Tuesday, December 13, 2016

La Belle (Lost in the World of the Automaton)—Imago Theatre—SE Portland

Eye of the Beholder

This imaginative, family production, is inspired by the original French story of “Beauty and the Beast” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve written in 1740.  This stage production is created, designed and directed by Carol Triffle, Jerry Mouawad (Imago Founders and Artistic Directors) and co-written by Devin Stinson.  Original music and lyrics are by Triffle, Amanda Payne, Alyssa Payne and Lydia Ooghe.  It stars Jim Vadala as Sam and Justine Davis as Rose with Lance Woolen and Erin Nicole Chmela as puppeteers.  It is playing at their space, 17 SE 8th Ave. (off Burnside), through January 8th.  (Mostly street parking only, so plan your time accordingly.)  For more information, go to their site at www.imagotheatre.com or call 503-231-9581.

It is said the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  Tis true.  For what is lovely to one person may not be so to another.  “And thereby hangs a tale.”  The story involves two humans and a bevy of imaginative creatures aboard the ship, La Belle.  It is Sam Stoker’s (Vadala) job to live up to his namesake and “stoke” the engines, keeping the ship running smoothly with just some coal, a monkey-wrench and his ingenuity.  But it is a lonely, dirty and “stinky” job to be trapped all the time in the bowels of the liner with only his teddy bear and imagination to keep him sane.

That is until a freak storm occurs and one of the passengers, Rose (Davis), is delivered unceremoniously into his realm and both their worlds will change dramatically forever.  There is no doubt there are differences…on the outside.  He is a sooty loner from the working class.  She, a high-society lady.  But somehow, within, between them, there is the spark of magic afoot.  The connection between them is of a deeper sort, a song yet to be sung, a region on the verge of discovery.  It surrounds them in the passengers’ trunks and in the very fabric of the ship itself, awaiting only their command to come alive.

They are both storytellers, as that is their way of communicating.  One story involves a blue fairy who falls in love with a human, which is forbidden in their kingdom.  There is even a wicked fairy that has designs to thwart their plans.  Another story is about an orphaned girl who is raised by a rich family only to be sunk into poverty when their fortunes are lost.  But, a chance encounter by her father in a magical castle, may restore them to their former glory, if one of his daughters is willing to spend the rest of her days in this castle with the beast who rules it.  Interestingly, both these stories have a personal connection to Sam and Rose.  But, mums the word on the conclusion, as that is for you to discover.

Obviously, if you are familiar with Imago’s work, the secret of their presentations are not just simple stories, well told, but in the style of how they are told.  In this case there are giant puppet heads, shadow plays, silhouettes, puppets, masks, stylized movements, dolls, songs, secret doors and passages, graphics and visuals, colorful backdrops and even a wee bit of magic throw in.  It all has to work like clockwork for it to succeed, but succeed they do, creating a world that even Disney would envy!

I can see origins of this creation in the works of Eugene O’Neill, “The Hairy Ape” (about a beast-like human working in the boiler room of a ship); “Pinocchio” (the blue fairy); “Cinderella” (a dysfunctional family, with a misfit girl as their slave); “The Merchant of Venice” (the loss of his fortune at sea); and, of course, the original story, the best movie version by far being the 1930’s Cocteau film.  There are also influences of the silent film era, especially Chaplin and Keaton, with the exaggerated expressions and stylized movements.  And it all works together to perfection!

Another innovative invention (among a myriad of original creations) is the interpretation of the characters.  Belle is not the stereotypic, pretty, bland maid from other incarnations but Davis comes across as an innocent, a rather silly goose at times, caught up in a world that is a bit overwhelming.  Vadala awkwardly stumbles his way through the relationship, giving the impression his heart is in the right place but his body is all akimbo when attempting to match the rhythm of that heart to actions.  But it is in their storytelling that they connect.  Vadala has long been a stage favorite of mine and he is spot on in this role.  Davis is a wonder, as I thoroughly enjoyed her very unique creation of her role.  And not to slight the puppeteers, Woolen and Chmela, in their performances of the many supporting characters, which are amazing.

