Tuesday, October 27, 2015

HART’s Foreigner Unapologetically Funny Farce

Picture is of William Ferguson (Charlie), Patti Speight (Betty),  and Carl Dahlquist (Ellard).  Photo courtesy of Nicole Mae Photography

By Tina Arth

It is said that laughter is the best medicine. If so, then audiences for author Larry Shue’s The Foreigner are getting a real bargain – HART’s $15.00 admission, while not covered by Obamacare, is still the best deal in town. Under the guidance of director Sarah Ominski and Assistant Director Sarah Thornton, the cast of this odd farce creates an engaging narrative and characters we really care about.

The premise of the show is a convoluted and utterly implausible melodrama. Cockney Staff Sgt. Froggy LeSeur is making his annual annual visit to Tilghman County, Georgia, to share his explosives expertise with soldiers at a local army base. His first stop is to deposit his former Commanding Officer, Charlie Baker, at the dilapidated fishing lodge owned by Betty Meeks, an elderly, credulous Southern ditz. Charlie has been convinced by his wife’s disdain that he is utterly devoid of personality; humiliated and self-conscious, the last thing he wants is to be left alone with a group of strangers. Froggy addresses this dilemma by telling Betty that Charlie is a foreigner, understands no English, and cannot be spoken to during his visit. The lodge’s other visitors, assuming that Charlie cannot follow their conversations, reveal several dark secrets in his presence – including a sinister plot by local Klansmen to take over the lodge and eventually the country. Charlie improvises a “foreign language” gibberish until a cheerfully dim-witted guest, Ellard Simms, endeavors to teach him English. For obvious reasons an apt pupil, Charlie becomes fluent with miraculous speed, and within two days he is able to foil the dastardly plot and befriend the lovely heroine, Ellard’s sister Catherine.

While the cast is amply endowed with comedic talent, the chemistry between Ellard (Carl Dahlquist) and Charlie (William Ferguson) really sells the show.  Dahlquist is a master of the requisite “duh” look and attitude, yet he manages to convey Ellard’s inner goodness and fundamental street smarts while simply rocking a striped union suit. HART’s small theater is a perfect platform for Ferguson, as he telegraphs his thoughts to us (and eventually to his allies) with expressive eyes and an amazing range of facial tics. Many of the evening’s best laughs come from the language lessons, as an uptight British officer is transformed into a drawling yahoo learning that “ye-us” is a two syllable word. The final Musketeer in the comedic trio is Betty, and it is a part that actor Patti Speight was born to play. She hurls herself at the role, and at Charlie, in the ubiquitous American belief that loud talk and big gestures can overcome any language barrier. Jason Weed (as the lead Klansman) is a surprising standout who captures an over-the-top Southern meanness ranging from simple malice to apoplectic anger.

William Crawford’s fishing lodge set is detailed, authentic, and cleverly designed to allow for a variety of unusual entrances and exits. Some alarming events going on in an unseen outside world are captured neatly by Rebecca Glass and Benjamin Phillip’s sound design paired with lighting design by Ray Hale and Brian Ollom.

It’s not easy to keep broad farce from stepping over a fine line between serious comedy and annoyingly juvenile silliness, but the opening night audience’s reaction make it clear that the HART ‘s cast and crew got it right. If you go, you will laugh (a lot) – is there any better reason to see a comedy?

The Foreigner runs at HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, November 8th with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


Trevor Jackson (Brandon) and Michael Tuefel (Rupert). Photo by Casey Campbell.

By Tina Arth

Bag & Baggage’s October offering is definitely in the spirit of Halloween – a macabre murder-mystery-comedy that keeps the audience laughing at absurdly stereotypical caricatures. However, playwright Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 work manages, in the end, to sneak in a dose of real character development and a message about human values transcending the nihilism of its time. Guest director Rusty Tennant has imported a sparkling cast of Bag & Baggage newcomers to Hillsboro for this quirkily inverted whodunit – the question is never “who?” or even “why?” but rather “will they get caught?”

