May 29th, 2014 | by REBECCA JACOBSON Arts & Books | Posted In: Theater

Nominations Announced for the Drammys, Portland's Theater Awards

For the first time since 1999, the Drammys have announced their nominees in advance of the ceremony.

     
Tags: Drammys
perf_piazzaPortland Playhouse's The Light in the Piazza earned 10 Drammy nods. - Photo by Laura Domela
Broadway has the Tony Awards; Portland has the Drammys. But for the last 15 years, not only did we lack Neil Patrick Harris and $275 tickets (the ceremony is free), we didn’t have nominees—the Drammy committee would just dole out awards, sometimes up to four in a category, at the annual Crystal Ballroom ceremony. That’s changed this year, presumably to gin up interest, and the Drammy nominees were announced last night.

A few shows netted a lion’s share of the nominations, with Portland Playhouse’s The Light in the Piazza snagging 10, including two each in actress in a musical and supporting actor in a musical. The Playhouse also earned five nods for A Christmas Carol. (We liked both of those shows. Find a roundup of every Drammy-nominated show we reviewed at the bottom of this post—in alphabetical order!) Oregon Children’s Theatre got nine nominations, seven of them for Zombie In Love and two for other shows. 

Joining A Christmas Carol in the best production category is CoHo’s Crooked, Artists Rep’s The Quality of Life and Imago’s The Caretaker...all of which we also liked. Dana Green, a new arrival to Portland’s theater scene, picked up two nominations: for lead actress in Third Rail’s Gidion’s Knot (where she was excellent) and for supporting actress in Portland Center Stage’s Othello (where she was even better).

Anyone spurned? Tough call. Badass Theatre Company jolted everyone awake with its production of Invasion! last spring, but it got just one nomination, for Chantal DeGroat for supporting actress. One Flea Spare was nowhere on the list, which was one of the year’s top shows.

So start those betting pools and shine your diamonds. The Drammys are at the Crystal Ballroom on Monday, June 9 at 7 pm. The ceremony is free and open to the public.


9 to 5: The Musical

As lights go down and a Dolly Parton image suddenly appears projected above the minimal scenery, there's an unwelcome whiff of Branson, Mo., that would strangle most musicals before the first chorus. But however inane the preamble or insulting the implication, one likes to give Dolly the benefit of the doubt. This theatrical adaptation of the movie 9 to 5 certainly relishes the easy humor of obsolete technology. But while the inefficiency of electric typewriters isn't explicitly linked to the garrulous misbehavior of unabashed sexists, the air of impending extinction enlivens a feminism-for-beginners romp packed with memorable tunes and winning performances. As the long-suffering office manager, Lisamarie Harrison wields a devastating comic timing that threatens to bring down the house with every underplayed aside, but her deadpan venom isn't of the same theatrical universe as the telegraphed shrillness Amy Jo Halliday thrusts upon newly hired Judy's plucky ineptitude. Though Harrison proves herself a capable singer, her limitations of register are inevitably magnified when set directly against Halliday's show-stopping vocals. Stephanie Heuston, in Parton's role as Doralee, handles the heaviest lifting of a misunderstood "Backwoods Barbie" with full voice and electric presence. Even though the actresses never fade seamlessly into their roles in this Stumptown Stages' presentation, that may be just the point. JAY HORTON.


Band Geeks

With its popular girls, football stars, goths and nerds, Broadway Rose’s is eminently relatable, even if you’d rather not reflect on those years of hormones, pimples and vulnerability. The musical, directed by Isaac Lamb, follows a marching band fighting budget cuts to remain alive. Football star Jake is forced to participate in band as punishment; band captain Elliot struggles to keep everyone in line while crushing on the popular Nicole; goth girl Molly spouts bizarre one-liners; and studious Laura is perpetually overlooked. With upbeat performances and a peppy storyline, this production delivers all the way through to the grand finale, “Embrace Your Inner Geek,” an enthusiastic, confetti-strewn number. SAVANNAH WASSERMAN.


The Big Meal

How much time do we spend around the dining-room table? What portion of our lives is measured in meals? Can the entire scope of a life—from first dates and holiday gatherings to engagements and pregnancies and grief—be depicted at the table? With beautiful and deceptive simplicity, Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal—directed by Dámaso Rodriguez, Artists Rep’s new artistic director, proves it can. As the play begins, the young Sam and Nicole (played at first by Andy Lee-Hillstrom and Britt Harris) meet at the restaurant where she works. From there, five generations of a family navigate life’s joys and dramas as if in a time-lapse photograph, launching ahead weeks or years but always coming back together at the table. Artists Rep veterans Vana O’Brien and Allen Nause (who served as the company’s artistic director for more than 20 years) anchor the eight-member cast masterfully. The actors play family members of a range of ages, gliding between roles with expertly adapted mannerisms. As a young Nicole, Harris is neurotic and angry, while middle-aged Nicole (played by a delightful Val Landrum) develops a sharp-tongued wit and perpetually clutches a glass of wine. The character of Sam remains naive and good-humored but gains a noticeable weariness. The transitions are aided with deft effects—a shift of light or clatter of dishes signifying that months or years have passed. When O’Brien, playing a now-elderly Nicole, wonders aloud and mostly to herself “Where does the time go?” it is with a heartbreaking poignancy. Everyone we know and love will pass through our lives, often too quickly, and we ourselves will one day finish our last meal and leave the table. PENELOPE BASS.


