Monday, September 15, 2014

Tick…tick…BOOM!—Triangle Productions!—NE Portland

“Don’t Forget To Breathe”

This 3-character, semi-autobiographical, musical is written and composed by Jonathan Larson, the creator of the hit musical, RENT, and directed by the incomparable, Don Horn (Triangle’s co-founder and Artistic Director).  Musical direction is by the ever-present and ever-popular, Jonathan Quesenberry, and choreography by the talented, Sara Martins.  It is playing at their space, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd., through September 27th.  For more information, go to their site or call 503-239-5919.

This show, by Larson, written before RENT, is eerily prophetic.  Most people know that this young man, on the eve of the opening of what would be his award-winning musical, saw the dress rehearsal, gave an interview to the NY Times, then went home and quietly died of an undetected heart ailment.  RENT was made into a very popular movie and if you buy the two-DVD set of it, there is an excellent documentary outlining his rags-to-(almost)riches tale.

Not only is it prophetic and shows some of the promise that his subsequent play would exhibit, but it is also pretty autobiographical.  It traces Jon’s (Drew Harper), the author in the real world, years of working in a diner in the Big Apple.  It follows the strain of working a job that was just to pay bills, and writing a musical, his true calling.  It details the relationship with his girlfriend Susan (Danielle Purdy), Victoria in real life.  And the up and downs of his connection with his childhood friend, Michael (James Sharinghousen), possibly the foundation for the character of Angel in RENT.

He suffers the “slings and arrows” of family and friends when following the artistic calling.  Why aren’t you married?  Where’s our grandchildren?  Why don’t you get a real job?  (Been there, done that.)  And there is no simple answer that will really satisfy them, is there?…because it can’t be simply explained.  It is within an artist’s soul to do what he does, no matter what…and if you don’t follow that path, it eats away at you until you do, or it destroys you.  The Muse of Arts is a cruel mistress and it will not be denied!

The pain of Jon’s plight I can identify with.  He and Susan are a couple but they see life differently.  She sees marriage and a house and a family on Cape Cod.  He sees a house full of people, and an audience, cheering him on.  If only one could be two people and follow both paths.  Even his friend, Michael, an actor, chooses (or sells out) to the corporate life of the fancy cars and a plush house.  So Jon, alone, is compelled to follow his trek.  I will leave you with that flavor of the show because I don’t want to give too much away of the story.

The play is consumed with songs.  My favorites:  30/90, about turning 30 years old and where is his life going; Therapy, about miscommunication between the two lovers; Come to Your Senses, a knock-out, coming-of-age song by Susan; Why?, an age-old question; and Louder Than Words, about how Action is the necessary remedy to one’s plight.  All the show’s songs work in telling the inner and outer semblances of the story.  What it’s saying is that there is a telling time, a secret time, for all artists when decisions must be made…and damn be those who stand in the way!

The band is just fine, with the unstoppable Quesenberry on keyboard.  And the direction and design by Horn is (as always) first-rate.  There is no doubt that Don personally understands (as I do) the plight of an artist in flight toward…his destiny, and the sacrifices that must be made along the way.  He has picked a super cast to tell his story.  And if you think there is any doubt of Mr. Horn’s success, I will tell you his shows are always on the upside, of the scale from 1-10, in excellence!

Harper, as the thinly disguised author, is in top form, as he was in last season musicals at Portland Playhouse and PCS, among others.  You do sense his dilemma, even if you may never have felt it personally, I’m sure you know somebody who has.  And his singing is spot on, especially in Why? and Therapy (as is Purdy).  A very good talent that has nowhere to go but up.  Sharinghousen, showing his acting and singing chops again, as he had at OCT and previous Triangle shows.  He is always a pleasure to watch and listen to.

Purdy is simply amazing!  I touted her acting talents in Ithaka last year and now I have the pleasure to applaud her singing talent, as well.  She also plays several small roles (as does Sharinghousen) in the show and does them all wonderfully.  She is attractive, moves well onstage, is convincing in all her guises, belts out the show-stopping number, Come To Your Senses, and knocks your socks off!  I expect to see more powerful performances by her in the future.