Triffle and Mouawad have outdone themselves with this production.  It is indeed a masterpiece of storytelling raised to an infinite degree.  A delicious feast for the eyes and ears and nourishing fodder for the soul.  It is a cornucopia of sights and sounds that burrow through the hard shell of adulthood to the child-like wonder of innocence and imagination, too long buried.  In this age of chaos, it is gratifying to know that one can still blush with wonderment, at something as simple as a rose seemingly appearing out of nowhere, for it soothes, for a moment, the troubled waters of a discordant era.

The creators of the music and songs, the sound designer (Kyle Delamarter), and all the many designers/builders of the set, costumes, lighting and, of course, the puppets, are to be highly commended.  This is a work of Art, make no mistake about it—long may it survive.  Tickets are selling fast so best contact them now.

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Wizard of Oz—NW Children’s Theatre—NW Portland

The Circle of Life
This stage production of the classic MGM film musical is based on the book written by L. Frank Baum and adapted by John Kane, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg and Herbert Stothart.  It is directed by Sarah Jane Hardy (NWCT’s Artistic Director), musical direction by Darcy White and choreography by Elizabeth Gibbs.  It is playing at their space, 1819 NW Everett St. (finding parking in this area is always difficult, so add plenty of time to your commute), through January 2nd.  For more information, go to their site at www.nwcts.org or call 503-222-4480.

When we are children, our fondest desire may be to grow up and get away from home to find our dreams.  When we are adults, our fondest dream may be to be home once again because, as the story espouses, “there is no place like home!”  Such is the circle of Life, as our yellow-brick road has led us back to the beginning (not unlike the ending for Kubrick/Clarke’s, 2001:  A Space Odyssey).  Ironic, isn’t it?  And does it have something to teach us besides this?  The Scarecrow concludes, “Some people without brains do an awfully lot of talking.”  Politicians, beware, Baum was on to you.

For those not familiar with the story, it is of Dorothy (Ronni Lee), a bored, mid-West teenager, brought up on a Kansas farm by her Aunt Em (Kari Christensen) and Uncle Henry (Bud Reece), with her only friend being her little dog, Toto (KC).  (The story never does say what happen to her parents.)  Into this uneventful life, her world turns upside down when a tornado (a young girl’s awaking into adulthood, perhaps?) sweeps her into the magical Land of Oz.

Lost in this whirlwind of color and fantasies, she meets the Munchkins, the little people who inhabit the land ruled by four Witches, two Good, two Wicked but now whittled down to three, as Dorothy’s house has just landed on the Wicked Witch of the East and “…she is really, truly dead.”  Glinda (Christensen, again), the Good Witch of the North (the G/W of the South is never seen), wants to aid in her finding her way back home and advises her to wear the Ruby slippers (originally, Silver, and not actually “slippers” but shoes—see my trivia info at the end of this review) but the Wicked Witch of the West (Clara-Liis Hillier) appears and threatens her unless the gives up the “slippers” and the power they contain.

Undeterred, she follows the Yellow-Brick Road, as directed by the Munchkins, to go to the Emerald City to see the Great and Powerful, Wizard of Oz (Kevin-Michael Moore), who may aid her in her quest to go home.  Along the way she meets a Scarecrow (Sam Burns), who needs brains, a Tin Man (Brendan Long), who desires a heart, and a Lion (Andrés Alcalá), who wants courage.  Together they will trek on down the golden road to their destinies.  Among their adventures they meet ravenous ravens, threatening  trees, poisoned poppies, mutinous monkeys, wicked Winkies, and a very nasty Witch, and it is safe to say, everyone gets their desired wishes or just deserves.  (Would it were that simple to return to our own “Kansas” settings.)

But, for the one or two of you who may not be familiar with the story, I cannot elaborate more or I would be spoiling the tale.  And, be content, all of the songs from the original film are in tack with an additional one (see trivia info).  One of my favorites songs of all time is, of course, “Over the Rainbow,” nicely sung by Lee and also the show-stopping, “If I Were King,” terrifically rendered by Alcalá.  Hillier too, although having no songs, is deliciously evil as the W/W, a scene-stealing role.  In my opinion, she is one of the best actors in the area and always worth watching.