The Bikinis

A musical called The Bikinis about a ‘60s girl group reuniting as middle-aged women might fill your mind with images of sagging bodies squeezed into skimpy two-pieces. But that isn’t what you’ll get in this Broadway Rose production. The musical, by Ray Roderick and James Hindman, centers on four bandmates as they reconvene at a benefit concert for their childhood beach resort, which a real-estate mogul is threatening to buy up. It’s essentially a concert itself, with ‘50s-era trailers framing the stage and a white picket fence separating the performers from the live band. Though occasionally interrupted by the women’s chatter about adolescence on the Jersey shore—winning singing competitions, canoodling with dreamy lifeguards, fitting into tiny swimsuits—the plot is little more than a flimsy clothesline on which to hang peppy oldies, and it moves toward an unsatisfying, predictable conclusion. Still, the four stars turn in strong performances. Clad not in swimsuits but in black spandex and a rotating selection of period-appropriate costumes, they bring the audience up to speed on their lives post-girl group, from the Vietnam War to the disco era, marking each period with a song—think ”I’m Every Woman,” “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and “It’s Raining Men.” Though it touches on cultural upheaval, The Bikinis is mostly a lighthearted bauble, a brief escape to bygone summers on the shore. LAURA HANSON.


A Bright New Boise

If Tolstoy was right—that in all great literature, a man either goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town—there’s hardly a clearer example of the latter than A Bright New Boise. Samuel D. Hunter’s Obie-winning 2011 play follows Will, a middle-aged religious zealot who has left his northern Idaho home for Boise. There, he finds work at a Hobby Lobby, a big-box craft store, and proceeds to upend the lives of those around him. But through it all, Will remains eerily calm—or perhaps not calm, but rather unreadable, impassive, vacant. He’s like the hub of a wheel, hardly stirring as those around him spin out of control. This Third Rail Rep production, directed by John Vreeke, rockets out of the gates and hits many of the right notes, but flags somewhat as it goes on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the stumbles come from the character of Will, played by Tim True. Generally magnetic and adaptable, here True can be so inscrutable that he grows blank. Early on in the play, we learn of Will’s connection—not to be revealed here—to the teenage Alex (Andy Lee-Hillstrom, propelled by nerves and anger), an anxious misfit who also works at the Hobby Lobby. Under the fluorescent lights of the employee break room, Will and Alex trade dialogue marked by fits and starts, or interrupted by the entrance of another blue-vested worker: Jacklyn Maddux’s sailor-mouthed supervisor; Kerry Ryan’s bumbling loner; and Chris Murray’s misguided art student, who wears T-shirts emblazoned with “FUCK” or “CUNT.” Hunter, the playwright, has a knack for textured dialogue that is outwardly direct but scrapes at something darker. Alex’s frequent refrain—“I’m gonna kill myself”—rings with teenage impetuosity while hinting at higher stakes. But A Bright New Boise never lays all its cards on the table. Frustrating, maybe, but given each character’s fumbling search for meaning, ultimately fitting. REBECCA JACOBSON.


The Caretaker

In Harold Pinter’s 1960 masterpiece, all three characters experience some sort of cognitive plight—mental illness, self-delusion, general remove from reality. The play scarcely has a plot: A tramp stays at a fetid London flat—evocatively rendered here with water-stained walls, piles of paper and a discarded shopping cart—and interacts with two brothers in ways alternately mundane and bizarre. Younger brother Mick (Jeffrey Jason Gilpin) is a neon-hued maniac clad in orange and lavender, his hair a slicked-back, bleach-blond helmet. He darts about the stage like a razor, his moods and motives shifting like quicksilver. As the dark-haired, lumbering Aston, meanwhile, Jacob Coleman moves as if in slow-motion. But the real star of this Imago production is a near-unrecognizable Allen Nause, a twitchy, stuttering lump buried under dirty rags. Nause imbues the character with underlying sadness and wicked humor, whether he’s modeling a ridiculous-looking burgundy smoking jacket or insisting on matching laces for the shoes he’s been gifted. Davies might be a foul-mouthed, racist ingrate, but in Nause’s hands, he’s profoundly human. Swiveling from scabrously comic to deeply haunting, this production solves no mysteries and heals no wounds. Which is probably the way Pinter would have wanted it—if he ever would have said as much. REBECCA JACOBSON.


