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DramaWatch: Springtime in Ashland, a musical ‘Beetlejuice’ and more

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival kicks off its '24 season. Plus: new onstage in Portland, from "Perfect Arrangement" to "Sh-Boom!" to "Frog and Toad" and "Ashland" (the play, not the town).

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Lisa Wolpe in her solo show "Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photo: Jenny Graham
Lisa Wolpe in her solo show “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photo: Jenny Graham

One of the surest signs of spring in the Pacific Northwest is the annual opening of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Last weekend it arrived on schedule with the opening of four fresh productions in the festival’s two indoor theaters, the Angus Bowmer and the Thomas. There’ll eventually be 10 productions in the 2024 season; shows on the large, open-air Elizabethan Stage will open in June.

One of the just-opened shows, in the compact Thomas Theatre, is Lisa Wolpe’s solo play Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender. Over the years Wolpe’s played a healthy number of the Bard’s male characters as well as female roles, stepping in and out of all sorts of Shakespearean shoes, and in the process made connections with the larger world. I find this part of her playwright’s notes for this production compelling:

“Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender is dedicated to my father, Hans Max Joachim Wolpe, a German Jew who fought heroically against the Nazis in World War II. His family was arrested and killed at Auschwitz. He shot himself when I was four. This play is an offering to my ancestors.

“Shakespeare’s words facilitate the exploration of the mystery of the afterlife, the frailties and consequences of human behavior, and seem to name a cosmic interconnectedness that touches and informs humanity. I’ve woven my own memories together with thoughts about my father’s life, adding fragments of some of my favorite texts from Shakespearean characters, male and female. I’m hoping to generate work that bodies forth empathy, understanding, and remembrance.”

Also newly opened at the festival are productions of Macbeth; Liz Duffy Adams’ Born with Teeth, a two-hander about the competition and occasional collaboration between Shakespeare and fellow playwright Kit Marlowe; and another solo show, Rodney Gardiner’s Smote This: A Comedy About God … and Other Serious $H*T.

Look for ArtsWatch’s reviews of the season’s four opening shows in the coming week.

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AND NOW, on to this week’s openings:

Beetlejuice: A matter of life and death

Britney Coleman, Will Burton, Isabella Esler and Justin Collette in the Broadway tour of "Beetlejuice," coming to Portland April 9-14. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Britney Coleman, Will Burton, Isabella Esler and Justin Collette in the Broadway tour of “Beetlejuice,” coming to Portland April 9-14. Photo: Matthew Murphy

How’s a recently deceased ghostly couple to keep those pesky living people from taking over their home? As a stage adaptation of Tim Burton’s hit comedy-horror movie, Beetlejuice: The Musical, which drops into Portland’s Keller Auditorium for an eight-performance run April 9-14, is almost by definition Death Warmed Over.

I haven’t seen the musical version of the story, and don’t recall having seen the movie, either (I know: dreadful pop-cultural lapse). But there are opinions to be discovered out in the ether, and if they’re to be trusted it seems that whether your taste of Beetlejuice: The Musical is a delight or an epicurian disaster depends on your appetite for the comically ghoulish, and your view of what’s funny and what’s just over the top.

Ben Brantley, in a scathing takedown of the musical’s Broadway opening in 2019, voted two skeletal thumbs down.

“The dead lead lives of noisy desperation in Beetlejuice, the absolutely exhausting new musical,” he wrote in The New York Times. “This frantic adaptation of Tim Burton’s much-loved 1988 film is sure to dishearten those who like to think of the afterlife as one unending, undisturbed sleep. … The creators of this musical adaptation … apparently concluded that everything people liked about the film should be multiplied ad infinitum, starting with Beetlejuice himself. But, oh dear fans, be careful what you wish for.”

Hold on, though: John Wenzel, in a more recent review of the touring company’s September 2023 stop in Denver, had a much more agreeable view of the musical’s afterlife.

