Fertile Ground Review: 4×4=Musicals

Animals, dolls, and hammy humor = all-ages fun...with a dash of panache from the founder.

Last weekend, 4×4=Musicals had a cheeky kickoff, as curator Mark LaPierre summoned “dance translator” Lane Hunter to the stage to help with the opening announcements. Hunter promptly whipped off his pants and began pliéing and pantomiming to the crowd. But this was a mere shadow of the silliness to come.

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4×4, a group showcase in its third year, borrows its general premise from Ten Tiny Dances, a staple of Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s TBA-fest. The longer-running Ten Tinies confines each of its 10 dance pieces to a four-by-four-foot stage; 4×4 does the same thing with musicals. Apparently upping the ante from years past, 4×4 has also just begun to require dance elements in its shows.

Does this seem like a zany idea? The theatrical equivalent of frat boys packing into a phone booth? It’s supposed to seem that way, to draw your interest—but then it actually works out fine. In fact, if the 4×4 boundaries were expressed in drawn lines rather than a raised platform, you might not even notice their space constraint at all. Try taking a few pictures, and you may realize “Squeeze in!” is the real “Say cheese.” Our natural impulse for personal space often doesn’t fill a frame as well as an unnaturally cozy pose…and the same can be true in theater. Rather than a rare novelty, exercises like these could be a valuable way to get performers more comfortable with bunching a bit closer together. You rarely need the whole stage.

But wait, did somebody say “novelty?” Well, here come some talking, dancing sheep. And now, a singing cow. And then Santa’s four most sentient reindeer. In seven musicals, 4×4 trots out 8 animal characters and 2 dolls to its 16 humans (if you count 2 voices from offstage). Of the humans, there’s a pirate, and there are two über-rednecks, and four broadway-style show-people. All this to say, these caricatures are overwhelmingly playing it for laughs.

Guess what? They get them. From the get-go, James Sharinghousen earns a great cascade of giggle-snorts as a sheep named Pascal demonstrating the difference between “dancing” and “prancing” in Valory Lawrence and Kurt Misar’s Counting Sheep, Ashley Waldbauer inspires guffaws as a vengeance-bent ghost-cow in Bryce Earhart’s Mad Cow: the Moosical. Lisa Marie Harrison gets titters as a Fair Maiden seductively preening while tied up on a pirate ship; so does Alexandar Salazar as her flamboyant rescuer in William Gregory and Eric Norden’s The Pirate Thief.

Wendy Wallace and Paul Lewis’s Music Box seems to be sprinkled with Pixar dust. Like Toy Story, it has a kiddish premise, involiving toys, but manages to humanize its characters. The mechanized ballerina (Malia Tippets) and her partner (Sharinghousen) show tenderness and ennui as they face near-realistic dilemmas in their miniature world.

4×4 quickly takes shape as an enthralling kids’ show that I’ve no doubt my favorite 6- and 11-year-old would enjoy as much as I. I also can envision these cartoonish shows being spun into animated shorts—so clearly, in fact, that I mentioned that notion to NW Animation Festival director Sven Bonnichsen after the show. (Hey, content is the first hurdle, and too often the Achilles’ heel, of animation. The matchmaker in me sees possibilities there.)

Now. In any group show with a lot of cohesion, I can’t help but root hardest for (as Sesame Street puts it) “which[ever] of these kids is doing his own thing”—and here, the holdout for serious emotion is The Proposal. “Middle ground doesn’t work for me; I either do it or I don’t,” sings Megan Misslin as Kate, a would-be fiancee who’s about to give her man an ultimatum. Schuster, her tentative betrothed (played by Hunter) must stay in the small space with her without running away, which she’ll take as proof that he’s mastered an unnamed neurosis (most likely claustrophobia or PTSD). In a suspenseful, passionate, and at moments even anguished pas de deux, the man and woman grapple to a compromise. Hm, what have we here? Grown-up problems. Real-life feelings. Even a clever appropriation of the space constraints of the game, into the storyline.

Who can we thank for this one? LaPierre. Well done. The final number, Cruise Ship: The Disaster Musical, brings back humor, but continues the trend of referencing the showcase’s actual constraints to make the narrative more present. Four cruise ship lounge show-people (just like—and in fact, exactly—the evening’s singers and dancers) and one ordinary passenger are stranded together on a lifeboat (just like the 4×4 stage). They quickly realize that their showmanship skills don’t translate very well to matters of practical survival…UNTIL…the task is to get attention. By “activating their emergency sequins,” the frivolous show-folk save the day. And who made this winking showstopper? LaPierre again, with Diane Englert. Big bravo.

Curation is a gift in its own right, but I always appreciate when an event’s curator also directly demonstrates skill in the given medium. It’s clear that LaPierre’s leading 4×4 to new levels, not only by curation but by creative example.

Silly humor is great, and animal antics are fine…but here’s hoping more contributors will mature their material next year. Meanwhile, I’m comfortable recommending this year’s 4×4 to all-ages groups and families. If your kids can handle 1) the carnage of a cow becoming a hamburger, 2) the sleaze of a Beetlejuice-like spider 3) vague references to both homo- and hetero- sexuality, and 4) a bit of bathroom humor…these musical shorts will be just their size.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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6 Responses.

  1. First- thank you so much. Second- If I may, I would love to add that Jen Raynak was the fabu composer for Cruise Ship.

  2. Jack Gabel says:

    from the review: “Silly humor is great, and animal antics are fine…but here’s hoping more contributors will mature their material next year.”

    Come on, A.L., you’ve been in Portland long enough to characterize yourself as “…a competent philosopher and potential consultant on this unavoidably trending topic of “Portland Weird.”

    so you know it’s ‘Party Down P-Town’ where food and libation are de rigueur at all public events and humor always trumps… well, everything, almost everything – ‘drowning polar bears’ notwithstanding, P-Towners are always more easily goosed to laughter than tears – so I fear your recommendation has ‘a snowball’s chance’

    • A.L. Adams says:

      Jack, I think most readers can tell that I’m not anti-humor. Just pro-drama, and pro-variety. Also bear in mind: “all ages” is not an insult. It’s a vote of confidence to rope in a slightly different crowd than many of the FG shows can or should attract. You heard it here; your kids will love 4×4=Musicals!

      FYI: I also don’t disavow your quote, but I’ve removed your link for privacy.

  3. Kurt Misar says:

    This is season three and for us lucky-to-be regular contributors, I would add that not every author’s project over every year has been filled with animal antics or even been silly. Mine have not. Some program years have been more somber, dramatic or balanced between drama and comedy. This year, I suspect by accident rather than design, not so much.

    And as a contributor to some of the silliness this year, I humbly accept some blame for any perceived overabundance. Perhaps after two years, it was time for me to go a different direction. Who knew others were doing the same?

    Some years one hopes to draw empathy from a short dramatic story and sometimes one just writes to sustain humor and steal some laughs in the simplest plot. Both are hard to do and worthy challenges – exacerbated by the limits of 10 minutes, 16 square feet and the need to dance.

    Wait, though, Valory keeps wanting to do 10 tragic minutes on Medea! Sober minutes, for sure!

    • A.L. Adams says:

      That’s a valid point, Kurt. This assessment applies strictly to THIS year and future ones, not prior ones. I wouldn’t call the humor overabundant, but it’s abundant enough to warrant mention, and to change the overall tone of the showcase.

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