Monday, February 17, 2020

HART’s Midwinter Midsummer Night’s Dream

Sam Roberts and Kelsey Ion. Photo by Bob Morrison.

By Tina Arth

Valentine’s Day is the ideal time to open Shakespeare’s classic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a show where love is in the air everywhere: a dose of magic helps four couples find love, while a fifth couple dies tragically, but happily does so within the bounds of an absurdly comic play-within-a-play. The decision by directors Tyson Redifer and Chris White to present a story set in ancient Athens with a pervasive steampunk motif was risky, but on the whole it works surprisingly well; rather than interfering with the coherence of the play, the set design, costumes, lighting and sound actually serve to clarify elements of the Bard’s absurdly convoluted story.

How convoluted? Well, start with the impending marriage of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, former queen of the Amazons. Add in Egeus and his disobedient daughter Hermia, who is determined to marry Lysander but has been promised to Demetrius. Want more? OK – there’s the frustrated Helena, who is Hermia’s best friend and madly in love with Demetrius, who only has eyes for Hermia. For reasons that really don’t gel completely, Helena attempts to curry favor with Demetrius by revealing to him that Hermia and Lysander plan to meet in the forest and run off together. Of course, the forest is filled with magical fairies and their own drama – in particular, the estrangement between Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, over Titania’s refusal to cede her ward, an Indian changeling, to Oberon as his special henchman. Oberon conspires with the spritely Puck to use a potion that will cause Titania to fall in love with the first thing she sees, which turns out to be Nick Bottom, a foolish actor who has been given (by Puck, naturally) the head of an ass. Using the same potion, Puck mistakenly causes Lysander to fall in love with Helena, who thinks he is mocking her with his protestations of love. Enough? I’ve barely touched on the Mechanicals, a troupe of traveling actors who hope to perform at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta (remember them?). Things generally work out OK in Shakespeare’s comedies, and this one is no exception – by the end of Act 5, we are not only granted three weddings and a reconciliation, but the Mechanicals get to put on their play!

Mention of Act 5 should give a clue that this is a long show – 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. The pacing is fairly tight, so the show doesn’t drag, and the simplicity of the set plus the revolving center work well to eliminate lengthy scene changes. In fact, my biggest problem with the show is just the opposite – some of the cast, seemingly unfamiliar with the dialogue and rhythms of Shakespeare’s work, spit out their carefully memorized lines much too fast, making it tough to understand the words or catch much of the author’s Elizabethan wit.  It’s not universal – several of the actors, including but not limited to Sarah Nolte, Sam Roberts, Kira Smolev, Francis Kohler, and Kelsey Ion, know exactly what they are doing and how to do it, and these skilled performers really help to anchor the cast and keep the audience in the loop.

Humor plays a huge role in keeping the audience engaged, and there are some really fine moments. Expect a massive dose of physical comedy in the forest scenes, in particular between Kohler (Lysander), Ion (Helena), Roberts (Demetrius), and Emma Heesacker (Hermia). The show ends with some huge laughs for Lucas Ray (Francis Flute) – he’s not terribly memorable in earlier scenes, but when he goes in drag as the love-stricken Thisbe he is genuinely hilarious. Scenes between Smolev (Titania) and Frank Robinson (Nick Bottom) work well, and even when masked he sells his role as a genuine ass.

Credit for sound design is given to Jeremy Ollis, Mike Stafford, and Leslie Inmon – and their work really enhances the show. The projection of prerecorded voices is smooth and well handled in the tech booth, as is the synchronization of light and sound in several key scenes (be warned, as we were before the show started, that there are some loud noises and bright flashes of light).  Costuming by Kira Smolev, Karen Schlecht, and Mary Gow is frequently inspired – the contrast between fairies with their colorfully lighted wings and Athenians in steampunk finery helps to cleanly distinguish between the real world of Athens and the magical realm of the fairies, and Robinson’s mask (by Phyllis Lang) provides an interesting bridge between the two. Smolev and Mark Putnam (Oberon) make full use of their magnificent capes, which clearly mark them as being well above the run-of-the-mill fairies, and Sarah Felder is quite memorable in the eye-catching attire that sets her apart as the mischievous Puck.

In sum, the show is lively and entertaining, but suffers from some uneven performances – not unusual in community theater, but still worth noting. Redifer and White’s vision as directors plays out reasonably well, and they do a respectable job of incorporating the unusual steampunk and electric elements into the show.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, March 1st, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Experience the Experience Theatre Experience!

Richard Cohn-Lee, Lydia Fleming, and Eric Island

By Tina Arth

For a couple more weeks, local audiences will have the opportunity to check out (and participate in) the unique staging of Experience Theatre Project’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as adapted by producing director Alisa Stewart. If you’ve never attended one of the Experience shows, be prepared (and forewarned) – it’s not for the kind of timid theater-goer who wants to sit back and watch from the anonymity of fixed seating, safely removed from the actors and the story. Instead, the audience is truly immersed in the action – they interact with the actors and move somewhat freely around the “stage” – a Wild West saloon setting (complete with fake whores, poker games, and a real working bar – a nice perk!) and a second space that serves as a dry goods store, a laboratory, the main street, even the great outdoors. There’s plenty of seating on benches and at tables, but you’ll need to be prepared to move when the performers need the space you’re occupying – best to wear comfortable shoes and travel light!

While the core of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story is retained, moving it from Victorian London to the Wild West calls for significant alterations – and Stewart’s vision (be sure to read her director’s note) injects new characters, plot lines, and themes well beyond the change in locale. In the Experience version, Henry Jekyll is the trusted doctor in a bustling little frontier mining town. Many of the migrants have been lost to disease, including Jekyll’s wife and son, and the good doctor is grief-stricken about his inability to save them. After extensive experimentation, he perfects a potion that allows him to create a second persona, Mr. Hyde, in whom all of his negative emotions reside. Of course, as in Stevenson’s original tale, Dr. Jekyll is ultimately unable to control his dark and evil alter ego, and the fledgling town has to cope with a series of murders that bring terror and anguish to the locals by the story’s end.

The revised/expanded story line brings in new characters, and Experience found some solid performers to fill the roles.  Erik Montague brings a winning, youthful impulsiveness to his portrayal of Hiram, a love-struck miner desperate to wed his lady, and the chemistry between Montague and Lydia Fleming (as his intended, Cecily) is charming and believable. Fleming is really quite wonderful in perhaps the most complex role – she does young love, dutiful daughter, abuse victim (pre-me-too by over a century), and twice grief-stricken with consummate skill and grace. Eric Island (as Cecily’s father Hastie, the town sheriff and owner of the general store) delivers another fine performance, and Adria Malcolm is thoroughly believable in the gender-bent role of lawyer Jane Utterson. There are several skin-crawling moments with the devious Reverend Danvers, played with unctuous virtuosity by Matt Ostrowski.

In the Experience Theatre Project adaptation, Jekyll’s role is still significant but by no means dominant. Richard Cohn-Lee finds the right touch, giving the role an almost nobly tragic tone in lieu of the decadence of Robert Louis Stephenson’s original vision for his subject. The entire ensemble, faced with the challenge of interacting directly with the audience, stays in character and cheerfully draws the spectators into the action whenever possible, especially during the pre-show and intermission periods.

Experience Theatre Project is unique among local groups in its quest to present “immersive, dynamic productions which engage the audience,” and the current offering definitely fulfills this mission. Both the actors and the audience are required to move just a bit out of their comfort zones, and the result is a meaningful experience for all.

Due to adult themes and language, this particular show is not appropriate for young audiences. The website cautions that patrons who plan to take full advantage of the beer and wine offered at the bar use public transit, grab a rideshare, or bring a designated driver.

Experience Theatre Project’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plays at the Beaverton Masonic Lodge, 4690 SW Watson Avenue, through Sunday, February 16th with performances at 7:30 Fridays and Saturday, 2:00 pm on Sundays.