Clara-Liis Hillier

‘Emma’ & ‘Grand Concourse’ reviews: Instigating women

Characters in Bag & Baggage and Artists Repertory Theatre productions pit good intentions against hard reality

The upstart Portland Trail Blazers are leading the greatest team in NBA history at halftime. It’s the crucial game in the second round of the playoffs.  No one expected the young Blazers to even be here. How could I tear myself away to hear repressed Victorians prattle on about who’s gonna marry whom??

Besides, haven’t we more important things to worry about — homelessness, human-caused climate change, the potential for the Greatest Upset in NBA Playoff History?

And yet, Bag&Baggage’s production of Jane Austen’s Emma held promise. Hardly anyone pulls off snappier dialogue than Austen, not even NBA broadcast commentators Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal or Kenny Smith.  So grumbling only slightly, I headed for Hillsboro.

Cassie Liis-Hillier & Cassie Greer in Bag & Baggage's 'Emma.' Photo: Jess StewartMaize, LensFlare Photography.

Clara Liis-Hillier & Cassie Greer in Bag & Baggage’s ‘Emma.’ Photo: Jess StewartMaize, LensFlare Photography.

Unfortunately, Michael Fry’s 1996 stage adaptation falls victim to the problems that often plague translations of art from their original medium. In trying to remain faithful to Austen’s novel, Fry bogged down the stage adaptation with slow-playing exposition, just like the many NBA teams who failed to successfully adapt to new rules intended to enliven the game. Here I was watching the equivalent of the Memphis Grizzlies onstage while my mind kept drifting to the Moda Center and the Golden State Warriors with their high-flying offense.

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Bag & Baggage: That ‘70s Show

"Six Gentlepersons of Verona" gets groovy with un-famous Shakespeare

At the talkback session after Sunday’s matinee performance of Six Gentlepersons of Verona, an audience member asked director Scott Palmer why he wanted to stage a play that’s widely considered — including, according to his program notes, Palmer himself — to be among Shakespeare’s weakest.

“Because I wanted to!” grinned Bag & Baggage Productions’ artistic director, a confessed Shakespeare geek who enjoys nothing more than poring through historical source material and approaching the plays from novel directions. He elaborated: like many directors, Palmer wants to get through Shakespeare’s entire canon (much as conductors crave complete Beethoven or Mahler symphony cycles or Wagner’s Ring operas); Verona, possibly Shakespeare’s earliest comedy, contains the seeds and even some of the plot devices of his later masterpieces (a balcony scene a la Romeo and Juliet, transformative encounters in the woods like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and others, a pre-Othello jealousy plot); its very dramatic weaknesses pose a challenge that any ambitious director wants to solve, and so on.

All good reasons … for a director. But what about the audience? Why should we pay a farthing to sit through a couple hours of second-rate Shakespeare? Are we mere canon-fodder?

Cassie Greer and Clara-Liis Hillier star in "The Six Gentlepersons of Verona." running through March 22. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Cassie Greer and Clara-Liis Hillier star in “The Six Gentlepersons of Verona.” running through March 22. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage’s new production, which runs through March 22 at Hillsboro’s historic Venetian Theatre, provides some persuasive answers, and not just the unbearably cute, scene stealing pug.

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Blind injustice: trapped in the basement

The taut little thriller "Wait Until Dark" gets the lockdown treatment in the fittingly claustrophobic Shoebox Theatre

No theater space in Portland is so well disposed to making you feel trapped as the Shoebox Theatre. Not that there’s anything to give the fire marshal pause, but what often is touted as the space’s coziness or intimacy can be turned readily into a sense of confinement.

That quality comes in handy for Wait Until Dark, the noir-ish thriller on the boards there as the season opener from Northwest Classical Theatre Company. The story takes place in a basement apartment in New York, where a woman is conned, pressured, and eventually terrorized by a band of criminals hell-bent on recovering a doll (of all things) they believe has fallen into her possession. However, it’s not the apartment’s dimensions that make things so insular, but that the criminals are watchful and the woman is not only alone, for the most part, but also blind.

Clara Hillier and Kate Thresher: it's all in the touch. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Clara-Liis Hillier and Kate Thresher: it’s all in the touch. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Written by Fredrick Knott, Wait Until Dark premiered on Broadway in 1966 and the following year was turned into a film vehicle for Audrey Hepburn. Here, director Bobby Bermea — who used the Shoebox space so effectively last season in a production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for Theatre Vertigo — works from a recent adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher that moves the story back a couple of decades, acquiring an undercurrent of war-era nervousness.

Between them, Knott and Hatcher have devised a devilishly screw-tightening plot with a wealth of hints and feints and useful details, but the script’s logic wobbles on occasion. Everyone recognizes that Susan, Our Plucky Heroine in Distress, is blind; yet everyone also, despite just meeting her, presumes that she has no sensitivity to light whatsoever. (Apparently she doesn’t, but it’s an odd assumption nonetheless.) Much is made of her heightened hearing, but that sensory advantage seems to come into play only when it would help, not hurt, the playwright’s plotting. There’s also a reference to one of the criminals spotted (by Susan’s bratty teen neighbor) in a van outside; but the description is of him in one of his disguises, at a time when he’d have no reason to be wearing it.

These are picayune matters, of course, but since the play is all about suspense, with nothing of greater thematic interest than how Our Plucky Heroine will find the cleverness and courage to prevail, they can be distractions.

Sam Dinkowitz and Clara Hillier: the cat, the mouse, and the trap. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Sam Dinkowitz and Clara-Liis Hillier: the cat, the mouse, and the trap. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Fortunately, Bermea and his cast give it all a strong sense of momentum and psychological credibility. Tom Mounsey as a thick-witted ex-gumshoe and Heath Koerschgen as a sympathetic Army lieutenant conform to the clear types of their characters without leaving them one-dimensional. Clara-Liis Hillier imbues Susan with a keen curiosity and focus, registering both defiance and abject fear effectively, as well as throwing herself headlong into the most brutally realistic fight choreography you’re likely to see all season. But what a story such as this needs most of all is a compellingly disquieting villain, and the performance of Sam Dinkowitz as the mysterious, mercurial Harry Roat (if that’s really his name) is the key here. Roat proudly acknowledges his own mental derangement and describes his sadism as a matter of principle; what Dinkowitz provides is a sense of resoluteness and drive. He makes you believe he’s the kind of man who likes nothing better than to set a trap.