DeAnn Welker


Crazy fun with Pete the Cat

Oregon Children's Theatre's musical version of the popular kids' books is bright and tuneful and a treat for kids and adults alike

“That was kind of crazy. Also kind of funny, right?”

– Pete the Cat (Dave Cole), Pete the Cat: The Musical

Pete himself might as well have been reviewing this lively, fun, infectious musical, the latest from the ambitious Oregon Children’s Theatre, running through Feb. 18 in the Newmark Theatre.

To start its 30th season last October, OCT teamed with six other children’s theater companies around the nation to commission and premiere Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt, an adaption of a popular children’s book series by Megan McDonald. This time around, it’s another ambitious children’s book adaptation – Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat tales – that Artistic Director Stan Foote has been trying to bring to the Portland stage since at least 2014. He finally secured rights to put on this musical adaptation, which was commissioned and developed by New York’s Theatreworks USA.

Pete goes to school and breaks the rule. Photo: Owen Carey

While the storyline doesn’t matter all that much – Pete is forced to try out being a housecat for a week when he’s caught by the cat-catcher, and ends up with the Biddles, where he takes on a mission to inspire second-grader Jimmy (17-year-old actor Jackson Wells) to paint something beautiful to pass art class. What matters is the entertainment, and Pete the Cat and company deliver it in spades.


‘Belfast Girls’: It’s about time

Corrib Theatre's resonant staging of a play about women escaping the Irish Famine rings true amid today's sea change of women's rights

“The time of women is coming.” Uttered by a character early on in Corrib Theatre’s production of Belfast Girls, it sounds like foreshadowing. This is a play, after all, about five women escaping Ireland during the Irish Famine of 1845-1852. They board a ship called the Inchinnan en route to Australia, with hopes of a better life.

What we know, of course, and what the playwright Jaki McCarrick knew when she wrote this play in 2015, was that the time of women is still coming. The statement – and these five fiery female characters – are particularly prescient today, amid a sea change in women’s rights, particularly the right to be free of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. But we all also know that time can’t come soon enough.

The Belfast Girls, from left: Summer Olsson, Hannah Edelson, Tiffany Groben, Brennan Dwyer, Anya Pearson. Photo: Adam Liberman

When Belfast Girls begins, we meet four women escaping Ireland, bonded by a shared dorm quarters on the ship taking them toward their dreams. There is the de facto leader, Judith (Anya Pearson), a well-spoken woman unafraid to speak her mind. She is joined by Ellen (Brenan Dwyer) – “stupid Ellen,” as Judith calls her in the beginning, but we learn there is much more to her than anyone realizes. Hannah (Summer Olsson) – called “fat Hannah” by Judith and her other companions – carries more grief and resilience than anyone should have to muster. Sarah (Hannah Edelson) is the stranger in the group, a country girl – and the only one who was not a street girl in Belfast. Still, she has her reasons to be here, and we’ll learn those soon enough. These four are joined before departure by Molly (Tiffany Groben), a weak and sickly maid from outside of Belfast who has carried on books and more than her share of secrets.


Medea crosses the border

In "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles," The ancient figure of vengeance takes on a more sympathetic role as a desperate illegal immigrant

If you think you know Medea, you probably have yet to see Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles. The play, written by Luis Alfaro, turns the Greek tragedy into an immigration story, and in doing so reimagines the title character as someone much more sympathetic than the Medea of Euripedes’ play, which was first produced in 431 B.C.

This is Portland Center Stage’s 30th season, as Artistic Director Chris Coleman points out in the playbill, so it seems fitting that this production of Mojada from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival would be part of the season. PCS, after all, originally was a Portland extension of Ashland’s OSF.

From left: performers Nancy Rodriguez, VIVIS, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Jahnangel Jimenez, Lakin Valdez) reenact the arduous crossing of the desert from Mexico to the United States. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

“Mojada” – which translates literally to “wet” in Spanish but is used in the play as a racial slur to describe immigrant Medea from Michoacán, Mexico – is about an illegal immigrant family in Los Angeles with a secret (many, in fact). Medea’s husband, Jason (Lakin Valdez) – think Jason of the Argonauts in Greek mythology and the Euripides tragedy, but here pronounced “ha-SONE” – is the ruthless social climber who wanted to leave Mexico in the first place. He brought along his wife, Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela), who uses her magical hands to sew collars for Bloomingdale’s at $8 a pop (Bloomingdale’s turns around and sells them for $120 each, of course); their young son, Acan (Jahnangel Jimenez); and Medea’s longtime mother figure/housekeeper, Tita (VIVIS).


Profile doubles the impact

Richly rewarding productions of Quiara Alegría Hudes' "Water by the Spoonful" and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" open in rep

“The songs are pretty, but make no mistake. Each song is a revolutionary song. Each song is a protest. An affirmation of what is truly ours. ‘We are Puerto Rican. Period.’ Today, ‘Somos Americanos. Punto.’ “

— Agustín, The Happiest Song Plays Last


To conclude its 20th season, with Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegría Hudes as the season’s playwright, the ambitious Profile Theatre has taken on the daunting task of putting on two plays – Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last – in rotating repertory, with a single cast of nine actors, four of whom are in both plays.

