Thursday, August 8, 2019

Footloose Explodes Across the Stage at Broadway Rose

Nick Serrone, Amanda Pred, Cassandra Pangelinan, Eric Asakawa, Lydia 
Fleming, Erik Montague, and Calvin Lieurance

By Tina Arth

In many ways, I missed the eighties: job, spouse, kid, dog, left me culturally limited to Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers. The original Footloose wasn’t even a blip on my personal radar, and I went into the Broadway Rose production of the musical version with no more than the vague awareness that “7 Degree of Kevin Bacon” had been a thing. Peggy Taphorn’s director’s note informed me that, in her opinion, “…it has a great story! It’s not just a simple story about a ban on dancing and a rebel with a cause…” I’ve got to disagree – from a story standpoint, that’s exactly what it is, in most part aimed with laser focus at the sophistication of a 13-year-old. HOWEVER – that just doesn’t matter. From the moment that Kayla Dixon sang the first notes of “Footloose” it was clear that this show was going to be spectacular, and by the time Eric Asakawa started dancing I was mesmerized by the energy, athleticism, and artistry of the amazing cast.  The credits mention screenplay and stage adaptation, but for this show, more than any other I remember, all credit should go to the folks who wrote the music, the music director and band, Taphorn’s choreography, and a stage full of singing, dancing dynamos.

Condensed version for those of you who share my cluelessness about the show: Ethel McCormack’s husband has walked out, leaving Ethel and teen son Ren without enough money to stay in Chicago – they are forced to move in with Ethel’s sister and brother-in-law in a fictional hick town called Bomont where the sidewalks are rolled up at 6 PM. Worse yet, a tragic accident several years ago prompted the town council to ban all dancing. Ren is truly a fish out of water in Bomont, and his progress toward fitting in isn’t helped when he pays too much attention to Ariel Moore, the minister’s daughter and girlfriend of local bad boy Chuck Cranston. Ren is befriended by terminally shy Willard, who has a weirdly one-way relationship with Rusty – he never talks, she never stops talking. Chuck hits Ariel, Chuck hits Ren, Ren’s plea to the town council to bring back dancing is denied, Ren and Reverend Moore have a moment, dancing ban is lifted, The Big Dance.

Where do I start on this production? I mentioned Kayla Dixon (Rusty) grabbing me with the opening number, but not how the power built as the voices of Cassandra Pangelinan (Urleen) and Amanda Pred (Wendy Jo) kicked in. This trio repeated their magic with “Somebody’s Eyes,” and when Malia Tippets  (Ariel) joins them in “Holding Out For A Hero” the quartet literally stops the show with their singing, dancing dynamism. While Tippets is a superb singer and dancer, her real strength is the authenticity of her performance as a teenage girl torn between the need to rebel and reject her father’s domination and the equally powerful need to capture his attention and approval.

I suspect that few Footloose directors have had the good fortune to land a trained opera singer who also has a background in competitive gymnastics – Eric Asakawa was simply born to play Ren McCormack. He moonwalks, does backflips, even vaults over other performers with flawless form that takes the breath away and moves his dancing off the charts. It’s nothing short of miraculous that he can sing at the same time, and by the end of I Can’t Stand Still he owns the audience.

Chrissy Kelly-Pettit is moving and honest as Ariel’s mother Vi, who unflinchingly tries to defend her daughter from Reverend Moore’s heavy handed parenting, and the trio of Kelly-Pettit, Tippets, and Ali Bell (Ethel McCormack) give the show a whole new dimension with their timely Learning To Be Silent. Bruce Blanchard’s Reverend Moore captures the role’s essential duality – both rigid preacher and loving dad, trying to do the right thing for his family and his flock and setting us up nicely for his final conversion. Calvin Lieurance is appropriately awkward and tongue-tied as the clumsy, shy Willard Hewitt – then steals the limelight with his dazzling footwork in Mama Says.

The band, sometimes invisible in Broadway Rose productions, is completely integrated into the staging. Music Director Mak Kastelic and Conductor Alan D. Lytle are clearly going after the feel of an eighties rock band, with volume to match, but the sound is nicely modulated when the material demands a softer touch. Costume Designer Allison Dawe has done an admirable job of capturing an eighties feel without succumbing to the temptation to parody the worst excesses if the decade’s fashions.

