‘Blithe Spirit,’ ‘Oklahoma!’ reviews: way out west

Theatre in the Grove and Bag & Baggage Productions add darkness and depth to 20th century classics

It started as just a chance to take the parents to a show we knew they’d like. They’re big fans of classic American musicals, and they don’t come more classic and American than Oklahoma! The folks are a bit too superannuated to make it down to Ashland. But a drive to familiar Forest Grove, they could handle. That’s how we wound up on closing night of what I foolishly assumed would be a podunk production of an overfamiliar American classic perpetrated by a team from west of Portland’s creative center, and produced by a community theater company on a too-small stage miles from Portland. At best, I thought, maybe the folks would enjoy it even if I rolled my eyes.

Boy, was I wrong! Theatre in the Grove’s May production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1943 classic turned out to be one of my most surprisingly delightful theatrical adventures this year.

I realized we were in for something special in the fraught duet “Pore Jud is Daid,” in which the protagonist Curly McClain (winningly played and sung by Austin Hampshire) tries to inveigle his nemesis, farmhand Jud Fry, into committing suicide. Jason Weed directs it as a dangerous dance, with Curly circling Jud, smiling and nodding toward an imagined noose. And in the crucial scene between Jud and Laurey Williams, the woman he and Curly both desire, director Weed and actors Brandon Weaver and Jade Tate show us that Laurey isn’t a simple goody two shoes love interest, nor is Jud a stereotypical bad guy. She’s shallow, self-absorbed, while he’s vulnerable, even damaged. Yet those dimensions somehow don’t conflict with their main actions in the story. They’re complicated humans, not inconsistent characters.

Brandon Weaver (l) as Jud Fry and Austin Hampshire as Curly McLain in Theatre in the Grove’s ‘Oklahoma!’ Photo: Jennifer McFarling.

The main credit for Jud’s dimensionality — and the lion’s share of the abundant audience applause, rare for the bad guy in any show — went to Weaver, whose spectacular, deeply considered performance is one of the finest I’ve seen in an Oregon musical. Far more than a simple black hatted villain, he could be genuinely terrifying, even while merely glaring at other characters, and yet in the same scene subtly reveal the anguish beneath the brutality. Weaver, another Hillsboro native who’s appeared in two dozen Grove performances since 1990, deserves wider exposure. I hope to see him on other Oregon stages soon.

The other big revelation for me was Weed. In his first Grove production, the artistic director of Newberg’s Chehalem Rep managed to keep our eyes moving and alighting on the right spots, despite deploying a three-dozen strong cast on a relatively tiny stage further cramped by the presence of a dozen-member orchestra. Every important moment was thoughtfully staged, and even the big crowd scenes and choral songs contained little silent vignettes in which almost every actor used facial or bodily expression to portray some mini-drama. They weren’t just standing there watching or singing. The theater’s low-rising stage and steeply raked seating helped here, enabling Weed to use every inch and keep it all visible.

In some scenes, Weed, a Hillsboro High grad who’s been involved in various local community productions, divided the stage into three parts, with action happening simultaneously yet not distracting from the main storyline. It made a fictional tiny townlet in 1906 Oklahoma territory feel like a real world. His vision brought out the darker, weirder side of Oklahoma! — and America — than I remember from the movie version.

Other compelling performances came from Sarah Thornton, whose superb comic timing and expressive, Shelley Duvall-style movement overcame her vocal limitation in the upper range of the part of Ado Annie, the gal who cain’t say no; her off-again, on-again fiancee, not-so-bright Will Parker, smartly played and sung by Scott Smith; and Benjamin Philip, whose wry, knowing Ali Hakim pilfered every scene he entered. Even bit player Kate Barrett shone as she snorted her way through the minor role of Gertie Cummings.

Hampshire and Jade Tate as Laurey in ‘Oklahoma!’ Photo: Jennifer McFarling.

I haven’t even mentioned Kristen Heller’s clever choreography (especially impressive in such a limited space), crisply executed by the entire cast, nor the band’s supportive performance led by Brandon Van Dyke, Sofia Sofinskaia’s evocative mural and the rest of the successful design team’s work across the board. That loaded duet, for example, takes place in Jud’s ingeniously designed cramped shed, which was rolled downstage for maximum effect, then returned to the side to act as backdrop. The packed house registered its vocal approval for many minutes after the final “OK!”

It’s easy for those of us who tend to hang out at Oregon’s professional theaters to ignore or dismiss what’s going on outside the Portland metro area and Ashland. This was my first encounter with Theatre in the Grove, and while I know from experience that not all Oregon small-scale theater can approach such heights, I’ll try never to underestimate our less-renowned theaters again.

And yes, the parents loved it, too.

