Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Broadway Rose’s Latest Light Fun? This is Most Certainly True!

By Tina Arth

Maybe someday the world will be ready for a wry but gentle musical about Islam, but for now we’ll have to settle for loving parodies of the foibles of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Broadway Rose’s current production of The Church Basement Ladies is a classic example of the genre – warm, nostalgic, cheerful, and utterly harmless. What it lacks in substance it makes up for in unabashed enthusiasm (expressed through the actors, musical direction, and set) for a time, place, and people who define our image of both the strength and kitschiness of traditional American religion (in this case, Garrison Keillor’s much-loved Minnesota Lutherans).

The show is set entirely in the basement kitchen of a 1960s era rural Lutheran church, and cast only with the pastor and four women who prepare the food for church special events and slowly learn to deal with large and small changes on the horizon as the decade unfolds. Whether it’s changing the color of the hymnals (just plain wrong), the pastor’s young new wife who offers vegetarian lasagna for a church dinner (gasp!), or the teen daughter who may be dating a Catholic (oh, the horror!) the basement ladies bear up bravely, if not silently, under the assaults on their sacred ways. Pastor Gunderson, Mavis, Vivian, Karin, and Karin’s daughter Signe sing and dance their way through Christmas dinner, a funeral, a Hawaiian-themed Easter fundraiser, and finally Signe’s wedding (thankfully, to Handsome Harry, not to the Catholic boy).

While the show is amusing, and evokes a nice warm glow of nostalgia (probably stronger for Lutherans), the songs are not terribly memorable and it’s thematically thin. However, none of this matters – it’s Broadway Rose, and the quality of the performances ensures that the audience is treated to a spectacular two-hour concert by five wonderful vocalists. The solos sparkle, but it’s the harmonies that make the evening – mostly smooth and rich, but with occasional flights of spine-tingling inventiveness.

Matthew Belles (Pastor Gunderson) is a solid singer and actor, but mostly takes a back seat to the ladies. However, the emotional (by Lutheran standards) scene where he writes a eulogy for the beloved Willie the handyman provides one of the show’s most touching moments. Lori Paschall (Vivian), Debbie Hunter (Karin), and Zoe Randol (Signe) bring bite and warmth to their intergenerational tension. Paschall plays the crusty and seemingly immovable traditionalist to the hilt in her paranoid “The Cities,” but like Belles she gets a real moment in the scene where Vivian comforts Signe, the terrified bride to be. Paschall’s role as the aging, self-appointed doyenne of the synod might have been clearer if she had worn a white wig – it was not immediately obvious that she was supposed to be much older than the other women. Debbie Hunter (Karin) displays a nice combination of subservience and spunk as she wrestles with Paschall for a voice in the management of the kitchen, and it is Hunter’s voice that really sells some of the otherwise forgettable songs. Zoe Randol (Signe) has inherited her “mother’s” backbone – she is calm but firm as she stands up for her bold decisions to associate with a Catholic, go to college in the sin-rife Twin Cities, and listen to the Beatles.  Her ultimate marriage to a nice local (Lutheran) boy is a bit of a disappointment for the rebel in me, but she offers some stunning harmonies and displays the best dance moves in the cast, so I forgive her for that one lapse.

I first saw Kymberli Colbourne a few months ago playing Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Rehearsed. Nothing in that impressive performance prepared me for Mavis – the ultimate farmwife with a sunny disposition, ready to tackle any challenge without complaint. Colbourne’s fine-tuned and fearless grasp of physical comedy makes her hot-flashes (first seen in the truly funny “My Own Personal Island”) a motif as powerful and oft repeated as the great Lutheran cliché, “This is most certainly true.” Whether she’s opening a stuck door, cooling herself in the freezer, or clambering to open a window in sub-zero temperatures Colbourne puts it all out there, and it works.

The sixth “cast” member is the set itself – a detailed, fully equipped room with great props, it captures every detail of a church kitchen.  In this show, butter holds a place of singular honor, each apron carries its own subtle message, and the knives, pans, tables and appliances almost come to life as they interact with the human cast (especially the dancing butter rolls).

