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.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

TITG’s Legally Blonde – So Silly, Yet So Smart

Picture shows Logan Switzer, Kieran Thomas, Rachel Doyel,
Mickey, and Max Powell. Photo by A Life Condensed Photography.

By Tina Arth

When possible, I like to approach live theatrical performances with an open mind, unfettered by specific expectations and prepared to revel in the moment for what it has to offer, rather than for what it may lack. Never having been exposed to Legally Blonde in either its 2001 book and movie formats nor the 2007 musical version, I was a perfectly primed blank slate for Theatre in the Grove’s current production of Legally Blonde, The Musical – and I found the entire production to be a thoroughly charming exercise in the power and promise of community theater. Director and Choreographer Luis Ventura, teamed with Vocal Director Michelle Bahr and the rest of the production staff, about 30 cast members, the talented musicians in the orchestra pit, and two scene-stealing dogs deliver 2+ hours of high-energy silliness anchored by several excursions into serious themes including a plot-shifting “me-too” moment.

The story, in a clamshell: UCLA fashion design student Elle Woods (Malibu Barbie with backbone, if that helps to create the image) learns that her college sweetheart, the well-connected cad Warner Huntington III, is dumping her when he goes off to Harvard Law – he has presidential aspirations, and wants a wife who is “more Jackie, less Marilyn.” Determined to prove that she’s not just an empty-headed blonde, Elle miraculously manages to ace her LSATs, and to talk/sing/dance her way into Harvard Law by dazzling the admissions committee with an elaborate (if somewhat unlikely) musical number. Elle leaves her Delta Nu sorority sisters behind (sort of), packs up Bruiser (her pink-clad Chihuahua), and heads off to join the first-year law class with Warner. Warner has by now reconnected with Vivienne, an old pal (and serious brunette) who fits his “Jackie” image to a T and who has no interest in sharing Warner with a bubbly blonde.  Determined to recapture Warner’s heart, Elle goes off to a beauty shop to transform herself into a brunette, but the beautician, Paulette, talks her out of it. Elle and Paulette bond over their mutual heartache and love of dogs, and with Paulette’s advice, the support of teaching assistant Emmett Forrest, and an imaginary Greek chorus (Elle’s Delta Nu sisters) she not only aces law school, but saves the day with her brilliant defense of fitness queen Brooke Wyndham.  In the end, instead of changing herself into someone she’s not, Elle stays true to herself and in the process makes the world a lot brighter.

When I saw it on Easter Sunday, the show was by no means perfect – there were some unfortunate costume choices, a few muffed lines, and the occasional stumble during one jump-rope driven dance number – but none of this in any way diminished the audience’s enthusiasm for the production. 17-year-old Rachel Doyel is impossibly cute, perky, and naive as the irrepressible Elle Woods, yet she manages to capture the character’s intelligence and courage – her rendition of “So Much Better” is a show-stopping summation of the character’s growth and Rachel’s vocal chops. As TA Emmett Forrest, Max Powell creates a slightly nerdy alternate love interest from his first appearance, and the audience immediately roots for him to knock the shallow Warner (William Dober) out of his place in Elle’s heart.

I was blown away by Ami Erickson as the quirky, working class hairdresser Paulette. Her wise, downtrodden, slightly hangdog affect disguises a fundamentally optimistic core, she totally sells her big number (“Ireland”), and her comic timing and subtle accent make every line a winner. While he fills many roles, it is as UPS delivery guy Kyle B. O’Boyle that Nick Serrone really sparkles (and rocks his slightly-shorter than-standard issue UPS shorts).

A few other performances particularly stand out – don’t miss the uninhibitedly campy Zachary Centers’ white, white legs; his dance number with Kieran Thomas is downright hilarious. Brittany Bickel’s frenetic exercise queen Brooke Wyndham maintains an unbelievable energy level - I kept watching for signs of exhaustion but saw none. I loved the entire Delta Nu ensemble, especially Emma Heesacker, whose cheerleader “Serena” seemed to imbue the whole cast with her bouncy enthusiasm. Of course, the entire cast disappears whenever there’s a dog on stage, and Legally Blonde gives us two – audience favorite Parker Pup as the stately and obedient Rufus, and the exceptionally tolerant Mickey as tiny Bruiser, the Chihuahua with the killer costumes.

