DeAnn Welker

 

The Quiet Men, ready to explode

Corrib Theatre's tense, potent production of Owen McCafferty's "Quietly" drags the Irish Troubles into the present in a Belfast Pub

The power of Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, Corrib Theatre’s latest production, takes you by surprise.

It starts slowly and, naturally, quietly. In fact, when it begins, it’s just a lone barman, Robert (Murri Lazaroff-Babin), sending texts to his love – or loves? The texts set up that they have moved to Belfast, where this play is set, from Poland. No one seems entirely happy about it.

Enter Jimmy (Ted Rooney), a depressed or angry (is there really a difference?) regular at the bar, clearly comfortable shooting the breeze with Robert, but not talking about anything particularly important. Their conversation mostly centers on a soccer match between Poland and Northern Ireland playing on a TV — and a 1974 soccer match between Poland and West Germany. But Jimmy hates soccer, so this conversation is meaningless. Or is it?

From left: Tim Blough, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Ted Rooney. Photo: Adam Liberman

Jimmy mentions that someone might stop by to talk to him, and to ignore any yelling. Robert has plenty of worries of his own, what with some local folks not appreciating having a Polish bartender. So he doesn’t want any trouble.

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‘Caterpillar’: No play, lots of play

So what if there's no plot? Oregon Children's Theatre's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show" is a delight (painter and puppets included)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show at Oregon Children’s Theatre is tough for an adult to review fairly. It’s for the very youngest OCT audiences, after all, and it can be difficult for a lifelong theatergoer to look at a show through that lens.

For starters, there is no plot. How does one critique a staged performance of an artist (Robi Arce, truly a delight) paining a blue horse (and a yellow cow and a purple fox, and others) to the joyful squeals of children?

And this isn’t really a “play” in the traditional sense: Instead, it’s five ensemble members (not playing characters, really) retelling/performing four beloved Eric Carle’s children’s books: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse, The Very Lonely Firefly, and of course, The Very Hungry Caterpillar that this show was inspired by and named for.

Painting animals (and puppets to match): He’s all ears. Photo: Owen Carey

So instead of trying to critique this as a traditional play, let’s look at what it is and what it’s trying to accomplish: This is a show filled with colors and puppetry trying to entertain children. And, by those measures, it is a resounding success.

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Surviving Richard? She is fierce

Enso's all-female adaptation of Shakespeare's "Richard III" is ambitious and innovative and ripples with a disturbing question: Why, Lady Anne?

“A woman who speaks out survives.” So says Margaret of Anjou in She Is Fierce, a play not by Shakespeare. Margaret of Anjou is portrayed with ferocity by Sam Reiter in Enso Theatre Ensemble’s production at Shoebox Theatre.

Bitter irony lies at the heart of that statement, as spoken by the mother of Edward, Prince of Wales (killed by Richard III in the fifteenth century), in a modern-day retelling of Richard III from an all-female perspective, with Lady Anne of York at the center.

We all know what happens to Lady Anne, after all, in Shakespeare’s version of events: She dies miserably, married to the man who killed her husband.

Paige Rogers as the Duchess of York in “She Is Fierce.” Photo: Dylan Wiggins

In this production at Enso, originally produced by the Netherlands’ Het Vijfde Bedrijf (The Fifth Act) and adapted from the work of Dutch playwrights Maaike Bergstra and Annemarie de Bruijn, the women take center stage. There are four characters: In addition to Sam Bangs, the Lady Anne who introduces us to the play – in fact, invites us in from the exhibit in the lobby, also known as Lady Anne’s Gallery of Secrets – they are:

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Painting the town ‘Scarlet’

We're not in the 1600s anymore: Michelle Horgen's marvelous updating of "The Scarlet Letter" adds a modern sensibility (and lots of songs)

Portland Playhouse’s new musical, Scarlet, is no dry historical retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. While that popular 19th-century novel was the source material for playwright Michelle Horgen’s retelling, and it is set in the same puritanical time, this is not your father’s Scarlet Letter.

For starters, this is retold by a woman (Horgen is at least a triple threat, having written book, music, and lyrics) in 21st century America. And Hester Prynne has a lot to say — and, it turns out, sing — that rings as true today as it must have in 1850. Judgment and shaming, after all, have become public, prolific, and painful in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where most people can’t simply escape or go home to hide their embarrassment.

