Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Adrift In Macao—Broadway Rose—Tigard, OR

Dark Cinema

This musical tribute to film noir is written by Christopher Durang and music by Peter Melnick, directed by Isaac Lamb, choreographed by Dan Murphy and music direction by Mont Chris Hubbard.  It is playing at their new space at 12850 SW Grant Ave. in Tigard.  For more information, go to their site at www.broadwayrose.org or call 503-620-5262.

The term film noir literally means what my heading proffers, film of the night or darkness.  This type of cinema usually was told in flashback, with a voice-over narration by the anti-hero, a femme fatal,  a comic side-kick, a floozy with a drug/alcohol problem, assorted dumb bad guys, assorted dumb law types, a mastermind criminal (usually not revealed until the last reel), dark and foggy settings and various, nefarious characters lurking in the background.  A perfect surrounding for homage to the film noir era.

If that doesn’t inform you as to what you’re in for, then try this:  Bullshot Crummond meets Casablanca meets Hitchcock meets Maltese Falcon meets …Roger Rabbit.  We encounter the mysterious loner, Mitch (Michael Morrow Hammack), who wanders into the exotic Macao one day with a score to settle with a master criminal named MacGuffin (a parody in the name itself).  He checks into a “gin joint,” which is run by the duplicitous, Rick (Gary Wayne Cash) Shaw (think about it).  Among Rick’s regulars is his sometimes ditzy, main squeeze, Corinna (Danielle Weathers), who loves “nose candy,” and his number one man and piano player, the exotic, Tempura (Gene Chin).

Rick also employs a sexy, cigarette girl, Daisy (Olivia Shimkus) and a handy bartender, Joe (Joey Cóté).  The all have their secrets and to add even more spice to this sizzling array of misfits, in walks the alluring Lureena (Pam Mahon), a dame to be reckoned with.  She immediately takes over the star spotlight as the lead singer, booting Corinna to the less desirable job of “blowing on the dice” for customers.  It is soon evident that Rick and Mitch are sweet on Lureena but she is playing hard to get.  It is also obvious that Rick has more than a café to run and is into some shady business.  And why is this piano player always lurking in the shadows…questions that will have to be viewed to be answered because, after all, this is a mystery.

The time might be the early 50’s and the setting in Asia but the songs and music seem timeless.  The whole cast have very strong voices.  The stand-out deliveries in song are “Mambo Malaysian” with Weathers as a Carmen Miranda-type; “Rick’s Song” wonderfully done by Cash; “So Long” belted by Mahon; and “Revelation” presented in kaleidoscope fashion by Chin.  And the dance numbers by Murphy are exceptional.  My favorites were “The Chase” with the ensemble; “Adrift In Macao,” with the leads; and “Sparks,” with Mahon and Hammack.

The set by Larry Larsen is amazing, giving us an overview of a seedy city with fog included (a bit too much at times).  The costumes by Grace O’Malley fit the period and seemed very authentic.  Hubbard and his small band of big talent was super in keeping up with the many and varied rhythms of the show.  And Lamb, the leader of the pack, has done well with honoring a genre.  It’s not easy to parody something without having it lapse into camp but he has rode that fine line and given us a fitting production for us to “wax nostalgic” about a bygone time.

The musical talent and acting is always first-rate at this theatre.  Mahon as the Rita Hayworth type of leading lady, is just great in look and voice.  Hammock is also in fine voice for the handsome leading man, ala Robert Montgomery.  Cash is always a stand-out in a show and he does well as the chiseled-face, Bogart-type as the anti-hero.  Weathers portrays the luckless gal, like a Joan Blondell or Gloria Graham type, and your heart goes out to her.  And Chin, as the typical, ethnic stereo-type from this era, has more up his sleeve than his arm.  He is truly a stand-out in his many masks.

I recommend this show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Best Of Everything—Bag & Baggage—Hillsboro, OR

“…Best of Times…Worst of Times…”

This is from the book, written by Rona Jaffe, and adapted for the stage by Julie Kramer and directed by Michelle Milne.  (It was later made into a film with Hope Lange, Joan Crawford, Steven Boyd, et. al.)  It is playing at their space in the Venetian Theatre at 253 E. Main St. in Hillsboro.  For more information, go to their site at www.bagnbaggage.org

The 50’s, for women, was not a good time to be a “working girl.”  Granted, the country was just out of a World War (and into a Cold War), the economy was good but the division of the sexes was just as divided as ever.  The woman had more than proved herself (as if she ever had to) with taking over “male” jobs during the War years and having their own units in the Service, but that was then…  Now, back to the ugly reality of putting people in their proper places, and the woman’s was at home and being subjected to the male’s whims (or so was thought at the time).

In the working world in the Big City (in this case NYC) filing, typing, fetching and looking pretty in case the boss (male, usually married) wanted some late-night “dictation.”  But, in Jaffe’s world, a woman rising to a managerial position was almost unheard of (and usually with a lot of whispering as to how she may have achieved that).  The martinet, Miss Farrow (Morgan Cox), has done just that and is an Editor at Fabian Magazine, stories of rather saucy tales of life.  And she guards this position with a passion, bordering on a mania.  But, into this insular world, walks a newbie, plain-Jane, Caroline (Cassie Greer), just recently jilted by her boyfriend, Eddie (Andrew Beck) and ready to bury herself in work.

Into this concrete jungle are also Gregg (Arianne Jacques), an aspiring actress (of sorts), willing to do anything to get a part; Brenda (Stephanie Leppert), a type of blonde bimbo, easily (mis-)led; the carefree, April (Kaia Hillier), who is just looking for a husband; Mary Agnes (Jessi Walters), a naïve beginner, looking for her place in the world; Mr. Shalimar (Joey Copsey), a nasty old goat  who likes young girls; and Mr. Rice (Copsey, again), writer for a religious magazine, who befriends Caroline.

