Friday, September 4, 2015

Head Over Heels—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR

“They Got the Beat!”

This world premiere musical is written by Jeff Whitty with music and lyrics by the Go-Go’s, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, choreographed by Sonya Tayeh and musical direction by Carmel Dean.  It is playing at the outdoor Elizabethan theatre in downtown Ashland through October 10th.  For more information, go to their site at www.osfashland.org or call 1-800-219-8161.

What do you get when you combine the writer of the perverse, Tony award-winning musical, Avenue Q, the retro music/songs of the 80’s, and a 500 year old contrived loved story/poem?  Be damned if I know but it doth ROCK!  Any one that can combine these seemingly contrary elements and make them look like a nostalgic walk down memory lane married to a modern, coming-of-age story, has my vote for a Broadway-bound show!  Yes, the 3-hour play needs a bit of trimming and a clearer focus but, being a world premiere means that it will be reworked a number of times before reaching the “Big Apple.”  And, make no mistake about it, this has W-I-N-N-E-R tattooed to its rainbow heart.

The musical elements have shades of Rocky Horror…, Wizard of Oz, Rent, Into the Woods, The Fantasticks, Marat-Sade, The Wiz, West Side Story, et. al.  The root story is straight out of the Shakespearean era (Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney) of the wise fools, misconstrued letters/messages, asides, disguises, arranged marriages, rhymes, and misplaced love.  Now, mirror these aspects with the brave, new world that is presently being created and you have a production looking very much like…Head Over Heels.

The story consists of a King, Basilius (Michael Sharon) and Queen, Gynecia (Miriam A. Laube) of the mythical, Arcadia.  They have two daughters, the egotistical Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), the eldest and the shier, younger daughter, Philoclea ((Tala Ashe).  Custom of the day was that the parents arranged the marriages for the maximum political/financial benefit to their kingdom and the eldest was to marry first. 

But through a string of suitors, none seem satisfactory to Pamela.  Philoclea, on the other hand, has found her true love in a young shepherd named, Musidorus (Dylan Paul), a definite taboo to the social order. But, as it comes to pass, the royals also believe in oracles or seers of the future.  This Oracle (Michele Mais) predicts four dire events that will happen and so the King decides to flee his kingdom to nearby Bohemia to outdistance the prophecies, or so he thinks.  Meanwhile the underlings at the kingdom are not idle, as the King’s right-hand man, his meek valet, Dametas (David Kelly) is doing his best to satisfy everyone’s needs; the daughters,’ sassy, lady-in-waiting, Mopsa (Britney Simpson), has her own agenda and eyes for a very unconventional relationship; Philanax, (John Tufts), the wise fool (probably the only sensible one in the kingdom), gives smart counsel, usually unheeded, and keeps the narrative of the play moving and/or changing, as needed; and the shepherd will not be thwarted in his desires for the youngest, so a drastic change in his demeanor must occur and, thereby, a revelation.

I cannot tell you more or it would spoil the plots many twists and turns.  Also, can’t reveal the songs sang in the production as they were not listed, but they were all by the musical group, the Go-Go’s from the ‘80s (akin to Abba and the evolved show from their songs, Mama Mia).  But, although complex, the play does have enough magical production numbers, extraordinary costumes, and a terrific cast to make your evening worthwhile!

Every one of the cast members (including one of the most versatile choruses I’ve seen) is exceptional and carefully chosen, as they have to be damn good singers, comedians, acrobats, dancers and, of course, actors.  In particular, all the ladies voices are amazing and the performance of Tufts, as the Fool, has a wily charm that is contagious.  The costumes by Loren Shaw are colorful, amusing, story-book in style and totally effective.  Dean as the musical maestro and Tayeh as the movement expert do an outstanding job in supporting this complicated musical structure.  Iskandar should be given kudos for assembling such a perfect combination of people to grace his vision—Bravo.

