Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Julius Caesar—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR

“Absolute Power Corrupts…Absolutely!”

This drama by the Bard and directed by Shana Cooper is playing at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in repertory though October 29th.  For more information, go to their site at www.osfashland.org or call 1-800-219-8161.

Power struggles have been going on from the beginning of time.  Some factions do it because they’re control-freaks; some want more territory; some, because they’re naturally bullies and like pushing people around, thereby, making themselves feel superior; and some, like Caesar (Armando Durán), are overly ambitious and desire to be adored by the Populous which, in this case, is partly the reason for his downfall.  Because, once you are thrust into power doesn’t mean that there aren’t others, just as eager as you, to pull you down, in order to gain that control for themselves.  Again, “Absolute Power…!  (You might recognize elements of these ancient times in our own current political arena.)

Also, in these classic clashes for authority, there is usually a cunning instigator/manipulator behind the scenes, like Cassius (Rodney Gardiner), who are not popular or charismatic enough to lead, so they find a close friend or mate (e.g., Lady Macbeth/Macbeth), like Brutus (Danforth Comins), that have those qualities and, in which, they can ride to prominence themselves on their coattails.  Such is the dilemma we are faced with in this saga.

The story is familiar enough.  Julius Caesar, a despot who has recently gained power in Rome, rules his people with an iron fist.  A small band of citizens, led by Cassius and Brutus, decide that Caesar must die.  As mentioned, they have political ambitions of their own and Brutus’s wife, Portia (Kate Hurster), is especially mean-spirited, egging her husband toward assassinating him.  Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia (Amy Kim Waschke), even warns him to stay home from the Senate on the ides of March, as it’s predicted that will be a doomed day for him.  He doesn’t, and dies in a bloody onslaught from some Senators.

Into this fray appears Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour), who supported Caesar but has an uneasy alliance with the conspirators, as well.  In fact Antony may also have some political motivations of his own for his actions.  Complications arise when one discovers that Brutus and his pals do have some justifications for their concerns.  They sway the mobs, for a time, to support their cause.  But Antony is even more persuasive and manipulative after the dastardly deed is done, and easily wins backing to track down these “honorable men,” especially from Octavius Caesar (Benjamin Bonenfant), adopted son and heir to the Emperor, and bring them to justice.  Will the government under a new ruler be any better?  Probably not…but such is the Nature of Power, and the Powerful!

Even though this is a familiar, oft-done tale, I don’t want to give too much away, for it is up to you, dear audience, to make whatever connections need to be made.  I will say I have seen, and sometimes reviewed, over the years probably 15 productions of this story and I am pleased to say, this is the best production of it I have witnessed!  Yes, it is a classic tale of greed, ambition and corruption but that doesn’t guarantee that it will automatically be a winner.  And, yes, OSF’s productions and acting talents are always at their highest.  But the magic, uniqueness and success of this show rests firmly on the style in which it is presented.

The production is devoid mostly of the pageantry of elaborate sets, clever props and massive, period costumes that can hamper a production.  Instead it relies on simplicity of setting and clarity of the story to project its message, stripping it down to the basic elements of story-telling—the author’s words, the director/cast’s interpretation and the audience’s imagination to convey the tale, the purest form of entertainment.  Into this mix Cooper has added a stylized way of presenting it, akin to some Japanese and Aborigine forms of theatre.

Much of it is dance/movement-oriented, such as the battle scenes.  There is also the death of one character, in which he actually lays in his own blood, as the stomping of feet and his gyrations with it, conveys his death throes.  Very effective.  High praise must also go to the choreographer, Erika Chong Shuch, as she has followed Cooper’s vision and both have added greatly to the success of this event.  Much praise for all concerned, as a unique vision has been offered to convey the story and, even if you have only a rudimentary understanding of the Shakespearean language, the style in which it is presented reaches across language and cultural barriers, giving us a universal connectivity of understanding that seems to be slowing taken away in other arenas today.

One other thing, as to the clever rendering of this production, it is the first time I have felt some empathy for Brutus (Comins), who is often played as dastardly a villain as Cassius (Gardiner).  In this interpretation, he appears to be more of a victim to Cassius’s manipulations, as well as having some genuine, realistic reservations as to Caesar’s motives, who is certainly no saint.  In fact all the actors are following  Cooper’s vision and it works to the nth degree!

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

“As I Remember”…‘Gus

I feel it might be time to recall some memories of Dr. Angus Bowmer, the founder of OSF, who I worked with as a student for two years in the mid-1960’s, as well as being a part of the acting troupe at OSF, when it was only the outdoor Festival during the summers:
  • I remember Dr. Bowmer telling his class of the time when a colleague of his, Dr. B. Iden Payne, from the University of Texas, when he directed here.  (He was the prototype for the Old Actor in, The Fantasticks, since the authors were students of his.)  He told an actor onstage that he needed more control of his character.  The student replied he didn’t know what he meant.  So Dr. Payne stood up on the back of the seats in the outdoor arena and walked on them to the apron of the stage, then said, “that’s what I mean by control!”

  • One time in class, Dr. Bowmer was trying to explain that often roles in the Bard’s plays are rarely performed by the age-group in which the characters are (e.g., Romero & Juliet, who should be early teens).  He said the mannerisms also would be different.  He gave the example of Prince Hamlet (who is actually a teenager) by doing his monologue, “oh, that this too, too solid flesh should melt…” in such a way, by scuffing and stamping his feet, such as a petulant teen might do when pouting, with a high, reedy voice.  He was middle-aged at this time but I felt that that interpretation could not be topped.

