‘Ivy + Bean': It’s musical mayhem

Oregon Children's Theatre stages a winner – and gets caught in Tom Coburn's cynical political machine

Ivy and Bean are a phenomenon, although from my scanning of Ivy + Bean and the Ghost That Had To Go, Book 2 in the wildly popular series of chapter-books-with-lots-of-pictures, author Annie Burrows wouldn’t use a word like “phenomenon” for her young readers. She would, and does, use vivid words like “boogers,” “breezeway,” “squinted,” “Plesiosaur,” “potion,” “burial,” “immature,” “gurgling,” and “cartwheels,” and even “emergency” and “uncomfortably,” so come to think of it, maybe “phenomenon” wouldn’t be out of place, after all: when it comes to playing with the language, Ivy and Bean are no stick-in-the-mud Dick and Janes.

I’m not about to make the case that the Ivy + Bean books are great kids’ lit. Book 2, at least – the only one of the 10-and-counting that I’ve read – has little of the depth and richness of, say, The Wind in the Willows, or Anne of Green Gables, or even the lightly satirical Freddy the Pig books. It seems more like a slyly updated version of such comic serial capers as Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, with an anarchic children’s world-view shaped gently by a sympathetic adult mind. Just the sort of thing, in other words, to get impressionable kids keen on reading.

Madison Wray as Ivy and Haley Ward as Bean: suddenly, best friends. Photo: Owen Caret

Madison Wray as Ivy and Haley Ward as Bean: suddenly, best friends. Photo: Owen Carey

Or, in the case of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s bright and sassy new production Ivy + Bean: The Musical, keen on watching and listening. Perusing Barrows’ book, with its quick and irreverent drawings by Sophie Blackall, didn’t prepare me for the bright and clattering pleasure this thing could be onstage. Sparked by refreshingly irascible performances by teenage actors Haley Ward as the bumptious tomboy Bean and Madison Wray as the sweetly subversive Ivy, I+B: The Musical is about as much fun as a blood oath signed in spit. And if you don’t think that sounds fun, just try to recall your 8-year-old self.

Scott Elmegreen’s hour-long musical adaptation is based on the first book in the series, the Ur-story, the foundation myth: Bean’s the queen of a cul-de-sac called Pancake Court, Ivy’s the new kid in the neighborhood, and they both know they don’t like each other, until circumstances transpire. The main circumstance, in this case, is Bean’s bossy 11-year-old sister, Nancy, who as played by Stephanie Roessler is a comically conniving meanie with a wicked witch’s cackle. Magical spells ensue, along with buckets of worms, soccer games, earnest but futile attempts to enter the book of world records, and other evidences of the vast and earnest and abruptly changeable universe of the childhood imagination. The creators of Ivy + Bean know one thing, and know it true: in childhood, play is where the most important learning happens.

Young actors David VanDyke, Jonathan Pen, and Sophie Keller capably round out the neighborhood gang, and Bean’s parents are played by Alex Leigh Ramirez and Joey Côté as reassuringly out-of-the-loop presences who are also, in that odd world of childhood independence, reliably there. And as usual at OCT, where I+B continues through November 23 in the Newmark Theatre, production values are crisp. Director Isaac Lamb, musical director Mont Chris Hubbard, choreographer Amy Beth Frankel, costumer Ashton Hull, scenic designer Kristeen Willis Crosser, lighting designer Phil McBeth, sound designer Scott Thirson, and props master Kaye Blankenship make up a thoroughly professional and technically precise team: young audiences here are enjoying the benefits of a fully fleshed and tightly timed production. I would go to this eagerly oddball, breezily funny show even if I didn’t have a kid in tow. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I did.


Opening Ivy + Bean: The Musical was the big deal at Oregon Children’s Theatre last week, but other excitement was bouncing around the playhouse walls, too: Last season’s terrific production of Zombie in Love, which was funded partly by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, gained prominent mention in Wastebook 2014, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma)’s annual excoriation of what he deems the year’s “most outlandish government spending.”