This tale follows the lives of these ladies with all the ups and downs expected in the topsy-turvy battle of the sexes.  Some will have their hearts broken, some will get pregnant, some will find what they are looking for (and, sometimes, lose it, again, too), some marry and one will die.  Obviously I can’t tell you too much more about the story, as these are discoveries the viewer must make.  But, in the end, perhaps one will not necessarily be happier but certainly wiser.  And, keep in mind, the 60’s were just around the corner, and times would be “a-changin’.”

This is listed as a melodrama and follows the style of the books/films of Valley of the Dolls and The Devil Wore Prada, among others.  But, with that in mind, the acting is so naturalistic and convincing, and the staging so inventive, that it makes up for the sometimes sudsy story.  Milne has really wowed the audience with her clever set-ups on an essentially bare stage, with tables and chairs and very few props, to tell the story.  The movements of the actors are almost dance-like and the set changes could be put to music.  It is the story-telling style of theatre at its best, allowing the actors’ talents and the audience’s imagination to enhance the plot.  Well done, Ms. Milne!  Hope to see more of your work.

Greer is an amazing actor, having seen her play the flamboyant Daisy in their Great Gatsby and now stretching to the other side of the spectrum to play the subdued Caroline in this play.  Her alto voice is an asset in her ability, as well as the focus and believability in the characters she portrays.  She is, as always, super in this part!  Copsey, too, is quite the chameleon, as he plays a seemingly nice young man and then an old codger, among others.  And, if I hadn’t known it, I would have suspected it was different actors in these parts.  Well done.

Hillier is very good in the major role of a woman who just wants to get married and settle down.  Your heart goes out to her as he plays well the many layers of the stages she goes through.  She is, I believe, the sister of Clara, who is a well-known, very good actor in this company and in Portland theatres.  And she does herself proud here, as she has in past shows.  Also very good is Walters as the naïve and confused woman who struggles with her identity.  Her reactions in the shower scene and where she has to make some tough decisions as to choices in her life are outstanding!  I look forward to seeing both these actors, too, in future productions.

By the way, I’m quite aware that I use the word “actor” when referring to females on the stage.  An actor, as defined, is simply a person who performs or acts on a stage, there is no gender attached to it.  It has always been a point of contention, among the theatre community, as to which noun to use when describing a female in the acting profession but, myself, I prefer “actor” and many ladies I know prefer it, too, although I still sometimes use the noun actress when describing someone.

I recommend this play, especially for the staging of it and the acting in it.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Our Town—Portland Center Stage—Pearl District

“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”

This classic American play about small-town life is written by Thornton Wilder and directed by Rose Riordan. It is playing at their space, 128 NW 11th Ave., through October 11th.  For more information, go to their site at www.pcs.org or call 503-445-3700.

The Past is just that—passed.  But that doesn’t stop people from waxing nostalgic about it, as it’s often fond memories of the salad days of our Youth:  A time that we frolicked in the innocence and magic of those good ole days, a simpler era of dreams and discoveries.  Not unlike the tale of Anne and her adventures at Green Gables and on the island of Avonlea or
Ray Bradbury’s beautiful poetic tribute to his childhood in Dandelion Wine. These are, indeed, wonderful tales, but hidden from us at the time was also the real adult world of prejudice, war, pressures of the “rat race,” and trepidation about the future.  So when we hark back to  memories of bliss, what we are really looking for is the “Garden of Eden,” Paradise, a time when all was at peace and beautiful.  And what Wilder has done, brilliantly, is to show us both worlds, the pleasure and the pain, of growing up in small-town America, in this case Grover Mills, New Hampshire, at the beginning of the 1900’s.

The story is bittersweet, as a Stage Manager (Shawn Fagan), weaves the tale of a small town, mainly two families, of the Gibbs and the Webb’s, and lets us see life on a simpler scale, but also holding it up to an urbane world, reflecting in a mirror, darkly.  He is the god (probably Wilder himself) of this creation and tells us many details of rural life there.  There is the dedicated Dr. Gibbs (Paul Cosentino) and his forward-thinking wife, Mrs. Gibbs (Gina Daniels).  They also have two children, George (Sathya Sridharan), a star, high-school athletic, and his younger, precocious sister, Rebecca (Hailey Kilgore).

Next door to them are the Editor of the town newspaper, Mr. Webb (John D. Haggerty), a fountain of knowledge of the goings-on of the town-folk, and his industrious wife, Mrs. Webb (Tina Chilip).  They also have two children, the studious teenager, Emily (Nikki Massoud) and her younger brother, Wally (Henry Martin).  It should go without saying that Emily and George are “meant” for each other.  There are other townies such as the drunken choirmaster, Simon (Gary Norman), two town gossips, Mrs. Soames (Sharonlee McClean) and her lady friend (Laura Faye Smith), the know-it-all, Professor Willard (Leif Norby), and others, but the story focuses mainly on the two “star-crossed” young lovers and their families.

It follows George and Emily over 13 years as they become friends, talking from their second-story bedrooms to each other on moonlit nights (I, too, did this, at their age, across a driveway to a neighbor girl named, Julie.  Those fanciful hours we wiled away were precious).  Then comes the fateful meeting when they realize they are in love, to their marriage and, finally, to the death of one of them in their mid-twenties.  The final act is of those who have died, relating their thoughts, not unlike Edgar Lee Masters’, Spoon River Anthology, in which the departed reflect on Life.

And, maybe, it is in these moments, where the full message of Wilder’s story is revealed, that we should hold on dearly to those fleeting moments in our short lives that are precious to us and accomplish all the good we can, connect with each other and, when the end does come, know that we have done the best we can with what we have in the little time allotted to us.

