Bag ‘n’ Baggage

Solofest preview: e pluribus unum

Bag & Baggage Productions' new festival shines a spotlight on storytelling by excluded voices

It’s easier than ever for us to hear people who have long been marginalized. From vlogs to podcasts to YouTube and the rest, the proliferation of expressive avenues has revealed a tremendous demand to hear personal stories from once-stifled voices. “The rise of shows like The Moth shows that storytelling is becoming super-trendy,” says Bag & Baggage Productions’ artistic director Scott Palmer. “Whether on a podcast or a TED Talk, there’s a movement featuring the singular voice of the storyteller.”

As solo storytelling has spread, theater has followed. Theater artists like Anna Deavere Smith and others have used solo storytelling to widen the lens to include stories of America’s diverse cultures and experiences. “We’ve been noting over last few years an increased awareness and interest in solo performers across the country,” Palmer says, “especially when those pieces are tied directly into issues of equity and social justice.” For example, “there are significant implications of the #metoo movement — people listening to and respecting individual stories. They’re a touchstone of how we move through the world.”

Damaris Webb performs in Solofest this weekend.

Result: while in the past, inexpensive-to-produce storytelling was sometimes dismissed as “poor man’s theater” more suited to fringe festivals than mainstream venues, Palmer says, “the values of artistic excellence, commitment, and preparation have risen, and those barriers between theater and storytelling are coming down.”

That’s why, when the company moved into its intimate new venue The Vault last year, Palmer created Solofest, which he hopes will be an annual showcase for solo performers, especially those telling stories that reflect the company’s values of equity and diversity. Curated by Palmer and B&B associate artistic director Cassie Greer, this year’s debut installment features four different performers telling personal stories in a theatrical setting. Two stories will run at each performance in different combinations from Feb. 1-4 at The Vault. 

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‘Farndale’ review: slight drag

Bag&Baggage Productions' cross-dressed Brit-com theater spoof offers low humor in high heels

The show begins before the show begins. As the audience gradually trickles in from the lobby and bar, a dumpy, worried looking, Chaplin-esque figure wanders the spare set, making adjustments to the chairs, side table, and other props. While audience members take their seats, some chatting with each other in the aisles, some don’t even notice a molding suddenly falling off a wall. The beleaguered little prop man frowns, and with help from some unwitting audience members, undertakes repairs. Then a rather ample — and amply bewigged and be-pearled dowager — appears, loudly handing out programs.

Norman Wilson, Patrick Spike, and Jeremy Sloan play Thelma Greenwood, Phoebe Reece, and Merdeces Blower in Bag&Baggage’s produc on of The Farndale Avenue… Murder at Checkmate Manor. Photo: Casey Campbell.

Welcome to Bag&Baggage Productions’ The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Murder at Checkmate Manor, the farce-within-a-farce shambling and stumbling across the stage through October at Hillsburg’s, er, Hillsboro’s The Vault. Before the evening is done, audiences will suffer through faux French, egregious wordplay, spoonerisms, malfunctioning props, dysfunctional malaprops, blown cues, stilted acting, overacting, wandering facial hair makeup, spotlight hogging, backstage cattiness, a failed fashion show, karaoke, an invisible canine, cheesy strobe effects, and a not entirely Thrilling Michael Jackson flashback.

I hasten to add that the parade of ludicrous ineptitude is entirely intentional on Bag&Baggage’s part. One in a series of ten popular 1970s farces perpetrated by the British team of Walter Zerlin Jr. and David McGillivray that spoof earnest but hopelessly incompetent amateur theater companies, Farndale is a play that tries, and alas only occasionally succeeds, in making good comedy out of deliberately bad theater.

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Gatsby: Rich from a distance.

Bag 'n' Baggage's take on the Fitzgerald classic shows a perfectly-suited Gatsby and leaves the audience cold by design.

Bag&Baggage-The Great Gatsby-Cast-courtesy Casey Campbell Photograhy-OrArtsWatch

A slo-mo sequence establishes West Egg as the domain of posers on a pier, always waiting for a BIGGER ship to come in.

Faraway jazz creeps through foggy air, fuzzed and muted by phonograph static. Pianos tinkle icily and trumpets growl seductively. Behind a filmy curtain, a set of jaunty personages lines up on a dimly lit boat dock with their backs to the crowd. Dressed in fine 1920’s outerwear and backlit for a silver lining, they strike a series of poses in slow motion. A woman hails a car. Another seems to stretch languidly against an invisible doorframe. Two men half-turn and brandish fists at each other.*

Bag ‘N’ Baggage Productions sneaks up on a world of self-important, inaccessible posers and exposes their backside. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s decadent fictional mansion-scape of West Egg, Long Island (and if this handy guide to 1920’s slang serves, “egg” is code for extravagance) the pier has a prominent place in this show, running almost the span of the stage and wrapping around one side of the house. While its (formidable) presence suggests the characters’ waterfront view, it doubles as a metaphor. Despite their current affluence and comfort, these dissatisfied people deludedly wait for their NEXT ship to come in.

Artistic director Scott Palmer isn’t shy to call “corruption” in Fitzgerald’s characters—in fact, as a high school reader, he had a hard time grasping the charm his fellow readers seemed to find there. Even the enigmatic Gatsby, who often gets a pass for his humble beginnings and his seemingly-noble loyalty to his first love, doesn’t pass muster with Palmer, who notes, “All of these characters, except for Nick and George, are morally bankrupt.”