Ignoring the obvious complication of a body in a chest, Rope plays out at first quite like a traditional drawing room comedy. Two exceptionally callow and bored Oxford students, the dominant Wyndham Brandon and weaker Charles Granillo, have expressed their pseudo-Nietzschean intellectual superiority by committing a motiveless crime (the murder of the innocent Ronald), then inviting a few friends over for dinner. The dining room table is covered with books, so the food is set out buffet-style on the chest in the drawing room. The guests include Kenneth Raglan, a particularly silly fellow student, and Leila Arden, his apparently equally silly female counterpart – voluptuous, flirtatious, and very eager to fit in with the sophisticated and well-educated group. Through some patently expository initial dialogue, we learn that another two guests are Sir Johnstone and Mrs. Debenham, the father and aunt of the luckless, chest-bound Ronald. The final guest, Rupert Cadell, is a very, very clever poet whose World War I experiences have left him utterly cynical and totally disaffected from contemporary mores. Leila jokingly raises the possibility that there could be a body in the chest, then pursues her whimsical notion with the persistence of a bulldog – but to no avail. Rupert, having spotted an unexpected music hall ticket in Granillo’s vest, deduces that Leila has inadvertently hit on the truth, and the play then revolves around the possibility that Rupert might expose the murder and, if so, how he might react to it.

In the first act, each role is played with such broad enthusiasm that we get little sense of actual character (except for a clear sense of the lack of character of Brandon and Granillo). Raglan (Joel Patrick Durham) is an absolute ninny, and Durham’s nearly hysterical tittering makes it abundantly clear that the murderers are intellectually superior to at least some of their guests. Signe Larsen (Leila), while considerably less educated, shows some signs of grey matter – but her incessant prancing, dancing, and over-the-top attraction to Kenneth shows that she is no candidate for Mensa. In Act II the real tension between the handsome, but chillingly sociopathic Brandon (Trevor Jackson) and the foppish Rupert (Michael Tuefel) emerges. Tuefel’s wonderfully effete delivery of a monologue equating warfare with murder and dismissing each of the Ten Commandments sets him up as sympathetic to the boys – but Tuefel gradually displays hints of a deeper character buried beneath the façade.

Rope is one of those plays that, like Rupert Cadell, seems at first to be merely clever and funny (and it is extremely funny!) but turns out, on introspection, to be hiding a serious and thought-provoking side that more than justifies the audience’s attendance and attention.

Bag and Baggage’s production of Rope runs through Sunday, November 1 at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, with performances at 7:30 Thursday – Saturday and 2:00 pm Sunday matinees.

Monday, October 12, 2015

TITG Presents a Fine Fiddler

Darren Hurley (Tevye) leading the ensemble in "Tradition."Photo by Ward Ramsdell

By Tina Arth

Theatre in the Grove’s current production of Fiddler on the Roof is not perfect – it’s something much better. It’s real and alive, with music and dance integrated so smoothly into the narrative that you never have that moment of wondering why exhausted, careworn peasants suddenly look and sound like they are playing hooky from their real gigs at the Imperial Ballet or the Metropolitan Opera House. Director/Choreographer Melanie Shaw has melded her talented cast into a believable microcosm of life for early 20th century Russian Jews and their Czarist oppressors. The show, written by Joseph Stein, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, is a classic because it so movingly combines the wry humor and the powerful currents of grief of a people trying to maintain their cultural identity as their world is once again torn apart.

The tale is as old as anti-Semitism and as new as the crisis in Syria. While political turmoil and oppression swirl around them, the poor milkman Tevye and his wife Golde just want to raise their family and marry off their five daughters in peace, living their lives according to the traditions handed down from their forebears. The show opens with a powerful ensemble rendition of “Tradition” that immediately conveys the essence of how a patiently beleaguered people have coped with generations of upheaval. As Tevye and Golde’s daughters break with tradition by choosing their own increasingly “inappropriate” spouses, Tevye grudgingly rationalizes his compromises in monologues punctuated by the phrase “on the other hand” – until the third daughter, Chava, elopes with a Gentile and he angrily concludes “there is no other hand!”

The three oldest daughters introduce themes of change through their unorthodox courtships. Playing eldest daughter Tzeitel, Natasha Kujawa injects intelligence and irony into her role as an early feminist, determined to marry for love and able to badger timid fiancé Motel (Dan Bahr) into standing up to Tevye. As second daughter Hodel, Amy Martin evolves from obedient girl to strong and independent woman, willing to leave her world behind when fiancé Perchik (Andy Roberts) is shipped off to Siberia. Martin’s lovely voice brings pathos to the powerful and evocative “Far From the Home I Love.” As third daughter Chava, Rachel May Thomas’ solo dance during Tevye’s “Chava Sequence” beautifully accents his grief at the loss of his favorite daughter. The daughters contrast dramatically with their mother Golde (Wendy Bax), a conventionally downtrodden peasant trying to manage her household with an iron fist. Bax has a gorgeous voice, and is a good enough actress to use it only when the script demands that she show it off (as in the beautiful “Sabbath Prayer” and the always touching “Do You Love Me?”). As Yente the Matchmaker, Jeanine Stassens get many of the show’s funniest lines, and she makes the most of them.