James Grimes’ set design is minimalist, in most cases barely suggesting locale (except for the flashy trailer exterior, which is essential to the development of Paulette’s back story). By using rotating sets, virtually no time is lost to scene changes, and this helps to keep the show’s length to around two hours. A quick look at the program makes it obvious that Legally Blonde is the product of a huge community of actors, musicians, techies, stage hands, directors and assorted helping hands, and TITG is lucky to have the kind of broad-based support needed to bring this much fun theater to local audiences.

Legally Blonde The Musical is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through May 5, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

One Enchanted Evening

By Tina Arth

I am hopelessly enamored of much of the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein – the stage musicals, the movies derived from some of their biggest hits, the songs, the themes – and thus entered the opening night performance of Broadway Rose’s A Grand Night for Singing shamelessly biased toward the production. Miraculously, Director Sharon Maroney and her team still managed to exceed my lofty expectations. The review wastes no time on exposition, makes no effort to provide show-specific sets, costumes, or context – and is thus able to pack 36 numbers (representing 39 songs, courtesy of a few medleys) from eleven Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. In just over two hours, we were treated to five wonderful vocalists, accompanied by Music Director Jeffrey Childs’ marvelous musicians, presenting a variety of songs from Allegro, Cinderella, Carousel, Flower Drum Song, The King and I, Me and Juliet, Oklahoma, Pipe Dream, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and State Fair – and I loved every minute. Special thanks to Dan Murphy for his curtain speech, where he pointed out to the audience that it is not a sing-along, and thus that the audience should consider it a grand night for listening – as it most certainly was.

The selection of shows and songs is somewhat counterintuitive – instead of a compendium of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest hits, performed as they might have been in the original shows, the review is seasoned with works from several lesser-known musicals. Even on the most familiar standards, gender switches help to frame iconic songs in an intriguing and original context that allows for a new appreciation. “Honey Bun” – a song designed for a woman pretending to be a man, sung by a man? Revolutionary!  The first verse of “Kansas City” sung by a woman? Will Parker would be shocked! “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” takes on a whole new slant when a guy in a tux replaces Mother Superior. Part of the fun for me was comparing the evening’s performances with the songs as I remember them within their full shows – don’t miss “Shall We Dance” and “This Nearly Was Mine” removed from their ethnic overtones, yet still evocative of the authors’ courageous willingness to tackle racial issues in their stories.

The vocal work is exquisite – lush harmonies, powerful solos, witty and original arrangements all conspire to keep the audience fully engaged. Caitlin Brooke’s just short of over-the-top take on “I Cain’t Say No” is beyond wonderful, and the “Stepsisters’ Lament” duet with Kelly Sina is a great showcase for both actors’ considerable comedic chops.  However, the women’s’ comic numbers get some serious competition from Joe Theissen and Joey Côté, whose “Don’t Marry Me” is staged and sung flawlessly. The light-hearted creativity of the marching band at the end of “Kansas City” is a perfect finale to one of the evening’s best numbers, but the show just keeps growing as Deborah Mae Hill follows with her powerful yet plaintive take on “A Hundred Million Miracles.” When the company sings together, there are lots of spine-tingling crescendos that make you look for the rest of the choir – there’s just no way five vocalists should be able to produce a sound that rich.  Half-way through “Some Enchanted Evening” I decided that life would not be complete until I saw Joe Theissen play Emile de Becque, a decision confirmed near the end of Act II with his stirring delivery of “This Nearly Was Mine.”
As much as I love A Grand Night for Singing, I must warn that it is best suited to people who are already in love with musical theater, and who have at least passing familiarity with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s massive oeuvre. Luckily, Broadway Rose has no shortage of fans in this demographic; expect lots of full houses throughout the run, with some shows already sold out.  
A Grand Night for Singing is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, April 28th.

