Thursday, February 22, 2018

Mouse-Masked Audience Mingles With Mousetrap Cast

Brian Reed, Carlyn Blount, Nick D'Ettorre plus masked audience members.
Photo by Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

Is there a theater-lover alive who has never seen The Mousetrap? Agatha Christie’s classic murder-mystery holds the record for longest running show in the history of London’s West End – it opened in 1952, and has yet to close. Access to London is irrelevant, as the show has been produced countless times in practically every English-speaking theater on Earth, from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to, well, Beaverton. Here’s a tip – whether you’re new to the show or know it like the back of your hand, you’ll enjoy the Experience Theatre Project’s innovative take on the production. For Mousetrap newbies there is the challenge of trying to puzzle out the mystery (hint – with one exception, none of them are exactly who they seem to be), while veterans get the fun of watching the many subtle ways that the actors try to lead the audience astray. But the real highlight is that the Experience staging is done as “an immersive mystery experience” – instead of the conventional stage/audience divide, the spectators are seated all over the set, sharing space (and sometimes even props) with the actors.

Director (and Experience Theatre Project Managing Director) Alisa Stewart plays every angle to ensure that the audience gets a full immersion. When we enter, each audience member is issued a papier-mâché mouse mask – great for helping us get into the mood, and very useful in differentiating audience from actors. We are encouraged to prowl around the set before the show starts, examining the mostly authentic antique furniture and props in search of clues before we take our seats and allow the play to unfold all around us. Once the show starts, actors walk all around us, occasionally handing us props or grabbing an available knee (mine, to be precise). Depending on where you are seated, you may need to turn or stretch a bit to follow all of the action, but blocking and set design create sightlines cleverly arranged so that nobody needs to miss anything critical.

The story itself is the quintessential British manor mystery, with a group of apparent strangers confined (in this case by a snowstorm) to a few rooms in a remote location, with telephone lines cut and murder in the air. In an earlier decade, three children had been placed in a terrible foster home, and one of the children had died of the neglect. The other two children are now grown; one of them has killed the abusive foster mom and left a note suggesting that the revenge will not stop with one murder. The action takes place in a nearby guesthouse, where the two hosts and five guests have no apparent connection to the tragedy – until the arrival (on skis, no less) of Sergeant Trotter, who is convinced that both a murderer and a prospective victim are among the residents. By the end of Act I one dead body proves that Trotter’s suspicions are valid, and the game’s afoot.

Given the genre and proximity to the audience, a touch of melodrama is unavoidable – in fact, the gently over-the-top performances of a few key characters add a lot of fun. Janice Moss (as the thoroughly obnoxious, appallingly entitled Mrs. Boyle) does a fine job - her accent and affect are perfect for the character you love to hate, and she sets the tone for 1950’s British class distinctions superbly. Another top-notch performance comes from Murren Kennedy, whose scattered, passionate but erratic “Christopher Wren” throws off clues and misdirection galore.  Kennedy’s tense standoff with Nick D’Ettorre (as host Giles Ralston) injects a note of believable fire into the production, and allows Carlyn Blount (as Mollie Ralston) to display a range of controlled hysteria as she negotiates between the two bucks, each determined to protect her. James Luster deftly displays a radical personality shift as we learn more about the organized and authoritative Sergeant Trotter, and Brian Reed’s “Mr. Paravicini,” the unexpected guest, provides some wonderful moments as a red herring.

Stewart’s production team does a top-notch job in the challenging “immersive mystery” environment – from the detailed and authentic set pieces to elaborately timed lighting and sound cues. Appropriately, the overall audience experience at this Experience Theatre production is unique, engaging, and well worth a visit. Seating is limited, so patrons are advised to purchase tickets in advance at

Experience Theatre Project’s The Mousetrap runs through Sunday, March 11th at 12604 SW Farmington Rd., Beaverton, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Wedding of the Century No Great Art, Lots of Laughs

Glenna Nolte, Renae Iversen, Laurie Bishop, and Cathy Aicher
Photo by Carl Dahlquist

By Tina Arth

HART’s latest production, The Wedding of the Century, is the North American premiere of an often hilarious comedy by New Zealand playwright Devon Williamson, and the opening night audience clearly saw a lot to laugh at in the innovative and original story of an ancient nun living out her last days in a nursing home. Director Mark Putnam and his cast are clearly having a fine time on stage, and their attitude is somewhat infectious. However, the play has a few significant problems – my general impression is that there is a really nice comedy buried in there, but that Mr. Williamson would benefit from collaborating with a skilled script doctor to refine the work, editing out some extraneous and occasionally juvenile (if sometimes funny) material and helping to augment the comedy with a bit more serious exploration of key themes in the core story.

The play takes place over a 7-day period in one room at the Rest In Peace Rest Home and Funeral Home (the first clue that some of the humor is not particularly sophisticated). The home’s oldest resident, retired nun Sister Dorothy, is approaching her 100th birthday, much to the delight of rest home operator Maxine. A Goth teen, Jessica, appears in the room, intent on using interviews with Sister Dorothy for a school project. Jessica looks sufficiently diabolical that other residents of the home (Nelly and Phyllis) consistently mistake her for Satan, but the old nun quickly sees through the Jessica’s hard outer shell to the angst-ridden adolescent underneath. Dorothy tells Jessica of her early years in India, in particular about a handsome young chai wallah (tea seller) named Aditya. Challenged to start a bucket list (at 99!) Dorothy surprises everyone by admitting that her one unfulfilled desire is to get married. Although they have no idea who the groom will be, Nelly, Phyllis, and Jessica embrace the plan enthusiastically, while Maxine is less thrilled (she has been planning an elaborate 100th birthday party, and does not want a fantasy wedding to get in the way).  The show leaves the audience laughing with a nicely unexpected Bollywood touch.

While the acting is at times uneven, there are several very funny performances. Sarah Cunningham’s “Jessica” has some great moments, and many of her more awkward scenes can be attributed to the writing, rather than the acting or direction. Although Laurie Bishop (Nelly) sometimes has trouble with her lines, she uses her voice to great effect, and the character’s direct, abrasive, but fundamentally appealing persona comes through quite nicely. Glenna Nolte does a great job of capturing the loveable ditziness of the senile Phyllis, and she grabs many of the show’s best laughs as she bounces between her various realities. As wedding planner apprentice Raphael, Spencer Putnam shows no inhibition, putting all of his character’s fey naiveté onstage to the delight of an appreciate audience. Cathy Aicher does her best in the lead role as Sister Dorothy, but her part suffers from a shortage of either humor or character development that would offer her more of an opportunity to shine.

William Crawford and Mark Putnam’s set design is effective in using the relatively small HART stage to create both Dorothy’s room and a nice courtyard, allowing the several scenes with no scene changes (always a plus, in my opinion). Karen Roder’s costume design and elaborate lobby display enrich the visual contrast between Sister Dorothy’s lifelong Catholicism and her youthful brush with Hindu culture.

While there are, as noted, problems with the script, The Wedding of the Century packs a lot of laughs into just over two hours, and attending a show like this can provide a great distraction from the annoyances and angst of daily life.

The Wedding of the Century runs through Sunday, February 25th with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays at HART Theater, 185 S.E. Washington, Hillsboro.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Top 5 Reasons to See Twilight’s Antigone

Amy Lichtenstein and Blaine Vincent
Photo by Alicia Turvin

By Tina Arth

To be brutally honest, I was not thrilled about seeing Antigone at Twilight Theater Company last weekend. I knew very little about the play (the ancient Greeks, while certainly of monumental importance to Western Civilization, never really grabbed my attention), and after an online search for a quick overview of the plot I was even less enthusiastic. The story sounded impossibly convoluted – the sort of thing that, had it been written by Shakespeare, would have involved several acts spread over at least three hours, leaving me weak with longing for the final curtain. My advice? If you are not already a fan, do not google the play. To be on the safe side, don’t even read the thoroughly illuminating program notes by historical consultant Christopher Ruggles (until after the play – then by all means immerse yourself!). Instead, go with a completely open mind, buoyed by the following:

  • Jean Anouilh, the author of the adaptation staged at Twilight, is definitely not a Shakespeare wannabe – the script is sharp and uncluttered.
  • Chris Murphy, who plays “The Chorus,” is utterly engaging – he makes the story line crystal clear and lends an appealingly sardonic note to the entire affair.
  • While done in modern dress, the play is presented as timeless – there are no irritating attempts to modernize a story that needs no such modification.
  • In difficult times, it’s important (and comforting) to be reminded that the fundamental cycles of human conflict are unchanging – what happened in 441 BC didn’t stay in 441 BC – and correspondingly, that our troubles too shall pass away.
  • Although Twilight evening shows start at 8:00 pm, Antigone is presented as one longish act (no intermission) - you can be out of the theater and on your way home (or out for post-theater frivolity) by 9:30 or so, and the steadily building tension of the tragedy is not disrupted by an unnecessary break.

I’ll give the briefest overview possible: Antigone (daughter of Oedipus, so you know she’s going to have a complex or two of her own) mourns the death of her two brothers, rivals for the Theban throne in a bloody civil war. Creon (father of Antigone’s fiancé Haemon) is now king, and he decrees that one brother (Eteocles) will be buried with honor while leaving the other (Polynices) to rot on the field of battle as a stern lesson to would-be rebels. Antigone defies Creon and sneaks out to bury Polynices. She also tells Haemon that she’ll never be able to marry him (knowing that the penalty for burying her brother is death). Creon is infuriated when he learns that someone has scattered dirt over Polynices’ body, and orders the guards to uncover the body and to capture the miscreant. The guards enter with a struggling Antigone – she has gone back to bury her brother again, this time in broad daylight. Unwilling to lose Antigone as Haemon’s bride, Creon orders Antigone to retire to her bed and claim that she’s ill – he will take care of the guards. Antigone (stubborn little thing that she is) absolutely refuses, putting Creon in the position that he must execute her to maintain law and order. Antigone’s sister Ismene falsely claims to have covered the body, but Antigone refuses to let her take the rap. I won’t give away the rest – but it’s safe to assume that several people die and Creon is left a very, very lonely man – he has upheld the rigid tenets of the law, but at an impossibly high price.

In addition to the previously mentioned Chris Murphy, several other actors give particularly moving performances. In particular, Amy Lichtenstein gives us an immovably resolute “Antigone,” as with calm intensity she condemns herself to death rather than violate the dictates of her conscience. Blaine Vincent’s “Haemon” starts out as a seemingly callow son of privilege, but evolves nicely into the passionate fiancé ready to sacrifice everything for love. Jim Butterfield gives “Creon” the right touch for true tragedy, so as much as we want to hate him as a heartless politician we cannot help but pity him – he conveys fiercely genuine anguish at the inevitability of the decisions he makes.

It is always tempting to draw modern parallels to this kind of political drama, and there is certainly much to ponder about the play’s broader themes. Like many shows, this one resonates long after the stage is dark, so it’s a great idea to take a friend along with whom you can explore your reactions.  Director Tobias Andersen and his cast deliver plenty of first-rate fodder for reflection and discussion.

Twilight Theater Company’s Antigone is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, February 11th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. Sunday.