Footloose sold out before opening night, so there’s little chance of scoring tickets for this powerhouse production. However, Broadway Rose has just announced its next season – given the consistent quality of musical theater coming from this amazing company, it’s pretty safe to buy tickets now for anything you might want to see in the next year – don’t wait for the reviews!

Footloose is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, September 1.

Friday, August 2, 2019

How I Learned to Drive – Disturbing Truths Told Beautifully

Adria Malcolm and Michael TeufelPhoto by Alicia Turvin

By Tina Arth

The defining theme of Twilight Theater Company’s 2019 season is “In the Buff” – defined by Artistic Director Dorinda Toner as “What are our innermost thoughts and feelings? Who are we when we get really, really honest with each other and have nothing to hide?” Of the Twilight shows I’ve seen this year, none embrace this theme as honestly and powerfully as the current production of playwright Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Admittedly, it’s not an easy show to watch – but its riveting, multidimensional examination of the genesis and effects of pedophilia/molestation is one of those theatrical experiences that stay with you long after the stage goes dark.

The show is somewhat stylized and non-linear, using the process of a young girl literally learning to drive as a metaphor for inappropriate sexual awakening.  It follows a rural Maryland girl (called Li’l Bit by her seriously dysfunctional family) from earliest adolescence in the 1960s through adulthood in the 1990s.  Li’l Bit shares the stage with her overly attentive Uncle Peck and three chorus members – the teen chorus, female Greek chorus, and male chorus. The chorus members portray a variety of roles, including Li’l Bit’s grandmother, mother, grandfather, aunt, and schoolmates. I despair of describing the show in a comprehensible and inviting way – you just have to take my word that Vogel’s 1997 play is a really important and honest work; happily, Dorinda Toner’s direction (and casting) are completely up to the challenge of bringing it to the stage.

I am told by people who know him better than I that Michael J. Teufel, who plays Uncle Peck, is a thoroughly nice guy, and nothing like the seemingly cool, slightly creepy character who teaches Li’l Bit to drive (starting ominously, with her sitting on his lap when she’s 11 years old). Teufel manages to make his character somewhat attractive, even as he emits the sleazy vibes of the predator – exactly what one would find in a real life abuse situation, but with an undertone of caring and love that colors every interaction. What impressed me most (in an overall stunning performance) was his ability to walk a fine line between pretense and sincerity that left me wondering if he had also been a victim at some point in his life – a possibility opened up in the scene where he teaches an unseen young boy to fish, and then some. It’s a shame that there aren’t enough front row seats at Twilight to accommodate the entire audience – the closer you are to Teufel’s facial expressions, the greater the appreciation of his artistry.

Twilight newcomer Adria Malcolm’s Li’l Bit is the perfect foil to Teufel’s Uncle Peck. She shifts seamlessly from scene to scene, expressing the character’s jumps in time and maturity, and somehow making us believe her at each age and stage. Innocent, needy, curious, tough, flirtatious, grieving, emotionally dead, heartless, lascivious, sometimes smart and witty beyond her years – Malcolm captures each of these as we watch her interact with Uncle Peck, Aunt Mary, Mother, Grandmother, school acquaintances, and her Neanderthal grandfather, Big Papa. Malcolm is brilliant in the final scene with Uncle Peck, with her anger and pain overlaid with honest grief for what she and her uncle have lost – that was the scene I discussed most with my guest as we drove home from the theater.

I cannot overlook the contributions of the superbly cast chorus. Chris Murphy delivers an abrasively ignorant and macho Big Papa; soon after, he is a quiveringly insecure but persistent adolescent, and I hated the former as much as I empathized with the latter.  Noelle Guest (Mother and Aunt Mary) has the challenge of creating sisters and, without the aid of costume or makeup, allowing us to experience each of them as individuals.  Her bitter Aunt Mary blaming Li’l Bit for the sins of her husband is classic “blame the victim,” and her descent into inebriation as the mother has just the right level of restraint – both scenes carried out to perfection. Last but not least there’s Kaylee Hawkins’ “Teen chorus” – it is no accident that the youngest cast member is asked to play the oldest woman, and she makes the audience share her experience of being Big Papa’s 14-year-old bride in an earlier era.