But, this being a play in progress and subject to change, I would suggest that the first act needs to be trimmed a bit.  True, it is not easy to introduce all the expository elements necessary to a play (as well as combining as least three different genres) but it could be streamlined more.  Also (without giving away the climax) that is rather weak in the story.  I would suggest that since the Fool has broken the fourth wall with the audience, he simply explain to us something like, “we really can’t let this play end on this note can we, folks?  Therefore we have the power to change sometimes what is hurtful, so why not start now…” (also shortens the play a bit) and then give the show its suitable ending.  Just an idea….

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



The Ashland Experience (part I)

This time we stayed at the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites (2525 Ashland St., 541-482-8310) www.ashlandhillshotel.com as our usual haunt, the Ashland Springs in downtown Ashland, was booked full.  It has the same owners, though www.neumanhotelgroup.com (541-631-2004) and has the same delightful breakfast included in the price, including fresh fruit, pancakes, egg salad, bagels/toast, cereals, beverages, et. al.  It also includes a hot tub, swimming pool, meeting & exercise rooms, WiFi, a friendly staff and other amenities.  I recommend this place but if you are a theatre-goer, I would suggest its sister hotel downtown (mentioned above), which is right next to OSF. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Theory of Everything—Theatre Diaspora—SW Portland

Close Encounters
This family, comedy–drama, Staged Reading is written by Prince Gomolvilas and directed by Rusty Newton Tennant.  It is produced in association with Media Rites (Executive Producer, Dmae Roberts) and the show produced by Wynee Hu and Samson Syharath.  It will be performed for one more performance at Artists Rep., SW Alder St. & SW 16th Ave. at 2 pm on Saturday, Aug. 29th at 2 pm.  For more information, go to their site at www.theatrediaspora.org

This is a story about displaced people, outsiders, looking for a place to belong.  But, as it’s presented, it crosses cultural barriers and becomes a very human story, a human comedy, Chekhovian in scope and style.  This is a family, all looking for God, their purpose in this universe, the purpose of the universe, acceptance for who they are, love, how to combat loneliness and homesickness, how to divest themselves of the “old ways” and how to embrace this self-same lore and, oh yes, the search for E.T.’s.

It takes place in Las Vegas, the glitter capital of the world.  But, as has been said, “all that glitters is not gold.”  But, sometimes it takes a journey, as Frodo and Bilbo, Dorothy Gale from Kansas and the star-crossed, young lovers in The Fantasticks found out, to find what you treasure most may have been in your own backyard all the time.  In this case—Family.

The matriarch of the family, the eccentric May (Elaine Low), likes to spend her time on the rooftop looking for UFO’s and waiting to be beamed up and whist away to a far-distant world.  The rest of the extended family consists of Patty (Toni Tabora-Roberts), desperately wanting children, and her husband, the unhappy, Hiro (Larry Toda), pining for his home country, Japan and, ironically, owners of a place called, Chapel of Love.  The colorful Shimmy (Kat Templeton) is missing her dead husband and wishing, like Hiro, that she was someone else and somewhere other than here.

Her son, Gilbert (Kimo Camat) is searching for his own identity and place in the world but, at his point, his only move in that direction is a need to change his name to Ibu Profen (after the medicine, to take away pain) and asking his childhood friend, Lana (Wynee Hu) to marry him, even though he doesn’t love her that way.  And the restless Lana jumps from one relationship to another searching for something, as yet unknown.  And her brother, the kinetic Nef (Heath Hyun Houghton), is a college student struggling with his major, Philosophy, and his marriage, but haunted by images from his past…chicken feet.

Einstein’s Theory of Everything, in a nutshell, is the search for how the universe works and, within that, perhaps, the purpose.  Nef’s theory is that everything and everyone is hurtling toward destruction.  Somewhere, in the middle of all this, is what we call Existence or Life.  In Gomolvilas’s story, his characters are definitely searching and, depending on past experiences, going different directions.  But their rock, through thick and thin is blood, family, the saving grace that will unite them all, if even for a moment frozen in time, looking as a united front toward the stars, awaiting answers.