“OCT wears as a badge of honor that the $10,000 we were granted by the NEA for the development of Zombie in Love made the list,” OCT’s managing director, Ross McKeen, said, just slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Coburn isn’t a stupid man – quite the contrary – but he’s an innately political beast, and his annual lists are calculated to feed the frenzy of his reactionary base. Congress needs budget-minders as anchors and guardians of practicality. But Coburn’s annual list is well-known for its laziness and cynicism. There is utterly no doubt that the federal budget contains wasteful line items. Coburn’s list invariably lacks the honesty to ferret the bad ones out. Instead it goes for the cheap and easy, the red meat that makes the partisan dogs roar. It routinely takes things out of context, ignoring, for instance, all of the public advantage to be found in a well-run children’s theater program so it can poke a zombie in the eye. And it works: A video clip from Zombie was featured prominently in a segment on CBS This Morning that reported, with not an ounce of skepticism or basic J-school cross-checking, Coburn’s “findings.” It was one more tiny little nail in the increasingly malodorous coffin of mainstream American journalism.

McKeen continues: “Like a schoolyard bully, Coburn goes after the art geeks and science nerds in a report that is profoundly anti-science, anti-culture, and anti-intellect. The programs he cites are presented without context or any effort to understand their broader public policy goals. Are scientists really studying the effect of Swedish massage on rabbits because they like rabbits and are silly people? Or might they be trying to determine if massage is an effective (and less costly) alternative to painkillers and surgery in an effort to reduce health care costs? Coburn and his ilk don’t care.”

Dear readers, I don’t want to get all political on your heads. Honest people can honestly disagree. Honesty, unfortunately, is the vital element lacking in Coburn’s reports. If you tell me you don’t believe it’s the government’s role to spend money on arts and cultural matters, I will disagree with you but respect your opinion and understand your point of view. That isn’t what Coburn does. He stacks the deck and plays to the crowd. And he’s lazy about it: He doesn’t bother to check his facts, because he knows the facts are highly likely to undermine his case. How many hours of Coburn’s staff’s time go into the making of this annual charade? Why does that wasted money never make his list?

On Saturday afternoon, when I went to see Ivy + Bean, I ran into Stan Foote, OCT’s artistic director, who told me that Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) had jumped on the bandwagon and tweeted something snarky about Zombie in Love. I was sorry to hear that, because at one point I had thought McCain was at the least an honest man. That, of course, was before the profound silliness of l’affaire Palin.

It’s one thing for Ivy and Bean to let their imaginations run amok. But they’re 8 years old, for crying out loud. Isn’t it well past time for Coburn and McCain and pals to just, well, grow up?

Bob, born to be great. Got that?

Vertigo's latest comedy rambles on, a little bafflingly but entertainingly, about life or something like it

In the Peter Sinn Nachtrieb play Bob: a Life in Five Acts, the title character gets his name in an almost random fashion. Abandoned by his mother in the bathroom of a White Castle burger joint, he babbles happily at the employee who finds him, and among the fledgling syllables that emerge is a sound something like “Bob.”

That turns out to be a very apt name for the fellow, though. His subsequent lifelong journey takes place on land — all around the highways, rest stops and towns of these United States — but the way he alternately drifts along aimlessly and pops up suddenly, both across the map and through the narrative of this odd Everyman fable, he might as well be at sea, bobbing on the waves and currents of fate.

Nathan Crosby, taking life for granite. Photo: Mario Calcagno

Nathan Crosby, taking life for granite. Photo: Mario Calcagno

Somehow, director Matthew B. Zrebski’s production for Theatre Vertigo manages to impart the sense of a spacious ramble in the city’s least expansive performance space, Southeast Portland’s Shoebox Theatre. And it makes something highly enjoyable – if not necessarily cohesive – out of Nachtrieb’s antic, allusive tale of one man’s grand ambition to be great.

Vertigo has followed Nachtrieb’s winding path before, with boom in 2010 and Hunter Gatherers in 2012. Both those shows traded on the playwright’s dual background in biology and theater (Nachtrieb majored in both subjects at Brown University) and perhaps as a result felt more grounded; however playful their language and their thematic conceits, they weren’t as loosey-goosey with narrative direction as poor Bob is.

Following Bob’s less-than-noble birth (which, in this staging, requires actor Nathan Crosby to pop out of a simulated womb and roll around the floor naked for a while), his adoptive mom Jeanine quits her job and, for no clear reason, skips town, raising baby Bob in her Chevy Malibu and homeschooling him through continual cross-country sightseeing. “Oh, Bob, you soak up everything like a roll of Bounty,” she says, praising his precosity.

