DeAnn Welker

 

Dressed for success at Oregon Children’s Theatre

Mo Willems' "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: the Rock Experience" puts some pep in the step of a popular kids' story about individuality and courage.

On the surface, the naked mole rat doesn’t seem like a creature with a lot to teach us. But popular children’s author Mo Willems knew better when he wrote the book Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, and then adapted it into a stage musical with music by by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Oregon Children’s Theatre’s production of “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed” plays through February 17 at the Newmark Theatre, directed by OCT Artistic Director Stan Foote.

In Willem’s musical, Wilbur (Martin Hernandez), the naked mole rat of the title, discovers he’s a little different. He wants to wear clothes, you see, which is frowned upon in a community (or underground system of tunnels) where no one has ever done that before.

After all, when we are first introduced to the naked mole rat society at the beginning of the show, they are singing the “Naked Rules!” — which includes the lyrics: “Part mole, part rat, totally NAKED!” So, by the time Wilbur belts out “Time to Get Dressed” the show’s second musical number (in which he questions who he is and whether it is okay to be who he wants to be), we all know the rules — and the implication is that Wilbur should too.

Wilbur (Martin Hernandez, at right) is well-suited to defy naked mole rat social norms. Photo: Owen Carey

The themes here are heavy and important, but done in a fun way so that kids get the message — “It’s okay to be different” — without feeling lectured.

All the characters in this show are “naked” mole rats, but don’t worry: It’s all kid-safe fun! They are fully clothed, but in clever costumes (kudos to costume designer Sydney Dufka, wardrobe manager Emily Horton and costume design apprentice Zyla Zody) that let them somehow pass as naked mole rats.

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Jane Austen, upended

Kate Hamill's Sense and Sensibility at Portland Center Stage is a lively, bawdy, physical comedy, somehow faithful to the 1811 novel.

If you know anything about Jane Austen and/or Sense & Sensibility, you’ll be surprised to arrive at the Armory to find actors mingling on stage in contemporary dress, in what could very well be a modern-day apartment. This continues until the play starts, when ultra-modern dance music starts and the cast members shake their contemporary bodies.

As they dance, 19th-century music begins to play as, one by one (or two by two), the cast members shed their modern-day clothing for flowing white undergarments, which they’ll wear in various forms for the remainder of the play.

No, this is not your typical Jane Austen. And it’s not your typical theater production, either. Instead, playwright Kate Hamill — inspired by the dearth of roles for women in theater — has created something entirely unique: a lively, bawdy, physical comedy centering on the lives of women that feels far removed from and yet somehow faithful to the 1811 novel.

Quinlan Fitzgerald (center) is suitably charming to both suitors and audiences in “Sense and Sensibility” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Credit for the intense theatricality of this production, though, has to be at least partially given to director Eric Tucker (who has directed previous productions of this play, first at Bedlam, the theater company in New York where Tucker is artistic director). Tucker’s direction calls for acrobatics and pratfalls and upended scene staging (so that actors perform and staging is carried out in such a way that the audience is looking down on the scene from above; you have to see it to really believe it, but it’s marvelous).

For this production, Portland Center Stage and Tucker have assembled a fabulous and agile cast of characters. Most members of the cast take on multiple roles, including the gossips that are so prevalent and destructive in the lives of our protagonists, the elder Dashwood sisters of Austen’s novel. Those two sisters are wonderful counterpoints to one another: the reserved and resolute Elinor (Danea C. Osseni, returning to PCS after portraying Nettie in last fall’s beloved production of The Color Purple) and the passionate and fun-seeking Marianne (Quinlan Fitzgerald, who is fabulous and scene-stealing, and whom audiences will fall for right along with her onstage suitors).

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Adam Bock tells a true “Life” story

One of Portland Center Stage's favorite playwrights delivers a small, surprising, perspective-shifting play in the Ellen Bye Studio.

“The truth is so hard to find, and it’s almost impossible to hold onto,” says Nate, the protagonist of A Life, a West Coast premiere at Portland Center Stage. The irony, of course, is that he is absolutely right, and thus has found the truth.

