with truth, compassion, and justice triumphing over systemic corruption; suffering, even death, come to characters we care about. The addition of pussy hat wearing social justice warriors, a talk show host, the playwrights themselves (both Will and Anya), and a nonsense spouting President break the tension with an element of surreal humor, but do not interrupt the play’s essential narrative.

About half of the cast comprises Bag&Baggage veterans, but most of the principal roles go to accomplished performers who are new or have made just one previous appearance at The Vault. I was deeply moved by Donovan Mahannah (Claudio) and Curtis Maxey Jr. (Lucky), the actors who fully express the terror, anger, and ultimate helplessness of the unjustly accused in a corrupt, racist system where the state holds all of the power. Kayla Dixon creates a frustratingly religious “Isabel” – I wanted to cheer when she set aside her blind faith in an all-knowing God and stood up for herself and her brother. Janelle Rae (Juliet) grabbed me in their first scene and never let go – they create the quintessential strong Black woman, fighting every moment of their life to protect and enlighten their peers. As Barnadine, Eric Island captures the essence of a prison’s version of an elder statesman, guiding Claudio in the ways of survival in an unremittingly hostile universe by keeping his head down and staying out of trouble.

James Luster is appropriately horrifying as the corrupt and lascivious Mike Angelo, but it is his brief interludes as the unnamed, yet clearly identified President, that really allow him to shine – he captures that unmistakable voice and diction without going over the top. Bag&Baggage Associate Artist Phillip J. Berns’ “Shakespeare” sparkles throughout, lending a note of levity with his mobility and agility while reminding us that we are watching an adaptation.

The starkly white, modernistic set creates a nice contrast with the darkness of the story, and Blanca Forzan’s scenic and lighting design creates the surreal atmosphere that allows the audience members to use their imaginations to fill in between the lines. The movable staircase cuts quickly through changes of scene, allowing the actors’ slow progress up the steps to the prison’s bars to illustrate the separation between the imprisoned and those on the outside.

The thematic intensity means that The Measure of Innocence is not a fun show for the actors or the (primarily white) audience – but both the author and director prioritize enlightenment over entertainment. The close-minded, and those who are unwilling to think about the role that privilege plays in their lives, might well be offended, and there is a level of violence and assault that may trigger the fragile. It is the kind of theater that calls for intellectual and emotional unpacking – if you go, see it with a friend and spend some time discussing the content and your reactions.

Bag&Baggage’s The Measure of Innocence is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through March 22nd, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

BCT’s Charming, Family-Friendly Ramona Quimby

Isabelle Riley and Riley Suzuki

By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre is definitely playing to the hometown crowd with their first main stage production of the year. Playwright Len Jenkin’s 1994 Ramona Quimby, based on the beloved books by Beverly Cleary, is firmly rooted in the mean streets of Portland – the fictional Quimby family lives on NE Klickitat Street, and there are even statues of some of the principal characters in nearby Grant Park (definitely time for a field trip!). The play basically falls into the genre of children’s theater (there are lots of roles for kiddos, and the story line is definitely aimed at a preteen/tween audience), but the script encompasses themes that can appeal to an all-age audience, and there is room for some important adult roles. Playing to a mixed audience demands balance, since adults tend to be portrayed differently when a show is aimed at children, and director Amanda Clark has generally succeeded in picking the right actors and guiding them through the process.

The play is set, as mentioned, in an actual Portland neighborhood, and takes place over a one-year period in the 1970s. The central characters are 8 year-old Ramona Quimby and her big sister Beezus, who in classic older-sister fashion considers Ramona a complete pest. The events are localized to the Quimby family, the elementary school, and immediate neighborhood; the situations should ring true to anyone who has ever occupied the role of parent, older, or younger sibling. The bright but quirky Ramona constantly gets into trouble as she deals with an unemployed father who is trying to quit smoking, a “perfect” third-grade rival who steals her ideas, a judgmental teacher, teasing from a tone-deaf adult, the unfairness of life as a little sister, changes in her relationship with her beloved Aunt Bea, and a host of other seemingly trivial problems that loom very large in the life of a small girl. In the end, Beezus and Ramona find comfort in each other’s presence as life swirls around them.

Students, mostly in elementary school, make up about half of the 20-person cast, including the two most challenging roles. Riley Suzuki (Beezus) is already a veteran actor, last seen at BCT playing Pugsley in The Addams Family. She is confident in her role as narrator, and especially believable in her interactions (both positive and negative) with her frustrating but ultimately loveable little sister. The surprise standout, however, is Isabelle Riley as Ramona. Isabelle is no stranger to BCT – not only has she played a few ensemble roles, but she has spent a lot of her young life hanging out at the theater with her mom, Producing Artistic Director Melissa Riley. Isabelle’s performance as Ramona makes it clear that during those long hours in the auditorium, she wasn’t just hanging out – she was watching how theater works and studying the fine points of really playing a role. I was amazed at the consistency of Isabelle’s performance – quite simply, she never stops acting, and uses her face, voice and body to completely inhabit her character.

