Thursday, January 31, 2019

Twilight’s Equus a Wild Ride

Skye McLaren Walton and Lydia Ellis-Curry. Picture by Alicia Turvin

By Tina Arth

Twilight Theater Company is kicking off its 2019 season, “In the Buff,” with Equus, playwright Peter Shaffer’s powerful and evocative exploration of the conflict between fierce passion and societal expectations of a “normal” life. The script, themes, and essential nudity make it an especially challenging play to stage in a community theater setting, but veteran director Tobias Anderson and his cast surprised me with the fluidity and accessibility of the production.

The story, condensed: child psychiatrist Martin Dysart is suffering from a psychic malaise, in the throes of what he calls “career menopause.” At a particularly low moment, court magistrate Hester Salomon asks him to take on the inexplicable and horrible case of Alan Strang, a boy who has blinded six horses by stabbing their eyes with a hoof pick. He grudgingly agrees, and slowly breaks through the boy’s defenses while the boy simultaneously breaks down Dysart’s. As Dysart begins to understand Alan’s bizarre motivation, he finds himself drawn to the emotional vibrancy of the boy’s erotically complex religious devotion, fascinated and even a bit envious of the intensity with which Alan experiences his obsessions. By shifting frequently from the present to a series of flashbacks involving Alan’s parents, his adolescent experience with horses, and his one sexual experience with a girl, the audience share’s Dysart’s enlightenment and develops some empathy, if not sympathy, for the disturbed boy as well as the troubled therapist who is reluctant to psychologically neuter his patient in pursuit of a cure.

Three standout actors move Equus, which could otherwise be a bit dry and pretentious, into the “don’t miss” category. First by a mile is Skye McLaren Walton, who commits to the role of Alan with an unforgettable, burning intensity that draws us in and commands our attention whenever he takes center stage. Lydia Ellis-Curry, as Alan’s quasi-girlfriend Jill Mason, is thoroughly engaging throughout – her eyes sparkle and her ponytail swings with good-natured mischief as she playfully introduces Alan to her equine world, and she creates an image of healthy human exuberance in stark contrast to Alan, Dysart, and Alan’s painfully dysfunctional parents, Dora and Frank Strang. In the climactic scene, Ellis-Curry clearly demonstrates the difference between “naked’ and “nude” in the completely natural, graceful absence of self consciousness, or even overt eroticism. The third, and strangest, compelling performance is given by Jeff Giberson, who delivers a silently powerful presence as Nugget/Equus, the horse who is the center of Alan’s psychosexual obsession. With little more than his regal stature, an eerie mask, and the occasional stamp of a hoof, Giberson shows the audience the majestic, godlike beast as seen through Alan’s eyes.

Greg Prosser and Rebecca Morse are self-righteously annoying – exactly what they need to be as Alan’s rigidly screwed up parents, and Christopher Massey’s dry, sometimes pedantic performance as Dysart clearly illustrates the absence of passion in his life, while offering occasional glimpses of the man he would like to be. A small point, but worth noting – Christy Quinn (as one of the horses) is definitely the best prancer in the tiny herd.

Jim Butterfield’s simple barn of a set, when combined with Robin Pair’s intricate lighting design, allows the audience to follow the moves between hospital, home, and barn with no set changes beyond a couple of constantly moving benches, and seating all secondary characters (including horses) along the sides of the stage when they are superfluous enhances the surreal feel of the production.

I cannot, in all honesty, say that Equus is an “enjoyable” show, at least in the usual sense of the word. However, it does a fine job of illuminating some key facets human condition, with special attention to issues surrounding the treatment of mental illness, and if offers some truly memorable performances – I am definitely glad I went. Due to mature themes and language, violent imagery, and nudity, it is clearly appropriate for mature audiences only.

Twilight Theater Company’s Equus is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through February 10, with performances at 8 P.M. on Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday. There is also a performance at 8:00 P.M. on Thursday, February 8.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Broadway Rose’s Nunsense – Glorious Nonsense!

By Tina Arth

Remember the good old days, when a musical comedy was a comedy with lots of music, and a good musical comedy was a really funny show with lots of really good music? By this rather antiquated standard, Broadway Rose Theatre Company’s production of Nunsense is a really, really good show.  Fortunately, I am a rather antiquated reviewer. Truth be told, I have sometimes been underwhelmed by the sequels in what has become the Nunsense franchise, so seeing the original (for the first time!) at Broadway Rose was a real eye-opener for me – the show is utterly charming, witty, and flat-out hilarious. Director Sharon Maroney made some spectacular casting decisions, undoubtedly helped by the fact that the company’s sterling reputation generally gives them access to the cream of the region’s musical theater artists. However, Maroney didn’t have to look far to find a surprising, and surprisingly effective, Reverend Mother (aka Sister Mary Regina) – her husband, the inimitable Dan Murphy.

