Friday, April 29, 2016

Into the Beautiful North—Milagro—SE Portland


Imaginary Borders & Impossible Dreams

This comedy-drama is adapted to the stage by Karen Zacarias from a novel by Luis Alberto Urrea.  It is directed by Olga Sanchez (Artistic Director, Emerita) and Daniel Jáquez.  It is playing at their site, 525 SE Stark St. (street parking is a challenge, so plan your time accordingly), through May 28th.  For more information, go to their site at www.milagro.org or call 503-236-7253.

We probably have all felt the need to be saved, at one time or another, at one point in our lives.  The traditional model might go back as far as early Man, with the Hunter/Gatherers caste system, where roles where defined as to who were the protectors, the males, and who would keep the home fires burning, the females.  Medieval times chose to have castles and knights and fair damsels and dragons, to add to this complicated mix.  And then some years ago we had the dastardly villain and the meek maiden needing rescuing by the brave hero in the white hat….

But that was then, this is now!  In this modern scenario, the hero is a female, and a young one at that, that knows hand-to-hand combat and will not put up with bullying (young ladies, take notice).  Nayeli (Michelle Escobar) is a resident of a small Mexican town that is overrun by corrupt officials and drug lords.  She finds sympathy from her tough-talking, Tia Irma (Bunnie Rivera), who is also the mayor.  She also finds support from her best friends, Vampi (Michelle Caughlin), a vampire-like vixen and her gay friend, and boss at the café where she works, Tacho (Danny Moreno).

After seeing the film, The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli and her two buddies decide to venture up North to the United States, to find seven brave and true men who will rescue their town from these evil-doers.  Of course, they have little money and no passports and really have no idea where they are actually going, but that doesn’t stop them.  Their one goal is to find her father, who has been gone for some years, in the Great Lakes region of the U.S.  And they do remember a Missionary Matt (Romeo Ceasar), a gringo, who Nayeli has a crush on, from a visit when he was here, who lives in San Diego.  But there Odyssey will take many unexpected twists and turns before they reach their destination.

They will spend a night in the town dump, where they are greeted by the first of their “magnificent” men, an eccentric vagabond and street fighter named, Atómiko (Anthony Lam), who also knows the secret to getting across the border.  But along their perilous journey, they will meet up with some nasty Mexican border guards and one, somewhat sympathetic, American one; be separated at times; find hatred and kindness in small-town America; find another, “magnificent” man, in the desert, the wandering Angel (Carlos Manzano); reunite an old flame, Chava (Anthony Green), with a familiar face; and eventually find her Quest, only to discover it may have all just be a wonderful, impossible dream of hers all along.

I can’t tell you all the details, as that is a journey of discovery the audience must make with them.  But I will tell you that, not unlike Dorothy’s journey to Oz, what you have been seeking may have been in your own backyard all the time.  But, to learn that, one must make that trip over the rainbow.  I think everyone can glean something of value from this united safari into the unknown.  And know that Courage is only a word, if written in ink.  When dipped into one’s heart and written in blood, it becomes something quite unstoppable!  Youth, take note!

This is a play that sneaks up on you.  It begins quite innocently enough and you think you know where it’s going, but then it takes some sharp turns and ends up being more like a fable or parable, in which one can be entertained but also learn some important life lessons in the process.  The directors have done well by keep the setting simple and letting the actors flesh out the story, so that one’s imagination is challenged and becomes part of the vehicle in envisioning it (not like today’s films, in which there C/G effects spell out everything for us, allowing our imaginations to atrophy…but don’t get me started on that).  Also, the stylized fight scenes by Kristen Mun are very well done, as well as the video backgrounds by Andres Alcalá.

Anyway, it is refreshing to observe a talented ensemble relate a tale in a storytelling fashion, in which an audience is allowed to participate.  And most of the cast plays more than one role and are quite good in them, if they are just a few seconds long.  I especially liked Green in the many incarnations he creates and all very specific and captivating.  Lam was a scream, playing such an offbeat character even more offbeat.  You like his mad man even if you don’t understand him.  Moreno does justice to his creation by playing a gay man, who is quite admirable and someone who would be proud to have as a friend.  And Escobar, as the fiery heroine, is a gem.  She not only is able to impart a strong female character, who  appears able to take on all comers, but also has a sensuality that is quite appealing to a guy with any sense.  She is a perfect role-model for young ladies of today.