Gomolvilas has written some very rich and compelling characters.  They are probably mirror-images, in large or small ways, of the audience.  Tennant is always fascinating to watch, whether it’s onstage in a Shakespearean role, designing an award-winning set for zombie hunters, or directing whacky stories about Christmas (his next project is directing the Bag and Baggage production of the semi-classic, Hitchcock’s story of Rope).  In this play, he modulates the rhythms and emotions of the characters, allowing time for quite moments mixed with spurts of fire.  A well-rounded show.

The cast is exceptional (including narration by Samson Syharath), each so good in their part as to make you believe they are who they say they are.  They all have their moments to shine and then, like a good team or family, they ably support the other members of the cast.  The monologues, odd at times, are so convincingly performed, that you accept them at face value.  And that accomplishes two of the rules of good acting, find the Truth for the character and make the audience believe you.  They do.

This is a new company, advocating and celebrating Asian American/Pacific Islander experiences.  It deserves not only to be seen but to be supported as well.  (Remember, it only has one more performance.)  And both Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep. should be applauded for offering their facilities for them to perform.

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Dear Galileo—CoHo Productions—NW Portland

Stardust

This world premiere play is written by Claire Willett and directed by Stephanie Mulligan and co-produced by Playwrights West.  It is playing at their space at 2257 NW Raleigh St. through this month.  For more information, go to their site at www.cohoproductions.org

To paraphrase the Bard, we are such stuff as stars are made on and our little lives are connected to everyone and everything.  That, perhaps, is the point to this play.  The story covers a tremendous amount of philosophy, religious beliefs and scientific theory, as well as the angst of some individuals.  It is, I believe, too complicated to fit all this fodder into one 150 minute story but it does give it one hell of an effort.

I will try to condense this story into a few words but know, that in actual fact, it is pretty heady material.  The thread of the story, time-wise, is actually in the middle of three related but separate tales.  Gabriel (Nathan Dunkin) is an ex-priest/physicist who is attempting to build a super telescope with his idol, scientist extraordinaire, Jasper Willows (Gary Powell).  Problem is that Jasper has disappeared just weeks before a big meeting of introducing the telescope to the world leaders.  And, to add even more fuel to this imminent blaze, his estranged daughter, Cassie (Nena Salazar), now pregnant, has arrived for a visit.  Not only that, but they are both dealing with demons from the past that will hamper their progress, both in finding her father and in their relationship.

In a seemingly separate story, a child, Haley (Agatha Day Olson), has been getting a Catholic school upbringing because her father, Robert (Walter Petryk), is of that faith but is also a scientist and writer.  Haley seems to have some major questions and differences of opinion as to what she is being taught in school, which bases its teachings of creation on the Bible.  And in a third tale, catapulting back over 300 years, Galileo (Chris Porter) has come up with some very unpopular theories with the Church, in that his telescope reveals, among other things, that the earth is not the center of our universe, but the sun.  This puts Galileo in jeopardy with the Pope and only his daughter, Celeste (Kate Mura), has come to his aid.  He is also going blind and needs her help in finishing his work.

I will have to leave you with only these two paragraphs because, as I’ve said, the story is really so complex that it would be folly of me to try and elaborate any more on it, as it would probably only be more confusing for you.  But know that it really is quite a compelling tale and, like a massive jigsaw puzzle, it will come together by the end.  The play does needs a bit of editing, I believe, as some of the scenes seem a tad ponderous and repetitious at times.  Also, I think that Jasper’s speeches could be trimmed, not because Powell is not a good orator, but because they, too, become a bit pedantic.  Also some visual aids would help those scenes, since we are now, because of the Internet, a culture of constant visual stimuli.

I loved the floor design by Sarah Kindler, as it complimented the theme of the play that, by stepping off into this cosmos, one could become part of it.  Mulligan, always a fascinating director, has wisely kept the setting simple so as not to interfere with the complicated story.  This would not be an easy play to direct (or perform) because of the heady material but she and her cast do have a vision and it comes through as the story progresses.

