Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Bell Ringer—Aladdin Theater—SE Portland



    This was a one-night event here locally and is, and has been, touring the country to promote a new, holiday rock opera, which is said to expand its wings at some point in the future.  It is created by Peter Orullian with his group, Symphony North.  For more information on this company and the show, go to their site at www.symphonynorth.com 

“Try a Little Kindness”
In Creation, we play,
To no one’s dismay.
Tis that time of year
For Christmas Good Cheer—
A Time for Giving,
A Time for Strife.
What have we to offer,
To a contrasting plight,
But a promise to live,
An uncompromising Life!

    The narration is written in rhyme for this production, so I decided to give it a try, too, with lesser results, of course.  My head was full last night and early this morning, of musings on the experience.  There have been some pretty exceptional rock operas of the past, such as The Who’s, Tommy; Jesus Christ Superstar; and, my own personal favorite (which resembles this a bit in intent), the short opera of the classic story, The Little Match Girl.

    “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus…” as the famous editorial goes, but it is really a growth of Spirit, of Good Will, of Innocence…and Giving of Self.  We are not there yet, but the signs are all around us, that it is still not too late, if we but have the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the hearts to encompass the true intent of (Hu)Mankind:  To embrace the Earth and live in Harmony with it, to believe in a Higher Power than ours and to Love Unconditionally all “creatures, great and small.”

    It is our destiny, I believe, but we have strayed very far from that path.  Our mis-steps are costing us dearly but here are voices in this wilderness that are crying out for change…the Youth.  Those inheritors that are standing up to ones opposing gun control and environmental changes, are being noticed.  After all, look at who is Time’s, Person of the Year, a young Nordic girl doing just that.  “And a Child shall lead them,” it is said, but what if no one is listening…or following?!

    Yes, I digress, but only in content, perhaps, not spirit, of the concert.  The story is told in periodic prose narratives, very well delivered, and many rock songs and music to infuse the soul with the rhythm for the rhyme.  A small band of singers, two females and two males (including the creator), guitarists, keyboard, drums and a violinist/fiddler, as well as an extraordinary light show...all combine to create a transcending experience!

    Yes, you do need ear plugs and, if possible, sunglasses (which actually some people had), as the sights and sounds might likely blow the lid off the place.  Also, they need a much larger venue for this type of production.  And, please, next time, programs, so that we can properly credit all the folks involved.  And the music, too overpowering at times, which drowned out the vocals, making the story less comprehensible.  But those are small criticisms for such a large output of giving!

    The story involves a homeless man, who takes the job of a bell ringer (you know, those nameless folks, usually ignored) that greet one at the doors of stores, asking for a few coins for the needy.  It reflects, through songs and story, some of the people he comes in contact with on his silent journey…a veteran, who is losing hope; a sickly child, possibly passing from this mortal realm; an old bag lady, giving what may be her last cent to his pot; a loudly, vocal critic; a band of carolers, et. al., a microcosm of America, perhaps (and very timely).  The talent involved is unbelievably excellent!  And, of the whole, marvelous troupe of performers and lightning designers, my eyes were constantly drawn to the young lady on the violin, very proficient, animated and lovely.

    It is that time of year, of all good times, when Want is sorely felt and a helping hand for all should be evident, as Dickens has expressed.  But why should it just be once a year?!  Instead of endlessly taking selfies (a very appropriate word for where are interests seem to lie); buying that second (or third car) for the family, as advertisers want; or other baubles, that express greed, not graciousness…why not try a little kindness to those less fortunate…go ahead, do it just once…it feels good to give, and you receive a warmth that money really can’t buy.  And, wouldn’t it be terrible if that caused a contagion, an epidemic…what a different world we would have then if it caught on…!