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

Monday, April 18, 2016

In the Heights—Stumptown Stages—downtown Portland

“Won’t You Be…My Neighbor?”

This Tony-Award winning musical is playing in the Brunish Theatre (4th floor), 1111 SW Broadway, through May 1st.   It was conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also composed the current musical, mega-hit on Broadway, Hamilton), who also wrote the music and lyrics, and book by Quiara Alegia Hudes.  It is directed and choreographed by David Marquez, with musical direction by Mak Kastelic.  For more information, go to their site at www.stumptownstages.org  

For those of you who might remember, or grew up with “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” the above phrase is part of his opening theme song, as he welcomed viewers to his world (or some might prefer Eddie Murphy’s bleaker version on “Saturday Night Live.”).  But, whatever your take on neighborhoods, there are always two sides to that kind of intimacy.  You might then picture, “Sesame Street,” and its alter-ego, in the Tony-Award winning musical, Avenue Q.  Two sides of the same coin, you see?

The beat expands more as you consider the old adage, from Africa, I believe, “it takes a whole village to raise a child.”  The question then becomes, what happens when that “child” dreams of and/or reaches out to the larger world and leaves that nurturing community?  Will they be swallowed up by the concrete jungles or be allowed to shine?  And what of those left behind, as they lose, through death or migration, key members of the pack?  Evolution is a natural part of Life but change is painful, too.

And so we have, the Washington Heights neighborhood, during one long, hot summer.  Our guide into this gnarly garden of contained wonders is Usnavi (Michel Castillo), a gregarious, street vendor and grocery store owner with his friend, Sonny (Matthew Synder), a cool, young tomcat.  His neighbors are the Rosario’s, Kevin/Poppy (Damien Geter), a no-nonsense guy who own a Limo service and his gutsy wife, Camila (Carmen Brantley-Payne).  There is also the caring grandma, Abuela Claudia (Laura Stilwell) and the petite, Stanford-college daughter, Nina (Essie Canty Bertain), home from school.

On the other side of the store is the Beauty Salon, run by a trio of vivacious vixens, Carla (Jalena Montrond), Daniela (Sydney Webber) and Vanessa (Justine Davis).  All who dream of the world, out there…a better life…their White Knight.  Also, into this world, is Benny (Salim Sanchez), a carefree guy, dispatcher at the Limo service, who has his loving eye on Nina (and she on him).  And then there is the optimistic, Piragua Guy (Feliciano Tencos-Garcia), who has a food cart; the elusive, Graffiti Pete (Raphael Likes), who will eventually find his true calling; and a couple of lovely, street-smart ladies, Lydia Fleming and Crystal Muñoz, who flesh out the rest of the neighborhood.

Their world is mostly contained, but with Rooftop Dreams and Champagne Tastes, it will evolve in time.  Then, a night of fireworks and a blackout will change everything.  Their patch of earth will collide with the unknown and what was will be no longer…but this sky full of stars will lead to a new dawning.  Can’t tell you too much, as it would spoil discoveries you should make.  And songs such as “Atencion,” “Everything I Know,”  “When Your Home,” “Patiencia Y Fe,” “Inutil,” et. al. and the dance numbers are fabulous.  Marquez has done an amazing job in such a small space of keeping everything alive and vibrant, and visceral, as well.

The cast is outstanding, all with great voices but my special favorites were Davis, Bertain, Geter, and Stilwell, whose voices shot through the roof.  And Muñoz, who I’ve touted many times before in all sorts of incarnations, from Shakespeare to musicals, is always an asset to a production.  Also the band (with Kastelic and Reed Bunnell, Eric Ching, Ben Finley and Darian Patrick) is truly gifted with some pretty intricate material.

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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Chrysalis—OCT’s Young Professionals Company—NE Portland

The Dawning…

This World Premiere production is at Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Y/P Studio Theatre, 1939 NE Sandy Blvd., and is written and directed by Matthew B. Zrebski.  It is playing at their space through April 24th.  For more information, go to their site at www.octc.org or call 503-228-9571.