The premise is that a group of nuns from the Little Sisters of Hoboken convent are staging a fundraiser. The convent ran into serious financial difficulty when Sister Julia, Child of God, inadvertently poisoned 52 nuns with a bad batch of vichyssoise. They sold greeting cards to raise money to bury their unfortunate sisters, but when the Reverend Mother spent part of the money on a 70” TV they came up a bit short, and were forced to store the last four nuns in the convent freezer. It is abundantly clear that the health inspector will not approve. Under the directorship of the Reverend Mother, four talented nuns (second in command Sister Mary Hubert, Brooklyn born wisecracking Sister Robert Anne, the mysterious Sister Mary Amnesia, and novice Sister Mary Leo) are putting together a benefit variety show (on the set of the parochial school’s upcoming production of Grease) to save the day. The show is packed with nun jokes, of course, and thus especially funny for practicing and lapsed Roman Catholics with a high tolerance for irreverence occasionally verging on questionable taste, but it’s also loaded with truly boffo secular humor – who can resist lines like “for 52, bon appetit was also bon voyage”? Add in some pre-show jokes and an audience quiz (with cool prizes like a St. Christopher medal, mass cards, even a Pope-on-a-Rope) and the stage is set for a couple of hours of seriously fun theater.

The entire cast shows remarkable restraint, playing their roles somewhat straight and allowing playwright Dan Goggin’s 1985 script to sell itself (aided by their considerable vocal and terpsichorean talents, music director Jeffrey Childs’ piano/bass/drums trio, and a liberal dose of appropriate updating to keep the material current). An especially solid choice is Murphy’s decision not to play the Reverend Mother like a drag queen – he uses his natural comic skills (the glue sniffing scene made me just a little bit high) in place of mincing, tittering, falsetto and makeup, and the result is a terribly funny character who doesn’t upstage the other actors with exaggerated parodies of femininity. Danielle Valentine (Sister Robert Anne) uses the same light touch, adorning her quest for leading lady status with a gentle Brooklyn accent instead of going over-the-top – but she holds nothing back in her marvelous delivery of “I Want To Be A Star.”

The role of second in command, Sister Mary Hubert (the only nun whose aspirations are more religious than theatrical), is ornamented by the elaborate vocal stylings of Antonía Darlene, who is solid throughout but simply soars in Act II’s “Holier Than Thou.”  Broadway Rose veteran Laura McCulloch uses her fabulously mobile face and huge eyes to create a truly memorable Sister Mary Amnesia, she nails her solo star turn in “I Could Have Gone To Nashville,” and her “duet” with the puppet Sister Mary Annette (“marionette” – get it?) is the cherry on top of her performance. Last, but by no means least, is Malia Tippets’ attack on the role of the naïvely optimistic Sister Mary Leo, who believes that she is destined to be the first nun/ballerina. She is a delight throughout, and proves in her heart-wrenching “Dying Nun Ballet” that tutus are optional when God’s on your side.

Costume designer Grace O’Malley’s job may have seemed simple – after all, it’s just a bunch of habits, right? However, these particular habits give lots of room for dancing, space for hidden puppets, a Flying Nun headdress, and other surprising qualities not found in the average convent attire, and really add an extra dimension to the show. Special notice is also due to Jeff Forbes’ lighting design, as well as the skilled spot light operators (student interns Amy Beery and Isaiah Hollingsworth), whose creativity, timing and precision are essential.

Warning – the word is out, and many shows are full or nearly so – ticket buyers should consider non-weekend performances and move quickly!

Nunsense is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, February 24th.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Steel Magnolias Blooming in Forest Grove

Emma Heesacker, Leslie Inmon, Anne Kennedy,  Patti Speight,  Yelena King, and Robin Reece Michaels
Photo credit to Nicole Mae photography

By Tina Arth

“Camaraderie” - one of the most frequently misspelled words in the English language, and the only word in the English lexicon really adequate to describe the relationship between the six characters in playwright Robert Harling’s heart-tugging dramedy Steel Magnolias. Done well, this show not only captures the essence of the bond between the cast members, it also forges a bond with the viewers. Director Jason Weed and the Theatre in the Grove crew have provided their stage full of stars with just the right environment to achieve this goal, delivering both laughter and tears on stage and in the audience.