Theatre in the Grove‘s next production, The Savannah Sipping Society, runs June 1-17 at 2028 Pacific Ave. Forest Grove. Tickets online or at  503-359-5349.

Ghost Bust

Imaginative direction and bold production also characterize another West Side production of an early 1940s classic: Blithe Spirit, now running at Hillsboro’s The Vault. Unfortunately, even Bag & Baggage Productions’ best efforts can’t redeem Noel Coward’s thin, dated spoof of the 1930s spirituality scams that caught up even figures as smart as Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Writer Charles Condomine, determined to prove the fraudulence of attempts to connect to loved ones on the other side of death’s divide (or at least to collect novelistic details about the whole sham), invites medium Madame Arcati to conduct a seance at his home, with his second wife, Ruth, and skeptical friend Dr. Bradman and his smarmy wife along to witness the silliness. Complications ensue when the intimacy-challenged Condomine’s dead first wife, Elvira (whom only he can see) answers the summons, bringing a hidden agenda of her own.

Greer, Beck and Walters in Bag&Baggage Productions’ “Blithe Spirit” at the Vault Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

The show’s initial 2,000-performance run may be credited in part to its distracting Britons from massive wartime death and destruction, and impending threat of invasion. It’s been revived and cinemized often. I realize a lot of people still like Noel Coward, and if you do, you’ll appreciate a production as clever, polished, and energetic as this one. Even my companion, who loathes Coward’s work, thought the show worth seeing just for its admirable, un-Cowardly aspects.

But for me (and apparently the rest of the sedate audience on this opening weekend), it seems neither blithe nor spirited. It might have been preferable to the Blitz, but in 2018, the alleged witticisms fall flat, the clunky plot makes no sense, the characters are as unvarying as the story is uninvolving and the over-extended dialogue unfunny. While director Scott Palmer’s choice to emphasize the darker side of Coward’s chilly characters lent some needed depth and abrasiveness, it may also have scuffed away some of the sparkle that fans cherish. More likely though, whatever shine Coward’s dialogue once radiated today seems faded by time.

Usually, when a classic sputters, you blame the production. But here, it’s hard to imagine what more the company could have done to invigorate a story that drags on far too long for its thin content. In fact, with a handful of exceptions, every single sporadic audience chuckle loud enough to notice came not in response to Coward’s lines — but to Palmer’s uproarious unscripted and unspoken additions, expertly executed by his team of crack B&B regulars. Seldom have so many worked so hard and so well to make a better production of a worse play.

Those include Tyler Buswell’s handsome, grey-black-silver-white set design (and Melissa Heller’s complementary costumes and masterful makeup, easily visible in the intimate space); a vintage 1980s pop soundtrack that replaces Irving Berlin with The Smiths, General Public, the Romantics and other bands I’ve generally tried to forget; Palmer’s hilarious blocking, pulled off with necessary split-second timing even on opening weekend; and entire silent subplots created through movement in the spaces between the lines, especially one involving Edith, an uptight maid perfectly played with side-splitting skittishness by Arianne Jacques.

B&B stalwart Kymberli Colbourne adds to her sterling track record with an over-the-top portrayal of Madame Arcati as a butch, swaggering, cycling, cigar-chomping, southern-fried medium contrived from equal parts Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam and perhaps (briefly) James Tiberius Kirk. Her dazzling eye makeup alone should have received a character listing in the program.

Cassie Greer, Jessica Geffen, Andrew Beck, Peter Schuyler, and Kymberli Colbourne in Bag & Baggage’s ‘Blithe Spirit.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Everyone else save the maid engages in precise upper-class Brit-speak, with Andrew Beck suitably supercilious as Charles Condomine, Cassie Greer bitingly bitter as  Ruth, Jessi Walters’ increasingly petulant Elvira, and Peter Schuyler and Jessica Geffen (abetted by more Palmeristic inflection and emphasis) doing the best they can with the underwritten characters of the Bradmans.

But unlike earlier Bag & Baggage triumphs with similarly unpromising material like Shakespeare’s feeble Titus Andronicus and Arthur Miller’s stolid The Crucible, neither their spot-on acting nor Palmer’s inspired direction nor the rest of this slick, scintillating production can rescue Coward’s tottering script. As the second half cranked tediously on and on despite the lack of plot interest or laughs, the peppy production insertions seemed increasingly like desperate attempts to pump air into Madame Arcati’s hopelessly punctured bike tire. Unless you’re a devoted Noel fan, even their valiant efforts can’t overcome this tired script’s Coward-ice.

Bag & Baggage’s Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward runs through May 27 at The Vault Theater, 350 E Main Street, Hillsboro. Tickets online at bagnbaggage.org or  503 345 9590.

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