Tuesday, December 2, 2014

OSF good fun: Cocoanuts and Comedy of Errors

The acting company at Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a supremely talented bunch. We continue to be amazed at how absolutely hilarious they can be. The laugh-meisters had ample opportunity to show their stuff this past season in two outstanding comedies: Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and the Marx Brothers classic The Cocoanuts.

Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, and Mark Bedard as the Marx
Brothers in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of The
Cocoanuts
. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
The Cocoanuts was adapted by OSF's own Mark Bedard, from the original book by George S. Kaufman and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Bedard even did some extensive sleuthing to turn up some original Berlin tunes that had long been separated from the stage script of the show.

The production, directed by David Ivers, was a reunion of the cast of the Marx's Animal Crackers staged at OSF in 2012, bringing back Bedard as Groucho, Brent Hinkley as Harpo, John Tufts as Chico, and K.T. Vogt as their Margaret Dumont-esque foil.

The show includes a couple of the brothers' best bits: the Why a Duck discussion between Groucho and Chico, and the wild, two-bedroom chase scene featuring the brothers, con-woman Penelope Martin (played by the also-hilarious Kate Mulligan), and the bumbling Detective Hennessey, portrayed by David Kelly, who may well be the most hysterical actor of the group. It has been nearly two months since we saw the show as I write this, and Kelly's rendition of the tune "The Tale of a Shirt" continues to work its way into my head. It is most welcome there.

David Kelly, center, as Detective Hennessey, who really wants
his shirt, with the rest of the cast of The Cocoanuts. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
While the story and characters are familiar, there was plenty of ad-libbing and playing off, and in, the audience, from which the brothers swiped a variety of personal items to use in their schtick. At the performance we attended they came away with some gaudy green sunglasses and some snacks. A festival insider tells us that at one performance they lifted a rather intimate toy from the handbag of a teenaged girl in the crowd, yet somehow resisted the urge to make her the butt of jokes.

If not for Water by the Spoonful, this production of The Cocoanuts would have been our choice for best-of-festival. hands down.

The other great comedy of the season was Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, directed by Kent Gash. Instead of Syracuse and Ephesus, the two sets of long-separated twins reside in Harlem and Louisiana at the time of the Harlem renaissance in the late 1920s.

Tobie Windham, left, as Antipholus, and
Rodney Gardiner as Dromio, in OSF's
Production of The Comedy of Errors. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
This production featured Rodney Gardiner, who played both Dromios, and Tobie Windham, who portrayed both Antipholuses. (Antipholi?) Tyrone Wilson was marvelous as Egeon, Bakesta King a delight as the Courtesan, and R.J. Foster cut an authoritative figure as Duke Solinus. All were delightful in romping through the twists and turns of mistaken identity, missing necklaces, purloined purses, and the like. Fitting to the era, the music of Harlem swing kept our toes tapping.

The one slight mis-step in The Comedy of Errors came at the end, with the big reveal that the two sets of twins had been reunited. As the same actors played both twins, and did an amazing job at somehow turning up immediately after an exit in a completely different corner of the theater, I'd wondered how Gash would pull this off. He simply introduced two more actors at the end, dressed the same as the other Dromio and Antipholus. I was hoping for something a bit more clever.

That said, this Comedy was also a lot of fun. It's good to mix in some laughs with some of the heavier plays in the festival.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

eSe Teatro / Central Heating Lab: Don Quixote & Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle

You would think coming home from two weeks at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we would have had our fill of theater. You would be wrong. The Weisenheimers never get enough of theater. Plus, some artists we know, respect, enjoy, and admire—along with some artists we were about to be introduced to—were putting on a show. So we went. 

That show was Don Quixote & Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle, by Rose Cano, directed by David Quicksall, by eSe Teatro and the Central Heating Lab at ACT, and starring José Amador and Will Rose. It was every bit as beautiful, butt-kicking, and bold as the best of what we saw in Ashland.  

The play is structured the way Cervantes' novel is: an episodic journey. What holds the story together is less a narrative "arc" and more character and theme. Which is fine by me. Something interesting should happen to someone interesting; beyond that, plot is overrated.

