DeAnn Welker

 

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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For the past decade, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions program has commissioned playwrights to examine turning points in U.S. history. Playwright Idris Goodwin has heeded the call with his new play, The Way the Mountain Moved, a revisionist look at a supposedly well-known piece of American history: how the West was won.

Not your typical white cowboy heroes, Julian Remulia (from left), Maddy Flemming, Sara Bruner and Al Espinosa represent other figures of the American West in “The Way the Mountain Moved” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Specifically, The Way the Mountain Moved — which continues through October 28 — is set in Utah in the 1850s. The cast of characters is made up primarily of people who have long been ignored by the American Western: There are African-American Mormons (yes, they exist), Mexican immigrants, single women and their daughters, Native Americans. With this play, Goodwin, OSF, and director May Adrales point out the hypocrisy inherent in American Westerns (not to mention in this country, in general), with their singular focus on the white cowboy as hero, when we all know the white cowboy character (and, in fact, our country) were built upon the backs of people of color and women, so long and largely ignored.

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Tomorrow, tomorrow: We love ya

Clackamas Rep's "Annie"brings the orphans in from the cold and heats things up for the audience

“Never work with animals or children” was the sage actorly advice from legendary actor and comedian W.C. Fields. Luckily for us, Clackamas Repertory Theatre steered far from this piece of advice with its production of Annie at Clackamas Community College’s Osterman Theatre in Oregon City.

This production’s title character is a child actor, eighth-grader Ava Marie Horton, who is a true delight as Annie. She is joined in the cast by the children who play the rest of the orphan girls under the charge of Miss Hannigan (Cassi Kohl). Each one of the child actors is a delight, but together — when singing “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” for example — they really shine. The choreography and musicality of that song helps, as the girls use buckets and brushes to make music while cleaning the floor and are in lock-step with their dancing — one even swings from the lights! It is perfectly choreographed orphanage chaos that will have audiences singing along.

Andrés Alcalá is the center of attraction as Daddy Warbucks. Photo: Travis Nodurft

But Clackamas Rep didn’t stop at the children. The golden dog playing Annie’s orphaned dog Sandy — who is not credited in the program, so I can’t give him or her proper name recognition — wasn’t in many scenes but stole the show each time (he or she) appeared onstage.

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