Theatre Reviews in Oregon and Southwest Washington

Theatre Reviews in Portland and Ashland Oregon
Dennis Sparks, with over 40 years of experience in performing arts as actor, director, and producer, reviews theatre productions.

Monday, April 14, 2014

pool (no water)—theatrevertigo—SE Portland

The Gang’s All Here

This “event” takes place “inside the pool” at the shoebox theatre at 2110 SE 10th Ave.  It is written by Mark Ravenhill and directed by Samantha Van Der Merwe.  It runs through May 10th.  For more information, contact their site at  They also have a next season announcement party at Vie de Boheme on April 23rd, which might be worth checking out.

This might be more accurately described as an event or awaking, rather than a play, as the audience is seated within the set (an empty swimming pool) and the actors talk to the audience (like a Greek chorus in days of old) as much as they converse with each other.  The atmosphere/set (Ted Jonathan Gold) is chillingly realistic (all they needed was the scent of chlorine). 

Unfortunately, pools evoke bad memories for me, as I was a sinker, not a swimmer.  Swimming, to me, was keeping alive in water.  Which might not be a bad metaphor for the story, except that one may be drowning…without water, possibly one of the points of the play.  If you dive into a pool, and can swim, you have a reasonably good chance of surviving, maybe even enjoying the experience.  But, if you dive in, without water, there will be crippling, if not fatal, results.

The story seems to center around a star or model, who is famous for her photos.  She has a band of hangers-on that revel in her shadow, but will never be truly great on their own.  They are the typical yes-men, druggies, lapdogs, toy boys (girls), et. al. that hang out with such celebs, licking the crumbs from her table.  On the surface, they dote on her.  Underneath, they loathe her (and probably, themselves, for being so dependent on her).

One fateful day, she dives into her pool which has, unfortunately, been drained of water.  Her broken and scarred limbs are on display for weeks in a hospitable bed, as she is in a coma.  But, art will out, and her “friends” see this as a photo opt.  So, with faithful camera in hand, arrange her limbs in “artistic” ways and take pics of her.  Their time has finally come, they echo, and now they will be famous on their own.  But a tiger cannot change its stripes, nor a piranha, its bite.  To tell more would not be good form for a reviewer but it leads to a bittersweet ending.

I am not able to reveal actual actors as relation to characters, as they all (except the model) play numerous roles, and there are no photos of them in the program.  But they are equally good (Christy Bigelow, Stephanie Cordell, Nathan Dunkin, Joel Harmon, Tyler Ryan, Holly Wigmore and R. David Wyllie).  The lead of the piece is beautiful, as the role as a model calls for, and does good in the acting department, an attribute a star should have.  All the rest are quite inventive, too.
Van Der Merwe has no easy task in assembling this piece of art itself.  It does move, flow, like an artistic piece should and will leave its viewers as to their own reflections.  And the set (Gold), as mentioned, is really the star of the piece.  It is really quite original and very appropriate to the play.  And the choreography/movement, by Jessica Wallenfels, adds beautifully to the piece.

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

The Quality of Life—Artists Rep—SW Portland

Rules of the Game

The NW premiere of this searing drama by Jane Anderson is directed by Allan Nause (former Artistic Director for Artists Rep).  It plays at their space at SW Alder St. & 16th Ave through May 11th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-241-1278.

The rules of the game, when dealing with life, love and death are…that there are no rules.  We are all made up, on the outside, of the same elements…clay, ashes, dirt, atoms, water, DNA/RNA, “sugar & spice and puppy-dog tails,” whatever….  But how these clay-footed lumps relate to one another, and to Mother Earth, may be the ultimate question while alive.

No need to look to the heavens for that answer, it is not there, it is, within ourselves.  We have free will and reasoning powers “and, therein, lies the rub.”  These are just some of the thoughts that ran through my mind after seeing this heart-wrenching, thought-provoking play.

And, as an added bonus to Andersen’s gripping drama, we have Nause (the Director), Susannah Mars (Dinah), Michael Fisher-Welsh (Bill), Linda Alper (Jeannette), and Michael Mendelson (Neil), all long-time icons of theatre here, to explore with us the dilemma of existence, meaning, communication, relationships, responsibility and tolerance, among other things.  And, let me tell you, folks, with these artists at the helm to explore these areas with, it doesn’t get any better than this!