Director Shaw’s staging of “The Dream” is the funniest version I have seen of this comic highlight. The decision to cast an eleven year old as Grandmother Tzeitel was inspired – the tiny, fierce Luella Harrelson keeps the audience in stitches with her frenetic energy, and her costume and makeup effectively disguise her youth. Jennifer Yamashiro’s take on Fruma Sarah is a perfect counterpoint; the character’s physical elevation and tottering gait amp up her already hysterical delivery.

Of course, Fiddler is really Tevye’s show, and Darren Hurley could not be better cast. He avoids the common pitfall of delivering his lines with a heavy accent, choosing instead to inject just a trace of Yiddish flavor into the role. This allows him to create a character, rather than a caricature, to anchor the show. His powerful voice ensures that the musical’s most well-known numbers will stay with the audience long after they leave the theater, but it is his total commitment to Tevye’s thoughtful combination of rigidity and flexibility that makes the performance truly memorable.

The ensemble is exceptionally strong – solid choreography delivered with utter precision, and vocal harmonies that sometimes bring chills, other times tears (as in the evocative “Sunrise, Sunset”). James Grimes’ spare, but cleverly designed set precludes all but the briefest scene-change delays, and Ward Ramsdell’s lighting design enhances the barren beauty of the tiny village.

Audiences still have two more weeks to see one of the finest Fiddlers likely to come their way; this one is definitely worth the drive to Forest Grove for lovers of classic musical theatre.

Fiddler on the Roof runs through Sunday, October  25th at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

STAGES’ The Addams Family Musical A Stretch, But It Works!

Addams Family (Athena Van Dyke as Lurch, Dahlia/Lavender Wyatt as Grandma,
as Kai Nevers as Pugsley, Elijah Webbas Gomez, Caitriona Johnstone as
Morticia, Emily Neibergall as Wednesday, Max Nevers as Uncle Fester). 

Photo by Frank Hunt.

By Tina Arth

Hillsboro’s STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy has historically limited its productions to typical family fare – Cheaper By The Dozen, High School Musical, and various “Jr.” shows, productions abbreviated to make them more accessible to a young cast. However, the program is stretching its participants by venturing into deeper water this year. The Addams Family, based on Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons and the iconic TV series, is definitely not a children’s show. Authors Marshall Brockman and Rick Elice have included a number of adult themes and jokes that make the show more PG-13 (and a whole lot funnier) than expected, and the music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (23 songs, including several big production numbers) require the cast to work much harder than is usual in youth theatre. It is impressive to see how well director Luis Ventura and the current crop of STAGES actors are rising to the challenge.

The story, as expected in expanded cartoons, is simplistic (if somewhat convoluted). Brooding Goth princess Wednesday Addams has fallen in love with a normal guy, Lucas Beineke, and the time has come for the two families to meet. She confides in her father, Gomez, that she and Lucas are engaged – but begs him not to tell Morticia (her mother) until the time is right. The entire Addams family (including a host of really interesting dead ancestors) is expected to behave for one night like a regular family. Lucas’ parents are pure middle America, and (despite the Addams’ attempts to behave) are more than a little confused about the bizarre family, although they tend to ascribe most of the weirdness to the fact that the Addams are New Yorkers – an alien species to the Ohio born and bred Beinekes. After accidentally consuming a magic potion meant for Wednesday, Alice Beineke realizes that her marriage has become a sham; tightly wound husband Mal, once a passionate and spontaneous lover, has become a distant workaholic.  Chaos ensues – but of course it all works out in the end. Wednesday and Lucas, Mal and Alice, Gomez and Morticia, even Uncle Fester and his true love, the moon – all work out their differences, and the ancestors go quietly back to their graves, reassured that their descendants have resolved their many issues and no longer need their guidance.

Most of the show’s principals have extensive show-biz bios and are well prepared to take on the more demanding roles of the show. The surprise standout is 15-year-old Elijah Webb (“Gomez”) – this is only his second play and his first musical. He delivers a mature performance, has great timing and gravitas, and delivers strong solos in many of the show’s musical numbers. STAGES veteran Marlena Starrs (“Alice”) nails her transition from repressed Ohio housewife to a kind of lusty second-adolescence, and she is equally convincing in both personas. Emily Niebergall’s “Wednesday” is a delightful mixture of darkness and light – her personality as quirky as the bright yellow dress over her dark stockings and darker mien – and she brings a solid voice to some of the show’s best numbers. “Morticia,” in the hands of a very experienced Caitriona Johnstone, is a classic control freak, and the moment when she realizes that she has “become her mother” (every bride’s nightmare!) is simply lovely.

