Monday, October 26, 2015

Junie B. Jones, the Musical—Oregon Children’s Theatre—downtown Portland

Never Give Up

This musical from OCT is based on books by Barbara Park, adapted for the stage by Marcy Heisler and music by Zina Goldrich, directed by Isaac Lamb, choreographed by Amy Beth Frankel and music direction by Mont Chris Hubbard.  It is playing at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, through November 22nd.  For more information, please go to their site at  or call 503-228-9571.

The above phrase seems to be Junie’s motto and it’s a good one, whether you’re in first grade, as she is, or a golden-ager.  And, as she professes, if Life throws lemons at you, just make lemonade out of them.  It, indeed, is a scary world out there and best learn early how to deal with ridicule, bullying, and peer pressure foisted on us by the social media.  But Junie teaches us to be tenacious and defiant in face of adversity and, in her case, it seems to work.

This, then, is the tale of Junie B. Jones (Kai Tomizawa)--and a pox on you if you forget the “B” in her name--told mostly through music and dance.  She has a mother (Liz Ghiz) and father (Joe Theissen) who, although supportive of her, don’t seem to understand her.  Her best friend from kindergarten, the uppity, Lucille (Grace Proschold), has now found other best friends and so she, too, is forced to do the same.  So she pals up with the handsome, Herb (Clayton Lukens), who she has a crush on and the nerdy, clumsy but faithful Sheldon (Skylar Derthick).

She is going to record her first year adventures in her journal, her Top Personal Beeswax book.  Among her first are, getting a lunch box, wearing glasses, learning to juggle, trying to help in the cafeteria, and being involved in the Kickball Tournament.  In her own way, if she doesn’t exactly inspire her classmates (Lauren Burton, Ismael Samuel Torres, Kaylee Bair and David VanDyke), at least she carves out other aspects to her identity and stands up for what she believes in, good lessons for anyone.

The songs are very engaging and upbeat.  Lamb has chosen his cast well and keeps the action flowing at a brisk pace.  I especially liked Theissen, a frequent star of local musicals, in the many guises he portrayed, especially Mrs. Gutzman.  He is a genuine asset to any production he’s involved in.  Also Derthick as the awkward, Sheldon, is very good.  There is usually one in every class (as I was in school) and your heart goes out to him.

My highest praise, though, goes to Tomizawa as Junie, as she is extraordinary!  She is on almost the whole show and commands the stage with her kinetic energy, infectious charm and that amazing voice that belts the songs out of the park every time!  Mark my words, this young lady has STAR written on her horizon and she will go far in this career if she chooses it.  BRAVO!  (Watch for her as the title character in Alice In Wonderland at NW Children’s Theatre next year).

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

Carrie, the Musical—Stumptown Stages—downtown Portland

Diamond in the Rough

This musical of the horror thriller Carrie by Stephen King, has music and lyrics by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford and story by Lawrence D. Cohen.  It is directed and choreographed by Kirk Mouser (Stumptown’s Artistic Director) and musical direction by Jon Quesenberry.  It is playing at the Brunish Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway (upstairs of the Newmark and Winningstad theatres) through November 8th.  For more information, go to their site at

Carrie was a career-changing event in the lives of many people.  The novel by King was his first great success.  The movie by Brian DePalma was his first important film.  And for most of the actors in it, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, John Travota, Willam Katt, P.J. Soles and Sissy Spacek, was a first or early film of theirs.  Also it revived the career of Piper Laurie and had Broadway actress, Betty Buckley, as the gym teacher (who went on to play the mother in the musical of this story).

The musical had some of the same writing team of the original film but managed to flop as a musical on Broadway.  Rumor has it that it has been revamped and updated and will again grace the stages, as it has here.  The book was very episodic and told as a flashback of some of the survivors.  The movie discarded that approach and chose to present it in a linear fashion.  Now the musical has inserted some of the flashback aspects back in, with Sue as a type of narrator.

This is not just an old-fashioned thriller.  Consider, especially, current events, with the school shootings and the bullying that seems to be on the increase amongst teens.  Carrie (Malia Davis) is just such a recipient of such treatment, being that she doesn’t dress like the rest of the girls, is awkward in her social skills and is just an all-around misfit.  Most of the reason for this is that her mother, Margaret (Susan Jonsson) is a religious fanatic and won’t allow her daughter to wear make-up, have boyfriends and keep up with current trends among teens.

Some of the students at school, especially the snobbish, Chris (Carrie Morgan) and the creepy, Billy (Evan Tait) taunt her unmercifully.  Carrie does have some allies as well, including Sue (Amber Mitchell), the peace-maker and her boyfriend, the amiable, Tommy (Jake Daley), as well as the understanding gym teacher, Lynn (Kelley Marchant).  Of course Carrie does have one secret asset to combat any barbs thrown her way, a type of kinetic energy in which she can control the elements and make them do her bidding.  So, woe to those who cross her, as they will have Hell to pay…quite literally!

Revealing the outcome of the story might invite Carrie’s wrath upon me, so I will only say that most of them get their just rewards with, unfortunately, some collateral damage and one character who will be haunted forever as, what you’ve seen, you cannot unsee.  The setting (Demetri Pavlatos) is stark but gives lots of room for the actors to emote, allowing the lighting (Liz Carlson) and sound (Dave Cole) to relay much of the mood and scene changes, which they do well.  Mouser does an outstanding job of staging such a complicated story in such a confined space and he has chosen his cast well.  And Quesenberry, always good, allows the musical to project full force without overpowering the actors, no easy task.