Beetlejuice makes good on its circuslike source by thrusting its characters into outrageous, broadly comic situations that succeed on the audacity of their staging and performances,” Wenzel wrote in The Denver Post. “At its grimy heart, it’s screwball showmanship larded with poignant themes, eye-popping visuals and hammy melodies. Even with its overstuffed libretto and low-reaching songs, Beetlejuice honors and expands on its source material, bringing richness to a beloved story about, well, death. … Working hard to justify itself over and over again while updating itself for Gen Z, Broadway’s Beetlejuice is a zany, old-school romp that flies by with charm and visual delight, re-creating movie spectacle while adding its own tricks. … (I)t’s a lusty riot and fitting homage to an icon of supernatural comedy.”

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All of which means, it’s a bone-rattle of the dice, and you won’t know what you think unless and until you see it. Could be a cadaverous stinker. Could knock you dead, in a good way. You get to decide.

Perfect Arrangement

From left: Christina Holtom, Melissa Whitney, Lauren Allison and Michelle Maida in Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement.” Photo courtesy Triangle Productions!

Triangle Productions!, fresh from a successful four-month run Off-Broadway of Donnie’s Make Me Gorgeous! and Margie Boulé’s enthusiastically received solo Portland turn as Eleanor Roosevelt in Mark St. Germain’s Eleanor, turns to the Red Scare days of the 1950s in Topher Payne’s Perfect Arrangement, opening Thursday, April 4, in Triangle’s East Side Portland home in The Sandy Plaza and continuing through April 24.

Michelle Maida and Joe Healy, who’ve starred together before in Clever Little Lies, lead a cast in this comedy set amid the halls of power, and another sort of lie — or “arrangement” — provides the action in Payne’s tale, which takes place in a time of both rigid social expectations and the dawning of the gay rights movement. The action revolves around a pair of closeted U.S. State Department employees trying desperately to maintain their cover, and their sanity.

Nassim

Hannah Rice, unrehearsed and seeing the script for the first time onstage, performs in “Nassim.” Photo: Simsshot
Hannah Rice, unrehearsed and seeing the script for the first time onstage, performs in “Nassim.” Photo: Simsshot

Portland Center Stage and Boom Arts’ production of Nassim Soleimanpour’s Nassim officially opens on Friday, April 5, but it’s been playing for a week in the basement Ellyn Bye Studio at The Armory, PCS’s home space, where it’ll continue through May 12. You can read Darleen Ortega’s ArtsWatch review here. In this fascinating theatrical exploration the performer, a different actor for every performance, takes the stage “while the script waits, unseen, in a sealed box.”

Ortega compares Nassim with Soleimanpour’s 2010 play White Rabbit Red Rabbit, which like Nassim has played around the world. “Each night a single actor performs the play with no rehearsal, seeing the script for the first time on stage,” Ortega writes. “There are some differences—including how the playwright himself participates in Nassim, eventually appearing on stage with the guest performer. In this play, the playwright is inviting the guest performer, and the audience, into a dance of empathy and connection. To describe more would take away from the experience the production aims to create—but suffice it to say that you are in good hands.”

Sh-Boom! Life Could Be a Dream

Eli Nicholas, Jared Lingle, Alex Foulos and Dylan Anthony Macabitas as Denny and the Dreamers in "Sh-Boom! Life Could Be a Dream" at Broadway Rose Theatre in Tigard. Photo: Fletcher Wold
Eli Nicholas, Jared Lingle, Alex Foulos and Dylan Anthony Macabitas as Denny and the Dreamers in “Sh-Boom! Life Could Be a Dream.” Photo: Fletcher Wold

The musical-theater specialists at Tigard’s Broadway Rose are rolling out some good old-fashioned pop nostalgia with the jukebox musical Sh-Boom! Life Could Be a Dream, opening Friday, April 5, and continuing through April 28. A doo-wop group called Denny and the Dreamers glides through a treasure trove of old pop tunes, from Tears on My Pillow and Runaway Sue to Earth Angel and Unchained Melody. Can Dick Clark be far behind? Sh-Boom! is a winner of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Best Musical Award, and tickets at Broadway Rose are going fast, so if you feel like rockin’ around the clock, grab those ducats while you can.

