Thursday, August 8, 2019

Footloose Explodes Across the Stage at Broadway Rose

Nick Serrone, Amanda Pred, Cassandra Pangelinan, Eric Asakawa, Lydia 
Fleming, Erik Montague, and Calvin Lieurance

By Tina Arth

In many ways, I missed the eighties: job, spouse, kid, dog, left me culturally limited to Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers. The original Footloose wasn’t even a blip on my personal radar, and I went into the Broadway Rose production of the musical version with no more than the vague awareness that “7 Degree of Kevin Bacon” had been a thing. Peggy Taphorn’s director’s note informed me that, in her opinion, “…it has a great story! It’s not just a simple story about a ban on dancing and a rebel with a cause…” I’ve got to disagree – from a story standpoint, that’s exactly what it is, in most part aimed with laser focus at the sophistication of a 13-year-old. HOWEVER – that just doesn’t matter. From the moment that Kayla Dixon sang the first notes of “Footloose” it was clear that this show was going to be spectacular, and by the time Eric Asakawa started dancing I was mesmerized by the energy, athleticism, and artistry of the amazing cast.  The credits mention screenplay and stage adaptation, but for this show, more than any other I remember, all credit should go to the folks who wrote the music, the music director and band, Taphorn’s choreography, and a stage full of singing, dancing dynamos.

Condensed version for those of you who share my cluelessness about the show: Ethel McCormack’s husband has walked out, leaving Ethel and teen son Ren without enough money to stay in Chicago – they are forced to move in with Ethel’s sister and brother-in-law in a fictional hick town called Bomont where the sidewalks are rolled up at 6 PM. Worse yet, a tragic accident several years ago prompted the town council to ban all dancing. Ren is truly a fish out of water in Bomont, and his progress toward fitting in isn’t helped when he pays too much attention to Ariel Moore, the minister’s daughter and girlfriend of local bad boy Chuck Cranston. Ren is befriended by terminally shy Willard, who has a weirdly one-way relationship with Rusty – he never talks, she never stops talking. Chuck hits Ariel, Chuck hits Ren, Ren’s plea to the town council to bring back dancing is denied, Ren and Reverend Moore have a moment, dancing ban is lifted, The Big Dance.

Where do I start on this production? I mentioned Kayla Dixon (Rusty) grabbing me with the opening number, but not how the power built as the voices of Cassandra Pangelinan (Urleen) and Amanda Pred (Wendy Jo) kicked in. This trio repeated their magic with “Somebody’s Eyes,” and when Malia Tippets  (Ariel) joins them in “Holding Out For A Hero” the quartet literally stops the show with their singing, dancing dynamism. While Tippets is a superb singer and dancer, her real strength is the authenticity of her performance as a teenage girl torn between the need to rebel and reject her father’s domination and the equally powerful need to capture his attention and approval.

I suspect that few Footloose directors have had the good fortune to land a trained opera singer who also has a background in competitive gymnastics – Eric Asakawa was simply born to play Ren McCormack. He moonwalks, does backflips, even vaults over other performers with flawless form that takes the breath away and moves his dancing off the charts. It’s nothing short of miraculous that he can sing at the same time, and by the end of I Can’t Stand Still he owns the audience.

Chrissy Kelly-Pettit is moving and honest as Ariel’s mother Vi, who unflinchingly tries to defend her daughter from Reverend Moore’s heavy handed parenting, and the trio of Kelly-Pettit, Tippets, and Ali Bell (Ethel McCormack) give the show a whole new dimension with their timely Learning To Be Silent. Bruce Blanchard’s Reverend Moore captures the role’s essential duality – both rigid preacher and loving dad, trying to do the right thing for his family and his flock and setting us up nicely for his final conversion. Calvin Lieurance is appropriately awkward and tongue-tied as the clumsy, shy Willard Hewitt – then steals the limelight with his dazzling footwork in Mama Says.

The band, sometimes invisible in Broadway Rose productions, is completely integrated into the staging. Music Director Mak Kastelic and Conductor Alan D. Lytle are clearly going after the feel of an eighties rock band, with volume to match, but the sound is nicely modulated when the material demands a softer touch. Costume Designer Allison Dawe has done an admirable job of capturing an eighties feel without succumbing to the temptation to parody the worst excesses if the decade’s fashions.

Footloose sold out before opening night, so there’s little chance of scoring tickets for this powerhouse production. However, Broadway Rose has just announced its next season – given the consistent quality of musical theater coming from this amazing company, it’s pretty safe to buy tickets now for anything you might want to see in the next year – don’t wait for the reviews!

Footloose is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, September 1.

Friday, August 2, 2019

How I Learned to Drive – Disturbing Truths Told Beautifully

Adria Malcolm and Michael TeufelPhoto by Alicia Turvin

By Tina Arth

The defining theme of Twilight Theater Company’s 2019 season is “In the Buff” – defined by Artistic Director Dorinda Toner as “What are our innermost thoughts and feelings? Who are we when we get really, really honest with each other and have nothing to hide?” Of the Twilight shows I’ve seen this year, none embrace this theme as honestly and powerfully as the current production of playwright Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Admittedly, it’s not an easy show to watch – but its riveting, multidimensional examination of the genesis and effects of pedophilia/molestation is one of those theatrical experiences that stay with you long after the stage goes dark.

The show is somewhat stylized and non-linear, using the process of a young girl literally learning to drive as a metaphor for inappropriate sexual awakening.  It follows a rural Maryland girl (called Li’l Bit by her seriously dysfunctional family) from earliest adolescence in the 1960s through adulthood in the 1990s.  Li’l Bit shares the stage with her overly attentive Uncle Peck and three chorus members – the teen chorus, female Greek chorus, and male chorus. The chorus members portray a variety of roles, including Li’l Bit’s grandmother, mother, grandfather, aunt, and schoolmates. I despair of describing the show in a comprehensible and inviting way – you just have to take my word that Vogel’s 1997 play is a really important and honest work; happily, Dorinda Toner’s direction (and casting) are completely up to the challenge of bringing it to the stage.

I am told by people who know him better than I that Michael J. Teufel, who plays Uncle Peck, is a thoroughly nice guy, and nothing like the seemingly cool, slightly creepy character who teaches Li’l Bit to drive (starting ominously, with her sitting on his lap when she’s 11 years old). Teufel manages to make his character somewhat attractive, even as he emits the sleazy vibes of the predator – exactly what one would find in a real life abuse situation, but with an undertone of caring and love that colors every interaction. What impressed me most (in an overall stunning performance) was his ability to walk a fine line between pretense and sincerity that left me wondering if he had also been a victim at some point in his life – a possibility opened up in the scene where he teaches an unseen young boy to fish, and then some. It’s a shame that there aren’t enough front row seats at Twilight to accommodate the entire audience – the closer you are to Teufel’s facial expressions, the greater the appreciation of his artistry.

Twilight newcomer Adria Malcolm’s Li’l Bit is the perfect foil to Teufel’s Uncle Peck. She shifts seamlessly from scene to scene, expressing the character’s jumps in time and maturity, and somehow making us believe her at each age and stage. Innocent, needy, curious, tough, flirtatious, grieving, emotionally dead, heartless, lascivious, sometimes smart and witty beyond her years – Malcolm captures each of these as we watch her interact with Uncle Peck, Aunt Mary, Mother, Grandmother, school acquaintances, and her Neanderthal grandfather, Big Papa. Malcolm is brilliant in the final scene with Uncle Peck, with her anger and pain overlaid with honest grief for what she and her uncle have lost – that was the scene I discussed most with my guest as we drove home from the theater.

I cannot overlook the contributions of the superbly cast chorus. Chris Murphy delivers an abrasively ignorant and macho Big Papa; soon after, he is a quiveringly insecure but persistent adolescent, and I hated the former as much as I empathized with the latter.  Noelle Guest (Mother and Aunt Mary) has the challenge of creating sisters and, without the aid of costume or makeup, allowing us to experience each of them as individuals.  Her bitter Aunt Mary blaming Li’l Bit for the sins of her husband is classic “blame the victim,” and her descent into inebriation as the mother has just the right level of restraint – both scenes carried out to perfection. Last but not least there’s Kaylee Hawkins’ “Teen chorus” – it is no accident that the youngest cast member is asked to play the oldest woman, and she makes the audience share her experience of being Big Papa’s 14-year-old bride in an earlier era.