The musical style is more operatic, singing spoken dialogue, than the traditional musical style, which might account for its failure on Broadway.  The songs do express the angst and frustrations of being a teen in this modern age but no songs are especially memorable.  The most effective numbers are “Carrie” and “Why Not Me?,” mainly for the power of Davis and her voice.  Her vocal range is amazing and I would guess had to hold back a bit, as her musical talent goes far beyond these songs, I suspect.  Hope to see more of her onstage.  And her duet with the gym teacher is especially moving, with Marchant adding lovely support.  Mitchell and Daley also have their moments in their duet with “You Shine,” especially the last moment with Mitchell.

This is a powerful ensemble and every one of them should be applauded for their efforts.  I do recommend this show.  If you choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Remme’s Run—CoHo productions—NW Portland

“In God We Trust”

This world premiere of a true, adventure story of the Old West is co-produced by Whink productions, written by Wayne Harrel and directed by Jamie M. Rea.  It is playing at the CoHo space, 2257 NW Raleigh St., through November 7th.    For more information, go to their site at or call 503-220-2646.

The above phrase not only seems to be one which is in our monetary system but something that the title character professes when he is in a tight spot…and, miraculously, it works.  This is an adventure tale of the Northwest, ripped from the headlines in The Oregonian, circa the late 1800’s, and based on a true incident.  It is one in which I was totally unaware but it a lively yarn.  It is aided by a terrific ensemble cast and an absolutely astounding high tech support by Jerry Green, Cathy Wegrzyn, Chad Smith, Michel Lemke, Burke Webb, et. al.

The story concerns a Frenchman, Louis Remme (Jean-Luc Boucherot), finishing a cattle drive in Frisco with his pards, Bose Boswell (Jennifer Lanier) and Jordan Linn (Andy Haftkowycz) and depositing over $12,000 in the bank there.  He plans on using that monies to buy himself a spread in the Portland area.  But Fate has a different scenario in store for him.  He meets his true love, a Mexican lady, Ninfa Noé (Tricia Castañeda-Gonzales) and arranges with his pals to see that she gets aboard a ship, the Columbia, and sail to Portland, while he goes overland.

But things take a downturn when he gets involved with a shady stockbroker and gambler, Vernon Starks (Jeb Berrier).  Also, it seems the bank has failed and he may have lost all his money.  So he vows to outrun the news of the bank’s failure by traveling northward until he finds one in which the news has not yet reached.  Meanwhile, on board the ship, his lady love and pards, devise a scheme to give the nefarious Stark a taste of his own medicine, with the help of the Captain (Chris Porter) and a couple of the passengers, Hedges and Chauncy (both played by Isabella Buckner).

Remme’s run is not an easy one, as he meets all sorts of characters along the way, some helpful, some not.  The story does have a happy ending, of sorts, but to tell more would spoil the fun.  The success of this production is not so much in the story itself which, although fascinating, is a bit episodic at times, but in the depiction of it, having a cast of five supporting players enact several roles along his journey.  And even better are the visuals that enhance the production.  Rea has cast it well and kept the action moving at a rapid pace.  And the players are spot on in their portrayals, filling in the skeleton of the story with the richness of their talents!

I cannot say enough good things about the visuals.  How they managed to get all the images so exacting in their locations must have taken a monumental effort.  At times the actors walk toward the projections and are then swallowed up by them.  At one point a knife is thrown from the stage area and appears in the visuals, then back again as it’s withdrawn.  One of the highlights was the fight onscreen between two vicious animals.  And the movement which was shown, underwater and on land, as they traveled, was amazing.  A virtual feast of the eyes for an emaciated man!

I highly recommend this production for the talent onstage and on screen.  But, this is a very busy part of town on the weekends and it is only street parking, so plan your time accordingly.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Rope—Bag & Baggage Theatre—Hillsboro, OR

The Murder Game

This very dark comedy is written by Patrick Hamilton and directed by Rusty Tennant.  It is playing at their space at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St., in Hillsboro.  (Soon they will be moving into their own space at 350 E. Main St.)!  The show is performing through November 1st.  For more information, go to their site at

First a bit of history about the type of murderers that are depicted here (no, I’m not giving anything away, as it’s revealed at the very beginning of the play).  The two killers here are Sociopaths, essentially exhibiting psychotic, anti-social behavior with no remorse…basically, having no conscience and no compassion for others.  This story is loosely based on the Leopold/Loeb murderers of almost a hundred years ago.  There was a film, Compulsion (with Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell as the killers), about the trial.

They also have a striking resemblance to the killers of the mid-west of a half century ago in which Capote wrote his famous, In Cold Blood.  Another commonality is that one is the manipulator, the stronger, and the other, the follower (or disciple).  It is argued that without the union of these two beings, in which essentially a third one is “created,” individually they wouldn’t have murdered anyone.  And they usually seek to get caught, so they can brag about it, as Vanity is part of the driving force behind it.  Interesting theory.

In Hitchcock’s film, it is simply played as a suspense story in New York City, with his gimmick of doing a series of long takes to tell it.  In this presentation, it is the original play taking place in England and has considerably more humor, albeit dark, than his film.  And, most notably, our protagonist is outwardly Gay (as are the killers, although a tad bit more subdued), something that was verboten at the time in most societies, although Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde certainly broke the ice in England, but not without consequences.