The play, as written, is done on an essentially bare stage, with the Stage Manager setting the scenes with his narration.  Personal props and much of the action is mimed and only chairs are used to create acting spaces.  It is a wise move to follow this lead, which Riordan has done well, even giving the illusion of souls floating between the Hereafter and Earth, as if waiting for the next stage in their evolution.  It also allows us to create our own memories of such an existence, as the Stage Manager suggests, so that we are fully enveloped into the story.

The cast is mixed racially and culturally, as it should be, and I applaud them for this, as casting should be blind and only the best actor should be cast for the part, without regard for ethnicity, age, gender, etc.  Fagan underplays the part of the Stage Manager, which is as it should be, only asserting authority when the story needs to move forward.  Well realized.  The two young lovers, Sridharan and Massoud, are very believable as their relationship grows.  They certainly capture the spirit of Youth and awkward naivety in the teen years.  The rest of the cast is equally good and, having some well-known Portland actors in supporting roles, adds to the creative weight of this production.

One more point (as I ascent my soapbox) and for those of you who have read past reviews of mine, will recognize my tirade.  There is a line in the show fore-shadowing a warning, perhaps, for future generations, for people to really look at each other and to realize Life while they live it!  This does not mean on a video screen.  It means listening to the crickets at night, admiring the mysterious moon, gazing at the amazing stars, smelling the flowers on a dewy morning and connecting, one-on-one, touchable, to the important people in your life, for it is, as Wilder reports, too short, so make the best of it …and get off those frigging screens, as artificial life is no real life at all!

I recommend this production.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Understudy—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland

Kafka and the Artist

This comedy-drama is written by Theresa Rebeck and directed By Michael Mendelson.  It is playing at their space at SW Alder St. and SW 16th Ave. through October 4th.  For more information, go to their site at www.artistsrep.org or call 503-241-1278.

Ah, the secret life of the Artist.  What is it like to lay your guts out there on the stage for the whole world to see and not know how it will perceive you?  It is frightening, horrifying, exhilarating, and the highest high you can ever achieve.  But, at its low points, when there is no platform to display our wares, it is a Kafka-like Hell in which we are nobody of any importance.  Such is the nature of this fickled, prancing beast we call Art.

Kafka’s world would not approve of Artists, but Artists would have understood Kafka.  The need of individualism, the grip of isolation, the cry to be noticed, is the world of Kafka’s “heroes.”  And, in this play, the actors are presenting one of his shows.  Also, like all theatrical productions, those who are behind the scenes, truly see and experience the world as it is.

Harry (Gavin Hoffman) has auditioned for and gotten the role of the second understudy to the star of the show, Bruce, a very expensive big name from the films.  He has played bit parts but his dream is to be on Broadway, which now he is.  Problem is that the stage manager, Roxanne (Ayanna Berkshire), he has known before, and she has not gone “quietly into that good night.”  In fact, she was an actress herself at one point until the world, which is “too much with us,” gave her a good crack on the head, and took its toll on her emotional and artistic life.

Another sticking point in this show for Harry is that the first understudy, Jake (Jared Q. Miller), who he is to rehearse with, feels that Bruce is a god, making Jake a sort-of demi-god, and he and Roxanne are looking for nothing more than a puppet to go through the motions.  But Harry, being a true artist, wants to spread his wings a little and show what he can do.

Also, the lighting person (never seen) seems to have her own ideas of what should be presented onstage and, therefore, the stage seems to have a life of its own.  Caught up in a real-life Kafka world, are they?  Life imitating Art, or vice-versa?  You’ll have to see for yourselves.  But one thing I can reveal is that Artists, in the end, tend to stick together because, after all, there is no one else like them on earth who would understand them…is that not Kafka-like, as well?

Kafka, like Beckett (Waiting For Godot playing at NW Classical Theatre Collaborative now), was an existentialist writer, too.  His books, and films of them like The Trial (Orsen Welles and Anthony Perkins) and The Castle (Maximilian Schell), are quite good but they show a very bleak world.  The Understudy, and it’s response to that vision, show the true colors of what humans can attain when they are allowed to be Free to express themselves as they will.

Miller looks and plays to the tee the part of a man going for the big bucks first regardless of the crap he has to do.  He has an epiphany of sorts by the end and we see that he is more than just a handsome action-hero type.  Well played, as he comes off as a jerk at first but we like him by the end.  Berkshire, too, gives us a together-gal on the outside but a seething volcano underneath.  She, too, goes through changes as the play progresses.  This young lady is someone to watch, as she can play the many layers, good and bad, of a being, and you care about her.  Hoffman is terrific as the catalyst, an actor chomping at the bit to be unleashed, but knowing he has to play the game in order to get anywhere is this cock-eyed world.  He barrels ahead two steps, then retreats one, all the while slowly making progress forward.  You hate him at times, then appreciate him, all a tribute to the actor’s talent.

And the fifth character, unseen, is the set itself, which, as mentioned, takes on a life of its own.  It well may represent the invisible world at large, putting road blocks in our way or changing our courses, all to see just how we will respond.  Mendelson has picked a winner and he should certainly understand the subject matter, as he is one of the best in his field!  I’ve always appreciated his talent, whether on the “boards” or directing aspiring artists, he a true Master of the Arts himself.