When Jeanine dies suddenly – ostensibly the aftereffects of gluten intolerance and her pre-Bob attempt to work her way through the entire menu at Bamboo Wok – orphaning the pre-teen Bob on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, we know things aren’t going to proceed in a logical, naturalistic fashion. Especially once Bob cremates her on the spot, using a pyre of trigs, crumpled newspaper and a Duraflame log.

From there, Bob falls repeatedly and inexplicably into the trunk of a car driven by Jeanine’s whiskey-soured pal Bonnie, who is on her own confused quest for identity. When he’s not being whisked willy-nilly from place to place, he’s encountering all manner of folk: bear (the kind that loves men, not the kind that loves picnic baskets), a vacuous hippie spiritualist, a rebellious daughter of corporate privilege, a bizarre bunch of diner-waitress succubi seducing him with flagrant come-hither looks and ham-and-cheese omelets, and, most significantly, a couple of down-on-their-luck/high-on-their-dreams animal trainers.

All the while, Bob is harboring his own dream: to do something great enough with his life to earn the honor of his name on a plaque. Or maybe, greater still, to be immortalized in rock, like the presidents on Mt. Rushmore.

If Bob – or the audience – learns lessons about luck or pluck, perseverance or purpose, they’re not particularly clear. And the show’s rhythm, already idiosyncratic, is thrown off several times by awkward “dance” interludes about the show’s underlying themes such as hardship, love and luck. They split the difference between pretension and campiness slyly enough; they’re just a bit too dull and superfluous.

All the same, there’s plenty of fun to be had in Nachtrieb’s freewheeling way with plot developments (wolves and fleas factor in here, in ridiculous but entertaining fashion), his absurdist eye for Americana (a cop, Jeanine’s former White Castle customer and rejected suitor, calls her “my sweet slider highness”), and ear for the epigrammatic (“Some great things aren’t meant to last forever – like fruit,” Bob’s first lover tells him).

Crosby brings a wide-eyed, sweet-natured innocence and endearing, aw-shucks physicality to Bob, and there’s fine comic work throughout from the supporting ensemble of Tom Mounsey, Nathan Dunkin, Darcy Lynne, and especially Holly Wigmore, who matches Crosby’s goofball passion in several roles.



Bob: a Life in Five Acts continues through November 15 at the Shoebox. Ticket and schedule information are here.

Mars One: the plot shot, to the end and beyond

In Action/Adventure's adventure on the Red Planet, some very earthbound problems pop up

A.L. Adams has been following Action/Adventure’s series Mars One from its beginning, adding recaps after each episode of this brave comic quest into space. Well, it’s over. A/A has met the universe, and it is red. Or at least, the Red Planet is. Plus, Dr. Fraiser Crane’s up there. Following is Adams’ complete Space Log, from Day One to The End, complete with the revelation of the sleeper agent’s secret identity:


David Bowie asked, “Is there life on Mars?” Now Action/Adventure adds, “And if so, would it be worth living?”

ArtsWatch recently alerted you to Mars One, Action/Adventure Theatre’s newest original serial comedy, and then we thought, “Why not keep up?” Here’s what you may have missed in the now-closed episodes 1 and 2 of The Voyage Begins:

Episode 1:

Four human colonists of a planned six have been living in a small pod on the surface of Mars for two years, and they’ve developed a routine. Marritt (Katie Michaels) takes great care to pacify her fellow colonist Riley (Matt Hopkins), a growly alpha dog who’s both extremely territorial and compulsively messy. She gamely avoids sitting in the chairs he claims, or touching a proprietary collection of objects he calls “The Pile.” Instead, she busies herself with the absurdly un-demanding job of being the planet’s self-declared HR specialist. Their fellow colonist Mark (Sam Burns) sleeps almost constantly, apparently cursed with “Mars narcolepsy.” The fourth inhabitant, a female doctor, is mysteriously missing, and the others offer weak, nervous excuses for her absence.


Back on Earth, Mission Control (Jake Michaels) is concerned, as is comfort counselor Margot (Aubrey Jessen), over Riley’s spotty communication and uncooperative attitude. They’re hanging their hopes on a new leader—Ryan (Brett Mustard), one of the two final colonists en route to Mars to complete a six-person team. Ryan and his fellow traveler Tabitha (Noelle Eaton), a socially awkward botanist, land and arrive at the pod with high expectations which are quickly dashed by the run-down state of the building and the backwards attitudes of Riley and Marritt. Upon arrival, Ryan—a compulsive neatnik—starts challenging Riley’s authority. He also reveals an ulterior motive: he came all this way to win back his ex-boyfriend Mark. Mark wakes up just long enough to tell him he’s made a terrible mistake.