One final message, having to do with the underlying theme of the show:  If you are, or have, a Youth in your home that has a bent for the Arts, do everything in your power to allow them their moment into the sun.  Unfortunately, our school system seems to place the Arts at the lower end of the Educational process.  Arts, above all, build character, confidence and teamwork in individuals, not only for Artistic leanings but for Life.  It is a safe haven for struggling voices to be heard…SO LISTEN!

I recommend this show and would probably rate it PG, so should be fine for teens.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you (and maybe give Don a hug, too, for all his years of service to the Arts).

Intimate Apparel—Artists Rep—SW Portland

The Fabric of Our Lives

This drama, by the award-winning playwright, Lynn Nottage, and directed by Michael Mendelson, is playing at their space, SW Alder St. & 16th Ave., through October 5th.  For more information, please go to their site at

Ms. Nottage is an amazing storyteller (as is Mr. Mendelson, as an interpreter of stories).  About a month ago I had the privilege of reviewing a production of her Crumbs From the Table of Joy (see this review elsewhere on my blog).  She bases these tales on her family and they are indeed very illuminating as to the human condition, with all the rags and finery evident.  And, if we look very closely at her ruminations, it may be as if we are peering into a reflective glass and seeing ourselves.

“Clothes make the (hu)man” it is said.  And if you consider this story, the accouterments do play an important part of how these items define a person and station in life, and how others see them and/or how they may want to be seen.  And, being that the title suggests stripping down to the essentials, we just may view the soul of a being, as well.

Another thing that is common, in her factual fabrications, is dreams.  All the characters have dreams, albeit sometimes misguided or unrealistic.  But it is in the dreams that we become who we want to be.  They keep us forging forward against all odds.  Esther (Ayanna Berkshire), a seamstress, dreams of owning a beauty parlor; the landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Demene E. Hall), harkens back to a faded past and her man; Mrs. Van Buren, a rich lady (Sara Hennessy), desperately dreams of being free of a loveless marriage; Mr. Marks (Chris Harder), a tailor, has an impossible dream of marriage to a certain young lady; Mayme (Dedra D. Woods), a hooker, dreams of being cared for by a rich beau; and George (Vin Shambry), envisions a life where the world is at his feet, without him even having to lift a finger.

But dreams make us who we are.  The setting for these multiple dreamers is NYC around the early 1900’s.  Esther lives in a boarding house for unattached ladies.  She is a seamstress by trade and, on the surface, seems content to be a spinster.  But her landlady, a widower, insists she should get out into the real world and find her true love, like she had.  And poetic letters from George, a digger on the Panama Canal, seem to awaken this hope of a more fulfilling life.  Instead of her hopes being quilted in a single room, she allows herself to be caught up into the machinations of a broader world.

A rich, white lady, Mrs. Van Buren, a customer of hers, warns her of the dangers in trusting a marriage to solve things.  Her friend, Mayme, also warns her against trusting men, as her own life is bombard with those untrustworthy individuals.  Only a Jewish tailor, Mr. Marks, who befriends her, seems to understand the joys of the simple things, like the magical threads of special cloths, who have stories all their own.  But the outcome of all these interwoven tales is for you to discover.

The set (Jack O’Brien) and costumes (Sarah Gahagan) are amazing.  They actually transport you back to that era.  And the set is amazingly versatile for the half dozen settings for the play.  I must admit I covet that quilt over any of the fabrics shown.  (A side note:  My aunt and grandmother were both quilters and I still treasure one ragged example of theirs of this lovely art.)  And Mendelson has the perfect cast for this story.  As a director (and actor) he is always finding all the little nuances that are character-driven and so very human.  He is a true artist.