I recommend this show.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Waiting For Godot—NW Classical Theatre Collaborative—SE Portland

“Of No Importance”

This production of Samuel Beckett’s classic, avant-garde show is directed by Pat Patton and is playing at the Shoebox Theatre, 2110 SE 10th Ave., through October 11th.  For more information, go to their site at www.nwctc.org

Like the Director, Patton, I, too, have been fascinated with this play since the mid-seventies, where I first saw it in Buffalo, NY.  I was so impressed that I even wrote an homage to it, Games, which was produced a few times around the Western New York area.  What may make it so unique is that it seemingly is about nothing…where nothing happens and for any artistic-minded person, that is a challenge.  Since it may mean nothing…then it can be about anything…and the creative juices flow.

As one of the characters explains, “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful,” which may be the theme of the show in its most basic form.  And where is the setting?  Is it an Afterlife, a Netherworld, Purgatory or Hell, a Dream, or is it taking place in the “windmills of your mind?”  Also, who does “Godot” represent?  Is he, as spelled out, God, or Death, or the Savior, or a Demon?  (Many Bible references are included in the text.)  When Beckett was asked who Godot was, on numerous occasions, some of his answers were, “I forgot” or “who is he to you?”  In other words, you’re choice.  It is, in short, about two characters…waiting...for something to happen…or someone to find them…or for some reason to go elsewhere…you decide.  But, whatever your decision, it will get you thinking.  And that may be its sole purpose.

The story (as such) is about two lonely people, friends, GoGo (Don Alder) and Didi (Grant Byington) trapped in a space and seemingly just trying to pass the time until Godot comes, or something happens to alter their course, or they get permission to leave (to where?).  To amuse themselves and to pass the time, they go through routines akin to vaudeville performers.  Other times they complain about the food, or tight shoes, or not being able to sleep, or bladder problems, or the fact they have no rope to hang themselves and thus end it all (or would it?).  But two things seem clear:  They can’t leave this space and their memory of the previous day has been erased or seriously altered.

Their world is not entirely unpopulated, as soon appear Pozzo (Todd Hermanson), a cruel but prissy slave-driver and his servant, Lucky (Steve Vanderzee), a sad man, seemingly destined to be pushed around all his life.  They purport to be on the way to the Fair where Pozzo is to sell Lucky and yet it seems they need each other (as do Gogo and DiDi for that matter).  They also act, at times, much like a vaudeville team, too.  And one more character to appear is the Boy (Eric Lyness), an innocent, messenger from Godot, who only answers questions with polite replies but also is the only one to have any insight as to who Godot is.  For more explanations as to the story’s progress, you’ll have to see it.

I have to admit I loved the simple but effective set (designer, Tim Stapleton) and the tree is terrific (installer, Michael DeLapp).  And Patton is a consummate professional for many years and he is at the top of his game here.  This would be a difficult play for any director (or actor) as, although the meaning may be ambiguous, the actors and director must have a point of view, as they need to create their own reality and project that.  While watching Patton’s interpretation, I felt I almost understood it but, more importantly, I believed they understood it.  Well done, sir.

The actors, likewise, are truly entrenched in their roles.  Byington is wonderful in portraying a guy who waffles between being the man-in-charge, to being just another cog in a giant wheel.  Alder perfects the Lenny-like, poor-soul persona but then comes up with witticisms and wisdom beyond his station in life.  And these two actors are extraordinary in the way they play off each other.  They are a perfect match and never out of character.  Bravo!

Hermanson is also a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde personality.  At one point being oh-so-proper in his demeanor then being very base in his behavior.  He always seems to need an audience.  He portrays this oily demi-god to perfection.  Vanderzee is perfect in the seemingly thankless role of a mostly mute character, then when he gets his chance to speak, after wearing the thinking cap, his stream-of-consciousness thoughts pour out like a dam bursting, leaving no room for meaning or interpreting what he says.  Nicely done.  And Lyness is fine as the obedient messenger.

A side point, Pozzo and Lucky’s relationship are not unlike the Sorcerer and his Apprentice (Mickey Mouse) in the Disney, animated film, Fantasia.  Mickey is the mute slave of a powerful wizard but, when he puts on the magician’s cap, he is the master and his minions do his work.  Might be the inspiration for those two characters.

I recommend this play.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Xana-Redu—StageWorks Ink—SE Portland

“Faraway, So Close”

This musical adaptation is playing at The Hostess, 538 SE Ash, on Thurs.-Sat. at 7:30 pm through Sept. 19th.  The show is adapted from the original screenplay by Richard Christian & Marc Rubel and original score by Jeff Lynne, ELO & Olivia Newton-John of the film, Xanadu.  The play is directed by Steve Coker (Artistic Director of the company), musical direction by James Liptak and choreography by Corinn deWaard, Stephanie Seaman, Jamie Langton and Cara DeFillippis.  The Co-Producers are TripTheDark Dance Company.  Tickets can be purchased at Brown Paper Tickets or for more information, go to their site at www.screenworksink.net

So, raise your hands if you can remember the 80’s?  Okay, quite a few.  Now, how many can remember a film musical of that era called, Xanadu.  Ah, only a few, as I suspected.  Well, it starred Olivia Newton-John, hot off her success from Grease and, I believe, the last film of Gene Kelly’s.  The movie failed, as did a Broadway version (too campy, I’ve heard).  In fairness, the music is quite good (the popular song, “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head,” has been added and is quite well known) but the story, a simple fantasy and some of the songs and dances are straight from the 40’s, so it may have been ahead of its time.

This adaptation is a homage to the film and holds up very well, introducing us to two bygone eras, the 40’s (Glenn Miller era) & 80’s, of music and style.  It’s an old-fashioned love story with some Greek Muses thrown in for fun.  It seems the Greek gods have gotten bored in the Great Hereafter and have decided to bring one young man, an artist, Sonny (Illya Torres Garner) and an oldster, Danny (Steve Coker), together so that, combing their talents, Sonny, a record album designer/artist and Danny, a real estate agent (formerly on clarinet with the Glenn Miller band), can create a night club called “Xanadu.”

