Thursday, October 25, 2018

Evil Dead: The Musical – TITG’s Love Note to the Season

Kate Barrett, Nick Serrone, and Stevo Clay

By Tina Arth

Other theaters offer boring options like front row seating, balcony seating, aisle seating – but for Halloween 2018, Theatre in the Grove offers the chillingly unorthodox options of splash zone and splatter zone seating. Thanks to director Zachary Centers and the Forest Grove troupe’s current production of Evil Dead: The Musical, audiences can get a few hours of  “mature audiences only” respite from trick-or-treaters, Disney princesses, and all the rest of Big Candy’s assault on our official spooky season. The show is definitely not great art, but it is definitely great fun for adults who love over-the-top farce and refuse to completely grow up – think Rocky Horror on steroids, or Little Shop of Horrors on crack.

Canadian author George Reinblatt’s 2003 musical is based on the Evil Dead film series, and offers the broadest of parodies of the whole teen horror bloodbath genre. Five college students – Ash, his sister Cheryl, best friend Scott, Scott’s girlfriend Shelly, and Ash’s girlfriend Linda go off to spend the weekend in an isolated cabin in the woods. With this classic horror set-up, what can go right? While there is plenty of action and dialogue, for the careful reader the song list tells pretty much what to expect, as the cast delivers 21 musical numbers from ”Cabin in the Woods” through “It Won’t Let Us Leave”, “Join Us,” “I’m Not a Killer,” “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons,” “It’s Time,” and finally “Blew that B**** Away.”  

The toughest role goes to Nick Serrone’s “Ash” who, when not wielding chainsaws and sawed-off shotguns, is a stock boy in aisle 5 of the local S-Mart where he met cashier Linda (Aubrey Slaughter). The role of Ash was originally played by Bruce Campbell, and Serrone definitely captures some of Campbell’s bizarre heroism.  The shamelessly campy “Housewares Employee,” gives Serrone and Slaughter a chance to shine as they deliver the quintessential love anthem, and it is impossible not to compare the infatuated pair to Little Shop’s Audrey and Seymour. From an overall impressive performance, I would pick the life and death battle between Ash and his hand as Serrone’s best scene – his athletic grasp of physical comedy is breathtaking.  Stevo Clay’s “Scott” is convincingly dumb as a box of lust-riddled rocks, yet his limited brainpower sparkles when compared to Jeananne Kelsey’s slutty “Shelley.” Kelsey is a fine dancer, and her choreography for “Do the Necronomicon” really sells Evil Dead’s homage to “The Time Warp.”  Kate Barrett’s mopey “Cheryl” is clearly the intellectual in the group; neither turning her into a zombie nor locking her in the cellar dims her IQ, and Barrett’s physical outbursts, wisecracks, and furious puns provide several of the show’s best moments.

Each of the other three key cast members get at least one great number.  Isabella Steele’s “Annie” completely nails the lead on the exquisitely clumsy “All the Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons,” and Trevor Winder does a shockingly good job singing and dancing his way through the hen-pecked Ed’s “Bit Part Demon.”  Words cannot express my surprised glee at Travis Schlegel’s “Good Old Reliable Jake” – a good ol’ boy taking country music to dizzying heights of absurdity.

The set, special effects, lighting and sound are essential to express the kitschy wit of the show – director/set designer Centers and his crew pull out all the stops with a vibrating floor, demon-possessed props, severed but still-active limbs, misting and spurting blood, and a host of other high and low-tech touches.  A few blood pack problems and some muffled lines make very little difference, given the utter absurdity of the entire production.

Finally, conductor Cory Sweany and his five-person orchestra are beautifully placed upstairs and upstage, where they do full justice to an eclectic score by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris and playwright Reinblatt.

The show is clearly not for all audiences, and utterly inappropriate for children, the blood-averse, or people who dislike campy musicals.  However, the rest of the theater-going public should seriously consider spending a few hours at Theatre in the Grove – may I suggest the midnight showing on October 31st?