Once Upon a Time…there was a caterpillar, who some would say was mad…no, not the one from the Alice… stories (although he might have felt quite at home in this world) but a special one who seemed to have God-like powers.  His (Her?) job, so it seems, was to spin its silk from which a new world would emerge.  An end-world, possibly, a last generation, as it were, to fix all the muddled, madcap messes and mistakes that humankind has been making since the Dawn of Time.

But this new era would not be an easy one to create…it would be painful, in fact, as the old world and the old selves would die, as well as the caterpillar from which it sprang.  But it was a last ditch effort to save what was once a Beautiful Idea.  The mistake was, perhaps, giving these bipeds free will and reasoning powers and attempting not to interfere.  But this time, there would be an…interference…in which The Braids (Morgan Demetre, Conner Muhl, Emma Stewart and Martin Tebo) would get directly involved with the…transformation…and so our story begins….

Nigel (Isaac Sten), a high school student, is the blog guru of his school, proud of the fact that he prints only gossip, lies for the hungry masses.  And proud of the fact that he can “fix” things as needed if some rumors get out of hand.  But, when he stumbles accidently on a “truth,” given to him by his best friend, Dylan (Max Bernsohn), a God-fearing boy, about a girl that he’s sweet on, Jace (Tirza Meuljic), who is in the midst of an identity crisis, then that opens up a whole can of worms and all hell breaks loose (possibly, quite literally).

Jace also has an older sister, Holly (Charlotte Karlsen), who is planning on going away to college.  But, as this tin of squiggly beasties begins to erupt, she is catapulted into the vacuum, too, as she know secrets from their past.  And, with the Braids around, nothing goes unnoticed, or unresolved.  As they are nudged into a Rebirth, wounds need to be exposed so that the healing can start.  Issues of God, politics, forgiveness, power, identity, responsibility, abuse, et. al. must be addressed.  What emerges is…but that would be telling, wouldn’t it?  See it to glimpse this…brave, new world.

If you are expecting a traditional, linear story with an elaborate set, this is not that.  This is not so much a place, but a state of mind.  It has only one foot in reality.  The other foot is rooted firmly in that netherworld of dreams, a surrealistic state of mind, a labyrinth of expectations and disappointments…and possibilities.  It is a world seen by today’s Youth and should not be ignored!

Zrebski and his cast, has, I’m sure, traveled down some emotional and probably painful roads to hone out this missive.  It is to his credit that he has not only listened but heeded their story.  And they have done it in a safe environment, in the womb of the Y/P Company of OCT, in my opinion, the finest youth company in the NW.  And, it is to Dani Baldwin’s credit, as Education Director and guiding force of this group, that such a program exists and thrives.  Hurray to all of the above and to the very talented cast who, I’m sure, has been transformed in more ways than one, with this experience.  My companion to this and many shows, Deanna, would agree, to never underestimate or patronize our Youth for they are, quite seriously, the Hope of the Future.

And so, to end the story, “…and they lived…hopefully…ever after!”  I recommend this play, especially to the Youth out there, as I’m sure they will see they are not alone in the angst they feel.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Blue Door—Profile Theatre—SW Portland

The Summoning

This drama is by Tanya Barfield and directed by Bobby Bermea.  It is playing at the Artists Repertory’s space, SW Alder St. and 16th Ave., through April 24th.  For more information, go to their site at www.profiletheatre.org

Family dynamics are sometimes a wonderful…sometimes a scary thing, to deal with.  After all, we may be able to choose our friends but we can’t choose our family (although there are times, I’m sure, we wish we could).  The Why of those statements has a lot to do with our own personal Egos.  As the Cowardly Lion expresses, “If I were King of the forest…” meaning that he would change everything so that it suited him.  But that ain’t the way Life works, pal.  You get the cards you are dealt, including family, and you have to cope with them the best you can.

But…surprise, surprise…we are not on an island and are the product biologically of many generations that have come before…the bad and the good.  True, Nature has a lot to do with our make-up, but there is Nurturing, too, as we adapt to how we were raised and our surroundings.  And, in the case of Lewis (Victor Mack), a highly regarded, Math professor, assimilation, perhaps, into a society which goes against his Nature, is the answer.  And that is the crux of the story, too.