    I highly recommend this show, so track their progress wherever they may light.  And if you do choose to see them, or contact them, tell them Dennis sent you forth to bless their path.
--DJS

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Miracle Worker—Twilight Theater Company—N. Portland


         The Miracle of Communication


    This powerful drama, based on a true story, is written by William Gibson and directed by Doreen Lundberg.  It is playing at their space, 7515 N. Brandon Ave. (upstairs), just of Lombard (small church parking lot across the street), through December 22nd.  For more information, go to their site at www.twilighttheatercompany.org

    Helen Keller (Olivia Holmstedt) , a deaf and blind child from birth, living in the Deep South during the late 1800’s, is truly one of those stories for the Ages.  Having her intelligence locked up for her early childhood years and then suddenly, for some inexplicable reason, was able to become aware of the outside world through the extreme patience of Annie Sullivan (Valeria Asbell), an Irish student with low vision herself, and was able to connect with her and open both their worlds to a whole new level.  Truly, a Miracle!

    Annie did not, at the outset, seem the sort to create miracles.  She and her brother had been sent to an Asylum as children because they were both infirmed.  She had numerous operations on her eyes and still had somewhat restricted vision.  But she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and chose to learn sign language, with the help of Dr. Anagnos (Arun Kumar), and became a teacher at the school she attended.  But her first professional job was to be with the Keller family.

    Capt. Keller (Rick Barr), was an authoritarian head of a family, an ex-Civil War officer in the Confederate army, and Editor of the town’s newspaper, and was no one to cross.  His seemingly meek wife, Kate (Nina Monique Kelley), usually bowed to his wishes.  His sister, Ev (Lisa Pauley Grab), dutifully backed him at every turn.  His rebellious son, James (Blain Vincent III), feared him.  But he was at his wits end as to what to do with his young daughter, Helen, who was unable to speak or hear from birth, as diagnosed by their Doctor (Brent McMorris).

    Helen’s only contact with the outside world was playing with the servant’s, Viney’s (Tony Domingue) children, Percy (Emily Blacker) and Martha (Adale Beckwith-Foster).  But with Annie’s arrival, her world and the family’s would be turned upside down.  Annie insisted on complete control of the child.  She would not be content to simply have Helen imitate her, like a trained pet, but actually understand the meaning of objects in the world and how they all related to each other. 

    And she wanted to have Helen communicate back to her, as to her thoughts and feelings.  The journey would be hard, both physically and emotionally for everyone but the rewards, if successful, would be immeasurable.  This trek must be experienced by the audience, and so, this is where my description ends.  But try to imagine, if you will though, entering a world of noiseless darkness and encountering all sorts of objects, completely unaware of their meanings and, not only that, having your mind, thoughts, and feelings trapped inside you with no way of expressing yourself.  That is the challenge Annie and Helen must overcome…and you will a witness to it.

    The script itself is a bit of an obstacle, as it is written more like a screenplay, with scenes jumping back and forth, between place and time, in quick successions.  This production does a good job of overcoming an engrossing but episodic script.  Also, the fan from the heating elements does create some distractions at times in hearing the play.  But it is still a powerful show and Lundberg has chosen well her cast and managed to keep the story straight for an audience, despite the difficulties in the script.

    The emotional and physical high points of any production of this show, are the exhausting performances of the two key roles, Annie and Helen.  In this case, they have been extremely blessed.  Except for grunts and screaming, Holmstedt only has one line at the end but the physicality of this young lady is marvelous.  She is a credit to the role.  And Asbell, as her teacher, is amazing.  She and her young student compliment each other at every twist and turn in their relationship.  One feels strongly for Annie as she, too, has been through hell and Asbell rides this emotional roller-coaster perfectly.  The almost silent, lengthy scene, as she tussles with her in using utensils and folding her napkin, is priceless, thanks to two fine actors (and the director)!

    A side note, Asbell also has her own company, Clever Enough, and is a fine director herself, having produced two of the most difficult plays of all time, Rhinoceros and Hamlet and both very well done!  Her company is worth checking out to see what’s next for them.