Cats

“What’s a Jellicle cat?” It’s a phrase repeated throughout the opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s seminal oddity Cats, which somehow became an instant smash upon its 1981 release, and it’s a question that’s plagued my thoughts since age 7, when my teenage brother returned from a Detroit production with cat-scratch fever. Wanting to impress him, I stole the tape and set about memorizing every word. Months later, I made my debut, regaling him with a pretty damned accurate rendition of the whimsical “Mr. Mistoffelees.” He was appalled: “What the hell is wrong with you? You’re so lame.” I was crushed. I had never seen the play, but the songs remained, haunting my psyche but still making little sense. Webber harvested his idea from a series of T.S. Eliot poems, which he put through the filter of cheesy hot jazz and creepy, off-key synthesizer cues. Then, apparently, he raided David Bowie’s costume closet post-Labyrinth. What the hell was Webber on? Two decades and far too much contemplation later, I finally chanced upon Broadway Rose’s revival and learned the answer: There are no answers. But, oh, what a glorious spectacle, re-created here in all its nonsensical, synth-blasting, jaw-droppingly wacky glory. What is a Jellicle cat? Why, it’s an excuse for an actor to don a skintight leotard and belt out jazzy balladry while performing extremely elaborate and acrobatic choreography. It shows how versatile actors are—and how well they can endure repeated utterances of the word “Skimbleshanks” without breaking into giggles. This troupe, without exception, nails every beat. Seven-year-old me would have been amazed. Thirty-one-year-old me wanted to drink heavily, immediately, and go home and listen to the Glee soundtrack. That’s what the cool kids like these days, right? AP KRYZA.


The Children’s Hour

Gay culture seems to evolve so quickly that any snapshot is almost instantly antiquated. Offering a queer eye to a straight guy today is almost as passé as wearing an earring in your right ear. Ten years from now, people will recall the primitive times when two women in Arkansas couldn’t marry each other. But despite any change in circumstances, gays and lesbians continue to have many of the same conversations. Alcoholism, sex, abuse, suicide—while these topics aren’t confined to gay circles, their ubiquity over the decades reminds us that not all ground covered is new. Director Jon Kretzu vividly conveys this in two seminal works of homosexual theater now at Defunkt: The Children’s Hour and The Boys in the Band (see review also on this page). Darker than its counterpart, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour is less about homosexuality than about gossip. The play focuses on a sociopathic monster of a little girl, Mary (Roxanne Stathos), who pretends to faint one second and attacks a classmate the next. Melissa Whitney and Grace Carter star as headmistresses of a private school, but Mary and the three other girls loom over the stage in school desks for most of the show, giving the play an ominous tone. The Children’s Hour was first performed in 1934, when even the mention of homosexuality on stage was illegal in New York, though the play’s popularity gained it a pass. It’s a suspenseful tale, and while slow at times, the gravitas of its historical context isn’t lost on today’s audience. AARON SPENCER.


Chinglish

A snappy comedy of linguistic and cultural confusion, David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish is ready-made for anyone who’s ever traveled abroad and puzzled at signs reading “Fuck the Certain Price of Goods” (that would be “Dry Goods Pricing Department”). It’s a very neat play about a very tangled subject, and director May Adrales’ production at Portland Center Stage, with its whirling scenery, crisp performances and brisk pace, is solid. The story follows a naive Ohioan named Daniel Cavanaugh (an appropriately galumphing Peter O’Connor) who travels to a midsize Chinese city to score a contract for his sign-making business. He’s the guy, he tells the ministry of culture, who will ensure the handicapped restroom isn’t marked “Deformed Man’s Toilet.” Much of the play is in Mandarin, with English supertitles projected above the actors, and these messy translations prove one of the play’s chief pleasures. This farce of miscommunication quickly becomes a study of love across cultures when Daniel launches an affair with a government official, played with captivating hilarity and emotional resonance by Tina Chilip. The pair’s chemistry is dubious, yet there’s something richly satisfying about the waves of exasperation, relief and exhaustion they experience with each attempt to converse: O’Connor flailing and gasping, Chilip balled-up and fidgety. Though too tidily constructed,Chinglish is a zippy diversion—even if, unlike the characters, we’re never really cast into the murky waters of misunderstanding. REBECCA JACOBSON.


A Christmas Carol

Traditional plays are tricky: Without a good bit of je ne sais quoi, they tend to plod along predictably. Lucky for us, this rollicking version of A Christmas Carol has more than enough, managing to find surprises and intensity in a well-known story. From the moment viewers enter Portland Playhouse’s converted church, they’re enveloped in 19th-century London, with cast members acting as cockney-accented ticket-takers and concessions vendors, making this production all the more attractive for those seeking some kid-friendly theater. Director Cristi Miles blends the story of greedy Scrooge with light-hearted Christmas tunes and fun choreography, making for a fast-paced, intermission-free show that feels shorter than its 90 minutes. The entire cast is impressive, but the leads edge ahead: Drew Harper plays a colorful Scrooge, and the chameleonic Jen Rowe portrays Marley and all the ghosts. When Marley, dragging clanky chains, appears in Scrooge’s bedroom and wails at him menacingly, it’s deliciously creepy. But there are plenty of merry moments to calm the goosebumps, including a sweet song by Tiny Tim (Bella Freeman-Moule) and Bob Cratchit (Jeff Painter), and a lively finale of “Joy to the World.” JENNIFER GILROY.


Crooked

As Crooked opens, 14-year-old Laney reads aloud a short story she’s just written, about a murderous lemonade vendor, to her mother, Elise. Elise tells Laney to make it more realistic. “You always say that!” Laney shrieks. “You always want me to be more realistic!” Perhaps Elise wants Laney to take a page from playwright Catherine Trieschmann, who has crafted a remarkably grounded three-woman drama. This sharp and affecting production, directed by Philip Cuomo, taps into the delusions, tensions and pains of adolescence with its story of Laney (Kayla Lian), a precocious tomboy who moves with her newly divorced mother (Maureen Porter) to Mississippi. Laney suffers from back spasms, though she claims she’s grateful for the condition even if it makes her an outcast. “I’m glad I have it because now I know how shallow people are,” she tells her only friend Maribel (Meghan Chambers), a chubby, intensely religious 16-year-old misfit. Lian and Chambers convey the anxiety of a friendship not yet solidified, with Lian’s eyes wide as she waits for her friend’s approval on a new short story, and Chambers picking nervously at an apple with her fingernails. The role of Maribel is a tonally tricky one, but Chambers doesn’t condescend, even as her character describes her “invisible stigmata” and soliloquizes about everlasting hell. Porter, meanwhile, brings both sarcasm and affection to her role, throwing up her arms when her daughter declares herself “a holiness lesbian” but also dispensing earnest sex advice to the girls. Trieschmann has an ear for the teenage idiom as well as the searing barbs mothers and daughters sling at one another—this is comedy that stings and reality that sings. REBECCA JACOBSON.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

We all do bad things. Whether that’s pirating your neighbor’s wireless signal or pouring acid onto a prostitute’s face just depends on your level of commitment. So for all its social commentary about good versus evil and the duality of man, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains fascinating and horrifying simply because, on some level, we know it’s true. Like a cross between Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Theatre Vertigo’s production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is fast-paced, gleefully wicked and undeniably cool. The story is familiar, with Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation staying relatively faithful to the original tale, and director Bobby Bermea keeps the action brisk. At its violent climaxes, we see briefly lit snapshots of morbidly beautiful choreography: a cane poised to strike, a howling cry, a face contorted in pain. The set consists of little more than two doors and minimal props, but the explosive performances transport the action to the seedy streets of London. Cleverly hinting at the evil in all of us, the fiend Edward Hyde is portrayed by not one but six actors throughout the performance, with the persona often leaping from person to person during his grisly transformations. But he’s played primarily by Heath Koerschgen, who displays a suave demeanor and a surprising amount of sympathy, especially in his love for the feisty but naive Elizabeth Jelkes (Karen Wennstrom). So for whom do we root? Despite Hyde’s ruthless nature, it’s hard not to feel a thrill when he emerges, top hat and cane in hand. We, too, are transfixed by his actions, just like the maid who witnesses his horrific deeds from a window. “The good in me would have called out sooner,” she says, “but the bad in me wanted to watch.” PENELOPE BASS.


Fiddler on the Roof

“Twenty-eight?!” my friend exclaimed, after I told her the size of the cast for Portland Center Stage’s Fiddler on the Roof. “There aren’t even that many Jews in Portland!” (Give her a break: She’s a Jew from Long Island. And for the record, there are close to 50,000 Jews in Portland.) But I took her point. Despite our recent bagel boom, this isn’t exactly a city teeming with yarmulke-clad, kosher-keeping denizens. How would PCS artistic director Chris Coleman—himself a goy from Atlanta—treat this portrait of life in a Jewish shtetl in pre-revolutionary Russia? Would he turn it into an allegory for Syria? For Israel-Palestine? For the embattled Right 2 Dream Too homeless encampment? The answer, mercifully, is no. It’s easy to make contemporary analogies for the classic musical, which centers on Tevye, a tradition-bound milkman facing the forces of modernity and malice. But what makes this production work is its refusal to generalize or to draw sweeping parallels. Coleman brings texture to a broad tale: It’s neither weepily mournful nor parodically ridiculous. As Tevye, David Studwell plays a man weary but resilient, buoyed by a dark and idiosyncratically Jewish sense of humor. The other cast members—all speaking in distinctive Russian-Jewish accents, one of the things that gives the production such satisfying specificity—also bring nuance to broadly drawn characters. The design choices, too, fit both Fiddler and Portland: The floor-to-ceiling backdrop of reclaimed wood would be at home in any farm-to-cone ice cream parlor serving noodle-kugel sorbet. The wood chips on the floor, which go flying during peppy dance sequences, are another nice touch. Fiddler may lack the subversion of a Sondheim musical, the humor of Spamalot or the swooning emotionality of West Side Story. But it’s hard to deny its warm and homespun allure, which tugs on our desire for tradition while warning us of the dangers of insularity. L’chaim! REBECCA JACOBSON.


Gidion’s Knot

The setting is the epitome of pedagogical order. Posters of Hindu deities line the walls, a giant bottle of hand sanitizer sits sentry on the teacher’s desk, buckets of markers top the tables. But in Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot, this cheery classroom becomes a battlefield. A fifth-grader named Gidion has been suspended for mysterious reasons, and his mother, Corryn, stops by for a parent-teacher conference. Corryn is a blowsy, distraught match for the evasive teacher, and understandably so, as the details surrounding Gidion’s suspension trickle agonizingly out. But what could be a didactic, hot-button debate is instead a sophisticated and open-ended discourse that plays out in real time, with the clock tick-tocking on the wall. The women’s conversation moves from a recitation of Gaelic poetry—all “fucking and fighting,” Corryn says, in a bit of foreshadowing—to a discussion of adolescent sexuality to questions of creative expression and censorship. Dana Green and Amy Newman, the only actors in this taut Third Rail production, are simultaneously sympathetic and detestable, and they maintain the play’s tension through its many pauses and halts. It’s rare for a piece of theater to resonate on emotional and intellectual levels, but that’s precisely what these 80 minutes manage to do. REBECCA JACOBSON.