But these mismatched people need some nudging in that creative direction, so along comes, Kira (Sarah DeGrave), to help them realize their dream.  Of course, the inevitable happens and Sonny falls in love with her.  And, “if music be the food of love, play on.”  At first musical genres is an issue, as these two men have differing opinions, and the girl seems to inspire them both, as if she seems use to flying in and out of people’s lives to give them hope.  In the end, compromises are reached but the love of Sonny’s life may have been lost.  To find out the conclusion, you must see the show.

This is done in a “black box” space, meaning that it is essentially performed on a bare stage, thus allowing the artists, the writers and the audience’s imaginations to shine through to create this world of illusion.  And they get an A for their effort!  Liptak is the entire electronic orchestra and he is amazing (and his wife Val, and son Peter, are also involved in the local Arts, too).  The dancing in this is super and the choreographers (mentioned above) should be commended (both deWaard and Seaman play Muses).  The dance numbers and Liptak’s music are two of the highlights of the show.  The nine muses are terrific singers and dancers (as well as play other roles).

Garner is a pleasing Sonny giving us a naïve and innocent character who will, like Rocky or the Karate Kid, have the tenacity to defy all odds and do the impossible.  DeGrave I have touted before in shows, both musical and dramatic, and always found her to stand out, as she does here.  She has a wonderful voice and does justice to Newton-John’s songs.  Look to see more of her in the future.  And Coker has the seemingly impossible job of Director, Producer and actor in this play.  He has staged the scenes so that there is no lost in time changing from one location to another.  And his singing and dancing is so smooth and effortless that you feel you have been transported back to that era of the 40’s.  He, and his company, are people to watch for the next few years, as they are on the rise to get their fair share of recognition.  I know Coker has a very full schedule for directing, designing and acting in the future.

And a thing about Muses, they are very real, at least to artists.  My electronic Muse and creator of this blog, Jennifer Larson-Cody, has always had faith in me.  As far as my artistic muse, she is a mysterious someone, who watches over my shoulder as I’m writing and guides my hand.  Most artists will tell you that Art is not something you choose but, if it  finds you worthy, it will guide you’re path.

I recommend this show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Sparkle Recognition 2015

As I See It . .

Once again, I have accumulated what I believe are unique, artistic achievements for the Season (September 1st, 2014 to August 31st, 2015) and awarded each of them a Sparkle Recognition mention in the list of about 100 shows I personally review in a Season.  But, as you will note, unlike other award lists, I do not pick a “winner,” nor is my list confined to necessarily “5 nominees” in each category.  My list contains as many, or as few, as I deem “special” in some way.

I do not believe you can compare, for instance, one actor’s performance in a play against another actor’s role in a totally different part and play.  Nor do I understand why there has to be only 5 nominees in category.  For example, I pick a person for a uniqueness that they seem to have, both as a performer and in the role they are enacting.  That is not to say that there weren’t a wealth of fine artistic jobs done.  There were.  But these particular individuals moved me in special, unforgettable ways.

Granted, this is my take alone on the shows this season and, I’m sure you will note, doesn’t agree with most award lists of “nominees/winners.”  Also it doesn’t encompass all the fine theatres that exist in the Northwest.  All the theatres I do include have invited me to review their shows.  And, being only one person, I can only review so many in a Season.

And I do not restrict in any way, the people/companies that I review or are included in my Sparkle list.  The list includes schools, professional theatres, semi-professional, community, et. al. and can be as far North as Longview, WA and as far South as OSF in Ashland, OR (and one in Maui).  I am also on the Media list now for the West End theatres in London.  In my opinion a good  performance/production is simply good, no matter its pedigree.  Here is a link to most of the theatres/productions I will be reviewing this season:

Dennis Sparks Reviews – production season - http://goo.gl/RdJfuW
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I unashamedly admit that I am a supporter of the Arts, having over 40 years myself in all aspects of it.  I attend a production expecting it to be good and, if it falls short, in my opinion, I try to be constructive in my criticism.  Also, you will note in my reviews, that I tend not to spend a lot of time describing the plot but, instead, try to give a flavor of the piece.  I, also, try to make comparisons to similar venues or historical, philosophical or personal histories of the times to, hopefully, enlighten the audience to what they may be seeing.

Some of the most unique productions for this period are NWCT’s The Jungle Book for its East Indian choreography (Anita Menon & Sarah Jane Hardy); Artists Rep. for The Liar for its totally unique blending of an old story to modern terms; Bag & Baggage’s, Six Gentlepersons of Verona for the amazing way they blended the Bard with retro music and a small, all-woman cast; CoHo’s The Snowstorm, a insightful blend of classical music and story-telling; defunkt’s In the Forest She Grew Fangs, another unique blending of an old fairy tale with modern-day life; OCT’s Y/P company’s production of Columbinus, a powerful, eye-opening, true rendition on a bare stage with an ensemble cast of the angst of Youth; theatre vertigo’s, Bob:  A Life in Five Acts, a startling birth to death story of a person’s life done with an ensemble cast on an essentially bare stage; Page2Stage’s, The Ministry of Special Cases, a beautiful blending of story-telling narrative with stage dialogue, at Milagro; and Anon It Moves’, Cymbeline, for its visual, artistic splendor of the Bard’s work by its director, Kira Atwood-Youngstrom, at Shaking the Tree.

And a special nod for those artists who have ventured, against the grain, out on their own to do their own thing, such as Katie Watkins with Schizo at Shaking the Tree; Gruesome Playground Injuries, from Tabitha Trosen and Jim Vadala, et. al. at Adventure theatre; and Dmae Roberts and Theatre Diaspora/MediaRites in their staged readings at PCS and Artists Rep. of plays by and featuring Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders.