    I recommend this production, especially for the acting of the two key players.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.
--DJS


Friday, December 13, 2019

A Christmas Carol—Portland Playhouse—NE Portland


         The Immortal Visionary


     This annual event of Dickens’s immortal classic is adapted and lyrics by Rick Lombardo, music by Anna Lackaff and Lombardo, arranged by Lackoff and directed by Brian Weaver.  It is playing at their space, 602 NE Prescott St. (parking lot 2 blocks N. of the theatre, on 6th), through December 29th.  For more information, go to their site at www.portlandplayhouse.org or call 503-488-5822.

     This is undoubtably one of the most produced stories of all time.  Dickens, himself, enjoyed reading from it to audiences in his time; there was a one-man show with Phillip J. Berns; animated films with voices of Mel Blanc, and Jim Backus (Magoo)—even a C/G version with Jim Carey; musicals; Reader’s Theatre (I even directed one with Russ Fast); futuristic, from Rod Serling, Carol For Another Christmas; and countless Scrooge’s, (with the best being Alastair Sim), including Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Henry Winkler, Sterling Hayden, Michael Caine, Bill Murray…and countless others.

     For the one or two of you that don’t know the story, here is a thumbnail sketch of it:  Scrooge (Michael Mendelson) is a miser, a money-lender by trade, who treats everyone around him like dog-do, even his jolly nephew, Fred (Melissa Mahoney), and his poor clerk, Cratchit (Ben Tissell).  But redemption may be on its way, as the ghost of his old business partner, Marley (Cycerli Ash), warns him of the consequences of continuing in this fashion.  He is to be visited by three spirits (also, all played by Ash) from his Past, the Present, and a time Yet-To-Come, so that he gets a clearer understanding of the world around him and its creatures.  And so, he is transformed, not because he was an evil man but because he is a good man that has just gone astray for a long while.

     Of course, along this journey, he has many visions of his life on its downhill spiral.  He sees himself as a young man (Dan Tracy), before his fall from grace with his former boss, Fezziwig (Tissell, again) and his slipping into materialism with his true love, Belle (Mahoney, again).  In the Present, he’s sees the joy in both his nephew’s family and the Cratchit’s during this festive time of year.  And, in the possibly prophetic future, sees the results of his own plight and also of the sad fate of the Cratchit’s youngest, Tiny Tim (not credited), and so vows to change his wayward ways.

     This collective ensemble in an open staging arena and story-telling style, with music, dancing and song, brings to life, with the energetic leadership of the director, Weaver, this beaming story of Redemption and Love, fit for the whole family.  Mendelson is especially good playing a somewhat more approachable vision of Scrooge.  Also, Ash excels at playing all the ghosts, including Marley.

    And I liked Mahoney, too, as she stood out in all her varied incarnations.  I recommend this production, suited for the whole family, but it’s selling out fast, so get your tickets soon.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

     But, something to think about, as this story does inspire you to do that, there is a more somber/sober side that is relevant, too, as observed by my astute friend, Dave, and his wife, Christine (a Brit by birth), that Dickens’s life and times and writings were also reflecting on the poverty and pain of the 1800’s in England:   “…To portray the often grim world of A Christmas Carol as a jolly holiday post card is well meaning, but sadly misguided, especially when considering the poverty and suffering of the lower working class in Victorian England….”

     Definitely some excellent food for thought and true.  But here is my response to that note which he sent me: “Think about this:  During the Great Depression of the 30's, the one industry that thrived was...The Movies!  Why...because of the same reason we have upbeat Christmas classics at this time of our lives...because it boosts morale and gives people Hope and takes them out of their depressing situations for a while, in hopes of it rubbing off into real life.

     True, it doesn't reflect current situations of reality but it's hoping to create a New Reality with this (which is probably unrealistic) and, if not, at least takes people out of the Dismal situations for a short time and to view other possibilities, especially for the youngest citizens of our (once) Good Earth and let them see, at least, for a while, a Light at the end of a dark tunnel.