Independent Women

My all-time favorite Onion story is one from 2012 headlined “Female Friends Spend Raucous Night Validating the Living Shit Out of Each Other.” I thought back to that article during Independent Women, the first production by fledgling company Social Sciences (it’s headed by Ashley Hollingshead, who directs this show with a spirited, thoughtful touch). The title harks back to the 2000 Destiny’s Child single, that soul-stirring proclamation of female wherewithal. But while that anthem plays a role, the more satisfying and novel moments are those that comment on the relationships between women, rather than on all the individual “honeys who makin’ money.” This is a devised show, which in nontheater terms means the performers, six 20-something women in boxy coveralls with rainbow-colored chemises underneath, are also the creators. They’ve stitched together their own words with a few song-and-dance routines, stories about their grandmothers and World War II-era oral histories (if Queen Bey is one of the show’s fairy godmothers, Rosie the Riveter is the other). The approach leads to a cluttered, kitchen-sink quality—the barrage of statistics overwhelms more than it illuminates—as well as some missed opportunities for humor. But the most trenchant moments are those that eschew larger debates to expose something raw or funny about the performers. Take the show’s arguable highlight, a riff on Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango.” Retitled “Cellulite Tango,” each woman identifies a physical insecurity, resulting in a refrain nearly as catchy as the original’s: “Sweat! Ribs! Pooch! Backne! Jewish nose! Small tits!” Afterward, as they pair off and exchange praise, it feels neither forced nor perfunctory. They’re just some ladies validating the living shit out of each other. And deservedly so. REBECCA JACOBSON.


Invasion!

Invasion!, the first production by the long-incubating Badass Theatre Company, is a beautiful little honey pot of a play—luring its viewers into one type of play only to recruit them unawares into entirely unexpected scenarios. Stage vets Nicole Accuardi, Chantal DeGroat, Gilberto Martin Del Campo and John San Nicolas capably move through multiple roles and sometimes genders in a kaleidoscopic romp through the fields of Middle Eastern identity in America, with a cast of characters that includes Lebanese pipe fitters who cross-dress only on trips to America, Turkish telemarketers, Kabuki-choreographed military experts on a hammy talk show, and troublemaking kids exposed to something far too serious for a summer vacation. Under Antonio Sonera’s direction, the play moves freely from shock tactics to broad comedy to sudden pathos, keeping viewers off their moorings without sending them out to sea. At the center of it all is Abulkasem, a name that stands as totem for everything: terrorism, exoticism, mildly unsuccessful second-generation immigrants, any feeling for which words fail. It is a word unhinged from all reference and thus also threatening. Like the mysterious V of Thomas Pynchon’s eponymous novel, Abulkasem is the conspiracy we see in everything, or the dark vision at the corner of the eye. But if this vital first production is any indication, Badass Theatre Company won’t linger too long in anyone’s peripheral vision. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


Kiss of the Spider Woman

Fundamentally a meditation on how we perceive reality, Kiss of the Spider Woman is a baffling juxtaposition of humor and horror. It’s campy comedy mixed with violent drama. There are Odd Couple antics interrupted by lengthy tangents on political ideals. High-stepping musical numbers punctuate brutal prison beatings. Luis Molina (played with just enough comic effect by Bobby Ryan) is a flamboyantly gay window dresser incarcerated in a South American prison for corrupting a minor. He escapes into his mind by reliving the films of his favorite childhood actress, Aurora. His new cellmate, Valentin (Nicholas Rodriguez, the best voice in the production), is a Marxist political revolutionary being tortured for information. Molina helps Valentin survive by drawing him into his fantasies of Aurora’s dazzling musical numbers and dramatic roles. Though the eight-person Triangle Productions cast brings some impressive talent, it is limited by a show that is undeniably bizarre and unsettling—it’s surprising that it won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Musical. Is it a splashy and surreal musical comedy with something deeper to say? Or is it a heartbreaking drama that illuminates the way we mask suffering with fantasy and denial? Maybe it’s just a matter of perception. PENELOPE BASS.


Licking Batteries

An electric current runs through Portland playwright Ellen Margolis’ new work, Licking Batteries. With fireflies, lightning storms, static electricity and an arcane contraption of tangled wires and a lemon, the production looks for sparks everywhere—and, ultimately, in too many places. The play, joltingly directed by Ryan Reilly, revolves around Lucy (Rachel Rosenfeld), a girl grappling to unravel the mysteries of electricity in hopes of better understanding her mother, Louise, who’s undergone electroshock therapy as treatment for mental illness. Louise’s memories are fuzzy, her thoughts confused, her body weak. Is electricity to blame? Or could it be Louise’s savior? Blending realism and fantasy, Licking Batteries zaps between flashbacks, dreamlike sequences and several tiresome scenes that require actor David Knell to affect overblown foreign accents. The most compelling moments occur when characters collide in uncomfortable situations, as in a positively combustible lab scene with Lucy, her boyfriend and her father. But scenes that stretch for emotional profundity come up short, hampered by hackneyed dialogue (“Do you ever feel you’ve been wandering in the pitch black for years?”) and thematic overextension. Characters’ exchanges hint at issues of anxiety, despair, loss and mania, but the story’s wiring is tenuous, and the mysteries surrounding electricity so opaque that they frustrate more than they intrigue. With a cast that’s uneven though good-natured, this production never manages to hold a steady charge. REBECCA JACOBSON.


