Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Man Who Came to BCT

 Jayne Ruppert, Chuck Weed, and Peter Bolger

By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s ambitious fall offering of The Man Who Came to Dinner is a huge show in many respects. Start with the playwrights – Pulitzer Prize winners George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who teamed up on this and several other much-loved works of the American stage.  Add in a massive cast, with 23 players who fill 32 roles. Top it off with a l-o-n-g script - it’s a sprawling, three-act comedy with two intermissions, three hours plus of lots of dialogue peppered with countless laugh lines and a hefty dose of physical comedy (Kaufman also wrote for the Marx Brothers, and it shows). Director Matt Gibson must have faced some profound challenges when it came time to cast his show – a classic laden with a few dream leads and lots of hilarious supporting roles that inevitably draws a plethora of eager and able auditioners, and he managed to snag a few of the area’s best comic actors for his show.

The play is set in the late 1930s in the upscale Stanley home in Mesalia, Ohio. The story (and the universe, in the opinion of the main character) revolves around the plight of Sheridan Whiteside, an utterly self-centered radio personality on a speaking tour who injures himself slipping on ice outside the Stanley home. Soon after the Stanleys bring him into their home to recuperate, they discover that Sheridan is the houseguest from hell. The Stanleys take refuge upstairs after Sheridan takes over their living room, den, telephone, and staff for the two-week period leading up to Christmas morning. When not kvetching at his long-suffering assistant Maggie, berating his nurse and doctor, and offering unsolicited advice to family members, he entertains a series of guests including several paroled ex-cons and some extraordinarily eccentric show biz types. While he thoroughly alienates Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, he does bond with the two Stanley children, the bizarre Aunt Harriet, the household staff, and local newspaper man/aspiring playwright Bert Jefferson. When Maggie finds romance with Bert and the two become engaged, Whiteside commits the ultimate transgression, using subterfuge to break them up rather than lose his assistant.  Act III is laden with surprises, and things work out pretty well, but with a final twist that leaves the family and the audience with a parting groan.

With such a large cast it’s only possible to recognize a few of the actors – starting with Chuck Weed’s fun and flexible take on Whiteside. As illustrated by his choice of friends/allies, Whiteside has no tolerance for Mid-Western pretentious mores, and Weed does a lovely job of switching between snidely pompous iconoclast, manipulative and overbearing boss, and enthusiastic supporter of the different, downtrodden and powerless (artists, actors, household help, children, and criminals). Erin Bickler’s Maggie is pitch-perfect as the brash, wisecracking assistant who takes a lot but never buckles – she reminds me of such 30s/40s comediennes as Joan Davis.

Two local comic heroes, Les Ico and Daniel Rhovan, live up to their hype and then some. Ico’s “Banjo” (Groucho? Harpo?) is a marvel of timing, delivery, and physicality – well worth waiting for, as he doesn’t appear until late in the play.  Rhovan is equally memorable as the flamboyant “Beverly Carlton” (based on Noel Coward). Virginia Kincaid once again earns my “most disturbing” award as Aunt Harriet – another character with a big Act III payoff. Speaking of Act III payoffs, watch Patricia Alston as actress Lorraine Sheldon, who has clearly earned her loose-living reputation as well as her final disposition.  For me, the real sleeper comic performance comes from Jayne Ruppert as the harassed yet stoic nurse, Miss Preen. Ruppert finds just the right level of deadpan desperation, and her restraint pays off with a solid round of applause when she finally lets it all out.

Director Gibson places 100% of the action in a detailed living room set, which allows him to eliminate lengthy scene changes that could slow down the action, and his pacing is brisk. Pam Taylor’s costume design is particularly effective, nicely capturing the 1930s era; the women’s dresses are particularly accurate, and lend a lot to the ambience.

Be prepared - even with minimal scene changes, The Man Who Came to Dinner is still a long show. I noticed a few audience members leaving after each intermission – a terrible decision, in my opinion, since Act III pays off so well – hang in there!

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The Man Who Came to Dinner runs through Saturday, November 23d at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sundays.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Lakewood’s Lovely Shakespeare in Love

Murri Lazaroff-Babin and Kelsey Glasser

By Tina Arth

Hats off to Lakewood Theatre Company for the sheer variety of their fall offerings – closing Rocky Horror on October 13th and opening Shakespeare in Love on November 1st shows remarkable respect for the resilience of their audience! The overall excellence of both productions is really the only thing they have in common – but isn’t that really all we need? If you loved the Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman movie version (Best Picture, 1998), then you will be equally charmed by Director David Sikking’s presentation of playwright Lee Hall’s stage adaptation. If you have not seen the movie, you’ll be all the more surprised at the wit and originality of the story (and you should still find a way to see the movie – I’m now scheming on locating it online or On Demand for another viewing).

The story is absurd, and rarely attempts historical accuracy, but it is laden with sly hints about Shakespeare’s future as an author, and includes scenes that express a lot of truth about the playwriting and theatrical rivalries of the Elizabethan age. The tale begins with a young William Shakespeare in the throes of crippling writer’s block. His latest play (a comedy with the unlikely title of Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter),is overdue, and the impoverished author has already sold it to two different theaters. He needs a muse, and finds one in the fair (and very wealthy) Viola de Lesseps, destined for an arranged marriage to Lord Wessex.  She nurses a private yen to be an actor, a career path closed to her due to her social station and gender (no women were allowed on stage), so in classic Shakespearean fashion, Viola disguises herself a man; it is in that guise that she wins the lead role in the as-yet-unfinished play.  Will and Viola (as herself, not her male persona) fall madly in love and lust, but the fates interfere – in addition to the utterly brutish Lord Wessex, there is the small matter of Will’s wife. The whole story comes wrapped in romance and humor, accented by a host of wonderful moments with other characters, including playwrights (Burbage, Marlowe), Queen Elizabeth and, even better, an actual dog!

Kelsey Glasser and Murri Lazaroff-Babin are captivating as Viola and Will. Their chemistry grows slowly, but by the end we really feel their pain as they stoically follow their preordained fates.  Other fun performers include Ruth Jenkins (Viola’s Nurse), Michael Streeter (a dignified if somewhat indignant Burbage), Murren Kennedy’s doomed Marlowe, and Alec Lugo’s powerful and powerfully detestable Wessex. Olivia Shimkus is hilariously tight-lipped as the Queen, and equally funny when she gushes over the fair Eliza (appropriately typecast as Dog), and Chris Murphy (in various roles) is not to be missed – watch for a larger-than-average Londoner with a killer glare.

Even by Lakewood’s lofty standards, John Gerth’s scenic design is spectacular - evocative of the grimy back streets of 16th century London yet flexible enough to allow dignified entrances for the Queen, and with levels for both horseplay and swordplay. Margaret Louise Chapman’s costumes are superb – not overdone, but definitely detailed enough to establish the time and place.  For a non-musical, the show has a lot of singing and dancing, and the cast does a fine job with Kemba Shannon’s choreography – at times the activity is so intense that the scene seems on the verge of chaos, but it is all carefully controlled. I was particularly enchanted with Rodolfo Ortega’s musical direction and sound design – at times the music magically infused the whole theater, and the vocal harmonies were so precise and subtle that I had to watch the players’ lips to see that they were actually singing.

Luckily for prospective audience members, Shakespeare in Love has a long run and there are lots of performances still to come. I highly and happily recommend this little jewel as a great way to kick off the holiday theatrical scene!

Shakespeare in Love is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, December 8th. Ticket information is available at

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Mask & Mirror Has Fun With Leading Ladies

Jeff Ekdahl and Kira Smolev
Photo by Tony Smith
By Tina Arth

Does the world need yet another production of yet another “men in drag” farce? Mask & Mirror explores this question with its current production of Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies, billed as the playwright’s “love letter to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.” The answer is, at least to me, clearly no – but at the same time, this kind of theater is a marvelously therapeutic way to get away from CNN (or Fox News – name your poison) and remind yourself of the critical role of laughter in troubled times.  The story is predictably silly; on opening night, director Janet Steiger Carr and her cast definitely milk it, generating two acts of repeated laugh-out-loud moments from an appreciative audience.

The story is set in the 1950s; Leo Clark and Jack Gable (get it? Clark Gable!) are down-on-their luck British Shakespearean actors who find themselves broke and stranded in York, Pennsylvania, a couple of hundred miles but light years away from the bright lights of Broadway. Learning that elderly Florence Snider has left her substantial estate to niece Meg and two missing heirs, Max and Steve, the two men decide to impersonate the missing nephews and claim 1/3 of the loot. Naturally, things get complicated - first, Aunt Florence is still alive and kicking, and second, Max and Steve are actually women, Maxine and Stephanie. The eager Leo and a very reluctant Jack raid their theatrical costume trunk and arrive at the estate in drag, pretending to be the missing heiresses. Leo quickly becomes enamored of his “cousin” Meg, who is inconveniently engaged to a very austere local minister – but his ability to woo her is inhibited by the fact that he’s posing as a woman. Of course it all works out in the end (except, perhaps, for two discarded suitors – Jack also falls for Meg’s friend Audrey).

Kira Smolev’s take on heroine Meg is superb – she’s cute, expressive, and just wacky enough to sell the role without being annoyingly dumb.  Jeff Ekdahl’s Leo is a smooth con man, high-toned verging on supercilious until he falls for Meg and finds his true character – and his “Max” is an eccentric, pushy drama queen who flips the hair on his/her long black wig with abandon. Ted Schroeder is the polar opposite – awkward, negative, cautious as Jack, and clearly uncomfortable with his female persona – a discomfort amplified by the fact that he is supposed to be deaf and dumb.  Schroeder does a terrible job of impersonating a woman – but fortunately, that’s exactly what he is supposed to do.

Stan Yeend, in the comparatively small role of inept local medico Doc Meyers, delivers the surprise standout performance of the evening. His timing, inflection, and facial expressions reflect his real mastery of comedy; he is coarse, a bit sly, and consistently hilarious. Mark Putnam is staid to the point of rigidity as minister Duncan Wooley, Meg’s extremely uptight fiancĂ© – it’s easy to understand why she so readily dumps him for Leo once the gender deception is revealed.

No discussion of this production is complete without a heaping helping of praise for the set, with design credit shared between John Knowles, Don Scorby, and director Carr.  Kudos also to set dressers Cindy Zimmerman and Roni Sidman – the end result of their efforts is an attractive, detailed set that provides a great backdrop for the action. Costumes are also the product of collaboration, and the result is sometimes lovely (like Smolev’s red dress) and sometimes funny (like Schroeder’s bloomers).

I would never suggest that Leading Ladies is a brilliant show, or that the Mask & Mirror production is flawless – but it’s solid, undemanding farce that delivers laughs where it should.

Mask & Mirror’s Leading Ladies runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through November 17th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.