And to give credit where credit is due, there are some nicely rendered performers in smaller roles that shine, including a wonderful monkey impersonation by Gabe Porath as Niko (W/W’s chief henchman) and the featured dancer in the “Jitterbug” number and, possibly also, the Gatekeeper of Oz, but these characters are uncredited (although they may be Olivia Grace Dunn and/or Kate Kelly), anyway, they shine, as well, proving again, the old adage, “there are no small roles….”  All the actors and the entire ensemble (about 45 in all) are to be commended, as they fill the entire main stage and two side stages (plus ceiling and even the lighting booth) to expand the Baum vision.  Many kudos also go to John Ellingson for his amazing scenic design and to Mary Eggers Rochon for the very colorful costumes (although I did wonder why no mane for the Lion).

Hardy has done an extraordinary job of directing the over-whelming task of this epic adventure.  It is a Feast for the eyes and ears and nourishment for the Soul!  White has played true to the music and Gibbs has done wonders with such a large cast and space with the dances, especially the “Jitterbug” number.  I was also impressed with the effective simplicity of creating some of the scenes, such as streamers, confetti, umbrellas, flashlights, bubbles and, the more complicated, video projections.  All add to the magic of the moments.

And now, for you trivia buffs:  Some of the original suggestions for cast were W. C. Fields (Wizard), Shirley Temple (Dorothy) and Gale Sondergaard (Witch)—all unavailable, and Buddy Ebsen (Tin Man) but allergic to the silver make-up; originally the “slippers” were silver but when it was decided to film in color those sequences, they changed to red; the “Jitterbug” number was cut because of length and slowing down the story, and only some home movies remain of the original; guess what other number was almost cut for the same reasons—the iconic, “Over the Rainbow;” and, perhaps, the most amazing story, when they were looking for a special coat for the Marvel/Wizard character, they came across it in a thrift shop and it was used in the film.  The faded name sewn into the collar was “L. Frank Baum!”

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

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Hay Fever—Portland Actors Conservatory—SW Portland

“Much Ado About Nothing”

This classic comedy by Noel Coward is directed by Brenda Hubbard.  It is playing at their space, 1436 SE Montgomery St. (parking is a challenge in this area, so plan your time accordingly), through December 18th.  For more information on this production, their season and/or classes, go to their site at www.pac.edu or call 503-274-1717.

Yes, my above title is actually from another classic comedy writer, Mr. S., but the phrase does seem to sum up the theme of this play.  It was written a few decades ago when life seemed free and easy (for some) and, as the song goes, “…the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, ain’t we got fun?”  For the elite, the privileged, the titled, the few, it must have been a fun time to go punting (boating with a pole), indulging in the Arts, traveling and spending money like it was going out of style.  It was also a time of falling in and out of “love,” gossiping, dressing up frequently, playing word games and dishing your friends and neighbors whenever possible.  And such is the life of the Bliss family.

There is the fastidious, Papa Bliss, David (Jacob Beaver), a writer of novels (of no consequence); his wife, the elegant Mama Bliss, Judith (Tyharra Cozier), a stage actress; the spoiled, fickled daughter, Sorel (Christa Helms); and the equally spoiled son, Simon (Aries Annitya), an artist (of no consequence).  They, with their mouthy maid, Clara (Caren Graham), make up the Bliss household.

But, not content to let things…continue to idle, they have invited some virtual strangers to their house for the weekend.  David has invited the introverted, Jackie (Melissa Buchta), someone he barely knows.  Clara has extended an invitation to an eager, “younger” man, Sandy (Bjorn Anderson), whom she met casually in a shop.  Sorel’s newest interest is the world traveler, Richard Greatham, an “older,” experienced gentleman, who Sorel feels she can “learn” from.  And Simon has a new “friend,” in the guise of the snobbish, Myra (Monica Fleetwood), a wit not to be trifled with.  But if all the visitors assumed that, there would be no play, of course.