     Remember a quote from the play:  Scrooge, to Fred---"Why are you happy, you're poor enough?"  Fred's response, "Because I fell in Love."  Somehow, in Dickens's mind as well, Goodness/Love transforms the Darkness/Poverty into Light, if not forever, at least to give us the power, the vision, that there truly is something better out there, maybe just out of reach, but possible all the same!  "And, as Tiny Tim observed, "God Bless us Every One!"

     The next phase in our development is, honestly, in the hands of the Youth and they will change things, I believe....  “And a child shall lead them."  After all, look who's on the cover of Time as the Person of the Year!  And so, "attention must be paid"--and it is noted now for all to see.”

Happy Holidays!
--DJS

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Christmas Case—Battleground Productions—SE Portland


             Whodunit?!
    This original, Christie-est script is written and directed by the author, John Longenbaugh.  It is playing at the Chapel Theatre, 4107 SE Harrison St., in Milwaukee, through December 21st.  For more information, go to their site at www.battlegroundproductions.org

    This follows very much in the Agatha Christie vein of British mysteries…the snow-bound suspects, a theft of an expensive item, the long, complex reveal at the end of the crime and a visit by a mysterious stranger.  It’s a classic setting and the author is obviously a fan of this genre (as am I).

    The Brits and the BBC are probably the crown jewels in this genre, in my opinion.  Both Doyle (with his Holmes & Watson) and Christie (with her Poirot and Marple), all try to manipulate a tale in such a manner that the reader/viewer will be unable to discover the culprit(s) by the end.  But “in the meantime…in between times…ain’t we got fun.”  And that is just the ticket for a cozy ride on a crisp winter’s night, as it is here!

    It seems that the upper crust of the Ashford family is sorely lacking in bread and are in need of some fresh blood to revitalize the family’s coffers.  Lady Constance (Rebecca Morse), at her wits ends, is down on her luck, so it might be up to her daughter, the wiley, Cynthia (Caralynn Shields), to come to the rescue by marrying the aristocratic, Wayne Coverley (Riley Parham), who is coming to visit with his well-to-do but not-too-bright classmate, Percy Wentworth (Hunter O’Harrow).

    Also visiting, on this snowy winter’s eve, is the other side of the family, Lady Madelyn Brass (Allison Anderson), her clever sister, and her daughter, the astute, Gwendolyn (Katherine Grant-Suttie).  Only problem being is that they are both in disguise as Germans, as they had been presumed dead from a bombing incident and are afraid they are being stalked by spies out to finish the job.

    And, added to this motley crew, are the ever-faithful butler, Tomkins (Rick Warren)—there always seems to be a butler in these cases.  And the mysterious stranger, the understanding, Father Christmas (Andy Mangels), who may have other conjuring tricks up his sleeve.  And the crime—the theft of a jewel!  And who is the perpetrator, “ah, there’s the rub.”  See if you can discover the secrets, which are held by all, before the last reveal is discovered…!

    This is a delightful romp on a winter’s eve and it’s clear the cast is having a jolly good time of taxing one’s “little gray cells” into action.  The cast is quite a treat, with Anderson and Grant-Suttie as the Poirot/Holmes team of investigators, quite inspiring in their multi-faceted roles of aristocratic Brit family, beleaguered “Germans” and detectives.  The college buds, Parham and O’Harrow, are charming as inept, pseudo-suiters—I especially liked O’Harrow’s quirky movements, awkward pauses and totally, mindless remarks—bravo. 

    Morse and Shields, as the more conniving side of the failing family fortunes, were fun to observe.  Warren as the trusted servant, who has more on his mind than servitude, is good.  And Mangels is very well-suited to his role as a man who may hold the biggest secret of all.  All actors are very well cast in their roles.  And the set (Tyler Buswell—a very well-respected designer for his work, also, with Bag & Baggage Productions) and costumes (Christine Richardson), are a real asset to the authenticity of the production.