The story is set in Truvy’s beauty shop in Chinquapin, Louisiana, and covers almost three years in the lives of six tough Southern women. The ship is run by effusive and maternal Truvy, whose mantra is “there’s no such thing as natural beauty,” helped by shy newcomer Annelle, who quickly becomes a fixture in the shop, Truvy’s family, and the group. Throughout the first scene, the other four gradually wander in – wealthy widow Clairee, looking to establish a new identity to replace “mayor’s wife,” followed by the mother-daughter team M’Lynn and Shelby. It’s Shelby’s wedding day, so she gets the first appointment, and the bickering between mom and daughter quickly establishes a key theme – diabetic Shelby’s quest for independence from a hovering and protective mother. Last to arrive is the perennially irate Ouiser – like Truvy, her heart is gold, but she keeps it well hidden and shows overt warmth only to her poor old dog. Over the course of four scenes, we experience love, marriages (past and present), religion, hope, illness, and death through the eyes of this curious and diverse sisterhood.

Leslie Inmon (Truvy) plays her down-home, small-town Southerner with just the right touch – never a stereotype, always a tribute to simple, kind women who hold the world together with their open hearts and open doors. As newcomer Annelle, Emma Heesacker cycles beautifully through her character’s complex evolution from lost waif to sassy assistant and beyond. Just when we think we’ve got her figured out, she joins the local Baptists and temporarily drains all of the joy from her character, but by closing she has achieved balance and regained her spark. Robin Reece Michaels (Clairee) and Anne Kennedy (Ouiser) play the older generation with eccentric Southern élan – Michaels’ twin obsessions with football and accessorizing are a complete contrast to Kennedy’s almost slovenly attire and faux-misanthropic sarcasm, yet the underlying bond between the two pulses throughout.

As M’Lynn, Patti Speight navigates the tricky waters between love and pride in her daughter’s beautiful spirit and the fear of a protective mother lioness – terrified about threats to her baby, she sometimes lashes out in anger, but when Shelby’s blood sugar precipitates a crisis she shows us exactly why she feels she has to express her love through rigid control. Finally, there’s Yelena King as the lovely, fragile, yet tough-as-nails Shelby. King is charming throughout, and carries the audience along on her journey to live life to the fullest despite the risks. King’s character is often center-stage, but even when she’s on the periphery she never stops acting, giving her character a dynamic reality and creating a deep bond with the audience.

While the show is set entirely inside the salon, the outside world frequently intrudes through Leslie Crandell Dawes’ sound design, and the requisite barking, gunshots, and ringing phones are timed and executed to perfection. As with most Theater in the Grove productions, the set is authentic, detailed, and functional – the bright checkerboard floor, in particular, sets the stage for the whole atmosphere of the show, and was the first thing I noticed when I walked into the theater.

Steel Magnolias is one of those iconic shows that, done well, really moves the audience, and Theatre in the Grove’s production pays off in spades – you will laugh, of course, but come fully expecting to cry. You will not be disappointed.

Steel Magnolias is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through February 3d, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Saturday, January 19, 2019


Kathleen Silloway and Jalena Montrond Scott
Photo by 
by Katherine Roundy

By Tina Arth

Mask & Mirror was hit with every company’s worst nightmare last week, when their production of Doubt, A Parable lost its male lead to emergency surgery four days before opening. With only two-week run and no understudy waiting in the wings, Director Aaron Morrow made the only rational choice and stepped into the role, reasoning that at least he was very familiar with the script, knew the blocking, and was intimately acquainted with the director’s vision. At Thursday night’s dress rehearsal, it was clear that the show is a labor of love for all concerned and that the (we hope temporary) loss of a lead will not be allowed to cripple the production.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 work is a chameleon-like tale of suspicion, conviction, strength, pragmatism, racism, institutional chauvinism, and, of course, doubt. Set in a Catholic school in 1964, it tells the story of a fierce conflict between the school principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, and the parish priest, the charismatic Father Brendan Flynn. Father Flynn gives a stirring sermon on doubt that alarms Sister Aloysius, who suspects that the priest has inadvertently revealed his own personal weaknesses. Her suspicions are heightened when young Sister James reveals that 12-year-old Donald Muller, the school’s first and only African American student, had met alone with Father Flynn and returned to class somewhat dazed and smelling of alcohol. Based on the her years of experience and her instincts, fueled by her unshakeable mistrust of almost everyone, Sister Aloysius concludes that Father Flynn has developed an inappropriate relationship with Donald, and she desperately seeks a way to either expose the errant priest or at least get him removed from the parish. Sister Aloysius has a series of confrontations with Father Flynn, Donald’s mother, and Sister James, leading the audience through a roller coaster of reactions and leaving us with a muddy, thought-provoking picture of a troubled and sometimes dysfunctional Church as well as a mother doing her best to protect her son the only way she can.