While the others are exploring, newbie Tabitha receives a flirty unsigned message and two mysterious metal pieces from the living unit’s matter materialzer. She hides them from the group. Meanwhile, Ryan, already fed up with Riley, calls mission control to tattle on him. While they’re talking, an alarm goes off, signaling an impending meteor shower. Mission Control asks Ryan to handle the situation and wrest control of the colony, but when Tabitha presents the right parts to repair the pod, she becomes the de facto hero.

Episode 2:

The five colonists we’ve already met—Riley, Marritt, Mark, Tabitha, and Ryan—are starting to settle into a working relationship while repairing their meteor-storm-damaged lodgings. The alleged sixth colonist “Carol West” is still MIA and unaccounted for.

Former lovers Mark and Ryan fight over how poorly Ryan handled their breakup back on Earth, but their communication is broken up by Mark’s sudden fits of slumber. Meanwhile, Tabitha has continued to receive mysterious gifts from the 3-D printing machine, which seems to have a mind of its own, as well as an uncanny ability to anticipate what the crew will need next. She shares her resources with the crew, leading Riley and Marritt to declare her the planet’s most valuable, popular colonist. Would-be leader and fellow new colonist Ryan begins to resent her, and the crew chafes at his bad attitude. “HR director” Marritt decides to put him in his place by appointing him “Mars’ first plumber.” At first, he’s eager to be helpful, but once he realizes he’s stuck with the role, he resents the general indignity.

Riley, while still possessive of his pile, initially seems more at peace than he did the previous week. He spends his days painting a giant message on Mars’ surface that reads, “F-ck you, Earth,” ’til an ominous call from the mission’s eerily calm “Comfort Counsellor” Margot seems to deeply upset him. The comfort counsellor tells Riley that her predecessor “cared about [Riley] until his final moments,” and though Riley presses her, she won’t explain the statement further. Mission Control warns the colonists that there may be a “sleeper cell” on Mars, and they’re all in danger. Soon after, a shocked Tabitha gets her most serious secret gift from the 3-D printer yet: a gun.

Episode 3:

Having gotten over the initial shock of the gun, Tabitha has begun enjoying the feeling of power she gets from toting it around. Ryan, eager to help but also wishing to lead, horns in on her conversations with Mission Control and is appointed “co leader” of the effort to find the supposed sleeper agent who’s sabotaging the colonists’ mission from within. He scoffs at Tabitha’s idea to spy on each of her fellow colonists in turn, but she decides to move ahead with it anyway.

Ryan and Mark have another heart-to-heart, and Mark finally reveals why he’s reluctant to accept Ryan’s romantic gesture of travelling to meet him in Mars: he’s not the real Mark. The real Mark recovered from their breakup by first signing up for the mission, and then inventing a software app and selling it for millions. Only once he was rich and comfortable did he learn that he’d been chosen to colonize Mars. He commissioned an avatar of himself to be made, and arranged to control it remotely. The Mark they see does not have “Mars narcolepsy,” but is a robot. Whenever the signal fades from the real Mark’s android control station, the robot Mark goes to “sleep.” He later has to reveal the same information to Tabitha when she attempts to spy on him and becomes afraid, upon finding no pulse, that he’s dead.

Comfort Counselor Margot wants to get into Riley’s head, so to speak. She asks Ryan to help her by wiring Riley’s helmet to receive her voice directly. The next time he goes out to the surface to work on his painting project, she begins to taunt him about everything she knows about his past. She reminds him of the cat ranch, Rancho Gato, he had back on Earth, and the tragedy that apparently befell it, poisoning all the cats but one to death. She tells him that his favorite cat, Fivel Mousekowitz, managed to escape, and that she has since adopted him. Riley is anguished, and runs back to the camp.