    It is obvious that Longenbaugh is familiar with the Brit mystery genre, as all the typical elements are here.  But with complicated plots, such as this, it is important to keep a clear through-line in the story, that all the scenes are relevant in some way to the overall concept.  The scene with Father Christmas and Lady Madelyn is fascinating and well-acted as written, and may be a good subject for a play in itself, but the dialogue has almot nothing to do with the basic plot.  Outside of that, this is a pleasant evening’s diversion and is certainly worth one’s time to see a wonderful, fun homage to a very popular style of literature.

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

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart—Artists Rep—SW Portland



         
 








                                                                                 A Mid-Winter, Mis-Adventure’s Dream    

    This interactive, cabaret-style show is written by David Greig and directed by Da’maso Rodriguez and Luan Schooler.  It is playing at the Tiffany Center, 1410 SW Morrison St. (4th floor), through January 5th.  For more information, go to their site at www.artistsrep.org

    Love may be the tale “as old as time,” but this morality story ranks up there with it.  Writers from the ole Greek and Roman days have told and re-told their fables of “gods and monsters” up to the present-day incarnations.  One of their favorite subjects seems to be of the Underworld (Hell/Hades) and the main proprietor of it, the cloven-hoofed fellow himself, Old Nick/Satan/the Devil.

    Writers such as Stephen Vincent Benet, Rod Serling, Ira Levin, Ray Bradbury, et. al. and films such as The Omen, The Devil and Daniel Webster, et. al. and even Disney’s Fantasia (Night on Bald Mountain) and the recent Tony-awarding winning musical, Hadesville, speak of an unholy entity and his gyrations to seduce folks into visiting his realm—for all eternity!  This play is such a tale.

    According to Scottish legend, in ballads and folklore, there is one night of the year, Mid-Winter’s Eve, at the border or crossroads of a country, where Hell is opened up and unwary souls are sucked into the vacuum created (as well as souls possibly escaping) to/from the abysmal pit.  But outwitting ole Nick is not all that easy, as he’s had eons to perfect his craft.

    Prudencia (Amy Newman) seems to be a likely candidate for such a “visit,” as she is a na├»ve young girl, an innocent, a sort of Every-Woman type of character.  And, better yet, she is a believer in the old-world ballads, folk tales and lore and somewhat of an earthly authority on it, too.  Her chief opponent is a modernist, Colin (Eric Little) who doesn’t believe such dusty nonsense but instead, favors only what can be touched, or seen with the naked eye. 

    And so, the die is cast with only one more character to be added, the ole fellow himself, Nick (Darius Pierce) who, posing as a mild-mannered B&B owner on this snow-bound night, awaits with open claws, er, arms, his victim and, like a spider with his web, draws her into his ever-lasting den.  Too easy, you might say…and you’d be right.  What if this lonely, ole fellow, who never lets down his guard, finds he may not know, or have experienced, everything?  What if she finds a strange allure, a fascination, with him and his realm?  What if there is a way back to her home turf and even to turn the tides on the Master Trickster himself?  Guess you’ll just have to see it, to find out how it all turns out, won’t you?!

    I’ve simplified the story a great deal and have just given you the core of it.  But, at well over two hours, there is an ensemble cast (Susannah Mars, Luisa Sermol, Rachel Bentzen, Kerie Darner, Corey Silver, Haley Novasio, and Alicia Hueni, that play many supporting roles, as well as a very fine duo, The Katie Jane Band (Katie Lubiens & Adam Easley) to liven things up even more.  This is a mischievous, bawdy, naughty play that interacts with the audience and it is a rollicking, good time!  It’s also highlighted with a no-host bar.

    The music, songs, performances and direction are very energetic and cleverly distributed throughout the audience area.  But the script is ponderous, overwritten and repetitious and could be pared down by a third, I believe.  What saves it, is the immensely talented presenters!  As noted, this is an adult affair and may not be suitable for everyone.

    I recommend this play, as it is a fun romp on a cold, winter’s night.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.
--DJS