action/adventure theatre

A/A + Coho go for Christmas kitsch

Action/Adventure's "Holiday Thing" and Coho's "Rudolph" revive mid-century modern classics...with a wink.

When Portland Center Stage “twists” Dickens and Artists Rep picks a fight with Santa and an errant elf, while Liminal re-invents “Our Town” and Bag & Baggage re-imagines “Noises Off,” which theaters will pick up the mantle of Christmas tradition? Who will pucker up under the mistletoe? Who will glaze this holiday’s ham?

rudolph

Rudolph on Stage!

Well, CoHo, for one, with a faithful-if-offbeat rendition of the classic sixties TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” “Rudolph on Stage!” is the latest from Shelly McLendon’s Bad Reputation Productions, a follow-up to film-to-stage adaptations of “Road House” and “The Lost Boys.” Like those titles, “Rudolph” translates a beloved film to a small stage space, knowing full well that the effect of that effort will be naturally funny.

Though the show admits kids, it’s really best-suited to kid-at-heart adults who remember the 1964 original special from closer to when it first aired. To complete the nostalgic effect, “Rudolph” even broadcasts vintage TV commercials like “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” during scene breaks.

The strategy works so well (and collective memory of the original is so faded) that several of the play’s laugh-inducing lines seem like recent additions — and indeed, Bad Reputation has added a few flourishes. For instance, prospector Yukon Cornelius lists “Luna Bars” among his survival provisions. A cry of “Land ho!” is met with a spicy, “Oh no he didn’t!” And much to the delight of longtime audiences, Bad Reputation’s Rudolph cathartically confronts his parents about their “faulty DNA” and Santa about his initial intolerance.

Other added lines simply highlight odd plot points from the original: “I have a problem and the only solution I can think of is to run away from it,” summarizes Hermey the elf before exiting the stage. “Let’s get the women home,” Rudolph later remarks with a pseudo-gallantry that sounds datedly sexist, whereupon McLendon, as his reindeer love, Clarice, slumps as if she’s fainted from feminine fatigue. But a few gems come straight from the original animated feature, including jabs about Santa’s weight and reference to him “polishing up his jingle bells.”

The wryest, wiliest twinkle emanates from the show’s snowman narrator, played by mischievous Mercury editor Wm. Steven Humphrey. Humpy leans hard on any line that could pass for double entendre, swinging the bottom tier of his snowman costume into a pendulous bum-waggle to capture maximum laughs coming and going. Another standout is Brad Fortier as “The Bumble” (aka abominable snowman), who mimics the movements of the original stop-mo monster immaculately, biting the empty air, madly rolling his eyes, and jerkily twitching his fingers. These two performances (and others) illustrate a point: when real-life people imitate stop-motion animation, humor naturally follows. Spacial choices, too, become comical gags, as when Clarice repeatedly “flies” across the tiny stage from all angles yelling, “Rudolph!,” or when a supposedly “faraway” castle is presented as a toy on a corner shelf.

Despite great instrumental arrangements by Jonny Newsome, the show’s music is hit-and-miss thanks to, ahem, variable singing. Rudolph and the elf, inarguably the story’s main characters, emote appropriately but melodically murder their duet “Misfits,” and several other numbers throughout the show. To be fair, the animated version shares this weakness, with many of its songs more spoken than sung. The noteworthy singer in both versions is the snowman — and luckily Humpy’s croon does justice to his TV counterpart, Burl Ives. McLendon’s also got great pipes, but clearly hasn’t demanded that talent of her production’s other actors.

That sour note notwithstanding, “Rudolph” is a cute show that provides a strong sense of ensemble community as well as a new portal of access to “Red-Nosed Reindeer”‘s fanciful little world.

holidaything

Action/Adventure’s Very Special Holiday … Thing

It’s actually mildly surprising that “Rudolph,” or its equivalent, isn’t happening at Action/Adventure Theatre; it’s definitely within that company’s wheelhouse. In prior shows like “Troll 2: The Musical” and “The Waterman,” A/A showed an affinity for kitschy storytelling, adaptation and minimal staging just like “Rudolph”‘s. But just when you’d think they’d get madcap, or continue in the vein of their very-contemporary and wildly successful improv serial Fall of the Band … A/A goes old school, with “Holiday Thing,” the kind of mid-century-modern Christmas revue best spoofed by Stephen Colbert but perhaps last attempted in earnest by Bing Crosby (or locally, of a fashion, by Oregon Ballet Theatre).

Stage left, there’s a piano (keyboard). Stage right, a (video of) roaring fire. Under the watchful gaze of a silent live Santa (Devon Granmo) and some animatronic Dickensian carolers, Bri Pruett and David Saffert sing carols cabaret-style, between which various comedians perform comedy/storytelling sets. Sean Jordan weighs the relative merits of visiting family versus … not. Barbara Holm cracks wise about eating disorders. David Mascorro shares uniquely Mexican-American Christmas memories, and Lucia Fasano even sings a mandolin-accompanied original, “Indoorsman,” about moving to the Northwest but not really wanting to experience nature. Last weekend, Stephanie Cordell sang a Christmas tune in mingled English and Pig Latin; this weekend Christian Ricketts will join the comedy roster and James Luster will impersonate Elvis.

The name “Holiday Thing” serves as a hint that this event isn’t as much of a “show” as many A/A titles. It’s looser and simpler, less demanding of both audience and cast. Saffert and Pruett are playful and relaxed, as if hanging out in the theater after hours. Sure, they’re putting on a show, but they’re not sweating every note or cue. With its cheery but casual tone, “Thing” may sell new visitors on A/A’s charisma, but not their typical level of polish. It’s more of a mid-season breather for fans and insiders who crave some familial warm fuzzies and a slice of gleeful Christmas cheese.

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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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tomorrow

Devon Wade Granmo, Noah Dunham, Tara Coen and Noelle Eaton bravely face the great unknown in their most trend- and weather-proof clothes.

Intimate black-box theater tends to traffic in “micro,” each flicker of gesture and nuance of phrase expressing something that is so true for one character in one moment in one place and time, that it draws the watcher into empathy for a distinct other. Meanwhile, the “macro” realm is more readily addressed by spectacular Broadway shows or even films, where sweeping scenic panoramas, massive catastrophes, and epic battles can fit in the frame. How else to encompass the world, the universe, or even the malleable constraints of space and time?

“Tomorrow!”, the brainchild of Working Theater Collective founder and RACC Grant recipient Ashley Hollingshead, attempts the near-impossible: fitting a macro theme into the constraints of a micro-show. Tackling “the future” in the same way her last title, “Something Epic/Everyday” addressed “the present,” she condenses the heady exploration of humanity’s trajectory into a four-person, 70-minute play wherein a quartet of young Everymen in timeless business-casual clothes* perform a series of parlor charades. It’s a tempest in a black-box, and in case you can’t picture it, here’s the trailer:

Tomorrow! from Noah Dunham on Vimeo.

Cute, vulnerable, ambitious and brave, Action/Adventure Theatre’s thesps employ a variety of techniques over a medley of found and original sound (Zagar & Evans “In the Year 2525”, songs by Kyle Acheson, a global-warming-themed redux of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”, and much more). Like a Greek Chorus orating a film-lit textbook, they recite retro-futuristic clichés: “A Vision of the Future From [A Given Year]!” they periodically announce. 1963: robot maids. 1979: peak oil, Mad Max. 1989: hoverboards. And—as far forward as the play’s “retro” goes—1991: artificial intelligence and nuclear apocalypse.

Continues…

FG Reviews: Action/Adventure Theatre

This theater collective proves "casual" doesn't have to mean "amateur," seeming to build a buddy network that doubles as a meritocracy.

actionadventure

In “Troll II: The Musical”, Wimberley Marshall plays Creedence Leonore Gielgud with hilariously evil glee, while Vincenzo Miduri brings a snarky twist to his role as Brent. Both are first-rate singers.