Rebecca Teran is Hester Prynne in “Scarlet” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

In Horgen’s hands, the story also becomes much more about motherhood—how becoming a mother “shatters your existence” in a “blinding instant” — than it was in the words of Hawthorne. There is an especially heart-wrenching story involving Hester’s friend, Sarah Winthrop, a new character who was not part of Hawthorne’s story, which is set in 17th century Puritan Boston. Dana Green, who plays Sarah, wears her grief for the rest of the play — across a number of years — and will break your heart. It is also more about the sisterhood we share with other women — our friends, our community, even the crazy old lady everyone pretends not to understand.

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A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is …

In a play within a play, is it a kiss within a kiss, or ... something else? Twilight sorts it out in Sarah Ruhl's puzzle-comedy "Stage Kiss"

The drama at the heart of Stage Kiss, the Sarah Ruhl comedy at Twilight Theater Company, can be summed up with a simple question She asks He near the middle of the play: When we kissed, did it feel like “an actor kissing an actor or a person kissing a person?”

That’s a real dilemma in this over-the-top comedy about ex-lovers suddenly reunited after many years when they’re surprisingly cast in leading roles in an over-the-top comedy about ex-lovers suddenly reunited after many years when Ada (She’s character in the play within the play) is diagnosed with a month to live.

Was it real, or was it Memorex? Kristen Paige and Rob Kimmelman, discombobulated in “The Kiss.” Photo: Alicia Turvin

Kristen Paige, a new arrival in Portland, plays She/Ada, who is on stage for nearly every moment of this production. She carries the play with magnetism and energy from the moment she stumbles on stage for an awkward audition with the play’s director (Christopher Ruggles), performing opposite Kevin (Jason Fox, who always seemed on the verge of cracking up on opening night, which might have been on purpose; even if it wasn’t, it worked well for his nervous theater-wannabe character).

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Stars rising: Clay and Ellis

La'Tevin Alexander Ellis is a star on the rise playing a star on the rise in Oregon Children's Theatre's "And in This Corner: Cassius Clay"

It’s pretty incredible to witness a star in the making – and that’s exactly what you’ll see at Oregon Children’s Theatre’s latest, And in this Corner: Cassius Clay – The Making of Muhammad Ali.

You wouldn’t be foolish to assume I am talking about Cassius himself, the someday Greatest, the future champ whom this magnificent play by Idris Goodwin is about. But, in fact, the star in the making you’ll witness is La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, the young actor who plays Cassius.

Ellis has all the right moves to play Cassius – from the innocence of the sweet 12-year-old boy who loves his mom and dad (Damaris Webb and Eric L. Island, both understated and letting Ellis’s star shine), his brother Rudy (Johnny Crawford), and his best friend Eddie (Charles Grant, another show-stopper); to the emerging fighter being trained by Joe Martin (Jared Mack); to the Olympic champion; to the activist.

Ellis (and Clay) triumphant. Photo: Owen Carey

This is the true-life coming-of-age tale you are expecting, of course: Yes, this boy who comes from such humble beginnings that his dad saved up for eight months to get him a bike, wins the Olympics. Yes, he grows up to become the greatest boxer of all time. But there’s much more to it. This isn’t a story about the making of a boxer so much as it is about the making of an activist. Spurred mostly be Eddie, Ellis’s Cassius grows from the cautious kid scared of the neighborhood bully, Corky (Gerrin Mitchell, hilarious and memorable in the role), to the man who will fight for himself and for those who cannot fight for themselves.

This is a history lesson about the civil rights era for today’s youth, who, especially in Portland, might be a bit sheltered or ignorant on topics of race, segregation, and discrimination. My own 5-year-old was troubled by the characters learning of and explaining the death of Emmett Till – as she should be. This is a production that will stimulate important conversations we should be having with our children: about history, racism, and privilege.

But this is also the vehicle for a truly great star performance in the title role, and Ellis delivers across the board: from his punches , jabs, and footwork to his swagger. Not many people can pull off lines like, “I don’t gotta act like I’m better. I AM better!” and make you both believe him and love him anyway. Ali could do that. So can La’Tevin Alexander Ellis.

His performance is helped by that supporting cast, with not a weak performance among them; a surprisingly simple set – just a boxing ring that becomes everything it needs to – by scenic designer Tal Sanders; and deft direction from co-directors Stan Foote (OCT’s artistic director) and Jerry Foster. The fight scenes also demonstrate the skill of boxing choreographer Damaris Webb (who also plays Cassius’s mother, Odessa).

In the relatively small space of the Winningstad Theatre, it all comes together for a production that’s larger than life – just like its star, and the one he’s portraying.

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Oregon Children’s Theatre’s And in This Corner: Cassius Clay continues through March 25 in the Dolores Winningstad Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket and schedule information here.

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Read Bobby Bermea’s ArtsWatch profile, And In This Corner … La’Tevin Alexander Ellis.

