Monday, January 27, 2014

Jitney—Portland Playhouse at the Winningstad Theatre—downtown Portland

To Become A Man

This drama, by the great August Wilson, is part of his 10-play Cycle, is performing at the Winningstad Theatre and is produced by the Portland Playhouse.  It is directed by G. Valmont Thomas, a veteran of his plays, and will run through February 16th.  For more information go to their site at or call 503-488-5822.

This is the seventh play I’ve seen in Wilson’s eye-opening, 10-play cycle, one for each decade.  This one concentrates on the late 70’s in Pittsburg.  The setting is a “car service” establishment, Jitney, or unlicensed taxi office in a poorer part of the town, set to be renovated.  His plays always revolve around places and people (or composites of people) he knew in real life.  But Wilson’s plays are really universal as well, as all humans can identify with or know the characters he’s talking about.  And their plights are our struggles, too, in trying to make something of oneself, to become a human being in this big, badddasss world.

The shop is Becker’s and becomes, for a couple hours plus, a microcosm of the world.  Among his faithful employees are Doub (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), a fairly stable man, haunted somewhat by having to stack dead bodies during the Korean Conflict; and a very unstable Turnbo (Victor Mack), who jams his nose into everybody’s business and, like a wayward rocket, might explode at any minute, at anyone, anywhere.

Then, there is the cocky, young bull, Youngblood (Rodney Hicks) who, on the surface, seems to stray from his woman, Rena (Ashely Williams), an appealing young lady who just wants to make a good home for their child.  Fielding (Wrick Jones) is the company drunk, haunted by the loss of his woman and, in a dream, is stumbling toward Heaven, where she is reaching out for him.  Shealy is the con artist, running a Numbers racket out of the office, always looking for the next scheme to get him a buck more.  And Philmore (Ricardy Charles Fabre), is a flashy dresser, who seems not to fit into this make-shift world.

The King of this realm is a straight-laced, no-nonsense gentleman called Becker (Kevin Kenerly).  He has his rules in his kingdom and is pretty much unforgiving if they are broken.  But he has a soft spot, too, in trying to hold his mates together, as they rail against the storm.  His world may be falling down around him but he is stalwart to the end.
Into his world appears his son, Booster (Vin Shambry), now released from prison, after twenty years, for killing a white man, the father of a daughter he was falsely accused of raping.  Becker never visited his son in the pen, convinced this wrongful act shamed his wife, Booster’s mother, to an early death.  They are now estranged with seemly no way back.  They both seem to be living in dreams of what could or should have been, instead of putting the past behind them and going forward anew.

This is story-telling in the old-fashioned sense, where you have real, flesh-and-blood, down-to-earth, people we can connect with, who may have just walked out of your own neighborhood, exposing real stories of the human condition.  The plot is something you can simply hang your hat on, but the dreams, back-stories, monologues are where the true tales lie.  That is the strength of Wilson’s plays, in that it is his characters that are the meat-and-potatoes of them.  In their dreams we fly and, in soaring to great heights, we may be able to achieve something better than we have.  Perhaps, in seeing the plights of others, we will see ourselves, and know we need to change to become more than the sum of our parts.  The end may not be the purpose, but how we make the journey.

This ensemble cast is very strong.  Kenerly, as the patriarch of the clan, is especially good, providing us with a complex man, with all his warts in tow, but lending us someone we can embrace.  Shambry, as his son, who you want to cheer at and curse at, at the same time, is winning in his attempt to put his life back together.  Mack is always exciting to watch, as he electrifies the stage every time he comes on.

Hicks, having played to great effect, Rev. King last Fall, again is good as the well-meaning but errant novice to the pack.  Jones, a mainstay for years on the Portland stage, is very touching as his turn as the troubled sot.  The rest of the cast is also uniformly good, showing Wilson and Portland Playhouse audiences another exceptional show.

Thomas, as the director, certainly knows his material and does a terrific job of leading this exceptional cast.  His pacing is just right, highlighting the quieter moments and monologues, and quickening the pace for the more prickly-charged scenes.  He is a fine spokes-person for Wilson’s stories.

I recommend this play.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Therapy Hunger—Post 5 theatre—NE Portland

Litany of Pills

This short play is by written by Cassandra Boice and directed by her husband, Ty.  It is part of the Fertile Ground Festival and runs until February 2nd at their space at 900 NE 81st Ave.  For more information, go to their site at

This may be presented as a dark comedy but the message is deadly serious.  We have become a nation of druggies and I don’t mean the illegal kind.  We have prescribed and medicated ourselves into an alternate reality, where everything is possible but nothing makes sense.  We numb our senses to pain, hoping that we have eliminated the problem which it caused.  But we may have also numbed ourselves to the Natural World.

