Monday, November 28, 2016

A Civil War Christmas—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland

United We Stand…
This Christmas offering with music and songs, as told from incidents in the American Civil War, is written by Paula Vogel, directed by Paul Angelo and produced in collaboration with Staged!  Music direction is by Andrew Bray and dance/movement choreographer is Kristen Mun.  Original music by Daryl Waters with the collaboration of various local musicians including Okaidja Afroso, James Beaton, Darrell Grant, Brian Adrian Koch, Edna Vázquez, Holcombe Waller, and Mark & LaRhonda Steele.  It is playing at their space, SW Alder St. & 16th Ave., through December 23rd.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-241-1278.

Once upon a time, some 2,000 years ago, three Wise Men followed a star hoping to discover a salvation for all at the end of that arc.  Less than 200 years ago, three wise men, Lincoln, Grant and Lee attempted, again, to find a common ground for all beings.  Nowadays, we are still engaged in that immortal struggle to find a Peace on Earth and Good Will for All Mankind.  It seems to be a Battle that will be waged for many Ages to come…

The time:  Christmas, mid-1860’s, during the Civil War in these United States.  President Lincoln (Ted Rooney) is trying not only to mend a Nation, but find the perfect Christmas present for his beloved wife, Mary Todd (Susannah Mars).  But his task for this Nation, seems insurmountable, as there is still major disarray on the fabric of that blanket which covers our Land.  An Afro-American mother, Mrs. Keckley (Ayanna Berkshire), seamstress to Mrs. Lincoln, is mourning the loss of her son, George (Blake Stone), a soldier fallen in battle and who’s memories of him are still vivid.

Another Afro-American mother, Hannah (Andrea Whittle), has successfully smuggled her daughter, Jessa (Miya Zolkoske) into Washington, D. C., only to lose track of her in the bustling city.    Another little girl, Raz (Kai Tomizawa), has escaped toward the throbbing metropolis also, with her horse, Silver (John San Nicolas), looking for a better life.  Meanwhile, an Afro-American Union soldier, Bronson (Vin Shambry), has declared lethal war on all Rebs, declaring, “take no prisoners!,” after his beloved, Rose, (Crystal Ann Muñoz), was kidnapped by the enemy.

Back on the home-front, Lincoln claims to have a recurring dream where he is aboard a Captain-less ship, sailing toward a distant horizon, just out of reach.  His security agent, Lamon (Jimmy Garcia), is equally concerned about his welfare, as are cabinet members, including John Hay (Laila Murphy).  And their fears are well-founded, as conspirators, John Wilkes Booth (Val Landrum), the Surratt’s and Louis Weichmann (Seth Rue) are meeting secretly to avenge the South by kidnapping the President.  All these elements, combined with music and songs from that era, through the company of players, including Amy Hakanson, bring you a Christmas, perhaps, little known but unforgettable.

This cross-cultural and cross-gender cast, playing many roles from a dozen different stories, bring a message for the upcoming Season, conveying that the quilt that binds us together may be multi-colored and multi-layered and, woven together, it forms a protective covering that benefits all.  Celebrate Diversity in all its many-splendored incarnations.  These stories, from a by-gone Age, remind us of that but, perhaps, in my opinion, the actual blending of the mix of talents involved, and how they cross all borders of talents and humanness, to present this production, may be the best example of how we can form “a more perfect union.”  Angelo has certainly seen to that with his wise casting of the show, onstage and off.

The cast is all first-rate, as I’ve seen many of them onstage before and lauded their talents.  This production encompasses a microcosm of the world and, perhaps, humanity, as the stories may be specific but the message of tolerance and acceptance is universal.  It is said that “a child shall lead them,” for in that innocence, perhaps, we may all re-discover ourselves, and our purpose, individually and collectively.

I recommend this show, as it is a perfect Christmas Card for this generation.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Friday, November 18, 2016

PREVIEW: Spectravagas: Holidazed!—Shaking The Tree Theatre—SE Portland

“Comedy Tonight!”

Art, Humor, Theatre and Entertainment have been around from the beginning of time, perhaps.  And, with that, those who choose to push the envelope.  Wonder what early Man might have found engaging in that vein?  Risque Cave Paintings of bare-skinned beauties?  Dino-Fights in an arena against Cave Men?  Rock Concerts---with real rocks?  Who’s to know…?!  But the early Greeks and Romans came up with some enduring writings.  According to Sam Dinkowitz, creator of this sketch-comedy type of theatre, in Aristotle’s Poetics it lists “Spectacle” as one of the ingredients to create drama and, thus, a concept was born.

Of course, who couldn’t forget Aesop, a Greek slave, with his gentle moralistic tales, or the Romans with their bloody, arena-style extravaganzas?  And then there was Shakespeare and his wise clowns, and medicine shows, music halls, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, melodramas, et. al.,  graduating from that into Vaudeville and finally to film, stage and TV, like SNL, Weird Al, Monty Python, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Kids in the Hall, et. al., all inspirations for Dinkkowitz.  And so we come to his recent “spectacular,” on-the-edge humor and his most recent incarnation,“…using theatre with ulterior motives.” Their shows were originally staged at Post 5 Theatre, late-night fare.  Jessi Walters, a part of his company and also an audience member sometimes, put it this way, “…it’s a bit of anti-theatre…you’re invited to come in and let your hair down…fun catharsis…dangerously funny…whip-smart commentary on the topic de jour.”

