‘Sirens of Coos Bay’ & ‘Peter/Wendy’: sporadic magic

At its best, theater makes magic happen onstage. Fairy tales do the same on the page. So I had high hopes for a pair of short-run May Portland theater productions that updated magical children’s tales. Unfortunately, while each provided sporadic moments of stage sorcery, neither could overcome decidedly un-enchanting scripts.

Mermaid Meets Music Man

Portland indie theater company Broken Planetarium specializes in cheerfully low budget enchantment. (“We’re trying to get beyond ‘scrappy,’ impresaria Laura Dunn noted in a quick pre-show fundraising appeal.) Its fabulous Atlantis made rough magic from cheekily low-fi design, a compelling story set on a post-climate catastrophe flooded New York City rooftop, and Dunn’s delightful original folk songs.

Laura Christina Dunn in ‘Sirens of Coos Bay.’ Photo: Sophia Diaz.

BP’s latest show, Sirens of Coos Bay, takes H.C. Andersen’s ever-popular The Little Mermaid to the 1990s southern Oregon coast town, where the curious creature from the deep (“I want stories I have never known,” LM sings at the outset) encounters a local rock band whose frontman must fall in love with her if she’s to survive on dry land. 

Scriptwriter Dunn draws on her immigrant mother’s memories of the setting’s time and place to weave in evocative details about the timber wars, spotted owl, economic decline. Torn between the bickering boys in the land band, on one fin, and on the other, a female a cappella chorus of fellow mermaids who can’t understand why she’d give up undersea immortality, she also confronts her lover’s own demons, depression and addiction induced by his hometown’s sense of isolation and limited horizons.

As with Atlantis, Sirens benefits from BP’s delightfully DIY production design by art director and set designer Mike Alfoni. One scene takes place inside a whale bone carcass, another features a giant braid of hair hoisted by the mermaid chorus, and the underwater world is evoked by characters parading toy fish on long sticks, courtesy of puppet fabricator Gabe Lopez- Mobilia. Kellee June Korpi’s striking makeup design is more expressive than its subjects’ dialogue. Their visual wizardry gives the show, like all Broken Planetarium’s productions I’ve seen, a distinctive, irresistible dimensionality.

Other highlights: Rebekah Stiles’s easygoing choreography for the sirens, and Dunn’s sly, whimsical humor, especially in the show’s most appealing scene: the playwright’s brief but funny turn as a dizzily cruel “sweet talking, banjo playing nihilist” Sea Witch. 

The characters’ dialogue about the spotted owl and decline of industrial forestry and the limitations of living in an isolated, narrow-minded small town rang true, as did chuckle-producing digs at Portland. But for all its occasional quirky humor and glimpses of ‘90s Oregon, the script never gives the audience a reason to care about its central relationship. Scenes between mermaid and musician lack believable chemistry. Assuming a relationship might work in a fairy tale, but realistic characters require showing a relationship’s growth, and the script never shows why either of these alleged lovers would consider giving up their current lives to risk a future together. We see what they’re running from — their respective isolated worlds — but we don’t feel their attraction to each other any more than they do. 

RhyanMichele Hills in The Broken Planetarium’s ‘Sirens of Coos Bay.’ Photo by Sophia Diaz.

Slight pauses in many exchanges drained the dialogue of rhythmic momentum, and the characters never seemed either real enough or fantastic enough to hold attention. Some of the failure to connect stems from the show’s earnest but amateurish acting. With the exception of strong work by Dunn and charismatic lead RhyanMichele Hills (including electrifying vocals and movement) as the mermaid errant, the other actors who double as musicians and/or dancers) were evidently cast for their extra-thespian skills, and receive too little direction to compensate. I’m all for DIY, but there’s no substitute for the sorcery that solid, experienced actors and director can cast over a show. 

While the band generally rocked, even the music (three songs composed by Dunn, the rest by other songwriters) fails to resonate as engagingly as Atlantis’s score. It’s billed as a ‘grunge musical,’ but while the Coos Bay characters were clad in the requisite flannel shirts and ripped Ts, I mostly heard ‘60s guitar rock, folk rock, pop-punk, and several shades of Bowie. Some songs came off more as pale theater-rock than the real thing.