Ashland (the play, not the town)

From left: Valentine Keck, Treasure Lunan, Sarah Andrews, and Hayden Tyler in "Ashland" at Crave Theatre. Photo: Kylie Rose
From left: Valentine Keck, Treasure Lunan, Sarah Andrews, and Hayden Tyler in “Ashland” at Crave Theatre. Photo: Kylie Rose

Isabel Estelle’s drama Ashland, which got a rousing response from the audience in a staged-reading production at last fall’s Ashland New Plays Festival, gets its Portland premiere from Crave Theatre Company opening Friday, April 5, at CoHo Theatre. The show, which Crave calls “a queer love story about death and dying,” continues through April 27.

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Covering the Ashland festival for ArtsWatch, Brett Campbell wrote that Estelle’s tale “is thrown into turmoil by a young woman’s sudden terminal illness diagnosis, as her siblings and new partner negotiate their own and each other’s complex, conflicting, and, as her condition progresses over a summer in Ashland, evolving responses to the imminent trauma. All love the dying woman in their own way, and all must reconcile her needs with their own  — denial, closure, acceptance and more. … While I too often find contemporary dramas overly didactic or just too darn long, I enjoyed these characters so much that I’d trade a bit more length to achieve greater depth. …

“Of course, tears do emerge, on stage and off — but they’re earned, not wrung forth by easy sentimentality. Death is something we all must face sooner or later, and Ashland skillfully and movingly navigates the difficult, uncertain emotional terrain between toughness and tenderness, poignance and laughter, living and dying. I hope other theaters, especially in Oregon, will produce it.

With Crave, at least, Campbell’s hope is realized.

Tesla City Stories Live Radio

For one night only, a trip back to the 1940s and live radio. Photo courtesy Tesla City Stories.
For one night only, a trip back to the 1940s and live radio. Photo courtesy Tesla City Stories.

Still pining for some good old-fashioned musical and comedy nostalgia? For one night only, Portland’s Tesla City Stories is back-shifting to the sounds and scenes of the 1940s in a live reimagining of a radio variety-show broadcast. The Tesla Stories have had some staying power: They’re in their 10th season. The company describes its latest as “straight outta 1944. Laughs, chills, romance, danger, eats, beverages, live Foley/sound F/X, 1940s live music, prizes, audience participation.”

The ’40s were a time when the world was at war, fear and uncertainty were in the air, and people longed for a little escape, even if only at the click of the radio on/off button. Perhaps in defiance, the era’s entertainment could sweep you into a temporary, liberating euphoria that still has a broad appeal — and in this case, goes into the way-way-back machine: This one’s a sci-fi episode that time-travels back to Tesla City ca. 145,000,000 B.C. The studio action kicks off in “real” time at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 5, in The Old Church Concert Hall.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Have a cookie: Alex Gray and Brandy Schnaars star in "A Year with Frog and Toad." Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics.com
Have a cookie: Alex Gray and Brandy Schnaars star in “A Year with Frog and Toad.” Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics.com

Got kids? Been a kid? Chances are you have happy memories of Arnold Lobel’s series of 1970s picture books about best buddies Frog and Toad, who experience all sorts of everyday adventures as they hop, sometimes breathlessly, through the Big Wide World. Book writer/lyricist Willie Reale and composer Robert Reale have created A Year with Frog and Toad, a musical-theater adaptation of Lobel’s quirky/friendly stories, and Northwest Children’s Theater and School is presenting it under Shalanda Sims’ direction at the company’s downtown Portland home, The Judy. The show runs about 75 minutes without intermission: a good length for most young attention spans (it’s recommended for ages 4 and up). It opens Saturday, April 6, and continues through April 28.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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