Monday, March 25, 2019

LOoP Premieres We Met in Moscow

 Lindsey Lefler and Tom Hamann in a scene at the
Tchaikovsky Concert Hall Cafe in Moscow
By Tina Arth

Light Opera of Portland (LOoP) is offering a two-week world premiere of the new musical We Met in Moscow, a love story based on the actual experiences of Portland State University Professor Emeritus Ralph Bunch and his late wife, Eleonora Andreevna. Bunch commissioned LOoP Artistic Director Dennis Britten to write the book and lyrics, with music by troupe member Kevin Lay, and the show is directed by Britten with musical direction by Lay. I have co-written two musicals, and having survived the bizarre highs and lows of the seeing my babies exposed for the public, I know what a thrilling but excruciating experience it can be. The main thing I learned from the experience is that any musical is extremely unlikely to debut in its final form – for authors who are open to it, seeing their words and music through the eyes and ears of an impartial audience highlights the strengths and weaknesses in a way that table reads and rehearsal just cannot do. It was in that spirit that I approached the opening night of We Met in Moscow, and in that spirit I was neither surprised nor disappointed with the production.

The story is a lovely one – around 1990, middle aged PSU Poly Sci professor Richard Ballad is nearing the end of a long marriage marked by growing estrangement when he travels to Moscow, meets, and soon falls in love with one of Russia’s premiere computer scientists, Eleonora Andreevna. Both are still married, and when Richard returns to Portland neither has admitted their feelings for the other. The long-distance relationship gradually develops, helped along by Eleonora’s discovery of a rare viola in the Tchaikovsky Museum that Richard buys for his son Hanzo. Richard eventually takes a temporary teaching position in Moscow to be nearer to Eleonora. When Richard develops a near-fatal case of meningitis in Russia, Eleonora intervenes to get him the best medical care possible until he can safely return to the U.S. – but she is unable to get a visa to come with him, and they cannot marry until his divorce is finalized.  Instead, Eleonora moves to Vancouver, Canada, where Richard can visit regularly until they are finally able to be married.

Neither the songs nor the script are 100% ready for prime time, although the potential is definitely there. It’s a complicated story, and some of Britten’s dialogue is unnecessarily expository and repetitive – often we find the actors telling us how they feel, and why, instead of allowing the key points to emerge organically. Lay’s music is consistently lovely, but at times so complex that the orchestra and vocalists find it challenging to mesh – in fact, one of the show’s songs was deleted after the dress rehearsal. Twenty scenes (ten in each act) with lots of associated scene changes slow down the action, and the extensive use of audience-level platforms at the far right and left sometimes leaves us craning our necks to see what’s going on.

That said, the cast (many of them LOoP regulars) deliver some fine performances. As Eleonora Andreevna, soprano Lindsey Lefler handles even the most soaring high notes with aplomb, and she captures her character’s grim resignation as the Soviet Union is collapsing yet shows traces of real fire when love and hope come into her life. Tom Hamann (as Richard Ballad) provides a nice contrast – never having been denied freedom, he has more of an American “can-do” attitude, yet we see touches of the dulling effect his loveless marriage has on his (pre-Eleonora) life.  I think I might have enjoyed Linh Nguyen’s broad take on the teenage Hanzo had I been able to see him, but I was sitting front row, center and the placement of his key scene on a platform beyond and below stage left meant that even by craning my neck I could watch only his back. One of the finest moments in the show arrives in a Scene One flashback where Eleonora’s mother, played by Gabrielle Widman, comforts her nightmare tortured daughter with the haunting and beautiful “Lullaby for Eleonora.”

As always with LOoP productions, the vocal ensemble work is rich, powerful, and consistently lovely. Choreographer Rachel Brown has done an admirable job of crafting performers with wildly variable skill levels into competent dancers, although the stage gets dizzyingly full at times – this is a case where fewer dancers would yield greater results. Given the number of scenes (and the number of lamps on the stage) Carl Dahlquist does a remarkable job working the lights, so we can forgive him for one slight (and pretty funny) slip on a telephone sound cue (kudos to Widman for saving the day!). As mentioned, the show has a complex score, and conductors Kevin Lay and Becca Stuhlbarg ensure that the orchestra does full justice to Lay’s compositions.