Staging and costumes for the show are minimal – lots of black, a few props (boxes, a table, eventually a bed) to create the family kitchen, the car, outdoor rural nights, the fishing hole, the high school dance. and a motel room while maintaining the show’s slightly surreal air and moving the audience firmly into their imaginations. The selection of music is impeccable – having come from exactly Li’l Bit’s era, I found the songs exquisitely evocative of the era and the adolescent mood. This is a great show, one I highly recommend. However, victims of molestation or other childhood sexual abuse should be warned that some of the situations my trigger anxiety – be forewarned, and use your own judgment.

Twilight Theater Company’s How I Learned to Drive is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through August 11, with performances at 8 P.M. on Thursday-Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Commedia del Earnest?

Picture shows Blaine Vincent III, Heather Bach, Fayra Teeters, Kaitlynn Baugh, and Thomas McAulay.

By Tina Arth

Full transparency: The Masque Alfresco production reviewed below is being performed in three different locations this summer, and the third location (August 23-24-25) is using one of the Theatre in the ‘hood “stages” – my back yard.

Masque’s summer, 2019 offering is an interesting hybrid of a well-known British farce (Oscar Wilde’s oft-performed The Importance of Being Earnest) with the traditions of Commedia dell’Arte, an improvisational theatrical style with its roots in 15th century Italy. Producer Fayra Teeters, has adapted Earnest’s script to better conform to the genre, including the incorporation of overtly modern socio-political tropes reflecting the hypocrisy of our era. The show further includes several essential Commedia touches called “lazzi” (stock comedic routines, both verbal and physical – think “Who’s On First” or a pie in the face). Earnest already partly incorporates other key Commedia elements – Oscar Wilde’s version of stock characters such as the comic servant (Merriman), Il Capitano (the swaggering, manipulative, food-obsessed Algernon Moncrieff), Il Dottore (Reverend Chasuble and Lady Bracknell, the wealthy and class-conscious elders who endeavor unsuccessfully to block the path of true love), the Innamorati (lovers around whom the whole plot revolves, in this case John (Jack) Worthing and Gwendolyn Fairfax), and themes of disguise (literal masks in Commedia dell’arte, Jack’s and later Algernon’s “disguises” as Ernest).

Teeters’ adaptation is definitely abbreviated, and includes a fair amount of singing, and director Paul Roder has incorporated a lot of the physical comedy so essential to 15th century Italian audiences – expect pratfalls and other unexpected touches. In the outdoor environment, the actors have to play everything large and loud to overcome environmental distractions. In other words, go prepared to enjoy the show with no expectation that it will resemble any Earnest that you’ve previously seen.

For those who are not familiar with the show, here’s a Cliff’s Notes version:  It’s around the turn of the 19th century, and Jack and Algernon, two wealthy Englishmen, are both masters of deception. Jack lives in the country with his ward Cecily, and Algernon lives in London. To shelter Cecily from rumors of his sometimes wayward behavior and gives himself an excuse for going into London, Jack has invented an imaginary (and very dissipated) brother named Ernest – when in London, Jack calls himself Ernest. Algernon lives in London, but has invented an imaginary country friend named Bunbury who provides him with the excuse to duck out of town (and unappealing social engagements) at will. Jack’s social status is suspect, as a wealthy family adopted him after he was found as an infant in a black handbag in Victoria Station, so Lady Bracknell is unwilling to approve his marriage to her niece (and Algernon’s cousin) Gwendolyn. Cecily is fascinated by the stories she has heard about Ernest’s wicked ways, so when Algernon unexpectedly appears in the country claiming to be Ernest, she is immediately drawn to him (and he to her).  Gwendolyn wants to marry Ernest (Jack), while Cecily wants to marry Ernest (Algernon), so each man has asked the Reverend Chasuble to baptize them with the new name. Got that? Of course it all works out in the end, with revelations of noble parentage and unexpected pairings – at the end only Lady Bracknell and the servant Merriman are left uncoupled.

Kaitlynn Baugh’s naïve, effervescent Cecily is a definite highlight, and she contrasts nicely with Heather Bach’s sardonic mien as the more levelheaded Gwendolyn. Bach also adds literal grace notes to the show with a lovely voice that manages to keep the a cappella vocals on track. Blaine Vincent III gives a puppy-like, engaging tone to Jack as he tries to win Gwendolyn’s hand, surviving several inexplicable but well-delivered pratfalls, and Thomas McAulay’s slightly smarmy Algernon provides another nice contrast.

Fayra Teeters looks and acts every bit the judgmental, class-conscious Lady Bracknell with her supercilious sneer and weaponized umbrella. Robin Michaels’ role (as Cecily’s governess Miss Prism) is small, but very fun – she gives her usually stern and upright character a bit of coyness that adds depth to the character. I hope to see the show at least once when understudy Amelia Michaels plays a role (either that of Gwendolyn or Cecily), as I suspect that she’ll bring an entirely new dimension to either role.

Given the outdoor and moveable setting, sets and sound design are necessarily minimal, but costumer Karen Roder makes up for it with elaborate and elegant attire for her cast. Masque Alfresco productions are free, but they do pass the hat enthusiastically at the end of each show. Be sure to bring your own chairs or (for the more flexible) a blanket – and take advantage of the outdoor venue to also pack a picnic. There’s no reason why Algernon should get all of the good sandwiches!

Masque Alfresco’s adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest plays at Lake Oswego’s George Rogers Park through August 4, the Beaverton Library Lawn August 9 – 18, and Theatre in the ‘hood (9020 SW Caroline, Portland) from August 23 – 25, with Friday, Saturday, and Sunday shows at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Matilda the Musical – Lakewood’s Lively, Timely Take

Danielle Valentine and Stephanie Heuston-Willing,

Photo by Triumph Photography
By Tina Arth

I have known several talented, productive adults in my life who managed to survive seriously dysfunctional childhoods and somehow to emerge as functional, if somewhat scarred, individuals. The one thing they have all had in common was clear memories of one or more important figures, sometimes a teacher, neighbor, librarian, or employer who offered soul-saving support during the worst periods. What does this have to do with Lakewood’s current production of Matilda the Musical? Everything. Strip away the over-the-top evil of most of the adult characters, the outrageously talented kiddos singing and dancing their way through a series of high-energy, high-volume production numbers, a barrage of often vulgar, but funny adult and juvenile jokes, and costumes/makeup straight out of Toontown, and you are left with these enduring themes: childhood can be a very scary time, children flourish in the care of loving families, family is not necessarily defined by DNA, and self-confidence can be the key to surviving even the worst situations. (Oh, and books are a superb substitute for television and social media!)

Director Paul Angelo’s lively, colorful production of Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s Tony-winning Matilda incorporates the essential themes organically, with little explicit moralizing, so at first glance it’s easy to just focus on the awful behavior of Matilda’s key antagonists (her parents Harry and Zinnia Wormwood, and the evil Miss Trunchbull). The good guys (Matilda herself, her friends Lavender and Bruce, Miss Honey and Mrs. Phelps) are comparatively quiet, conservatively dressed, and generally well behaved – but they gradually become more assertive and visible as the story develops. The story, in a nutshell is this: the Wormwoods’ second child, Matilda, is completely unwanted: Zinnia wants to pursue her career as a dancer, and Harry makes it clear from the moment he holds Matilda in the hospital and starts looking for her “thing” that he only wants a boy. The Wormwoods are selfish, vulgar, crooked, blatantly anti-intellectual narcissists, while Matilda by the age of 5 is reading Dostoevsky and Dickens, supported only by Mrs. Phelps the librarian. When Matilda starts school she is sent to Crunchem Hall, run by the tyrannical Miss Trunchbull, who terrorizes all of the children under her control. Matilda’s teacher, the timid Miss Honey, recognizes her genius and tries to protect and support the beleaguered little girl. However, Matilda is not your typical victim – she discovers that she has some magic powers that she uses to annoy her enemies and protect her friends. Gradually the other schoolchildren appreciate and begin to emulate Matilda’s strength of character – a transformation that culminates in the rousing “Revolting Children” ensemble number, drawn unapologetically from Les Mis’ revolutionary “Do You Hear the People Sing,” with the iconic red flag waving over the little rebels.