Last, but not least, music director/keyboard player Jeffrey Childs is the unseen hero of the show.  He has molded a talented cast into a finely tuned and sometimes exciting vocal ensemble, and the music from his single keyboard is so full that my companion had to point out to me that he was working alone.

Church Basement Ladies” is playing at the Broadway Rose New Stage Theater, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, May 15th with performances at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday. An additional performance will be held at 7:30 pm on Wednesday, May 11.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Dark Comedy Lights Up the Stage at Theatre in the Grove

Masha (Jodi Coffman) and Vanya (Aaron Morrow)

By Tina Arth

Anton Chekhov is inarguably one of the key figures of 19th century realism in theater, and it is a bit of an understatement to say that his worldview was not perky. Although told it was dark comedy, I was expecting something pretty gloomy when I walked into Theatre in the Grove for the opening night production of playwright Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and saw a stunningly detailed set reminiscent of the home in TITG’s 2014 production August in Osage County (also not exactly a theatrical funfest).  I walked out a few hours later with my fears assuaged, thoroughly entertained and utterly charmed. Director Zachary Centers and his cast do a fine job of capturing the often-gentle humor of Durang’s Chekhovian send-up, and show surprising restraint even when dealing with the broader comedic elements of the play.

The story centers on three siblings, all named after Chekhov characters by their theater-loving parents; in middle age, the three are still doing a great job of embodying the despair and ennui of their namesakes. Vanya and Sonia live completely unproductive lives in their childhood home, which is owned by jet-setting sister Masha, an international screen star (courtesy of her roles in the “Sexy Killer” film franchise).  Masha arrives at the homestead with her new boy toy Spike, intent on selling the property (thus leaving her siblings with no home in which to park their empty existence). A constant sense of impending doom is reinforced by the hysterical ravings of Cassandra, the cleaning lady/local prophetess. While most of Cassandra’s dire predictions are literally fulfilled, disaster is averted as the key characters find their authentic voices along with the courage to deal with the setbacks.  Oh, and it’s really, really funny.

Aaron Morrow (Vanya) is a newcomer to TITG, but will be familiar to many from performances all over Washington County and beyond in other community theater productions – frequently as a goofball, a drunk, or a drunken goofball. Morrow and director Centers have worked together to create a very different actor – witty, wry, and controlled in a huge role. Even his funniest moments, like the rant about change and his overt lusting after the hunky Spike, are played with careful timing that project both Vanya’s intelligence and Morrow’s. As Sonia, Pruella Centers is neurotic, insecure, and wonderfully mercurial – she shifts fluidly from raging angst to self-pity to almost catatonic calm, and neither the audience nor Vanya knows which Sonia will emerge next. Jodi Coffman plays Masha as the consummate actress who no longer seems to have a character of her own – she is every insecure, vain, self-absorbed and dissatisfied screen queen ever imagined – and Coffman plays it to the hilt.

Andy Roberts has a great deal of fun as boy toy Spike – his reverse strip tease is flamboyantly athletic and carefully costumed for maximum effect.  Wendy Harris Bax doesn’t just play the role of Cassandra, she attacks it, and her scene with the voodoo doll is beyond hilarious. The final character, Nina (Rachel May) is a young, beautiful aspiring actress who radiates naivety from every pore. May is sweetly innocent as an ingénue, but it is her performance as a molecule (simulating a hedgehog, a porpoise, a spider, and a host of other creatures) that allows her to display a remarkable talent for physical comedy.

Theatre in the Grove strikes a fine balance between traditional community theater fare and the truly unexpected; Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike definitely falls into the latter category. The range of humor and cultural references is broad and layered, so familiarity with Chekhov, while helpful, is by no means prerequisite to enjoying the play.  Parental discretion is advised, as there are mature themes and language.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through May 1 with performances at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and matinees at 2:30 pm on Sundays.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Aggle Flaggle Klabble? Not This Knuffle Bunny!