Should you go? Yes, but only if you can bring an open mind to the fact that you are seeing a work in many ways in its infancy. The sometimes exquisite vocal and orchestral performances, combined with the bones of a beautiful love story, will be adequate justification for those interested in seeing a nascent work with so much room to grow.

We Met in Moscow plays Friday, March 29 and Saturday, March 30 at 7:00 PM and Sunday, March 31 at 2:00 PM at the Alpenrose Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Highs and Lows in HART’s Arsenic and Old Lace

Cast Photo

By Tina Arth

Although HART Theatre’s current offering of Arsenic and Old Lace is something of a mixed bag, the large opening night audience at Joseph Kesselring’s classic comedy laughed heartily throughout the show, and I am confident that audiences will share this enthusiasm throughout the play’s run. Director Sarah Ominski Kearney has drawn some superb actors who deliver tightly crafted performances, and the play’s great bones shine through despite a few rough spots.

The play was written in 1939 and premiered in early 1941, so while Germany and Japan were kicking up trouble around the world the US had not yet entered into WWII. All action takes place in a living room in Brooklyn, where sweet old spinsters Abby and Martha Brewster live in the old family home with their nephew Teddy. Mental illness does not run in the Brewster family, it gallops – Abby and Martha’s secret hobby is murdering lonely old men with their potent and poisoned elderberry wine, while Teddy (who believes that he is Teddy Roosevelt) helps by burying the bodies in the Panama Canal that he is digging in the cellar. Another nephew, homicidal maniac Jonathan, appears on the scene with Dr. Einstein, an alcoholic plastic surgeon whose recent attempt to alter Jonathan’s appearance has left him resembling Boris Karloff. And then there’s the hero, drama critic Mortimer, who has been spared the worst of the family’s murderous quirks (although there may be those who would argue that drama critics are monsters, too…). Mortimer is in love with Elaine Harper, the minister’s daughter who lives next door, but he worries about marrying her given his family’s unfortunate genetic heritage. Much of the play revolves around Mortimer’s attempts to shield his lunatic kin (except Jonathan – nobody likes him!) from an unforgiving world.

Diana Lo Verso and Robin Reece Michaels are everything you could ask for as the maiden aunts. Their timing, inflection, and wide-eyed innocence are utterly convincing and completely unselfconscious; nothing is overplayed or annoyingly stereotypical, and it’s worth the price of admission just to watch these two veterans ply their trade. Tony Broom completely commits to Teddy’s delusions, and watching him charge up the stairs (naturally, yelling “CHARGE’) and blow his bugle is guaranteed to perk up even the droopiest in the audience. Sarah Thornton’s “Elaine” is a fine mix of propriety and “minister’s daughter” freethinking; she manages to blend skepticism of her unusual neighbors and fondness for their quirks.

Tanner Morton draws a lot of laughs with his portrayal of Mortimer Brewster, and he captures the character’s protectiveness and affection for his family, indecision about Elaine, and frustration/disbelief as he learns about his aunts’ unfortunate hobby. Given the stress in Mortimer’s life, it’s not unusual that he flies off the handle – but I think his performance would be enhanced if he reeled in the volume and frenzy of his outbursts. Another strong comic performance that would benefit from a touch of restraint is Erin Bickler’s “Officer O’Hara” – she’s definitely funny, but her Irish cop affect is a bit too broad and distracting, especially when she intermixes touches of Scots with her Irish accent.

Master Carpenter William Crawford has delivered another of his striking sets – he is miraculously skilled at making the most of the limited space on the HART stage, and somehow manages to smoothly fit in the requisite number of doors as well as the all-important windows and staircase. However, I would have like to see a bit more set dressing – Crawford provided a fine palette that would provide a great backdrop for more of the tchotchkes and knickknacks that Abby, Martha, and their predecessors would have acquired and displayed over a lifetime in the family home.