  • He loved playing the supporting roles, as he felt they were the fun parts, since the weight of the play did not fall on their shoulders.  His favorites being Peter Quince (…Dream), Shylock (Merchant…) and Adam (As You Like It), thus the name of his book, which outlined the early days of OSF, “As I Remember Adam.”
He was a man with a dream who never let go of that vision.  May that truly be said of us, all of us, that we hold our standards high and will never let the weight of the way the world is, be an excuse for the way it could be.  “And the beat goes on…!”

Monday, February 27, 2017

Dutchman/Trifles—Defunkt Theatre—SE Portland

“Carefully Taught”

This double-edged sword brings you “Dutchman,” from the mid-60’s, by Amiri Baraka and “Trifles,” from the early 1900’s, by Susan Glaspell, both directed by Sarah Armitage.  It is playing at their space, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd. (in back of the Common Grounds Coffee Shop--street parking only), through March 18th.  For more information, go to their site at www.defunkttheatre.com

As the old song goes from “South Pacific,” you have to be “carefully taught to hate and to fear….”  Tis sad but true.  It implies that prejudice is not necessarily inherent in children but they learn it as they mature, from any number of sources…parents, schoolmates, friends, relatives, etc., and now the newest sensation, the electronic god, the Internet and Social Media.

These two one-acts explore that phenomenon in an interesting way.  By receding in time, 50 to 100 years, only to discover that prejudice/hatred/fear of anyone not like “us” may go back to the beginning of Life itself.  Measuring by today’s standards, are we to say that we’ve “come a long way, baby” or to conclude, “it ain’t necessarily so.”  As we open up more doors, we may discover secrets about ourselves as a race that maybe we don’t want to know.  Progress has its price, you know!

In Trifles we have a detective story.  The men, Mr. Henderson (James Dixon), Mr. Hale (Jess Ford) and Mr. Peters (Michael Jordan), are investigating a murder.  It seems that an upstanding citizen, Mr. Wright, has been strangled in his own bedroom at night and the only potential witness was his wife, who was sleeping soundly next to him.  She, of course, is arrested but the men have no clue as to motive.

But two of the wives of these men, Mrs. Hale (Elizabeth Jackson) and Mrs. Peters (Paige McKinney) see the crime scene differently.  They begin sharing gossip about the couple, as well as exploring the odds and ends, the trifles, that are laying about in plain sight, like a bird cage—with no bird, her sewing basket, little inconsistencies among items in the kitchen and pantry, et. al.  In reality, they discover the possible motivation, but, after all, they are just women and what do they know….

In Dutchman, we are aboard a subway car in The Big Apple.  A polite, Afro-American gentleman, Clay (Dixon, again), is on his way to a party.  Also aboard this roaring beast is a seductive, white chick, Lula (Jackson, again), obviously on the make.  Like out of a perverse fairy-tale, the maiden (not) offers a (poisonous) apple to the Knight (probably).  He is trying to resist her but she becomes very persuasive, even when more passengers board this relentless vehicle.

At his rope’s end, he balks and delivers a tirade as to his true feelings about his station in life and the rest of the society at large.  His message is certainly heard but not heeded and the end of the ride is not something the onlookers anticipated.  A web has been woven and the prey (Isaiah Spriggs) is still afoot, and so the Game continues….  The ends of these two plays you’ll just have to experience for yourself, if you dare!

These are both powerful shows, exploring the roots of prejudice but, I suspect, not only giving a history lesson, of sorts, but offering the observations that we may not have come as far as we think we have and that we still have much further to go.  Unfortunately, the political situation of today might take us a giant step backward, as we could encourage even more prejudice toward others not like “us.”  The staging of these two dramas is such that you are immediately pulled into the action and become, in some ways, part of it, with no escaping the sense of garnering some responsibility for the outcomes.

This is very adult in subject matter, so be aware.  The acting by all is exciting, and Dixon and Jackson are particularly effective in the subway arena.  They seem to undulate in rhythm with the car, as it jumps and jousts its way, hell-bent for leather, to the riveting conclusion.

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

pen/man/ship—Portland Playhouse—NE Portland

Between the Light and the Dark

This period drama, aboard a ship in the late 1800’s, is written by Christina Anderson and directed by Lucie Tiberghien.  It is playing at their space, 602 NE Prescott St. (free parking a couple blocks North in a lot), through March 5th.  For more information, go to their site at www.portlandplayhouse.com

England, during a time in their history, decided to not take up any more resources from the Motherland for undesirables, like prisoners, and so shipped them off to Australia/New Zealand.  “Out of sight, out of mind.”  But that, in the long run, might have been a blessing, as those individuals eventually settled there and, with their descendants, began a whole new society.

In 1896 some prominent, white businessmen also decided to experiment with this idea and sent a ship to Liberia, along the coast of Africa, to see if such a like-colony could be set up there.  Although the ship did have a Captain and a crew (Charles Grant, Tonea Lolin and Tamera Lynn), the main developer was a free, black businessman, a reverend, Charles Boyd (Adrian Roberts).  Although a stalwart individual, he was also wrestling with some personal demons of his own.  Also, on the trip, is his son, Jacob (DeLance Minefee), a dutiful child but developing a mind of his own.

Charles finds solace in the scriptures and also with one of the crewman, an out-spoken, accordion-player, Cecil (Vin Shambry), who has a certain earthy wisdom which Charles finds refreshing.  It should have been a routine trip but an unexpected element has been added, a woman, an escaping slave from the South, a proud lady named Ruby (Andrea Whittle).  And, if that isn’t enough to stir things up a bit, his son is smitten with her.

As the journey progresses, so do relationships, the discovery of the true nature of the trip and heated emotions.  Things are bound to come to a head, and they do, and by the end, lives will be changed.  I can’t tell you more without spoiling the story.  But a thought to leave you with, it is said that the Universe began with a Bang and, if so, then it is not unreasonable that “a brave new world” here on earth would not start the same way, with beings being unceremoniously thrust into it.