Lewis’s world is made up of numbers, formulas, facts (you might say he sleeps with these images encompassing him), anything that can neatly fit into a box and be categorized to squeeze into the world of his making…his “forest.”  He, being black, has married a white woman, and is highly successful as a professor and writer, and earning a good living, all pointing to a bed of roses to relax on…but what about the thorns, “ah, there’s the rub.”  His wife leaves him, prompting a visitation of ghosts from the past in the guises of his grand-parents, his father, his brother and other incarnations, all created by one actor, Seth Rue, suggesting, perhaps, the intimate connections of their heritage to Lewis.

He is reminded of his slave past and how mistreated his people were.  He’s reminded of the humiliation, degradation, harassment and downright cruelty his people endured.  And they damn sure didn’t endure it for him to be absorbed into the enemy camp, the white world!  His role should be to seek equality, not assimilation.  And, even sadder, Lewis knows these stories but has chosen to ignore them.  But, like all truths, they will out…and have their day.

The question then is, will he listen, no, heed their summoning…?!  To discover the outcome, and the secret of the “blue door,” you will have to see the play for yourself, for no spoiler I.

This would not be an easy play to stage, for it is just two actors (and a whole slew of characters they create) on an essentially bare stage, with few props, for 90 minutes.  But Bermea has chosen well his cast and knows the art of storytelling.  The heart of any play is the author’s words, the director/actors’ vision and the audiences ability to listen.  If you have those essentials secure (and they do), then you have a play that holds your interest and is thought-provoking (which it is).  I have reviewed Bermea before as a director and actor and his creations are always worthwhile.

Mack and Rue play off each other with a free abandon, letting the story flow from within them, painting a landscape that is both multi-dimensional and heart-wrenching.  “The woods are…dark and deep…” and exploring them are scary, dangerous but hopefully, ultimately, fulfilling.  These two talented gentlemen create a populated world with merely a turn of a head, or a crouch, or a slight change of voice and, from that, weave a existence/history/philosophy that is both personal and universal.  Some of the best acting I’ve seen this season.

One final thought, may we all create our own “blue door” in order to survive “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes.”  I recommend this play.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them that Dennis sent you.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Pianist of Willesden Lane—Portland Center Stage—Pearl District

Soothing the Savage Beast

This very personal, true story features Mona Golabek and is based on her book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” by Golabek and Lee Cohen.  It is adapted for the stage and directed by Hershey Felder.  This one-person show is playing at PCS, 128 NW 11th Ave., through May 1st.  For more information, go to their site at www.pcs.org or call 503-445-3700.

It is said that “music soothes the savage beast” and I believe that it not only does that, but is the art form that is closest to evoking emotional response from people.  Look how effective it is in films to set moods for an audience.  It is said music was often played on the sets of Silent movies to get actors into the proper frame of mind for a scene.

In this production, we not only have music, mostly classical, as a mood-enhancer, but it is intertwined and essential to the story being told, as the storyteller’s mother, Lisa Jura, a classical pianist, is being portrayed by her real-life daughter.  It may be in memories and words that we continue to live but music is the voice of the soul.

In the late 1930’s, Germany, in particular, was becoming a hell-hole for the people of the Jewish faith to live because of the Nazi reign.  Curiously, Vienna, where her family was from, was called, perhaps prophetically for her, the “City of Dreams.”  Lisa, one of three daughters, was being trained by her mother to become a pianist.  But it is soon evident that the Nazi’s were cracking down on any Jewish education and businesses, making it difficult for her father, a tailor, to continue to support his family.  When a stroke of luck offers them one ticket for a child on the Kindertransport to England, Lisa is chosen to the benefactor of this wondrous gift.

This program enabled around 10,000 Jewish children from Germany to be transported to England to be taken in and raised by families until the war was over.  Internationally, some sort of refugee program for them to other countries was proposed and rejected by 32 nations, including the United States.  But, God bless England, she rose to the cause and many Jewish families survive today because of their generosity and humanity.