In addition to the to principals, a few other performers demand special recognition. Michael Rouches (Mr. Quimby) straddles the fine line between acting for children and realistically portraying adult situations, and he draws the audience emotionally into the challenge of dealing with adult crises while reassuring his daughters. Les Ico’s “Elephant” is predictably hilarious, but it is his portrayal of Bea’s fiancĂ© Hobart that really shines as he mercilessly teases Ramona – and displays a delightful lack of inhibition when displaying his questionable singing voice. Among the ensemble, Emma Resk’s “waitress” is particularly memorable – I hope to see more of this young woman.

Ramona Quimby is structured as a long series of mostly short vignettes, necessitating frequent scene changes. The set design is detailed – perhaps too much so, as the wheeled panels are awkward to move and don’t always line up well for viewing from the periphery of the audience. Scenic Artist Loren Hillman-Morgan has created a wonderful backdrop portraying a map of Portland, and the show might have flowed more seamlessly if some of the set details had been left up to the audience’s imagination, as was done in BCT’s production of Knuffle Bunny. However, this minor quibble is no reason to stay away from a fun production, which will work best if you go with a kiddo or two but still provides a solid community theater experience for adult audiences.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of Ramona Quimby runs through Saturday, March 14th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sunday.

Monday, February 17, 2020

HART’s Midwinter Midsummer Night’s Dream

Sam Roberts and Kelsey Ion. Photo by Bob Morrison.

By Tina Arth

Valentine’s Day is the ideal time to open Shakespeare’s classic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a show where love is in the air everywhere: a dose of magic helps four couples find love, while a fifth couple dies tragically, but happily does so within the bounds of an absurdly comic play-within-a-play. The decision by directors Tyson Redifer and Chris White to present a story set in ancient Athens with a pervasive steampunk motif was risky, but on the whole it works surprisingly well; rather than interfering with the coherence of the play, the set design, costumes, lighting and sound actually serve to clarify elements of the Bard’s absurdly convoluted story.

How convoluted? Well, start with the impending marriage of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, former queen of the Amazons. Add in Egeus and his disobedient daughter Hermia, who is determined to marry Lysander but has been promised to Demetrius. Want more? OK – there’s the frustrated Helena, who is Hermia’s best friend and madly in love with Demetrius, who only has eyes for Hermia. For reasons that really don’t gel completely, Helena attempts to curry favor with Demetrius by revealing to him that Hermia and Lysander plan to meet in the forest and run off together. Of course, the forest is filled with magical fairies and their own drama – in particular, the estrangement between Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, over Titania’s refusal to cede her ward, an Indian changeling, to Oberon as his special henchman. Oberon conspires with the spritely Puck to use a potion that will cause Titania to fall in love with the first thing she sees, which turns out to be Nick Bottom, a foolish actor who has been given (by Puck, naturally) the head of an ass. Using the same potion, Puck mistakenly causes Lysander to fall in love with Helena, who thinks he is mocking her with his protestations of love. Enough? I’ve barely touched on the Mechanicals, a troupe of traveling actors who hope to perform at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta (remember them?). Things generally work out OK in Shakespeare’s comedies, and this one is no exception – by the end of Act 5, we are not only granted three weddings and a reconciliation, but the Mechanicals get to put on their play!

Mention of Act 5 should give a clue that this is a long show – 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. The pacing is fairly tight, so the show doesn’t drag, and the simplicity of the set plus the revolving center work well to eliminate lengthy scene changes. In fact, my biggest problem with the show is just the opposite – some of the cast, seemingly unfamiliar with the dialogue and rhythms of Shakespeare’s work, spit out their carefully memorized lines much too fast, making it tough to understand the words or catch much of the author’s Elizabethan wit.  It’s not universal – several of the actors, including but not limited to Sarah Nolte, Sam Roberts, Kira Smolev, Francis Kohler, and Kelsey Ion, know exactly what they are doing and how to do it, and these skilled performers really help to anchor the cast and keep the audience in the loop.

Humor plays a huge role in keeping the audience engaged, and there are some really fine moments. Expect a massive dose of physical comedy in the forest scenes, in particular between Kohler (Lysander), Ion (Helena), Roberts (Demetrius), and Emma Heesacker (Hermia). The show ends with some huge laughs for Lucas Ray (Francis Flute) – he’s not terribly memorable in earlier scenes, but when he goes in drag as the love-stricken Thisbe he is genuinely hilarious. Scenes between Smolev (Titania) and Frank Robinson (Nick Bottom) work well, and even when masked he sells his role as a genuine ass.