Four actors on an essentially bare stage (with, admittedly, some amazing set/prop pieces) must hold your attention for two hours and they do, as their powerful performances and this riveting story would be enough to hold my attention for much longer than that.  It goes back to the story-telling way of presenting a play, which is still the purest form of theatre, in my opinion.  Now, add to that, the clever addition of a billowing sail and a liquid floor and you have the makings of an exciting, innovative drama to partake in.

Tiberghien has chosen well her cast and she makes the most of the intimate space and nature of the play.  There are times I actually felt the cold wind that the cast was to be feeling.  And the set by Kris Stone and lighting by Solomon Weisbard are truly assets to the production.  And, as mentioned, the cast is solid.  It should be noted that the part of Ruby (Whittle) is enacted by a student who was part of their Apprenticeship program, which proves it can provide a path to bigger and better roles in the future.  And it’s always good to see Shambry, a seasoned, local professional, continuing in creating some memorable roles.  Roberts and Minefee are welcome additions and add greatly to this searing story.

I recommend this play.  You might want to check out their website for more information on the Apprenticeship program and on the fundraising efforts to reconstruct this space, as to how you can contribute.  If you do see this show, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Friday, February 17, 2017

In the Blood—Portland Actors Conservatory—SW Portland

The Wages of the Poor

This intense drama about the plight of the homeless is written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Victor Mack.  It is playing at their location, 1436 SW Montgomery St. (it is only street parking, so need to plan your time accordingly), through February 26th.  For more information, go to their site at www.pac.edu or call 503-274-1717.

There is a price tag on everything, nothing is free.  Watch your ads on television, the bottom line is that they want your money so that you are poorer and them richer.  The same goes for the “do-gooders” that work the more run-down sections of the urban jungles.  They, too, have a racket.  These observations are all contained within Parks’ play.

The reasons people are living outside the “so-called” civilized world are as varied as the people who inhabit those confines.  Some may be lazy and looking for a free ride; some may have emotional, physical, and mental problems that “polite” society doesn’t want to deal with; and some may have little or no education and work experience, thereby possibly, unemployable.  But, one thing is certain, as a Prince once observed, “the fault…is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”  Yes, we may just be our own worst enemy.

Hester (Monica Fleetwood) is just such an individual, illiterate and uneducated, living under a bridge, with five young children, all with different fathers and, of course, none of them around now to help with the burden.  There is Jabber (John D’Aversa), the eldest and Baby (Jacob Beaver), the youngest, with the “in-betweeners,” Bully (Tyharra Cozier), Trouble (Aries Annitya), and Beauty (Kristin Barrett).  On the outside, they seem happy enough, but their mother is all too aware of the struggles and sacrifices she must make to keep the brood from being caught up in the web of deceit and despair, as she knows from first-hand experience.

Jabber’s father, Chili (D’Aversa, again) was a drug addict when they connected and now is a slick salesman/con-artist.  The local, street-smart, bible-thumping preacher, the Reverend D. (Beaver, again) is Baby’s father but is loath to repeat that news to his congregation.  Trouble’s daddy is the local, smarmy, free-clinic Doctor (Annitya, again) who is as high on pills as he is on sex.  And the Welfare Lady (Cozier, again) lives by using Hester and others as slaves for her, or else she’d have to turn them in for violations.  And even her “friend,” Amiga (Barrett, again) is using her to sell items she has and then giving her only a pittance of what she garners from the sales.  In other words, to say the least, these are not very nice people.

We, like Hester, are dumped into this world in which we must confront the alternate lifestyles that exist next to ours in this shadowland.  All these characters must also face the spot…or, perhaps, more accurately…”God-light,” in which they must explain their actions and motivations.  Whether they are accepted, or perhaps, do we accept them, is totally up to us?  To tell you more would be a spoiler and I will not do that.  Needless to say, this is for adults only, as it doesn’t pull any punches as to the reality of their situations.

The set by Max Ward is super.  It puts the audience in direct contact with the setting, giving one the feeling you are intruding on their world (or, is it that they are intruding on ours?).  Mack, an excellent actor himself, certainly is the right choice to direct fledging actors, as he understands all too well the process of creating characters.  And the actors are all powerful in creating the dual roles they portray.

Most of all, Fleetwood as the central character, is a gifted actor.  She needs to be multi-faceted in her interpretation.  On one hand, she may be as corrupted as the rest.  But, on the other hand, she needs to show a vulnerability, a certain naivety, so that we can sympathize, perhaps, empathize with her.  She manages to traverse that razor-thin line so that we can see how she can be so many things, to so many people.  Quite a feat of acting!

I recommend this play, keeping in mind it does have rough language and adult situations.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Pillowman—The Headwaters Theatre—NE Portland

Twisted Tales of Terror

This intense, abstract, horror tale is presented by Life in Arts Productions at the above space, 55 NE Farragut St., through February 25th.  (Note:  although parking does not seem to be an issue, finding the theatre is no easy task, even with electronic devices.)  The play is written by Martin McDonagh and directed by Jamie M. Rea.  For more information, go to their site at www.lifeinarts.org

“Fairy Tales can come True…it can Happen to You…” goes the old song but one must remember that the original tales, specifically the Grimm Bros., were designed to frighten children into submission to obey their parents or the bogey man would get them.  So when kids went to sleep at night, they dreamed all right, but Nightmares are dreams, too, you know.  And this tale (or tales) are designed to keep you up at night, not lull you into a peaceful dreamland.  They are a delicious combination of Stephen King, Kafka and George Romero, sprinkled with bits of The Pied Piper, Folklore and, even the Almighty Christ, for flavoring.