So, as to the story, a cocktail party is being planned at the home of Granillo (Nathan Dunkin) and Brandon (Trevor Jackson), students at the University, in which, at least outwardly, it is to share some rare books with the famous and stodgy, Sir Johnstone (Philip Rudolph).  (Side note, his son is the murder victim in the locked chest, prominently displayed.)  Along for the ride is his silly sister, Mrs. Debenham (Victoria Blake).  Others on the guest list are the exuberant, Raglan (Joel Patrick Durham), another student, and a ditzy friend, Leila (Signe Larsen).  There is also the servant, the mysterious, Sabot (Alec Lugo).  But the main attraction for them is the foppish intellectual, Rupert (Michael Tuefel), who they feel might agree and applaud the idea of their “thrill kill.”

Most of the dialogue of the play amongst the party guests is simply “window-dressing” for the main purpose, which is to see how, or if, Rupert is going to discover the crime.  Hints and bits of business are dropped and one, accidentally dropped (in the case of Leopold/Loeb, it was a pair of eyeglasses of one of the killers, which was found at the scene), will rouse his suspicions to the heights.  Rupert is a curious, nosy and a rather arrogant individual and deductive in the way Sherlock Holmes is, picking up small, seemingly inconsequential, bits of news and inserting them into a larger puzzle.

There are moments in the story which have long pauses, something not often done in a play, as you see Rupert putting the pieces together in his mind, and it works wonderfully.  This is unlike most TV detecting shows where everybody has figured out the plot almost instantly.  There is also a fight scene (staged, I’m sure, by Tennant) that is also quite impressive.  And the final confrontation is not only intellectually stimulating but powerfully delivered by Brandon and Rupert.  All in all, an exciting experience and very appropriate for the Halloween Season!

Tennant has done an amazing job of putting this production together, as it’s a tale that slowly creeps up on you, with low lighting at times and the persistent clock ticking in the background and a stormy night to add spookiness to the atmosphere of the proceedings.  He has also chosen his cast well, especially Tuefel as Rupert and Jackson as Brandon.  Their final battle of the wits is an edge-of-the-seat event.  Tennant is always an asset to a production, whether it’s as a director, designer, actor or fight choreographer and he is exactly the right choice for this play!

Tuefel is brilliant as the protagonist.  His timing, physical movement, voice and overall demeanor are exactly right for the part and very well enacted.  He is so convincing in the part, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it.  This is someone I hope to see more of onstage.  Jackson, as Brandon, the main antagonist, is also excellent.  His manipulation of his partner, Granillo, is brutal at times, then subtle, and  quite frightening to observe.  He exhibits the power and charm of a Ted Bundy-type and the intellect of a Capt. Nemo-type.  Quite a complex character and very well played.

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

Cock—defunkt theatre—SE Portland

Savage Arena

This very intense, adult drama is written by Mike Bartlett and directed by well-known, Portland director, Jon Kretzu.  It is playing at their space in back of the Common Grounds Coffee House, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd. (street parking only, so plan time accordingly), through November 14th.  For more information, go to their site at

“What a piece of work is Man…,” quotes the Bard.  What really is the make-up of this species we call Human?  Are we primarily a Sexual Being…or a Thinking Animal…or a Warring Beast…or a Pious Person, et al.  In truth, we are the sum of all those parts and more.  But often we get so caught up in only one or two aspects of our character that we can’t see the “forest through the trees.”  Our true identity and purpose may get lost in the shuffle.

In part, that is at the core of this play, Jon’s (Clifton Holznagel), search for who he is.  He has a contentious relationship with his lover, the demanding, M (David Bellis-Squires), who seems to criticize him all the time and pull down his ego.  This tends to make Jon indecisive in his life, as others have made the decisions for him.  We see this couple at a low point in their connection with each other and so they break up.

Then Jon meets a woman, the alluring W (Kayla Lian), and another aspect, hidden perhaps, comes out.  W makes him feel good about himself and he explores other aspects of his identity.  And so a relationship is formed.  But it also causes conflicts, as he still has feeling for M.  A point of no return is reached when they all three decide to have dinner together and Jon will have to finally make a decision as to which direction his life will take.  But a fourth character appears on the scene, F (Ted Schultz), to complicate matters and this primeval stew goes even deeper into a person’s psyche.  To reveal more would be telling, so I’ll leave it at that.

Some unique things about this production are the arena-like setting, no props or furniture, in a boxing ring, in which the audience sits in bleachers around the acting area.  There is even the ringing of a bell, like at boxing matches, for each “round” or change in mood of the story.  The language is very reminiscent of Pinter or Stoppard, or even Virginia Woolf, where people speak more like they think, in a stream-of- consciousness way.  This kind of setting makes it very intense for the actors (and audience), with no set to hide behind and having the audience staring at you in close proximity at every turn.  Very disconcerting, but effective, for all involved.

Kretzu is a master at keeping the play interesting with such a limited space, by having his actors dance, pace, prowl and stalk each other around the space, as if like an animal following its prey.  And my hats off to all four actors, as they are consistent in keeping the intensity alive, like electricity jolting through you.  They are excellent!  The characters are distinct:  Schultz representing the old-school way of thinking; Lian showing us the female point of view; Bellis-Squires giving us a view of an obsessive but passionate love; and Holznagel portraying the epitome of a person on-the-fence, going whichever way the wind blows but feeling, at his heart, there is still an undiscovered…Me.