Ryan, in a bid to outshine the others, has announced a discovery: he can create acid (the drug kind) from simple ingredients on the planet. Bent on revenge against Ryan for helping his nemesis Margot, Riley decides to dose Ryan’s helmet with acid. Ryan visits the surface high, and hallucinates various crew members doing and saying bizarre things. He also encounters the long-lost Carol West, who assures him that she’s real and alive, and says she wants to introduce him to her alien companion.

episode 4:

Carol West turns out to have been either rescued or kidnapped by an alien being (played by Pat Moran) who refers to himself as Dr. Frasier Crane. The alien, who has been accessing mid-90’s television signals from Earth, has become obsessed with Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends. At the time of her capture, he forced Carol West to participate in re-enactments of the shows, but they since seem to have moved into a healthier relationship. Ryan gets acquainted with them.

Marritt, who’s been proudly touting her Norwegian origins and closely guarding a silver briefcase throughout the story, is finally caught in the act of unpacking a slew of Norwegian flags and placing them all over the surface of Mars, a gesture she hopes “claims” the territory for the nation. Tabitha confronts her and “arrests” her, threatening her with the gun. When Mark gets in their way, he is shot, and must finally reveal his robot identity to the rest of the crew.

We learn in a flashback that Marritt and Riley initially shut Carol out of their pod. On the day that Carol’s surface explorations led her to Dr. Frasier Crane, Marritt and Riley had been watching the movie Alien. They became fearful of being “infected” by extraterrestrials, and when she returned with one in tow, they made a snap decision to deny her re-entry. Once Carol saves Ryan’s life by providing him with an acid-free oxygen tank, Ryan covers for her as they return to the pod together. He opens the door for Carol and Dr. Frasier Crane and the group gets over their fears.

Back on Earth, Margot has staged a coup on Mission Control. We learn that her takeover is motivated by Margot’s desire to avenge the death of her sister, a casino developer who’d bullied Riley out of land rights to Rancho Gato, but had then been killed by him when he set fire to her new casino. Margot shoots a supervisor.

Rather abruptly, two years pass, and the identity of the sleeper agent is finally revealed: Tabitha herself was sending the implements back in time to her former self, perhaps using alien technology introduced by Dr. Frasier Crane. We get to watch her scrawl the quick notes that we already saw her receive, and push “send.” It appears that she, Ryan, Marritt, and Mark now live elsewhere on the surface and are just stopping through the pod. A pathetic-looking Riley greets them excitedly and offers to make popcorn for “movie night.” They cringe at the smell and the state of the place and sneak out on him. Riley settles down alone to watch his movie.




Mom and daughter, unbonding

Marsha Norman's harrowing "'Night, Mother" at CoHo is a long night's journey into … where?

Thelma has a sweet life. At least, if we’re to judge by her preferred diet. In the early moments of ‘Night, Mother, the Pulitzer-winning 1983 play by Marsha Norman, Thelma’s daughter Jessie diligently fills storage canisters and decorative dishes with various candies, and leaves more where that came from in big brown paper bags. Thelma prefers sodas to milk, too, despite her doctor’s admonitions. Simple pleasures, it seems, are enough to make her unexamined life worth living.

On this particular night, a Saturday, one of those pleasures is to be a manicure, courtesy of Jessie. Such are the quiet routines of these two, living together again as adults, since the end of Jessie’s ill-fated marriage.

Maddux and Millican: one helluva night. Photo: Gary Norman

Maddux and Millican: one helluva night. Photo: Gary Norman

But routine is disrupted by the most bitter shock a parent can taste after Jessie unceremoniously informs her mom that she intends to kill herself before the evening is over. The central concern of ‘Night, Mother isn’t so much whether Jessie will or won’t follow through, but rather what Thelma will do – what must she do, what can she do –  in the face of such awful knowledge.

Of these two characters, it is Jessie who is lost in despair, whose internal circumstance is demonstrably pitiable; yet it is Thelma who truly elicits our care and sympathies. That’s partly because Norman’s script – perhaps its very premise – thrusts Thelma into the more emotionally complex and volatile dilemma. (“To be, or not to be,” might in fact be the question, but it’s not nearly as tricky as “What if?”) But in the production that opened Friday at CoHo Theater, much of that is due to a marvelously multi-layered performance from Jacklyn Maddux, who brings a terrible vividness to Thelma’s perplexity and desperation.

In his professional debut as a director, the powerful Portland actor Gavin Hoffman guides Maddux and Dana Millican through the emotional curves of this tightly contained one-act drama with a clear sense of pace.