And so, when everybody is through staking out their territory, the real game begins…musical chairs.  Of course, the only reason for the visitations is to see if you can get your partners goat, as it were.  In order to put a person in their place, of course, you have to give them some competition.  And so the comedy of manners (or lack of) continues.  They each pair off with different mates to get a rise out of another, with only the visitors being taken by surprise, as it all seems to be one great game.  Things are eventually resolved, at least for the family, and the visitors may have become sadder but wiser (or not).  Any resemble to reality is purely coincidental.  Or, as Queen Eleanor might conclude, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs.”  

This is a fun, fluff piece as far as the story goes but its strength lies in the genius of Coward’s witty words and wry repartee between his characters.  The tale also probably does reflect Coward’s own “jet set” of friends at the time and so there is a definite self-indulgence on his part, as he also often played one of the characters himself and his dear friend, actress, Gertrude Lawrence, opposite him (see the film “Star” for more background information on them).  My own personal favorite of his was the drama, “Brief Encounter,” which is rarely done (a good film of this is the low-budget, 50’s movie, with Trevor Howard).

Any director at the helm of this piece (or any Coward piece) has to be aware of the intricate timing of the dialogue for the comedy to work.  Have, no fear, Hubbard is in charge and has things well in hand.  She knows exactly what she’s doing and has a cast to match her (and, I believe, Coward’s) vision.  And she has a good artistic team behind the scenes with Max Ward as the set designer and, especially, Jessica Bobillot, as the costume designer (for this and many of their shows) and has outdone herself with this one!

(A side note to this:  Some years ago Hubbard was going to direct this show as part of the SRO program for Portland Civic Theatre.  She had cast me as Richard Greatham.  Shortly after that we were informed that this theatre, which had been around for many years, was closing its doors for good.  Opportunity missed but the beat continued, as it has come full circle for her and I veered into writing.  But, curiously, I did direct the last show to grace their stage, through their school, “Anne of Green Gables.”)

The cast all fit their roles perfectly and, being young performers, have certainly matched or surpassed other casts of Coward’s material.  This type of play would not be easy for any theatre to do but they have risen to the challenge.  If you can do this well, and they do, then you have just accomplished a giant step toward your goal of becoming a professional actor.  Bravo to all!

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

Comfort and Joy—Twilight Theater Company—N. Portland

Tis the Season…

This dark holiday comedy is written by Jack Heifner and directed by Jason England.  It is playing at their space, 7515 N. Brandon Ave. (off Lombard, parking available in the church lot across the street), through December 17th.  For more information, go to their site at www.twilighttheatercompany.org

Dickens probably wrote the definitive story about this Season in “A Christmas Carol.”  It pretty well covers the whole gamut of Christmas emotions, memories and types of people.  Part of that story involves the Ghost of Christmas Past taking Scrooge on a trip down memory lane, focusing on sad remembrances of being abandoned in a boarding school, losing the love of his life because of his greed, the death of his sister, et. al., allowing these tragic memories to dictate his present life.  But, knowing this, can he redeem himself?

Much the same thing happens in this story.  An ambitious PR man from a movie studio, Scott (Andy Roberts), lives a comfortable lifestyle in the Hollywood Hills of California with his new lover, Tony (Johnnie Torres).  But, on this Christmas Eve, they have acquired an uninvited guest in the guise of Tony’s brother, Victor (Josiah Green), a drunk who has been thrown out of his house by his ever-loving wife, Betsy, because he had a brief fling with a mouse (you’ll just have to see it for the rest of the story).

Not only that, but Scott’s homophobic mother, Doris (Angela Mitchom) from Texas, will be visiting and meeting Tony for the first time.  Things continue to get rocky when another uninvited guest pops in, Tony and Victor’s estranged sister, Gina (Adriana Gantzer), from South America, with a little surprise of her own (again, won’t give it away, as you’ll just have to see it).  And how do their pasts haunt them?  By a flighty gentleman with wings and a wand called the Christmas Fairy (David Alan Morrison).

It seems he’s been assigned to put things right in these people’s lives, so that present and future Christmas’s will truly be filled with “…good will toward men.”  So he must assume certain guises of various individuals from their pasts to accomplish this.  He becomes Scott’s former lover, Brian; Doris’s husband, Duke; the three siblings’ mother when they were children; Betsy, Victor’s wife; et. al.   By doing this it is hoped they will see the error of their ways and perhaps he, liked Clarence, the angel in another famous Christmas tale, will garner a reward for his efforts.  To learn the outcome, you’ll just have to see it, won’t you?

