Tuesday, March 25, 2014

HART Brings Is He Dead? Back To Life

From left to right: Amanda Clark, Jan Rosenthal, Justin Campbell,
Nick Hamilton, Ilana Roder, Laurence Cox, Devon Roberts,
and Sarah Keyes Chang. Courtesy of HART Theatre.

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
If the world ever needed more Mark Twain, surely the time is now! For a few hours last Friday missing airplanes, recently deceased hate peddlers, and conspiracy theorists of all stripes receded into the background as HART Theatre’s production of Is He Dead? conducted us headlong into the world of French farce. Director Paul Roder, Assistant Director Tyson Redifer, and their cast succeeded in doing the one thing we demand of comedy – they made us laugh.
The show’s origins are a bit muddled – Twain wrote the original in 1898, but it did not see the light of day until a diligent Twain scholar unearthed the manuscript over 100 years later. Playwright David Ives simplified the script, adapting it for the modern audience, and in 2007 it made its Broadway debut.

Is He Dead? is brimming with the tried and true elements of traditional farce. Starving artist Jean-Francois Millet and his protégées, faced with financial ruin at the hands of greedy art dealer Bastien Andres, fake Millet’s death to inflate the value of his paintings. Enter: cross-dressing, as Millet dons the persona and costumes of his bereaved (if nonexistent) twin sister, the widow Daisy Tillou. Doors slam, disguises abound, confusion rules the day, at the end of which all is revealed and goodness triumphs over evil.
The show is anchored by the four artists – American Agamemnon “Chicago” Buckner (Nick Hamilton), German Hans “Dutchy” von Bismarck (Laurence Cox), Irishman Phelim O’Shaughnessy (Justin Campbell), and their fearless leader Jean-Francois Millet (Devon Roberts). While each plays his role to consistently humorous effect, it is only when Roberts emerges in drag that the audience shifts from mild chuckles to belly laughs.  The comic level climbs not just at the absurdity of the Widow Tillou, but at the antics of his (her?) three buddies as they offer hands on instruction in the feminine arts.  Roberts is simply extraordinary, especially when he begins to believe his own shtick, reveling and preening coyly in response to the amorous attentions of his suitors.

A key subplot is introduced by the trio of Papa Leroux (Aaron Morrow) and his two daughters, Marie (Sarah Keyes Chang) and Cecile (Amanda Clark).  Chang plays the classic ingénue – sweet, lovely, and fragile. Clark’s best moments come early; her amazingly elastic facial expressions provide hilarious contrast to the relatively somber tone of the first few scenes. The opposite is true of Morrow, whose role really takes off in Act II when he moves from desperate old man to ardent, if unselective, lecher.

Dave Anctil makes his first ever stage appearance as the evil Bastien Andres, and brings admirable villainy to the role. Rian Turner plays three parts, but it is as the stereotypically effete British art buyer Basil Thorpe that his wheezing, nasal, supercilious performance really shines.

Special thanks to the costume team of Mary Gow, Kay Denlow, Karen Roder, and Kayli Gow and makeup designer Kahela Fickle whose work faithfully captures the period and locale even when dealing with the gender-bending demands of the script.

Is He Dead? is so funny that we are looking forward to seeing it again at HART’s April 5th fundraiser, “HART Laughs at Art.” Comedy lovers should not miss this wonderful production – you may have to wait another 100+ years before it is back on the scene!

Is He Dead? is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, April 6th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. The April 5th performance is open only attendees of the special fundraiser.

Monday, March 10, 2014

LEAR: Still Too Much Baggage?

Kevin Connell as Lear, Benjamin Farmer as Perillus, Stephanie Leppert
as Cordelia, Rebecca Ridenour as Goneril and Jessi Walters as Regan, photo
courtesy of Casey Campbell Photography
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
The North American premier production of Lear by Bag & Baggage is a somewhat radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy, King Lear, first performed a decade ago in Glasgow, Scotland.  Ashland regulars may disagree, but from our perspective Artistic Director Scott Palmer has done the world a great service by stripping the Bard’s work down from 20 characters (not counting servants, knights, and assorted hangers-on) to the spare cast of 5 currently treading the boards at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre. Even more commendable is his determination to strip away innumerable sub-plots and intrigues that may have been of interest to an Elizabethan audience, but serve today only to obscure the story’s central themes.