The role of Matilda is double cast, so I can only comment on the performance of 10-year-old dynamo Cora Craver. Craver delivers a barrage of rapid-fire dialogue with a lovely and consistent English accent – I may have missed a few of the words, but the meaning is always crystal clear. She really sparkles in the musical numbers, in particular her solos in “Naughty” and its reprise, where she is able to throw aside her faux-submissive demeanor and show us a confident, slightly devilish side to her personality. Brock Woolworth and Josie Overstreet (as Bruce and Lavender) are worthy allies, nicely demonstrating the importance of loyalty and acceptance for schoolchildren.

Trishelle Love is wonderful as the somewhat muddled librarian, Mrs. Phelps, who raptly hangs on every word out of Matilda’s mouth and reacts to each twist in the story like she’s engrossed in a telenovela. Brooke Moltrum’s “Miss Honey” is fun to watch as she gradually grows a backbone, and her vocals are heartbreakingly gorgeous, especially in “This Little Girl” and “When I Grow Up.”  When it comes to laughs, however, the evil characters get all the love – Andy Lindberg’s unwaveringly sadistic Miss Trunchbull would be terrifying if he weren’t so funny, a perfect parody of every bullying adult of our nightmares. Danielle Valentine (Harry) and Stephanie Heuston-Willing (Zinnia), as Matilda’ s equally absurd parents, sing and dance their way into cartoon history with their big, big hair and huge (if one-dimensional, and very messed up) personalities.  Heuston-Willing is at her best when she is dancing (if you can call it that) with her sleazy partner Rudolpho (Grant Thackray) – but she copes nicely with her character’s wide-eyed, imbecilic demeanor throughout. Valentine is fabulously overbearing as Harry, and her brightly confident “All I Know” is an upbeat, show-stopping solo that really lets her shine.

Two other characters demand mention – Jackson Wells (as Matilda’s disgustingly vacuous and sycophantic brother) and Jeremy Southard, who turns in a surprisingly warm-hearted performance as Sergei, leader of the Russian Mafia. Props also to Berl Dana’y’s remarkable costume design - his vision provides some truly memorable moments and clearly delineates the relationship between the oppressors and the (at least temporarily) oppressed.

In an era of blatant rejection of intellectualism, where “fake news” is an epithet hurled at scientists and investigative reporters, and political dogma is spewed in an endless storm of tweets, it’s reassuring to see the children and the adults in Lakewood’s audience respond so enthusiastically to this dark yet somehow light-hearted and timely retelling of Roald Dahl’s classic tale.

Matilda the Musical is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, August 18th.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

After 25 Years, HART Can Still Light Up the Sky

Karen Huckfeldt, Tyler Hulegaard, Kira Smolev, Les Ico, Kathleen Silloway

By Tina Arth

Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre is kicking off its 25th season in grand style, reprising the very first show ever produced at HART. Light Up the Sky, written by the aptly named playwright Moss Hart, made its New York debut in 1948. The play never attained the critical acclaim of Hart’s collaborations with George S. Kaufman (in particular, The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can’t Take It with You), but nonetheless it is terribly funny and offers a fascinating perspective on the relationships of playwrights, actors, and producers. Director Mark Putnam, his cast, and production team deliver nicely on the show’s comedic promise, and despite the show’s length (it’s written in three acts) the pacing is snappy enough that the show rarely lags.

The entire story takes place over fewer than 12 hours in actress Irene Livingston’s suite at the Boston Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It’s opening night of a new play by novice playwright Peter Sloan, and both excitement and tension are running high. Irene’s ghostwriter, Miss Lowell, is working on a manuscript but is constantly interrupted by the comings and goings of Irene’s mother, the young playwright, the play’s principal backers, an older playwright, the director, Irene and her husband, and ultimately some very boisterous Shriners. Act I takes us through the pre-show anticipation of a huge hit, as everyone enjoys a celebratory pre-show drink, while Act II shows the principals gradually straggling in after the play, convinced that it was a disaster – the backers are beyond irate, the director is wrapped up in his latest melodramatic hissy-fit, and the discouraged young playwright is headed back to life as a truck-driver. The only truly content person in the room is Irene’s husband, Tyler – unable to stand the tension of opening night, he had gone to see Oklahoma instead. Act III shows the same group several hours later, as the reviews start to come in and attitudes are buffeted by the opinions of the critics.

Les Ico and Kira Smolev (as the show’s backers, Sidney and Frances Black) are consistent comic standouts. Although they are way out of their artistic and intellectual element, their joint $300,000 investment has bought them them a ringside seat at the table. Sidney is a street smart New York hustler whose exceptional luck has earned a bundle, and Frances earned every penny of her half working as a professional figure skater. Smolev’s New York accent and attitude are in perfect harmony – tough, vulgar, and loud but thoroughly charming. Ico is hilarious as he plays the big man among the arty set – he has no idea what the play is about, but thinks that’s OK since he’s told it’s an allegory – and his lightning-fast mood changes are in perfect accord with the script’s twists and turns.

Kathleen Silloway plays Irene’s mother Stella with sardonic flair – wonderfully disaffected and grounded, she isn’t buying any of the hype about her famous daughter, the play, or the director. Her pairing with Frances (over an endless gin game) produces essential elements of the background story without even a hint of overt exposition. Dwayne Thurnau creates a quirky, often befuddled, and thoroughly sympathetic character as Irene’s latest husband Tyler, inexplicably content to be Irene’s doormat. Kudos also to Karen Huckfeldt for her utterly self-obsessed Irene – she exemplifies everything we love to hate about a drama queen. Steve Horton delivers a superb cameo as Shriner William Gallagher, and undoubtedly gets the most laughs/minute of stage time.

David Bliss’ set is a thing of beauty, elegant and detailed enough to create the ambience of the Ritz-Carlton. The elegance is mirrored in the costumes by Kelcey Weaver and Kira Smolev – in particular, the women’s dresses look like authentic period pieces that unmistakably express the spirit of late forties East Coast style. The whole show is clearly a group effort, and director Putnam has done a nice job of assembling and coaching his team to kick off HART’s silver anniversary year.

Light Up the Sky  is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, July 28th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Much Ado About Nothing – Really Something!

Diana Trotter (Leonato), Christian Mitchell (Hero), Phillip J. Berns (Bertram), and
Mandana Khoshnevisan (Margaret) in 'Much Ado About Nothing' at Bag&Baggage Productions
Photo by Casey Campbell

By Tina Arth

I am delighted to report that Scott Palmer’s departure from Bag&Baggage seems to have had no impact on the company’s willingness to embrace extraordinary adaptations of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays.  The current production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by B&B Artistic Director Cassie Greer, is sufficiently outlandish to thoroughly alienate Shakespearean purists – and that’s OK. Gordon Barr’s adaptation of the classic comedy may initially disorient the audience with its gender-bending fluidity (I was certainly floundering at the beginning). However, the free-wheeling disruption of the original tale’s gender assignments not only serves an important purpose, but it leaves the bones of the story intact and, at least in Greer’s production, makes it much funnier than a canonical presentation of the play.

In a conventional production, the story revolves around two complex courtships - Claudio and Hero, and Benedick and Beatrice. The first obvious change is that Barr’s adaptation substitutes Bertram for Beatrice, making one of the two couples gay.  However, it doesn’t stop there – Hero is played by a man who wears women’s clothing, while Claudio is played by a woman who wears men’s clothing. Hero’s father (mother?) Leonato is played by a woman, and two characters (Margaret and Ursula) also play male characters (Dogberry and Verges). There’s more – but long before I figured out who was playing what gender, and when, I figured out what really mattered – which is that it just doesn’t matter. The intrigue, loyalty, deception, love and lust at the core of Much Ado are all hard-wired into the human condition independent of which pronouns we adopt for ourselves – in fact, in the cast bios one can find “he/him,” “she/her,” “they/them,” “thy/thine,” and, for good measure,  one “he/him/they/them.”