A personal note regarding programs:  I believe they are a great marketing tool and, although I realize some people turn them back in at the end of a show, many are shared with others.  For those that are passed around to other potential audience members, as well as the person viewing the production, it is important to have some basic information readily available, such as, length of the show; contact information easily visible such as, websites, e-mails, performance address and/or business phone numbers; and characters listed in order of appearance and, if it is a large cast, relationships to various other characters in the show, would be desirable.  If there are to be photos, it would be good to have recent photos to identify various actors.  It is amazing to me how often I have seen one or more of these basic items missing from a program.

My main objective is to encourage the viewer to attend Artistic events and support the Arts.  My blog is now approaching 100,000 hits, which is not too shabby in the three years I have had my blog in existence.  And when theatres/artists put links to my reviews on their sites, it only enhances the readership and, hopefully, your audiences.  In case you’d rather scan the list to find your own company, the theatres (right-hand column) are listed alphabetically. 

So, without any further exposition, may we have the envelope please . . .

Sparkle Recognition 2015

Equivocation—Post 5 Theatre—SE Portland

“…Mightier Than the Sword”

This heady, comedy-drama is written by Bill Cain (with additional dialogue by W. Shakespeare) and directed by Paul Angelo.  It is playing at their space in the Sellwood area, 1666 SE Lambert St. (parking lot in the rear), through October 3rd.  For more information, go to their site at www.post5theatre.org

The Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes are well known names in English history.  In the early 1600’s purportedly a group of men, under Fawkes, dug tunnels under Parliament to plant powder kegs and blow up the Scottish King, James I.  The plot was discovered before it came to fruition and the men were arrested and executed.  But, according to Cain, there might be more to the story than originally reported.

In this “fictionalized” account, the plot may have actually had a more sinister side and maybe some insight on how the underbelly of government did (and, possibly, still does) operate.  Conspiracy, oh, yes, and a lot more.  And the answer, if one is asked about any sort of conspiracy, is simple—equivocate.  Be inconclusive, ambiguous, hedge your responses, cloak the meanings, in other words, lie, but do it in such a way that it sounds plausible.

In such matters, Truth never seems to be the issue, as that is elusive, flexible, in the eye of the beholder.  So, if you dare, you must dig for the question beneath the question and, if discovered, will you dare to answer it truthfully.  Ah, the art of deception and the layers of conceit.  Such a dilemma…

To begin the story, we have the erudite, William Shagspeare (Keith Cable), rehearsing with his company at the Globe Theatre, his play, King Lear.  His main actor and leader of the company is the bombastic, Richard (Todd Van Voris).  Other company members consist of the not so sharp, Sharpe (Ty Boice), an arrogant young buck and Armin (Jim Vadala), a rather funny fellow who usually plays the ladies in the show or the clowns.  And there is also the sullen, Judith (Rebecca Ridenour), William’s daughter, who acts as the costumer, laundress and all-around critic of his writings.

But now this company of consummate actors must decide on a very unusual assignment, whether to adapt a contemporary story, penned by the King, James I, of a political nature for a rather princely sum of money.  The King’s “beagle,” Cecil (Matthew Smith) has been instructed to oversee this project.  Because of past wrongs, Cecil has no love of William but does admire his work and admits the pen has a lasting power that the sword does not.

But William, not being an original playwright as far as stories, does have questions as to the Gunpowder Plot, as far as logic and motivation are concerned.  So, since the conspirators are still alive, he chooses to interview them and get to the real story behind the plot.  But this is a slippery slope, being that if he does discover facts, contrary to what the King purports, does he have the courage to re-write it and portray the “truth?”  And, as the Bard would say, “thereby hangs a tale.”

To tell you too much more would ruin discoveries of the intricate plot that the audience should make.  It is notable that most of the actors in the Globe company also take on significant other roles, as Boice also plays the Scottish King, and Winter, one of the conspirators, and a witch, et. al.; Vadala, the judge in the trial and a witch, et. al.; Van Voris, the priest conspirator, Garnet and Fawkes, et. al.; and Smith, one of the acting troupe and a witch, et. al.  And, believe it or not, at times, all these duplicate roles are played at the same time as their other characters, an amazing tour-de-force for these excellent actors.

This complicated script is very wordy, although plenty of action included.  It is also very heady material and gives you a lot to think about, both from that era and, possibly, present day.  The Roswell story, and the films, Wag the Dog, Oliver Stone’s JFK, and Conspiracy Theory come to mind as points of comparison.  It does have its share of violence, too, so should be considered adult material.

Angelo has done a super-human job of connecting all the dots in the story, which couldn’t have been easy, and inspiring an inspirational cast.  Every one of the actors has done exceptional work.  I especially liked Boice’s  James I, playing the foppish King with glee; Van Voris is always a treat to watch and his Garnet, the soul of the argument as to the meanings of Equivocation, was totally convincing in selling his viewpoints; Vadala easily jumps back and forth between a clownish actor to a hateful judge; Ridenour’s silences speak volumes; Cable is very believable as the conflicted writer; and Smith, as the crippled, Cecil, gives us a masterful performance, portraying the heart and mind of an Equivocator.

It is, indeed, a sad note that the Boices’ are leaving later on in the Season to continue their continued search for artistry.  But they have left a very fine legacy behind, which I’m sure will grow, perhaps, beyond what they imagined.  I wish them God’s Speed in their quest (and Keaton’s), with no “equivocation!”  You’ll be missed, my friends.

I recommend this show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Looped—Triangle Productions!—NE Portland

“The Kindness of Strangers”

This comedy about a “fading” star is written by Matthew Lombardo and directed and designed by Donald Horn (the theatre’s Artistic Director).  It is playing through September 26th at their space, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd.  For more information, go to their site at www.trianglepro.org or call 503-239-5919.