Pictured is Richard Cohn-Lee ("Dad"), Kayla Hughes ("Mom"), and Michaela Warren ("Trixie")

By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre is reaching out to a whole new demographic with their latest production, Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical. Since the Knuffle Bunny books emerged well after my active parenting days, I rounded up an eight-year-old neighbor to accompany me to the show and to share some age-appropriate insight. She is a smart, well-behaved kid and definitely great company for this adventure – but sadly, she doesn’t seem to have the makings of a theater critic. When I asked her after the show what she thought were the best things and what things could have been better, she happily informed me that she loved everything! When pressed, she did confess that it would have been nice if the part of Trixie (the central character) had been played by someone much younger – but since it’s a huge role and Trixie is supposed to be about 18 months old, we agreed that no actual baby could have handled the job!

For those of you new to the world of Knuffle Bunny, here’s the skinny: Dad and Mom are parents to Trixie, a stunningly lively toddler who has an extensive and colorful baby talk vocabulary, but hasn’t quite mastered expression in English. She adores Knuffle Bunny, her stuffed toy, and is desolate when separated from the rabbit. Dad (inept, as dads often are in children’s stories) resolves to take Trixie to the laundromat, and give Mom a few hours of peace and quiet. While at the laundromat, Knuffle Bunny is accidentally put in with the dirty clothes; when Trixie discovers that her toy is missing she is inconsolable, incessantly screaming “Aggle Flaggle Klabble” but unable to explain to Dad what is upsetting her. Mom, of course, saves the day. When the traumatized dad/daughter get home, Mom immediately sees the problem and asks (repeatedly) “Where is Knuffle Bunny?” Once Dad calms down enough to actually hear the question, he knows at once! They rush back to the laundromat, Dad bravely throws himself into the washer and after a Herculean struggle with panties, bras, socks, etc. he emerges from battle victoriously clutching the errant bunny. Overjoyed, Trixie yells “Knuffle Bunny” – her first actual words!

Richard Cohn-Lee (“Dad”) struck me at first as ridiculously over-the-top. However, a few minutes in it struck me: he is not just playing a role, he’s playing it in the exaggerated style a parent uses to bring life to a funny story when reading to a young child. The reaction of the kids in the audience makes it clear that he is hitting exactly the right note. In response to his panicked “where did Trixie go?” a little girl in front of me pointed stage right and cried out “that way!” When he chases after Trixie in the aisles, kids all around the theater crane their necks to catch every slapstick moment.  He is particularly funny when he envisions himself as a rock star, playing air guitar like Pete Townsend on steroids, but he manages to rein it in and express genuine emotion in the touching “Really, Really Love You.”

Kayla Hughes (“Mom”) is the show’s straight man, and she does a fine job of portraying the long-suffering, exhausted, but super-competent parent. She has a lovely voice that is occasionally drowned out by the music track – something that can be easily fixed with a little modulation in the sound booth. 

The real star (other than the bunny, of course) is Michaela Warren as “Trixie.” This is an amazingly demanding role for a young girl, and she simply nails it – I expect to see her time and again in local theater productions! A sparkling moment in her performance is the poignant “Aggle Flaggle Klabble,” a song composed entirely of nonsense syllables that nonetheless expresses her complete despair at having lost her beloved Knuffle Bunny. I am in awe of her ability to learn the hundreds of lines, when only the final moments of the show allow her to speak English!

As is appropriate for a children’s storybook, the set is minimal. A few large cubes double as planters and washing machines (Cohn-Lee’s foes in the heart-pounding rescue scene and props for the hysterical antics and vocals of the laundromat chorus).

Director Melissa Riley and Music Director Beth Noelle are bringing something new and wonderful to Beaverton Civic’s repertoire – theater appropriate and captivating for even the youngest audiences. The family-friendly nature of the show is enhanced by the $5.00 ticket price, and the single act runs less than an hour, so kiddos with short attention spans don’t have time to get restless (or need to use the bathroom!). This is a “can’t miss” show for parents or grandparents of young children, and with only a two-week run tickets are selling fast!

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical has three performances on Saturday, April 16th with shows at 11:00 am, 1:00 pm, and 3:00 pm at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Danyelle Tinker ("Suzanne") and Jason A. England ("David"). Photo by Garry Bastian photography.