Staging and costumes for the show are minimal – lots of black, a few props (boxes, a table, eventually a bed) to create the family kitchen, the car, outdoor rural nights, the fishing hole, the high school dance. and a motel room while maintaining the show’s slightly surreal air and moving the audience firmly into their imaginations. The selection of music is impeccable – having come from exactly Li’l Bit’s era, I found the songs exquisitely evocative of the era and the adolescent mood. This is a great show, one I highly recommend. However, victims of molestation or other childhood sexual abuse should be warned that some of the situations my trigger anxiety – be forewarned, and use your own judgment.

Twilight Theater Company’s How I Learned to Drive is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through August 11, with performances at 8 P.M. on Thursday-Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Commedia del Earnest?

Picture shows Blaine Vincent III, Heather Bach, Fayra Teeters, Kaitlynn Baugh, and Thomas McAulay.

By Tina Arth

Full transparency: The Masque Alfresco production reviewed below is being performed in three different locations this summer, and the third location (August 23-24-25) is using one of the Theatre in the ‘hood “stages” – my back yard.

Masque’s summer, 2019 offering is an interesting hybrid of a well-known British farce (Oscar Wilde’s oft-performed The Importance of Being Earnest) with the traditions of Commedia dell’Arte, an improvisational theatrical style with its roots in 15th century Italy. Producer Fayra Teeters, has adapted Earnest’s script to better conform to the genre, including the incorporation of overtly modern socio-political tropes reflecting the hypocrisy of our era. The show further includes several essential Commedia touches called “lazzi” (stock comedic routines, both verbal and physical – think “Who’s On First” or a pie in the face). Earnest already partly incorporates other key Commedia elements – Oscar Wilde’s version of stock characters such as the comic servant (Merriman), Il Capitano (the swaggering, manipulative, food-obsessed Algernon Moncrieff), Il Dottore (Reverend Chasuble and Lady Bracknell, the wealthy and class-conscious elders who endeavor unsuccessfully to block the path of true love), the Innamorati (lovers around whom the whole plot revolves, in this case John (Jack) Worthing and Gwendolyn Fairfax), and themes of disguise (literal masks in Commedia dell’arte, Jack’s and later Algernon’s “disguises” as Ernest).

Teeters’ adaptation is definitely abbreviated, and includes a fair amount of singing, and director Paul Roder has incorporated a lot of the physical comedy so essential to 15th century Italian audiences – expect pratfalls and other unexpected touches. In the outdoor environment, the actors have to play everything large and loud to overcome environmental distractions. In other words, go prepared to enjoy the show with no expectation that it will resemble any Earnest that you’ve previously seen.

For those who are not familiar with the show, here’s a Cliff’s Notes version:  It’s around the turn of the 19th century, and Jack and Algernon, two wealthy Englishmen, are both masters of deception. Jack lives in the country with his ward Cecily, and Algernon lives in London. To shelter Cecily from rumors of his sometimes wayward behavior and gives himself an excuse for going into London, Jack has invented an imaginary (and very dissipated) brother named Ernest – when in London, Jack calls himself Ernest. Algernon lives in London, but has invented an imaginary country friend named Bunbury who provides him with the excuse to duck out of town (and unappealing social engagements) at will. Jack’s social status is suspect, as a wealthy family adopted him after he was found as an infant in a black handbag in Victoria Station, so Lady Bracknell is unwilling to approve his marriage to her niece (and Algernon’s cousin) Gwendolyn. Cecily is fascinated by the stories she has heard about Ernest’s wicked ways, so when Algernon unexpectedly appears in the country claiming to be Ernest, she is immediately drawn to him (and he to her).  Gwendolyn wants to marry Ernest (Jack), while Cecily wants to marry Ernest (Algernon), so each man has asked the Reverend Chasuble to baptize them with the new name. Got that? Of course it all works out in the end, with revelations of noble parentage and unexpected pairings – at the end only Lady Bracknell and the servant Merriman are left uncoupled.

Kaitlynn Baugh’s na├»ve, effervescent Cecily is a definite highlight, and she contrasts nicely with Heather Bach’s sardonic mien as the more levelheaded Gwendolyn. Bach also adds literal grace notes to the show with a lovely voice that manages to keep the a cappella vocals on track. Blaine Vincent III gives a puppy-like, engaging tone to Jack as he tries to win Gwendolyn’s hand, surviving several inexplicable but well-delivered pratfalls, and Thomas McAulay’s slightly smarmy Algernon provides another nice contrast.