The story begins with Jeanette and Neil, living primitively, out the Wild in a Yurt (a type of Mongolian tent).  Their house was destroyed in one of California’s famous fires and forced them to change their lifestyle.  But, for these baby-boomers and, presumably, ex-hippies, this doesn’t seem much of a stretch.  They are both in the creative arts field and “tree-huggers” as well.

They have decorated their trees with remnants of their former life and only thing they seem to be missing is their beloved cat, who was lost in the fire.  Oh, yes, and Neil also has incurable cancer and opts for pot, rather than hospital treatment for his illness.  They are “soul-mates” and seem comfortable with the limited choices left to them.

Into these idyllic lives enter Dinah and Bill, relations from the mid-west and, one gets the feeling, somewhat estranged.  They are from a different world of computers, construction, straight-laced and “born-again” Christians.  They have also dealt with loss and seem to have a common but shaky ground for dialogue with them.

But grief, isolation, opposing viewpoints strike a raw chord in this music of the spheres.  What one thinks they see and hear, may not be what is.  Old wounds are exposed, skeletons are revealed and their worlds are turned dramatically around by the end of the play.  I cannot tell more of the story without revealing what should be discovered by the audience.  But, it is an emotional journey, not only for them, but for us, too.

Fisher-Welsh, begins the trip as the least sympathetic of the group, but shows by the end, that he is more complex than that.  It is a character we can laugh at, perhaps, but in his adept hands, it is far from a stereotypic creation.  Mars, as his wife, may appear to be a little dense or naive at first, but in that simplicity of demeanor, lies a simmering volcano.  And, in her expert hands, she leads us carefully, step-by-step, to the depths of this person’s being.

Alper gives us a picture of a character, seemingly perfectly content at communing with Nature, but secretly harboring doubts and confusion as to decisions that have or must be made.  Again, a complex role, well-presented by her.  And Mendelson, always a joy to watch, as you can see him thinking onstage, considering his next moves in character.  His relaxed demeanor as Neil, with his racked body and spirit, still seems to “rail against the dying of the light.”  A wonderful performance.

And Nause is a master at working with actors.  He seems to relish in the complexities in the characters he is helping to create.  He’s aware of the rhythm of the piece, the humor, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the nuances inherent in the make-up of the play’s personas.  I couldn’t imagine anyone else leading this production.  And the set, by Tim Stapleton, is a wonder to behold.  It is not only functional but a work of art in itself.  You feel you are there.|

Perhaps the best summing up of the show I heard was, when Mendelson comes bounding out on stage for his curtain-call, after playing such a sickly role, an audience member remarked, “Oh, I’m so glad he got better.”  Pure gold.  My conclusion, about questions raised in this show, maybe we should all just love each other a little more…till the end…and let the rest of “the world slide….”

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

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lend Me A Tenor—New Century Players—SE Portland

A Romp on the Wild Side

This farce by Ken Ludwig is directed by Tony Bump and is playing at the Rex Putnam High School in their black box theatre.  It is located at 4950 SE Roethe Rd. in Milwaukie, OR. (not easy to locate) and plays through April 20th.  For more information, check out their website at or call 503-367-2620.  This ten-year-old group is also having a gala anniversary celebration on May 31st.  And, I have it on good authority, that their Artistic Director and the school’s drama instructor, Kelley Marchant, is quite amazing with the students she teaches and shows she directs there.  I believe the school’s next production is James and the Giant Peach later this Spring.  Might be worth checking out.

This play harkens back to the merry, madcap, carefree days of the Marx Brothers, Gilbert & Sullivan, Noel Coward, and drawing room comedies.  It is a delicious, nostalgic romp down memory lane with a touch of naughty throw in for good measure.  It is an escape from the real world of the Thirties, which was reeling from the depression, and was coping with the conflicts in Europe, the prelude to WWII.  It was a time to forget the real and believe in the ideal.

The time is the mid-1930’s in a hotel suite in Cleveland, Ohio.  The opera company is preparing for the entrance of one of the greatest tenors in the world, the bombastic, Tito (Doug Jacobs), to grace their stage.  He has arrived to perform for one night in the opera, Otello, and his fiery wife, Maria (Debra Hudkins), has accompanied him.  His reputation as a lover of women, drink and good food has preceded his persona.  It is also noted that, having such a large appetite, he has an equally large ego and must be handled with kids gloves.