I recommend this production but it is very adult in situation and language, so be warned.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sex with Strangers—Portland Center Stage—Pearl District

“Strangers in the Night…”

This two-character drama is written by Laura Eason and directed by Brandon Woolley.  It is playing at their space, in the Ellyn Bye, at 128 NW 11th Ave., through November 22nd.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-445-3700.

This may not be as nostalgic as the above song but it certainly has the ring of truth about it.  I just recently reviewed a show on a similar subject at defunct theatre, even with the same enigmatic ending.  It also is about exploring who we really are, who are our partners and how a relationship should proceed.  Much of this “new awakenings” is due to the Internet and the Social Media, assuming that whatever you find on them is “God’s Truth” which, I’m sure we all know, isn’t the case.  But it does provide interesting topics for discussion.

At first glance this might seem to be something a film from the mid-Century might consider, with Doris Day or Cary Grant (except for the language).  But stories and relationships are never that simple anymore.  And, once “Pandora’s Box” is opened, it may be impossible to ignore what comes tumbling out.  Also, be careful not to judge too harshly, because the mirror can then be turned toward you, too.

It’s a cold, wintry night at an out-of-the-way Inn, with a writer, Olivia (Danielle Slavick), curled up with a good book and a glass of wine, only to be disturbed by a insistent pounding on the door.  It seems that another writer, a stranger, Ethan (Christopher M. Smith), is also to be a guest here so that he, too, can get some writing done, in solitude, on his screenplay.

They can get no Internet because of the storm and there is no television, so they must rely on communicating with each other in the old-fashioned-way, of just sitting down, in person, and chatting.  Ethan is highly charged and very aggressive in his demeanor, while Olivia is more subdued.  He admits that he is an overnight wonder in writing a semi-porn book called, “Sex with Strangers,” about a single man on the prowl.  She, it seems, is a more “serious” writer and has written a novel, which he has read, and considers brilliant.

It seems they have things in common and, with one thing leading to another, they end up having sex.  She has another novel in the offering but is afraid to have it published, as she doesn’t deal with criticism well.  But he has an agent and is launching an Internet App which will promote new authors.  Needless to say, an alliance of sorts is formed, although she is suspicious of his motives.  Their relationship has some ups and downs and, as the story progresses, hidden secrets are exposed which threatens their union.  Can’t tell you more without spoiling discoveries, but I can say, “what goes up, must come down,” and leave it at that.

Who we really are is a complex subject, because we are part and parcel of what we’re born with, how we are raised, and who and what we come in contact with through our lives.  Another dilemma is how much of this information do you want to share with others.  We always seem to be testing each other, searching for common elements either in a friendship or a mate.  It’s not an easy row to hoe.  I’m still convinced that one-on-one, personal contact with another is the best way to discover who they (and you) are.  Body language and intuition are also important ways to connect with someone and…”the beat goes on.”

Woolley has done a good job of always keep things moving onstage, both verbally and physically, still leaving an element of imagination to fill in the blanks.  Also, he has chosen his cast well, as they both fit the characters they portray to a tee.  Slavick is outstanding as the seemingly more reticent Olivia, wanting to believe in herself, and love, but not quite being able to let go.  Smith is a great match for her, as the seemingly self-assured macho male who also has a vulnerable side.  Neither seems to be fully comfortable in their own skins and, oddly, they need each other to evolve.  They are both so good you  do believe they really are in real life, who they enact onstage.  The set (designer, Tony Cisek), too, especially Act One, looks like something you could walk into and be enveloped by it.

I recommend this show but, be aware that, as always, parking in the Pearl District on the weekends is a challenge.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

The Sound of a Voice—Theatre Diaspora—Pearl District

An Asian Fairy Tale

This ghostly, one-act fairy tale is written by David Henry Hwang and directed and co-produced by Samson Syharath.  It is playing at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., at 7 pm on Sunday, October 25th.  For more information, go to their site at

I would rather attribute this tale closer to the familiar fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen than an actual ghost story, although it has aspects of both.  It has elements of “Snow White…”, “King Arthur…” and some haunting love stories of Lore.  Most traditional ghost stories conjure up tales of terror and revenge.  This story is poetic and lyrical, many thanks to the masterful playwright, Hwang.

Once Upon a Time…there was a lonely Old Woman (Chisao Hata) who lived in the forest.  Little was known of her but she seemed to have lived in her house as long as anyone could remember, and never seemed to venture into town for supplies.  She also had a beautiful garden of flowers that seemed to grow all year round.  Also, one always heard beautiful Shakuhachi music (Larry Tyrrell, coming from her flute, as it permeated the forest.  Occasional visitors would come calling but never seemed to leave.

One day a virile Man (Larry Toda) happened upon this place on his journey to a far-off town.  He was invited in by the old woman to stay and eat and drink as he pleased.  In return he volunteered to help her with the chores.  But he was often awakened in the night by the mysterious music.  He vowed to find the source of the music and to what really happened to the guests who had come calling.  And, oh, my goodness, did he ever…!  To tell more would spoil the story.