Credit for sound design is given to Jeremy Ollis, Mike Stafford, and Leslie Inmon – and their work really enhances the show. The projection of prerecorded voices is smooth and well handled in the tech booth, as is the synchronization of light and sound in several key scenes (be warned, as we were before the show started, that there are some loud noises and bright flashes of light).  Costuming by Kira Smolev, Karen Schlecht, and Mary Gow is frequently inspired – the contrast between fairies with their colorfully lighted wings and Athenians in steampunk finery helps to cleanly distinguish between the real world of Athens and the magical realm of the fairies, and Robinson’s mask (by Phyllis Lang) provides an interesting bridge between the two. Smolev and Mark Putnam (Oberon) make full use of their magnificent capes, which clearly mark them as being well above the run-of-the-mill fairies, and Sarah Felder is quite memorable in the eye-catching attire that sets her apart as the mischievous Puck.

In sum, the show is lively and entertaining, but suffers from some uneven performances – not unusual in community theater, but still worth noting. Redifer and White’s vision as directors plays out reasonably well, and they do a respectable job of incorporating the unusual steampunk and electric elements into the show.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, March 1st, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Experience the Experience Theatre Experience!

Richard Cohn-Lee, Lydia Fleming, and Eric Island

By Tina Arth

For a couple more weeks, local audiences will have the opportunity to check out (and participate in) the unique staging of Experience Theatre Project’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as adapted by producing director Alisa Stewart. If you’ve never attended one of the Experience shows, be prepared (and forewarned) – it’s not for the kind of timid theater-goer who wants to sit back and watch from the anonymity of fixed seating, safely removed from the actors and the story. Instead, the audience is truly immersed in the action – they interact with the actors and move somewhat freely around the “stage” – a Wild West saloon setting (complete with fake whores, poker games, and a real working bar – a nice perk!) and a second space that serves as a dry goods store, a laboratory, the main street, even the great outdoors. There’s plenty of seating on benches and at tables, but you’ll need to be prepared to move when the performers need the space you’re occupying – best to wear comfortable shoes and travel light!

While the core of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story is retained, moving it from Victorian London to the Wild West calls for significant alterations – and Stewart’s vision (be sure to read her director’s note) injects new characters, plot lines, and themes well beyond the change in locale. In the Experience version, Henry Jekyll is the trusted doctor in a bustling little frontier mining town. Many of the migrants have been lost to disease, including Jekyll’s wife and son, and the good doctor is grief-stricken about his inability to save them. After extensive experimentation, he perfects a potion that allows him to create a second persona, Mr. Hyde, in whom all of his negative emotions reside. Of course, as in Stevenson’s original tale, Dr. Jekyll is ultimately unable to control his dark and evil alter ego, and the fledgling town has to cope with a series of murders that bring terror and anguish to the locals by the story’s end.

The revised/expanded story line brings in new characters, and Experience found some solid performers to fill the roles.  Erik Montague brings a winning, youthful impulsiveness to his portrayal of Hiram, a love-struck miner desperate to wed his lady, and the chemistry between Montague and Lydia Fleming (as his intended, Cecily) is charming and believable. Fleming is really quite wonderful in perhaps the most complex role – she does young love, dutiful daughter, abuse victim (pre-me-too by over a century), and twice grief-stricken with consummate skill and grace. Eric Island (as Cecily’s father Hastie, the town sheriff and owner of the general store) delivers another fine performance, and Adria Malcolm is thoroughly believable in the gender-bent role of lawyer Jane Utterson. There are several skin-crawling moments with the devious Reverend Danvers, played with unctuous virtuosity by Matt Ostrowski.

In the Experience Theatre Project adaptation, Jekyll’s role is still significant but by no means dominant. Richard Cohn-Lee finds the right touch, giving the role an almost nobly tragic tone in lieu of the decadence of Robert Louis Stephenson’s original vision for his subject. The entire ensemble, faced with the challenge of interacting directly with the audience, stays in character and cheerfully draws the spectators into the action whenever possible, especially during the pre-show and intermission periods.

Experience Theatre Project is unique among local groups in its quest to present “immersive, dynamic productions which engage the audience,” and the current offering definitely fulfills this mission. Both the actors and the audience are required to move just a bit out of their comfort zones, and the result is a meaningful experience for all.

Due to adult themes and language, this particular show is not appropriate for young audiences. The website cautions that patrons who plan to take full advantage of the beer and wine offered at the bar use public transit, grab a rideshare, or bring a designated driver.