Flash forward to the distant Future (perhaps, not too far) to a Totalitarian State (“form of government in which political authority exercises absolute control over all aspects of life and opposition is strongly discouraged”—sound familiar?) where a writer, Katurian (Benjamin Philip), of adult/graphic fairy tales is arrested.  He pleads ignorance to his interrogators, the matter-of-fact, Tupolski (Bobby Bermea) and the brutish, Ariel (Jonah Weston), as to what might have upset the Government.  It seems that the death of three children, all of which died in similar manners to some of his horror stories, have put him on the police radar.

They have also arrested his mentally-challenged, timid brother, Michal (Gary Strong), and has him held in another room, insisting that they are going to torture (approved by the Government—again, sound familiar?) him if Katurian doesn’t confess that they are responsible.  As they try to put together a case, they all participate in relating and, in some cases, acting out the stories (Carter Christianson, Sydney Jordan, Amelia Harris, Adam Goldthwaite and Mandy Khoshnevisan).  But not all is as it seems, either with the prisoners, or the detectives.  It seems that this 1984-ish type of atmosphere they are living under has brought out the “beast” in men in which they all must face their primal fear, in this case, perhaps, as FDR once said, Fear Itself, and the only way out might be meeting up with, The Pillowman!

I cannot go into any more details without giving away aspects of the story you yourself should discover.  But suffice to say, they all have secrets…and secrets within secrets.  It should be obvious that this is not for the faint of heart, OR FOR CHILDREN!  It is a powerful indictment against ruling bodies that do not consider the people they are governing when they make laws.  It also hints strongly that, as in the excellent film, “Network,” there is no real leader or government of a country, as we know it, but only a network of interconnecting secret bodies that rule the world:  A frightening Conspiracy of Silence.

The story(s) are presented simply with little distractions from elaborate set pieces/props, as it really doesn’t need any, as the story and actors are compelling enough to hold your attention.  The play itself is a bit overwritten and repetitious at times, but the basic story(s) and actors are riveting.  Rea has wisely kept it simple and has an outstanding cast to present this haunting piece.  Bermea (also an exceptionally good director) and Weston are powerful as the good/cop, bad/cop combination of authority.  They are a fearsome duo but, like any so-called unbreakable combinations, they do have chinks in their armor and, once exposed, they show their true colors.  Both these actors command your attention when onstage.

Philip, in the lead role, is riveting!  You feel for him as he’s unwillingly thrust into this situation; discover with him the darkness of his stories and their true meanings; and are horrified with him as secrets are exposed.  Certainly he is one of the best performances onstage this Season.  The other amazing performer is Strong, as the child-like brother, with a secret.  I’ve seen him before onstage before, often in comedic roles, and always good, but this is his tour-de-force!  He runs the gamut of emotions from child-like innocence, to smoldering anger, to intense rage and, even at times, an odd sort of wisdom.  Strong has raised the acting bar to the highest level and this performance is up there in the clouds!

I recommend this production but, as I’ve said, it is not for everyone, as it has strong language and very adult situations.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Marjorie Prime—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland

“Windmills of the Mind”

This inventive production, written by Jordan Harrison and peopled by some of the core members of this company in the cast, is directed by Profile’s former Artistic Director, Adriana Baer.  It is playing at their space, SW Alder St. and 16th Ave., through March 5th.  For more information, go to their site at www.artistsrep.org or call 503-241-1278.

Several connections raced through my head after I saw this show, some of them random but, as its party about memory and its inner workings, I think appropriate…Flash--I am reminded of an old adage, that we all carry three secrets within us:  The first, a secret that you only relay to a close friend; next, one that you don’t tell anyone; and, three, a secret you aren’t even aware of yourself…Flash—King’s, “Pet Semetary,” where a child misses his pet so much, he is willing to risk a curse to bring it back to life…Flash—a crying child loses his coin down a sewer grate while people pass him by, unmoved.  Finally an Android witnesses this and hands the child another coin, as he thinks, and they say I am a unemotional machine…Flash—Scientists from all over the world hook up their computers to each other to create a Super-Brain.  They ask it, “Is there a God?”  After a moment, the answer, “There is now!”

So, such is the power of loss, of memory and the human brain, of sustaining Life, in any form, and Fear of the Unknown.  The time is more than a hundred years from now.  Remarkably, humans have managed to survive the turmoils of Today and opened up a whole new Vista for Tomorrow—a world where loved ones, via Primes (a type of Android), will replace the loss of a dear one in looks and memories.  Many authors have toyed with this type of concept over the years, notably Ray Bradbury (one of my favorite authors) with, “I Sing the Body Electric,” in which a grandmotherly type of Android helps to raise children after their mother has died.  But these Primes have the exact look and memories of loved ones.  The tricky part is, what fodder do you “feed” them and who does the “feeding?”

In this case Granny, Marjorie (Vana O’Brien), is 85 years old and is coming to the end of her natural life.  Sustaining her during this period are her combative daughter, Tess (Linda Alper), and her understanding son-in-law, Jon (Michael Mendelson).  But, perhaps, most helpful of all, is Walter Prime (Chris Harder), who is (we assume) an exact replica of her late husband at a younger age.   He reminds her of happier times, continuing dialogues with her of facts (?), he has been fed, of their lives together.

But, as time passes, Marjorie must “shuffle off her mortal coil” and give way to her Prime to continue the legacy.  Then, as Jon and Tess, separately at times, feed the Prime info, we see how delicate data is, when actual live beings infiltrate the process.  Our individual perceptions of events, as well as personal feelings and biases, tend to slant the Primes’s memories of actual events.  In some ways they become a type of therapist for the living and, as time passes, we may have a tendency to try to create a perfect being, perhaps, out of the Prime…a slippery slope.

