Friday, September 27, 2019

Marjorie Prime – Primo!

Jeff Giberson and Julisa Rowe

By Tina Arth

While I generally restrict my reviewing to a core set of theaters located either in Washington County or closely tied to the local community, I do occasionally wander out of my geographic and physical comfort zone to see what’s going on in the rest of the vast Metro area theater scene.  I had one such adventure last Sunday, when I had the pleasure of seeing Missing Link Theatre Company’s production of playwright Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime at the Headwaters Theatre in NE Portland. The show sent several powerful messages, not least of which is that theater folk in Portland will find a way to carve a performance space anywhere! The Headwaters is an amazing facility – intimate, a bit primitive, way off the beaten track (unless you count railroad tracks), but dedicated to providing an affordable meeting, rehearsal, classroom, and performance venue to a vibrant and diverse arts community always in search of space.

Now – on to the play. I loved it. According to the all-knowing Internets, Marjorie Prime belongs in the science fiction genre, but it definitely did not feel that way to me. Maybe when the play was written in 2014, the technology that frames the show would have been perceived as futuristic, but not today. Instead, what the audience gets is a powerful drama about love and loss and grief and memory and despair – a beautifully scripted and acted show so moving that I found myself in tears on the way home, grateful that I had gone alone so that I could process my reaction in private introspection.

The story begins with an 85 year-old widow, Marjorie, who is in the grip of early-stage dementia. To help her stay engaged with the world, her daughter Tess and son-in-law Jon have provided her with a lifelike robot (a Prime) representing her late-husband, Walter (in his younger years). “Walter” is programmed by hearing stories about himself and his relationships (both from Marjorie herself and from her family), so the reality he represents is a hybrid of fact and fantasy. In particular, painful memories are left out and pleasant ones enhanced and even fictionalized. As the family history is explored, Tess is forced to recall and confront some frightening truths about her own life, and the hard truths of mortality. The actors provide a gripping unbroken 90 minutes of watching the onion of memory peeled away that forces the audience to contemplate our own pasts and futures.

In his performance as Walter, Dan Fitz weaves a graceful path between human and automaton – very kind and naïve, but without the creepiness sometimes found in humans playing machines. He sets the tone for subsequent Primes (it’s not really a spoiler to say that he’s not, ultimately the only Prime in the house). Lani Jo Leigh is a heartbreaking Marjorie, and she gives her character a fine mix of optimism, confusion, and despair. When Marjorie is seen as a Prime, the transformation calls for subtlety but must still be unmistakable, and Leigh negotiates this path masterfully.

Julisa Rowe delivers a tense, troubled “Tess” whose difficult relationship with her mother in the present telegraphs the hidden pain in their past. Like Leigh, Rowe eventually appears altered to Prime form; having seen the transformation once, the audience needs only a nudge to follow along with the shift, and Rowe captures just the right physical and emotional affect.

Ultimately, the show belongs to the outsider, Jeff Giberson’s “Jon.” He is written as the most sympathetic character, and Giberson simply nails it. As a son-in-law he is a step removed from the drama of Tess and Marjorie’s earlier lives; relieved of the tension inherent in parent-child relationships, he can be thoughtful and loving as he watches and participates in the programming of the Primes. It is through his eyes that we observe the changes in his loved ones, and we feel, with him, the peril of a technology that seems to offer eternal life but is shown to be hollow promise. The honesty and pain in his final scene are so powerful that we are simultaneously drawn into his world and compelled to confront new truths within our own.

Eve Bradford’s set design is simple and stark, a nice reflection of the cold world in which the characters find themselves.  Costumes for Tess and Marjorie are carefully chosen to reflect their changes – nothing too dramatic, but just enough to mirror the requirements of the script.

Director Donovan James has done a fine job with a complicated story, and the end result is a show that speaks to people of all ages, in all stages of their lives. If that were not reason enough to trek to the wilds of NE Portland, James’ director’s notes provide another. I have not encountered a more charming, quintessentially Portland expression of a director’s vision for the play and life!

Missing Link Theatre Company’s production of Marjorie Prime is playing at the Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut #9, Portland with performances September 26, 27, 28 at 7:30 pm.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Lakewood's Flashy, Bold Rocky Horror Show

 Norman Wilson, Colin Stephen Kane, and Christine Greenhalgh

By Tina Arth

Although I was right in the middle of the target demographic, I somehow completely missed one of the biggest pop phenomena of the 1970s, Richard O’Brien’s original The Rocky Horror Show (and the subsequent Rocky Horror Picture Show), until decades later. By the time I got around to seeing the movie, I was calcified enough to be utterly mystified by the show’s cult status, and my first exposure to the live show enlightened me not at all.  When I entered the theater to see Lakewood’s current production, I was curious to see how aging another decade would affect my perception. Determined to give the show a fair chance, I blew $5 on the special participation goody bag, promised the woman at the ticket booth that I and my guest (a Rocky virgin) would dance the Time Warp in the aisles, and made my way into the theater. A couple of hours later, two very happy women bopped out to the car, convinced that we’d seen one of the best things live theater can offer.

I won’t try to describe the story - those of you who have seen the show before don’t need it, and Rocky Horror virgins wouldn’t really understand – you just have to be there. Leave it at this – The Rocky Horror Show, which made its London debut in 1973, is a high camp musical tribute/parody of cheesy sci-fi and B horror movies from the 1930s through 1960s, with an abundance of transsexual/transvestite themes and a hearty dose of adult content, but no overt nudity. After the show was made into a movie (1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show) it achieved international cult status, and Rocky fans (often in elaborate costumes) continue to flock to periodic revivals. Willingness to dance in the aisles is a plus. If you think this sounds fun, then you’ll have a great time, even if you stay in your seat. If you aren’t sure, then by all means give it a chance – you’ll probably be glad you did. If it still doesn’t work for you, give it another decade and try again!

Norman Wilson is beyond wonderful in the lead role of Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter, the most outré mad scientist in the history of, well, everything.  From the moment he appears, his non-stop singing, dancing, strutting, grimacing, and leering tell you that you are in for something special - and he has with no apparent concern for the ankle-threatening peril of the sky-high stilettos extending his long, long fishnet-clad legs.
Of course, Wilson doesn’t do it alone – the stage is brimming with talented Transylvanians and Phantoms, and the narrators (the imperious Lisa Knox and her sinister sidekick, Rick Warren) keep the story marginally on track.  Colin Stephen Kane (Brad) and Christine Greenhalgh ((Janet) play the newly affianced couple who stumble into Frank’s spooky lair with the marvelous naiveté of cheap fifties horror ingénues, and it’s a real treat watching them shed their inhibitions (and clothing) as the show progresses.  Special props to Alec Lugo (Riff Raff), Paige A. Hanna (Magenta), and Michaela George (Columbia) for drawing the cast and audience into an unforgettable “Time Warp.” Cade Holbrook (Rocky Horror) is not only spectacular eye-candy (for the audience, and for Janet with her awakening libido) but also a fine actor, who carries off his role’s wide-eyed, innocent machismo with real flair.

What else is wonderful? Start with the musicians – this is, after all, a rock musical, and under Darcy White’s direction the tiny band makes a lot of beautiful noise. The Rocky Horror Show also rises and falls on the strength of its sets, costumes, and choreography, and Director John Oules assembled a crack production team. Costumer Jessica Miller dresses and bewigs her cast with glorious abandon, Kevin Paul Clark’s choreography shifts neatly from between frenetic and sinuous, and Maria Vieno Edwards’ set design is both stunning and functional – the staircase, balcony, and curtained doors provide a perfect backdrop for Frank and Rocky’s dramatic entrances, and create just the right Victorian/Goth/Glam ambience.

Two pieces of advice: (1) if you go, get the goody bag – it really helps to transform even staid audience members into active participants, and (2) be like Brad and Janet – forget that you’re in the middle of Lake Oswego and shed your inhibitions!

The Rocky Horror Show is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, October 13th.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Smell of the Kill - Live Sitcom?

Deone Jennings, Sydney Winbush, and Myhraliza AalaPhoto by by Alicia Turvin

By Tina Arth

Michele Lowe’s The Smell of the Kill, which premiered in 1999, is a tightly written, funny show, but in many ways it is an extended 20th century sitcom. It’s hard to imagine that even two decades ago the play wasn’t seriously dated – in fact, there are a couple of scenes where it’s way too easy to imagine that Lucy and Ethyl have teamed up with Peg Bundy to put some serious hurt on Ricky, Fred and Al. Luckily for the audience, Twilight Theater Company director Jeannie Rogers found skilled comediennes who can deliver the kind of fast-paced verbal and visual gags typical of the genre, so the evening draws a satisfying number of laughs.

The story is predictably implausible – three college pals (Danny, Jay and Marty) and their wives (Molly, Nicky and Debra) get together for dinner once a month, so that the (unseen, but not unheard) men can behave like idiots offstage playing golf in the living room, torturing the cat, and harassing their wives with pre-Mad Men level chauvinism and immaturity. This month they are at Nicky’s upscale home in elegant Wilmette, Illinois, where all is not well – Jay has been indicted for a $7,000,000 fraud, Marty is playing grabass with every woman in sight except his wife Debra, and Danny is smothering Molly with his over-the-top, obsessive adoration. While the men throw a toddler-level tantrum demanding dessert, the women crack wise and fume; when the men accidentally (?) get stuck in the basement meat locker, the women contemplate how long it takes to freeze a husband.

Deone Jennings is quite wonderful as the crisp, cynical, casually murderous Nicky – her timing and delivery milk each line for maximum comic potential. Sydney Winbush provides a lovely contrast, playing the stunningly ditzy Molly whose biological clock is running several years too fast. These two comic powerhouses get the best material (and underwear – there is no nudity, but blouses are shed with abandon), leaving the role of dowdy, loyal Debra the doormat to Myhraliza Aala. Aala is touchingly out of touch, arguing passionately for spousal loyalty before she reveals that Marty has betrayed her more even completely than Jay betrayed his erstwhile employer.

The director and production team made a few odd choices in designing The Smell of the Kill that left me scratching my head. The entire show takes place in the kitchen of a home allegedly worth over a million dollars, but nothing in the set speaks to that level of elegance, and the solid door between the kitchen and the (unseen) living room left me unsure about whether the men were inside or out for most of Act I. During the actual play, I suspect that the audience is never supposed to see the men, yet we caught sight of Jay for a brief moment. There are three men listed in the program, but one (Jason Santos) did not come out for the bows – was he even there? When Debra is tied up and gagged, the towel is shoved in her mouth but not tied around her head – why doesn’t she just spit it out? These are all small points, but taken together they showed what, to me, felt like a lack of attention to detail.

That said, The Smell of the Kill is still a damned funny show, thanks to the three women who do pay close attention to every aspect of their roles. The show offers no great political or psychological insights, but plenty of diversion, and is well worth a trip to North Portland and an evening of your life.

Twilight Theater Company’s The Smell of the Kill is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through September 22, with performances at 8 P.M. on Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday.  There is also an 8:00 PM performance on Thursday, September 19.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Mask&Mirror Heads Down the Nostalgia Road with Charlie Brown

Elizabeth Eckstein, Ellie Rooker, Julie Schaber, Lonnie Duran, Adriana 
K. Gomez, Jayna Cloud. Photo by Forrest Gardner

By Tina Arth

Mask&Mirror’s latest family-friendly production is You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on the comic strip “Peanuts” by Charles M. Schulz. Clark M. Gesner provides book, music, and lyrics, with additional dialogue by Michael Mayer and additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. This much-produced show provides a touch of fun and nostalgia – a fine break from the personal and global crises all around us. While its target audience will always be children, the show is most familiar in 2019 to adults who grew up with the comics and TV specials – however, it’s great to introduce today’s kiddos to the gentle humor of Schultz’s world. Director Rick Hoover and Music Director Cindy Green have molded an all-ages cast into a well-oiled machine that delivers the dialogue, choreography, and songs essential to the play.

There is really no story – just two acts of vignettes that define the main characters of the Peanuts world – Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Sally, the Naturally Curly-Haired Girl, and of course the iconic Snoopy. The addition of a group of little yellow birds evokes Woodstock while allowing the company to feature some younger children in the cast.

Lonnie Duran delivers a wonderful Charlie Brown, every bit the downtrodden, insecure and anxious kid who, against all odds, just keeps trying. His eyes light up with fleeting optimism time after time, and his whole body just collapses with each failure.  Adriana K. Gomez is an appropriate foil as Charlie’s most consistent critic, the bossy Lucy that only a brother could love. Jayna Cloud is touching as Lucy’s younger brother Linus, the youngest yet wisest of the group. One of the best solo musical numbers goes to Ellie Rooker (Sally), whose “My New Philosophy” is a comic highlight. Of course we cannot forget Snoopy – Julie Schaber – who works her principal props (the food and water bowls) like a pro, and is particularly memorable when she goes after the Red Baron.

The lead vocals are surprisingly and uniformly strong, given the vast disparities in age and experience among the cast, and the vocal ensemble work is especially powerful. I do hope that the production team is able to find the limiter on the sound system that will allow modulation – the main cast members all wear head-mounted microphones, and when I saw the show the result was frequent spikes in volume well beyond what’s comfortable in the space.

Hoover’s set design is appropriately simple – just a brick wall and curtain backdrop with essential props like the doghouse, piano, and a few benches that can be easily moved around to streamline set changes. Costumes are equally simple – it doesn’t take much more than cartoon-worthy dresses for the little girls, Charlie’s iconic yellow t-shirt, and the essential dog suit for Snoopy (plus his WWI fighter pilot accessories when appropriate).

Mask&Mirror has opted to provide matinees on both Saturday and Sunday – a clever strategy to maximize attendance by children. For me, the show is a bit like Disneyland – best appreciated when seen through the eyes of a child!

Mask&Mirror’s You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs through Sunday, September 22 with 2:30 matinees on Saturday and Sunday and 7:30 p.m. performances on Friday and Saturday at the Main Stage at Calvin Church, Tigard.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Up for a Challenge? See Reunion

Doug Sellers, Steve Koeppen, and Brandon B. Weaver

By Tina Arth

Local audiences who think they know what to expect from HART’s offerings will definitely be surprised by Reunion, the Hillsboro theatre company’s opening salvo in a busy fall season. Playwright Gregory Moss’ tale of three high school friends meeting up at their 25th high school reunion seems, at first, like just another buddy story – overaged bros trying to recapture their high school heyday long after they should have grown up – but it gradually descends into a gripping mixture of comedy and drama that carries the audience on disturbing emotional roller coaster. While the story ultimately doesn’t deliver many new insights into the human condition, this production is still well worth a few hours just for the opportunity to watch three actors deliver powerful performances that create three compelling and absolutely distinctive characters. Director Meghan Daaboul and her team leave nothing to chance, and the show’s success derives from that close attention to detail.

Peter, Max, and Mitch get together after their reunion in the same grubby, suburban Boston-area motel room where they spent their last night night together – the night of their high school graduation.  Starting with a cooler full of Rolling Rock and moving on to the hard stuff, the men eventually descend into the same rowdy inebriation that led them to trash the room years earlier – with similar results. Uptight recovering alcoholic Max unwinds as he falls off the wagon, while the eager and easily manipulated Peter tries to please all of the people all of the time, including the wife he has left at home with a sick baby. The ringmaster is Mitch, a grimy loser who still lives in his parents’ home and who has orchestrated the evening’s events for his own reasons. As the night wears on they tear down the barriers imposed by 25 years of separation, and revisit a past remembered very differently by each man. The stories that emerge are not pretty, revealing the dark underbelly of male bonding rituals and gradually revealing the extent to which each character has moved on from his adolescent drama and trauma.

Brandon B. Weaver creates a wonderfully repressed, conflicted Max, clearly reluctant to reconnect with his old buddies and the memories they threaten to resurrect.  Steve Koeppen, as third wheel Peter, initially projects a pathetic nerdiness, but his character gradually evolves into the grownup in the room. His monologue about always feeling like an outsider makes him surprisingly relatable, and is one of the most moving moments in the show. Doug Sellers is easy to hate as the tough guy, still playing the bully 25 years later – but his total denial is colored with just enough pathos that we are able to sympathize when he opens up at the climax. The show’s chronology dictates that the three men should be about the same age (in their early 40s) – it is a testament to the skill of the performers that we are able to suspend disbelief, since two are clearly well over a decade older.

The carefully crafted performances are supported by precision in costume (Doug’s ruffled shirt is worth a thousand words), sound, and lighting. The detailed set captures the time and place perfectly, dressed for a grubby realism without a hint of parody.

Given its usual patrons, HART probably would not survive in Hillsboro if shows like Reunion were the norm – it’s just not what local audiences are used to. However, it’s a powerful show that demands respect for the strength of the performances and production values. The program warns of explicit adult content, strong language, strobe lights, tobacco, and alcohol – all things to consider, but no reason for audiences to stay away if they are up for the challenge.

Reunion is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, September 22nd, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.