Evil Dead: The Musical is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through November 4th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m., and a special midnight Halloween showing on October 31st.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Twilight Theater Company Plumbs the Depths of Marat Sade

Jennifer Madison Logan, Greg Prosser, and Randy Patterson.
Photo by Alicia Turvin
By Tina Arth

As we trudge, wary but hopeful, toward the 2018 midterm elections, trust our good friends at Twilight to bring us that ever-popular ray of theatrical sunshine, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, familiarly known as
Marat/ Sade. With its impossibly perky subtext: “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” (or, if you prefer, the less tasteful “vote out the bastards, vote in the sons of bitches”), Director Dorinda Toner’s massive 24-person cast explodes across the stage, bringing playwright Peter Weiss’ dark 1964 play to life in a grim reminder that even the most enlightened and progressive political revolutions rarely yield lasting positive change, especially for the downtrodden.

For those of you who, like me, might not have a clue what to expect when walking into the theater, here’s some basic intel about stuff we learned in school but may have since filed away under “irrelevant”: the French revolution started in 1789, and initially ran through 1799. The French monarchy was replaced with a shaky and thoroughly bloody republic, there was lots of turmoil, and ultimately the revolutionary hero Napoleon Bonaparte (having conveniently sidelined some of his more liberal republican impulses) took the reins in 1799, created The Consulate, and then in 1804 began a 10-year reign as French emperor. Each step in this complex process was justified, at least in part, by the argument that making France a more liberal country that would bring a better life to the oppressed masses (we all remember Marie Antoinette and “let them eat cake,” right?). While they succeeded in abolishing the monarchy, attempts to create an egalitarian, poverty-free society were notably less successful. All of this info is key because Marat/Sade is a play within a play, ostensibly written by the infamous Marquis de Sade (funny how we all remember him, right?) exploring the 1793 assassination of radical republican Jean-Paul Marat. The only other thing you need to know is that the action takes place in the (insane) Asylum at Charenton, circa 1808 while Sade was an inmate – as part of their therapy, the inmates are performing Sade’s play, with the asylum director and other members of the bourgeoisie as their audience. Oh – and resist the urge to sit in the middle of the second row. Unless you are very, very tall, the seat directly behind Coulmier, the asylum director, yields a limited view of center stage, and things happen there!

Twilight newcomer Randy Patterson (the Marquis de Sade) is one of the few actors portraying himself (as opposed to being a character within the play he has written). He gives the role a controlled menace, with just tiny bursts of mania, and the slightly creepy effect is enhanced by his makeup, strong and expressive features, and daunting physical presence – as his “play’s” director he is mostly silent and still, but always worth watching, and when he does speak everyone listens. Patterson plays primarily off two other key characters, Greg Prosser’s Marat and Stan Yeend’s Coulmier. Yeend clearly has fun, and is fun to watch, being quintessentially bourgeois. He’s well-dressed, full of bluster and condescension, leaping to his feet and loudly objecting with lightning speed each time Sade’s play begins to tread on dangerous turf, and quietly comforting his daughter when the action on stage gets a mite too raucous.  Prosser is tougher to read – although he’s playing a paranoid schizophrenic tormented by chronic skin disease playing a bloodthirsty rebel, he spends almost the entire play seated in a large bathtub wearing only a beige diaper (the role is often played fully nude, but I appreciate Toner’s directorial choice to provide minimal cover).  Because of the tub’s placement  (upstage, and not well lit), the audience does not get close enough to Prosser to really feel his performance – and one of the great strengths of Twilight is the immediacy that comes with audience proximity to the stage.