Granted, this all boils down to Censorship and the right to voice what we want, regardless of social taboos, language, nudity, politics, religion, violence, etc.  Anything and anyone is game.  Sam says, “I have always been inspired by the more burlesque side of performance. The seedy theatres where the fun stuff happens late,” or, as he later espouses, “Revel in the fuckery.”  Walters adds, regarding the rehearsal process, “…always be looking for what we find as fresh and funny…quick, dirty, super challenging, and the most fun anyone could possibly have…a delightful beast…best part about Spectravagasam is that you can’t do wrong—it’s impossible….”

Of course, an audience may not think the same way so it works best for people who, at least, have an open mind.  In my reviews I am always alert people to possible harsh language, nudity, adult situations, etc. and then let the readers make up their own minds.  But it has never deterred me, either, from recommending a show.  And, keep in mind, the Eye of the Beholder, what offends one may not offend another.

So, if that is so, where do you draw the line?  Or do you even draw one?  In their estimation—No.  Jessi comments that we all wear masks, “…one that says, ‘I’m clean-cut, I’m buttoned-up, I’m a professional.’”  She goes on to say about this type of sketch comedy, it “encourages you to drop the entire premise…it challenges our assumptions of what is politically correct…and shake our heads in unison…it’s okay to be audacious…to color outside the lines, and that realistically we have a lot more in common with each other than we usually let on.”

Sam’s viewpoint is, it’s “…unorthodox and vulgar.  We say things you’re ‘not supposed’ to say (and do) onstage…We seek to evaluate cultural norms through comedic evisceration of the subject matter.  Our mission is to hyperbolize the human condition to the point of absurdity.  We will mock fanatics on all sides, without bias, and while busy laughing at yourself, you might think a thought worth thinking.”

My own views?  As a reviewer, pretty open to anything.  Probably the most controversial, from a global perspective, would be the Nazis and the Holocaust, but Chaplin, with his brilliant film, The Great Dictator and Mel Brooks with his To Be or Not to Be (based on a rather good earlier film version, with Jack Benny) and, of course, his Tony award-winning, The Producers, have destroyed that premise.  The Masters showed us how to break even that seemingly, iron-clad barrier.  Brooks view is that what villains hate most is to be laughed at, the best kind of ammo for hatred is laughter, according to him, and I agree.  In contrast, what is not funny, is a certain politician physically mocking an ill rival stumbling into a car.  “And the beat goes on…”

Future visions for them include looking for a permanent venue to call home, “a more consistent online presence with video content,” and, possibly, tour the show on the West Coast.  I’ve attached the info for his most recent show.  Personally I’ve seen both these artists in action in various other shows and have found them to be true professionals.  I would recommend seeing whatever they offer realizing, of course, the adult material of this type of entertainment.

Sam may put it best, “The world is so ridiculous right now, that if you can’t laugh about it, the only other option is crying all the time.  Find the joke in everyday life.  Open your eyes and see the punch-line…” Amen to that!

Monday, November 14, 2016

One Man, Two Guvnors—Lakewood Theatre Company—Lake Oswego, OR

“All Well That Ends Well”

This Vaudevillian-type comedy is written by Richard Bean, with songs by Grant Olding, and is based on the Italian play, The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldini.  It is directed by Don Alder and is playing at their space, 368 S. State St., in Lake Oswego, through December 11th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-635-3901.

The plot of this story, by itself, would offer almost no hope of getting a thumbs-up from anyone.  But add the comedic style, which is its saving grace, and you have a certified winner on your hands!  This reeks of Shakespearean-style comedy with its wise servants (stupid bosses/elite), disguises, gender-swapping, messages misconstrued, and downright silliness…all of which the Bard happily embraced.  It also complements the commedia dell’arte with it broad humor and incorporates Improv, magic, stand-up comedy, pantomime, slapstick, clowns, risqué humor, asides, word play/puns, audience participation, beautiful damsels, songs and dances, and as mentioned, a whole lot of vaudeville.

This incarnation takes places in Bristol, England around the mid-1960’s and is presented in a music hall type of environment.  The plot is a messy menagerie of misinformation and mistaken motives minus major mayhem but marrying merry mischief to many, mutinous minions.  Whew!  In this incarnation it involves a certain wandering servant, the industrious, Francis (Grant Byington), aka, Paddy, his Irish twin, aka also, Henshall.  He is simply looking for a job, mainly so he can eat, which he is very fond of.

One Guvnor he is enlisted to work for is the shifty, Stanley (Tom Walton), who is escaping to Australia, because he killed a man in a bar fight, a certain Roscoe, related to a rival gang, headed by the unforgiving, Charlie Clench (Gary Powell) who, with his daughter, the beauteous blonde, Pauline (Kailey Rhodes)--not the sharpest knife in the drawer--who is to wed the hammy actor, Alan (Joseph Murley).  Charles’s ensemble also includes his old cell-mate and current pub-owner, the menacing, Lloyd (Ted Shulz), his lawyer friend, Harry (John Morrison), father of the groom-to-be and his luscious secretary, Dolly (Rosalind Fell), an avowed feminist.