More I cannot tell you, as there are discoveries an audience should make.  But a question might come to mind by the end.  If we will someday be engaged in trying to create a perfect replica of ourselves…our world…”Primes” may ask, why then do we need Humans…but, then again, if no Humans…where does the fodder for Primes come from?!  The old adage, perhaps of, which came first, the chicken or the egg?  It’s a dilemma.  Am I reading too much into this play, or not enough, or simply going in the wrong direction?  But, the best part of it is, the author has given us a whole range of “what ifs,” and so, like my friend Dave, who saw the show with me, one may be tempted to spend time afterwards discussing  those, “what ifs,”…and isn’t that the best of all outcomes to a story--to think, to discuss and to question?  One last thought that this play also points out, I believe, the need to make the most out of our short time upon this earth and to embrace all the positive possibilities.

Baer has given the actors much room for creation, as even the pregnant pauses are filled with ideas.  And she has a marvelous cast to work with, all of them pros.  Possibly the most difficult aspect of the characters they portray is, when some are enacting the Primes, they cannot betray emotion but only an “imitation” of it.  Not easy, but they do it with conviction, especially Harder.  And the set (Kristeen Willis Crosser), being that takes place in the future, could have become too overwhelming with gadgets and futuristic styles, but she has wisely chosen to keep it simple, so as not to distract from the story and actors.  Kudos to all involved…Primes and Humans!

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

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Swimming While Drowning—Milagro—SE Portland


This insightful, two-man play is written by Emilio Rodriguez and directed by Francisco Garcia.  It is playing at their space, 525 SE Stark St., through February 25th (parking is a challenge in this area, as it’s only street parking, so plan your time accordingly).  For more information, go to their site at www.milagro.org or call 503-236-7253.

The title of this play reminds me of my interpretation of swimming as a kid—keeping alive in water!  I was a sinker and never have enjoyed swimming.  But that perception is possibly relevant with this story, too, in that, just because you may be splashing around in water (swimming) doesn’t mean you won’t drown.  Mastering the art of keeping your head above water is no guarantee you won’t eventually sink.

The Arts, as long as I’ve been involved with them (some 40+ years), have always been a safe haven for people, no matter what their culture, religion, politics, sexual orientation, et. al.  And especially in these turbulent times, it important to still have that sanctuary  http://dennissparksreviews.blogspot.com/2017/01/ghostlight-projectportland.html    for all that seek it.  This play focuses on LGBT group, as well as homelessness, and the very common human need for love and a place to call home.  It is said that, “home is where the heart is,” and so, the home we may seek, as Dorothy discovered, may be no further than the pulsating within, which is always in reach.

In the case of Angelo (Michel Castillo), who seems to be the narrator of this story, he has possibly run away from a house that may have raised him but in which he had found no love.  He is in a homeless shelter for the LGBT community and has found a refuge in poetry.  In fact, he has created an alternate identity for himself (a sort of super-hero, if you like) that will take charge when the real persona falters.  But, despite it all, there is still a loneliness within that seeks human contact and validation.

Enter Mila (Blake Stone), a street-wise, street-tough, that came also from a family where there was no love, excepting his Tia (Aunt), who read him bedtime stories when he was a child.  Those stories seem to be his rock, his foundation, for a piece of what he would call “home.”  As it is, he finds his connection to warmth in the money he makes from selling himself to others.  His meeting with Angelo is a mixing, at first, of oil and water but, as they begin sharing their stories of pain and dreams of what tomorrow may bring, they form an uneasy alliance.

I really can’t give you too much more detail, as much of the dialogue delves into their pasts, as well as exploring the power of poetry, which is beautiful, to communicate inner feelings.  But the author, Rodriguez, has managed in his story to transcend individual stories and catapult it into the universal need to find love, a place to call home (not just a house), the beauty and healing powers of Art/Poetry and the seeking of our own, individual place/purpose in this Grand Cosmos.  It is not without cause that their names translated mean Angel and Miracle.  And stars may not be just isolated, burning orbs, but loved ones, providing light to find our way Home.

This is a powerful play, as both the author, Rodriguez and director, Garcia, have created a world of immense proportions within the confines of one, small, cluttered room.  It is never boring and the space expands as your imagination opens it up to their possibilities.  The two actors, Castillo and Stone, are excellent!  I couldn’t imagine anyone else in these roles.  They play off each other with such believability that you feel you are in the room with them.  Kudos to all involved!

I highly recommend this play.  There are also some poetry and art events connected with it, which you can check out on their website.  In these “Pensive” times, do not let yourself be “Trumped” by hate and fear (puns, intended).  Tolerance is the key to a better tomorrow.  If you do choose to see this show, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue—Profile Theatre—SW Portland

Generational Defenders

This drama about the emotional effects of War on people is written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and directed by Alice
Reagan.  It is playing at Artist’s Rep.’s space, SW Alder St. & 16th Ave., through February 19th.  For more information, go to their site at www.profiletheatre.org or call 503-242-0080.

War is a double-edged sword.  On one hand, it is an excuse to quell conflict, on the other, an instrument of aggression.  It is said that the history of a war is written by the victors and so the actual Truth is rarely known.  Why does one group of people spend so much time and energy in squashing another, when all that’s left as a result are broken bodies and cities in rubble?  Is it worth all that effort to gain a plot of dirt and rocks and steel?  But, when the word patriotism is used, by friend or foe, then the conflict somehow gains a certain worth.  One Truth of it is simply that one group of people cannot tolerate another and so they fight to force their way of life onto the masses.