The Light in the Piazza

Set in Italy in the early 1950s, Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s contemporary musical The Light in the Piazza has all the typical elements of a girl-gone-abroad chick flick. There’s a happenstance meeting between a bright-eyed American tourist and an attractive Florentine boy who doesn’t speak English, their relatives’ amusing meddling and the will-they-or-won’t-they drama that ensues. But the girl here is Clara, a 26-year-old who was kicked in the head by a pony while young and still tends to act like a child, joyously shouting “olly olly oxen free!” in a busy cathedral and suffering a hysterical breakdown after getting lost one night in Florence. And what further distinguishes this show, presented at Portland Playhouse, is the separate love story that unfolds—the one focused on mother and daughter, as the protective parent learns to let go. The music, played simply and beautifully on piano and cello, can be near-operatic, with lyrics in both English and Italian. Non-Italian speakers have nothing to fear: The performers’ clever asides and facial gestures help reveal meaning, allowing the two languages to shift in and out of each other as easily as the small set is transformed from an Italian cathedral to a hotel room. Supported by a top-notch cast, Susannah Mars and Merideth Kaye Clark work off each other easily. As the mother, Mars captures a sternness that quickly melts into sadness when remembering a past love or when tucking an upset Clara into bed. Clark just as skillfully embodies Clara’s bright curiosity and passion as she runs around stage, smiling and dancing at the wind and the flowers, or crying and raging at her mother for saying “no.” These relatable moments of unconditional love often shine over a more traditional—though still very sweet—romance. KAITIE TODD.


Maleficia

Maleficia is a time-traveling, non-verbal exploration of how fear of the unknown can lead well-meaning citizens to commit horrific acts of cruelty.” Because a production like Maleficia is so slippery, I will not expound upon director Joel Harmon’s statement except to note a few caveats. “The unknown” means witchcraft—voodoo dolls, love spells and a magic pendulum—while “acts of cruelty” denotes humiliation and, in one mesmerizing scene, a hanging symbolized by the snapping of twigs. These deeds and punishments play out in more than a dozen scenes, from loincloth-clad performers mixing medicinal pastes to an incongruous nod to a group of modern-day political prisoners. Each scene features its own creepily staring characters, with only minimal props—the twigs or a glass slowly filled with blood—connecting the pieces. Given its robotic choreography, a soundtrack Badalamenti would’ve written for Halloween, and the creaky floor, Maleficia should terrify. But with the lights cranked up much of the time, it doesn’t. That doesn’t change the fact that there’s a scene to creep everyone out. For me, it was when a woman reaches down a man’s pants and pulls out a parsnip. The man, writhing on the floor, hand between his legs, has clearly lost more than a root vegetable. I writhed in my seat, not terrified but disturbed. MITCH LILLIE.


Monty Python’s Spamalot

Not everyone enjoys going to the theater. Some find it slow, overly cerebral, pretentious. That's why Spamalot is a great starter show. It's the Kraft macaroni of musical theater—a guilty pleasure but impossible to hate. Since premiering on Broadway in 2005, the show has been produced in 20 countries and continues to tour the globe, which speaks strongly to the universal appeal of fart jokes and men in drag. If you’ve seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you already know the story. (And if you haven’t seen it, what’s wrong with you?) The first act more or less mirrors the film, with some added songs and dance routines. The second act is a jumbled mess of plot twists intended to wrap things up within the running time. Some additions fit well within the Monty Python brand of humor, such as Sir Robin (Norman Wilson) performing the catchy number “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (Without Any Jews).” While most of the gags are meant to slap you in the face, what really sells the humor are the facial expressions of this Lakewood Theatre Company cast, able to elicit laughs with a well-timed lip curl or raised eyebrow. Humor, after all, is all about subtlety—even when you’re farting into a trumpet. PENELOPE BASS.


My Fair Lady

Producing what has been called the perfect musical—as My Fair Lady has been lauded—is no small feat. But Tigard's Broadway Rose Theatre sets out to meet the challenge with its lively staging of the 1956 production. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, My Fair Lady tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, a poor Cockney flower girl taught to speak like an aristocrat by wealthy phonetician Henry Higgins. Along the way student and teacher develop an unlikely attachment to each other, arguing their way through their differences. In the lead roles, Jazmin Gorsline and Kevin Connell deliver practiced and precise performances—from Connell’s careful shuffle away from Eliza’s space-invading father to the palpable joy on Gorsline’s face as she dances around the study. Darius Pierce also shines as Higgins’ alternately awkward and endearing friend, Colonel Pickering, and his welcome kindness and beautifully timed comic relief counterbalance Higgins’ insensitivity and self-importance. Director Sharon Maroney delivers both humor and big-scale dance numbers (like the enthusiastic “Get Me to the Church on Time”) to the stage with ease. With a talented ensemble and grand set and costumes, this My Fair Lady might not be perfect, but it’s a fun and engaging rendition of the classic musical. KAITIE TODD.