Fayra Teeters looks and acts every bit the judgmental, class-conscious Lady Bracknell with her supercilious sneer and weaponized umbrella. Robin Michaels’ role (as Cecily’s governess Miss Prism) is small, but very fun – she gives her usually stern and upright character a bit of coyness that adds depth to the character. I hope to see the show at least once when understudy Amelia Michaels plays a role (either that of Gwendolyn or Cecily), as I suspect that she’ll bring an entirely new dimension to either role.

Given the outdoor and moveable setting, sets and sound design are necessarily minimal, but costumer Karen Roder makes up for it with elaborate and elegant attire for her cast. Masque Alfresco productions are free, but they do pass the hat enthusiastically at the end of each show. Be sure to bring your own chairs or (for the more flexible) a blanket – and take advantage of the outdoor venue to also pack a picnic. There’s no reason why Algernon should get all of the good sandwiches!

Masque Alfresco’s adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest plays at Lake Oswego’s George Rogers Park through August 4, the Beaverton Library Lawn August 9 – 18, and Theatre in the ‘hood (9020 SW Caroline, Portland) from August 23 – 25, with Friday, Saturday, and Sunday shows at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Matilda the Musical – Lakewood’s Lively, Timely Take

Danielle Valentine and Stephanie Heuston-Willing,

Photo by Triumph Photography
By Tina Arth

I have known several talented, productive adults in my life who managed to survive seriously dysfunctional childhoods and somehow to emerge as functional, if somewhat scarred, individuals. The one thing they have all had in common was clear memories of one or more important figures, sometimes a teacher, neighbor, librarian, or employer who offered soul-saving support during the worst periods. What does this have to do with Lakewood’s current production of Matilda the Musical? Everything. Strip away the over-the-top evil of most of the adult characters, the outrageously talented kiddos singing and dancing their way through a series of high-energy, high-volume production numbers, a barrage of often vulgar, but funny adult and juvenile jokes, and costumes/makeup straight out of Toontown, and you are left with these enduring themes: childhood can be a very scary time, children flourish in the care of loving families, family is not necessarily defined by DNA, and self-confidence can be the key to surviving even the worst situations. (Oh, and books are a superb substitute for television and social media!)

Director Paul Angelo’s lively, colorful production of Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s Tony-winning Matilda incorporates the essential themes organically, with little explicit moralizing, so at first glance it’s easy to just focus on the awful behavior of Matilda’s key antagonists (her parents Harry and Zinnia Wormwood, and the evil Miss Trunchbull). The good guys (Matilda herself, her friends Lavender and Bruce, Miss Honey and Mrs. Phelps) are comparatively quiet, conservatively dressed, and generally well behaved – but they gradually become more assertive and visible as the story develops. The story, in a nutshell is this: the Wormwoods’ second child, Matilda, is completely unwanted: Zinnia wants to pursue her career as a dancer, and Harry makes it clear from the moment he holds Matilda in the hospital and starts looking for her “thing” that he only wants a boy. The Wormwoods are selfish, vulgar, crooked, blatantly anti-intellectual narcissists, while Matilda by the age of 5 is reading Dostoevsky and Dickens, supported only by Mrs. Phelps the librarian. When Matilda starts school she is sent to Crunchem Hall, run by the tyrannical Miss Trunchbull, who terrorizes all of the children under her control. Matilda’s teacher, the timid Miss Honey, recognizes her genius and tries to protect and support the beleaguered little girl. However, Matilda is not your typical victim – she discovers that she has some magic powers that she uses to annoy her enemies and protect her friends. Gradually the other schoolchildren appreciate and begin to emulate Matilda’s strength of character – a transformation that culminates in the rousing “Revolting Children” ensemble number, drawn unapologetically from Les Mis’ revolutionary “Do You Hear the People Sing,” with the iconic red flag waving over the little rebels.

The role of Matilda is double cast, so I can only comment on the performance of 10-year-old dynamo Cora Craver. Craver delivers a barrage of rapid-fire dialogue with a lovely and consistent English accent – I may have missed a few of the words, but the meaning is always crystal clear. She really sparkles in the musical numbers, in particular her solos in “Naughty” and its reprise, where she is able to throw aside her faux-submissive demeanor and show us a confident, slightly devilish side to her personality. Brock Woolworth and Josie Overstreet (as Bruce and Lavender) are worthy allies, nicely demonstrating the importance of loyalty and acceptance for schoolchildren.