If one is anxious, there is a pill to deaden that, if one is nervous, meds can calm you, if your life seems to be in the toilet, Doc Feelgood can flush the bad stuff away.  Not unusual that there are so many Zombie movies and series that deal with people in a somnambulist-like state.  Is it possible we are identifying with such creatures and that prescription drugs are a bridge to that world?

In Boice’s play we meet a woman (Boice) who is viewing infomercials, informing her of all the choice, expensive drugs she can take to feel (or not feel) just about anything (watch TV and see if I’m exaggerating).  She then begins to go to various therapists to cure her of her mania of choice.  Of course drugs are always the solution.

One sex therapist (Chip Sherman) talks, not to her, but to her vagina.  Another one is an East Indian guru (Maya Seidel) who tries to get her into the flow of life.  And then there are the doctors who preach Pseudo Gestalt or Freud theories.  All, of course, unable to actually solve anything, so they prescribe self-help books and drugs to do what they cannot or will not do.

In the end, the patients’ bodies/psyches all react to these artificial changes in themselves and they become like marionettes, unable to control their own beings and become a series of distorted and twisted images of their former selves.  It ends on a sad note, with a woman in tears, unable to comprehend…anything substantial.

This play is a powerful indictment on our over-medicated society.  The dance/movement aspects at the end are beautifully choreographed by Chip Sherman and add to the success of the production.  He and Seidel are appropriate and scary as the various “healers.”  And Boice is always good in the acting department and this time has a supportive team in her own script and her husband, as the director.

It can be said that theatre/acting is its own therapy and certainly a lot safer than a world of drugs.  One hint I might make in her play, is that it might be a lot stronger ending if a child could be incorporated into the story as a victim, too, as that would make a statement as to the defenseless generation of children and how they are being led astray.

I recommend this show but it is adult in nature.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Bon Ton Roulet at the Shakespeare Café—Post 5 Theatre—NE Portland

"All the World’s a Stage…”

This play is written and directed by Elizabeth Huffman and is part of the Fertile Ground Festival.  It is playing at the Post 5 theatre space at 900 NE 81st Ave.  It is running until February 9th.  For more information go to their site at

This is an amazing and very successful experiment by Huffman, combining dialogues, monologues and characters from Shakespeare’s comedies and sonnets to make an understandable story that takes place in a bar in modern-day New Orleans.  It is said that the Bard was a universal storyteller, that his works could be adapted to any time and place, and this just proves the point.  The great Japanese film director, Kurosawa, made Ran (King Lear) and Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and even the Hollywood musical had a turn with the Bard in West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet).

So it is perfectly plausible, in an expert’s hands, that one might conceive a story with Benedict (Nathan Dunkin), Beatrice (Nicole Accuardi) and Ursula (Ithica Tell) from Much Ado about Nothing, and Rosalind (Chantal DeGroat) and Orlando (Kristopher Mahoney-Watson) from  As You Like It.  Then we add (perhaps) the young Bard himself, in the guise of Will (Ben Buckley) and (maybe) his daughter, Julia (Kristen Fleming).  Then throw in Pym (Yohhei Sato), a new character, to pose as a mate for Ursula, and you have a well-rounded cast.

The relationships are straight out of his plays, too, as Benedict and Beatrice are still the warring lovers, both pig-headed, arrogant and willful, not willing to accept they are in love with each other, waiting for the other to make the first declaration.  So the rest of the motley crew conspire to have them overhear conversations in which each is in praise of the other.  As for Will and Julia, he will have nothing of  marriage, and Julia will have nothing less than children with him.  She is also a native Cajun, and a light-weight when it comes to drinking, which adds to the rift between them.

And Ursula the bartender and lounge-singer, must also contend with Pym, who has a fairly strict religious persuasion that tends to get in the way.  Orlando and Rosalind might have the most complicated path to love, as she must disguise herself as a hip, old New Orleans man who promises to help him in wooing the lady.  She directs him to speak to her as if she was his true love.  Needless to say, 

“All’s well that ends well,”
As the poet would say,
And “Jack will have his Jill”
 Before the end of day.

Dunkin and Accuardi as the stubborn lovers are wonderful to watch, as they spar so well together, and could easily be convincing creating these parts in the play they were conceived from.  And Sato is appropriately rigid in his portrayal of a man, not unlike Spock, who is not in touch with his sensitive side.  And Buckley as Will, I assume, is the instigator, POV for the show (not unlike Joe in The Time of Your Life), in which his writer’s mind conceives this world and he plays it well.  And Fleming, thick with accent, is a very funny, aggressive drunk.  Mahoney-Watson as the reluctant lover is quite good and amusing in his wooing scenes with the male-disguised Rosalind.  His final monologue is quite effective, also.  One minor note, the accents from Sato and Fleming are quite convincing but they need to watch enunciation, as it is sometimes hard to understand the words.