Rose (left) and Amador share a sandwich in eSe Teatro's
production of Rose Cano's Don Quixote & Sancho Panza:
Homeless in Seattle
. Photo by Stephanie Mallard Couch.
This play's two primary characters are strange bedfellows who rescue each other in Seattle and stay connected on the streets in a sort of weak molecular attraction (by which I mean, rather strong) until their paths irrevocably fork. The themes are chivalry (by which I mean something so much more than men perfunctorily holding doors open for women); virtue, morality, manliness, being a gentleman, being a caballero. Also, friendship. And, the porosity of all sorts of boundaries: time; spaces indoor and out, public and private; bodily integrity; sanity. Some of these episodes were heartbreakingly hilarious (like, working a day job walking around a conference as wi-fi hotspots); some were just heartbreaking.

The performances by, and chemistry between, Will Rose and José Amador were riveting. Rose as Don Quixote brought a taller-than-life, naive, tender courtliness to every moment, delivered entirely in Spanish. My high school Spanish cannot take the credit, it was Rose's performance (and undoubtedly Cano's writing and Quicksall's direction) that made the story and meaning so clear, even as I picked up every few words and some of the grammar. Rose's language, body and voice, was exquisitely lovely to hear and see. 

Amador as Sancho Panza played translator, foil, protagonist, protector, interpreter, chorus, conscience, sidekick, muse...shit, he was busy. He grounded Rose's Quixote's loftiness and provided heat for his light. Every moment, he was so alive, so observant, so quick, and so present, even as Quixote became more remote. 

This play landed. It was simply impossible to watch it without thinking of the person I see once or twice a week at a downtown intersection and exchange pleasantries with while waiting for the green light, but whose name I do not know. Without thinking of the people I never knew who have died or been hurt here at the hands of police violence but whose stories have become like memories. Without thinking of the people I know well who suffer from illnesses of body and mind with few options for help, and plenty of exposure to judgment. 

I would love to learn more about Cano's process writing this play. My understanding is that, in addition to drawing on her own experience as an interpreter at our local ERs, she held readings and workshops with people who live in Seattle without a roof to call their own. 

The attention to detail in the set, props, costume helped make the most of the tiny, intimate space in the Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space at ACT. And the ensemble supporting cast did an outstanding job: Ian Bond, Steve Gallion, Angela Maestas, Xochitl Portillo-Moody were nurses, sirens, street kids, medics, memories, and more as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza made their way through dreams and reality in a play that hit home.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

ArtsWest: The Mountaintop

We have had a long and bumpy relationship with ArtsWest. In the beginning, we did everything we could to support the theater, giving 'til it hurt, subscribing, inviting our friends and hosting after-show parties. However, ArtsWest has had a lot of ups and downs in its artistic choices and direction, and we have not subscribed for many years, choosing instead to attend individual shows that looked like they might be substantive. 

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton is indeed substantive, nourishing theater. This entirely absorbing, two-character, 90-minute play speculates on the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life, and poses the question: what if god sent a messenger to help Dr. King as he is called home? What if he knew his life on earth was about to end? What would he say?


Camae (brianne a hill) and Dr. King (Reginald André Jackson)
in ArtsWest's production of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall.
ArtsWest photo by Michael Brunk.
That sounds a bit lofty, but in fact this play is down to earth. brianne a. hill plays the potty-mouthed, sassy, street-tough angel whose first assignment (she was murdered just the night before) is to escort Dr. King to the other side. The writing and the pitch-perfect performance by Reginald André Jackson cut through the hagiography around Dr. King so that he could be portrayed as a real man—a brilliant, extraordinary man, but in the end, a man. 

The play is set on the night of April 3, 1968 in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. King spent the last night of his life and where, the next day, he would be shot on the balcony. The set, designed by Burton Yuen, made us voyeurs into this room, with the door and window to the balcony as backdrop. We understand it was a faithful recreation of the Lorraine, and the many small details helped ground the play, making the setting vivid and helping to make the characters human by contrasting the ordinary and mundane with the weighty themes of the play. 

As the play opens, Ralph Abernathy has just stepped out for cigarettes, and Dr. King calls room service for coffee. Camae is the lovely maid who brings the coffee and handles Dr. King's flirtations, rants, arrogance, anxiety, and grief with aplomb. 

This is a very funny play, and the timing and energy from hill and Jackson bring out that humor. It is also a painfully serious play, as Dr. King wrestles with his failings, his mortality, and his god. I found the scene where the angel Camae shows Dr. King the future in fierce and flawlessly delivered poetry to be especially moving. 

I'm going to have to stop saying I categorically dislike video in plays. The use of a video montage to show Dr. King the future was appropriate and effective. We were talking about video in plays recently with a friend of ours who works in theatre, and he said people are learning how to incorporate video into plays well. The design team for this production certainly did it well.