Kelcey Weaver’s costumes are generally inventive – a nice mix of thirties/forties styling with the turn-of-the-century dresses for Abby and Martha, who clearly live with Teddy in the past. The gold-buttoned bibs that convert regular men’s suits into cop attire are especially creative, although the difference between the black bibs and the dark navy suits is a bit jarring. Three other tiny quibbles: I would have preferred if Michaels had followed Lo Verso’s lead and stuck with her natural hair, as the wig is just a little too obviously fake; Tyler Hulegaard’s single, oddly placed scar does little to convince us that he is a dead ringer for Boris Karloff (or any other movie monster); the program shows only one intermission, but there are actually two – and the second one is entirely unnecessary, only prolonging an already long show. The hair and makeup issues could both be resolved fairly easily – as, perhaps, could the spare intermission. One final note, on behalf of playwrights everywhere – a little proofreading might have caught the error in spelling Kesselring’s name on the cover!

While I found a number of small problems, HART’s current production definitely captures the humor and charm that has made Arsenic a staple of community and high school theater for decades.

Arsenic and Old Lace is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, March 31st, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

ROFL While Taking Steps

Christy Drogosch and Garland Lyons

By Tina Arth

Sunday, March 10: Lakewood Center for the Performing Arts was the scene of a small miracle – I saw a farce that I did not hate. In fact, I loved it! Alan Ayckbourn’s very British, utterly ridiculous Taking Steps, with a brilliant cast under the careful directorship of Brenda Hubbard, is simply hilarious. Although it may sound counterintuitive, clearly the trick to farce is to take it exceptionally seriously. Hubbard’s Director’s Notes specify that “as a form it requires great acting skill, a high degree of commitment to the moment, split-second timing and a certain kind of athleticism…” and the cast and director of this production delivered in spades. The result is an often side-splittingly funny show, deficient only in the plethora of “if only” moments that plague lesser attempts at the genre.

The story is satisfyingly absurd and revolves around six characters incessantly coming and going in a seedy three-story Victorian house that is reputed not only to be a former bordello, but also to be haunted by a long-deceased prostitute. Tenants Elizabeth and her husband Roland are in a mess – former dancer Elizabeth is in a stew, trying to decide whether or not to leave Roland, an alcoholic who has made his fortune in the bucket industry. Local builder Leslie hopes to salvage his flagging company by selling the house quickly to Roland – but he must have the approval of Tristram, Roland’s amazingly inept solicitor, to seal the deal.  Rounding out the cast are Elizabeth’s brother Mark and his ex-fiancée Kitty. Elizabeth has summoned her brother to comfort the soon-to-be abandoned Roland, but he is more concerned with convincing Kitty, who has been picked up for soliciting, that she should go through with marrying him.  The show’s title is, in part, an extended gag - all three stories of the house are actually presented on one level, so we are constantly watching characters mime climbing stairs, passing each other unnoticed on the (nonexistent) levels of the staircases as they move about. However, it also captures the indecisiveness of four very assertive, yet ineffectual characters and the real progress made by the seemingly meekest of the lot.

Christy Drogosch and Jeremy Southard, as the soon-to-be-split (maybe) Elizabeth and Roland, are a delightful mismatch. Drogosch reveals breathtakingly funny flexibility as she practices The Art of the Dance, literally bringing parts of the house down with her pretentious but awkward exercises and chattering incessantly with just the right faux-upper class, utterly self-absorbed British disdain for everyone around her. Southard as the cheerfully blustering and oblivious alcoholic does a fine job of growing gradually drunker in every scene, and he captures nicely the classless bonhomie of a formerly working class Brit who has made buckets of dough selling plastic buckets. Eric Nopom’s “Leslie” is at his best when we see the least of him – fully clothed and helmeted for his motorbike, he’s somewhere between The Fly and Darth Vader, but his lack of awareness gives the role a delightfully lighthearted menace. While Garland Lyons’ character, Mark, puzzles over why people always fall asleep when he talks to them, he has the opposite effect on the audience – whenever he opens his mouth we go on high alert to follow his circular reasoning and wait for the moment when his conversational partner nods off.
The real protagonists in Taking Steps are the hapless and loveable Shawna Nordman (Kitty) and Spencer Conway (Tristram). Nordman spends much of the play trapped in a wardrobe that can be taken to symbolize the entrapment of introverts in an extrovert’s world – her huge-eyed naiveté and halting delivery are perfect. Conway is so convincingly her male counterpart that we just know these two characters are meant to be together; their apparent inability to express their thought leads, ironically, to the only real communication in the play.  Conway’s tortured delivery and mobile face enhance the character’s crippling shyness, and make his final decisiveness, courage and decency all the more sweet.