By the time Jessie reveals her plan, just a few minutes into the play, Thelma already is implicated in the act. Once she’s finished stocking the candy, Jessie asks where her father’s gun might be, and Thelma guides her to its shoebox hidey hole in the attic. Though that exchange, and Jessie’s calm, purposeful cleaning of the pistol, carry a ho-hum casualness, they lead quite naturally to the question of why Jessie’s suddenly interested in the weapon. At first she tells Thelma she wants the gun “for protection” – an unconvincing claim, given their homebody natures and the placid, lower-middle-class lives evoked by Tal Sander’s scrupulously naturalistic set design – but she seems to be neither joking nor lying: She is indeed seeking protection, from the crushing force of lifelong dissatisfaction, from sadness as stasis.

Thelma responds with, by turns, disbelief, horror, anger, grief; and she tries whatever pops into her suddenly and unaccustomedly racing mind to dissuade her daughter. She reasons, she sweet-talks, she threatens, she stalls. Jessie counters these efforts with the gentle resolve of a tai chi master (albeit a slightly peevish one), and the evening settles into a slower rhythm as the two women delve into a long overdue accounting of their entwined lives and sorrows.

With their matching pale-red curls, Millican and Maddux look very much like family, and their interaction here achieves a kind of lived-in mix of tenderness and temper. If Millican’s performance is the less arresting of the two, that may be in part because Jessie’s character arc has, for the most part, already been completed by the time we meet these two. The actor’s challenge is in balancing Jessie’s despair with her pragmatism and finding the right energy to keep her moving forward when her motivation is simply to stop, and Millican rides that line well. Yet Jessie remains a somewhat unsatisfying character, a mere obstructionist in the play’s emotional dynamic.

She not only resists Thelma’s varied efforts to change her mind, she won’t let Thelma call for help, and wants her to later on deny any forewarning of the suicide. These last hours are a “private matter” between the two of them, she insists. She didn’t want to simply leave a note or to leave things unexplained, but giving mom a chance to say goodbye also means giving mom a sickening taste of powerlessness.

And what ‘Night, Mother leaves us to ponder is whether those last hours were Jessie’s parting gift or parting curse.


 ‘Night, Mother continues through Nov. 8 at CoHo Theater. Ticket and schedule information are here.


Let’s do the time warp again

Portland's newest, suitably campy onstage "Rocky Horror" reveals itself as … Hedwig's mom from the tough times

Ask even an enthusiast what actually happens in The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show, and you may get a patchy answer. Ask ‘em to sing you the songs, though, and you’ll get an earful!

When Rocky Horror premiered in 1973 as a live musical and then burgeoned into a 1975 feature film, no one involved could’ve possibly anticipated its universal appeal or its inexhaustible stamina. The movie defines “cult classic,” drawing droves of loyal fans to weekly midnight screenings, and Portland’s own Clinton Street Theater now boasts having the longest-consecutive-running show in the world, advertising last weekend’s screening as its 36-year anniversary. Never far from its origins as a stage show, Rocky Horror the movie has spontaneously inspired fans in the theater seats to morph into an ad-hoc ensemble cast, dressing the part, dialoguing with actors, and using props on cue. It’s probably safe to say RHPS levels of crowd participation are unparalleled in modern cinema.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewBut you probably know all this—blah blah, blah—and you want to know, “How is Portland’s currently running live Rocky Horror Show?”

You know, it doesn’t disappoint! Produced by Live On Stage and running at the World Trade Center through Nov. 8, it is as excellent as it has to be to satisfy such passionate fans, and the show further favors devotees with a “participation pack” containing all the necessary props (confetti, glow sticks, rubber gloves, etc) for full engagement.

Rocky Promo 3

Nartan Woods as Frank deserves due credit for pulling off a ferociously glamorous approximation of Tim Curry with a bit more “sister” snap; Matt Brown and Leah Seligman are an appropriately silly and sympathetic Brad and Janet; Eric Little is a regal, menacing Riff Raff; Claire Rigsby a simmering Magenta; Lindsay Schramm an effervescent Columbia. Gary Norman narrates with a crackle of old-timey radio, a wisp of Vincent Price, and a trusty Portland-style PBR tallboy in hand. Gabriel Mikalson as the naive Rocky and Darren Hurley as Eddie are, by comparison, just okey-dokey. On Saturday, Eddie’s stage time felt too brief, Rocky’s pauses too long. Dr. Frank N. Furter’s and Rocky’s spoken lines often got lost; whether the fault lay in sound mixing or diction was hard to decipher.