Experience Theatre Project’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plays at the Beaverton Masonic Lodge, 4690 SW Watson Avenue, through Sunday, February 16th with performances at 7:30 Fridays and Saturday, 2:00 pm on Sundays.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Sordid Lives – Southern Comedy With A Side of Substance

John Killeen (pictured). Photo by Alicia Turvin

By Tina Arth

Twilight Theater Company is offering up a heapin’ helpin’ of Southern comedy for the opening of its 2020 season with playwright Del Shores’ Sordid Lives, but unlike many such farces, this one uses broadly comic characters and situations to express some important truths.  Director Meghan Daaboul allows her cast to have a lot of fun with a fundamentally absurd (and heartbreaking) story, but somehow restrains them from going so far over the top that we lose sight of key characters as real people with real feelings.

Let us begin with absurd: deep in the heart of Texas the kinfolk are gathering to mourn the passing of beloved mother/sister/grandmother Peggy Ingram. Peggy’s death was both unexpected and tawdry – she met her maker in a seedy motel room, having tripped over her lover’s two wooden legs and hit her head on the edge of the bureau. An already tacky situation is made even worse by the fact that her legless lover, G. W. Nethercott, is the husband of Peggy’s good friend Noleta. To add an additional note of bizarre levity, Peggy’s daughters LaVonda and Latrelle disagree violently about whether their momma should be buried in her fur stole, and Peggy’s sister Sissy is unable to mediate effectively while trying to quit smoking by snapping a rubber band against her wrist.  

Moving on to heartbreaking, Peggy’s grandson Ty, a gay New York actor, agonizes about whether to go home for the funeral, since he has never come out to his family and they are notoriously closed-minded about non-standard gender issues. His reticence is well-founded - Peggy had her son Brother Boy committed to a mental institution, where he has spent the past twenty years, for being a Tammy Wynette-obsessed transvestite. Continuing the heartbreaking/absurd dichotomy, each scene (“chapter”) is introduced by brief monologues by Ty as he bares his soul (and delivers some much-needed exposition) to his latest therapist, and tacky country music performed by Peggy’s lowlife girl friend, ex-con Bitsy Mae Harling. In the end, despite its broad comic surface, at its root the play conforms nicely with Twilight’s 2020 theme of “encounters.” As Daaboul says in her director’s note, the play “clearly sends a deeper, more profound message of tolerance and acceptance,” and this is what moves it beyond the hollow farce of some superficially similar Southern comedies.

Among a generally strong cast, four actors particularly stood out for me – two for their quiet, attention-grabbing subtlety and two for their almost over-the-top but still controlled performances. Jonathan Miles (as grandson Ty Williamson), in multiple brief monologues, anchors the entire show with his quiet delivery that forces the audience to repeatedly refocus on the pain that underlies much of the comedy.  The other impressively subtle performance comes from Raven Jazper-Hawke as Peggy’s sister Sissy. Surrounded by the swirling small-town drama of her clan and neighbors, finally driven back to smoking by the incessant bickering of her two nieces, Jazper-Hawke manages to express the dignity and strength of a very special kind of Southern woman rising above the chaos, refusing to take sides or be drawn into the fray and accepting all around her without judgment.

Despite a hefty dose of farce in Act I, Sordid Lives still started out a bit slowly for me – I was on the fence about the show. However, the appearance of John Killeen’s “Brother Boy” in Act II instantly resolved my doubts. Killeen delivers a brilliant combination of comedy and tragedy as the institutionalized transvestite, and his presence lights up the stage – the quintessence of “I laugh that I may not weep.”  The final killer performance (another Act II brightener) comes from the director, who with less than two weeks’ notice stepped into the role of Brother Boy’s nemesis Dr. Eve Bollinger. Daaboul is simultaneously hysterically funny and horrifying as a psychiatrist intent on getting an Oprah appearance by de-homosexualizing Brother Boy (she figures since he’s the gayest patient she’s ever encountered, “curing” him will cement her place in history).  I generally frown on directors taking roles in their own shows, but necessity in this case was a godsend – the bizarre chemistry between Killeen and Daaboul is truly memorable.

Steve Koeppen’s set design provides a solid backdrop for the action – in particular, the Star of Texas-adorned wallpaper (note the subtle pink coloration of the stars), and Kelcey Weaver’s costumes are as varied as the characters themselves, providing visual support for the full range from button-down to a nice dose of white trash glamour. Perhaps most impressive is Killeen’s final costume, when he goes full-on Tammy Wynette and somehow manages to balance on his huge red heels.

Due to language and mature themes, Sordid Lives is not appropriate for younger audiences, but it provides a great evening for adults who appreciate a fine blend of solid content and comedy.

Twilight Theater Company’s Sordid Lives is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through February 9th, with performances at 8 P.M. on Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday.