Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Twilight’s Merry Maltese Bodkin

Stan Yeend, Paul Roder, Samuel Alexander Hawkins, and Chris Murphy.
Photo by Alicia Turvin.

By Tina Arth

Only the most vile-spirited could possibly fail to find a LOT to love in Twilight’s latest, The Maltese Bodkin. Playwright David Belke has created a lighthearted, smart, wittily ridiculous casserole, combining film noir’s The Maltese Falcon and a stage full of iconic Shakespearean characters, inexplicably linked in a 1605 London murder mystery. Director Sarah Fuller has gathered a group of actors willing to let it all hang out in service of their (art?) and the result is so funny that my seatmate thought she might have broken a rib laughing – and this from someone worried that her comparatively slim knowledge of Elizabethan era English Lit might leave her lost amid the high-toned hijinks.  To (mis)quote the Bard, “If comedy be the food of love, play on.”

The story (which happily make no pretense at making sense) is, in a nutshell: American private eye Birnam Wood returns to his 17th century London office and finds that in his absence someone has slain his partner, Archie. The distraught Wood wants only to find out who killed Archie, and he has no interest in taking on any paying clients (much to the dismay of his faithful secretary, Charlotte, who worries about mundane details like the rent). Enter the mysteriously seductive Viola de Messaline, shipwrecked far from her native land and searching for her lost brother. In return for Wood’s promise to help her, she produces the Maltese Bodkin, the weapon used to murder Archie. Without getting much closer to identifying Archie’s killer, Wood encounters a platoon of Shakespearean refugees, among them Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet), Viola and Sebastian (The Twelfth Night), Antonio (The Merchant of Venice), Iago (Othello), Donalbain (Macbeth), Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern (Hamlet), Sergeant Fang (Henry IV), and most memorably, Puck (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). As these and other characters scheme to get their hands on the Maltese Bodkin, the serpentine plot acts as a vehicle for the actors to hide and spy and drink and die with remarkable comedic flair. In the end, the mystery is resolved and the audience members leave the theater much happier, if no wiser, than when they entered.

Rather than comment in depth on the individual actors (with 9 people playing 18 characters, it might get tedious), I’ll point to several particularly unforgettable moments that you’ll want to watch for when you go (you WILL go, right?). Chris Murphy (Antonio, Donalbain, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester) does one of the most inspired death scenes in theatrical history, complete with missing churros. Chelsea Read (Charlotte) and Lura Longmire (Viola) are the yin and yang of flirtation as each tries to dent Birnam Wood’s obliviously stoic exterior. Skye McLaren Walton, while fine as Prospero and Sebastian, is on fire as the tutu-wearing Puck, and his leap into the face of an audience member (mine, as it happens) left me hanging between glee and shock. Do not miss Blaine Vincent III (Mercutio, Guildenstern) and Samuel Alexander Hawkins (Iago, Ratcliffe, Rosenkrantz) in a key scene change or the subsequent thumb wrestling. Stan Yeend (Falstaff, Catesby, Fang) takes both inebriation and cheerful self-mockery to previously unexplored heights.  Christina Taft (Nell Quickly) memorably mixes equal parts scorn and loyalty as Falstaff’s codependent barmaid.  Finally, there’s the relatively thankless role of straight man (Birnam Wood), which Paul Roder bears with the grace of a truly archetypal film noir detective. Watch for his entrances – he gives “foreshadowing” a whole new meaning…

The entire production team has worked overtime to bring this rollicking and quirky show to the stage – lighting, sound, costumes in particular. In addition to shaping her cast (and giving them the space they need to craft their almost-but-not-quite over the top performances, Director Fuller also did a lovely (if somewhat scary) job of fight choreography. The result of all this teamwork? For me, a side-splitting evening. For you, a trip to North Portland before this little gem closes.

Twilight Theater Company’s The Maltese Bodkin is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through June 24th with performances at 8 P.M. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. Sunday.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Savannah Sipping Society – Just Drink It In…

Pruella Centers, Jeanna Van Dyke, Patti Speight, and Tanja Crouch
Photo by Nicole Mae Photography

By Tina Arth

There is a certain type of comedy that works beautifully for some folks, while leaving others out in the cold. The cast of Theatre in the Grove’s The Savannah Sipping Society drew a steady stream of laughter at their first Sunday matinee from an amazingly appreciative audience, so it appears that the Forest Grove company correctly read local audiences. This is no surprise, since at least two other shows by the prolific playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten have also drawn large, happy audiences in the same venue. I am not personally a fan of much of this type of Southern humor (a notable exception was TITG’s production of Dixie Swim Club). That said, I’m still impressed with the production – Director Jeanine Stassens, her cast, and production team are doing everything possible to put lipstick on this particular pig, and the result is a very fun show that provides a very entertaining couple of hours.

The Savannah Sipping Society is an inoffensive, usually gentle little comedy about four women who find themselves adrift in Savannah, Georgia as they make their way through middle age, deprived of family through a mixture of life choices, death, and infidelity. Three of them meet accidentally, all in hasty retreat from a hot yoga class that they quickly find is not the answer to their problems. Widowed Dot and angry divorcee Marlafaye invite themselves over for cocktails at the lovely home of Randa, a career-driven architect whose job was her whole life until she lost it: first she lost a promotion, then she lost her temper, and finally she lost her job. When her guests arrive, the tightly–wound Randa is in an uproar about her confrontation with a woman who had 8 items in the 5 items quick-check line. Dot has invited a surprise guest, Jinx – and of course she turns out to be the 8-item scofflaw. Sparks fly at first, but Jinx (a beautician and aspiring life coach) quickly endears herself. Soon fast friends, the four women begin meeting regularly for drinks and adventure (egged on by the ever-exuberant Jinx) – dancing, dating, kvetching, and lubricating themselves with new cocktail mixtures as they try to make sense of the next act of their lives.

Tanja Crouch (Randa), Pruella Centers (Marlafaye), Patti Speight (Jinx), and Jeanna Van Dyke (Dot) create four unique characters who, while very different from each other, still meld nicely – there is some real chemistry among the four. Centers is trashily bitter about ex-hubby Waylon and his new trophy wife, and she gets a few real zingers (her dark explanation of the perfect weight for a man and her tale of Waylon’s most spontaneous moment of love-making are delivered with exquisite timing and inflection).  Crouch is suitably buttoned-down and uptight, and it’s a real treat to watch her gradually open up to her friends and, eventually, to life. Despite the relatively thin emotional depth in the script, Van Dyke evokes both empathy and sympathy in her portrayal of a woman who loved her husband, but wants it clear that her life did not end with his. She tells the story of how her one and only date went wrong with quiet and utterly believable dignity, and she gets the pathos of advancing blindness just right as she moves from denial to acceptance. Speight is perfectly cast as Jinx – ebullient, bouncy, and seemingly ultra-confident while hiding her inner emptiness behind a mask of unstoppable enthusiasm.
So… what worked for me? (1) Mark Farris’ beautiful set – the exterior of Randa’s lovely home and a gracious verandah where almost all of the action takes place.  (2) The four leads (and Assistant Director Kate Barrett’s unheralded cameo) – if I’m going to watch a two-hour rerun of The Golden Girls this is the group I want to see. (3) The lighting and sound design, that make the single set flexible enough to eliminate the need for major scene changes. (4) The costumes (ranging from lovely to hysterical) and the hardest working folks in the theater, dressers Gratia Minor and Debbie Davis. (5) Stassens’ direction – she managed to hold it all together and create a fun, if not terribly memorable, show.

Despite my general distaste for the Southern Comedy genre, The Savannah Sipping Society as presented at Theater in the Grove provides a solid community theater experience, replete with laughs, so if the story sounds interesting to you then it’s definitely worth an afternoon or evening!

The Savannah Sipping Society plays at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through June 17th with performances at 7:30 pm on Friday and Saturday and matinees at 2:30 pm on Sundays.