But it seems that Roscoe (Melissa Whitney), aka, Rachel, may not be dead after all and has returned for his share of the family loot.  The plot becomes even stickier when Francis is confronted with serving both “masters” when they are in the same restaurant.  Into play then comes Gareth (Brad Bolchunos), the headwaiter and his ancient sidekick, the bumbling, Alfie (Burl Ross), who are of little help in keeping things straight.  And, with the aid of a couple of “customers” (Lily Harris and Hannah Quigg), the plot becomes even more strained.  And, oh, yes, I haven’t even told you about the rock bands that perform at interludes, have I?  Guess that treat will have to await your curious eyes, as well as the ending.

The style of this is exceptional in the execution.  This type of production, along with children’s theatre, is probably the toughest kind to perform successfully, as you have to have a director (Alder) that understands how to present it (and he does) and a cast that is up to the challenge of delivering it (and they do)!  The timing has to be impeccable for it to succeed and this is an excellent example of everything working to a tee!  Alder is, indeed, a genius at it, as is his whole cast.  And the set, by John Gerth, the master-designer at Lakewood, in my opinion, is a masterpiece.  His toon-town like city is a joy to behold.

Much of the burden of the show rests squarely on the shoulders of the lead, Byington, and he is more than up to the challenge.  His body movement, facial expressions and vocal timing are brilliant!  The three ladies are very lovely and their characters are an important part of the fun and story, not just window dressing, as in some comedies, and they make the most of it, all very talented.  And an absolute hoot is Ross, as a Tim-Conway sort of waiter, with his elaborate pratfalls, mime, comedic gestures, timing and expressions, reminding one of an early Buster Keaton and his silent routines.  He is a master at this type of comedy and it shows!

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

The Mystery of Edwin Drood—Metropolitan Community Theatre Project—downtown Portland

What the Dickens!?

This musical, based on Dickens’s unfinished novel, is written by Rupert Holmes, directed by Livia Genise, produced by Barbara Richardson and Matt Storm, choreographed by Juliet Prosser and musical direction by Rebecca Chelson.  It is playing at the Brunish Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway (4th floor), through November 20th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 360-975-1585.

A mystery by Dickens, you say!  It’s a first, right?  No, not actually, as most of his stories had surprises, twists and turns, disguises and revelations, all of which are part and parcel of a good mystery.  But, in this case, the mystery surrounds what happened to the title character on one fateful night, as he disappeared and, since Dickens had the audacity to die before he finished it, leaving no notes as to the outcome, the rest being speculation.

The BBC did a reasonably good, non-musical adaptation, finishing the story for him but, although it made sense from a modern, mystery-writer’s vernacular, it wasn’t Dickens style.  He’s not considered one of the great writers for nothing, you know.  This musical version turns the story upside-down, doing a tongue-and-cheek variation on it, plunking it down in a music hall of the 1800’s, with an acting troupe doing a parody of it.  Not sure Dickens would have approved (but he was a bit of a ham himself, doing one-man shows of readings from his novels and loving the attention) but it’s an entertaining concept.

The play stops at the point that Dickens did and then the audience is enlisted to add their input as to what happened and, if murdered, who did it.  The script bogs down at this point, going on far too long and so it drags a bit here.  But the interaction of the actors with the audience at many points, reminding one of an old-fashioned melodrama, is quite amusing.

The plays hinges together with a type of M/C (James Montgomery), with the aid of his Stage Manager (Kyle Ulrich), introducing the actors/characters and then narrating, at times, parts of the story.  It seems that the industrious, Edwin Drood (Kelly Jean Hammond), is a young man engaged to his childhood sweetheart, the lovely, Rosa Bud (Nicole Rayner).  But she has another interested suitor, the scheming, John Jasper (Matthew Storm, also a co-producer of this show), the church’s choirmaster and Drood’s uncle.  But his romantic advances are unrequited.

Into this world enter the twins from Ceylon, the exotic, Helena (Kate Cummings) and her bombastic brother, Neville (Paul Cosca), and their benefactor,  the flamboyant, Rev. Crisparkle (Kevin Newland Scott), who will be staying with Jasper, as well.  His assistant is Bazzard (Kyle Urban), a fledgling playwright.  Neville also takes an instant liking to Rosa and a dislike to Drood, as he’s competition.  Curiously, they all seem to be orphans, too.

Meanwhile, back at the manor, Jasper seems to be leading a double, if not triple, life.  He has an unhealthy interest in old crypts from the skanky, Durdles (Andrew Hallas), a gravedigger, with his deputies (Gloria Galland and Olivia Ashdown).  He is also a frequenter of an opium den, headed by the unscrupulous, Princess Puffer (Rachelle Riehl).  The crime, if there is one, all comes to a head on one stormy, Christmas Eve, where many of the participants have been having dinner at Jasper’s.  Edwin and Neville decide to take an evening walk along the river and that is the last that is seen of Drood.  Months pass but Puffer is still searching for what happened to Drood and she is joined by a mysterious detective, Dick Datchery (?) and together they begin to investigate the disappearance.That’s where Dickens ends, and then comes, as I mentioned, the audience to get in on the act.