Sadly, our experience was not quite as entirely absorbing as it should have been based on the artists' efforts. A man in front of us, in the front row, chose to converse with his seat partner through the show in a perfectly audible stage whisper. So disrespectful to the actors, and so distracting for people around him. What would you do—complain to an usher? Well, here's the thing: he was an usher. Doh. Dear ArtsWest: please ask your ushers not to converse during the show. Thank you.  

ArtsWest has a new artistic director, and their tagline is "fiercely compelling theatre." Sounds audacious, but hey, audacious is good. The Mountaintop is certainly that kind of theater, and we hope to be back many more times.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

OSF: Water By The Spoonful

Would you be interested in a play set in an internet comment thread? Sounds dreadful, right? Before seeing Water By The Spoonful, directed by Shishir Kurup at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I probably would have said that a website is not good dramatic material. Ugh. Don't go there.

Well, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes went there, with exquisite, beautiful results. 

The design roles are often the last to get mentioned in talking and writing about theatre, if they're mentioned at all, which is really a shame, because the design elements—the shape of the stage and its situation relative to the audience, the set, the costumes, sound, lighting, props—all have so much to do with the experience of theatre. Theater is enacted in physical time and space, and it is one of the most collaborative arts. 
Daniel José Molina in OSF's Water by the Spoonful

So I'm going to start there. In Water By The Spoonful, Sibyl Wickersheimer's set was nothing short of genius (she also designed the fantastic Unfortunates last year). It was abstract, spare, and simple, and added so much to the storytelling. The set consisted of 13 simple, illuminated squares, with the space of a narrow path between them. The boxes upstage were cantilevered like an open laptop. The row that formed the backdrop displayed the website community members' avatars when they were online. All of the boxes were illuminated with a shimmery and, yes, watery blue until they were needed to evoke the setting of a particular scene in watercolor washes. 

It was fascinating to watch how director Kurup used the spaces in between the squares and the spaces on the squares to create a sense of space, distance, and connection, and to help make it abundantly clear when people were interacting online and when they were interacting in person. Geoff Korf's lighting was integral to the physical set and the story, and he and Wickersheimer collaborated on video design that helped make the story come alive. The sound by John Nobori also helped make clear the distinctions between in person and online, indoors and outdoors. And costume designer Raquel Barreto avoided the OSF goofy costume trap. The costumes were appropriate and relevant, and the characters seemed comfortable wearing them.

All of these design choices were critical because the story weaves together the lives of the members of an online recovery website founded by "Haikumom" with Haikumom's family and their history. It is a powerfully moving story about some of the incredibly tough barriers that keep us apart and traces these very human characters' superheroic attempts to connect anyway. I'm not going to do a synopsis here because I'm not going to forget the story, almost anything I could say would spoil its unfolding, and really, you should drop everything and see it if it plays anywhere near you, or even read it

When you do see it, I hope you see performances as outstanding as we saw. Each character has demons and in the course of wrestling them each character is awkward, brave, annoying, heroic, clueless, wise, tragic, comic. Each actor embodies and portrays their own particular character's particular demons and journey. Vilma Silva as Haikumom gives an indelible performance of a character who is unforgivable and forgiven, irredeemable and redeemed, unfit and a blessing. Daniel José Molina's acting is like jazz; he's playing with more notes, more chords, and more combinations under his fingers than most actors. His Elliot gives the story energy and forward motion. Bruce A. Young is heartbreakingly adorable as Chutes&Ladders, and Celeste Den as Orangutan makes you want to shake her and hug her. Barret O'Brien is appropriately cringeworthy as Fountainhead and it's fascinating to watch him become a "real" person as John. Nancy Rodriguez is back after several years' absence from OSF, and we enjoyed her return as Yazmin, Elliot's cousin. 

Water By the Spoonful is actually part two of a trilogy. I don't know why OSF didn't start with the first play, Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue, but we're looking forward to the third play, The Happiest Song Plays Last, at OSF in 2015. As part of her research for these plays, Hudes interviewed her cousin Elliot, an Iraq war veteran, and other family members and wove these fictional stories out of the emotional truth of her family's experiences and relationships. The process sounds fascinating. The results are great art.