The cast does well with some of them playing as many as three different characters.  Porter offers us what we envision Galileo might have looked and acted like.  He gives us a bit of a curmudgeon but one with a steely purpose and unrelenting spine to follow through with his beliefs.  Mura, another fine actor (as well as very adept with artistry behind the scenes in other productions), plays Celeste as a bit of a mirror-image of her father, being equally stubborn but vulnerable.  Powell is always a joy to watch onstage in whatever incarnations he presents.  Most of his scenes are relegated to speechifying but he has such a trained voice and demeanor that it becomes palpable to observe and heed.

Petryk does well in the conflicted part of the father, scientist and Christian, trying to balance his life with these seemingly differing roles.  Olson, as his daughter, does not have an easy task because, at her age, these are pretty complicated ideas to wrap her mind around.  But she seems to understand the conflicts and renders a believable performance.

Both Dunkin and Salazar are at their best in what seems to be the heart of the story.  They play very complicated characters that are neither black nor white but shades of gray, in other words, very human and relatable.  Dunkin is always worth watch in a production but this might be his best, as he keeps you guessing as to the path he will take and the secrets behind his mask.  Salazar, likewise, is fascinating to watch, as she becomes hard as nails at times then totally open and vulnerable.  Also an outstanding performance and they play well off each other.


I recommend this production but know the subject matter is very deep and the language realistic.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Schizo—Shaking the Tree Theatre—SE Portland

“Nowhere to Run…”
This one-woman work on mental illness is created and performed by Katie Watkins.  It is playing at the Shaking the Tree space at 823 SE Grant St. through August 29th.  For more information, go to her site at www.katiewatkinspdx.com

This is a very personal, creative piece by Watkins, who grew up with a brother who has mental illness.  According to Watkins (who expresses it best):  “Schizophrenia doesn’t only live in the mind; it pervades every aspect of reality.”  Her younger brother was diagnosed with it at 11 years old.  She continues, “…it became a waking nightmare…my brother strove to maintain some semblance of normalcy…few could suspect the daily internal chaos he was working so hard to handle and hide.”  She adds, “My brother continues to live with schizophrenia, but he does live (my italics)…these stories deserve to be shared.”  Amen.

The show, as presented, is a multidisciplinary experience including recorded music, song, movement, taped narratives and monologues, with added lighting and sound effects to enhance the experience.  Through this short, but powerful piece, she is able to express in often non-verbal and non-linear ways, the struggles of an individual attempting to deal with the “windmills of the mind.”  All of us have bouts of depression and anxiety at times but consider having an entire life make up of this, with the added interference of hearing voices, having hallucinations, suicidal tendencies, delusions, disorganized behavior, et. al.

Consider living like this and trying to cope with our so-called “reality/normalcy.”  Anne Sexton from Wanting to Die:  “…most days I cannot remember.  I walk in clothes, unmarked by that voyage.”  A situation not to be desired.  There is no easy answer as to how to tame this savage beast within, the prowler between the light and the dark.  Medications seem to have some affect for some individuals but there are often side effects that are pretty potent, too.  A solution that simply says to turn off or ignore the voices is also a possible choice.  Whatever…it is a brain disorder and needs to be addressed somehow.  As Watkins puts it, “there is nowhere to run from what’s in the mind.”

Mind you, this is not a lecture on mental illness or a monologue about her personal experience with living with a family member who has it.  It is an attempt to show the inner workings of the persona of how an individual may experience the world through their eyes.  And Watkins does it beautifully.  This has to be an emotional roller-coaster for her (as I’m sure it is for her brother) but it is also a very courageous enterprise, bringing this complex, misunderstood and, even embarrassing, subject to the forefront of our world.  There are mysteries in our universe that we have yet to discover but the human mind might be more complex than even that.