The songs add to the story line.  Particularly effective are “The Wages of Sin” (Puffer); “Perfect Strangers” (Drood & Rosa); “Never the Luck” (Bazzard & Company); “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead” (Company); “Jasper’s Confession” (Jasper); and the rousing, “The Writing on the Wall” (Company).  The music by the orchestra was effective and did not overpower the actors.  The specialty dance numbers were very well done in “Jasper’s Vision,” “Off to the Races,” and “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead.”  This is a complicated show for a director but Genise pulls it off well and her casting of it is excellent.  Also the costuming by Alyssa Rands added immensely to the success of the production!

Some extraordinary voices here, too, especially Rayner, operatic; Hammond, powerful; Riehl; very animated; and Storm, haunting.  Hammond is a performer of the first magnitude and she has a career in front of her if she chooses it.  She came across as confident, had wonderful stage presence and has a voice and beauty to match.  And bravo, also, to the chorus, who added greatly to the story.

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

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Crucible—Battle Ground Drama Club—Battle Ground, WA

“What Webs We Weave”

This intense, topical drama is written by Arthur Miller and directed by Stephan “Cash” Henry.  It is playing at the Battle Ground High School in The Lair, 300 W. Main Street.  For more information, go to the BGHS website, or call the school.

It is said that if we cannot solve the problems of the past we are bound to repeat them.  The Salem Witch Trials were in the 1600’s, the blacklisting (that Miller was alluding to), the 1950’s.  Of course that does not even begin to scratch the surface of the prejudice/bigotry because of political and religious beliefs, sexual orientation, color of skin and cultural, et. al., continuing right up the present day (and beyond) in America, with the potential deporting of Hispanics and barring Muslims from entering our country “and the beat goes on….”

The legacy and example we have left our Youth of today is pretty pathetic for the most part.  If they behave badly, we can only look to ourselves as the source of that teaching.
Truth/Facts/Compassion seem to have little credence in the scheme of things.  “We are becoming a society of immediate misinformation.  And this can create fear, paranoia and a mob mentality on a massive scale…” (Henry, the Director).  Has the time passed when we “…are able to listen and learn and yearn towards self-knowledge and forgiveness.”  (Sundance Wilson Henry, the Designer).  Time will tell….

One of the saving graces, in my opinion, are the Arts, in this case, theatre, in which students are encouraged to explore their inner feelings in a safe environment…where they role-play to discover alternate viewpoints…where they gain confidence in themselves and learn the meaning of teamwork…where they, hopefully, will build a better tomorrow from the one we have left them.  And so, with that lead-in, we have the story of the Puritans around Salem, Mass. in the 1600’s.

In this small town, small-minded world, everybody is at each other’s throats.  It is a tinderbox, just waiting for a match.  And it is lit by a group of young girls Susanna (Jessica Spalding), Mercy (Cassidy MacAdam), Betty (Trinity Weaver), Mary Warren (Ceili O’Donnell), the reluctant participant, and their spiteful ringleader, Abby (Sammy Carroll), throwing off the yoke of the perceived repression (as teenagers will do), and dancing in the woods at night with Tituba (Jessie Akerley), a native of Barbados.  But this doesn’t sit well with the founding fathers and mothers, Mr. & Mrs. Putnam (Thomas Rismoen and Haelli Pitman), the Corey’s (Jaden Denfeld and Lahela Dickens), Willard (Mason Gardner), Sarah Good (Jamie Allen), Cheever (Noah Plummer), Francis Nurse (Ben Howard) and his saintly wife, Rebecca (Sabrina Scribner), who are having a rather hard year financially and just aching to point the finger at someone or something as the cause.

The religious factions, in the guise of Rev. Parris (Brandon Henifin), a materialistic, fire-and-brimstone preacher and Rev. Hale (Jack Harvison), a man with a conscience, quickly come to the conclusion that it is the devil that is the cause of all their ills, manifest through some human agents, and so a witch hunt ensues.  And it does not go well when it is discovered that the independent-minded, combative, Proctor (Skyler Denfeld) and his estranged wife, Elizabeth (Lauren Southwick), seem to be “somewhat-mentioned” as possible cohorts of Lucifer.  Further complications arise when it is also discovered that one of the girls, Abby, has had carnal relations with Proctor.

Things go from bad to worse when the highly-reputed, Judge Danforth (Justin Kunkel), a by-the-book fellow and his cohort, Judge Hathorne (Tanner Opdahl), preside at the trial.  Needless to say, things do to not turn out well for a number of people…but telling any more would spoil the ending.  This is only to give you an outline of the people and circumstances, as much of the drama is in the actual exchanges of dialogue.  And, keep in mind, this is a true story, as were the McCarthy hearings.  A lesson for the Ages…if anyone is listening?!

This is a powerful story Henry has brought to the boards and, with his guidance, it is a perfect venue for young people to explore.  For the most part his cast is up for the challenge, although there was an occasional dead spot where, I assume, lines were missed, but I attribute that to opening night jitters.  To add to the power of the show, his wife, Sundance, has done some rather remarkable things with the costuming, adding to the authenticity of the piece.

Considering the difficulty of the roles and situations, the cast gave a rather powerful presentation of a controversial subject.  I was especially impressed by Denfeld as Proctor.  He charged into the role like a bull and by the end he was quite moving as he realized his plight.  Equally good, in a somewhat more subdued role, was Southwick as his wife.  She was convincing as a woman scorned but also trying to maintain a loving relationship.  Both actors were very articulate and effective.  Carroll and O’Donnell were also good in major roles.  At times, clear enunciation was needed, as some seemed to be rushing lines, but the emotions of the moments were firmly intact.