As a young girl, Lisa was ushered from one family as a servant, to working on an assembly line.  But she always managed to find a piano, as she felt that was her calling.  Eventually, she found a home, like so many other refugee children, at Willesden Lane and discovered a benefactor who allowed her to continue to develop as a pianist.  Even through the destruction from bombings, Lisa played on.  She even entertained soldiers in music halls and finally had an opportunity to possibly be part of the Royal Academy of Music.  But the outcome of this story, dear reader, you’ll have to see, and hear, for yourself.

By coming to experience this show, will you learn anything new about the millions of stories already out there about the shattered dreams and renewed hopes of a whole nation of people?  Yes, I think you will.  Partly because it is told in a storytelling fashion, possibly the purist form of telling stories, so it becomes one-on-one as a personal bridge between storyteller and receiver.  Also, as mentioned above, it has music to gently, but dramatically, guide you on this coupled journey of memories, emotions and history.  And, since it is personal for the teller, one cannot say that it is just a performer enacting a part.  It is a human being sharing their very private story with you, so one should feel honored to be invited along this path to healing.  Finally, because of all of the above, it is a lesson for us to heed so that never again, perhaps, will we allow such atrocities to happen!

Golabek is inspiring, enchanting and empowering in her presentation!  She is bravely humble in her verbal relating of this epic tale but powerfully persuasive and driven in the musical landscape in which she resides.  By the end of her presentation I, and my frequent companion to plays, Deanna, a musical talent in her own right, were easily moved to tears.  And I’m sure both of us were changed by this experience.  Golabek had a well-deserved, standing ovation by the end.

Felder has kept the setting simple, but wide-spread in scope, as the ‘”portraits” of past events was a powerful tool to keeping us rooted to the period.  When all is said and done, what words cannot express, music can!

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

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Amish Project—Portland Actors Conservatory—SW Portland

The Nature of Evil

This drama about the murder of ten Amish school children on Oct. 2, 2006, is written by Jessica Dickey and directed by Beth Harper (PAC’s Producing Artistic Director).  It is playing at their space, 1436 SW Montgomery St. (be aware, it is only street parking, so plan your time accordingly), through April 24th.  For more information, go to their site at www.actorsconservatory.com or call 503-274-1717.

One question that everyone would ask about such a senseless killing is…Why?!  But, as one character in the play proclaims, “there is no Why.”  Consider this, though, what if Evil is a real Entity, call it Satan, the Devil…whatever, and is able to take control of a conflicted person(s) for a period of time, in which it can create its mayhem.  In Capote’s powerful book, “In Cold Blood,” in which two young men kill a whole family for apparently no reason, he postulates that separately, neither of these troubled personalities would have done this ghastly crime, but the combination of the two created an evil persona that took control.  Could something similar have happened to Eddie Stuckey, a milkman and father of two?!

Much of this tragic story is presented like a Greek Chorus, which takes on a collective spirit in order to inform, comment on, and/or drive the plot forward.  Two of the deceased girls, the precocious, Velda (Sophie Foti) and the budding, younger sister, Anna (Sami Pfeifer), tell their story of a happy, carefree life in which they are just becoming aware of themselves and the wider world.  From there the story  jumps around in time and space, seemingly randomly.

We hear a local professor, Bill North (John Corr), provide information to the news media (and us) as to the way of life of the Amish and their shunning of modern conveniences and only minimal contact with the “outside” world.  But, although not Amish himself, he seems to have a special relationship with them, and with one young man in particular, Aaron (Jacob Camp).  We also hear from one, Hispanic, teenage, store clerk, America (Ahna Dunn-Wilder), a Catholic girl, as to her encounter when trying to help a woman in trouble.

And, of course, there is the distressed wife of the killer, Carol (Paige Rogers), who now must raise her two children by herself and has no real means of support, but finds solace coming from a most unusual source.  There is also the accusatory neighbor, Sherry (Tara Paulson-Spires), who just loves to point fingers, as someone must be blamed for letting this happen.  We hear from Carol’s husband, Eddie (Danny Diess), attempting to fill us in on his earlier life.  And Seth Witucki and Hannah Quigg, fleshing out the ensemble of reporters and townspeople.