Tallulah Bankhead was probably a legend in her own mind.  She was rather good in a starring role in Hitchcock’s, Lifeboat, and quite good in The Little Foxes and The Skin of Our Teeth on Broadway, so she did have the acting chops when she chose to utilize them.  But she was also her own worst enemy and fell into drugs, alcohol, promiscuous behavior, swore “like a sailor” and was generally a pain-in-the-ass with anybody she worked with.  Her famous line, when questioned about a drug addiction to cocaine, was that she couldn’t be addicted to it, and she should know, because she’d been using it for years.

In this instance, in the last few months before her death, “Miss Bankhead” (Margie Boule’) has been called upon to loop one line of dialogue in her final film (rather awful, in my opinion) of a thriller called, Die, Die, My Darling.  Looped, in film terms, means to re-record a line of dialogue in a studio and lip-sync it to the action of the film.  (The title of the play may also refer to her being high/drunk, or “looped,” when she did it.).  Reportedly it took eight hours for her to loop one line (some of that time she was AWOL from the studio).  The play is taken from the actual transcripts of the recording session.

The time is 1965 in L.A. in a recording studio.  Present are the film editor, Danny (David Sargent), who has reluctantly agreed to “direct” this one moment in time, as the actual Director has fled to Europe.  It seems that the sound man on the boom mike brushed against some shrubs while she was speaking this line and, therefore, has to be re-recorded.  Also present are the sound engineer, Steve (James Sharinghousen) and, of course, a very late, “Miss Bankhead,” herself (Boule’).

Through the whole process, Tallulah seems to be deliberately stalling, perhaps because she is bored and/or lonely.  But she uses every excuse in the world to avoid ending the session.  She needs a drink, she has to do some coke, she gets a phone call from her sister who needs money and, in a back-handed way, she seems like she really wants to get to know the person she is working with.

So, during this ordeal, she reveals bits and pieces about herself.  How her mother died at her birth and the aftershock from her father; how her fascination with a famous star led her to Hollywood, ending in a disastrous outcome to their affair; how laughter from the audience, in a dramatic role written for her, crushed her confidence; and, of course, the effects of her “loose” living on her body and mind.  As she put it, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.  She probably was cursed with knowing herself too well and loathing what she saw.

We also learn from the exchange with Danny, that he, too, has secrets.  Appearing on the outside to be  a plain, ordinary guy just trying to get by, but underneath is also pain and regret of a marriage, of a love affair, of a child and (maybe like all of us) dreams unfulfilled.  The relationship between these two begins somewhat business-like, sinks into adversarial, deepens into confessional, then levels out at a mutual understand and respect.  Pretty impressive and well presented.

Shareninghousen is always worth watching, even in a small but important role as this.  Sargent is very good in all the different layers he puts on a character that is seemingly just a bland guy at the beginning.  He is quite believable in his relationship with Bankhead and we see him grow as he goes from disliking her to caring.  And Boule’ is terrific!  While watching her I quite forgot what the original Tallulah looked like and fully accepted her presence as the real person.  She’s a perfect choice for the role.  This could have been overplayed with little insight or empathy for the character but, in her deft hands, she becomes all too real and we see a tortured human being rather than a cheap, campy caricature.  Bravo, Ms. Boule’!

As always, Horn understands the rhythm of his actors.  He takes us on a roller-coaters ride between these two people and, in the end, we understand them more and, perhaps, ourselves. I recommend this show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

The Count of Monte Cristo—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR

The Count of Monte Cristo (2015): Al Espinosa.
Mike Wimmer
An Age of Deception

The classic adventure story is by Alexandre Dumas and adapted for the stage by Charles Fechter and James O’Neill with restoration by William Davies King and Peter Sellars and directed by Marcela Lorca.  It is playing in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre in downtown Ashland through October 11th.  For more information, go to their site at www.osfashland.org or call 800-219-8161.

Dumas also wrote the classic story of The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers and, also with Count…, made into some rather good films.  One of the adaptors of the book was the father of famous playwright, Eugene O’Neill, and along with his father, are also two main characters in his play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (playing here at OSF through October).  It is said that the elder O’Neill became so identified with the part of Dantés, having played it for years, that he was never able to get another decent role (perhaps, in some ways, not unlike Nimoy and his Spock character on Star Trek).

This is one of the ultimate tales of romance, betrayal and revenge.  It seems that Edmond Dantés (Al Espinosa), a seaman, has just been promoted and is set to be married to his true love, Mercédés (Vilma Silva), with the blessings of his aged father (Michael Winters).  But all is not as it seems, as the intended’s cousin, Fernand (Michael Sharon), also has designs on her.  So, when an opportunity arises, in a letter Edmond may have received from the deposed ruler in exile, Napoleon, he immediately enlists the Prosecutor for the government, Villefort (Peter Frechette), to have him thrown in prison for treason.

With his imprisonment for a number of years, there are dastardly deeds being accomplished without his knowledge.  There is a mysterious woman, Noirtier, (Robin Goodrin Nordli), who disguises herself as a man and seems to enjoy throwing things into chaos; an offspring, Albert (Dylan Paul), who’s parentage is in question; Edmond’s loyal friend, Caderousse (Richard Elmore) who, through thick and thin, believes his old friend is alive and innocent; and a strange cellmate of Edmund’s, Faria (Derrick Lee Weeden), who has a secret which will greatly aid Edmond in his search for the truth.

More I cannot tell you, as the plots are not only complicated but also revealing as to twists in the story.  This is another tale (as is Head Over Heels) that has at least three hands in the translation, the original author of the book, Dumas, the original adapters of the play in the late 1800’s, and some modern adapters.  There is an old saying that too many chefs spoil the broth.  Such is the case here.