One final note: This group has been accepted at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in August, 2017.  They are one of 40, out of about 3,000 applicants from the U.S. and Canada, that were accepted—an important honor (and well deserved, in my opinion).  They need help to transport the almost twenty people, costing over $100,000 to do so, so let’s give them a hand.  Contact the school or Henry at for donations and/or more info.

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Oregon Trail—Portland Center Stage—Pearl District

“Back to the Future”

This expansive drama is written by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Rose Riordan.  It is playing at their space at The Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave. (parking can be a challenge in this area, so plan your time accordingly), through November 20th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-445-3700.

I was totally unaware back in the 90’s there was a computer game called “The Oregon Trail.”  Working at Hewlett-Packard, though, for a number of years back then, I knew engineers had their own computer games, mainly ones involving wizards and knights and dragons.  And once, a computer savvy co-worker and myself, broke into their secret world to play one of these games with a decidedly spooky outcome (I’ll let you in on it at the end of this review).

This story spans from the 1800’s to the present day.  It seems that a middle-schooler named Jane (Sarah Baskin) is pretty much a loner, having no friends and never socializing (or bathing) and eating only junk food.  Her only obsession, besides being sad all the time, is playing a computer game called, “The Oregon Trail.”  It’s one of those games that asks you questions along the way as to what choices you want to make and then it continues accordingly to that.

That is, most games do.  This one seems to have a mind of its own (Jane’s alter-ego/conscience?).  The Voice (Leif Norby), in this case, seems to reflect the thoughts of Jane and nudges her in certain directions.  And when Jane plays the game, it comes to life in the background, following closely, possibly, the real life journey or her own ancestors.  There is the father, Clancy (Norby, again) and his two daughters, Jane (Alex Leigh Ramirez) and Mary Anne (Emily Yetter), leaving the security of the “civilized” lifestyle and forging a trail on a covered wagon to Oregon.

Meanwhile, back at modern Jane’s homestead, she has grown up into a woman in her 20’s and living with her sister (Yetter, again).  But she is still very sad, has no real job, sleeps a lot, still eats junk food and feels generally worthless.  Her sister is a nurse and works hard and tries to influence Jane to make an effort to change but to no avail.  Jane even attempts a meeting with her high school crush, the jock, Billy (Chris Murray), but he seems also without a purpose or any ambition, so it’s another dead-end.

Her only hope seems to lie in the computer game and the plight of her ancestors.  They, too, had insurmountable odds but somehow soldiered on.  Through tragedy, the pioneer Jane continues to forge onward…. I can’t tell you the outcome without being a spoiler, which I won’t do.  But, know this, the underlying theme is about being clinically depressed, not just sad.  It focuses on many of the symptoms of the disease.  In order to combat it, before it gets too serious, possibly, eventually leading to suicide, having a good attitude and a support team is important, as the play suggests, but it is also important to realize you have a problem and then getting professional help.

I loved the contrasting stories and especially the wry voice of the Narrator as it gave a deeper substance to the inner self of Jane.  Riordan has cast it well and kept the story understandable, even when jumping back and forth through centuries.  I especially liked Baskin, as the unsettled girl, as you felt repulsion at her, then felt sorry for her, and finally a certain kinship with her and her tenacity.  A rocky road for an actor to traverse and she does it very well.  Also Norby, as the Voice, the “Jiminey Cricket” to Jane, added a sarcastic humor to the story, which is much needed.  Altogether, a well-meshed cast.

And now, for the finale, to my computer-game adventure.  While playing the game, we knew there were certain expected answers to the questions, so we decided to throw it for a loop and see what it would do.  When a character helped our hero, it asked, how should he be rewarded.  We replied, “Kill him.”  The computer replied, “Repeat.”  We said this a second time and there was a long pause.  Finally the computer replied, “The son-of-a-bitch ran away and you’ll never see him again!”  And then the screen went blank.  Never did discover what happened but we could also never get into the games again, either.  Freaky, huh?

I recommend this play but, be aware, there is nudity and harsh language in it, if that offends you.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Bright Half Life—Profile Theatre—SW Portland

Elusive Love
This two-character, non-linear, journey through Love and Time is written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Rebecca Lingafelter.  It is playing at the Artists Rep.’s space, SW Alder St. and 16th Ave., through November 13th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-242-0080.

This play takes on two enormous subjects, the Nature of Love and how Love translates over a period of years.  It is said that near the moment of impending Death, your “whole life passes before your eyes,” or at least, certain segments of it.  This could be the setting for this story, as it is told in snapshots, but in a non-linear fashion, of two people’s lives, Vicky (Chantal DeGroat) and Erica (Maureen Porter).  But then it also begs the question, why is it that only certain aspects of one’s being occur in this sort of journey?  One has to assume they were crossroads of sorts for that person.

The “snapshots” in these two people’s life of love were, riding on a Ferris Wheel, with Erica scared of heights; meeting at their workplace at a computer company, Erica having no affinity with numbers; early dates, looking at the stars together, on a ferry, Erica getting indigestion at a restaurant, et al.; skydiving together, with trepidation; having children and watching them grow up; buying kites; dealing with parents on being gay; proposing; buying a bed together; moving away; breaking up; et al.