By the way—meow, scratch—this show’s young ensemble cast of phantoms/Transylvanians explodes with energy and drips with attitude! Doubling as actual ushers at the top of the show, they maintain a mood of sneering sleaze with their every glance and pose. And all are stellar singers and dancers. You can’t look away.

Now back to that question most people are bad at answering: What actually happens in Rocky Horror?

In a benevolent recounting, an uptight couple are treated to some cross-dressing pageantry that awakens their sexual awareness. In a sinister—yet technically literal—read, a) we learn that transsexuals are from another planet b) a psychopathic cult leader imprisons and rapes two virgins, and kills and eats a man. So what, exactly, makes that okay…triumphal, even?


‘The Turn': Horror in the house

The Reformers stage a "house play" fit for the season – a ghostly homage to Henry James and "The Turn of the Screw"

Heaven knows I’ve been to my fair share of “house shows,” the popular term for rock/folk concerts put on in homes, but I’m pretty sure The Reformers’ The Turn was my first “house play.” I was unsure what to expect as I approached the Hawthorne-area house, checked in and waited in the frigid garage area that doubles as a lobby, half cordoned off by a translucent plastic curtain, behind which kids were playing. A red die clattered under the curtain and landed by my feet. I rolled it back. Baskets, ceramic jack-o-lanterns, and other stored miscellanea filled utility shelves on the far wall. This was definitely a house. Instinctively, even though I knew better, I braced myself for beer stains and amp feedback.

We were ushered into a large, low-ceilinged living room with available seats disbursed among other furniture layouts (the “sets”) draped in white sheets. Seats faced in all directions; some swiveled. Load-bearing beams obscured certain sight lines. I chose a high-backed chair against the wall in a corner, but apparently I chose wrong. A business-dressed couple, Amanda Boekelheide and Sean Doran, greeted me briskly and “suggested” another seat: a red swiveler in the center of the room. I balked at what looked like a “hot seat” if ever there was. “Oh, please, do take this wonderful seat!” they insisted. They seemed friendly, but gave me the impression that I was in for it.

Hello, dolly, and all that creepy kids' stuff. Photo: Jody Ake

Hello, dolly, and all that creepy kids’ stuff. Photo: Jody Ake

Fortunately, this pair was in character rather than genuinely overbearing, posing as real estate agents showing an antique house. Once I obliged them by taking the hot seat, they proceeded with their unsettling presentation of the house’s (ahem) interesting history! The home was built on Native American lands, after which the salmon runs died out! It has a huge walk-in freezer and dry storage “to die for,” and it’s completely snowed-in and secluded for three months of every year! (Chilling, to say the least.)

Once the realtors left the room, the metaphorical fourth wall(s) went back up, locking the audience in the center of a sinister tableau. Clusters of furniture arranged showroom-style around the edges of the room formed mini-sets, each with their own lighting, and as actors came and went, we were cued where to look by lights in a given area either snapping on or fading up. Sometimes we had to turn (aha) or swivel our seats to catch the action, leading to a lot of awkward knee wars with strangers.

We watched housekeeper Ms. Grose (Paige Johnson Jones) interview Jackie (Tai Sammons) to be the property’s caretaker. We saw Jackie agree to take the job, settle in with her trusty typewriter, and struggle to communicate with the house’s resident orphan, Danielle (Agatha Olson), who insisted on communicating with and through a life-sized doll she referred to as her “sister Flora.”

All of this took place in the light. But in the peripheral shadows and between-scenes, two other specters lurked: a sallow, slender man and woman we would learn were ghosts of the property’s late caretaker Kate Jessel (Amanda Boekelheide) and notorious groundskeeper Peter Quint (Sean Doran). (Yes, these were the same two who at the top of the show depicted real estate agents, perhaps suggesting that the ghosts had briefly assumed a more humanoid form to trick people into inhabiting their house … or simply demonstrating that this production’s small cast was versatile.)

These characters’ dance of evasion and threat gradually escalated into a multidirectional tug-of-war, with the strong-willed Jackie trying to “save” Danielle, deep denier Ms. Grose trying to keep calm and ignore the hauntings, the ghost woman and the talking doll trying to manipulate the little girl, and the little girl trying to escape the male ghost but unsure whose waiting arms to run into: the sorrowful but soothing female ghost, or the increasingly stern Jackie. The ghost of Peter Quint had no clear motivation, though it was implied that in life he’d been a molester.