The show’s production values echo the seriousness with which Hubbard has approached the show – Demetri Pavlatos’ set is gloriously dank, and even though the show is on one level we really feel that we have entered an attic whenever the action shifts to the “top” floor. Kurt Herman’s lighting also plays a huge role in both setting the mood and directing the audience to key moments and locations.

It’s impossible to express how utterly charming and hilarious I (and the rest of the audience) found this Lakewood production – do yourself a favor, grab a ticket, and see for yourself what can happen when farce is taken seriously!

Taking Steps is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, April 7.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Twilight Delivers an Elegant Elephant Man

Anna Hayes and Blaine Vincent III. Photo by Alicia Turvin.

By Tina Arth

Many of the community theater productions I see are in small ways weakened by oft necessary, but still jarring compromises. Gaps in an overall fine cast may be rounded out with the regular suspects, sets or costuming may bow to the strictures of budget, timing, or space, or the director and production team may recognize at the last minute that some small, missed detail needs to be figuratively swept under the rug – and I shudder to think how often the program is treated as an un-proofread afterthought. Playwright Bernard Pomerance’s lovely The Elephant Man deserves much better, and I was thrilled last Saturday to see the sensitive, precise and thorough treatment the show is being given by Twilight Theater Company. Director Chris Murphy clearly loves, and more important, understands both Pomerance’s work and the underlying true story of Joseph Merrick, and he has selected a cast fully able to bring his vision to the stage.

The play is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman afflicted with horrible deformities that led to his being displayed in a freak show as “The Elephant Man.”  Abused, robbed and abandoned by his manager, he was rescued by Frederick Treves, a young doctor who brought him into London Hospital where he lived for the remainder of his life.  From being an outcast, Merrick became a favorite of London society, with visits and gifts from many prominent citizens, including a meeting with Alexandra, Princess of Wales. The play in many ways adheres to the truth, but of course the playwright took dramatic license – beginning (quite inexplicably) by changing the Merrick’s name from “Joseph” to “John.”  While Merrick may, in real life, never have met the actress Mrs. Kendall (much less, seen her nude) he was supported, visited, and admired by a host of upper class Londoners, he was close to Treves, and his eventual death is tastefully, but accurately, portrayed. The core message of the show is not just Merrick’s tragic life, but also the reactions of the people who see him. To spare Merrick’s sensibilities, Treves required that there be no mirrors in his patient’s rooms – but in one key scene, a series of visitors seem to see themselves reflected in Merrick, with each of the visitors able to identify in Merrick qualities that they ascribe to themselves, so that each little monologue puts a mirror up to a flawed society.

The lead role is traditionally played without the use of makeup or prosthetics, and Blaine Vincent III does an amazing job of capturing both Merrick’s deformities and the man beneath with just his voice and body. The audience is transfixed as they watch the tall, sturdy Vincent transform, one feature at a time, into the grotesque character he will play for the rest of the show. Most remarkable is his ability to express emotion while keeping his face twisted into Merrick’s hellish grimace. 
Alec Scott Henneberger provides the perfect contrast – his Treves is a self-assured, physically and figuratively erect figure who is much more than just a physician – he is a friend and guardian. Henneberger radiates compassion and moral outrage, but still has trouble seeing his charge as an adult man with free will, and he captures neatly the lingering Victorian ethos that constrains his character.

Among the rest of the cast, the performance that demands mention is Anna Hayes’ portrayal of Mrs. Kendal. While her character is a famed Shakespearean actress, Hayes convinces us that Mrs. Kendal is not acting when she shows fondness and respect for Merrick, and she manages to make the nude scene sensuous and moving without even a hint of seductiveness.

I mentioned the attention to detail that made the show so powerful – one small but brilliant example is the tights on the three Pinheads. The tights were soiled and tattered just like one would expect in a tacky freak show – the type of costuming that subtly enhances the actors’ effect. Sets, lighting, and sound are similarly precise, and the net result is a genuinely elegant Elephant Man that demands full houses and standing ovations. Chris Murphy should be very, very proud of the show he has built on the Twilight stage.