And your heart went out to Berkshire, as she journeyed from being a na├»ve girl to a sadder but wiser woman.  And she gently brought us along, glove in hand, for those discoveries of life.  I think we’ve all know the character that Hall plays, a person with one foot in the past, afraid to let go of it and more afraid of joining the modern age.  She is lovely to watch.  Hennessy’s character is a bit of an enigma.  You want to like her but one feels more pity for

Harder is a gentle soul and you instantly like him, although he seems ruled by tradition.  But he is capable of change and you watch this transformation with hope.  Nicely done.  Shambry’s character, on the surface, seems so callous at times and yet he is portrayed as a complex person, having nothing, but desiring the everything.  Good job.  And, for me, the one my heart went out to, was Woods’s persona.  A victim of circumstance who sincerely wishes to rise above her lot in life.  Her music and singing betrayed a longing for a better deal of the cards.  Woods has the makings of fine actress.

I would recommend this production but it does have adult situations so probably wouldn’t be good for children.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Wait Until Dark—Northwest Classical Theatre—SE Portland

Playing With Fire

This mystery by Fredrick Knott and adapted by Jefferey Hatcher is directed by Bobby Bermea.  It is playing at the Shoebox Theatre, 2110 SE 10th Ave. through October 5th.  For more information, go to their site at

This is a departure for this group, as they usually perform historical plays, mostly Shakespeare.  It was made into a fairly good film a number of years ago with Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin and Richard Crenna.  The play is a throw-back to the radio mysteries of the 30’s and 40’s (the story is set in the mid-40’s) like Suspense and Lights Out!  Both of these descriptors fit the body of this story (as well as my title, but find that out for yourself).  And, wisely, they begin the play as homage to that era.

The play itself is by no means a terrific mystery, but it does garner enough suspense and tension by the end to be quite thrilling onstage.  And it has a couple of dandy roles for actors, one, a woman who is blind, Susan (Clara-Liis Hillier) and her chief tormenter, Harry (Samuel Dinkowitz), a man of many guises.  Her husband, Sam (Steve Vanderzee), a photographer, is forced to be away until late that night, leaving his wife to deal with her dark world, mostly by herself.  Her only asset is a bratty teen in the apartment building, Gloria (Kate Thresher), who checks on her occasionally.

Barging into her secure, little world comes Mike (Heath Koerschgen), an old army buddy of Sam’s, in town for a visit.  Also, it seems a murder has been committed in the neighborhood, so a local cop, Carlino (Tom Mounsey) pops in on her to see that she is all right.  And there is also the mysterious Harry, who claims that is wife, one of her husband’s models, is having an affair with Sam.  There is also an elusive doll that seems to have some significance to some of these characters.  But to tell any more, being that this is a mystery, would be revealing key plot twists, so no more on that.

As far as the written script, the First Act deals with a whole lot of exposition that has little to do with the immediate situation.  There is also an uncomfortable feeling that a blind person must be trained, like some sort of pet or child, to do for themselves, instead of being treated like an adult, who might see blindness as a challenge, not a handicap, and see the heightened awareness of her other senses, as an asset.  Within the character of Susan, the role is approached this way, but Sam seems to lean more on the trained-seal school of learning.  Just an oddness in the writing that shouldn’t be there.

That being said, the acting is first rate.  Hillier is always good onstage in any role she does.  This is a special challenge for an actor, as the character is blind, and I saw no flaw in her presentation of this.  Also, the anxiety Susan must feel of having been able to see only a few months before, has to be excruciating, and this is evident in Hillier’s interpretation of the role.  And Harry is a dream role (or nightmare, depending on your viewpoint) for an actor and Dinkowitz is a perfect choice for it.  The coolness he exhibits at times in his madness is more chilling than any ranting or raving an actor might do.  Dinkowitz, also, is an actor that always worth watching onstage.

Koerschgen does a good job as the conflicted friend.  Mounsey is also in fine form as the oily cop.  Vanderzee is good in the brief role as the husband.  And an actual teen, Thresher, does show a lot of promise as the neighbor, who follows the arc from being a brat, to a friend, during the course of the play.  The director, Bermea, has blocked it very well, to get maximum use of the stage and the ability to generate suspense in such a small space.  The ending confrontation is particularly well staged (with fight choreography by Dinkowitz).