Melissa Heller’s costuming choices in this show emphasize Palmer’s read, color-coding the characters’ relative morality. Daisey (Cassie Greer) and Gatsby (Ty Boice) flaunt crisp pinks and whites as they gaze through rose-colored glasses, feign idealism, and strive for lost innocence. Tom (Colin Wood) and Myrtle (Megan Carver) are also a matched set, steeped in the same layers of green as the cloud of jealousy that colors their judgment. Jordan (Arianne Jacques), an aquarian element who can’t be contained, slips around in watery blue satin. Nick (Ian Armstrong) and George (Adam Syron) dress in muted tones, closer—as their worldview—to black and white.

The plot itself, so familiar to readers and watchers, seems to breeze by as a distant pageant; the characters’ lack of empathy is a contagion the audience quickly catches. Greer as Daisey contrasts her slight frame and fluttery clothes with a voice like a jazz clarinet, her singsong cadence glossing over a throatier edge. True to form, she sounds wonderful saying terrible things. Jacques as Jordan takes a similar tone, but with too many lines inflected as questions, she seems to doubt her own bullshit in a way that’s fatal to con artists of her cheating-golf-pro caliber. When she and Greer double down on the “rich lady voice,” some scenes fall even shorter of credibility than is ideal. Carver takes Myrtle to the opposite extreme: shrieking, stumbling, drunken and brash, she shows more symptoms of excess than motivation for seeking it.

Adam Davis as Meyer Wolfsheim exerts an ominous calm, while Wood as Tom (appropriately enough) physically resembles world-famous chauvenist washup Andrew Dice-Clay. With a wide-set swagger and clench-jawed sneer, he makes himself as utterly unlovable as Daisey finds him.

Armstrong as Nick Carraway (Daisey’s cousin, the narrator, and the moral north star) fulfills his role as the only guy who can be trusted. We understand his hesitance to associate with the others. We understand his woe and why he weeps for the others’ corruption. But true to his character, the actor so far seems reluctant to impose. With a few more liberties—a longer pause, a fiercer gaze—he’s the only one who can, as the run progresses, pull harder on the heartstrings.

Boice in the title role is the reluctant star of the show…though Gatsby’s cryptic nature always makes the character more muse than man. His face often turned three-quarters away from the audience, and he’s impossibly dashing in lilac lapels. It may or may not show from stage**, but Gatsby is a role-within-a-role that Boice was born for, with uncanny real-life parallels. Gatsby’s origin story of growing up a “farm boy” before learning how to cut a fine figure is shared by actor Boice, a Gold Beach, Oregon , native who overcame a crippling combine-driving injury before kicking off his pre-theater modeling career. Gatsby and Boice also share a penchant for overseeing gatherings of flamboyant people. Gatsby gathers vaudeville types in West Egg; Boice recruits the same at the theater company he founded: Post Five. That theater’s home base Milepost5, a building with many artist live/work units, is arguably a modern twist on the patron’s mansion, where—until very recently—Boice resided. Please note that Post Five has its liquor license, so Boice is no bootlegger, and, benefit-of-doubt, not corrupt…but otherwise, the Gatsby shoe couldn’t fit better.

Ty Boice as Gatsby and Cassie Greer as Daisey make a patrician pair.

Ty Boice as Gatsby and Cassie Greer as Daisey make a patrician pair.

Much has already been said about “The Great Gatsby”‘s aptness for our times. Comments on wealth inequality are relevant here, as are Berkeley’s research findings about wealth mentality, and contemporary memes like #firstworldproblems.  Specific plot points from the Fitzgerald classic are frequently reinforced by celebrity domestic disputes and vehicular hit-and-runs, as well as real-life athlete cheating scandals. And hyper-locally, the wealthier denizens of Portland’s Pearl District are even now clashing with the Right to Dream Too shanty-town in their midst. While news tie-ins bring these caricatures uncomfortably close to home, a few antique hairpins and cufflinks strain to tuck the notions back into quaint obscurity. In this way, the material glamor of the ’20’s can’t help but detract from the substance of the story, even causing fans of the revived narrative to throw misguided “Gatsby parties” that The Atlantic has condemned as “sublimely clueless.” Hmm. Couldn’t those words also ring true for the Gatsby characters? 1920’s aesthetics are a powerful poison, perhaps bedazzling and blinding their original enjoyers just as much as the contemporary rediscoverers. It must have always been hard to see evil in people who dress so well.

After a tawdry pageant of misplaced affections, heartless disdain, manslaughter and murder, the play ends as it began, with posers on a pier and Nick a disillusioned outsider. But any true human agony is hard to hear through all the jazz, hard to feel through the cold-creeping fog.

*Here’s a little short-term Portland stage nostalgia: The vintage costumes and chorus-line config here echo “Eyes on You,” a number from OBT’s 2011 season closer. B&B Managing Director Anne Mueller danced that show, and it seems Gatsby costumer Melissa Heller dressed it.

**Does this assertion seem gallingly vague? It’s an admission of bias. Director Scott Palmer would have known Boice’s backstory, as do I. It then becomes impossible to tell whether what we see in his performance is tinted by that lens.

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A. L. Adams also writes 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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