The Reformers’ update of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw maintains many of the original story’s key features — some characters’ names, suspense, and an ending left open to interpretation — but there are also many edits. The original story’s two children have been condensed into one child and a doll, the setting’s been limited to the indoors, and costuming, decór and names have been modernized … though not all the way. Jackie’s ivory bell-bottom pantsuit and Ms. Gross’s patchwork-print house dress, along with the added first names “Jackie” and “Danielle,” clue us in that the story has been moved from the 1890s to the 1970s.

The ’70s are an oddly appropriate choice of era, a memorable golden age for low-gore suspense thrillers. Around that time, TV was airing The Night Gallery, the sinister, stylish follow-up to The Twilight Zone. Then movie theaters debuted adaptations of Steven King’s Carrie and The Shining. Full-color filmic depictions of paranormal figures were still somewhat novel, as was the corruption of “innocent” icons like dolls and little girls (and in the case of Carrie, a dolled-up young woman). Cut to the present, where ’70s and early ’80s horror films maintain a loyal fanbase, in part because their practical special effects and “retro” styling give modern fans a comfortable distance from their threat. We know Jack Nicholson isn’t going to be able to murder us; his axe isn’t even in 3D or hi-def! It’s like he’s not even trying. Hence, a scene that would be terrifying becomes merely interesting.

The same effect is at play in The Turn, where costuming alone provides enough distance to buffer the audience against the shocks, while now-clichés like a talking doll, a mistrustful child, an oddball housemistress, and ghosts who are mostly spooky for spooks’ sake reinforce that this isn’t real. What it is, is a crisper logistical undertaking than any “haunted house” or “house show” could ever match, and an interesting aesthetic and emotional space that, thanks to immersive staging and committed performances, really will envelop you.


The Turn continues through October 25. Ticket and schedule information are here.


A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!


Action/Adventure’s long trip to Mars

The company's newest episodic "TV theater" comedy takes flight. It's out of the this world.

EDITORS’ NOTE: Today, Action/Adventure Theatre premieres Mars One: The Voyage Begins, the first installment of four-week serial comedy Mars One. But this is far from the first stop on Mars One‘s journey. Creator Nick Fenster, who reportedly spent about two years developing the concept, previewed the show this spring during Action/Adventure’s “Pilot Season,” where it beat three other prospective shows in a bid for further development. ArtsWatch’s own A.L. Adams was one of many gracious losers, acting in rival show Clubland. Much of the following text is re-edited from an earlier account of that experience.


Mars One runs for a few weeks, then it’s over ’til next year. Each week, there’s a new episode that quickly recaps what happened the week before, and then romps along for about an hour, culminating in a cliffhanger “to be continued.” Does this sound like theater…or TV?


“We thought we were doing something so unique,” says Vivien Lyon, remembering Action/Adventure’s first series,  Fall of the House. She helped devise the format, which fused TV-style “episodes” with live theater, back in 2007. “Turns out, theaters all over the country were doing the same thing.” Be that as it may, even several years in, serial theater’s still comparatively rare in Portland—and Action/Adventure seems to have cornered the market. When it’s not running one consistent scripted play for a whole month, A/A routinely puts on serial shows, rolling out a new “episode” each week for four to six weeks and—partly for excitement, partly for expedience—letting actors improvise their dialogue around fixed plot points. Sidekicks, one such four-week superhero comedy, debuted last spring and is currently slated for a second season, and Fall of the Band ended last fall after two popular seasons, six episodes apiece.

Over time, A/A has refined its loosey-goosey exploration of a “new” form into a foolproof routine, adapting the most helpful aspects of serial TV to the live environment. Episodes begin by playing a sitcom-style “intro,” a pre-filmed montage set to cheesy theme music that shows each performer in action and runs corresponding credits. Next, there’s the plot recap, where, lined up in a row, actors blurt out a hyper-condensed version of their prior dialogue, so new viewers can jump in and catch up immediately. Finally, it’s time for a play that, just like a TV show, completes a micro-plot-arc within an hour but cliffhangs some aspect of a macro-plot for next time. A/A has blended the TV and theater media into such a fine frappé, it’s like…”Tee-Vee-ater.”


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