In the summer of 2010, in the lull between official theater seasons, a sudden heat-rash of pop plays and musicals broke out in bars all over town. There was Top Gun sendup “Hot Gun” at Dante’s, there were “Roadhouse: The Musical,” “Beach Blanket Beyond,” and “Alba the Vampire” at Someday Lounge. At Embers Avenue, there was retro-futuristic spoof “Wild Space A-Go-Go.” Maybe my new role as a reviewer increased my awareness of this sort of show; maybe such offerings had been around every prior summer—but I don’t think so. I think Trek in the Park, founded the year before, opened a niche for more playful plays, and the next year a bunch of other revelers piled on.

So how were those shows? Variable. Goofy. Some relied on you already knowing and liking their actors as people—perhaps having drunk with them at that very bar—to enjoy them. Others that passed muster artistically were too sparsely attended to really count (suggesting that these slightly-more-serious thesps rallied fewer eager pals). One director introduced his show by declaring, “We don’t give a f— what you think,” and then the whole cast proceeded to prove it.

But what did I expect? A gimmicky premise and buddy-system casting isn’t usually the best recipe for quality theater.

Or so I thought.

Like some preternaturally successful strain of Galapagos finch, Action/Adventure Theatre‘s brand of casual show-staging seems to have spent the last couple of years quietly evolving beyond its peers, really surfacing this season as a rare bird: a buddy-based meritocracy.

Last week, Action/Adventure hosted four Fertile Ground workshop shows. On Wednesday there were two plays; “Loaded For Bear” by Gregory Heaton and “Dirty Water” by Devon Wade Granmo. On Thursday, two musicals: “Water Man” by Kyle Acheson and Sam De Roest, and “Troll 2: The Musical” by Jade Harris and Jillian Snow.

Though the tiny theater’s atmosphere bore all the hallmarks of chummy informality (audience members hugging actors pre-show, a playwright’s dad running the video camera) once it was showtime, the troupe seemed to mean business. I daresay one could enjoy these plays on their own merits, without knowing ANYONE.

“Dirty Water”

Rural Oregon hippie Bed & Breakfast proprietors play host to a rare flurry of action. A mysterious Lewis & Clark history professor checks in and starts hunting their lawn for buried treasure, their soldier son returns from battle, and the mysterious presence known as “Johnny” that has long haunted their bathroom finally emerges from the shadows. It’s less absurd, more coherent, and more sympathetic than it sounds, thanks to committed, realistic character development and a disciplined and gradual revelation of plot. (The implied mood is also intriguing, equal parts “Twin Peaks” and “Glass Menagerie.”)

“Loaded for Bear”

A salt-of-the-earth couple struggles to financially and emotionally support their paranoid, antisocial brother/in law, while he pursues their nanny—an aspiring portrait photographer—as a lover. Meanwhile, an attractive young woman copes with her newly-recognized alcoholism by attempting to seduce her sponsor into sex, and back to the bottle. Add a collection of guns and rare books and a craven plot for instant fame, and entropy ensues. Very much in mode with “Dirty Water,” this script was at showtime a bit less mature in its edits, though more sociopolitically portent in its themes.

“Water Man”

Believe it or not, this new musical apparently sprung from an actor’s “Method” work on a prior production! Since a character Sam De Roest was playing in a prior show claimed to be writing a musical, DeRoest felt inspired to actually do so. The show’s silly premise that we coexist with a race of “water people” whom we capture and process into sushi, is made bearable by sheer wit and nerve, and by beautiful balladeering a la Neutral Milk Hotel.

“Troll II: The Musical”

This gimmicky, spoofy redux of a cult classic had a couple unexpected aces: the best ensemble of singers and character voice actors this reviewer heard all week, and unforgettable “RENT”-esque gospel-spirited rock songs. Though it was a bit too long, it positively regaled the room.

 

According to theater co-director Noah Dunham, a few of these shows will go back to the proverbial drawing board before surfacing again sometime in the future. Meanwhile, Action/Adventure’s latest foray, a series of late night talk show–formatted live variety shows hosted by Alex Falcone, continues through February, featuring different local celebrities each “episode.”