Amelia Michaels does a fine job as the naïve, idealistic young nun who has no adult experience of the outside world. Michaels is convincingly unable to comprehend the possible evil around her, and she deftly manages to look up to her superior without accepting Aloysius’ dark worldview.

The other three roles (Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius, and Mrs. Muller) are so dense and meaty that they demand audience scrutiny of every word, gesture and look in order to discern the characters’ motivations. Kathleen Silloway (Aloysius) is exactly the nun she needs to be – stern, upright, an immoveable force who will not be deterred from her path of righteousness. At times she simply quivers with outrage, yet she never completely loses it (at least, not until the closing scene). Jalena Montrond Scott (Mrs. Muller) is absolutely awe-inspiring – watching her in the intimacy of the Heritage Center is like getting a master class in acting. Her riveting performance led me through a series of emotions as she gradually revealed her complex motivations, and she left me contemplating themes well outside the show’s central thesis. I can never completely comprehend the challenges of raising an African American child (in 1964, or in 2019) but I know a lot more now than I did before I saw her on stage.

Aaron Morrow’s accomplishment is not in giving a brilliant performance as Father Flynn (simply not an option, given the timing and the nature of the role) but in delivering a credible performance that in no way detracts from the overall power of the play. He disguises the fact that he’s still on-book with notes for a sermon and a handy Bible, and rarely reveals that he is reading his lines. Some of the best bits involve subtle physical power struggles (like his casually taking over Aloysius’ desk whenever he enters her office) and powerful emotional outbursts, and Morrow handles both with ease.

One small complaint, perhaps easily remedied – the sound design overall is fine, but the simulation of wind is confusing (it sounds like some kind of odd feedback) and unnecessary, since the windstorm in question happened the night before.

With only a two-week run, there are very few opportunities to see Doubt, and it is definitely worth 1.5 hours of your life (not counting the hours you’ll spend after the show, contemplating what you’ve seen). This is another of the UnMasked shows that might benefit from an audience talkback, if the actors are willing.

Mask & Mirror’s Doubt, A Parable is playing at The Tualatin Heritage Center, 8700 SW Sweek Drive, Tualatin, through Sunday, January 27, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 on Sundays.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Dial M for Murder at Lakewood

Heath Koerschgen, Jacob Lee Smith, and Clara-Liis Hillier
By Tina Arth

If we know the who, the why, the where, and the how of a murder, how can it still be a mystery? Lakewood Center for the Arts’ production of Frederick Knott’s classic 1952 Dial M for Murder answers the question with a smart, elegant show that keeps newbies guessing while offering Dial M veterans the fun of watching for tells. Director David Sikking and his able cast ensure that the now 67-year-old play retains a contemporary flavor, despite changes in mores and technology in the intervening years.

The key to this elegant murder mystery is just this: will the villain be caught, and if so, how? Urbane retired tennis champ Tony Wendice tries to pull off the Holy Grail of crime – the “perfect murder.” The intended victim is his wealthy wife Margot, who has ended a brief affair with American TV writer Max Halliday. While Max (now relegated to the friend zone) is visiting, Tony conspires with an old school acquaintance, the corrupt Captain Lesgate, to do the deed (thus ensuring that Tony will inherit Margot’s substantial estate).  The action speeds up when Tony and Max go out for the evening, leaving Margot home alone and a perfect target for the assassin. Things go exactly as planned until the end of Act I, when Tony’s plot goes horribly awry. Act II is devoted to unraveling the murderous mess, helped along by Halliday’s imagination, a classic bumbling detective, a purloined letter, a mass of cash, inexplicably unlocked doors, and other nifty plot points to keep the audience on its toes.

Jacob Lee Smith handles the role of Tony with a light touch – charming, but not so smarmy that we initially hate him, and he smoothly lets his dark side shine whenever Margot’s back is turned. Clara-Liis Hillier is vulnerable, sensitive and sincere as Margot, and her palpable fear makes her battle with Lesgate (Tom Mounsey) a white-knuckle ride.  Heath Koerschgen (Max Halliday) really shines in Act II, as he glibly uses his screenwriter background to construct an elaborate, Hollywood-worthy explanation of how the crime might have played out – and he gives the role a subtlety that left me hard pressed to spot the point at which he starts to take his fantastic scenario seriously.

From the moment I saw Don Alder (Chief Inspector Hubbard) awkwardly kneeling in the doorway, I knew I was watching the authentic archetype for a universe of Columbo-like detectives – slightly clueless, but never an over-the-top buffoon, until he finally shows us (and the rest of the cast) the brilliance of his intellectual sleight of hand. The entire cast (except Koerschgen, the American) adroitly delivers their dialogue in the requisite, class-appropriate British accents.