The vocal ensemble is powerful, and does full justice to Lola Toner’s fine original music. Among the resident lunatics, a few are particularly noteworthy for their ability to commit consistently to their roles, even when they are not the center of attention, in particular Chris Murphy, Samuel Alexander Hawkins, and Tony Domingue. Skye McLaren Walton turns in an unforgettable performance as the incredibly libidinous Duperret, and Eva Andrews is stunningly focused, and totally oblivious to Duperret’s constant rape attempts. Props to almost all of the women for gracefully letting it all hang out during the final orgy, with special recognition to Kaitlynn Baugh for confidently providing a moment of tasteful downstage nudity. Jeff Giberson’s Herald is nicely sardonic, but perhaps a bit too glib to mesh cleanly with the rest of the cast – I found myself wondering whether he was actually present in the asylum or simply a one-man Greek chorus.

Marat Sade is not performed often, and it is rank understatement to say that it’s a challenging show to direct, perform, and watch. I suspect that most audience members walk out (as I did) wondering exactly what they have seen. However, it’s worth the trouble – see it, ponder at length, reflect on the currency of the topics in a world that seems no closer to getting it right than the rebellious French of the time. Do not, however, take your kids along, unless they are at least 18!

Twilight Theater Company’s Marat/Sade is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through October 28th, with performances at 8 P.M. on Fridays–Saturdays, 8 pm, Sundays, 3 pm & Thursday, October 25, at 8 pm.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Bag&Baggage’s Deathtrap Ushers in the Scary Season

Andrew Beck and Lawrence Siulagi
Photo by Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

It’s that time of year again – trust Hillsboro’s Bag&Baggage to take their Halloween offering well beyond “Boo!” with playwright Ira Levin’s thriller Deathtrap. Levin made his name with three iconic horror novels – Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys From Brazil before hitting the theatrical jackpot in 1978 with the hugely successful Broadway run of Deathtrap. Forty years later, the play still has the power to make its audience gasp and giggle at Levin’s brilliant marriage of wit and terror, and director Scott Palmer doesn’t miss a trick (or treat).

The show is set in the study of a down-on-his-luck playwright, Sidney Bruhl, in Westport, Connecticut.  The walls are covered with fierce looking weapons, many representative of past successful stage thrillers on which Bruhl’s career and fame are based. Now at the end of a long dry spell, he’s living off his wife Myra’s largesse and has been reduced to teaching dramatic writing to a new generation of aspiring playwrights. Bruhl is reading a manuscript sent to him by one of his students, and is dismayed by the utter perfection of the tyro’s script – so much so that he even jokes about killing the student and claiming the script as his own. Myra proposes a less lethal scheme, where Sidney can offer his services as a (completely unnecessary) script doctor/collaborator and then convince the author, Clifford Anderson, that they have actually co-written the play – thus letting him in for a share of the glory, and more importantly, the gold that is sure to follow the play’s publication. From here, the plot takes off on a series of unexpected twists and murderous turns involving Sidney, Myra, Clifford, Porter Milgrim (Sidney’s lawyer), and the mysterious Helga ten Dorp, a Dutch psychic who lives nearby. Levin’s script is frequently hilarious – self aware and self-deprecating – and there is a strong element of play-within-a-play as the plot develops and we are shown repeatedly that all is not what it seems to be.

Lawrence Siulagi’s sly, dour, and cynical Sidney Bruhl is the play’s centerpiece, and perhaps most completely captures Levin’s actual voice. At every turn, Siulagi manages to convince us that his urbane exterior houses at least one part psychopath, which keeps us on the edge of our seats. Morgan Cox as Myra is proper, cold and rigid (physically and morally), and her occasional overtly theatrical leaps into hysteria mirror the audience’s own reactions at startling turns of events. Most interesting to me was watching Andrew Beck as Clifford. In previous shows Beck has often played the knowing sophisticate, so it was really fun to watch him initially play the part of a likeable dumb Kopf, and even more fun watching his eyes as he gradually and subtly telegraphed his evolution into a significantly more knowing and complex character.

Mandana Khoshnevisan’s outrĂ© psychic, Helga, provides a solid dose of comic relief, especially in Act II where she goes over the top, but never out of control, and Eric St. Cyr provides a nice contrast in his button-down, cautiously lawyerly take on Porter Milgrim.