By Tina Arth

Jonathan Tolins’ hard-hitting tragicomedy, Twilight of the Golds, opened in 1993 – the same year that Seinfeld fans made the phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that” a cultural icon. These are not unrelated phenomena, as the play explicitly revolves around a Jewish family in New York dealing with issues of tolerance and homosexuality. However, the play’s slightly futuristic and sci-fi flavor allows (actually, requires) the audience to view both gayness and genetic research as metaphors for a much broader set of ethical and moral questions. Twilight Theater Company director Ronald Jorgensen and his mighty five-person cast present a carefully paced show that fluctuates between stereotypical (but terribly funny) humor and gut-wrenching emotional expression.

Suzanne Gold-Stein and husband Rob Stein are celebrating their third anniversary with her very close, very loving family – parents Phyllis and Walter and her obviously gay, but only occasionally campy brother David. Suzanne waits until the family is together to announce that she is pregnant. Genetic researcher Rob reveals that his employer may be willing to do an experimental amniocentesis and DNA analysis of the fetus, just to make sure nothing is wrong. Here’s where the sci-fi aspect emerges, as the test results come in: the baby is fine, but is 90% likely to be “like David” (i.e., gay). The story then revolves around the family’s reaction, and in particular the possibility that Suzanne might choose to abort the baby. How does a relatively liberal Jewish family with a much-loved gay son/brother feel about this, particularly in 1993, the year that U.S. AIDS diagnoses peaked? How do they reconcile an intuitive aversion to eugenics, especially powerful in any post-WW II Jewish family, with a woman’s right to choose?

Given that issues of nature vs. nurture and genetics research even in 2016 render the 90% “like David” diagnosis utterly implausible, one can (but should not) dismiss the plot as naïve and irrelevant. It’s not a huge stretch, after all, to expand the conversation to include transgender identity, autism, and other “defects” that are not necessarily predictive of extreme suffering or devastating illness.  Leaving legal issues out of the equation, what are the moral implications of terminating a pregnancy, not because the family or woman is unable or unwilling to raise a baby but because they don’t want to raise this baby? Can we assume that a gay, or black, or transgender, or autistic, or even female adult is by definition disadvantaged and would be better off with the more culturally powerful status of straight, white, “normal” male?

For the story to work, we need to believe that the Golds are inherently likeable, good-hearted people – people a lot like us. This is where Twilight of the Golds really sparkles. Jodi Rafkin (Phyllis) creates a perfect Jewish mother – over-the-top warm, intensely involved and lovingly manipulative toward both of her offspring. She controls her accent and delivery so that the humor and pathos come through without a hint of parody. Chandano Fuller (Walter) captures the contradictions of his role – apparently self-centered, clearly used to being the alpha male, but revealing his doting father side by secretly doling out cash to his kids and by refusing to kvetch about their choices. Danyelle Tinker (Suzanne) and Jason A. England (David) have great chemistry as the closely bonded sister and brother who seem to be unquestionably accepting of the others’ faults – the bitter poignancy of their ultimate disagreement is testimony to their believability. The only character we don’t need to love is Rob, and William Ferguson does a fine balancing act – part cold scientist, part emotional outcast because he will never really penetrate the loving shell around the nuclear Gold family.

With the IKEA-feel of the Gold-Stein apartment and a few kitschy touches in the Gold’s dining room, JJ Abrams sketches the yuppie design of the era. Robin Pair’s lighting design eliminates the need for scene changes and keeps the action flowing, and his special effects (in combination with Ilana Watson’s sound design) create brief but striking operatic interludes.  I was especially struck by the subtly appropriate costumes – small touches like ‘90s appropriate pantyhose, Phyllis’ bouffant hairdo, and that tiny Izod alligator helped me to absorb the action from the perspective of the era.

Because of mature themes and language, Twilight of the Golds is not appropriate for younger audiences. Beyond that, I would enthusiastically recommend that local audiences take advantage of the opportunity to see this rarely produced, powerful, funny, thought-provoking show.

Twilight Theater Company’s production of Twilight of the Golds is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Saturday, April 16th with performances at 8 P.M. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 P.M.