Jumping back and forth in time must have been hectic, to say the least, on the two actors and, although it does takes some getting use to.  But, in this very nature of austerity, on a bare stage with no props, it does reduce things to a common denominator.  That multiplier, and divider, is called Love.  It can be looked at in a scientific fashion (a good companion piece to this would be CoHo’s current show, The How and the Why); or in a romantic context, often called animal magnetism or just plain lust; or in a poetic sense, as if from afar, letting words and phrases do the expressing; or picture it as a forever thing, “womb to tomb;” or, perhaps, the truest portrait, just working at it, giving and taking….

A couple of signposts along the way should be noted, though, don’t just take it for granted.  Also, don’t over think it, either.  Just embrace it as a path of life, with many side-roads, bumps and twists and turns along the way, traveled two by two, if that is what your Fate deems.  And fluid time might be looked upon as an enemy, as it is fleeting, but what the real enemy is, is not making the most of every minute, and holding them dear, like photos, those simple, silly, little life-pauses that make us uniquely who we are.

This story, through these two amazing actors, do capture the essence of Life and the importance of memory and time in very specific but elusive ways, never revealing the whole purpose but with a sense that something important has just been shared.  And, in the final result, sometimes you just have to take the leap and “let the world slide.”

Both DeGroat and Porter share with us perhaps the purest kind of theatre, letting it all hang out, no fancy setting or costuming to hinder the vision…just being.  Not an easy task for a performer, as there is nothing to hide behind, then.  Which makes them vulnerable and, thereby, identifiable to the audience.  Lingafelter has chosen well her cast and has modulated their performances with enough energy, pauses and emotion that one witnessing it, fills in the blank in their own minds.  I heard a lot of knowing ums and ahs from the audience as the tale progressed, revealing they connected with their plights.

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

Friday, November 4, 2016

The How and the Why—CoHo Productions—NW Portland

Eden…and Beyond

This two-character, intense, drama is written by Sarah Treem and directed by Philip Cuomo (CoHo’s Producing Artistic Director).  It is playing at their space, 2257 NW Raleigh St. (be aware it is only street parking, so plan your time accordingly), through November 19th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-220-2646.

On the surface, the story is about two scientists, one older and more entrenched is her society, Zelda (Karen Trumbo), and Rachel (Gwendolyn Duffy), the younger one, wanting to prove herself.  There is a conference occurring in which Rachel had wished to be a part of but her Abstract/Theory was rejected.  So she has decided to seek out one of the most prominent member of that society, in which they both belong, Evolutionary Biology, and possibly “pick her brain.”

I won’t pretend to be able to explain these theories, partly because that is just the surface story and partly because I couldn’t possibly do justice to these heady materials.  But, a thumbnail-sketch seems to accept the fact that women menstruate (the “How”) but as to “Why” they do, is up to conjecture.  It seems that the mostly male world of scientific discoveries choose to ignore that factor.  So it is up to the female of the species to investigate this aspect.  The Grandmother Hypothesis, toxic sperm, animal behavior, menopause, natural selection, adaptation/assimilation, procreation, et. al. seem to enter into this discussion…in a nutshell, as I said.

But the underlying basis of the story has to do with the somewhat toxic relationship these two women have.  The old school vs. the new school of thought in science, yes, but it delves much deeper into a woman’s psyche and, in particular, these two women.  Their relationship seems healthy, up to a point, but then truths are revealed in which neither of them is prepared to accept or even acknowledge.  I wish I could go into more detail but that would be revealing much of what an audience needs to discover.  All I can say is that an uneasy truce is reached and many questions are considered that an audience will take home with them.

And so, what I am left with, are the thoughts I had, some, seemingly unrelated, after witnessing this show.  One thought is that you are who you are today because of, not in spite of, your Past.  We all wish, at times, that we could have done some things differently, traveled that “road not taken,” but if we had, we would not be who are now.  Once major difference between men and women seems to be, if a couple is going on a trip, for the woman, the journey is what is important, for a man, just getting to the destination.

Which begs the question, what was God thinking when he created such complicated beings.  When a writer creates a scenario/characters, he fills in the blanks.  When God created…we are the blanks!  He must have wondered, left to our own devices, what will we create….  At this point, a hopeful chaos, I believe.  And, as for Zelda and Rachel, maybe they are just two, lonely people, trying to find their way in the dark, sans rules.  Like I said, my impressions…what will yours be?!

Cuomo has cast two excellent actors for the roles and has modulated their performances so that they, and we, don’t get too weighted down by the heavy scientific material.  This is a character-driven piece, as it should be, and it has some troopers at work here.  Duffy certainly has a career ahead of her in this field.  She balances well the snooty upstart housing an unsure and desperate woman underneath.  Trumbo is a master of pauses and steely-eyed looks.  If you watch closely you can see her thinking and reacting as if it is the first time she’s heard the lines being presented, which is part of what every actor seeks.  She is a pro and it shows!

I recommend this show and, keep in mind, it is a thinking person’s experience.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Sparkle Recognition 2016

As I See It . .