The original book has many twists and turns regarding the story, as well as many sub-plots.  This makes for good reading but not necessarily for good visual storytelling.  The adapters try to include too much of the delectable novel onto the stage and thus only confuse rather than clarify the visceral feast.  Also the popular genre in which the play was performed at that time was melodrama.  But that was Then, this is Now.  The story is quite good just as it is--a rousing adventure.  It doesn’t need the added intrusion of wayward humor and sly asides, which are tiresome, to enhance the tale.

But, all that being said, the actors are just fine.  Especially notable are old pros like Richard Elmore as his true blue friend.  Elmore evokes both humor, as the drunken but wily Innkeeper, and pathos as he extols his friend’s virtues.  Well done.  And Nordli, as the complex and mysterious person of many guises, gives all these complexities a well-rounded performance.  Possibly the most difficult role in the show, she masters it with the ease of a professional.  Frechette and Weeden are also good in two notable roles.

I don’t envy the director, Lorca, wrestling with the text.  She has done a good job of staging the show and keeping things moving but the text got in the way some of the time, as mentioned.  I would recommend this show, as it’s still a grand story and the actors do justice to the characters.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

The Ashland Experience (part III)

There are some fine restaurants and pubs along the creek and, depending on the weather, sitting outside is a real pleasure.  Also, Lithia Park is a wonderful way to wile away some time, with a trail for jogging, a playground, picnic areas, a duck pond and is right in back of the OSF theatres.  There is also the Tutor Guild Gift Shop, across from the Bowmer theatre, which has a wealth of treasures of OSF.  Another stop on your tour of the Rogue River Valley might take you a few miles North to historic Jacksonville, home of the Britt Festival, a very old cemetery and some interesting shops and restaurants.  This time we stopped at The Cheesemonger’s Wife for lunch and it is a small deli with a limited but good menu of cheeses, sandwiches, ice cream and reasonable prices (150 S. Oregon St., 202-413-4167).  Well worth your time to stop in.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Happiest Song Plays Last—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR

The Happiest Song Plays Last—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR

A Journey of the Soul

This topical drama is written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and directed by Shishir Kurup.  It is playing at the Thomas Theatre at OSF in downtown Ashland through November 1st.  For more information, go to their site at www.osfashland.org or call 800-219-8161.

Many cultures.  One world.  How to survive?  Does the conquering of one nation need to be the death knell for those people’s culture?  If history is any teacher, it looks like the answer is, Yes.  But does it need to be that way?  Can we not co-exist?  When all is said and done, are we not essentially made of the same Clay?  And, if so, shouldn’t we be taking care of each other, instead of destroying one another?  “Are we not (as the author suggests) our brothers’ keepers?”

This is, on the surface, two stories with multiple layers.  On one hand we have Yaz (Nancy Rodriguez), a “Mother Earth” figure who, from her home in North Philly, is trying to save the world one neighborhood at a time.  In her melting pot of cultures we see a microcosm of society.  She befriends a local Puerto Rican musician/revolutionary, Agustin (Armando Durán), who she feels is a tortured soul.  She also is “mother” to an Afro-American street person, Lefty (Bruce A. Young), who may not be “right in the head” but does have the sense to feel he needs to “re-direct” traffic at the site where a child had been hit by an auto.

This is countered by her cousin, Elliot (Daniel Duque–Estrada), who is a film actor in the Middle East, learning, under that false image of film, what he thinks those people are going through.  But, as his association with this country grows stronger, he befriends one of the crew people, Ali (Barzin Akhavan), who actually lives in that environment, and an actress, Shar (Tala Ashe), who he becomes close with.  It is a painful learning and growing experience that fact and fiction have little in common in this case, both for Elliot, in a world not imagined, and for Yaz, in a world too familiar.  It will be a journey in which both of their perceptions will collide with reality which, although the past may not be able to be changed, a future with a new understanding may be possible.  In short, it just may be a new beginning…

Especially impressive is the set by scenic designer, Sibyl Wickerscheimer.  In a small space she has managed to fashion two completely different worlds and made them both believable with only a few essentials.  It is really a creative and remarkable job.  Kurup has also managed to carve out an existence in both these environments, with his actors, that is both convincing visually and internally.

The cast are also totally immersed in this setting.  It is punctuated by some fine singing of Puerto Rican songs by Durán and musician, Joe Cruz.  It should be noted, too, that this is a repertory company and all these actors play a variety of roles in different plays over a few months and are totally unrecognizable from one role to another as the same actor.  This is the ultimate challenge for an actor and a real treat for an audience to see this versatility.  I applaud OSF for allowing such worthy artists to grace their stages and to the artists themselves for their creative work.

I recommend this show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

The Ashland Experience (part II)
As you may by now know, my favorite eating and imbibing establishment in Ashland is The Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant.  It has authentic food from the British Isles and, since OSF was named for an English Bard, this is (as far as I know) the only pub in town that honors the food & drink of his homeland.  It also stays open after the plays are over, for a nightcap and a quick snack or dessert, which many like-places do not.  I had their special, which was a chicken breast with berry sauce and rice pilaf and veggies—very good.  Another added attraction, which I was not aware of, is that they have a young lady that makes home-made desserts.  This time is was a Strawberry-Rhubarb pie and it was amazing.  I also learned from Greg, the always accommodating and friendly bartender, that she is leaving this place.  I, for one, hope that she will, at least, continue her fine culinary magic with desserts here.  For more information, go to their site at www.theblacksheep.com or call 541-482-6414.  The address is 51 N. Main St. on the Plaza, upstairs.  Look for the red door.  As always, both here and any place I recommend, if you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.