Twilight Theater Company’s The Elephant Man is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, March 24, with performances at 8 on P.M. March 15, 16, 21, 22, 23 and 3:00 P.M. on March 17 and 24.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bilingual, Bicultural Moment at Bag&Baggage

Shelley B Shelley and Anthony Green

By Tina Arth

The Winter’s Tale is among the least-produced plays in the Shakespearean catalog, so I am sure my ignorance about this work put me among the opening night majority at Bag&Baggage’s world premiere of The Island in Winter or, La Isla en Invierno. The adaptation by Cuban-American student (and Hilhi alumnus) Carlos-Zenen Trujillo superbly captures the magic and heart of the original while bringing it squarely into the 21st century, with the author drawing on his own immigrant experience and expanding the story to encompass critical themes for our time in an accessible and charming tale.

While Trujillo’s adaptation encompasses many elements of Shakespeare’s original, the story is distinctly original. He retains some language from The Winter Tale, primarily as poetry, and the modern dialogue shifts fluidly between English and Spanish (with both English and Spanish surtitles projected as necessary). The story begins in the village of Santa Cecelia in post-revolutionary Cuba. Communist Party leader Leonte, consumed with unwarranted jealousy, drives childhood friend Polisteno back to his Miami home. In a classic kangaroo court, Leonte convicts and executes his wife Hermione, and orders his newborn daughter to be abandoned. From that point on, the story is full of typically unlikely Shakespearean plot devices – miraculous voyages, mistaken identity, love at first sight, comic relief from clown-like characters, orphans restored to their families and old friends reunited, all sprinkled with a touch of Santeria magic that brings the story to its poignant close.

Bag&Baggage founder Scott Palmer has just left Oregon for a new post in Idaho, and The Island in Winter is his last local directorial effort. His casting is flawless – with Assistant Director Yasmin Ruvalcaba, he has drawn an amazing, truly multicultural and bilingual team that does full justice to both Shakespeare’s original and Trujillo’s adaptation. Shelley B Shelley (Hermione) is an exquisite powerhouse who owns the stage whenever she appears, and captures her character’s fidelity and integrity with laser focus. Anthony Green’s Leonte, drunk on newfound power and tortured by jealousy, is the perfect counterpart – his emotional outbursts illustrate the fundamental weakness of an egotistical petty tyrant, and his ultimate shift to desperate repentance is equally believable.

Another quietly unforgettable performance comes from Yesenia Lopez’ “Paulina,” whose reactions to Leonte's erratic behavior illustrates the core power of a strong woman who refuses to be intimidated by male tyranny. Ricardo Vazquez delivers a complex Polisteno, and he nimbly shifts from carefree friend through the hurt of his unjust rejection, and from his Miami playboy persona to disillusioned drunk. Noel Alvarez Saname and Nicky Nicholson-Klingerman are able to quickly develop the essential infatuation that sets up the final scenes, and Nicholson-Klingerman’s “Perdida” is astonishingly believable as Hermione’s long-lost daughter – it is no stretch for the audience to understand why both Polisteno and Leonte recognize her immediately.

In a nice twist, the four clown-like characters are the show’s Anglos – Kymberli Colbourne and Peter Schuyler’s swamp dwellers and Arianne Jacques and Mandana Khoshnevisan’s Miami rich girls are hilarious parodies and provide several light touches in a sometimes dark tale.

Freila Merencio Blanco’s choreography and Melissa Heller’s vivid costuming are key to creating the show’s Afro-Cuban ambience. As with many shows in The Vault, set design is flexible and sometimes minimal, but Gabriel Costales’ lighting design and Lawrence Siulagi’s brilliant projection design create the necessarily lush environment; in particular, the rippling ocean waves are breathtaking.

Seating is limited by the set design for this must-see show – buy tickets soon or risk missing something really special. It’s hard to imagine a better farewell vehicle to honor Scott Palmer’s Bag&Baggage legacy.

The Island in Winter or, La Isla en Invierno is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through March 24th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees. 