But another, more sinister reason, may be that some people just like to fight and kill, just for the pure enjoyment of it.  It seems that some may just have an insatiable appetite for destruction.  A line from the biker movie with Brando, “The Wild One,” the sheriff asks, What are you fighting against?  The reply from the biker, Whadda got?  Could it be that simple in some cases?  The bottom line seems to be, in a conflict, there are winners and, if winners, than losers, too, who will someday then rise up, and it starts all over again.  Tolerance, folks, is the key…now we just have to find the door that it fits….

This story is about four people and three generations of a family that feel a strong sense of duty to defend and protect our American ideals.  Perhaps, stronger, because the Ortiz family comes from a Latino heritage and are familiar with the struggles of minorities.  It is a memory play as it skips back and forth in time, reflecting sometimes on Grandpop (Anthony Green), a veteran of the Korean conflict, in which he would play the flute as a solace to sooth the savage beast.  His son, Pop (Jimmy Garcia), became a veteran of the Viet Nam War, fighting in the jungles.  Becoming wounded, he met Ginny (Cristi Miles), a military nurse, fell in love and eventually married.  The result being their son, Elliot (Anthony Lam), who choose to fight and, he too, was wounded, in the early 2000 conflicts in Iraq.

I don’t want to tell you the whole story because some of it is expressed in monologues by the characters and is beautifully told, by the actors, as written by Hudes. In their poetic presentations, akin to Tennessee Williams’ style of writing, my descriptions would pale by comparison.  The play is also done on an essentially bare stage, focusing on the author’s words, the actors/director’s vision and the audiences’ imagination to enliven the story which is, perhaps, the purest form of theatre.  What is also of interest is that you might expect these three generation of military people to have major differences in the ways they dealt with such things as death of comrades, the hardships of the environment, killing of another human being, the dreams they had that sustained them, et. al.  But just the opposite is true, they find a sense of comradeship between the generations as to war experiences.

They all dreamed of home, women, food…all found a certain solace in music…they carried trinkets of home in their packs…they abhorred having to kill another…thoughts of plants/flowers…memories of childhood/youth, etc.…all common elements of being “a stranger in a strange land.”  And they, like all our current, brave veterans of war, need understanding, acceptance and a place to call home in these uncertain times.  We are all a brotherhood…a sisterhood…a peoplehood, under the same sun and moon and stars, as are all living things, and it is necessary to share this space in Peace, in the limited time we have on this grand, green earth.
Reagan has done well in her use of a basically bare space and has the actors be inclusive with the audience, making them part of the process of creating and exploring as well.  Hudes has a powerful story to tell, gleaned, in part, from personal observations and conversations, as well as a unique, poetic style of expression.  The actors are all very believable and pull from within the necessary emotions to tell their tales, not relying on the trappings of elaborate sets and props.  Well done to all.

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

A Streetcar Named Desire—Twilight Theater Company—N. Portland

“The Kindness of Strangers”

This classic, Tennessee Williams’, play is directed by Tony Bump.  It is playing at their space, 7515 N. Brandon Ave. (just off Lombard), through February 19th (limited parking in the church lot across the street).  For more information, go to their site at www.twilighttheatercompany.org

Williams is unique among playwrights in that his plays are both deeply personal, as well as beautifully poetic.  Another author that has these same attributes is one of my favorites, Ray Bradbury.  Williams wears his feelings on his shirtsleeves and so it evident, under the guise of drama, for all to see.  He was strongly influence by women growing up and had no father figure and his plays reflect that, as his women are the focal points for his stories and men are either brutes or wimps.  Blanche is looking for Heaven (Elysian Fields), as she feels she has been in Hell, so boards a vehicle called “Desire” to take her there.  In an odd sort of way, she achieves this in the end, through “the kindness of strangers.”

Blanche DuBois (Dorinda Toner, Twilight’s Artistic Director) lived the life of the elite of Southern, “polite” society at their estate, Belle Reeve, as did her younger sister, Stella (Lynn Greene).  But Stella felt a disconnect with this privileged world and fled to the Big City, New Orleans, and the French Quarter, to meet up with a working class brute of a “common” man, Stanley Kowalski (Ted Hartsook).  He yanked her down from those lofty columns of poetic romance to the wet, hot pavements of “colored lights” and the “real” world…where anything can be forgiven by moans in the dark…and she loved it.

But into this concrete jungle, having lost Belle Reeve, appears Blanche one day, arriving on a streetcar named Desire, for one last, desperate attempt to revive her old world dreams.  But her, and Stella’s worlds, have nothing in common now and so allowances must be made.  Blanche finds some solace in the sensitive, Mitch (Colin Trevor), a friend of Stanley’s from work.

But reality has a way of raising its ugly head and the outside world, consisting of their upstairs neighbors, Steve (Jason England) and Eunice (Crystal Lemons) and a friend, Ruby (Sarah Fuller); the drunken poker games played with guys from his work, consisting of Steve, Mitch and Pablo (Johnnie Torres); and an attractive, tempting, young news boy (Ned Grade), all seem to conspire to destroy the illusions that Blanche has tried so hard to maintain.  And so, like the fabled walls of Jericho, they are destined to collapse.

Also, Stanley discovers that Blanche’s high ideals and stories of lofty romances may be just so much fictional fodder that a fairy tale writer might have trouble believing.  And so her Ivory Tower begins to crumble and, on one fateful night, it will explode.  The details of the story you will have to experience for yourself, for there are discoveries only an audience should make.