But Tell, as Ursula, adds a whole new dimension to the show, as the lounge singer.  She seems so at ease with this role musically that I assume she has done this type of gig before.  And her final monologue is quite insightful.  And the original songs by Anderson Qunta compliment the story very nicely.  It might be wise, if this were played in other parts of the world, to incorporate songs/music to that area.

And DeGroat is amazing as Rosalind.  Her scenes as the old man are a scream and her transformation is quite convincing.  Also, her final monologue is exceptional.  She is a terrific talent and I would hope to see her onstage again!

Huffman certainly knows her material and the show betrays no signs of having come from other sources.  This is not a criticism, as Shakespeare himself duly “borrowed” from other sources for his plays.  But the talent is in the meshing of it all and then assembling a fine cast to perform it so well.  This easily could be shown anywhere, might be appropriate for OSF in Ashland.  And comic characters from the Bard’s more serious plays, such as the Porter from Macbeth, Falstaff from the Henry IV plays, the Gravediggers from Hamlet, et. al.  could be part of the rowdy ensemble.  And maybe even one of the spirits from …Dream or The Tempest might make an appearance, to add a magical quality to the atmosphere.

Obviously, I recommend this show.  And, if you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Eyes For Consuela—Profile Theatre at Artists Rep—SW Portland

Ghosts of the Past

This memory play from the late 90’s is written by actor/director, Sam Shepard (from the short story, The Blue Bouquet, by Octavio Paz) and directed by Mikhael Tara Garver.  It will run through February 2nd.  It plays at the Artists Rep space at SW Alder St. & 16th Ave.  For more information go to their site at or call 503-242-0080.

Shepard, better known as a film actor, has actually been writing successful plays from the mid-60’s, having written well over 50 plays from then to now.  This play has an unreal, ethereal quality about it, much like Tennessee Williams’s, Camino Real’.  It is also a journey of a man named Henry (Michael Mendelson) to find his way home.  Not a home of a place and time but of the heart and soul.

But memory is a tricky thing.  It not only can store facts but will create realities, as necessary, for survival.  In one’s mind, all things can appear justifiable, plausible…and one is in control.  But the heart is unrelenting, unforgivable when truth becomes compromised.  And, “therein lies the rub.”  Perhaps, like Dorothy, who discovers, “there’s no place like home,” she needed to go over the rainbow before she found that truth.  And, so too, must Henry.

This is not a conventional story, so one must not take it at face value.  You enter his world from the moment you step through the door, a steamy jungle of mystic music, whisking images, and primal sounds.  On the surface it is about a man vacationing in Mexico, who is estranged from his wife.  Into his conventional world appears Amado (André Alcalá), seemingly a bandit on a quest to collect blue eyes for his beloved, Consuela (Crystal Ann Muñoz).  No real explanation is given for this strange addiction, except that it makes her smile, which is worth gold to Amado.

And so Henry, a gringo, must have blue eyes and thus his life could be forfeit.  Most of the play is then a dialogue between the two men, both separated from their mates, philosophizing about love, loss, longings and the search for truth.  In the background is an old man, Viejo (Gilberto Martin Del Campo), with one eye, who owns the room that Henry is staying and a mysterious lady, Ejekatl (Edna F. Vazquez), that provides mood music on a guitar for the atmosphere of the proceedings.  And, in and out, like a shadow, breezes Consuela, fanning the flames of hope and despair of both men.

Revealing more would only spoil discoveries an audience must make.  But, to give a hint, before one can move forward to what is, not what one has assumed to be, one must divest himself of the baggage of the Past.  It is a wrestling match, with no holds barred, in which either madness or truth will reign.  Will he be a man trapped forever, like Henry is, in a purgatory of his own making, or will he move forward, into a brave new world.  Although unresolved in the play, I’m betting on the latter.

Mendelson is simply terrific as Henry.  His kinetic energy pulsates through the story, giving it its drive.  His erratic behavior going from confusion, to frustration, to giving up, to fighting for control, to letting go of demons, to seeing the light, and sometimes all at once, is truly an amazing performance!  He’s a pro and an excellent choice for this role.  We spoke at some length afterwards and he imparted that an actor must find truth, believability in his character or the audience never will accept the reality of the story.  He exemplifies that in this performance, as others do, and that is why the show works.