Palmer’s production team is flawless – in particular, Jim Ricks-White’s lighting, Tyler Buswell’s mace, sword, hatchet and handcuff filled scenic design, and the fight choreography by Signe Larsen. I have been promised that the unexpected opening night (fake) blood spatter was a one-time event, so there’s no need to avoid front row seating!

Early in Act I, Bruhl avers that Clifford’s script is “So good that even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.” This is abundantly true in the case of the current production, and it makes a perfect way to honor and welcome the scariest season of the year.

Bag&Baggage’s Deathtrap is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through October 31, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees, and special pre-Halloween shows at 7:30 on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday October 29, 30, and 31.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

BCT Presents a Lively School House Rock

Brittain Jackson and Michael Cook

By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production is a blast from the past that rings the bells of nostalgia for a generation of adults who grew up in the seventies and early eighties, and the live version offers an abundance of lively music, dance and song to charm today’s kiddos, too. Director Terri Kuechle her amazingly adaptable six-person cast, and music director Sandy Libonati’s pianist and bassist deliver a fast-paced series of 21 songs drawn from the best-loved numbers from the original School House Rock cartoon shorts first offered as part of ABC’s Saturday morning TV lineup in 1973.

The plot (really just a skeleton on which to hang the individual segments) is this: it’s the night before new schoolteacher Tom is scheduled to begin his first day as an elementary school teacher, and his anxiety makes for sleeplessness, bad dreams, and bizarre (but highly educational) fantasies peopled by three women and two men, all of them representing the various voices in his head. Each segment calls for different costuming (lots of hats and other quick-change garments) and represents a specific topic from elementary education – predominantly math, English grammar, biology, astronomy, and social studies. Tom quickly learns that in order to be effective in the classroom, he’ll have to make learning fun and infuse his messages with music and rhythm to engage his young charges and help them retain the material.

As someone who completely missed the Schoolhouse Rock television phenomenon, I had no idea what to expect, and was for the most part pleasantly surprised. The actors were fully committed to their roles (which cannot have been easy in some of the sillier segments), vocal ensemble harmonies were powerful and clean, there was some fine dancing, the musicians did a fantastic job with the upbeat melodies and were well enough modulated that they did not, in general, drown out the vocals – and vocal leads, while not of operatic quality, hit exactly the right note for the show (“Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” does not require Beverly Sills). My principal concern is that two numbers in the second act (“Great American Melting Pot” and “Elbow Room”) are a bit tone-deaf in light of 21st century sensibilities – reinforcing a Eurocentric narrative that was ubiquitous throughout my childhood, but that has (one hopes) been supplanted by a broader view of how we got to where we are today. When I queried BCT about this, I found (as I suspected) that they are contractually obligated to adhere to the original script, and thus did not have the option of replacing these numbers with less socio-politically fraught songs. I was, however, delighted to learn that the cast and production team had spent considerable time discussing the issue, and would be specifically addressing it in the audience  “Talk Back” offered after the October 7th show. For adults simply seeing the show for its nostalgia value it’s no big deal, but I hope that parents and others who see Schoolhouse Rock with children take the time to discuss these numbers.

In a strong (and delightfully uninhibited) cast, I was especially impressed with Brittain Jackson’s dancing, and he totally nailed “Just a Bill” (which seemed to be a particular audience favorite from the old days).  Jordan Morris displayed a comic sensibility sometimes missing from professional geoscientists, and his fast-talking “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” was a total delight.  Despite some early problems with vocal projection, Jemi Kostiner Mansfield made the most of her fluid body and mobile face and turned in an overall first-rate performance.

Any adult with fond memories of Saturday mornings spent with Schoolhouse Rock will love this show, as will boatloads of young children. With the caveat that the two “problem” numbers be acknowledged and discussed in the appropriate time and place, I can heartily recommend this show to all comers.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of Schoolhouse Rock runs through Saturday, October 13th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm matinees on Sunday.