Kevin Connell as Lear, Stephanie Leppert as Cordelia and Rebecca
Ridenour as Goneril, photo courtesy of Casey Campbell Photography
Our only real complaint is that Palmer did not go far enough. The story he tells, which is much less convoluted than the most famous of Shakespeare’s versions, incorporates elements of several different versions of the Lear (Leir) story.  In synthesizing the various sources, while retaining the Elizabethan language, Palmer occasionally lost us – did Perillus (a character from Leir, roughly analogous to the Earl of Kent in Shakespeare’s version) direct Lear to Dover to rendezvous with the King of France, or to hurl himself off the White Cliffs? Were both Cordelia and Perillus at various times donning masks to disguise themselves (even though Perillus had not, to all appearances, been banished)? We, (and perhaps other clueless audience members) would have benefited from a bit of additional expository dialogue to answer questions like these.  This strategy worked to marvelous effect in Palmer’s adaptation of Julius Caesar last summer, and we really missed his strategic insertions.

That said, the Bag and Baggage production is a powerhouse of innovative, yet traditional theater. The set is simple and beautiful – diaphanous, colorful hanging shreds of curtain evoking the elegance and decay of Lear’s kingdom. The lighting design similarly accents the tale – at times creating a castle interior, at other times an eerie, storm-tossed heath. Both set and lighting design help to keep the story moving – rather than waiting through prolonged, dark scene changes, the audience is allowed to focus on the story and use its imagination to create the appropriate background for each scene. The original musical score, performed live by composer Tylor Neist, subtly enhances the show’s most dramatic moments without unduly distracting the audience’s attention.

Jessi Walters as Regan, Benjamin Farmer as Perillus, Kevin Connell as
Lear, Stephanie Leppert as Cordelia and Rebecca Ridenour as Goneril, photo
courtesy of Casey Campbell Photography
The show’s greatest asset is the exceptional quality of the cast. Despite our occasional confusion about minor textual details, the play’s themes are made crystal clear by the five actors. Kevin Connell (“Lear”) delivers a moving performance as he descends from arrogant familial and royal despot to pathetic, broken madman. Despite the uniformly intense emotional level of the role, he modulates his delivery enough to avoid the sins of overacting. Rebecca Ridenour is convincing as the hypocritical and devious, but ultimately repentant, eldest daughter Goneril – she demonstrates sincere horror when sister Regan (Jessi Walters) violently disfigures Perillus. Walters is every father’s nightmare – greedy, vicious, and completely heartless. She uses her powerful voice and stark facial expressions to convey the unfathomable evil of her character. Stephanie Leppert (youngest daughter Cordelia) combines sweetness, honesty, loyalty, and self-confidence to portray a young woman of unparalleled strength and courage. Like Cordelia, Lear’s manservant Perillus (Benjamin Farmer) clearly has his master’s best interests at heart throughout; ironically, it is traitorous daughter Regan who punishes him for his alleged treason. Both Farmer and Leppert bring skillfully nuanced delivery to their emotionally complex roles.

Once again, Bag & Baggage is bringing challenging and groundbreaking theater to the Venetian’s stage. While not perfect, the show provides a compelling and provocative evening of intense and beautifully staged drama.

Bag & Baggage’s Lear is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, through March 23, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Latkes and Love at Beaverton Civic Theatre

Jessica Reed and Seth Haas
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
People go to the theater for many different reasons. After a kind of tough week, we went last Saturday in search of a pleasant, entertaining evening; BCT’s production of  Crossing Delancey delivered that and more. Author Susan Sandler’s story about Isabelle (“Izzy”), a nice Jewish girl finding love in New York City, is a gentle romantic comedy that earns more chuckles than belly laughs, but leaves its audience with a warm glow.

BCT is known for its ingenious, functional use of space. Set designer Alex Woodard’s creation makes the most of the limited space available, using a vertically placed bench to separate the bookstore (Izzy’s workplace) from her grandmother Bubbie’s kitchen. Move the bench to a horizontal position and voila! – it becomes a third location, allowing the action to move without interruption.  The kitchen set is particularly attractive and engaging, with its accurate reproduction of everybody’s Bubbie’s kitchen – right down to the old gas stove and grandmotherly refrigerator magnets.

Director Stan Yeend makes an impressive directorial debut at BCT, eliciting fine performances from his five-person cast. Jessica Reed (“Izzy”) gives a bright and believable interpretation to a complex lead role. She moves easily from a stereotypical modern city girl, proudly rejecting the cultural clichés of her East side origins, to a grounded woman who finds happiness when she strips away her superficial illusions and delusions.