Broken Planetarium remains a company whose stars twinkle brightly enough for a return visit. Dunn is a multifaceted talent — besides writing script and songs, she acts, sings and plays cello, banjo and guitar. Her plucky company’s determined, reliable ability to mount quirkily original, socially relevant, entertaining shows in a hip venue, and to draw young, diverse audiences, on a tiny budget and at affordable ticket prices, is a Portland theater miracle. But theater is a collaborative art form, and she deserves the kind of support — directing, acting and writing — that can fully transform her considerable abilities into theatrical magic.

Little Boy Lost

Bag n Baggage Productions has long possessed just those kind of production powers, even when the scripts it chooses don’t always measure up. In the company’s production of Peter/Wendy at The Vault in Hillsboro, translucent white canopy bed curtains become a ship’s sails, multicolored projection screens, even extend over audience heads. A four poster bed on wheels suddenly morphs into the Jolly Roger pirate vessel. A few stacked cubes transmogrify into a window, a house, or a doorway to another world. Everything can be something else, the prosaic becomes poetic, transformed by the company’s — and the audience’s — imagination. Scenic designer Jim Ricks-White’s simple, ingenious design becomes a metaphor for how children’s imaginations can transform the mundane into the magical. 

The Hillsboro-based company’s acting team also finds that tricky balance between children’s theater-style exaggeration and the darker adult themes the play purports to present. The reliably excellent Kymberli Colbourne’s commanding Shakespearean take imbues Captain Hook with a gravitas that makes him more than a cartoon villain. She and Justin Charles also score in the realistic realm as Wendy’s parents. And  Phillip J. Berns uncannily makes Peter Pan simultaneously childlike and almost-adult, perpetually perched on the edge of growing up — just right for the play’s announced but incompletely realized intention to show the darker side of his refusal to mature. (Some might say it’s just right for Portland, which teems with similar characters.) Jeremy Sloan is an appropriately annoying Tinkerbell, while Jacquelle Davis as a Lost Boy and mermaid displays both a dancer’s grace and a child’s real vulnerability.

Kayla Kelly as Wendy in Bag & Baggage’s ‘Peter/Wendy.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Unfortunately, B&B’s theatrical witchcraft is much more potent than Jeremy Bloom’s earthbound 2013 adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and his novel The Little White Bird. The diffuse first act plods along, with characters narrating backstory exposition for the audience — telling, not showing, and thereby breaking the spell of the story. 

To compensate for the story’s failure to advance, director Cassie Greer tries desperately to substitute stage motion for dramatic action, sending the players and that multi-purpose bed spinning around the stage so dizzily that it ultimately just feels busy. She uses the entire in-the-round space creatively, with characters sometimes creeping up from behind the riser seating, and effectively turning mostly empty space into convincing imaginary worlds. 

The rest of the production team also excels. Composer and sound designer Evan Lewis’s fluent electronic score uses harp-like sounds and bass to signal changes in tone, mood, and even worlds. His percussive effects invigorate the loveliest scene, a dance/fight sequence that winds up in a music-box roundelay. Melissa Heller’s Country Fairy costumes make Neverland feel like a Eugene forest in July. Their efforts combine with Jeffery A. Smith’s starry lighting and projections and Ricks-White’s design to conjure wonderful scenic and sonic magic.

Kymberli Colbourne and Justin Charles as Hook and Smee in ‘Peter/Wendy.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

But despite the company’s best efforts, the characters don’t develop any more than the plot does. The script reduces Wendy to mostly an observer rather than a protagonist, giving Kayla Kelly little to work with. It does succeed in showing the dark, downsides of refusing to grow up, but while the production strives for dream-like fantasy, Bloom’s adaptation never quite awakens from its slumber, taking forever to get to Neverland and stretching out the alleged adventures there twice as long as warranted. The audience looked more dazed than bedazzled.

What both of these ultimately unmagical shows reminded us is that no matter how visionary the creative talent behind a show, it usually takes an accomplished production team — actors, musicians, designers, directors — to effectively realize those visions. And even then, there’s no substitute for a compelling theatrical story that works on stage, in real time. That’s where the real magic lies.

Bag&Baggage’s next show, The Helpful Little Fox Fixes the Forest Grimm, an original production aimed at young audiences, runs through June 9 at The Vault, 350 E Main St.  Hillsboro.

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