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.