This is a fitting entry into the Halloween and Day of the Dead celebrations coming up in a couple of weeks.  The story is bittersweet but gently and humorous related.  Syharath has a nice touch with this delicate story, allowing only the barest of props and setting to establish the scenes, relying more on the story-telling aspects of Hwang’s haunting tale (stage directions read by Mariko Kajita), the beautifully played music (Tyrrell), and the accomplished two actors, Hata and Toda.

To me story-telling is becoming a lost art.  Only on occasion do theatres rely on this to become part of their repartee.  They often seem to want fancy sets and costumes to enhance (or distract) from the shows they are presenting.  It is comforting to know that this company simply allows the words, talent and imagine to shine through.  Dmae Roberts and her company have accomplished that, and Toda, Hata and Tyrrell are top-rated for their efforts to enchant us, and they did!

I enjoyed this sweet show and recommend it.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.  And, I’m sure, if you have some monies to impart and/or a permanent space for them to perform in, they would be happy to hear from you, too, in that regard.  And, remember, that parking in the Pearl District can be a challenge, so plan your time accordingly.

Friday, October 16, 2015

La Muerte Baila—Milagro—SE Portland

Dead Alive
This remembrance of loved ones who have passed on, is conceived by Rebecca Martínez and written and choreographed in collaboration with the cast, with Martínez as the Director.  It is playing at their space, 525 SE Stark St. (warning, street parking is a problem, so plan you time accordingly), through November 8th.  Please go to their site, or call 503-236-7253, for more information.

When investigating the beginning of the human race, and separation from animals, one of the things scientists look for is whether they bury their dead.  Many tribes of Africa, Native Americans and, of course, the Mexican culture, et. al., have great rituals involving the passing of loved ones.  Writers from Rod Serling to Ray Bradbury, to filmmakers such as Bergman and Woody Allen, et. al. deal with Death.  Even plays, such as Our Town and Spoon River Anthology, have “Death” as one of the main characters.

Outside of possibly Halloween and Veterans & Memorial Days, the Day of the Dead is probably the most recognized celebration of Death or Remembrance.  In this case, La Muerte (Sofia May-Cuxim), enjoys this day, as it takes the responsibility of her charges off her and gives them over to their loved ones.  She sees her job as taking away pain and easing them into the “other world.”  In this case, a newbie, Alejandro (Jonathan Hernandez), seems to cause a glitch in the system, as he has no real memories of his life.

Other inhabitants of this world, his uncle, Don Carlos (Enrique Andrade) and his former teacher, Dona Emilia (Patrica Alvitez), attempt to recall past events for him but it seems to do no good.  Others, such as a Nebraska settler from a couple hundred years ago, Clara (Emma Bridges), and Rosana (Rosa Floyd), share their stories with him to see if that will elicit his memories, and even a couple of musicians, Eleutelia (Sherman Floyd) and Susa (Susan Jacobo), try to cheer him up through song and dance but nothing seems to work.

It seems that to pass through this barrier to the celebration, one must have memories of loved ones left behind.  And, in order for La Muerte to have her day of rest, every effort is made to jog his memory and break through the barrier to loved ones.  I can’t tell you how it all turns out so you’ll have to see for yourself.  But much of the story is told through music and interpretive dance, which are some of the high points of this production.

The cast and director are super in bringing these observations to light and making all of us aware of how precious Life is and that we should treat every moment of it as a gift.  Remembering where we came from and honoring our individual past histories through our ancestors is something that makes us very human.  Also, let no passed hurt or disagreement clog your memories, it only increases negativity for yourself and those around you.  As the song professes, “let it go, let it go.”

I recommend this production.  It is a great insight into a philosophy and a culture.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Cuba Libre—Artists Repertory Theatre—downtown Portland

“You Can’t Go Home Again”

This world premiere musical is written by Carlos Lacámara and music & lyrics by Jorge Gómez, choreographed by Maija Garcia, music by Tiempo Libre and directed by Dámaso Rodriguez (Artists Rep.’s Artistic Director).  It is playing at the Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway through November 15th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-241-1278.

The above quote is from a Thomas Wolfe novel (Look Homeward, Angel) and it seems to fit this play, too.  It does not mean you can’t go home physically but you can never recapture your Youth, going home in that sense.  And, if that Youth, as in this case, is in another country (Cuba), it makes it doubly hard to hold onto that heritage and their traditions.  Those “salad days” can never be repeated.

You leave loved ones and good memories behind and, although you might have been poor, they were may have been happy times.  But to prosper and grow in a “land of opportunity,” sacrifices may have to be made.  So you have the choice to stay with “dirty clothes—clean conscience” or to follow the yellow-brick road to fame and fortune.  If the latter is chosen, memories will haunt you and “the beat goes on.”

Does this mean you can’t identify with this story if you haven’t come from another country to this one?  No.  We all grow up, so to speak, and expand beyond our comfort levels to explore new territories in other parts of the county.  And we all have guilt and regrets of what mantels we have shed.  In my case, I spent nine years on the East Coast and finally abandoned that life to come here.  But I did leave (as the lead character in this tale does) a gal behind and it has haunted me ever since.  So can I identify with them?  Oh, yes!—and so can anyone, I believe….

Alonso (German Alexander) is a musician, an artist looking for fame in his native land of Cuba.  But it is the 1990’s under Castro and the American embargo.  So there is barely a meager level of existence, requiring people to beg borrow, steal and/or sell themselves for even the most basic of needs.  But Alonso does have his music and his band buddies, the patient, Hector (Brandon Contreas) and his nervous lover, Rudy (Jose Luaces) and his band leader, the energetic, Tarzan (Xavier Mili Saint Ives).