I really can’t tell you any more, as there are a couple of surprises in the story, one dealing with how small a world it really is at times.  Are there any revelations as to motive?  No.  One of the final thoughts in the show, which is common in horrific incidents like this, as to where is God in all this.  But, as one character notes, keep looking for Him…He’s here.  Or we might be reminded of one of Anne Frank’s final entries in her diary that, despite all the horrors this young girl experienced in a Nazi Concentration Camp, she still felt that people were basically good.  Wow!

And, of course, one burning question left unanswered…mainly because it is personal.  As Harper, the Director puts it, “Is forgiveness even a possibility?...I really don’t know.”  I would agree.  But, I would add, carrying negative vibes about you for the rest of your life will only eat you up from the inside out and leaves no room for Love.  So somehow, each of us, in our own specific way, needs to come to grips with it and be part of the solution, not the problem.  Hatred only breeds hatred.

Harper has done a masterful job of starting slowly and letting the tension build to its emotional crescendo.  Her artistic influence on these students is evident and it shows in their carefully modulated performances.  And Tim Stapleton’s simple but effective set is a real asset to the production, as well as Jessica Bobillot’s costumes.  I have touted Dunn-Wilder in her performances before and she again shines here, too.  A real talent.  But Rogers, as the killer’s wife, is a powerhouse of emotional turmoil.  By the end, she has not only probably drained her energy but ours as well.  She is terrific!

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

Love and Information—Theatre Vertigo—SE Portland

Death, Taxes & All That Jazz

This abstract play is written by Caryl Churchill and directed by Michelle Seaton.  It is playing at the Shoebox space, 2110 SE 10th Ave., through May 8th.  For more information, go to their site at www.theatrevertigo.org or call 503-482-8655.

According to one writer, death and taxes are the only two certainties in Life.  And, “all that jazz,” is what happens in the meantime.  In a roller-coaster, 90 minutes, you will get a smattering of disjointed, distracted and disassembled voices from a little pebble in the Universe called Earth.  These mutterings and ramblings will rant and rail, coo and cajole, haunt and harass, and generally try to make sense of a seemingly senseless proposition…ergo, that there is a purpose to our existence.

Since there is really no logical or linear flow to the story, consider this:  a woman that remembers every single detail of her life; a celebrity hiding out from the public; someone in a witness protection program; a scientist modifying the brains of chickens; the meaning of words/language; relationships may not be what they seem, et. al.  Then, take all that, put it in a Washer on Spin and see what spews out.  What you may end up with is organized chaos (not unlike we really already may have).

And the brilliant perpetrators of this cornucopia of baffling profundities are Kimo Camat, Stephanie Cordell, Nathan Crosby, Nathan Dunkin, Joe Healy, Mindi Logan, Tom Mounsey, Shawna Nordman, Matthew Sepeda, Andrea White, Holly Wigmore and R. David Wyllie.  I can’t give more specifics, as they all play a multitude of roles, some of the scenes only last a few seconds and, at most, about three minutes.  And what a job the director, Seaton, must have had, trying to coordinate all the entrances and exits and then to deal with each actor as to characterization.  My hat is off to her!  But she has chosen her cast well, as I have seen many of them onstage before, and they are all amazing performers.

I really can’t give any more detail than that, because it really does have to be seen/experienced/sensed rather than having someone try to explain or summarize the story, mostly non-existent in the traditional sense, anyway.  If you remember the film, Inception, in which a team of people are traveling back and forth between “realities” and trying to decipher what is illusion and what is factual, that might give you a hint as to concept.

Could these characters be caught in a dimensional time warp; are these the final memories flashing through a dying soul(s); is there an alien entity out there messing with our brains (The Matrix?); or, are we all a dream, walking, et. al. ?  It is up to you to ponder, to wonder, to wrap your psyches around.

But, consider what the Bard has said, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”  Dreams, whether waking or sleeping, make us whole.  “To sleep, perchance to dream…” It is the waking from them that may be the scary and/or revealing part!

I recommend this play but consider the premise, for your mind will be challenged and nothing spelled out for you.  For me that is terrific.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.