The stage is simply littered with exceptional performances (and bocce balls), with some of the most outlandish and carefully crafted physical comedy I’ve seen anywhere. Norman Wilson (“Benedick”) and Phillip J. Berns (“Bertram”) are spectacularly campy throughout, but most memorable during their hilarious attempts at concealment (Wilson’s patio chaise lurk and Berns’ umbrella-roll are tied for funniest moments, despite stiff competition). As Margaret, Mandana Khoshnevisan pulls off some truly unbelievable dance moves, and she brings a muddled intensity to her Dogberry that leaves the audience in stitches.

Peter Schuyler creates a marvelously drunken Borachio, and he outdoes himself as Friar, wafting about the stage like a giant white spring moth, while Justin Charles’ affect and attire as Ursula make a comparatively minor role truly unforgettable.  Speaking of unforgettable – where else will you ever see/hear “Hooked on a Feeling” performed by a cast kazoo chorus?

Greer’s vision for the show demands costumes as imaginative and uninhibited as her actors, and costume designer Melissa Heller is, as always, up to the challenge. Tyler Buswell’s set provides a stunning and timeless visual backdrop, rooted in medieval Sicily but accommodating lighting and a host of other technical effects that liberate the show from any specific time, place, or relationship to reality.

All of these touches could easily descend into 3 Stooges level chaos, but the B&B cast and production team somehow present, instead, an intelligible and accessible comedy that preserves Shakespeare’s original themes while adding (without overt didacticism) an essential message about the role of gender norms in 2019.  With this show, Greer makes it clear that she is not just keeping Scott Palmer’s fire burning, she is fanning the flames with her own passion.

Bag&Baggage’s Much Ado About Nothing is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through July 28th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Down the Rabbit Hole with Mask & Mirror

Patti Speight, Yelena King, Kelsey Ion (bottom) and Ryan Clifford, Grant Burton (top).Picture by Nicole Mae Photography

By Tina Arth

Buy now, read later. In seven years of reviewing for Westside Theatre Reviews, covering almost 300 shows, I have offered this advice only once before, but Mask & Mirror’s “Unmasked” production of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize winning Rabbit Hole demands no less. The show is brilliantly written, directed, and acted – truly a must-see. However, the venue (Tualatin Heritage Center) is small, the $10 price a real bargain, and with only a two-week run there’s no time for hesitation – definitely buy tickets in advance if possible, since just showing up at the door may be risky.

Got your tickets? Good. Now you can read further:

Rabbit Hole has only five characters, each a dream role for serious actors. There’s Becca and Howie, grieving parents who have lost their 4-year-old son to a tragic traffic accident. There’s Becca’s exuberantly immature younger sister Izzy, who offers little solace to her sister as she grapples with her own issues. There’s Izzy and Becca’s mom, Nat, who drinks a bit too much and is still coping with the death of her son 11 years earlier.  Finally, there’s Jason, the awkward and traumatized 17-year-old who was driving the car that hit young Danny; eight months later, he is still trying to come to grips with his sense of guilt and desperately seeking acceptance and recognition of his contrition. Rather than drawing together in adversity, each family member is isolated on a separate, lonely path to cope with the pain; it is only by finding their way back to each other that they begin to develop strategies for healing and moving forward.  Despite the play’s dark foundations, ample humor breaks the tension, allowing the audience to fully engage with each character’s arc.

Yelena King’s “Becca” is heartbreakingly believable – brittle, rigidly controlled, judgmental, yet silently radiating grief that is consuming her.  King’s precise delivery of a series of micro-aggressions against her sister, husband, and mother builds organically toward the confrontations that finally allow her release. Ryan Clifford’s “Howie” is a fine match – with all of the chemistry flowing from him toward his emotionally absent mate, Clifford finds a lovely balance between compassion, frustration, and attempts to address his own needs.

Kelsey Ion (as Izzy) bursts onto the scene like a lit firecracker, and her initially outlandish behavior captures the essence of the younger sister who can never match the achievements of a “perfect” sibling. Watching her organically develop into her own version of adulthood is a treat, and Ion’s effervescent take on maturity is as much a show highlight as her earlier flamboyance.  Speaking of unusual versions of adulthood, Patti Speight is a hoot, providing a hefty dose of comic relief as the oddly disconnected Nat. More than any other character, Nat’s behavior seems completely out of touch with social norms – her rambling thesis about the Kennedy Curse is a gem, and Speight walks the fine line between tragicomedy and parody with aplomb.

I’ve saved for last an actor with the least stage time, but whose impact is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. 19-year-old Grant Burton (as Jason) creates an unforgettable character – and he gives the role a child-like sincerity and awkwardness that allows the audience (and Becca) to imagine Danny, both as he was and who he might have become. From his first appearance I was rooting for him to break through Becca’s veneer, and watching him succeed gives the whole show a unique and moving focus beyond the tragedy of a child’s death.

Sets are, as expected in the Heritage Center, minimal, but the use of the aisle and apron bring the entire show within touching distance of the audience and creates an intimacy that encapsulates the audience within the drama. A special note, something I rarely notice – Assistant Director Caitriona Johnston also gets credit in the program for hair. The evolution of Becca’s and Izzy’s coiffures through the show perfectly expresses the changes in their psyches as the story develops, and their hairdos silently reflect the two women’s movement from impossibly uptight and pathetically immature opposites toward gentle rapprochement.

By the time this review is posted, there may be only one week left for Rabbit Hole. Director Joe Silva and his superb cast deserve only full houses, and audiences will not find a better way to spend a few hours of their lives.

Mask & Mirror’s production of Rabbit Hole runs through Sunday, July 21 at the Tualatin Heritage Center, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:30.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Experience Experience’s The Comedy of Errors

Steven Grawrick, Ty Hendrix, Bobbi Kaye Kupfern, and Neil
Wade Freer. Photo by Casey Campbell photography.

By Tina Arth

Scarred by too many dry-as-dust high school and college assignments in the distant past, I am still always a little surprised when I really enjoy one of Shakespeare’s plays. The secret, of course, is that these works were meant to be performed live, not read as literature – especially the comedies. Experience Theatre Project’s take on The Comedy of Errors is a perfect example – adjectives like “rollicking,” and “zany” don’t begin to do justice to the shamelessly broad physical comedy that director Brenda Hubbard draws from a thoroughly uninhibited cast that fully commits to the Bard’s shortest (and arguably silliest) comedy. It’s being performed in a series of outdoor venues (I saw it opening weekend at Beaverton’s Westside Shakespeare Festival; the rest will be at local wineries), and the production will change slightly to adjust to the layout of each location.

A quick if incomplete synopsis clearly makes the argument for the “silliest comedy” title. Start with two sets of identical twins born in Syracuse and separated at birth – one set the sons of the merchant Egeon and his wife Emilia, the other set poor boys purchased as slaves for their sons. The parents have inexplicably given the same name to each twin, so Dromio and Dromio are slaves to Antipholus and Antipholus. A disastrous tempest at sea separates them, leaving one set (Antipholus and Dromio) with Egeon in Syracuse, while the other two boys (Antipholus and Dromio) end up in Ephesus with Emilia. Now grown, Antipholus (of Syracuse) ventures out with Dromio in search of his brother. When they do not return, Egeon sets out to find them, landing in Ephesus – and the play actually begins with Egeon relating this tale of woe to Solinus, Duke of Ephesus.  This ideal setup for mistaken identities is complemented by the puzzling coincidence that both Antipholuses (Antipholi?) and both Dromios wear identical clothing. With both sets of twins unknowingly in the same city, identically clad and with the same names, the stage is set for two acts of outrageous mistaken identity, including Antipholus (of Syracuse) dining with Adriana, Antipholus (of Ephesus’) wife , while flirting outrageously with Luciana, Adriana’s sister (one wonders how Shakespeare resisted the urge to make the women twins, both named Adriana!). Adriana’s lusty kitchen wench mistakes one Dromio for the other and shamelessly woos him. Courtesans, gold chains, bungled sorcery, and lots of genuine slapstick (the Dromios, in particular, are repeatedly slapped, kicked, and beaten at every turn) lead, ultimately, to a series of happy reunions.