Trishelle Love is wonderful as the somewhat muddled librarian, Mrs. Phelps, who raptly hangs on every word out of Matilda’s mouth and reacts to each twist in the story like she’s engrossed in a telenovela. Brooke Moltrum’s “Miss Honey” is fun to watch as she gradually grows a backbone, and her vocals are heartbreakingly gorgeous, especially in “This Little Girl” and “When I Grow Up.”  When it comes to laughs, however, the evil characters get all the love – Andy Lindberg’s unwaveringly sadistic Miss Trunchbull would be terrifying if he weren’t so funny, a perfect parody of every bullying adult of our nightmares. Danielle Valentine (Harry) and Stephanie Heuston-Willing (Zinnia), as Matilda’ s equally absurd parents, sing and dance their way into cartoon history with their big, big hair and huge (if one-dimensional, and very messed up) personalities.  Heuston-Willing is at her best when she is dancing (if you can call it that) with her sleazy partner Rudolpho (Grant Thackray) – but she copes nicely with her character’s wide-eyed, imbecilic demeanor throughout. Valentine is fabulously overbearing as Harry, and her brightly confident “All I Know” is an upbeat, show-stopping solo that really lets her shine.

Two other characters demand mention – Jackson Wells (as Matilda’s disgustingly vacuous and sycophantic brother) and Jeremy Southard, who turns in a surprisingly warm-hearted performance as Sergei, leader of the Russian Mafia. Props also to Berl Dana’y’s remarkable costume design - his vision provides some truly memorable moments and clearly delineates the relationship between the oppressors and the (at least temporarily) oppressed.

In an era of blatant rejection of intellectualism, where “fake news” is an epithet hurled at scientists and investigative reporters, and political dogma is spewed in an endless storm of tweets, it’s reassuring to see the children and the adults in Lakewood’s audience respond so enthusiastically to this dark yet somehow light-hearted and timely retelling of Roald Dahl’s classic tale.

Matilda the Musical is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, August 18th.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

After 25 Years, HART Can Still Light Up the Sky

Karen Huckfeldt, Tyler Hulegaard, Kira Smolev, Les Ico, Kathleen Silloway

By Tina Arth

Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre is kicking off its 25th season in grand style, reprising the very first show ever produced at HART. Light Up the Sky, written by the aptly named playwright Moss Hart, made its New York debut in 1948. The play never attained the critical acclaim of Hart’s collaborations with George S. Kaufman (in particular, The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can’t Take It with You), but nonetheless it is terribly funny and offers a fascinating perspective on the relationships of playwrights, actors, and producers. Director Mark Putnam, his cast, and production team deliver nicely on the show’s comedic promise, and despite the show’s length (it’s written in three acts) the pacing is snappy enough that the show rarely lags.

The entire story takes place over fewer than 12 hours in actress Irene Livingston’s suite at the Boston Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It’s opening night of a new play by novice playwright Peter Sloan, and both excitement and tension are running high. Irene’s ghostwriter, Miss Lowell, is working on a manuscript but is constantly interrupted by the comings and goings of Irene’s mother, the young playwright, the play’s principal backers, an older playwright, the director, Irene and her husband, and ultimately some very boisterous Shriners. Act I takes us through the pre-show anticipation of a huge hit, as everyone enjoys a celebratory pre-show drink, while Act II shows the principals gradually straggling in after the play, convinced that it was a disaster – the backers are beyond irate, the director is wrapped up in his latest melodramatic hissy-fit, and the discouraged young playwright is headed back to life as a truck-driver. The only truly content person in the room is Irene’s husband, Tyler – unable to stand the tension of opening night, he had gone to see Oklahoma instead. Act III shows the same group several hours later, as the reviews start to come in and attitudes are buffeted by the opinions of the critics.

Les Ico and Kira Smolev (as the show’s backers, Sidney and Frances Black) are consistent comic standouts. Although they are way out of their artistic and intellectual element, their joint $300,000 investment has bought them them a ringside seat at the table. Sidney is a street smart New York hustler whose exceptional luck has earned a bundle, and Frances earned every penny of her half working as a professional figure skater. Smolev’s New York accent and attitude are in perfect harmony – tough, vulgar, and loud but thoroughly charming. Ico is hilarious as he plays the big man among the arty set – he has no idea what the play is about, but thinks that’s OK since he’s told it’s an allegory – and his lightning-fast mood changes are in perfect accord with the script’s twists and turns.