Alcalá is also good as the counter-part or partner of Henry.  Is he too, a lost soul, the devil, or just another facet of Henry’s psyche?  A riddle that is balanced nicely by the actor, never fully revealing the secret.  And Muñoz, as the title character, floats in and out of this dream-state, like a cloud or breeze, only suggesting, never dictating, possibilities.  She is a lovely lady, giving roots to a whisper, which demands great physicality, and she succeeds well at it.  Vazquez creates the music that soothes or reflects the savage beast.  And Del Campo lends an eerie presence as a collector, of sorts.

The whole atmospheric design is well executed by Seth Reiser.  And the director, Garver, does not have an easy task of converting a poetic dream into a reality.  Interpretation is everything in pulling this play off and she has presented it extremely well.  It is obvious she and her actors know the Truth of the story.  And she now presents it to an audience, to offer to them their role in it, as ultimately the meaning is in the “eye of the beholder,” as it should be.  I believe she is an inspiration to the cast and I’m sure would make the playwright proud.

Again, if you are desiring to see a conventional play, this is not for you.  But if you want to be challenged by an amazing writer, director and cast, this is a must.  I recommend it.  If you do choose to go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Charlotte’s Web—OCT at Newmark—downtown Portland

A Network of Love
This timeless children’s tale by E. B. White and adapted by Joseph Robinette is produced by Oregon Children’s Theatre and performs at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway.  It is directed by Lava Alapai and plays through February 16th.  For more information go to or call 503-228-9571.

E. B. White, also the author of Stuart Little, is a wonderful at writing for the young, as he expounds on friendship, love, humaneness, and simplicity in telling his stories.  He also has a keen fondness for animals and gives them voice.  And, in this electronic world, which tends to de-emphasis human intimacy and proffers bullying and violence in youth, isn’t it nice to consider an Eden-like place where caring for the less fortunate, celebrating diversity and working together is the norm?!

Once upon a time…there was another Eden, called Zuckerman’s (Mark Steering and Victoria Blake) Farm.  On it was a caring girl name Fern (Maya Caulfield), who saved a runt piglet named Wilbur (Elisha Henig) from being killed.  Over time Wilbur (Jonathan Pen) grew up and made friends with his barnyard companions.  There were the noisy geese (Bobby Ryan and Sarah Jane Fridlich) and the lazy sheepish family (Orion Bradshaw and Victoria Blake), and even a devious rat named Templeton (Jake Wiest).

But his very special friend and protector was a lovely spider called Charlotte (Claire Aldridge).  She knew that he was being fattened only to be slaughtered someday.  So Charlotte devised a plan that would save him.  She wove words into her web that emphasized how special he was…words such as “some pig, terrific, radiant and humble.”  Once his owners saw how much attention they were getting for having such a famous pig, and the fact that he won a special blue ribbon at the County Fair, they spared his life.

But the ending would be bittersweet, as the laborious task of weaving the words in the web, and giving birth to the next generation of her children, took its toll on Charlotte.  She died for her friend but left a whole new generation to carrying on for her.  It is said that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend.  Amen.  This was a bit of a landmark story as that it broached the subject of death in a children’s tale, but it does it so simply and beautifully, that it affirms, perhaps, Life’s Purpose.

The entire cast was uniformly excellent (as they usually are in OCT’s shows).  Fridlich and Ryan are worth a gander as the gregarious geese and Bradshaw and Blake are winsome as the whining sheep.  Orion (co-founder of Post5 theatre is particularly good in the dual roles he plays, giving each character a professional, quick but unique twist.  He’s a hoot.   Wiest is terrific as the conniving rodent with a heart of gold.  And young Henig, in the brief role of as the baby Wilbur, shines in his moment, giving rise, hopefully, to bigger roles ahead.

Caulfield as Fern is believable as the concerned caretaker (perhaps a reflection of White himself).  She has a convincing stage presence that suggests a winning acting career if she wants it (a younger Maya is seen in a featured role in an Indie film Nightbumpers at  And Pen as the older Wilbur is a delight.  He easily commands the stage when he’s on and has a confidence as a young performer that will bode him well in the future.

But Aldridge, as Charlotte, is extraordinary.  Not only is she lovely, but the acrobatics she needs to perform when dealing with the web, are worth the show itself!  She is amazing and must have spent hours training for it.  And, add to that, she’s a very credible actress and I would hope to see her in more productions.

And Alapai shows a steady hand when dealing with this complex setting and cast.  She understands the story and allows a lot of humor to enhance the characters. The costumes, too, by Melissa Heller have the flash necessary to create the critters but enough simplicity that allows for easy movement and quick changes.  I would recommend this show.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.