The Comedy of Errors is ideally suited to the sometimes noisy or distracting environment frequently encountered in outdoor venues. Hubbard’s direction gives her cast free rein to play up every ridiculous moment, and they take full advantage – even if the audience does not hear every word (although the cast does a great job of vocal projection) the physical comedy and deliberate pacing ensure that we’ll be able to follow every twist in the absurd tale. Both Dromios (Steven Grawrock and Neil Wade Freer) are veteran Shakespearean actors who excel at the kind of over-the-top mugging so familiar to 16th and 17th century audiences. Ty Hendrix and Walter Petryk (as Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus, respectively) capture their characters’ fundamental differences beautifully - although physically identical, Hendrix ‘s philandering tendencies contrast nicely with Petryk’s somewhat muddled sincerity.

Leslie Renee (the Courtesan) is new to Shakespeare, but has picked up the essence quickly – she gives her performance just the right note of sardonic seductiveness. Sarah Aldrich captures the fury and feminism of the fiery, jealous Adriana, in stark contrast to her milder sister Luciana, deftly and demurely played by Hannah Lauren Wilson.  Bobby Kaye Kupfner plays double duty as Abbess/Emilia and Luce the kitchen wench, and her lascivious Luce unquestionably draws the most laughs per minute of stage time.

In the outdoor environment, sets are not terribly elaborate, but there’s enough done with walls, platforms and curtains to establish a sense of place and time. Costume designer Allison Johnson helps to give the play a timeless air, with outfits appropriate to the roles but not evocative of any specific era.

The five winery performances (Helvetia Vineyards July 5-6-7, Plum Hill Vineyards July 12-13-14, Fairsing Vineyard July 19-20-21, Durant Vineyards July 26-27-28, and Torii Mor Winery August 2-3-4) offer plenty of opportunities to experience the fun of this summer’s Experience Theatre Project. Show times vary, so be sure to visit for reservations and detailed information.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Twilight’s Latest Shockingly Funny

Jay Hash, Annie Trevisan, and Will Futterman

By Tina Arth

I first saw Twilight’s current production, No Sex Please, We’re British, at the Strand Theatre in London back in 1975, about four years after its 1971 debut. I pretty much hated it, and have nursed a flickering flame of contempt for the show ever since. My dismay when I learned that Twilight Theater Company was doing the show was eclipsed only by my surprise at last Friday’s opening when I found myself happily laughing (along with the rest of the audience) at this utterly ridiculous farce.

Playwrights Anthony Marriott and Alistair Foot’s absurd tale takes a cheery look at the hypocrisy of late 1960s – early 1970s sexual strictures – in particular, with respect to pornography (which was broadly defined, widely illegal, and definitely deemed unacceptable by middle class Brits still recovering from the Victorian era). Newlyweds Peter and Frances Hunter have just moved into their new flat, located in Windsor above the bank where Peter is assistant manager. Frances has ordered what she thinks is glassware from the Scandinavian Import Company, hoping to sell it from the flat to earn an extra pound or two. When the boxes arrive, she finds that they have actually sent an assortment of pornographic pictures. With Peter’s widowed mother Eleanor on the way for her first visit, the couple is desperate to get rid of the offending photos a.s.a.p., and they embark (with the reluctant assistance of Peter’s co-worker, Brian Runnicles) on a series of ill-fated schemes – flushing them down the toilet, grinding them up in the garbage disposal, sinking them in the Thames – none successful. Frances compounds the problem by erroneously mailing a bank customer’s check to the Scandinavian Import Company, which Peter is of course frantic to retrieve. Eleanor arrives, followed by the smitten bank manager, Leslie Bromhead, a visiting bank inspector, a local police superintendent, and more porn (this time, videos). With the classic farce surplus of doors (front door, kitchen, den, bathroom, bedroom, spare room, and upstairs) the cast manage to miss each other at all of the key moments, even after the solicitous Scandinavian firm sends over two enthusiastic hookers to ensure that the customer is well and truly satisfied. In true farce fashion, things work out OK, but with a bit of a twist.

I spent some quality time figuring out why I so thoroughly enjoyed a show that I had previously scorned, and came up with three fundamental reasons: venue, run of show, and cast. “Venue” is obvious - I like my theater up close and personal, I want to see the actors act, and there’s not much comparison between the 1000+ seats in the Strand and the intimacy of Twilight’s tiny theater.  “Run of show” is reflected in the tradeoff between the letter perfect, but often lifeless, offerings of performers in year 4 of a 10-year run (spare me a farce in the hands of bored actors!) and the goofy, if occasionally bumbling, enthusiasm of local theater heroes at the beginning of a three-week run. Finally, there’s cast – not that Twilight draws better actors than London’s professional stages (and certainly the Brits had flawless accents) – but the right people on a small stage for a limited run generates such enthusiasm that the audience just cannot resist joining in the fun.

While the cast is solid, and everybody gets a share of the laughs, it is Jay Hash as Brian Runnicles who absolutely steals the show.  He has great comic timing, shifts facial expressions seamlessly from worried to downright frantic, and tumbles about the stage with the dexterity of a disorderly baboon as he desperately tries to hide from his boss and the police. Lesley Mansfield and Maddy Gourlay, as the two hookers, give Hash some serious competition – and kudos to the costumer who found just the right mechanical tassels for Mansfield’s bra!

Veteran actors Gina George and Philip Giesy (as Eleanor and Leslie) provide a nice contrast to the frantic shenanigans of the younger set – always calm, just slightly staid, but with a light in their eyes and enough double entendre to let the audience know where to look for the real hanky-panky.  Christopher Massey’s pajama-clad, heavily-drugged Mr. Needham is impressively upright, then impressively loose-limbed as his sleeping pills kick in, and Jeff Giberson’s slightly mush-mouthed Irish cop provides a nice combination of rigidity and idiocy. To the extent that there are straight men in the show, they are Will Futterman and Annie Trevisan (as hapless newlyweds Peter and Frances), but both actors get plenty of chances to dance on the edge of hysteria, and their few attempts at romance are great – reminiscent of comparably ill-starred moments in Barefoot in the Park.

As befits farce, there is an enormous amount of running about, and director Sarah Nolte Fuller has done a fine job of creating the illusion of chaos while maintaining absolute control over waves of physical comedy – I imagine that during rehearsal she must have felt very much like a traffic cop at rush hour. The result – a really silly, really funny show that inspires laughter, hoots, guffaws, even the occasional cheer from an appreciative audience.

Twilight Theater Company’s No Sex Please, We’re British is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through June 30, with performances at 8 P.M. on Thursday-Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Broadway Rose’s Momentous Into the Woods

By Tina Arth

As an unabashed fan of Stephen Sondheim, Broadway Rose, and Into the Woods it was no surprise to me that I absolutely loved the company’s opening night show last Friday. I expected no less, and was confident that the necessity of using the company’s relatively intimate New Stage would not diminish my enjoyment of a show often presented on larger stages, with more elaborate sets and a full orchestra. What I did not expect was that the show would actually be enhanced by the limited space and the consequent staging limitations.  Music director/pianist Eric Nordin partners with director/choreographer Jessica Wallenfels to present a one-piano arrangement of the score combined with pacing and choreography that leave Sondheim’s music and lyrics intact but allow James Lapine’s brilliant book to shine more brightly than I thought possible.

The trick? Obviously, casting is one key, and Wallenfels’ cast is superb. The stage is packed with vocalists fully capable of bringing the songs to life, but who also deliver both the broad physical comedy and serious moments that define Into the Woods’ innovative mixture of mirth and message.  I noticed in the program that Wallenfels shares choreography credit with the cast, and I love that she acknowledges that the final product is the result of a true collaboration. What else do I love? More than anything, the decision to frame the show as updated commedia dell’arte – a traveling troupe would not have elaborate sets or an orchestra, but they would have exaggerated emotional expression, elaborate costumes, and a Jack/Jill of all trades attitude, with the actors tackling not only multiple acting roles but also helping out wherever needed. At Broadway Rose, this flexibility is shown in the cast’s role as auxiliary musicians, incorporating percussion accents into the story, tossing in a kazoo solo, and (most brilliantly, in my opinion) seamlessly taking over the keyboard while Nordin takes his bow.