Kathleen Silloway plays Irene’s mother Stella with sardonic flair – wonderfully disaffected and grounded, she isn’t buying any of the hype about her famous daughter, the play, or the director. Her pairing with Frances (over an endless gin game) produces essential elements of the background story without even a hint of overt exposition. Dwayne Thurnau creates a quirky, often befuddled, and thoroughly sympathetic character as Irene’s latest husband Tyler, inexplicably content to be Irene’s doormat. Kudos also to Karen Huckfeldt for her utterly self-obsessed Irene – she exemplifies everything we love to hate about a drama queen. Steve Horton delivers a superb cameo as Shriner William Gallagher, and undoubtedly gets the most laughs/minute of stage time.

David Bliss’ set is a thing of beauty, elegant and detailed enough to create the ambience of the Ritz-Carlton. The elegance is mirrored in the costumes by Kelcey Weaver and Kira Smolev – in particular, the women’s dresses look like authentic period pieces that unmistakably express the spirit of late forties East Coast style. The whole show is clearly a group effort, and director Putnam has done a nice job of assembling and coaching his team to kick off HART’s silver anniversary year.

Light Up the Sky  is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, July 28th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Much Ado About Nothing – Really Something!

Diana Trotter (Leonato), Christian Mitchell (Hero), Phillip J. Berns (Bertram), and
Mandana Khoshnevisan (Margaret) in 'Much Ado About Nothing' at Bag&Baggage Productions
Photo by Casey Campbell

By Tina Arth

I am delighted to report that Scott Palmer’s departure from Bag&Baggage seems to have had no impact on the company’s willingness to embrace extraordinary adaptations of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays.  The current production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by B&B Artistic Director Cassie Greer, is sufficiently outlandish to thoroughly alienate Shakespearean purists – and that’s OK. Gordon Barr’s adaptation of the classic comedy may initially disorient the audience with its gender-bending fluidity (I was certainly floundering at the beginning). However, the free-wheeling disruption of the original tale’s gender assignments not only serves an important purpose, but it leaves the bones of the story intact and, at least in Greer’s production, makes it much funnier than a canonical presentation of the play.

In a conventional production, the story revolves around two complex courtships - Claudio and Hero, and Benedick and Beatrice. The first obvious change is that Barr’s adaptation substitutes Bertram for Beatrice, making one of the two couples gay.  However, it doesn’t stop there – Hero is played by a man who wears women’s clothing, while Claudio is played by a woman who wears men’s clothing. Hero’s father (mother?) Leonato is played by a woman, and two characters (Margaret and Ursula) also play male characters (Dogberry and Verges). There’s more – but long before I figured out who was playing what gender, and when, I figured out what really mattered – which is that it just doesn’t matter. The intrigue, loyalty, deception, love and lust at the core of Much Ado are all hard-wired into the human condition independent of which pronouns we adopt for ourselves – in fact, in the cast bios one can find “he/him,” “she/her,” “they/them,” “thy/thine,” and, for good measure,  one “he/him/they/them.”

The stage is simply littered with exceptional performances (and bocce balls), with some of the most outlandish and carefully crafted physical comedy I’ve seen anywhere. Norman Wilson (“Benedick”) and Phillip J. Berns (“Bertram”) are spectacularly campy throughout, but most memorable during their hilarious attempts at concealment (Wilson’s patio chaise lurk and Berns’ umbrella-roll are tied for funniest moments, despite stiff competition). As Margaret, Mandana Khoshnevisan pulls off some truly unbelievable dance moves, and she brings a muddled intensity to her Dogberry that leaves the audience in stitches.

Peter Schuyler creates a marvelously drunken Borachio, and he outdoes himself as Friar, wafting about the stage like a giant white spring moth, while Justin Charles’ affect and attire as Ursula make a comparatively minor role truly unforgettable.  Speaking of unforgettable – where else will you ever see/hear “Hooked on a Feeling” performed by a cast kazoo chorus?

Greer’s vision for the show demands costumes as imaginative and uninhibited as her actors, and costume designer Melissa Heller is, as always, up to the challenge. Tyler Buswell’s set provides a stunning and timeless visual backdrop, rooted in medieval Sicily but accommodating lighting and a host of other technical effects that liberate the show from any specific time, place, or relationship to reality.