Nate (Nat DeWolf) has a great deal of world-weary wisdom to share with the audience – and share he does – as he speaks, alone in his tiny New York City apartment (on a “long long visit to this lonely place”), to those of us gathered in the Ellen Bye Studio at the Armory. It’s unclear to whom he thinks he’s speaking, but I’m not sure that matters.

What does matter is that Nate has a lot to say. “I’m not always great with quiet,” he tells us at one point. And we laugh, because we already know that. We know Nate by this point, after all. We’re friends. He shares his longings, his loneliness, his quirks and worries.

How should we couch this? Nate Martin (played by Nat DeWolf) has a mind as cluttered as his apartment, in Adam Bock’s “A Life.”
Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

DeWolf and playwright Adam Bock give Nate an everyman sensibility. This is a guy you know – maybe even a friend. And his worries of not being able to find anyone to love are real and raw. DeWolf  plays Nate as a bit nervous and jittery, an effect that works once you get past thinking it might be the actor flubbing instead of the character (trust me: it’s the character). This effect is heightened by the cluttered apartment couch and table at the center of the Ellen Bye stage.

DeWolf makes you care deeply for Nate. He’s funny but sad, lonely but picky in love, waiting for his ex’s call but trying to pretend he doesn’t care. He’s so unsure of what he wants that he isn’t even sure what he’s unsure of. We want to see him find someone. We want him to be happy.

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We are in a play (for as long as it takes)!

At NW Children's Theatre, a musical adaptation of Mo Willem's popular kids stories will keep little ones engaged well after parents might not be.

Northwest Children’s Theatre’s production of Elephant & Piggie’s We are in a Play! is as silly as you might expect. It is, after all, based on the popular Elephant and Piggie children’s books by Mo Willems, in particular, “We are in a Book!”

The concept of the book is that the elephant and the piggie realize they are in a book and they get very excited that they can make the reader say whatever they want. This delights kids, because there is magic in the book characters controlling Mom or Dad.

John Ellingson and Joellen Sweeney in “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play.” Photo: Northwest Children’s Theatre.

There is magic on stage, too, in this musical, with script and lyrics by Willems himself and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. There are clever costumes designed by Mary Eggers, which turn humans into an elephant and a pig (plus a dog, a penguin, and three squirrels) while allowing us to still see the humans inside them. The simple set designed by John Ellingson at first looks like little more than a shiny game-show backdrop, but proves to be much more useful than that.

This sixty-minute musical is packed full of songs. There are ten musical numbers across a variety of genres – from operatic ballad to love songs to classics to even one with a kazoo – give this production for the very youngest audiences the credibility of a full-blown musical. And Willems’ script, of course, is chock-full of funny one-liners for the kids, with a little added for the grownups (after all, moms and dads have to attend the play with their little ones, so they might as well enjoy it). So we get: “Elephants cannot dance. … Animal Planet even made a documentary about it.”

And NWCT has cast six terrific actors to play the animals in this imaginary land, particularly Joellen Sweeney as a perfectly cheerful and naïve Piggie and John Ellingson as the doofy and worrying Elephant, Gerald. Both stars sing, dance, and provide plenty of pratfalls and belly-laughs.

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Order up! “Waitress” hits the spot

In the hit Broadway musical, soaring, soulful pop songs help a server find a sense of place.

It’s amazing that Waitress, the tiny little indie film from 2007 about a pregnant pie-making server in a bad marriage, ever became a Broadway musical. That this story – a rather intimate tale about a simple Southern woman’s life and love – has become a hit and is now on a Broadway Across America tour is even more surprising.

That is, until you see the touring production of Waitress — with a book by Jessie Nelson, music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, and directed by Diane Paulus — which is serving up pie and plenty of female sass through Sunday at Keller Auditorium.

Pie in the sky’s the limit: Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman in the national tour of “Waitress.” Photo: Joan Marcus.