The show follows the story of the Baker and his wife, childless because of a multi-generational curse from the hideously ugly witch next door.  Their quest for a child brings them in contact with characters from Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel (with a brief nod to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White). The first act follows (loosely) the three fairy tales through their happy resolutions, while the Baker and his wife get their child and the witch is restored to her former beauty, all wishes are fulfilled, and the act closes with the oh-so-happy “Ever After.” Act II explores the darker themes behind the stories (e.g., stealing is still stealing, even if it’s from a giant; killing is still killing, even it it’s a wolf), ultimately cautioning us to be careful about the things we wish for and say in the finale, “Children Will Listen.”

As there was nothing, in my opinion, not to love, I’ll skip the usual praise for the cast and instead offer up a few of my favorite “moments in the woods.” Moment #1: Erin Tamblyn’s Witch – when she sang “Stay With Me” I not only got chills, but I found myself wondering how humans had ever evolved to be able to make such magnificent music with their voices. Moments #2 & 3: Austin Comfort and Adam Elliott Davis (the two princes) going WAY over the top in both “Agony” and its reprise – and simply nailing the vocal and physical aspects with breathtaking energy. Moment #4: Hannah Sapitan as Little Red Riding Hood – how do I pick? When pressed, I’ll take her fearless delivery of “I Know Things Now.” But then there’s the fabulous moment when Comfort and Leah Yorkston (the Baker’s Wife) roll across the stage as they disentangle, Tyler Andrew Jones’ (Jack’s) poignant parting moment with Milky White, Eric Michael Little (The Baker) as he accepts his wife as a partner in “It Takes Two,” and Milky White’s explosive resurrection. My advice? Go see the show yourself (if you can get tickets – there aren’t many left!) and choose your own moments.  I may have to go back and choose a few more for myself.

Into the Woods is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, June 30th 28th.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Odd Couple Bringing Down the House in Forest Grove

ennis Reilly, Ken Centers, Jeff Wineland, Chuck Weed, Stevo Clay

By Tina Arth

If you are afraid that Neil Simon’s brilliant The Odd Couple is a little dated – like you’ve heard all of the jokes before, and there may not be a lot of surprises left in the script - then you’ve really got to head out to Theatre in the Grove’s current production to refresh your memory about why this is such a well-loved (and oft-produced) show. Co-directors Jeananne Kelsey and Pruella Centers and a really solid cast bring a freshness and energy that keep the audience fully engaged – even the scene change music is snappy!

Although many may never have seen the play, most adults are somewhat familiar with either the movie (starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon) or the long-running sitcom (starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall) about two very mismatched roommates, the impossibly slovenly Oscar Madison and the neat freak Felix Ungar, whose OCD has driven away his wife and now threatens to cost him his best friend. The weekly poker game in Oscar’s utterly filthy Manhattan apartment gets underway, but the regulars (Speed, Murray the cop, Roy, and Vinnie, plus Oscar) are all worried that Felix hasn’t shown up. A phone call lets them know that Felix’s wife Frances has thrown him out, and that he may be suicidal. Felix finally arrives, and Oscar rashly offers to let his good friend move in – there’s plenty of space in the 8-room apartment since Oscar’s ex-wife has moved out of town with the kids. Two weeks into the arrangement, Felix’s annoying cleanliness and hypochondria has driven Oscar to a near-homicidal rage, with a final outburst when Felix messes up a double date with the alluring and oh-so-available Pigeon sisters, Cecily and Gwendolyn.

Theatre in the Grove’s production is distinguished by an abundance of exceptionally broad physical comedy. There are a few times when it almost feels as though the front rows should have been designated as a splash zone, with food and drink flying across the stage – and the actors throw themselves into their roles with the same vigor. Stevo Clay is a gleefully uninhibited Oscar, yet he never quite goes over the top and he reels in the comedy in key moments to reveal the loyal, big-hearted, and lonely man beneath the devil-may-care exterior. Zachary Centers’ Felix is the polar opposite – button down, neurotic, wearing his full-volume allergies like a badge of honor – yet still able to generate sympathy from the audience as well as the Pigeon sisters.

Complementing the strength of the two leads, the rest of the cast takes advantage of ample opportunities to sparkle. The Pigeon sisters (Lura Longmire as Gwendolyn, Mary Reischmann as Cecily) are utterly fabulous, as they titter, coo, and cry with their impeccable British accents through the ill-fated double date. The poker players (Jeff Wineland, Ken Centers, Chuck Weed, and Dennis Reilly) each manage to create a distinctive and memorable character – I was especially taken by the loving care with which Reilly and Centers shared and analyzed one of Felix’s carefully crafted sandwiches.

As is the norm at Theatre in the Grove, Zach Centers’ elaborately detailed set design provides the perfect backdrop. Costumes are equally appropriate, with special props for the bright mid-sixties mod clothing and the equally period coiffures of the Pigeon sisters.

The Odd Couple is classic comedy, but despite the sometimes-broad comedy, when played well it is definitely not farce. Theatre in the Grove has found just the right mix, and the result is a touching, believable, but very funny presentation of one of Neil Simon’s greatest works.

The Odd Couple is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through June 16, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019


Donald Cleland and Stan Yeend

By Tina Arth

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the classic comedy that earned Best Musical/Best Author honors at the 1962 Tony Awards, is an ambitious undertaking to close HART’s season. Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics provide a perfect complement to the utterly silly book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, perhaps better known for writing TV sitcoms (Gelbart created the TV version of M*A*S*H), and the pacing of the jokes is reminiscent of the one-liner sitcom style.  

HART’s Forum succeeds on many levels, and provides an abundance of laughs for the audience, even though the overall production is uneven – when it is good, it is very, very good, but there are a few features that are somewhat jarring. The show is Director Aaron Morrow’s first foray into directing a musical, and he showed excellent judgment by adding two veterans, musical director Alice Dalrymple and choreographer Linda Anderson, to his team. The vocal ensemble work and most of the solo performances are strong, and many of the dance routines are surprisingly engaging (especially considering that there are only a couple of real dancers in the cast). 

Forum is the 100% farcical tale of the freedom-seeking Pseudolus, a Roman slave in the household of Senex, his wife Domina, and their naïve son Hero. Senex and Domina have temporarily left the head slave, Hysterium, in charge of the household (including guarding Hero’s virtue). Hero has fallen for the Philia, a lovely but dim Cretan virgin living next door in the house of the flesh-merchant Marcus Lycus. Pseudolus promises to procure Philia for his young master in exchange for his freedom - but soon learns that Philia’s contract has been sold to Miles Gloriosus, a mighty Roman captain. Pseudolus tells Marcus Lycus that Philia has brought a deadly plague from Crete, and convinces Marcus to release the girl to his custody in order to protect the rest of the household.  Before Hero and Philia can escape, word comes that Miles Gloriosus is coming to claim his bride. Pseudolus plans to give Philia a sleeping potion, then convince Miles Gloriosus that she has died of the plague – but Philia disappears, and a frantic Hysterium is dragged into service as a stand-in corpse, complete with wig, make-up, and virginal gown. Through a series of farcically implausible coincidences, everything works out just fine, fulfilling the show’s initial promise of comedy tonight.

So – what works? Definitely Stan Yeend as Pseudolus – from his first moment on stage in “Comedy Tonight” he produces just the right mix of cheerful egocentrism, cunning, and wheedling, and his vocals are as flawless as his comic timing. Tanner Morton does a fine job as Hysterium, and he works the character’s many moods, from bootlicking head slave to quivering faux corpse, with several interesting stops along the way. The pairing of real-life couple Aubrey Slaughter and Trevor Winder as Philia and Hero is inspired – Slaughter is, as she so blithely (and beautifully) sings, astonishingly lovely, and Winder pulls off his character’s boyish enthusiasm without a hitch.

The part of the befuddled Erroneous might have been written for Donald Cleland, although he plays his first tour around the Seven Hills of Rome so broadly that there is little room for him to grow more exhausted on subsequent trips. Two of the six courtesans are truly outstanding – Kate Barrett’s feline Vibrata and the agile, undulating Amelia Michaels as Tintinabula – both completely command the stage during their solo spots.  The casting of Diana LoVerso as Marcus Lycus clearly demonstrates that, when gender is really irrelevant, it can be ignored – her singing and dancing add immeasurably to the ensemble work, and she is every bit the slimy and lecherous merchant required for the role. Finally, the geometrical precision and attention to detail in William Crawford’s set is a superb touch that really sets the stage.