Elia Kazan directed both the stage and screen versions of this play, utilizing most of the stage cast for the movie.  The play’s climax got a lot of flack from the public because it seemed to condone abuse and so the film soften that somewhat, which I approve.  This play is difficult for even professional companies and I must admit that Twilight does an admirable job of presenting it.  They have only a small space but it works to its advantage here, so that the story appears out of this confined clutter, making it almost stifling in its claustrophobic atmosphere, designed by the director, Bump, Fuller and Robin Pair.  It is to Bump’s credit, also, that he has chosen a cast that does embody the characters so well.  And, as mentioned, his set and furnishings have that cramped feel to it that makes us, and especially Blanche, feel that the world is crowding them and penning them in, leaving no room for illusions or dreams.

Hartsook’s, Stanley, gives us the brutish guy that you dislike from the beginning.  It’s obvious that he is a bully and preys on people like Blanche (and Mitch) because it makes him feel superior.  Greene is believable as the abused wife in which the daylight is tolerable as long as she has her man in the night.  Toner’s, Blanche, reveals how delicate her condition is in from the beginning.  Her monologues about her dead husband, memories of her youth, and her description of Stanley, are very touching and well delivered.  Trevor, as the sensitive male with the ill mother, is spot on in his portrayal.  You see the pent up frustrations he must feel and when his illusions are also destroyed, he is a broken man.  Well done by these troopers and the whole cast and crew.

I recommend this play but it does deal with adult material, so be advised.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Forever Dusty—Triangle Productions!—NE Portland

The Dusty Trail

The West Coast premiere of this musical bio of Dusty Springfield is written by Kirsten Holly Smith & Jonathan Vankin, directed by Donald Horn (Artistic Director for Triangle) and Musical Director, Jonathan Quesenberry.  It plays at their space, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd. (parking is free in the lot next to the bldg.), through February 25th.  For more information, go to their site at www.trianglepro.org or call 503-239-5919.

I must confess, although I had heard the name and was familiar with some of the songs she sang, I really didn’t know anything about Springfield.  She was a popular singer during my Youth, the 60’s & 70’s (yes, I do remember the 60’s) and I was there during the social revolution, but I was more into the folk singers of that era.  And so, somehow, she slipped through the cracks for me.

Becoming acquainted with her via this play, I didn’t realize what an icon she was.  Here was a young, white girl from England who was in love with the Black music experience.  Not only that, but she had a lover (named Clare in this play) and eventually proclaimed her bi-sexuality, proving one thing most clearly, she was her own person, knew what she liked and nobody was going to stop her!

Mary, later Dusty (Leah Yorkston), was educated in a repressive Catholic girls’ school in England and soon discovered that being a singer or entertainer was not considered God-like.  It was her brother Dion, later Tom (Dave Cole), that believed in her and her talent.  He put her in his newly formed band, The Springfield’s as the lead singer, gave her the name “Dusty,” and from there she grew.

It wasn’t long before she was noticed by agents, producers and recording labels but it was Dusty, as a solo, they wanted and she was soon to find out that breaking off with her brother was only one of the many trials and tribulations she was to encounter on her journey to stardom.  The Black music also drew her to the South, where she immersed herself in that music scene, in Memphis.  Producers and recording studios were not crazy about the “crossover” music she was singing but the critics seemed to love her.  It came to a head in South Africa when she refused to play to only all-white audiences.

But she made headlines and future producers, Becky (Tasha Danner) and Jerry (Gary Wayne Cash) decided to take a chance on her.  She also had found a lover in Claire (Kayla Dixon) and their long relationship would go through many twists and turns as the years went on.  She recorded music in The Big Apple but eventually sought alcohol and drugs, a common refuge for stars in demand, when they are depressed and stressed, and soon moved to LA.  She had achieved the stardom she sought but at a price to her personal life and health.  Eventually she went home to England where she died in 1999.  Her fans still remember her for the progressive inroads she made in her business, and life, as she is…“Forever Dusty.”

Although I admit to not recognizing her music back then, it certainly strikes a chord now, as it highlights and reflects her life.  And Yorkston is a powerhouse when exploring the dreams, hopes and hurts of such a talented lady.  Her renditions of “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Crumbs Off the Table,” “I Just Don’t Know What to do with Myself,” “Quiet Please There’s a Lady Onstage,” “I Found My Way,” and “Don’t Forget About Me” are my favorites and, put in perspective of her own life, are also very revealing as to who she was and what she believed.  She certainly succeeded as a “crossover” singer and aided others on this rocky road to their own successes.  Yorkston is perfect as both the singer, as her voice soars, and an actress, as you truly feel for the character through her!

Equally good is Dixon, both as an actress and singer.  Early on she does a medley of songs popular from that birthing era of Black music and she is terrific.  She does some duets with Yorkston and they are an amazing team together.  She is also a fine actress and the explosive, as well as the tender, scenes between the two of them are very powerful.  I applaud them both, with the rest of the cast, including Sarah DeGrave in background roles, a very impressive talent in her own right.

Horn has kept the settings simple, so as to focus on the music and story.  His love of musical legends and social inroads seems boundless, as I am always educated, as well as entertained, by his productions.  “May he live long and prosper!”  Quesenberry is his long-time musical collaborator on his shows and the final product seems seamless as these two ole pros manage to create Magic every time!

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

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Almost Maine—Battle Ground Drama Club—Battle Ground, WA

Making The World Go Round

This dark comedy of the nature of love and relationships is written by John Cariani and directed by Stephan “Cash” Henry (BGHS’s Drama Director) with set and program design by Sundance Wilson Henry.  It is playing at The Lair (cafeteria) in Battle Ground High School, 300 W. Main St., through February 11th.  This group has also been selected to represent North America by performing this play at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in August of this year!  (Read more about this at the end of this review.)  For more information about this show and fundraising for their trip, contact Henry at henry.stephan@battlegroundps.org

And, as the heading suggests, Love does just that or, at least, it should.  As Henry puts it, “…love is the most confusing and wonderful emotion in the pantheon of emotions that we as human beings can feel.  It brings us up higher than we ever thought possible, and it can bring us down to depths of loss that we cannot fathom.  It is truly a many splendored thing.”  I might add, as has been said, “Do not seek out Love, for Love, if it finds You worthy, will guide Your course.”  In other words, go with the flow and it will take you where you need to be.