There is also in this play a significant bit of serious dialogue surrounding sexual orientation.  Humor and drama can be an uneasy partnership but, in this case, it works for the most part.  England has cast the play well and balanced nicely the light and the heavy in the story.  There is a clever lighting effect, too, when the Fairy is at work.  And Morrison, as the Christmas messenger, has his hands full playing at least a dozen different characters.  The cast are all quite good but Morrison is exceptional.

I recommend this play, but do keep in mind, it is definitely adult material.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Buyer & Cellar—Triangle Productions!—NE Portland

Underworld of a Star

This one-man comedy, starring James Sharinghousen, is written by Jonathan Tolins and directed by Donald Horn (Triangle’s Artistic Director).  It is playing at their space at 1785 NE Sandy Blvd. (parking lot to the West of the bldg.) through December 17th.  For more information, go to their site at www.trianglepro.org or call 503-239-5919.

We all have dreams—the biggest to the smallest—and we all have fantasies, too.  Perhaps it’s the collective tissue, our psyche DNA, that unites us all.  And in that vast wonderland of “could bes…” or “what ifs…” we find a Truth of sorts, that will get us through the night.  In the case of a mega-star like Barbra Streisand, it is a mini-mall under her Malibu home (true).  In the case of Alex Moore (Sharinghousen), a struggling actor, it is working there as a salesperson (fanciful truth).  It may be that “the truth will set us free” but it is the dreams, the fantasies, that sustain that “Truth.”

In Alex’s case, he is simply looking on how to finance his next meal.  But, like all of us, I believe, he is also looking for sustenance to feed his soul, as well.  His dutiful lover, Barry, an out-of-work screenwriter, tends to his corporeal needs but for an artist, something more, something intangible, is needed, too.  He craves a space to let his imagination flourish.  His agent, Vincent, comes to the rescue and supplies him with a mysterious sales job at a Malibu estate.  His creative juices are about to be tested.

He meets the martinet housekeeper of the mansion, Sharon, and he’s brusquely shown to his new working quarters, an entire mini-mall equipped with a clothing department, antiques, dolls and toys, a gift store, a sweet shop, costumes and props, et. al.  He is to keep an inventory of the places, dust, wear a “costume” (straight out of Americana) and, most importantly, deal with the sole customer who will occasionally visit.  The customer is Sadie, sometimes known as Barbra, and then the juices flow.

Alex was a character at Disneyland, so knows how to role-play, and also was heavy into Improv, which is part of many actors background/training.  And so his imagination is set free and together they explore the boundaries and content of this fantasy world.  It begins with a ruse about the history of a French, bubble-blowing doll, through airing childhood memories, to becoming a coach for a proposed revival of a musical for the icon.  But when the fantasy world and the real world collide, choices must be made…but more I cannot tell you without being a spoiler.

It is not a coincident, I surmise, that Alex claims to be a distant relative of Sir Thomas Moore (author of Utopia), for this story, in part, is about creating that Eden-like world for ourselves.  For an entrepreneur it may be farmland on an idyllic, Greek isle, where life is lived simpler and at a slower pace.  For a writer it may be seeing his work published and/or presented on stage and screen.  For a religious icon it may be a world where bridges between cultures are built and not walls, et. al. (any resemblance to actual people is purely…intentional).  What is your Dream?

Horn, as always, has successfully transported a world of wonder and magic into the everyday lives of a viewer, which is not only entertaining but enlightening as well.  Tolins and Horn and Sharinghousen have planted a seed within us that the world of the mind is limitless and the only one stifling that is…us.  “The fault….is not in our stars but in ourselves.”  Too true.  And Sharinghousen, always…always…is magic incarnate when he appears onstage.  I couldn’t imagine anyone better to share this journey of discovery.  He is a treasure.  And he wisely (via the author’s suggestions) doesn’t try to imitate characters but, like a good storyteller, simply gives the flavor, the essence, of the characters he embodies.  You never lose track of who’s who or the settings (also thanks to some very simple but creative lighting by Jeff Woods).

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