Friday, March 8, 2019

BCT’s Diary of Anne Frank a Timely Reminder

Michael Rouches, Hayley Rousselle, Valarie Brown, Sarah Felder, Kraig Williams, Kate Donovan

By Tina Arth

One advantage of seeing a play again after a long time lag is that it can seem new, but when unexpected lines pop up it can be jarring.  Has the play changed, or am I entering my forgetful dotage years? When I saw Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production of The Diary of Anne Frank last weekend, I experienced several of these moments, and was relieved to learn that it wasn’t all me. BCT’s production uses Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 adaptation of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s 1955 script, and includes material from the original diary that was omitted from earlier versions of the play. The new script reveals sides of Anne’s character that make her much more complex and, more important, authentically adolescent – and gives the entire play a chilling immediacy.

For those (one hopes) rare theatergoers who are unfamiliar with the all-too-true story, a brief overview: during the depths of World War II, the Frank family fled Germany to escape Hitler’s brutal treatment of Jews. Their safe haven in Amsterdam was lost when the Germans overran the Netherlands, so the family (father Otto, mother Edith, and daughters Margot and Anne) went into hiding in a secret annex above Otto’s office building. They were joined by another family, Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan and their son Peter, as well as Mr. Dussel, a local dentist. Assisted by two Dutch Gentile friends, Mr. Kraler and Miep, who brought them both food and news of the outside world, they stayed in hiding for over two years, until they were discovered by the Nazis in 1944 and deported to concentration camps. Of the group, only Otto Frank survived the camps. For her 13th birthday, Anne received a diary, and she used it to record the experience – and this diary and the subsequent adaptations serve as a timeless warning about the horrors of racism and anti-Semitism in a totalitarian regime.

There is no shortage of talent on the BCT stage for this production, and Director Steve Holgate has drawn some really fine performances from a mostly veteran cast. I was especially moved seeing Hayley Rousselle (Anne) and Valarie Brown (Edith) play mother/daughter roles again seven years after they first teamed up in BCT’s 2012 production of The Miracle Worker.  It is wonderful watching Rousselle in the title role – she delivers a fine mix of youthful exuberance, adolescent angst, and budding sexuality, and definitely makes us believe that she is the kind of 13 year old who could have written the iconic diary. Brown amazed me with the subtlety of her performance – she manages, without histrionics, to convey the despair of their situation while maintaining a steely exterior, and it is abundantly clear that she understands the stress and power of maternal love. One of my favorite moments (from among a large pool) is the scene where Anne abandons the mother/daughter tension and really comforts her grieving mother.

One of the toughest roles is that of Margot, played by Sarah Felder. Margot is so quiet and restrained as the well-behaved older sister that she is in danger of disappearing around Anne’s gigantic presence – and Felder is so successful that her performance initially seems flat. However, as the play progresses we begin to watch her understated but strongly felt reactions to the hell around her, and to mourn the full life she will never have.  As father Otto, Michael Rouches is absolutely solid, calmly playing the role of peacemaker, confidant, and pillar of strength – which gives his anguished closing monologue additional power as Rouches strips away Otto’s mask and reveals his inner hell.

Patricia Alston’s portrayal of Miep is another sleeper – we don’t really know who she is at first, but by the time she brings Anne her new red shoes Alston really expresses the depth of her love and commitment to the prisoners in the annex. Jacob Alexander creates a thoroughly believable Peter, wracked by the awkwardness of a reclusive teen trapped with his less-than-loveable parents and a group of strangers – another of my favorite moments is the scene in the attic where he hastily (and poignantly) plants a kiss on the back of Anne’s head.

The set is generally effective – the limited space of the BCT stage is actually an asset, since the goal is to create a small, crowded space. Erin and Stacie Looney’s costume design nicely captures the era and social class of the characters, and Miep’s ability to change her clothes in different scenes highlights the difference between her life and those of the Jews in the annex. However, the lack of authenticity in the costuming of the Nazis is problematic – in trench coats and fedoras the three men simply do not express the ghastly menace of the deadly raid.

While there were some children in the audience, the show is probably inappropriate for many in the younger set – parents may want to explain things in advance and gauge their kiddos’ reactions before bringing them to the theater.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank runs through Saturday, March 16th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sunday, March 10.