If you don’t remember the film — which starred Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion and was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly — the basic plot is about an unhappily-married waitress, Jenna (Desi Oakley in the touring cast) who also happens to be a fantastic pie maker. After a drunken night with her husband, Earl (Nick Bailey), she ends up pregnant and then falls for her new OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) who is married. Although Jenna’s love life takes center stage, the real story here is about her life at the diner, with her best friends/surrogate family, Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman).

Oakley, with Broadway cred in Wicked, Les Miserables, and Annie, sparkles as Jenna. She is a solid actress, showing us Jenna’s insecurities and struggles to find her own strength, but where she really soars is in those numbers by Bareilles, especially when she’s singing with Fenkart. The two actors actually don’t seem to have much chemistry when they first meet, but when they belt out “It Only Takes a Taste” together, you start to believe their affection for one another; it only grows stronger when they sing “Bad Idea” and “You Matter to Me.” That’s the power of Bareilles’s songwriting.

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When we are first introduced to Snow in Midsummer in its U.S. premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and to its central character, Dou Yi, there is joy and hope despite tremendous loss. Dou Yi (Jessica Ko) tells us she is a widow, but she seems content with her memories and her simple life of weaving bamboo animals.

After this brief introduction, the play takes a dramatic shift – several years into the future, into a much darker place and time. When we next see Dou Yi, she is greatly changed and much of what follows involves piecing together what has happened to her.

Snow in Midsummer is based on a 13th-century Chinese play by Guan Hanqing, The Injustice to Dou Yi that Moved Heaven and Earth, but playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and director Justin Audibert (who also directed the world premiere for the Royal Shakespeare Company) have set this new version very much in the present.

In Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “Snow in Midsummer,” Dou Yi (Jessica Ko, left) wreaks havoc on a town and its inhabitants, including Handsome Zhang (Daisuke Tsuji) and Tianyun (Amy Kim Waschke). Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

That present is New Harmony, a remote factory town in China, in the middle of a horrible drought. When we first meet the factory workers, the factory where they work is in the process of being sold from its current owner, Handsome Zhang (Daisuke Tsuji), to an ambitious businesswoman, Tianyun (Amy Kim Waschke).

Tianyun and her adopted daughter Fei-Fei (Olivia Pham) have moved to New Harmony looking for a new life with a new business — but it’s unclear how their story, or even Handsome’s, will intersect with Dou Yi’s.

Dou Yi was convicted of a crime she did not commit, and she cursed New Harmony with drought until justice is served. There are timely themes here of environmental destruction, greed, and the abuse of women by men in power — none of which is easily fixed, as we all know.

But there is hope here, still, in the form of women. For it is Tianyun and Fei-Fei who ultimately have the power to make everything right again for Dou Yi. And it is the three incredible actors playing these roles who powerfully bring it all to life for us on the Angus Bowmer Theatre stage.

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“Some people like having someone around. I’m just not one of those people.” So says Abby early on in Ripcord, and it seems like she means it.

Abby, portrayed by the brilliant Randi Douglas, lives in a retirement home. She’s crotchety and deceitful and, frankly, just wants her room to herself. She doesn’t really care how she comes about that, and will stop at nothing to get it.

Enter her new roommate, Marilyn, portrayed by the equally brilliant Anita Sorel. Marilyn is everything Abby isn’t. She’s cheerful and positive. She loves people, and she spreads joy. She is impossible to anger. But Abby wants nothing to do with her.

Sunny vs. cloudy: Anita Sorel as Marilyn and Randi Douglas as Abby, battling roommates in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Ripcord” at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft.

And therein lies the heart of this delightful comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire: Abby and Marilyn bet their room that they can anger and scare one another, respectively. This quick and hilarious play directed by David Smith-English at Clackamas Repertory Theatre is practically a sitcom: It’s a roommate comedy with plenty of hijinks and misunderstandings (remember the episode of “Friends” where they bet the apartment?); and with how much the audience laughs, there might as well be a laugh track.

Lest you think this is going to be a nothing but a comedy, I will point out Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” which broke all of our hearts and earned him the Pulitzer Prize (and was later turned into a movie starring Nicole Kidman). While “Ripcord” will not bring on the kind of tears of that play, there is plenty of substance and loss here once we get to know Abby and Marilyn better.

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