If you have questions or want to share any personal experiences, there is a talk-back after every performance, which I encourage you to stay for.  And, for anyone who wants to investigate further into this vast subject, there is NAMI at www.namimultnomah.org or the Mental Health Crisis Line at 800-716-9769.

I do recommend this production.  Watkins has proved to be a very adept organizer in the background of theatre for a few years.  It is now grand to see her on the “boards” and know that she is equally qualified to be a creator also before our eyes (and she plays a pretty mean flute, too).  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

The Praying Mantis—Twilight Theater Company—N. Portland

“Three Weird Sisters”

This gothic-comic-horror story is written by Alejandro Sieveking and is directed by Jodi Rafkin.  It is playing at their space at 7515 N. Brandon Ave. through August 30th (note:  they now have parking in the church lot across the street).  For more information, go to their site at www.twilighttheatercompany.org or call 503-847-9838.

As described, this play is in the gothic horror vein with a comic undertones.  It has things in common with Macbeth, The Beguiled, Jane Eyre and the B, B&W, horror films from the 40’s and 50’s.  The script is a bit wordy in spots and the comic innuendos don’t always work but it is a good homage to that period of film and writing.  The style also might be compared to the Penny Dreadfuls and Dime Novels of the 19th Century.  And it takes place in the usual dilapidated manor with a reclusive, unsociable family with a terrible secret…no, I can’t reveal it, but it does live…er, I mean, exist, behind a heavily secured, brown door.  A door, if opened, results in…well, you’ll just have to see it for yourselves, won’t you?!

The story begins with an innocent, Juan (Dylan Horttor), arriving at the manor as the perspective fiancé to one of the sisters, Adela (Danyelle Tinker).  They have just come back from the funeral of one of the two sisters, Lina (Gretchen Lively) and Llalla (Sue Harris), both of whom have lost their fiancés recently in a couple of unfortunate, purported accidents.  But Adela feels hopeful that she can entice Juan to marry her and escape from the seclusion and poverty of her current state.

Of course, there is the problem of a fourth sister, Theresa (Crystal Lemons), who is only talked about in low voices.  And then there is the crazy (or is he?) old man, Aparacio (Tom Witherspoon), that they call Papa.  They all dream of a better life in a faraway place but, because of lack of funds, possibly, or fear of the outside world, they are unable to move beyond their own, possibly self-imposed, prisons.  Can’t tell you any more as this, being a mystery, needs to be viewed to discover the truths.

It is interesting to note that the play takes place in Chile and, I believe, the author is Chilean but there isn’t anything obvious, except for the names and setting that makes this exclusively a tale of Chilean people.  The only exception is a line that refers to hiding ugly things and only showing off the beautiful to outsiders, which might be referring to a country, immersed in poverty, only showing the wealthier sections to the rest of the world.  Also, no Hispanics actors in the cast which, I assume, means that none tried out.  But, as I said, this is mostly a gothic horror story which could be placed anywhere.

A couple of other things that should be mentioned are that the artwork on the poster and door area on the set was designed by Crystal Lemons and it is quite unique.  Also, the wedding gowns come from Brides for a Cause www.bridesforacause.com  which are quite beautiful and supports the charity, Wish Upon a Wedding.

The acting by the whole cast was good and, as I’ve mentioned before, actually being onstage and doing a role is valuable experience for honing your acting chops.  The direction by Rafkin could be tighter, as comic timing and potential suspenseful moments were sometimes lost.  Overall, though, the script is of a genre I do like and it is reasonably well done, as is the production.  And the title gives a hint to the nature of the play, as this insect (as well as Black Widow spiders), are predatory creatures and have cannibalistic tendencies.