I would recommend this play but, keep in mind, that it is appropriately intense at times, so be warned.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Crucible—Bag & Baggage Theatre—Hillsboro, OR

A Vessel For Madness

Arthur Miller’s intense drama set in the time of the Salem Witch trials is being produced at the historic, Venetian Theatre at 253 E. Main St.  It is directed and adapted by Scott Palmer (B&B’s Artistic Director) and will play through September 29th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-345-9590.

I believe one must begin this journey by defining the title of the play.  A crucible is a cup or vessel that melts metals at high temperatures or a severe test or trial.  Such is the historic setting for this play in and around a puritanical Salem, MA in the late 1600’s.  But it is not so much about witches in our midst but about Intolerance and what it does to a society.  In short, “this way lies madness.”  And when the mob mentality of foolish, vain, greedy people becomes the accepted way of progress, then woe be to the individuals who dare speak out against them.

More deaths have been attributed in the lap of Intolerance than probably any other single factor in history.   The Crusades were waged to make everybody Christian; enslaving the Blacks was accepted because they were thought to not really be human; interring the Japanese was okay because they were the color of our enemy at one time; putting Native Americans onto reservations was condoned because they were regarded as savages or like children; Jews were put into concentration camps because they were not of a pure, Aryan blood; Gays are ridiculed because of their sexual orientation; the Middle East conflicts exist, in part, because their society is not all of the same religious persuasion; political ideology between Nations causes friction to the point of War; and political factions within a country exist in order to force everybody to believe only one way.  In short, Intolerance of other ways of looking at things and fear of anything that is not exactly like “us,” prevents a peaceful coexistence.

And so, to Salem.  In this small town, small minded world, everybody is at each other’s throats.  It is a tinderbox, just waiting for a match.  And it is lit by a group of young girls (Melory Mirashrafi, Madeline Ogden, Emily Upton, Hanna Brumley and Arianne Jacques), throwing off the yoke of the repression (as teenagers will do), and dancing in the woods at night with Tituba (Alexandria Morgan), a native of Barbados.  But this doesn’t sit well with the founding fathers (and mothers), who are having a rather hard year financially and just aching to point the finger at someone or something as the cause.

The religious factions, in the guise of Rev. Parris (Jeremy Southward) and Rev. Hale (Jake Street), quickly come to the conclusion that it is the devil that is the cause of all their ills, manifest through some human agents, and so a witch hunt ensues.  And it does not go well when it is discovered that the independent-minded Proctor (Peter Schuyler) and his estranged wife, Elizabeth (Jessica Geffen), seem to be “somewhat-mentioned” as possible cohorts of Lucifer.  Further complications arise when it is discovered that one of the girls, Abby (Jacques) has had carnal relations with Proctor.

Things go from bad to worse when the highly-reputed, Judge Danforth (David Heath), presides at the trial.  Needless to say, things do to not turn out well for a number of people…but telling any more who spoil the ending.  The connection to the McCarthy hearings, as to Communists within our midst (never mind that the Constitution gives one the right to believe as they will) and the black list are unmistakable.  Pointing fingers and naming names were part of the game during the 50’s.  Miller and many of his colleagues were caught up in this madness.

This production has a power and drive to it, especially in the second act, thanks to Palmer (and Cassie Greer, a talented artist herself, as acting coach) as the captain(s) of this wayward ship.  The modern dress and simple staging added to the power of the show, giving it a timeless quality.  And a tribute to the actual time period was enhanced by the authentic-sounding accents and the screen projection (I assume, by the scenic designer, Megan Wilkerson).  Very effective presentation on all counts.

The young girls in this show are very intense roles and are beautifully performed by the group mentioned above.  Especially powerful was Geffen as the long-suffering wife.  I’ve seen this young lady encompass roles before and she is always very intense and focused on her character (and, also, much more attractive than she appears in this role but, that’s what you call, good acting).

Also on the top of his form is Heath as the ruling judge.  He harkens back to the 90’s in Portland theatre (in which I, too, was an actor).  And his power as an actor in Act II, pretty much carries the drama of the proceedings.  A super performance!