Valarie Griffiths Brown and Adam Caniparoli
Lauren Bronson (“Bubbie”) is a wonderful character actress who creates a classic Jewish grandmother; typical but not clichéd. She projects a warmth that quickly shifts to sharp determination when obstacles arise – a quiet steamroller who will not be deterred. Her friend and co-conspirator Hanna (played by Valarie Griffiths Brown) embraces her inner matchmaker with the same enthusiasm she brings to a plate full of kugel. She is loud and brash, with the subtlety of a used-car salesman – and she is very, very funny.

The play’s two men are polar opposites, and Adam Caniparoli (“Sam” the pickle salesman) and Seth Haas (“Tyler” the Great Author) skillfully embody their roles.

Caniparoli is exceptionally multidimensional – pragmatic, philosophical, thoughtful, educated, and overwhelmingly likeable. We hope to see more of this talented young actor on Westside stages. Versatile BCT veteran Haas is equally effective, if much less likeable, as a man with but one dimension – his own ego. His smarmy affect opens Izzy’s eyes to the importance of real character – as Sondheim once said, “Nice is different from good.”

Lisa Bodry’s lighting design is an essential component of the show, defining areas and moods and utilizing a carefully placed spotlight (nice job, Tonja Schreiber!) to allow Izzy to occasionally break the third wall and chat companionably with the audience. 

Crossing Delancey is chicken soup to the theater lover’s soul, yet carries an unexpected depth that lingers long after the evening ends. So see it bubelah, you’ll be glad you did!

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of Crossing Delancey plays at the Beaverton Civic Library Auditorium through Saturday, March 15th with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and a Sunday matinee at 2:00 p.m. on March 9th.


Monday, March 3, 2014

TITG Brings Osage County to the Grove

Michael Rouches and Jeananne Kelsey

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

As the Wall Street Journal noted in a recent article, Theatre in the Grove is taking a rather large risk by offering as big and provocative a show as August: Osage County in Forest Grove. This is not exactly a family-friendly community theater offering – over three hours of jarring drama laced with copious doses of vulgar language and unbelievably vile behavior. It’s an intensely disturbing play, and despite the frequent (dark) humor, the evening left us emotionally drained and pathetically eager to hurry home to the uncomplicated adoration of our dogs. This reaction is not an indictment of the production, but recognition of the powerful performances we had just seen.

Any attempt to neatly summarize the plot would be wasted – there’s enough drama and trauma in the play’s tale of the Westons, a thoroughly dysfunctional Oklahoma family, to fill a season of General Hospital. The events take place in the course of a few weeks in the large Weston homestead, where the entire clan assembles to deal with the disappearance (and ultimately, suicide) of the family’s alcoholic patriarch, Beverly Weston. Over the course of the play, the dialogue and action lead us through decades of drug abuse, alcoholism, molestation, infidelity, incest, blackmail, and emotional cruelty, leaving a group of twisted victims who eventually, frantically scrabble to escape the family home.

The role of Violet Weston (Pruella Centers), the pill-poppin’ manipulative momma of the clan, defines and dominates the entire show. From the moment that Centers appears, stumbling and mumbling down the staircase like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, she doesn’t merely steal scenes, she owns them. As the show evolves, she strips away the overtones of pathos to reveal herself as a great, lurking spider who uses her web (the entire house) to ensnare and humiliate all who enter.

Of course, Centers is not alone on the stage – she is surrounded by a stunning group of actors who, even on preview night, did not miss a beat, a line, or a nuance.  With a cast of 13 seasoned performers, neither space nor the availability of appropriate adjectives allows us to recognize all of them.  However, a few people demand special notice. Carly Wasserstein (as Johnna Monevata, the Native American housekeeper) projects a calm, grounded persona that provides welcome relief from the mangled psyches that surround her. She reminds the audience that there is another world outside the Weston web, and she brings a little sanity into the household. Jeananne Kelsey (as Violet’s 14-year-old granddaughter Jean) and Michael Rouches (as the sleazily pedophilic fiancé of one of the Weston daughters) add fuel to the family bonfire in two disturbingly believable scenes. Rouches radiates unctuous charm layered thinly over his character’s predatory nature, and Kelsey beautifully captures the clueless adolescent spaciness of her role.

Director, set and sound designer Zachary Centers is the (literal and figurative) architect whose vision has brought August: Osage County to Theater in the Grove.  His spectacular set creates the elaborate Petri dish in which the Weston family pathology flourishes, and his brilliant casting decisions provide the necessary fodder.

Obviously, this show is not for everybody. Persons of delicate sensibilities are well advised to steer clear of the strong language and stronger stories of Osage County – smelling salts and fainting couches are not provided.  However, audiences open to a thought-provoking, gut wrenching evening of dark humor and darker themes should flock to the production.

August: Osage County runs at Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove through Sunday, March 16th with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.