The producer of the show, Saunders (David Hudkins), is a bundle of nerves and is barely able to function with such an enormous responsibility.  So, he does what every good manager might do, he passes that baton to his underlying, Max (Kraig Williams), charging him to stick to Tito like flypaper and keep him away from wine, women, and his admirers.  But his fans are closer than he thinks.  Saunders own young daughter, Maggie (Allison Andresen), has eyes for Tito and feels she just must have one fling first, before submitting her life in a marriage with Max.

And even Max, himself, is a fledging tenor and wants a chance to prove his worth onstage.  The bellhop (Zac Brugess) also feels the need for recognition of his singing prowess from the great Tito.  And the Soprano in the show, Diana (Dorinda Toner), wants to get closer to the big man, as does the leader of the sponsoring guild, Julia (Jane E. Vogel).  They all want to bathe in the shadow of greatness.  As it turns out, the Great Voice, having overindulged on lunch, has much need of sleep.  But he gets more than he bargains for, as too much rest is not a good thing.

So events turn from bad to worst and…but to tell any more would be spoiling the story.  Suffice to say, they all get their wishes, sort of, but in odd turns of events.  But the fun is not in the plot anyway, but in how it is presented.  The word plays, mistaken meanings and identities, madcap chases, double-takes, and boundless energy, all are the important elements in making the show a success.

And, in this vain, it all works, thanks to a tireless, talented cast and, especially, to the director, Bump.  He, himself, has much training in music, directing/performing G&S operettas, performing and directing comedies and his expertise shows in this production.  This type of show is not easy to mount, as the director must be a traffic cop, an expert in comic timing, a teacher, a music aficionado, and a visionary of the scope of it.  Luckily, Bump has all of those traits in good supply!

And there is not a sour note in his cast, either.  Hudkins, as the befuddled producer, is all about double-takes, innuendos, slow burns and rapid–fire deliveries.  All of it very well done.  Williams, as his obedient lackey, is wonderful playing the dutiful employee and the amorous rogue.  Jacobs, as the great star, adds a nice touch of vulnerability to the ego-driven character, which endears him to the viewer.  Andresen, as the ingĂ©nue, definitely has the beauty this kind of role demands, but also shows herself to have a nice grasp of comic timing, too.  She shows promise as a budding actress.

Ms. Hudkins, as the multi-betrayed wife of the Great Man, is a hoot.  She is in good form, racking the rage of the typical, comic-Italian wife, via Anna Magnani, all fire and “bosoms,” just as Tito likes.  Toner and Vogel add lusciously to the Tenor’s legions of admirers.  And Burgess, a high school drama student (of Marchant’s), holds his own on the stage, doing some nice comic bits and looking like a young Tommy Tune.  All have their moments and shine in them.

The set, by Thyra Hartshorn, is very functional but wished it could have been shored up a bit more, as with all the needed slamming of doors, the shaking of the set was evident at times.  To be honest, though, this is not easily solved, unless you actually build real walls.  But, it is only a minor distraction, in an otherwise very well presented production.

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

Sunday, March 30, 2014

When Pigs Fly—Serendipity Players—downtown Vancouver, WA

“To Thine Own Self Be True…”

This dinner-theatre, musical revue is written by Howard Crabtree, Mark Waldrop and Dick Gallagher. It is directed by Maury Evans, musical direction by David Hastings and choreography by Mimi Wilaki.  It will be playing at the Eagles Lodge at 107 E. 7th St. in Vancouver through April 12th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 360-834-3588.

This is a very entertaining, nostalgic throw-back to those grand, ole musicals of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s,and 60’s,  like Oklahoma, South Pacific, Gypsy, Guys & Dolls, 42nd Street, et. al.  And the pre-show encompasses songs from that era.  It is also a loving tribute to the stars of those ages, such as Merman, Kelly, Dietrich, Astaire, Garland, and Martin.  And it is the lonely struggle of one man who, from an early age, only wanted to be an entertainer.  (I personally can identify with that feeling).