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

Thursday, August 13, 2015

2015-16 Portland Area Theatre Season

2015-16 Portland Area Theatre Season

Here is the season of plays for most of the theatres I review in the Greater Portland (and Ashland, OR) area.  Many consider their season from September 1st to August 31st, but some go from the actual beginning of the year to the end.  Some of these plays may change and or will have extended runs.  This should not be considered a complete list (go to their websites for more information), as it is of just the theatres I review and some of them have not decided their complete season yet.  Click on link below to access the list as of August, 2015 (in alphabetical order):

https://goo.gl/yxl0YU

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Oklahoma—Broadway Rose—Tigard, OR

The New Frontier

This iconic musical is playing at their summer location at the Deb Fennell Auditorium, 9000 SW Durham Rd. (Tigard High School), through August 23rd.  It is by the great Rogers and Hammerstein II and directed by Sharon Maroney.  Choreography is by Maria Tucker and music direction by Jeffery Childs.  For more information, go to their site at www.broadwayrose.org or call 503-620-5262.

This not only was the beginning of a new state in the early 1900’s, previously “Indian Territory,” but also a new era in musicals, in which the songs were an integrated part of the story.  It is based on a tale by Lynn Riggs called, “Green Grow the Lilacs.”  It is, on a broad scale, about the emergences of a variety of people trying to carve out a civilization in the wilderness.  The Native Americans and Mexicans had already been here.  There we also slaves, carpetbaggers, cattlemen, sheepherders, cowboys, city slickers and farmers, all trying to carve out a niche for themselves in this virgin land.

But, this mini microcosm of some of those factions, are what is presented here.  It is pretty much an old-fashioned love story with Curly (Jared Miller), a cowboy and a proud loner, who has his sights set on an equally proud and stubborn woman named, Laurey (Dru Rutledge), who lives with her Aunt Eller (Nan Gatchel), a feisty ole gal.  There is also the side story of Will (James Sharinghousen), a fun-loving cowboy, who is smitten by Ado Annie (Megan Carver), who is just crazy about…well, anyone who wears jeans…in other words, not the faithful type.

But both of these young gals have their nemesis.  Laurie, in a brute of a simple farmhand called Jud (Colin Wood), who is lusting after her, and woe be to them that refuse his advances.  And Annie, in the guise of a traveling salesman/con artist named, Ali (Joey Cóté), who has his eyes set on anything that wears skirts.  To tell more would spoil discoveries for the audience.

Needless to say, all these factions, including the cattlemen and farmers, will butt heads to see who rules the day.  But most of them will realize, that in order to gain the day, they must learn compromise and share this time in the sun (something that is still not completely accepted in today’s society).

All the familiar songs are there including “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and, of course, “Oklahoma.”  Miller is a fine Curly, giving both the bravado and vulnerability of this character, and blessed with a strong singing voice.  Rutledge had an operatic range, which she puts to good use, and is convincing as the conflicted Laurey.  But, as in most musicals, the supporting, comic players do have a chance to shine, too.  Carver, as Annie, is both funny, and a bit sad, as a gal who can’t make up her mind.  Cóté as the traveling loner, is very funny, as a bit of a cad but eventually saves the day, unintentionally.

Wood, as the villain of the piece, is very convincing as a real heel, who has a demon inside him.  And the always remarkable Sharinghousen is outstanding as the good-natured Will, especially impressive in his dance numbers.  Also, worth noting, are the two dancers who do the famous dream ballet sequence, Claire Zavislan as “Laurey” and Nick Perry as “Curly.”  They, and this whole episode, are beautifully done.

My hat’s off to the director, Maroney, for keeping the flow going, even with the scene changes, and allowing the actors to give some depth to their characters.  Tucker, as the choreographer, is equally impressive in the dance numbers, including the ballet, the ensemble entrance of Will and Annie, and the “Farmer and the Cowhand” number.  And, not to forget, the Drammy award-winning, Kristen Mun, as the fight choreographer, whose scuffles are as much dance-like movements as they are “fights.”

Foreigners and the uneducated are not treated well by the script.  Nor is the inclusion of a song that seems to border on what nowadays would be considered cyber-bullying.  But, we had just emerged from a World War in the mid-1940’s, these elements were probably a sign of the times.

I recommend this production.  Keep in mind they do tend to sell out, as their parking lot fills up fast, so best plan your time accordingly.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.