Monday, September 29, 2014

OSF: Two Gents, Tempest

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced The Tempest and Two Gentlemen of Verona this year and they were....ok. But we've noticed a bit of a trend. Of the four Shakespeare plays each year (and OSF is dropping down to three next year), one or maybe two of them is great, and the others are just....ok. One shines and the others fizzle. How can that be? Are they economizing with some of the Willy shows on preparing, thinking, creating, and rehearsing time? They wouldn't do that....would they??? Or is it just one of those things?

Dennis Arndt in OSF's The Tempest.
We wouldn't have missed The Tempest, directed by Tony Taccone, out of gratitude to Dennis Arndt for many years of great performances in Seattle (he's an OSF alumnus, but this is our first time seeing him in Ashland). He brought a sensitivity and totally believable pathos to the role of Prospero. However, the production did him no favors. The casual, conversational approach to speaking Shakespeare's lines might have worked well in the black box Thomas Theatre, but didn't quite carry in the Bowmer. 

And nothing about the set helped him out. It started out promising enough, with a dramatic and beautifully set tempest scene. I liked the idea to create an expansive, abstract landscape, and it was a lovely shape, curved up at one corner to be a hill or what have you, and clever traps throughout. But once the clouds and waves magically rolled away, we were left with...wine colored shag carpeting. It didn't exactly transport me, at least not anywhere I wanted to be, and it made the actors seem small. 

The costumes were goofy and sometimes distracting. For example, the magic robe of rope for Prospero seemed to distract him, and us. I was especially annoyed that the Incredible Hulk green-yellow powder (what is that foul stuff??) distracted from an energetic and compelling performance by Wayne T. Carr as Caliban. And while I love meta humor as much as anyone, nods to other work (like Angels in America) seemed out of place in this show.

We saw Two Gents outside in the Elizabethan Theatre, directed by Sarah Rasmussen and cast with all women, and as I mentioned in my Richard III post, the ladies did not entirely nail it. Some of the actors couldn't make themselves clear even with the amplification, and several potentially dramatic moments were swallowed. The Weisenheimer's comment was that the whole production was "beige."

Christiana Clark as Proteus and Sofia Jean Gomez as Valentine
in OSF's Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Here are some highlights, though: Erica Sullivan, supremely skilled and talented, as Julia. Judith-Marie Bergan as Lucetta. Vilma Silva as Antonio. And the whole all-women endeavor was worth it to give K.T. Vogt some meaty stage time as both Launce and the Duke. She has been fantastic in everything we have seen her do here. Kjerstine Rose Anderson also brought the funny as Speed. But, man, Vogt and Anderson had to sweat bullets for every laugh. I don't know if our late September Tuesday night audience was especially soporific or what. Even Picasso, playing Crab, seemed to be half asleep. I think Vogt and Anderson were putting out 60 watts for every candlepower by everybody else at the Lizzie that night. Ladies, I appreciate your labors.

The thing is, Wooden O's Two Gents this summer in the park, directed by David Quicksall, kicked OSF's ass. As did Seattle Shakespeare's Tempest in 2009 with Michael Winters as Prospero, Hana Lass as Ariel, Kerry Ryan as Trinculo, and Peter Dylan O'Connor as Caliban. It's wonderful that we're able to see Shakespeare done well right here in Seattle by the O, Seattle Shakespeare Company and GreenStage. We still love OSF; they've given us a chance to see plays—Shakespeare, other classics, and new work—that we likely wouldn't have had a chance to see otherwise. But it's just a reminder that OSF is not a gimme, and there's some wonderful work being done by small, local companies, presumably on a fraction of OSF's budget.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

OSF: Richard III

We've been looking forward to Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Richard III all year, and especially Dan Donohue's turn in the titular role, and we were not disappointed. Richard III was the high point of our first time here ten seasons ago, and we enjoyed seeing another interpretation.

In this production directed by James Bundy, Richard is a comedian; and I absolutely mean this as a compliment. He sees into and through the dark humor of court politics. Just as a comedian sometimes skewers his audience, Richard skewers those around him, and channels his hostility into a deadpan "can you believe this guy?" and "I can't believe I got away with that" incredulity. He mugs for the audience in his constant asides, and drew more laughs than one or two of the comedies we saw here. Something was niggling at me through most of the first half of the play, and at one point shortly after intermission, some combination of gesture, mannerism, a set of Donohue's jaw, and a particularly meaningful look at the audience, and it came to me in a flash: it was as though he was channeling the brilliant Robin Williams. Of course, this was Donohue's show, and he was riveting. I wouldn't have missed a single turn of phrase and gesture. He held us in the very palm of his withered hand.