Howard Crabtree (Robert Gebarowski) knew what he wanted to be when he grew up, from when he did his first musical in school—an entertainer.  His guidance counselor, Miss Roundhole (Jordan Mui), tried to dissuade him from this vision, insisting he needed to have more lucrative business aspirations, such as being a plumber, gardener, chicken farmer or watch maker.  But, when he sticks to his guns about wanting to succeed in the Arts, she remarks it will happen for him, “when pigs fly.”

The rest of the show is about his attempts to make good his desire through various jobs backstage and onstage in community theatre, summer stock and, finally, Broadway.  Along the way he recounts, in musical form, the various encounters and mishaps that befall him. 

He is aptly aided by Maury (Maury Evans, the director) who is a cross-dressing, belting mama, as well as a hoofer, especially good in his solo number, Bigger Is Better, ala Merman, and Light in the Loafers, as a tap dancer.  And, as the Torch Singer, Mila (Mila Boyd), ala Dietrich, who is terrific in her three torch songs and slinky, black dress.  She also expounds beautifully in her solo number, Laughing Matters, one of the themes of the shows, professing you need to have and see the humor in life and, possibly, not take it so seriously.  But the character also has her misses, as a musical, Baby Jane, ala Bette Davis, and as Cupid, wearing thick glasses, who has a seeing problem when she shoots her fateful arrow.

There is also the foxy Erica (Erica Jorgensen), a failed Mermaid, and also a Tree onstage, who gets frustrated is such a demeaning role and “leaves.”  But successful when singing about Coming Attractions and very funny as a demanding, adult, Annie in a sequel to that play, in her number, Annie 3.   There is also Scooter (Scott Miller), another hoofer, and also very good as a conservative, door-to-door salesman, trying to hide his Gay lifestyle during the late 60’s, in Sam and Me.  He also is very funny in his solo number, Not All Man, when it’s revealed that he is also…well, you’ll have to see it to believe it, but he does get “horse” during the number.

And we can’t forget Howard, himself, who does a lovely solo called, Hawaiian Wedding Day, and finally gets his “lei.”  Nor should we ignore the pianist (and, as mentioned, Musical Director), Hastings who is also an intricate part of the show, adding to the musical mayhem when needed.  And they all come together in the very clever number, You Can’t Take the Color Out of Colorado which, quite correctly, points out that, we are all part of the same country, regardless of sexual-orientation, skin color, nationality, or beliefs and do contribute the same as everyone else and, thus, should have the same rights.

All in all, we should be all that we can be, and maybe even more, as the final, ensemble number, Over the Top, suggests.  And, if we profess to be a free country, then we should act that way.  The only rule-of-thumb might be, “First, do no harm….”  The rest, “Love they Neighbor…,” is just luscious frosting on a very rich cake (the brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind).

Evans has done a very good job or organizing the numbers and creating a lot of variety in presenting the scenes.  Wilaki has done a wonderful job of creating dance formations on such a small stage.  Hastings is marvelous in single-handedly being the instrumental anchor for the show.  But the prize must go to the cast, for devising all the many and colorful costumes for the production.  Quite an accomplishment!

The cast blends well together and all are exceptional in the varied styles of music they must perform.  But, my hats off to the ladies, especially, as their comic creations, as well as the different musical styles, are very distinct and were highlights in the show.  Boyd could be sultry or belting in her numbers, and then create some very funny comic characters.  Likewise, Jorgensen, could come off in some of her comic bits, like Carol Burnett, then be very vamp-ish in other numbers.  All things considered, a very talented group of performers!

The meal was also very worthwhile, having choices between chicken, pork or vegan.  This also included a baked potato, veggie, a biscuit, non-alcoholic drinks (alcoholic drinks could be purchased separately) and dessert.  And you get a full-length musical revue to go with it, all for only $30.  In this day-and-age, a very good deal!
I would recommend this show, but it is adult in material, so may not be suitable for everyone.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Hamlet—Post 5 Theatre—NE Portland

“What a Piece of Work…”

This classic play by Shakespeare is directed by Paul Angelo and is playing at their space at 850 NE 81st Ave.  It runs through May 4th.  For more information, go to their site at

God, I do love black box theatre!  It strips away all the pageantry and ostentation of larger theatre productions and gets down to the nitty-gritty of what the story is about.  It brings one up close and personal to the action, and relies, almost solely, on the author’s words, the actor’s talents and the audience’s imagination to get across its point.  That is storytelling at its purest.