John Gerth’s scenic design does a fine job of (literally) setting the scene – detailed, elegant, immediately conveying the upper-crust world Tony so enjoys (courtesy of Margot’s wealth). Grace O’Malley’s costumes fill the same role for the actors – I was especially taken with Tony’s shiny suit and Margot’s peignoir, but the hemline on Margot’s first dress is somewhat disconcerting.  Special props to Jeff Forbes’ lighting design – there is no change of scenery, yet the set is never static and the mood shifts nicely through the use of darkness and light.

Dial M can seem like a long show, but director Sikking paces his actors and uses all of the tech at his disposal to keep the audience fully involved, and he does full justice to Knox’s brilliant, tightly plotted show.  Despite the disappearance of phones with actual dials, Lakewood’s current offering is every bit as engaging and fun as in any of its previous stage, film, and television incarnations.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

2019 Open with STAGES’ Blockbuster Les Misérables

Photo by Frank Hunt

By Tina Arth

As we open 2019, I cannot imagine a better time for passionate young people to take to the stage for a powerful show about sacrifice, honor, and social justice – in other words, for Hillsboro’s STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy to present the school edition of Les Misérables. Director Luis Ventura and Musical Director Erin Riha have managed to attract a truly first-rate group of young actors (age range is 13 to 18) and molded them into a dynamic ensemble accented by powerful lead performances that do full justice to Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo story. For those not already immersed in the world of Les Mis fandom, the story is complex and sometimes confusing, moving from Digne to Montreuil to Paris, and from 1815 to 1823 to 1832 – all with no spoken dialogue. However, when the words “Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me…It is the future that they bring, when tomorrow comes!” ring out, it’s impossible to miss the passionate relevance of the tale – I could not help but think of the kids from Parkland. In short, this cast made me care about the characters and the story – high praise from someone who is, in general, not a Les Mis fan.

In a nutshell: 19th century France is wracked with poverty and social inequality. Hero Jean Valjean is released on parole after 19 of his 20-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. He breaks parole, infuriating Inspector Javert, who becomes obsessed with seeing Valjean punished. Valjean assumes a new identity, becomes a wealthy factory owner, and learns that one of his employees, Fantine, has been unjustly fired and driven to prostitution to support her daughter Cosette. Fantine dies, but Valjean vows to take care of Cosette. Valjean pays a handsome price to free Cosette from the evil Thénardiers, but is forced to reveal his real identity and flee from Javert. The Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine loves young student Marius, who falls for Cosette. Marius could flee with Cosette and Valjean, but chooses to stay to fight on the barricades with fellow idealistic rebels. The students capture Javert as a spy, but Valjean shows up, shows him mercy, and releases him. As the barricades fall and the rebels are massacred, Marius is severely wounded, but Valjean finds him and carries him through the sewers to safety. Javert dies, Cosette and Marius are wed, Valjean dies. People sing a lot, followed on opening night by a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation from a full and enthusiastic house.

Isaac Chapelle (Jean Valjean) is a real find – an accomplished vocalist who makes the challenging role seem effortless, whose robust vocals can be easily heard over the music, and who is a skilled enough actor bridge the 17-year gap in his age from prologue to closing (despite a less-then-believable beard). The show would be worth attending just to watch him, but he is ably supported by the other leads and a versatile ensemble cast. Three key women (Anna Brenner as Fantine, Ruth Hailey as Cosette, and Sherwood’s Rachel Doyel as Éponine) bring amazing vocal chops to the stage, owning their roles and giving heart-breaking authenticity to their stories.

Benjamin McGregor and Noelle Parent as the despicable Thénardiers offer spectacular comic relief, going close but never completely over the top. Zakeus Vertner seems like a classic loveable scamp as Gavroche, yet he creates a character who evokes an audible gasp when shot on the barricades (for me, the most “Parkland” moment of the show).  With my apologies to the rest of the cast – there were several other notable performances – I must single out ensemble member Annika Hyatt, who gave remarkable intensity to a series of minor roles.

Sets, costuming, and lighting all exceeded my expectations for a youth performance by a mile, and a close look at the program makes it clear that it took a village to mount this amazing production. STAGES founder Cindy Williams, along with Ventura and Riha, have given 30 young performers the chance to perform in a beautiful “bucket list” show that should nurture their love for theater while showing the world that youth theatre can rival, and even best, many adult productions. Currently, all performances are sold out.

STAGES production of Les Misérables is playing at HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro through Sunday, January 20th, with Friday and Saturday sows at 7:00 PM and Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM.