Sunday, February 24, 2013

Red Herring—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland

A Trip Down Memory Lane

The latest show at ART is Red Herring, a NW Premiere by Michael Hollinger, directed by OSF’s Christopher Liam Moore and designed by long-time OSF designer, Richard L. Hay.  It plays in their small theatre, which is located at SW Alder & 16th Ave., and runs through March 17th.  For further information, contact them at www.artistsrep.org and/or call 503-241-1278.

It was the 1950’s, not the best of times, nor the worst of times.  Like a spicy stew, it had the H-bomb, film noir, the Red Scare, blacklisting, the Iron Curtain, Mickey Spillane, G-men and spies.  All the ingredients for a very dark trip down the intricate and winding path of human foibles.  But it also contained IKE, soap operas, Ozzie and Harriet, cars with fins, Rogers & Hammerstein, and the American Dream.  In Red Herring, we enter this comic strip world, for better or worse, till the 60’s do we part.

The plot has many of the above mention devices.  Once upon a time, there may have been a heroic, G-man, named Frank (Leif Norby), who fell in love with his partner Maggie (Val Landrum).  Into this world there also may have been two young lovers, a naïve young girl named Lynn (Amy Newman), who would do anything to win the man she treasured, James (Joshua J. Weinstein), a budding physicist.  But there may also be dragons, in the guise of a mysterious landlady, Mrs. Kravitz (Vana O’Brien) and her equally intriguing husband/boarder/partner (?), Andrei (Michael Mendelson).

But the fairy tale journey becomes a bit more rocky, as we discover that Frank’s main squeeze, Maggie, has a checkered past.  Or, that the young lovers are not as pure, or as patriotic, as we assumed.  And that the dragons may have a “pinker” tint, as they search for a “cheesey” solution that may just bring down all the kingdoms.  In other words, things are not as they seem.  And, that the layers of love, deception and compromise are, indeed, a many tangled thing.  To tell much more of the intricate plot might spoil the story.  But, let me conclude this part by advising that the term “red herring” could be a fish but, in storytelling, it is, in short, a false clue.  Enough said.

The play is labeled by the author as a “fable about marriage.”  It also has elements of a spoof…and a farce.  In short, the main stumbling block on this intriguing highway is deciding  what genre it is.  If it is a farce, it should be played more broadly by the cast, like a Moliere play.  If a spoof, it is a subtler comedy, and should have elements of nostalgia, of homage to an era, like High Anxiety.  If a fable, I would expect a storybook setting, as in Sleeping Beauty.  The actors and director strive mightily to find the happy medium.

The acting is wonderful throughout.  Ms. O’Brien (a long-time, local veteran of the stage) seems to have found the right mix of humor.  Whenever she’s onstage, you are watching her.  She plays an assortment of characters, all of them spot on.  And Mr. Mendelson (another veteran) is super in all his incarnations and accents.  He is equally adept at playing the broader humor of the play.

Ms. Newman has very much the right look for the part.  And her other composite characters are also well portrayed.  Mr. Weinstein is adept, too, at changing his demeanor for his other stage selves, especially good as the priest with dueling confessors.  Ms. Landrum has the right look and sense for her character and plays it with determination.  But, as written, her character seems a little out-of-step with the view of women in the 50’s (aka, the happy homemaker, Donna Reed).  And Mr. Norby (also a veteran) definitely has the right look-- steely-jawed--and manner of the hard-boiled detective of that era.  He plays it with all the bravado and conviction of the male ego of that period.

The inventive direction by Mr. Moore keeps the play moving but without sacrificing the understanding of the story.  And, hats off to Mr. Hay, for his very elaborate, and yet simple set.  It is essentially a bare stage with lots of little nooks and crannies to mask and expose, as needed, the various elements of the locations.  And the coloring looks like B&W line drawings from a comic book of that era.  Bravo, Mr. Hay, you’re extraordinary!

I would recommend this show.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.  And, a side note, you should not miss their next show, The Gin Game, a two-character play, which has the impeccable acting talents of Allan Nause and Vana O’Brien.