William Crawford’s set is darkly beautiful, detailed, and efficient. Costume coordinator Sandy Wilson has outdone herself with the Ancestor’s attire, portraying a wide variety with character-appropriate yet ghostly all-white togs – and the Ancestors’ makeup is superb.

Congratulations to Director Ventura for his willingness to take the STAGES program to the next level – one can only imagine what we’ll see with their next production, Shakespeare’s The Tempest (and no, there is no Tempest, Jr.!)

The Addams Family is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro through Sunday, October 11th with 7:30 p.m. performances on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Verdict Is In On Beaverton Civic Theatre’s Twelve Angry Jurors

Steve Holgate (Juror #8) exploring a fine point in the evidence. The other jurors (going
around the table clockwise from bottom left) are Bud Reece, Virginia Howe
Kincaid, Allison Andersen, Tonja Schreiber, Diana LoVerso, Jessica Reed,
Stan Yeend, Greg Prosser, Les Ico, Priscilla Howell, and Erin Zelazny. Photo by Ammon Riley.

By Tina Arth

As someone familiar with Henry Fonda’s 1957 film version of Twelve Angry Men, I initially found the title of Beaverton Civic Theatre’s Twelve Angry Jurors a bit jarring - would updating the show diminish its impact? However, this powerful drama is only improved by revising it to reflect current realities (e.g., we allow women on our juries now) – the removal of now-obsolete features serves to illustrate more fully that the central themes are completely relevant in 2015. Rush to judgment? Check. Inequities based on class and economic status? Check. Abusive parents? Check. Racism? Check. Overworked, uninspired public defenders? Check. Ambiguity about the meaning of “reasonable doubt?” Check. Ultimately, good people with good sense prevailing? Well, sometimes check.

Director Kraig Williams has assembled a truly amazing cast, and the result is a riveting show. For two hours we watch the jurors, twelve ordinary Americans drawn from all walks of life, who are closed into a stifling jury room for hours to deliberate the fate of a young man facing the death penalty for allegedly killing his father. Introducing women into the mix (this production peoples its jury with five men and seven women) superficially changes things, but none of the wit, intelligence, callousness, anger, bigotry, pain, and sensitivity of the original show is lost. The universality of these qualities is emphasized by the anonymity of the cast – the jurors have only their juror numbers, and the young man on trial is never given a name or ethnicity - he is just one of “them,” and we all know how “they” are. An inspired twist is portraying juror # 11, typically a German immigrant, as a Muslim woman – in 2015 a much better illustration of the evils of stereotyping (and a clear reminder that some problems of the 1950’s are still with us, despite several decades of “progress”). The jurors begin with a general assumption that it will be a quick guilty verdict, based on the evidence they have heard and their own biases. The first informal poll reveals that they are split 11 – 1 in favor of a guilty verdict – the lone holdout Juror #8, a Physics teacher who believes that the accused deserves a bit more deliberation before being sent to death row. Gradually, in fits and starts, the guilty verdict begins to collapse under the weight of “reasonable doubt” and a growing willingness on the part of the jurors to critically examine the evidence. Ultimately, after a liberal dose of reason and common sense, the group reaches a unanimous “not guilty” verdict.

Jurors #8 (Steve Holgate), #10 (Virginia Howe Kincaid), and #3 (Stan Yeend) provide the show’s principal conflict; other jurors offer more nuanced reactions to the three central characters. Holgate is quietly compelling as a man of conscience and science who cannot allow his fellow jurors to rush to judgment. Kincaid is disturbingly strident as the racist who blithely assumes that everyone secretly shares her vicious perspective. Yeend plays the angriest and most troubled of the group, and reaches frighteningly authentic heights of apoplexy as his character unravels in the face of the other jurors’ obvious aversion to his hate-filled choler.

While there are no weak performances, two other actors merit special mention. As Juror #11, Jessica Reed evolves believably from a retiring hijab-wearing Muslim to a passionate advocate of the best of American democracy; her growing reactions to Kincaid’s worst excesses subtly underscore the play’s themes. Les Ico (# 5) uses his remarkably expressive face to illustrate his character’s growing empathy for the accused, who shares his violent slum upbringing.

While there are several moments of dark humor to relieve the tension, Twelve Angry Jurors is intense and sometimes uncomfortable. However, it is one of the most powerful and provocative dramas I have seen on a BCT stage, and the quality of the production makes it a must-see for local audiences.

Beaverton Civic Theatre presents Twelve Angry Jurors through Saturday, October 17th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, 12375 SW Fifth Street, Beaverton, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.