Nighthawks

Even if you’re not much of an art buff, chances are you’ve seen Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, that snapshot-like painting of a 1940’s American diner. Push Leg theater's latest original production loosely draws inspiration from the famous work, combining theater and dance to imagine the daily lives of the employees and customers of a small-town diner. From JoAnn (Catherine Egan), the sassy owner who dreams of expanding her pie business, to Harvey (Darren McCarthy) and Crystalene (Anne Sorce), the servers who make fun of annoying customers during the lull between lunch and dinner, to the patrons who frequent the restaurant, what we get is a series of real-life moments that highlight the humor of the workplace. Although awkward transitions and a few oddly placed dance numbers occasionally hinder the story’s flow, sometimes these offbeat elements work remarkably well, and unanswered questions become the show’s funniest parts. Why is the phone placed so high on the wall, requiring the diminutive JoAnn to jump, parkour-style, to reach it? Why does Crystalene suddenly break into a clumsy dance resembling a mix between the robot and the funky chicken? If you enter with an open mind and faith in the small but well-practiced cast, you’ll enjoy Nighthawks for what it is—a smile-inducing look at real life. KAITIE TODD.


A Night in November

Irish playwright Marie Jones’ A Night in November charts the political awakening of a Belfast man named Kenneth. Played in this Corrib Theatre production by Damon Kupper, Kenneth is a welfare clerk who’s as dutiful in the disgruntled rigmarole of his government job as he is in his rigid, practiced Protestantism. But when dragged to a soccer match by his crass bigot of a father-in-law, Kenneth has a revelation so concussive it’s a wonder he wasn’t struck on the head with a rogue ball. It’s a crisis of conscience that smacks Kenneth all too rapidly, and the script overloads him with a series of shell-shocked musings. The good news is that Kupper has an ebullient, winning presence, and in the second act—when Kenneth hops across the pond for the World Cup—he’s able to shake off the heavy-handed philosophizing. However briefly, we’re able to forgive the script’s glib resolutions and give over to the game’s “bloody good craic.” REBECCA JACOBSON. 


Noises Off

When I first saw Noises Off as a 14-year-old at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I didn’t know theater could do that. A dozen years later—and after watching dozens and dozens of plays—I’m still not quite sure how Noises Off does what it does. What’s clear, though, is that Michael Frayn’s 1982 backstage comedy is perhaps the world’s most exactingly constructed play, and certainly one of its funniest. It centers on a third-rate British theater troupe staging an abysmal bedroom farce, and it’s essentially the same thing three times over—just with snowballing levels of lunacy as the company’s disastrous personal dynamics and dubious talents collide in hellish but hilarious ways. This production is Third Rail’s first farce in years, and a departure from its usual sharp-tongued or politically tinged fare. While it can’t eclipse my first fling with Noises Off, director Scott Yarbrough’s rendition is more than serviceable, even if the second act could use some polish. It’s a mostly solid cast, but a few actors stand out. Damon Kupper, in a garish orange shirt and (not orange) Carrot Top wig, has a command of physical comedy that’s simultaneously smarmy and daffy. Even daffier is the black bustier-clad Kelly Godell, who spends the play unflappably barreling ahead with careful line readings, even as everything around her crashes into smithereens. And we’d be nowhere without Maureen Porter as the de facto mother hen: She’s the glue holding together both the play and the play within the play. Despite some questionable casting (Isaac Lamb exudes far too much teddy-bear cuddliness to play the beleaguered, snarky director), these performers bring method—and, surprisingly, humanity—to the madness. REBECCA JACOBSON.


Othello

Othello can be a bit of a tough sell. Not only is it one of Shakespeare’s most racially insensitive plays (and that’s saying something), but even the most credulous audience member might wonder why the title character, a warrior with a reputation for bravery and a Moor known for his passion can be so easily persuaded to think the worst of his great love. The key to our willingness to suspend disbelief is Iago, whose cunning not only dissolves Othello and Desdemona’s devotion but nearly succeeds in toppling an entire kingdom. This performance can make or break the show, and fortunately for this Portland Center Stage production, Gavin Hoffman’s nuanced portrayal of Othello’s BFF/enemy-in-disguise has the stroke of genius about it. The same can be said of Dana Green’s turn as Iago’s wife, Emilia. It’s a small role but an essential one, and in Green’s hands, the scene in which Emilia and Desdemona lament a woman’s lot (to love, cherish, sacrifice and suffer) is both poignant and edifying. The players get help from Scoff Fyfe’s gorgeous, rotating set and Susan E. Mickey’s sumptuous costumes. This production, helmed by PCS artistic director Chris Coleman, doesn’t attempt anything radical—it’s Shakespeare at its most traditional, but that also makes it a perfect start to the Complete Works Project, a two-year initiative during which several Portland cultural institutions will attempt to stage the Bard’s full 37-play catalog. If Shakespeare be the food of love, play on. DEBORAH KENNEDY.