These plays are contemporary – Hudes won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful, and The Happiest Song Plays Last premiered in Chicago in 2013 – and they feel even more so in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the devastation it has wreaked on Puerto Rico, which – as Agustin so eloquently says in the quote above – is part of America: “Somos Americanos. Punto.”

These two plays centered on Puerto Rican American cousins Elliot (played with passion and youthful energy here by Anthony Lam) and Yaz (given life and warmth by Crystal Ann Muñoz) feel both intimately realist and larger than life under the direction of Josh Hecht, Profile’s artistic director. Elliot and Yaz are from North Philly, but they travel (separately or together) to Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Arizona, Jordan, and Egypt over the course of the two plays (and two other characters in Spoonful travel to Japan).

Duffy Epstein, Julana Torres and Akari Anderson in “Water by the Spoonful.” Photo: David Kinder

Water by the Spoonful is about two seemingly disconnected storylines: addicts in a chatroom, and Elliot and Yaz’s connecting over their respective struggles: the emotional and physical toll his time as a Marine in Iraq took on him and her “failure” in the form of divorce and not knowing what she wants in life. Lam and Muñoz have the type of stage chemistry actors long for. Their banter is natural, in the way of real family members, and you will love each of them through each other’s eyes.


Judy & Stink’s big fat treasure hunt

Oregon Children's Theatre's world premiere of a fresh Judy Moody adventure searches for clues on a vacation island

To kick off its 30th season, Oregon Children’s Theatre has premiered a huge event: the first production in a rolling world premiere of Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt. Based on the popular children’s books by Megan McDonald, Judy Moody & Stink was co-commissioned by seven children’s theater companies around the nation, and Oregon Children’s Theatre is the first of the seven to get it onstage. On opening night, Artistic Director Stan Foote – who also directs the play – announced that playwright Allison Gregory and one of the other commissioning artistic directors were in the house.

Nothing to crab about: a fantasy treasure hunt. Photo: Owen Carey

A first-of-its-kind commission of this magnitude, launching at Portland’s own Newmark Theatre, can tend to give theatergoers lofty expectations. And, while the production is solid – with bright sets that change before your eyes, a clue-riddled plot, and solid performances across the board (with an exceptional one or two) – it doesn’t quite live up to those heights.


Lost (and found) in midair

Danna Schaeffer's "You in Midair," about life after the murder of her daughter, catches the essence of life, emotion, love, longing, and grief

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: losing a child. It upsets the natural order of things, leaves an irreplaceable emptiness. And it is the premise of the wrenching but surprisingly joyous You in Midair, running at New Expressive Works for just one more week.

That the nightmare is not only a true story, but that it was written and is performed by the mother who suffered the loss, makes it both more poignant and almost unbearable. You likely know the story of Rebecca Schaeffer, the 21-year-old Oregon actress who’d found success as a regular on the television series My Sister Sam, and who was murdered by her stalker at her Los Angeles apartment in 1989. It was a heartbreaking death, even for an outsider.

Danna Schaeffer performing her play “You in Midair.” Photo: Owen Carey

What you likely don’t know is the view from inside the family’s grief. Twenty-eight years later, playwright Danna Schaeffer opens up in the most vulnerable fashion imaginable: by performing a solo show she wrote about the experience. It is as devastating as you might imagine, but it is also funny – Schaeffer shares some of the absurd moments that followed losing her daughter so publicly – and liberating for someone to share such real, raw grief.


Amelia Earhart (and puppets, too)

Northwest Children's Theater's "Starlings" take flight with a new musical about the aviator pioneer and other women heroes of the sky

If you haven’t seen a previous production featuring the Starlings, Northwest Children’s Theater’s “all bird, all puppet acting troupe,” you might be in for a surprise with Amelia Earhart’s First Flight. Whether that surprise is pleasant or not probably depends on a couple of things: how much you were hoping for a more straightforward take on the life of Amelia Earhart, and how good your sense of humor is.

I’ll cast my vote right here: Overall, the one-hour production is a delight. It moves so quickly your head will spin, but in a good way. And, if you’re thinking only young kids will enjoy this one (the company recommends it for ages 4 and up), think again: On the way out of the theater the afternoon we saw it, two teenagers were talking about how they’d enjoyed it much more than they should have – and it was one of the teens’ second time seeing it.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Amelia Earhart! Photo © 2017 David Kinder

The NWCT Starlings are a group of colorful birds who also happen to be theater performers. The magic starts for the younger set the moment you step inside Northwest Children’s Theater’s space on Northwest Everett Street. Colorful bird puppets are everywhere: taking tickets, directing people to and from the restroom, guiding lost patrons to their seats, sitting down in the row with you and having a chat. They might even ask permission to perch on your arm (and they’ll reciprocate by letting you pet their feathers, if you ask).