This is a heady play for anyone, but especially for teenagers who have, perhaps, already slid pass the “puppy love” phase, are rounding the bases of touch-and-feel and are just entering that mysterious realm of what-does-it-all-mean.  And, quite honestly, this is a pretty good play to explore those many moods of love and loss, especially in these troubled times.  “What the World needs now, is Love, sweet Love…”  Amen to that!

The play is told in about nine scenes.  The Prologue opens with two skiers, Pete (Arty Ricardo) and Ginette (Katie Beard) who have just met and are obviously smitten with each other.  But, he explains, in an odd sort of logic, that two people sitting next to each other are actually far apart if you look at it circumference-wise.  At this point, she leaves.  In the next scene, we encounter Glory (Trinity Weaver) camping out on a residence’s lawn, who is a total stranger, to see the Northern Lights.  The owner of the property, East (Thomas Rismoem), is bemused but also attracted to this stranger.  She explains that she must say goodbye to a former love who had, quite literally, broken her heart, and so she had to…but you’ll just have to see it to find out for yourself. 

The next scene involves two old flames, Jimmy (Tanner Opdahl) and Sandrine (Sammy Carroll) that have a chance meeting at a bar.  He hopes to rekindle their romance but she has a surprise for him.  The barmaid (Sadie Richmond) also figures into the plot in an eerie way.  In the third scene Marvalyn (Cass Brown) meets a neighbor, Steve (Justin Kunkel), who claims that he cannot feel pain and demonstrates it.  But he soon finds out there is one pain he is not immune to.  In the fourth scene, a couple is splitting up.  Gayle (Jamie Allen) wants back the love she gave to her boyfriend, Lendall (Jaden Denfeld) and he wants the same, but they discover there is an unbalance in the scales and a surprise in store for her.

In the following scene, Deena (Ceile O’Donnell) and Shelley (Jessie Akerley) find out there is more to “falling” in love than they expected, and a twist that they didn’t see coming.  In the sixth scene, Phil (Mason Gardner) and Marci (Bailey Paris), are a married couple at a skating rink, on the point of breaking up.  But wishing on a star brings an unexpected bonus.  In possibly the most touching scene, a Woman (Lauren Southwick) returns to her old hometown to find her lost love, but soon discovers from the current owner of the house (Jack Harvison), he has moved on.  But, at least, now she has an answer to the burning question he asked many years ago.  In scene eight, Rhonda (Cassidy MacAdam) and Dave (Skyler Denfeld), have been best friends for years but, because of an abstract painting he has done and given to her, Fate proves to have another twist in store for their relationship.  And, in the Epilogue, to tie up the story from the Prologue, the relationship comes “full circle.”

I can’t tell you much about any of the scenes as there are discoveries the audience must make.  But, be assured, although there may be odd happenings within the individual scenes, there is a warmth, truth, humor and a tugging of the heartstrings you will not soon forget.  The title refers to an unincorporated township within the organized state of Maine but, I sense, it is a metaphor for an alternate, quirky universe within the standard, mundane one we are use to, one commenting on the other.

Ms. Wilson’s rendering of the Northern Lights is quite lovely.  And Mr. Henry, as always, has delivered not only something special for the audience but, more importantly, that magic overflows into the care and dedication he has extended to his students, who are lucky enough to have him as a teacher, for it will benefit them tenfold as the years progress!

The teen cast, getting into some pretty deep material, do a very good job of presenting their characters.  I especially liked MacAdam and Denfeld, both seasoned from past shows here, as the eccentric couple, exploring a wide range of emotions.  Also Akerley and especially, O’Donnell, traverse both abstractly and literally some topical issues.  And Southwick and Harvison are very effective in, as I said, a very touching episode.  Kudos to the whole cast!

As I promised, here is how you can help send these young people to Scotland this summer.  Something to keep in mind, think back to when you were their age and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this came your way.  You would jump on it, I’m sure.  So give these young folks a chance to live out those, perhaps, unrealized dreams of yours when you were young.  They are within spitting distance of achieving this goal so you, as an individual and/or as a member of a company/organization you may be part of, can make a dream come true.  If you have any experience in Giving, I think you know the warmth that’s generated from within when you do this. Give from the heart.  And here’s…..Henry:

"The Battle Ground Drama Club has been chosen as one of only 40 schools nationwide, out of more than 3,500 that were nominated, to attend and perform at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest performing arts festival. We have raised more than $85,000 towards our $110,000 goal to take all the registered participants to Scotland, but we need the community’s help in completing our fundraising campaign successfully. At the moment, we have enough raised to guarantee that at least 13 students and chaperones will be able to go, and we only need to raise approximately $20,000 more to insure that all 18 registered participants can attend this life-changing and educationally positive experience.

Please donate today by sending your tax deductible donation, with a check made out to BGHS, to:
Battle Ground High School, PO Box 200, Battle Ground, WA 98604 ATTN: Stephan “Cash” Henry – Drama Director.

Thank you in advance for your generous support of the Battle Ground Drama Club, and for helping us to successfully represent our community on an international stage.”

I do recommend this show and their efforts to attend this Festival.  If you do choose to see the show or donate, please tell them Dennis sent you