Dan Donohue as Richard III. OSF photo.
Most of the women in this production turned up the heat on Richard with sparkling performances. Robin Goodrin Nordli might just be the best Queen Elizabeth I've seen across four productions, three of which were very good (this one, OSF 2005, and GreenStage 2007; Intiman's 2006 directed by Bartlett Sher was completely forgettable). Nordli absolutely nailed the scene where Richard courts her daughter, fooling him but not us, and obviously having no intention whatsoever to give her to him. Judith-Marie Bergan was blistering as Richard's mother. And they didn't get fancy with Queen Margaret, making her all sepulchral or anything. She was played with straightforward venom by Franchelle Stewart Dorn. Tess Hemmerling just about made off with the show as Richard's younger nephew, the Duke of York.

I appreciated the restraint in the set designed by Richard L. Hay. There are very few places where you can see theater outdoors in the tradition of a stage that is shaped the way the Elizabethan is, with its multiple levels, pillars, trapdoor, thrust configuration, and, instead of a backdrop, entrances and exits upstage rather than (just) the wings. The design of the theatre causes the actors to interact differently with each other and with the audience than in a proscenium arch theatre, where the actors are little figures in a diorama. It's not so much that Shakespeare was breaking the "fourth wall" all the time—and never more than in Richard III—as that there was no fourth wall then.

Actors, directors, and designers often don't seem to know how to do theater outside. And to be fair, why should they have that training, since there will be so few opportunities to work outdoors. Which is a bummer for people like me who have seen how wonderful really good outdoor theater can be.

One of the consequences of the lack of training for the outdoor theater is that OSF finally capitulated and installed a fancy schmancy sound system in the Lizzie, a development we were not looking forward to. Based on Richard III, we were relieved. It could have been a lot worse. The amplification was subtle and skillful. Spoken lines still sounded like they were coming from the actor's location on stage, and they wisely refrained from playing around with all the bells and whistles I'm sure the system gives them, only getting woo-woo during the ghost dream scene.


Two Gents a few days later proved that amplification isn't enough if the actors don't have the skills to be clear. Several of the younger cast, though miked, were difficult to understand. Most of the principal actors in Richard III have played that stage for many years and know what they're doing, so they were easy to understand. They created characters and scenes and drama and told a thrilling story, not with technology, but with their voices and bodies and skill; and for that: bravo.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

OSF: A Wrinkle in Time

It is a bonus when our interests in theater and astronomy intersect, and that is happening this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with its production of A Wrinkle in Time, based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Madeleine L'Engle. The OSF play is a world premiere adapted and directed by Tracy Young.

Alejandra Escalante as Meg Murry in Oregon Shakespeare
Festival's production of A Wrinke in Time.
In A Wrinkle in Time math whiz Meg Murry (Alejandra Escalante), her über-genius little brother Charles Wallace Murry (Sara Bruner), and pal Calvin O'Keefe (Joe Wegner) zip around the universe in search of missing papa Murry (Dan Donohue). They accomplish their travel by bending time and space in a tesseract, or "tessering," as explained by the helpful science fair project by Science Girl (Jada Rae Perry).

Kids traversing the universe make for some imaginative and wonderfully silly stage effects and costumes, and we think especially of the multi-tentacled Aunt Beast (Daniel T. Parker), for whose costume a good half-dozen vacuum cleaners must have given their lives, or at least their hoses.

The performances are top-notch. We single out Escalante and Bruner especially, as well as Judith-Marie Bergan, who was much fun as Mrs. Whatsit, something of an intergalactic tour guide for the adventurers. Bergan, we think, can play anything, from the comic to the manic (as we note my Sweetie, the official scorer's, recent review of last year's production of The Tenth Muse.)

For all of its goofiness, the play takes on some serious themes about the mysteries of the universe, the nature of time and space, the dangers and advantages of technology, and of the strength and importance of family ties and love. The science isn't so heavy that you need to be a cosmologist or physicist or a math geek like Meg to get it, though a bit of sci-fi familiarity with the concept is helpful.

According to the program notes the book took criticism from all sides when it came out, some charging it with being too religious and others saying it is too secular. That feels like it hit the right spot! The book also has some Cold War undertones about how things would look under a totalitarian society.

We've not read the book but plan to pick it up when we return home from Ashland. The play runs at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through November 1. It's great fun; check it out!