FAMILY

‘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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‘La Belle’ steams back

Imago Theatre's mechanically marvelous steampunk-vaudeville retelling of "The Beauty and the Beast" returns from the road for a hometown run

It’s a Monday afternoon in early spring, and the road warriors are back in town. “I don’t know,” Jerry Mouawad says, just a trifle wearily. “We’ve probably played a thousand venues across the country.”

That covers a few decades and a few shows, from Whistlestop, Anystate to the New Victory Theatre on Broadway. Mostly, it covers variations over the years of Imago Theatre’s splendid family shows Frogz, Biglittlethings, and ZooZoo, and a little bit of Mouawad’s conceptually radical, tilted-stage production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. And in the past year it’s included Imago’s newest ravishing visual spectacle, La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton.

Jim Vadala, Justine Davis: love in miniature. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

La Belle, which opened at Imago to rapturous reviews in December 2016, has had small East Coast and West Coast tours in the ensuing months, including an engagement in November in Santa Rosa, California, at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, where it was one of the first shows to play in the reopened hall after last year’s devastating wildfires destroyed much of the arts center and surrounding town. Now it’s back for another hometown run, opening Friday at Imago and continuing through April 29. If you haven’t seen it, here’s your chance. If you have, chances are you’ll want to catch it again. As Marty Hughley noted in his ArtsWatch review of the premiere: “Imago’s La Belle is a creature of a rare and wonderful sort, a show you may well want to see over and over again, both to marvel at its graceful mechanics and to soak in its symbolic resonances about the human, animal and spiritual in us all.”

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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.

And In This Corner … La’Tevin Alexander Ellis

At Oregon Children's Theatre, the actor takes a swing at playing the great Cassius Clay on the way to becoming the greater Muhammad Ali

The day I met with La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, the star of Idris Goodwin’s And In This Corner: Cassius Clay — The Making of Muhammad Ali, opening Saturday at Oregon Children’s Theatre, he had just come from teaching middle schoolers about the eponymous character of his piece, a role that has significant meaning for him. Ellis is uniquely suited to the role of teacher in this instance. Though Ali had retired a decade before Ellis was born, the boxing legend was a family hero.

“When I was growing up, in my house, my momma had posters of all these great black people, men and women, both here in America and elsewhere, and one of the main ones, one of the most consistent ones was Ali,” he said. “My momma loved him, my grandma loved him, my grandfather loved him.” Indeed, for Ellis, Ali forms the third corner of a personal trinity that also includes Malcolm X and Bob Marley. “What I learned from (Ali) is, ‘Live your life like it means something to you. Be great no matter what somebody else says. Do what you want to do’.”

LaTevin Alexander Ellis, fists first. Photo: Owen Carey

Ellis, who grew up in Perry, Florida, and graduated from Florida A&M with a theater degree, came to Portland in 2014, one of many good young performers to join the city’s acting pool through Portland Playhouse’s apprentice program. If you know him at all, you know that his artistic life and political sensibility are deeply entwined. He’s the founder and artistic director of Confrontation Theatre, which aims to produce “engaging and challenging theater through the exceptionally unique Black perspective.” Somewhere, somehow, some part of his brain is always on the situation of black people in this country and what he can do about it.

This is also something he respects about Ali: “He was one of the first black men that I knew about that was a great athlete and who was not silent about the mistreatment of his people and his culture.” If you paid any attention at all to the anthem protests of this past football season, you know that such a stance does not come without cost. Now, imagine if you’re actually abstaining from joining the military when called upon. For this stance, for his outspokenness, for his visibility, the price for Ali was high. He was stripped of his championship and his livelihood for three of his prime fighting years, with the possibility of prison even hanging over his head.

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‘Chitra’: tale as old as time

NW Children's Theatre's enchanting "Chitra: The Girl Prince" spins a 5,000-year-old, up-to-date tale of dance and legendary adventure

You may not have heard of Northwest Children’s Theater’s latest, Chitra: The Girl Prince, but the tale has been around a long time – as the narrators, the gods Madan (Heath Hyun Houghton) and Vasant (Sudipta Majumdar), explain during the setup. “This story is like 5,000 years old,” says Madan.

The title character’s full name is Chitrangadha – which was the name of the dance-drama written in 1892 by Rabindranath Tagore, based on the ancient legend. It came to NWCT through the passion of Artistic Director Sarah Jane Hardy and her co-director and co-choreographer for this play, Anita Menon. They worked closely with first-time playwright Avantika Shankar, who adapted the ancient tale for NWCT audiences.

“Chitra: The Girl Prince”: dancing, adventure, and an ancient tale. Photo: David Kinder

While the time and place of the play and its origins are far away from Portland, the story – about a young woman torn between love and success – resonates today, when girls and women still find themselves choosing between traditional expectations and their own ambitions and desires.

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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.

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Atticus, tried and all too true

Lakewood's sharp and moving "To Kill a Mockingbird" does justice to an American classic that reverberates in a curious time capsule

To Kill a Mockingbird is a cherished time capsule of American literature and culture, a concise and moving statement about childhood, innocence, courage, and race. Its main characters – feisty tomboy Scout Finch, her brother Jem and friend Dill, the mysterious and frightening Boo Radley (much talked about but rarely seen), and above all that towering figure of decency and strength, Atticus Finch – are genuine American icons, up there within shouting distance of Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab and poor besmirched Hester Prynne. Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo and Atticus, of course, are all white Southerners, and it’s telling that the novel’s major black characters – Scout’s substitute-mother cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia, and Tom Robinson, the honest laborer who is falsely but fatally accused of rape – are not nearly so well-etched in the public consciousness.

Mockingbird doubles, maybe triples, in time. Harper Lee’s novel was published to acclaim in 1960, in the midst of the civil rights movement, after Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks’ bus rebellion and the Little Rock desegregation crisis, before the Selma marches and the rise of the Black Panther Party and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was both a repressive and an exciting time, when liberal hopes and expectations, in spite and perhaps in part because of the naked resistance they faced, ran high.

Kate McLellan as Scout, Monica Fleetwood as Calpurnia, Bram Allahdadi as Jem in “Mockingbird.” Lakewood Theatre photo

The novel is set, however, in an earlier time – the early to middle 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, in small-town Alabama, a seat of rigid segregation and no small amount of mob violence. From that viewpoint the actions of Atticus and the lessons Scout learns are truly heroic: resolute stands against the corruption of the place and culture they knew and loved. Tom Robinson loses his life. Scout loses her innocence, but gains something much larger: an understanding of the moral universe, and an emerging ability to cope with its demands.

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