I would recommend this show but, be warned, it is very intense and may not be suitable for all.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them that Dennis sent you.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Crumbs from the Table of Joy—Serendipity Players—Vancouver, WA

This play by Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Lynn Nottage, is playing at Clark College’s Decker Theatre, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way.  It is directed by Tony Broom (Serendipity’s Artistic Director) and runs through August 24th.  For more information go to their site at or call 360-834-3588.

If you could sum up this play in one sentence, it might be, on the way to her high school graduation…life happened.  It is assumedly a reflection of the author’s teen years with her family during the early 1950’s in Brooklyn, NY.  Her alter-ego, Ernestine (Elena Mack), is a senior in high school and preparing for graduation.  She lives in her small apartment with her younger sister, Ermina (Kiara Gaulding) and her Dad, Godfrey (Phillip Bowles), a baker, a God-fearing man and a follower of Father Divine.

Into their cramped lives appears their Aunt, Lily (Dee Harris), apparently planning on an extended stay.  Her character is somewhat south of a high-classed call girl and extremely left (an avowed Communist, in fact) in her political views.  This cramped, confined, Christian household is no atmosphere to raise two, budding girls, who are rudely being jolted into the seamier side of life.  The code of the father is the three V’s, “Virtue, Victory & Virginity.”  But, “ain’t necessarily so,” with Auntie.

And, if this wasn’t enough to shake the proverbial apple tree, Godfrey meets a stranger on the street, Gerte (Kate Lacey) and promptly marries her.  She is an immigrant from Germany and white, or a “cracker,” and the Crump family is black, or “colored,” as the times would testify to.  And, keep in mind, this is 1950’s, just after WWII and the defeat of the German Nazis.  So now, in one household, we have a staunch Christian; a revolutionary Communist, the beginnings of a black power movement; and a white immigrant from a county we just defeated in a war.  What a way to enter the “real” world for young, impressionable girls.

The story is not so much about the day-to-day routines of a family but of the cultural dynamics that the family is faced with because of the times.  A little background might be in order here.  Communism was an acceptable alternative to the 30’s depression in America.
The famous Group Theatre had many members that had leftist leanings.  And Paul Robeson, the great black actor/singer from that period, joined the Communist Party because he felt they had a more equable view of people of his Race.  Also, it was the Nazis who were the bad guys during the War, not the German people.  And religion was an important aspect of Black culture.  So, a logjam in the Crump home.

Dr. King was just beginning his campaign in the South against segregation; the young, Emmett Till, was beaten to death because he whistled at a white woman; the brave, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman; and Lorraine Hansberry had yet to write her great play about the explosive dynamics within a black family, Raison in the Sun.  This was the turbulent, transitional time of this true tale.  And it has power in its telling, as the lead character flips from monologues in the present, to express her views and desires at the time, to painful recollections of the past.  And the characters are allowed to breathe on their own, neither presenting us with a totally dark or pure person but ones that are all shades of gray.

Broom’s direction takes us easily from one time frame or place to another with simplicity in staging.  And he has done a good job of leading the actors through the complicated series of feelings that the play presents.  A good choice for a play, letting us examine the times before “…the changing,” the 60’s.

Mack does very well in the demanding role of the storyteller.  The frustrations, doubts and discoveries show plainly in the face of this shy, curious girl.  I would recommend, though, at times, she should be aware of diction and volume, as a few of her lines tended to get lost because of this lack.  Bowles, as the patriarch of the family, certainly has the enthusiasm that is appropriate for the role, but he is a bit stiff, at times, and seemed to have occasional trouble with lines, possibly opening-night jitters.

Gaulding, as the youngest daughter, is wonderful.  She has the right zest for the role, dealing with conflicting emotions and trying to find her own place in the world.  She is pretty, lively and animated and one would hope to see more of her in the future.  Harris, as the Auntie, gives us a conflicted woman, dealing with ghosts of the past and fighting “the good fight” in a world that is not ready for her.  A woman, ahead of her time, who one feels sorry for and yet secretly likes.  A lovely performance.  And Lacey is quite a find.  Her German accent seems spot on and her brief imitation of a Dietrich song is very good.  Your heart goes out to her as she struggles with her new world.  A haunting performance.

I would recommend this play, especially for the history it imparts.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.