A gorgeous fairy tale, in triplicate

CoHo's "This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing" is a theatrical marvel about the adventures of not-so-identical triplets

At the risk of revealing my own ignorance, I must admit I had no idea what I was going to see when I was tapped to review CoHo Productions’ This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing. I hadn’t heard of Finegan Kruckemeyer, the esteemed Australian playwright who has had 84 plays commissioned on five continents and whose works have been translated into eight languages.

These Girls, into the woods and beyond. Photo: Owen Carey

I was even mildly annoyed to see that this play about women was written by a man. “What could he know?” I thought. “What does he have to say on this topic that hasn’t been said before?” Turns out the answer to both question is, “So much.”

This Girl Laughs was first produced in 2011 in Argentina and has been produced dozens of times and received numerous awards since. According to Kruckemeyer’s website, it’s suitable for ages 7 to adult. Which might make one think this is production for children. It is, and it isn’t.

This is a play about children. Or people, I should say, who start out as children – as people often do. And it is about how three specific children – identical triplet girls, who, like most identical twins/triplets/etc., turn out not to be identical at all. It is also about, as CoHo has written, “cakes, battle, sun bathing, world carrying, unpleasant badgers, boring people, dancing, romance, walnuts, and long walks.” This is a fairytale. It is about loss, love, and redemption. It’s an odyssey, a bildungsroman in triplicate, and an epic poem.

But none of these descriptions is wholly true. If you were to read the script for This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing, it would read like a novel, with chapters, in a third-person narrator’s voice. It’s a story about losing everything and finding a way to recover. It’s tragic and hopeful. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious. Kruckemeyer’s website says it can be performed by any number of players, and has been performed by one to 30.

Sharon Mann and Beth Thompson, traveling underseas. Photo: Owen Carey

Because this tale is broad and universal, just like a life (or three), and can be melded and shaped and shifted in magical ways. And what CoHo has done with Kruckemeyer’s beautiful words is capture lightning in a bottle.

With a cast of six fine Portland actors (most of whom I’ve enjoyed watching onstage a time or two or several), and under the deft direction of Tamara Carroll, CoHo’s space transforms from a modest home in the forest where three girls live with their mother and father – “And the girls knew in their hearts that this happiness they felt, living in the forest with that man and that woman, it would never end. … Until one day, it ended” – into a snowy wood, and then into warring villages and into beaches and a lighthouse floating across the sea and a vacated bakery and a Snow White-style fairytale filled with animals and a single young woman living out her life in the forest, and into the most boring town in the world, and into a mansion. …

It’s no small feat to pull all of this off on any stage, particularly a smaller space such as CoHo’s. Kaye Blankenship’s scenic design, Jennifer Lin’s lighting, and Sarah Andrews’ props play a major part in bringing this magic to life – but so does that incredible cast of six.

So, let’s talk about the singular actors who make up that cast: Conor Eifler (Younger Man), Duffy Epstein (Older Man), and Sharon Mann (Older Woman) play a plethora of characters and help narrate the triplets’ journeys. They are all so good that it feels unfair to single any of them out, but Epstein gets the most poignant and trickiest plot points, and he rises to the challenge. Epstein recently outshone a remarkable cast in Profile Theater’s Water by the Spoonful. That he doesn’t do that here is to his credit – he downplays his roles here in service to the greater good.

In a fairy tale, one must take measures: Duffy Epstein, Alex Ramirez de Cruz, Jen Rowe, Beth Thompson. Photo: Owen Carey

And, that greater good is those three girls of the title, the triplets. Carmen, the youngest and the one who “does nothing” (but what a lie that is) is played with sweetness, quiet, and innocence by Alex Ramirez de Cruz. The middle sister, Beatrix, the girl who cries (and does so much more than that) is played with reckless abandon, charisma, and comedic timing by Beth Thompson. And the oldest, Albienne, who laughs (though not as often as you’d think), is brought to life by the remarkable Jen Rowe, a force to be reckoned with at all times, but particularly when she’s wielding a sword in battle or flour in a bakery.

Seeing this triptych of women on the CoHo Stage, you will be struck by how lucky you are (although they have all been on the same stage at least once before, in Portland Playhouse’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in 2012, they didn’t carry that play in the same way). It is not an overstatement to compare casting these three to casting the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern in a television show: Audiences are rarely that lucky.

And yet here we are in 2018 with HBO’s Big Little Lies on our televisions – and, if you are lucky enough to be in Portland right now, This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing onstage at CoHo Theatre.

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This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing continues through March 3 at CoHo Theatre, 2257 N.W. Raleight St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.