What we often have, especially on the big screen, is 3D or a lot of C/G effects.  Impressive to look at, perhaps, but beneath all those pixels was a story once…and real live actors…and the ability to use our imaginations to flesh out the plot, like in novels.  Black box theatre allows one to do just that.  When you have an actor just inches away from you sometimes, you feel like you are part of the action and, thereby, the play becomes an experience rather than just an uninvolved event.  This production has that in spades!

is, perhaps, the most produced of the Bard’s play.  All the greats have attempted it, including Olivier, Gielgud, Gibson, Branagh, Jacobi, Shell, Williamson, Kline, et. al.  But this version is down and dirty and concentrates mainly on family dynamics.  Prince Hamlet (Ty Boice) of Denmark’s father has died and his brother, Claudius (Jeff Gorman), has anxiously slipped into bed with his mother, Gertrude (Hadley Boyd) and married her, becoming King, of course.

Meanwhile Polonius (Tobias Andersen), father of Ophelia (Jessica Tidd) and Laertes (Jake Street), has thoughts of marrying off his daughter to Hamlet.  And they do seem chummy for awhile and all might have turned out well, except that his father’s ghost suddenly appears and reveals to Hamlet that he was untimely murdered by his brother.  This turns the tides for the Prince and he is now set on a plan of revenge.  Something is, indeed, “…rotten in the state of Denmark.”

His uncle, sensing that something is amiss with his step-son, sends for two of his former college pals, Rosencrantz (Ollie Bergh) and Guildenstern (Philip J. Berns), to find out the cause of his distress.  They conclude that he is mad and, indeed, he acts that way, but there is a method to it.  He is hell-bent on proving to himself that his uncle is the murderer and so, when a group of players arrives, he consorts with the leader of them (Keith T. Cable) to contrive an addition to the play that they are to perform for them, in which a scene will portray a thinly disguised depiction of the actual murder.
He confides to his best friend, Horatio (Cassandra Boice) that, if the King “…but flinch…” to that scene, then he will know for sure he has, indeed, committed such a crime.  Claudius reacts badly and Hamlet knows he has “captured the conscience of the King.”  It all goes downhill from there with more than a half dozen deaths racked up before it is over.  But I won’t reveal more of the plot, in case you are one of the few not familiar with the story.  Let’s just say that, when revenge is meted out, both the guilty and the innocent will be caught in its vortex.

This production is very well thought out by Angleo, it’s Director.  There is a touching, short video shown of the Prince’s early years with his father, which reinforces the formative years of childhood and how they might affect the adult.  He has also managed to pull out more humor from the story than usually portrayed, especially with R&G, the Gravediggers, and the Players presentation.  The fight at the climax is done simply but very well staged.  And he has propelled his actors on a stage, not much bigger that a person’s living room, to expound this very personal story.  My hat’s off to him!

Ty (the company’s Artistic Director), as Hamlet, has everything going for him.  He is young, lean and dynamic onstage.  You truly feel his sense of injustice, as well as the frustration, confusion and sense of inevitability as the story surges forward.  A masterful job!  Gorham is also good as a man ruled by passion for a woman but truly lost as he gleans his fate.  A complex person who may “love not wisely but too well.”  And Tobias, an icon of Portland theatre, is always a delight to watch.  I believe you can actually see him thinking onstage as he strides through his role.  He is certainly one of the best we have and may we appreciate him and his talent for many years to come!

Cassandra, in what is typically a male role, is perfectly believable as Hamlet’s chum.  Why not have a friendship between a man and woman?  It actually deepens the resolve between these two, as a  sensitivity is added to the mix and she plays it well.  Boyd, as his mother, and Tidd, as a potential mate, both come across as strong women, holding their own in a patriarchal society.  Both good choices for their roles.  And in smaller roles, Cable, in various guises stands out, and Berns, as both a Gravedigger and Guildenstern, is always memorable.  He commands the stage in his scenes.
I would recommend this play but, being a small theatre, it would be best to get your tickets soon.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.