What doesn’t work? Primarily, two unfortunate casting decisions. The show’s authors worked hard to cram their show full of gags, and there really was no reason to try to shoehorn in more running jokes by making the muscular courtesan Gymnasia a large, slightly grimy and absurdly wigged and painted man. Similarly, casting a very small man as the mighty Miles Gloriosus just doesn’t work. Both John Knowles and Linh Nguyen are solid performers, and both they and the audience deserve better.  In addition, the hard-working Proteans seem a little chaotic – perhaps a little less running, leaping and jumping would give them and the audience a rest. The costuming is very uneven – some of the Roman robes, gowns, and military attire hit just the right note, but a few characters look like they have been garbed for an elementary school play – and no matter what lurks on Morton’s upper body, he needs to lose the blue t-shirt under his virginal gown!

On balance, the good far outweighs the awkward, and I had no trouble joining the opening night audience in their enthusiastic laughter and applause. Bumpy ride or not, HART’s Forum is a terribly funny show and deserves appreciative audiences to fill the house.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum  is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, June 16th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

“In the Buff” -Twilight’s Body Awareness Strips Away Hypocrisy

Allie Rivenbark, Zero Feeney, Tamara Sorelli, David Remple

By Tina Arth

When going to see a play that’s new to me, I make it a firm rule not to Google the show in advance – I want to approach the material with as few preconceptions as possible. However, I love programs, and try to arrive at the theater early enough to scan the program before the show starts. Part of this is my absurd obsession with finding the inevitable typo (admittedly hypocritical, since my reviews often house blunders). However, my real goal is to learn as much as possible about the specific production I am about to see – cast list and bios, director’s notes, etc. can be a goldmine of information about how this particular performance was developed. A good sign for me is a “something old, something new” mix. I want “old” in the production team, a stable and strong group that speak to the company’s ability to retain and commit experienced techs, costumers, stage managers, and other essential support personnel. I look for the “new” in the direction and casting – not from a love of novelty, but from the conviction that the best companies eagerly seek out (and are able to attract) these front-line folks from the widest possible community.  Twilight Theater‘s Body Awareness hits a homer on both counts – the director and three of four cast members are new to the company, and the production team is rife with a team of utterly reliable regular suspects.

Annie Baker’s 2008 Body Awareness is a beautifully written comedy satirizing  (among other things) the hypocrisy of a culture of over-the-top feminist political correctness at Shirley State College, a fictional small-town Vermont school. Phyllis is a professor, and her partner Joyce teaches at a local high school. They share their home with Joyce’s son Jared, a quirky young man who exhibits several symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome but refuses to see a therapist for treatment. The entire play takes place during “Body Awareness Week,” an event originally designed to highlight eating disorders but expanded by Phyllis to encompass an absurdly broad range of cultural offerings, including a photo exhibit by houseguest Frank Bonitatibus, an aging hippie who specializes in portraits of nude girls and women.  Phyllis is appalled by Frank’s photographs, although she’s never actually seen them, and becomes very jealous when Joyce decides to pose for Frank. Jared refuses to try college because he is an OED-obsessed autodidact, and somehow believes that he can become a professional lexicographer with no formal higher education – and he gets himself fired from his job at McDonald’s to free up more time for his studies (and to learn how to attract a girlfriend). A series of smaller explosions lead up to a final crisis, and by the final scene each character has learned and grown a little - there is no neat “happily ever after” moment in sight.

David Remple is simply remarkable as Jared, and manages to deliver what is in many ways a comic role without cheapening the performance to play for laughs. It takes him very little time to win over the audience as he fights the Asperger’s label; his sensitive performance helps us to move from sympathy to empathy for his plight. In his brief time as a male role model for Jared (and potential suitor for Joyce), Zero Feeney brings a cheery, Zen-like calm to his portrayal of Frank. Despite occasionally creepy moments we like him, and forgive him his frequent cluelessness because his delivery is so completely innocent.

The author has reserved her broadest satire for the role of Phyllis, the supercilious super-feminist psychology professor.  Allie Rivenbark never misses a beat in the role, and unquestionably earns the most laughter, but the price is that she is more of a parody, less a fully realized character than her cast-mates. Finally, there’s Tamara Sorelli, whose poignantly believable portrayal of Joyce anchors the show and connects the other characters. Sorelli captures the bind in which Joyce, like countless other women throughout history, finds herself  – the loving peacemaker, trying to ease the tensions around her with apologies, patience, humor, and a solid core of emotional intelligence. Joyce is caught up by the almost impossible challenge of trying to be all things to all people, and Sorelli makes us feel the love, pain, heartache, and ultimate strength of her character’s steady march toward self-realization.

The set is cleverly designed, with smoothly moving parts to facilitate set changes, but the play’s numerous brief scenes are still sometimes choppy. A few little things might help, like finding a way to leave the dining room table in place or using large calendar pages instead of writing on the blackboard, and perhaps costume changes could be streamlined. In any case, the show is not overly long (just two hours, with intermission) and certainly never drags. Ilana Watson’s sound design is a huge asset – whenever the stage is dark, the music shines brightly.

Despite Greg Shilling’s self-effacing director’s notes, he clearly did a great deal more than tell his actors where to stand and why – the pacing is steady, key moments are never over or underplayed, and the comedy is not allowed to overshadow deeper themes– all marks of skillful direction and close attention to detail. Even a small Mother’s Day crowd filled the theater with laughter, and this is definitely not a show to miss.

Twilight Theater Company’s Body Awareness is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through May 19, with performances at 8 P.M. on Thursday-Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Butler Did It – Wait! What Butler?

Sean Riley, Devin VanDomelin, Erin Bickler, Brandon Weaver, Brain Young, Steve Koeppen. Photo by Katherine Roundy

By Tina Arth

While I have high hopes for every show I see, I try to keep my expectations realistic, given the many constraints faced by community theatre groups. Thus it’s always a treat when I am surprised by the flat-out excellence of an overall production or its individual elements. One look at Mask & Mirror’s set for Tim Kelly’s The Butler Did It suggested that I was in for something special – and I was not disappointed. Director Meghan Daaboul has assembled a crack production crew and fine actors, and the result is a farcical whodunit that successfully parodies myriad conventions of the mystery genre, managing to be utterly silly without being utterly stupid.

The story is, of course, absurd. A group of famous mystery authors have arrived at Ravenswood Manor, an isolated estate on Turkey Island off the coast of San Francisco. They have been invited by Miss Maple (based on Agatha Christie’s “Miss Marple”) for a weekend of play mysteries, and each author is playing the role of one of his or her iconic detectives. Miss Maple shares her home with the newly hired personal assistant Rita and Haversham the maid – ironically, there is no butler. All but one author arrives in the middle of a massive storm that cuts the island off from the mainland, lending an appropriate aura of menace to the visit. The authors are faced with a real mystery when one of them, Rick Carlyle (based on Dashiell Hammett’s Nick Charles) is found dead in the living room of the elegant estate. With the body safely stashed in the basement until the police can be called, Miss Maple offers an immense reward anyone who can identify the murderer, and the authors reveal themselves to be remarkably inept when trying to solve an actual crime. In particular, Louis Fan (based on Charlie Chan) displays a mind-numbing level of incompetence as he spins a series of implausible theories. False identities, hidden doors, an adventurous arrival by helicopter, and falling figurines all drive the story to its bizarre conclusion.

All ten of the core cast members do a fine job of selling the individual quirks of their characters. A few standouts include Donna Haub, who is especially fun as Miss Maple – completely self-absorbed, and so focused on her mystery weekend that she is utterly out of touch with the real events going on under her roof. Erin Bickler’s broad comedic style is perfect for the adventurous, flamboyant, and seductive Charity Haze, and she milks the role for all it is worth. Sean Riley’s “Louie Fan” at first seems like a wildly offensive Asian stereotype, until it becomes clear that he is playing a clueless white guy pretending to be “Oriental” without even a trace of cultural awareness.  I particularly enjoyed Brian Young’s hard-boiled take on Chandler Marlowe – he did a flawless job of maintaining his accent and attitude throughout. A final shout out must go to Jennifer Waverly as Haversham the maid.  Waverly is a master of the Dumb Dora school of wide-eyed naïveté, her timing is superb, and despite her criminal past we truly believe that she’s a straight shooter, but definitely not a murderer.