His dream is to enter the International Music Festival and move to Miami.  He, like so many others, wish to make a better life for themselves.  He supports himself and his loving mother, Olga (Luisa Sermol).  His stubborn brother, Ignacio (Nick Duckart), has already fled the country, supposedly lost at sea.

Meanwhile, he finds work in a mental hospital and meets Lisandra (Janet Dacal), who ministers as best she can to her patients.  They fall in love and, through her, he might have found a way to enter the Festival.  But, when he and his band get to Miami, he finds it a mixed blessing.  He does get involved with his agent, Annie (Sara Hennessy), and her young child but is the trade-off with his Past worth the effort?  You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Passionate!  Energetic!  Historic!  Viva, Cuba Libre!  I came with three people, not lovers of musicals, and they were so enthused by the end of the show, my blog manager even joined the actors onstage at the end of the show in the dancing.  It is that compelling.  Much of the credit must go to the director, Rodriguez, being Cuban-American and from Miami, this is his baby and he has nurtured it for three years to its present world premiere.  And, being a proud papa, I’m sure, he well deserves all the accolades he can garner from this production, as his “baby” has grown into a talented representation of a culture and an art form.  Broadway, look out!

The whole cast, including the ensemble and band, has a lot to be proud of.  The choreography (Garcia) is amazing, as are her dancers!  Not only do they play some of the supporting characters well, and sing, but their dancing is infectious.  “Triple threats,” as they say in the Biz.  And the band, Tiempo Libre, being onstage throughout, lends a personal credibility to the whole proceedings.  The setting (designer, Christopher Acebo), lighting (designer, Peter West) and costuming (designer, Gregory Pulver) are all first rate!  Without this talented team, this production would not be as exceptional as it is.

The whole cast fit the roles to such an extent, I couldn’t imagine anyone else in these roles (are you listening, Broadway?).  I was especially taken by the heart-felt performance of Dacal, as the lady left behind, probably because of my own experience.  But her voice is incredible, as well as her appearance, leaving you with the wish that you could be in two worlds at once, as she would be, as most true loves are, impossible to match.

I highly recommend this production but know that it is selling out fast, so get your tickets now.  Also parking, as always, can be difficult downtown, so plan your time accordingly.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Dearly Departed—Twilight Theater Company—N. Portland

What We Leave Behind (may boggle the mind)

This dark comedy is written by David Bottrell and Jessie Jones and directed by JJ Harris (Artistic Director of the company).  It is playing at their space (upstairs) at 7515 N. Brandon Ave. (limited parking now located in the church lot across from the theater) through October 25th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-847-9838.

This play is definitely a very dark comedy about a very dysfunctional, backwoods family preparing for the funeral of one of their patriarchs.  There is a totally different set of rules of how these people behave toward one another and the kind of life styles they lead, compared to our so-called “civilized” society.  Some films of the past have reflected on this type of world, such as Cold Mountain and Winter’s Bones.  But this differs in that it is a darkly comedic vision of those individuals.

I must say much of the humor works, thanks to a very good Director of comedy, JJ Harris, and his talented cast.  But, as written, there are references to a miscarriage and, although poignantly done, it really should not be the subject of humor.  A scene that does cross the line, I believe, is one of a disabled son, which is definitely not a subject up for laughs.  But, outside of those mentions, many of the characters and situations are quite funny.

At the death of Bud, not a well-like man, his son RayBud (Aaron Morrow) and his mother, Raynelle (Debbie Davis), need to arrange the funeral for him.  And this means, of course, inviting the whole clan, many of whom do not get along.  This includes there mostly mute, young daughter, Delightful (Tabitha Ebert) “an accident,” who has an affinity for food, and her constant companion, her cell phone.  Then there is the other brother, Junior (Rob Harris), a mousey sort, who has a failed business in something to do with cleaning parking lots and driveways, and his luckless, nagging wife, Suzanne (Leslie Collins).

Also there is Marguerite (Cindy Swager), not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and her dullard of a son, Royce (Craig Fitzpatrick), who seems interested in only the baser things in life.  And, of course, Lucille (Amy LaRosa Peters), patient wife of Bud, who may the closest thing to a sane person in the family.

And, attending too, are the various “friends” of the family, like the Rev. Hooker (Jason A. England), who has a thriving (and wealthy) ministry of the air-waves; Veda (Pat Vichas), the long-suffering mother of a disabled son; the sultry, Nadine (Deone Jennings), who falls for anyone in pants, and has a brood of children to prove it; the devious auto mechanic, Clyde (Mark Milner); and the slutty, Juanita (Sue Harris), who is in love with her mirror…well, you get the idea.  No need to go into more of the plot and ruin the laughs.

As mentioned, the cast overall is terrific and Harris, the Director, certainly has proven, more than once with his shows, that he has a command of comedy on the stage.  There are some extremely funny sight gags, such as the expression on Junior’s face, and the reaction to his wife constant nagging at him in the car; the body language and vocal ranges of Suzanne, as she slumps her way through the story; Royce’s constant companion, a leg of a stool that he is chained to (you’ll have to see it to discover why); et. al.  Most of the story and humor works (but it could be trimmed down a bit) and plays like a series of skits on Saturday Night Live.