The Quality of Life

“I need a cookie,” someone in the audience sighed as the lights came up during intermission on the opening weekend of Artist Repertory Theatre’s The Quality of Life. Little did she know that the second half would double down on that need for something simple and sugary. On the surface, Jane Anderson’s play sounds simple: Two married couples deal with different stages of grief and vastly different spiritual beliefs over the course of a day together. Dinah and Bill, an Ohio couple with a strained relationship, are mourning the murder of their only child by knitting, crafting and going to work and to church—anything to keep moving. They’re visiting Jeannette and Neil, free-spirited soulmates living in a yurt in California, who are more apt to point out their recycled decorations or say “Namaste, baby” than to dwell on the fact that Neil has terminal cancer and their house burned down in a wildfire. Predictably, these styles of grieving clash, spurring very real and poignant conversations about life and death and what might come afterward. Despite the weighty themes, the performance, directed by Allen Nause, is sprinkled with lighthearted moments. That’s mostly thanks to the wonderful cast—one moment filled with dry humor and the next raging (or sobbing) at the thought of living without a loved one. The bubble bursts as the characters—and audience—realize that this is life: learning to let go of heartbreak, or learning to embrace it. And you know what? Maybe we all need a cookie sometimes. KAITIE TODD.


pool (no water)

Say a man dies of AIDS. Now say a friend collects his blood and bandages and condoms and catheters and makes them into art. Has this artist crossed the line between creation and exploitation? In friendship, there’s a similarly delicate line between amity and antagonism. And when these lines intersect in Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water), it’s downright combustible. Ravenhill’s 2006 play, presented by Theatre Vertigo in a striking if occasionally shaky production, is written as a collective monologue, and these seven actors deliver some lines singly and others in unison in a propulsive, pitter-patter style that’s like slam poetry with a malevolent bite. All bohemian artists, they’ve gathered at the posh digs of a friend who’s made it big—thanks to that aforementioned AIDS art. But then a freak accident lands the successful artist in a coma, her body a mangled canvas of ghastly bruises, and the others begin photographing her wounds. As if armed with an automatic rifle, Ravenhill takes aim at the modern urge to document everything and our instinct to pervert tragedy for our own creative ends. It’s a lot for a 70-minute one-act, but these actors throw themselves at it. Sometimes literally—it’s a highly physical production punctuated by spasms of abstract movement. The choreography is a mixed bag: The flurry of photography in the hospital room is awkward, while a joylessly frenzied coke-and-sex binge strikes at our twisted reactions to grief. As for the performers, a few—such as Stephanie Cordell as a fiery-eyed hellion oozing dangerous sexual energy—commit fully, while others waver. But in the moments when this group comes together, like a diabolical Greek chorus, this is a satisfying deep-end dive into a stew of adrenaline, narcissism and shame. REBECCA JACOBSON.


The Revenants

Whatever the reasons for our current cultural embrace of the zombie apocalypse, live theater has largely been spared the plague. It is, after all, rather more difficult to convey the specter of undead, swarming hordes through stagecraft. Instead, The Revenants, a play by Scott T. Barsotti given its Northwest premiere by local troupe the Reformers, focuses upon the harrowing toll wrung from survivors witnessing their nearest and dearest transform into nearly unrecognizable monsters. Presented in an actual residential garage in the Buckman neighborhood (and held during torrential downpours on opening weekend), there’s no shortage of verisimilitude to the production. Tricks of lighting, eerily convincing makeup and bravura soundwork all combine to manufacture a remarkably macabre mise en scène that, nevertheless, must live and die on the abilities of the actors portraying those who have passed this mortal coil. Zombified Molly (Jennifer Elkington) and Joe (company founder Sean Doran) have been chained to the walls by their respective spouses (Chris Murray and Christy Bigelow), who hope that some shred of their paramours’ former selves remains. Murray and Bigelow accomplish yeoman’s work as our putative heroes, struggling with a script long on forced humor and dimly revelatory monologues. Grimm vet Murray, in particular, boasts the sort of scruffy sparkle that makes genre vehicles sing. But it’s the performances of Elkington and Doran—forearm-chewing figures of devolved menace who spend the near 90 minutes as grunting, slobbering scenery—that wrap even the more lurid emotional flashpoints within the skin of fresh horror. JAY HORTON.


Wilde Tales

Oscar Wilde’s two collections of fairy tales, which he wrote “not for children but for childlike people,” explore the ambiguity of the heart and the illogical nature of love. Adapted by Portland playwright Karin Magaldi and directed by Samantha Van Der Merwe, Wilde Tales unfolds through six loosely linked stories that come to life like a pop-up book. A fisherman who has fallen in love with a mermaid abandons his soul to live with her, and the soul must wander the land alone, encountering a selfish giant, a generous statue, self-sacrificing birds and a heartbroken dwarf. The intimate space at Shaking the Tree Theatre serves the show well—the six actors become whispering silhouettes behind backlit scrims, surrounding the audience like words floating up from the page. The stage direction is so simple and elegant it becomes art in itself. As if exploring a whimsical playground, the actors both play their central characters and provide their own third-person narration, and at other times they embody the plants, birds, walls, wind—and it all works magically. Each shift in expression, change in voice and delicate movement becomes transfixing. Whether or not you walk away with any grand new theories about love, you’ll certainly leave with a little more childlike wonder.

 
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