Once again, I have accumulated what I believe are unique, artistic achievements for the Season (September 1st, 2015 to August 31st, 2016) 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” or “unique” in some way(s).

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 creator and in the role/job they are performing.  That is not to say that there weren’t a wealth of fine artistic achievements done.  There were.  But these particular individuals and/or productions 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 at a time.

Also 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. in the Greater Portland area and as far South as OSF in Ashland, OR .  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 -

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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/experiencing.

Some of the most unique productions for this period are:   Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s musicals, Head Over Heels & The Yeomen of the Guard, both totally captivating staging and thoroughly entertaining productions and their Bio-play, the drama, Roe, a searing, fully engrossing production about personal rights and political issues.

Also worthy of noting are some rather “low-tech” shows, such as my favorites, Around the World in Eighty Days by Beaverton Civic Theatre and Peter and the Starcatcher by Portland Playhouse, both unique as they deliberately chose to trust the author’s words, the talent of the cast and the audience’s imaginations to fill in the missing “realistic” elements of their presentations.  The Young Professionals Company of Oregon Children’s Theatre is especially good at that, too, as well as very relevant stories for the youth of our time.  The musical, Cuba Libre, from Artists Rep., gets a special nod from me, too, for exposing us to the culture of our Latin earth-mates, just at a time when we should be building bridges between people (Not Walls!).   And OCT’s, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, was amazing as it takes one through the wonders and heartaches of childhood in a special way.  Bag & Baggage is always very inventive in their productions but their Moby Dick Rehearsed, was especially innovative, truly a classic novel brought to life before your eyes.  Finally, from Portland Center Stage, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, with Mona Golobek, a heart-wrenching story of love and survival.

Some personal observations regarding performance spaces:  I realize this is a capitalistic (bordering on greed in some cases) society but it is very important to preserve the Arts (and artists).  The Media gives a lot of attention to current events, sports and weather, etc. but almost none that focuses on the Arts.  Likewise, many land/building owners seem to be following that lead in downgrading the Arts and raising prices that, I’m sure they realize, Arts groups cannot afford in their extremely limited budgets.

Also parking is a problem in many parts of town and it would behoove a business or religious institution to reach out and offer their parking spaces when they are not in operation.  So, please, if you are one of these organizations or know one, go the extra mile and give this precious commodity, the Arts, a chance to survive!

My main objective is to encourage the viewer to attend Artistic events and support the Arts.  My blog now has over 180,000 views, which is not too shabby in the four years I have had my blog in existence (unending gratitude to my electronic muse, Jennifer, for creating and maintaining it).  A special “shout-out,” too, to Ronnie Lacroute and the WillaKenzie Estate, who may be the most priceless supporter local theatre has!  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 . . .

Murder By Indecision—HART Theatre—Hillsboro, OR

A Muse on Murder

This comedy, murder-mystery is by Daniel O’Donnell and directed by Aaron Morrow.  It is playing at their space, 185 SE Washington St. in Hillsboro, through November 13th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-693-7815.

It is said that comedy and tragedy are just different sides of the same coin so, with that assumption, if you turn it inside out, you could get a sad comedy or a humorous drama as, in this case, a comedy- mystery.  Clue, Murder By Death, A&C Meet Frankenstein, et. al. are all examples of this.  And my favorite authors of that genre are Conan Doyle (Sherlock) and Christie (Hercule and Jane Marple).  And, although this play spoofs Dame Agatha (“Crispy”) and Miss Marple (“Miss Maple”), it also delves a couple layers deeper, fleshing out the inner life of characters created by authors.

Stephen King has broached this subject in more than one of his stories and the films, Stranger Than Fiction, Westworld, et. al. give credence to a possible eerie link between creators and their characters.  Also, if you remember the Star Trek TV episodes with Patrick Stewart, in which they playact as their favorite characters in the Hallowdeck (sp?) in literature, at the end of one of the sessions, one of the  “characters” asks Picard what will happened to them after his crew leaves, will they die?  Picard has no answer but this story broaches on that area, too.

It seems that Agatha Crispy (Patti Hansen), well on in years now, is writing yet again another mystery play, but has finally reached a type of writer’s block, in which ideas no longer are fresh.  Has her creative drive dried up?  Her agent, Ruth Less (Tanja Crouch), is pushing her for a deadline and the pressure is wearing on her.  Her latest opus includes, as usual, a myriad of characters, most with a whole bevy of motives for killing him, in this case, a nasty CEO of a company, Victor Greedly (Tyson Redifer).  He dies in a…variety of ways (you’ll just have to see it).

His snobbish wife, Sophie (Leslie Inmon), wants his fortune as does his equally egotistical daughter, Victoria (Karen Huckfeldt).  Then there is his sister, the shy, Mavis (Darlene Young), who has been his shadow all her life.  His son, William (Nicholas Granto), is a neer-do-well playboy, who has eyes for one of the maids, the naïve, Jenny (Raine Stoltenberg).  And, of course, the servants might have it in for him.  There is the ever-patient but equally maligned, “old retainer,” Niles (Steve Horton), and his faithful wife, Myrna (Dana Kelly Sweet).