Detailed costume, lighting, and sound design all provide solid support for the production, but the real centerpiece hit me right between the eyesas soon as the lights came up . William Crawford’s amazing set, dressed to the nines by Cindy Zimmerman, is simply gorgeous – as lush and detailed as anything I’ve seen on a local stage in years.  If I’m ever rich enough to buy an estate on an island, I’m bringing in this team to do my décor (and Rita the maid to keep it clean). It’s clear that Meghan Daaboul took every element os her show seriously – nothing falls between the cracks, which is what allows the comedy to shine through.

Mask & Mirror’s The Butler Did It runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through May 19th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Singin’ In the Rain Takes Lake Oswego by Storm

John David Scott and Dennis Corwin

By Tina Arth

Lakewood Center for the Arts’ current production of Singin’ In the Rain is musical theater at its best; the payoff is that director Ron Daum and his A++ cast and production team are singing and dancing their way into the hearts of consistently sold out audiences.  Betty Comden and Adolph Green‘s 1952 film established the gold standard for an era of classic movie musicals, and the show’s 1985 transition from celluloid to stage seamlessly perpetuated the timelessly comic tale.

The comedy revolves around a glamorous silent film couple, Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, facing the challenges of making the transition to of talking pictures after Al Jolson’s success in The Jazz Singer. As a former song and dance man, Don is well equipped to make the switch to talkies, but Lina‘s acting chops are sorely lacking, and her harshly nasal New York accent is a disaster on film. The fan mags and studio flacks have flamed the public’s perception that Don and Lina are an “item,” and the slightly dim Lina believes the hype, but in reality Don cannot stand her. Don’s sidekick Cosmo Brown convinces the studio to hire a stand-in to dub Lina’s lines for her - Don’s real girlfriend, chorus girl Kathy Selden. This does not go over well with Lina, who is ultimately disgraced when the deception is revealed. Lina rushes off in embarrassment, Don and Kathy kiss, and things work out just the way they should – a very 1950’s Hollywood ending!

Singin’ in the Rain is first and foremost a dancer’s show, and choreographer Laura Hiszczynskyj has done a superb job of harnessing the energy of a clearly talented group of dancers. No cast can be asked to live up to the film’s original tap-lover’s dream team of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds, but John David Scott (Don Lockwood), Dennis Corwin (Cosmo Brown), and Catherine Olson (Kathy Selden) still bring it, delivering key moments like the iconic couch tip and lamp post scene with panache.  Olson is supremely cute, an essential quality for her role, and her spunky charm is on full display throughout; her lovely rendition of “Lucky Star” is an added bonus.  Scott evolves neatly from sardonic nonchalance to love-struck suitor, and Corwin neatly captures the fraternal mischief of his role’s status as “always a sidekick, never a romantic lead.”

Stephanie Heuston-Willing is hilarious, both on stage and in the film segments, as the thoroughly obnoxious if somewhat pitiable Lina Lamont. Her accent never wobbles, and she manages to look slightly cross-eyed and seriously dumb throughout – a high point is her plaintive if slightly jarring “What’s Wrong With Me?”  Maria Tucker sparkles every time she dances onto the stage, and sets a spectacular standard for the rest of the dance ensemble.

Another show highlight comes from Musical Director Beth Noelle and her tiny orchestra, who do full justice to the show’s 20+ songs. Technical Director/Lighting Designer Kurt Herman and the rest of the crew make full use of the theater’s projection capabilities, both for the faux silent film clips and in the creation of the Hollywoodland and other backdrops – and little or no time is lost to scene changes. Grace O’Malley’s costume designs perfectly capture the ‘20s glamour of the show, and little touches like Don and Cosmo’s plaid suits make all the difference.

Some performances are already sold out, and even the Wednesday night seats are going fast, so anyone who wants to experience the magic of a live Singin’ In the Rain done right should hasten to the Lakewood Center for the Arts’ website and buy tickets immediately.

Singin’ In the Rain is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, June 9th.

Bag&Baggage’s Peter/Wendy Takes Us to a New Neverland

Phillip J. Berns and Kayla Kelly as Peter and Wendy. Photo by Casey Campbell.
By Tina Arth

Bag & Baggage ends its 2018-2019 with a surprisingly beautiful and moving production of playwright Jeremy Bloom’s Peter/Wendy. This stripped-down adaptation retains the key characters and plot points, and much of the language, of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan – but distills the essence of the original to expose traces of Barrie’s complex and troubled mind. As someone more familiar with the staged musical and Disney movie, I was enchanted and intrigued by this new perspective on a story I thought I knew. Director Cassie Greer has assembled a superb group of actors (all adults, which is particularly appropriate since this version is by no means a children’s story), and the staging is always inventive and frequently magical.

The story is told by the seven cast members who portray Peter, Wendy, Tinker Bell, Hook, Smee, Mr. and Mrs. Darling, Tiger Lily, a Lost Boy and a Mermaid. Eliminating little brothers Michael and John and other peripheral characters allows the story to focus intensely on a few key relationships and themes, and to allow the audience to view them in greater depth. Of course, the key relationship is the one between Peter and Wendy (hence, the title Peter/Wendy). However, Bloom’s script and Greer’s direction also shine an interesting light on Tinker Bell/Peter, subtly explore Peter/The Tiger Lily as failed seduction, put a fine note of panic into Wendy’s inability to reconnect with Mrs. Darling, present Mr. and Mrs. Darling as a real couple, and we connect with the one Lost Boy’s longing to be part of a real family. Above all, the audience feels the tragedy of Peter’s (Barrie’s) alienation from conventional reality – in this show, his refusal to grow up is so much more than a childish longing to have fun and fight play battles in a fantasy world.

Phillip J. Berns is simply riveting as Peter Pan. He leaps around the stage with admirable agility, but even more impressive is his parallel ability to switch his emotional state instantaneously. Any time he ventures too close to reality, he leaps back and reframes his mood to hold the world at arm’s length. However, watch and listen closely and you’ll get glimpses of Peter’s inner pain – the subtle longing in his voice when he says “To die will be an awfully big adventure” is absolutely heartbreaking. Kayla Kelly creates an equally memorable Wendy – thoroughly wide-eyed, virginal and innocent, playful and adventurous, yet clearly destined for the mommy track and life as a functional adult.

Jeremy Sloan is often hilarious as he flits and glimmers through the role of Tinker Bell, but there is real menace in the ferocity of his reaction whenever Wendy or The Tiger Lily get too close to Peter. Kymberli Colbourne (Mrs. Darling/Hook) and Justin Charles (Mr. Darling/Smee) do versatile double duty and combine sometimes cartoonish moments and dialogue with sincere touches – I was especially moved by Colbourne’s intense and believable grief in her last scene as Mrs. Darling.  In their comparatively small roles, both Cambria Herrera (The Tiger Lily) and Jacquelle Davis (A Lost Boy) also illuminate key themes. Herrera’s colorful performance captures her character’s connection with the natural world – she is essentially a flower, and her enthusiastic sensuality adds a special dimension to the tale.  Davis treads the fine line between Neverland’s world of fantasy and the real world of London – her ability to move emotionally between both worlds illuminates the tragic elements of life as an unwanted child.

Greer and her production team fully exploit the unique technological and spatial features of The Vault, using lighting and projection to support Jim Ricks-White’s scenic design. Four gigantic sheets flow smoothly, transforming the space from a cloaked room to a giant and inclusive tent that draws the audience into the fantasy, then forming massive sails and ultimately providing the backdrop for projections of a night sky that dwarfs the world below.

Peter/Wendy is not the comfortable, fun version of J. M. Barrie’s classic that audiences usually expect, nor are the themes easily accessed – audiences will leave the theater pondering what they have seen, and will find their minds returning to the show for days.  The show is relatively short and delivers fine entertainment for two hours, but its impact lingers and offers insights well after the stage goes dark.

Bag&Baggage’s Peter/Wendy is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through May 19th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.