The actors are all really convincing in the characters they play and probably frighteningly close, perhaps, to some people we have in our own families or neighborhoods.  A couple of people in small roles, who I’ve seen before onstage, Jennings and Sue Harris, prove the old adage, there are no small roles…, as they shine in their supporting performances.  And Collins is extraordinarily good, having a real sense of both vocal and physical humor and a great sense of timing, crucial in comedies.  Hope to see more of her onstage. 

Rob Harris is excellent as the beleaguered husband and his facial expressions and comic timing are spot on.  He is a find.  And, Fitzpatrick proves, once again, that he is no flash-in-the-pan as far as his comedic talents.  He is, as he was in their Looking For Olivia, brilliant as the oversexed and morally-challenged family member.  He is to appear in Coker’s production of the Flash Gordon spoof later and hopefully will get recognized by the larger theatre community and continue to grow in his acting career.

I recommend this show but, keep in mind, it does have some questionable humor.  If you do see it, please tell them that Dennis sent you.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

How We Got On—Portland Playhouse—NE Portland

The Rhythm of Life

This story of rap music is by Idris Goodwin and directed by Jen Rowe.  It is playing at their space, 602 NE Prescott St. (parking lot less than 2 blocks North of the theatre), through October 25th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-488-5822.

I must confess that Rap is not my favorite genre of music.  I much prefer Rock & Roll, Folk and Classical, as that’s what I grew up with.  To me, when I’ve hear Rap or Hip-Hop music, it is so deafeningly loud that any lyrics are lost, and the rhythm so repetitious, that it simply gives me a headache.  But when I’ve read the words of it, I can appreciate the poetry.  And this production does give me an appreciation of this genre by exploring the people and the roots of the music.

The late 80’s are accredited with when it began to grow.  Originating in the suburbs of the Mid-West, it took on a life of its own, partly because of the creation of suburbia, strip malls and a younger generation that needed an outlet to express themselves.  We began the journey with the Selector (Ithica Tell), a type of narrator (who will also play the “adult” roles in the play, as well), and lead us, like the DJ’s of that generation, to the different artists and music of Rap.

Hank (Joe Gibson) is a young man, from a middle-class suburban family, who sees a need to express himself.  His talent consists in writing his poetry on paper but doesn’t seem to have the necessary presence to perform it.  Enter Julian (Chip Sherman), from a more troubled home life, who struts about like he has a rocket in his pocket, but does have the required charisma to perform this material.  And a necessary third ingredient must be added, the female voice, Luann (Ashley Nicole Williams), herself having bottled up frustrations, finds that she is intuitive in her creations of rhythm and words.

They have marked their territory but find that to truly make it work they need, as Luann predicts, to “breathe in joy” and assimilate the anger, for their words to have meaning and connect with others.  Like the old saying, “it takes a whole village to raise a child,” so they discover it takes the three of them combined to create an Art called Rap.  And, as in most cases, this is not about the end result, which when flung world-wide, will change and evolve, but it is about the journey, how we get to where we’re going with what we got.

The small intimate stage works very well for this production.  And the tower is terrific (designer, Daniel Meeker), as it alone seems to transport you to another place, above the world, closer to the stars and to dreaming.  The director, Rowe, certainly uses this space well as the cast flits and flies themselves around this space with un-abandoned glee.  She also definitely understands the material and how she wants the actors to present it, as she has chosen well her cast.

Tell and Sherman are from the Post 5 family and always amazing in whatever they do.  Tell has a wonderfully expressive voice and does well in presenting the other characters with simply slight variances in posture and expression, to portray these individuals, a tribute to her talent.  Sherman bodily looks like he could take off for the moon at any moment, as he is rarely subdued and uses his physicality to express himself, much like a very accomplished dancer.  Exciting performer.  Gibson gives us a clear view of a frustrated artist, having his artistic soul contained within, but unable to fully break loose to express it.  Well conceived.  And Williams, completing and complimenting the trio, is attractive, and full of fire and spit and dew, truly in touch with the elements.  A powerful performance.

I recommend this production, even if you don’t care for Rap music, because for me, it’s not so much about the music but how the creative process works and this gives you a good insight into that.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Sun Serpent—NW Children’s Theatre—NW Portland

Photo credit: ©2015 Jenny Bunce
A Bloody History Lesson

This visually entertaining, history lesson is written by José Cruz González and directed by Rachel Bowditch and Andrés Alcalá.  It is playing at their space, 1819 NW Everett St., in the Cultural Center through October 24th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-222-4480.

See if you can guess which country was formed after a “superior” race conquered their land, slaughtered the leaders and many of the natives (after having been given a friendly welcome), brought diseases which wiped out many of their people, forced them to abandon their language and religion and accept that of the conquering race, and did it all in the name of that great god, Greed (of land & gold).  If you guessed Mexico, you would be right.  But it’s a bit of a trick question because, except for the outright, overt slaughter of the innocents (we “humanely” put them on reservations instead) this description would fit the Europeans who settled America, too (and duplicated by many other nations, as well)!

But, I digress, this story, visually stunning, is about how the Aztecs were conquered by invading Spain, on the search for more land and gold, who were the Conquistadors under Cortes’ leadership.  What was once a rich country under Aztec leadership, now they had became slaves under foreign rule and much of their heritage was hidden or lost.  They were assimilated into what is now Mexico.  (But, from examples of many of the Mexicans migrating to the U. S., it seems that some of the population is still seeking a better way of life for its people.)