His secretary, Gwen (Jean Christensen), who he may have been having an affair with, is not above suspicion, either, nor is his oily, “whipping boy,” Ken (Jordan Wilgus), who resents all the years of harsh treatment from him.  Of course, there is the recently fired employee, Melissa (April Felder), who might be holding a grudge.  All of this is overseen by the amateur sleuths, the astute, Miss Maple (Phyllis Lang) and her faithful sidekick, Penny (Sharon Fullwood Prange).  But, an Inspector, in the form of the bumbling, John Dryfus (Michael Dave Allen) and his dorky officer, Bently (Jake Sparks) are on hand as well to add even more confusion to the mess.

But, as mentioned, the real joy of this story is the secret life of the characters and their reactions to the plot, which is both amusing and enlightening.  Their gyrations as they react to being one of the crumpled pages of the script is very clever, as well as the ending, which is quite touching.  Morrow has done a good job of casting his characters, as well as giving them bits of business appropriate to the story (although, beware, sometimes taking focus away from important information).

The cast, as the director wanted, does look like they’re having fun and community theatre is a great way to test out one’s “acting chops.”  I especially liked Wilgus, as the snakey assistant, as his features, movements, expressions and voice added much to the enjoyment of the show.  One note, though, Hansen, as Crispy, has the right look and obvious talent for the role but plays it like she is in an auditorium.  In other words, her voice and gestures overpower this small venue, so, I believe, she needs to tone it down a bit for this space.

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

In the Forest She Grew Fangs—Young Professionals Company at OCT—NE Portland

Growing Pains

Oregon Children’s Theatre presents this through their youth troop at 1939 NE Sandy Blvd.  This bloody, coming-of-age story is not for the faint-of-heart or those who are offended by harsh language or intense, adult subject matter.  It is written by Stephen Spotswood and directed by Pat Moran and Zoe Rudman.  It is playing at this space through November 13th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-228-9571.

The above title of mine might be an oversimplification of the theme but it is accurate, although focusing on the dark side of passing from childhood to the adult world.  Unlike in my age of the turbulent teens, this generation of young folks has it a whole lot tougher.  We didn’t have the Social Media which, I believe, is a major contributor to the overall angst of teens.  The worst trouble that we had in my age was teens drinking at a party or racing in the streets.  Now, thanks to the almighty god of electronics, we have cyber-bullying that has led to suicides; weapons being brought to school and killing students; drugs for quick highs; date rapes; smear campaigns against others because of beliefs; and a multitude of offenses against the human spirit.

But, thank God, we have a troop such as this that can work out their angst in a safe environment and, through role-playing and teamwork, explore these disruptive themes and gain a confidence in oneself that hopefully will sustain one into the next generation.  I admit a bias for this troop as they have gone deep into the psyche of the young to explore dark moods in the past and have emerged victors in, if not wiping out fears of maturing, at least having let them face them and given them tools to combat the “monsters in the forest!”  They are Our Future, best listen to their Voices and treat them with the same respect that we demand from them.

Lucy (Emma Fulmer)) is a typical, small-town girl, a bit of a wall-flower, a loner, who feels more at ease with the forest and streams.  She is picked-on and bullied by her classmates (Mikala Capage, Gracie Jacobson, Heidi Osaki and David Van Dyke) and doesn’t seem to have a friend in the world.  She lives with her Granny, Ruth (Piper Tuor), who has a few demons of her own that torment her.  She is haunted by her own unhappy childhood memories of not being worth anything.

Into this less than idyllic world appears the new kid in town, Jenny (Sierra Kruse).  She is “hot” and all the guys want to date her…and more.  But she has her own insecurities coming from the big city.  And she misses her abusive boyfriend, the one with “cold, granite abs and hot surf.”  Of course, the nerdy guy in school, Hunter (Max Bernsohn), is trying to work up the courage to ask her out.

The parallel world is, of course, Little Red Riding Hood, and to be honest, the original stories of these fairy tales are very dark, meant to scare children and make them behave or the...boogie man will get you.  This play corresponds to these darker tales and, thus, this story does not have a “happily ever after” ending.  I really cannot tell you more without revealing the somewhat shocking discoveries that an audience needs to make.

But the forest and the river are the keys to all these longings and achings, and itches and twitches.  It is the ripening and budding of a strange, new world.  The unexplored country where no one returns unchanged.  It is seemingly a natural progression through troubled waters and tangled branches.  It is not a show for young children but it is something that could be seen by savvy teens and adults.  The Woods are not “lovely, dark and deep” in this cautionary tale but full of shadows and virgin paths and, yes, monsters, too.

Much of the success of the production lies in the stylized presentation.  It is almost dance-like at times with only tree stumps as props and a visual rendering on a backdrop of the journey.  Moran and Rudman have done an amazing job threading this unique nightmare tale onto the durable but ever-changing fabric of our minds.  It is a journey down a dark rabbit-hole, with many twists and turns, emerging into…???

Fulmer certainly has a career ahead of her in this field if she desires.  She is a combination of Jekyll & Hyde and Carrie, and she plays all the ranges of her fine-tuned instrument of acting.  Bernsohn is the epitome of bravado, full of smoke and empty promises.  Kruse is the typical snob, pretty but with a dark past and a vacant future.  Tuor is a product of her upbringing, which wasn’t pleasant, and is passing that angst on to her grand-daughter.  All four exciting, as well as the ensemble, in this terrifying, taunt tale.

I highly recommend this show with the restrictions I have mentioned.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.