All of these touches could easily descend into 3 Stooges level chaos, but the B&B cast and production team somehow present, instead, an intelligible and accessible comedy that preserves Shakespeare’s original themes while adding (without overt didacticism) an essential message about the role of gender norms in 2019.  With this show, Greer makes it clear that she is not just keeping Scott Palmer’s fire burning, she is fanning the flames with her own passion.

Bag&Baggage’s Much Ado About Nothing is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through July 28th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Down the Rabbit Hole with Mask & Mirror

Patti Speight, Yelena King, Kelsey Ion (bottom) and Ryan Clifford, Grant Burton (top).Picture by Nicole Mae Photography

By Tina Arth

Buy now, read later. In seven years of reviewing for Westside Theatre Reviews, covering almost 300 shows, I have offered this advice only once before, but Mask & Mirror’s “Unmasked” production of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize winning Rabbit Hole demands no less. The show is brilliantly written, directed, and acted – truly a must-see. However, the venue (Tualatin Heritage Center) is small, the $10 price a real bargain, and with only a two-week run there’s no time for hesitation – definitely buy tickets in advance if possible, since just showing up at the door may be risky.

Got your tickets? Good. Now you can read further:

Rabbit Hole has only five characters, each a dream role for serious actors. There’s Becca and Howie, grieving parents who have lost their 4-year-old son to a tragic traffic accident. There’s Becca’s exuberantly immature younger sister Izzy, who offers little solace to her sister as she grapples with her own issues. There’s Izzy and Becca’s mom, Nat, who drinks a bit too much and is still coping with the death of her son 11 years earlier.  Finally, there’s Jason, the awkward and traumatized 17-year-old who was driving the car that hit young Danny; eight months later, he is still trying to come to grips with his sense of guilt and desperately seeking acceptance and recognition of his contrition. Rather than drawing together in adversity, each family member is isolated on a separate, lonely path to cope with the pain; it is only by finding their way back to each other that they begin to develop strategies for healing and moving forward.  Despite the play’s dark foundations, ample humor breaks the tension, allowing the audience to fully engage with each character’s arc.

Yelena King’s “Becca” is heartbreakingly believable – brittle, rigidly controlled, judgmental, yet silently radiating grief that is consuming her.  King’s precise delivery of a series of micro-aggressions against her sister, husband, and mother builds organically toward the confrontations that finally allow her release. Ryan Clifford’s “Howie” is a fine match – with all of the chemistry flowing from him toward his emotionally absent mate, Clifford finds a lovely balance between compassion, frustration, and attempts to address his own needs.

Kelsey Ion (as Izzy) bursts onto the scene like a lit firecracker, and her initially outlandish behavior captures the essence of the younger sister who can never match the achievements of a “perfect” sibling. Watching her organically develop into her own version of adulthood is a treat, and Ion’s effervescent take on maturity is as much a show highlight as her earlier flamboyance.  Speaking of unusual versions of adulthood, Patti Speight is a hoot, providing a hefty dose of comic relief as the oddly disconnected Nat. More than any other character, Nat’s behavior seems completely out of touch with social norms – her rambling thesis about the Kennedy Curse is a gem, and Speight walks the fine line between tragicomedy and parody with aplomb.

I’ve saved for last an actor with the least stage time, but whose impact is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. 19-year-old Grant Burton (as Jason) creates an unforgettable character – and he gives the role a child-like sincerity and awkwardness that allows the audience (and Becca) to imagine Danny, both as he was and who he might have become. From his first appearance I was rooting for him to break through Becca’s veneer, and watching him succeed gives the whole show a unique and moving focus beyond the tragedy of a child’s death.

Sets are, as expected in the Heritage Center, minimal, but the use of the aisle and apron bring the entire show within touching distance of the audience and creates an intimacy that encapsulates the audience within the drama. A special note, something I rarely notice – Assistant Director Caitriona Johnston also gets credit in the program for hair. The evolution of Becca’s and Izzy’s coiffures through the show perfectly expresses the changes in their psyches as the story develops, and their hairdos silently reflect the two women’s movement from impossibly uptight and pathetically immature opposites toward gentle rapprochement.

By the time this review is posted, there may be only one week left for Rabbit Hole. Director Joe Silva and his superb cast deserve only full houses, and audiences will not find a better way to spend a few hours of their lives.

Mask & Mirror’s production of Rabbit Hole runs through Sunday, July 21 at the Tualatin Heritage Center, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:30.