The story is mainly told through two brothers, Tlememe (Andrés Alcalá), the older and more practical of the two and Anáhuac (Sam Burns), naive and a bit of a dreamer.  Their Grandmother (Nelda Reyes), the keeper of the oral history of their people and matriarch of the family, tries to hold on to the ways of their ancestors.  But when the boats, with the “floating clouds,” invade their land, their lives will never be the same.  The older brother chooses to join the soldiers as a “sword carrier,” but the younger one still wishes to be a “sky dancer” and hold on to the old ways.

Soon war separates these two, destroys their village and the younger one is forced to fend for himself in the jungle.  Meanwhile, Cortez (Alcalá, again), has managed to find his way to their capital, the “City of Dreams” and, through an interpreter (Reyes, again), meets their leader (Burns, again) and demands gold and that he turn over leadership to him.  I think most people know how that relationship turns out…badly.  And the younger one manages to become an old man (Daniel Valdez, music composer, as well) and is narrating the story, so that something of his people is preserved.

All three stage actors are to be applauded, as they play over 40 characters in this story, and are quite amazing!  How they managed to keep them all straight is a tribute to their talents.  There is also the use of expressive masks (designer, Zarco Guerrero), puppets, shadow images, elaborate costumes (Sarah Marguier), beautiful projections (designer, Adam Larsen), as well as a very, versatile set (designer, John Ellingson) to enhance the tale.  And both the directors, Alcalá and Bowditch, have managed to keep the story coherent in all the chaos that could have ensued.  I take my hat off to the team that created this fantastic array of art, history and unique story-telling.

I recommend this show but, keep in mind, parking is difficult to find, so arriving an hour early is not necessarily a bad thing.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Turn of the Screw—Portland Shakespeare Project—SW Portland

A Classic Ghost Story

This story by Henry James is adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by JoAnn Johnson.  It is playing at the Artists Repertory Theatre space at SW Alder St. and 16th Ave. through October 18th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-241-1278.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  On one level a great ghost story but, on another tier, a psychological thriller, or maybe a religious dilemma…you decide.  The actual James’ story is actually weaker than many of the adaptations that have been made.

There was a play on Broadway, on which the excellent movie version, The Innocents, with Deborah Kerr (co-authored by Truman Capote) was based, and the television adaptation by Dan Curtis, with Lynn Redgrave.  Then there was the confused prequel (with Brando as Quint) called The Nightcomers, another play adaptation called The Turning, an Ashland production of this show a number of years ago with Anthony Held and an old German poem (the name escapes me but, I believe, the title was the German words for Halloween Night).

The story, on the surface, is about a young Governess (Dana Millican), about to acquire her first position at a place called Bly Manor, in which she will be in charge of two children, the precocious Miles (Chris Harder), ten years old and his shy, uncommunicative younger sister, Flora.  Their uncle (again, Harder) wants nothing to do with their upbringing and education and is leaving that totally up to her and the Housekeeper, Mrs. Groves (once again, Harder).

She learns early on that Flora has not spoken since the death of the first governess, Miss Jessel.  And Miles has been expelled from school for some undefined bad behavior.  She believes he may have been somewhat influenced by the uncle’s valet, Peter Quint, now also deceased.  The rest of the tale concerns the Governess’s efforts to investigate the secrets that she believes lies hidden within this old house and it’s questionable past.  To tell more would spoil the discoveries.

Why this is considered such a multi-layered, psychological story is because Miss Jessel is often pictured by the lake (some psychologies see this image as a sexual representation of a woman) and Quint on the tower (a phallic representation of a man).  Also, it can be said, that the governess is sexually repressed (a virgin, probably) and, besides the house, the garden (of Eden?) is the other prominent location.  Biblical, perhaps, as well as psychological.  Is this a battle between Good and Evil for souls on the innocents?  So you have at least three levels to consider and the tale works equally well on any of them.

This is told in a story-telling style in which the major characters are played by only two individuals, as well as the narration and sound effects.  It is done on an essentially “black box” theatre setting with very little set pieces, minimal costuming, and subtle lighting to suggest mood changes and shifts in locations.  In other words, it is up to the actor’s & director’s talents, the author’s words and the audience’s imagination to complete the bulk of the presentation.

Johnson has done an amazing job of picturing this complicated story for us and yet not passing judgment on which of the levels she herself has decided on (although, I’m sure, she and the actors have made that determination for themselves).  Johnson can certainly be called an “actor’s director” for she, herself, is a fine actor and, therefore, knows from whence they came.  Quite a riveting evening in her capable hands.

And this is a tour-de-force for actors.  Millican, always good in whatever productions I’ve reviewed her in, is captivating, commanding and a little scary as the conflicted matriarch of this beleaguered brood.  She always rides that thin line between what may be real and what may not be.  This may be Millican’s finest hour!  Harder manages to pull off three roles, the authoritarian uncle, the proper Mrs. Groves and an enigmatic, ten-year-old boy.  Quite a feat and he does it brilliantly!  Everyone one of the characters are done in the same costume with no make-up changes and only a subtle alteration of the voice, walks/stances and facial expressions and yet you are never confused as to which character he’s enacting.  I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of these fine actors gracing our stages.

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