kymberli colbourne

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.

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‘Blithe Spirit,’ ‘Oklahoma!’ reviews: way out west

Theatre in the Grove and Bag & Baggage Productions add darkness and depth to 20th century classics

It started as just a chance to take the parents to a show we knew they’d like. They’re big fans of classic American musicals, and they don’t come more classic and American than Oklahoma! The folks are a bit too superannuated to make it down to Ashland. But a drive to familiar Forest Grove, they could handle. That’s how we wound up on closing night of what I foolishly assumed would be a podunk production of an overfamiliar American classic perpetrated by a team from west of Portland’s creative center, and produced by a community theater company on a too-small stage miles from Portland. At best, I thought, maybe the folks would enjoy it even if I rolled my eyes.

Boy, was I wrong! Theatre in the Grove’s May production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1943 classic turned out to be one of my most surprisingly delightful theatrical adventures this year.

I realized we were in for something special in the fraught duet “Pore Jud is Daid,” in which the protagonist Curly McClain (winningly played and sung by Austin Hampshire) tries to inveigle his nemesis, farmhand Jud Fry, into committing suicide. Jason Weed directs it as a dangerous dance, with Curly circling Jud, smiling and nodding toward an imagined noose. And in the crucial scene between Jud and Laurey Williams, the woman he and Curly both desire, director Weed and actors Brandon Weaver and Jade Tate show us that Laurey isn’t a simple goody two shoes love interest, nor is Jud a stereotypical bad guy. She’s shallow, self-absorbed, while he’s vulnerable, even damaged. Yet those dimensions somehow don’t conflict with their main actions in the story. They’re complicated humans, not inconsistent characters.

Brandon Weaver (l) as Jud Fry and Austin Hampshire as Curly McLain in Theatre in the Grove’s ‘Oklahoma!’ Photo: Jennifer McFarling.

The main credit for Jud’s dimensionality — and the lion’s share of the abundant audience applause, rare for the bad guy in any show — went to Weaver, whose spectacular, deeply considered performance is one of the finest I’ve seen in an Oregon musical. Far more than a simple black hatted villain, he could be genuinely terrifying, even while merely glaring at other characters, and yet in the same scene subtly reveal the anguish beneath the brutality. Weaver, another Hillsboro native who’s appeared in two dozen Grove performances since 1990, deserves wider exposure. I hope to see him on other Oregon stages soon.

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“Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol’” review: Dickens framed

Bag&Baggage Productions’ holiday comedy shows the writer creating his most famous story -- and getting upstaged by it

Charles Dickens was a rock star. On his reading tours in both England and America, fans crowded the venues to hear him read excerpts from his novels, cheered his speeches about social issues.

Charles Dickens was a clown. Yes, the author of The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield and the rest was also the most popular English language novelist of the 19th century, but he was also known to his friends as a total cutup who loved assuming comic personae and telling uproarious stories, most of which he made up himself.

Charles Dickens was also, therefore, an actor. He liked playing roles so much that he acted in his friends’ plays and even wrote his novels by acting out the various characters in his studio to capture their voices.

Bag & Baggage Productions’ “Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol’ continues through December 23. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Such an inherently theatrical backstory proved irresistible to Bag & Baggage productions artistic director Scott Palmer, an inveterate historical researcher who in 2010 used Dickens’s life story (drawn from his diary and remembrances by family and contemporaries) to create his original comic take on the Victorian English author’s heartwarming Christmas classic. The revived Charles Dickens Writes “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 23 at The Vault theatre. (The information above comes from the company’s characteristically comprehensive study guide to the play)

Palmer’s adaptation — really an old story within a new play — has the added advantage of doubling the show’s appeal. It presents enough of Dickens’s original 1843 Scrooge story to entertain kids and others who are experiencing the holiday classic for the first time in a long time, or ever, while giving those who know the original by heart get an entirely new story around it. But although the combination makes for a generally entertaining holiday show, that framing narrative resembles one of those massive, Dickens-era Victorian picture frames, so ornate that they sometimes distract from the picture they surround. Even so, the show has so much going for it that it makes an easy holiday recommendation.

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Spinning into Butter review:  white noise

Bag & Baggage Productions' season opener should spark needed conversations about race

“It is a play,” writes Bag & Baggage Productions Artistic Director Scott Palmer in the program notes, “that deals with well-meaning, liberally minded, white people dealing with issues of racism in a way that I think is hugely relevant to me personally and to the community of Hillsboro.”

I’d go further: Spinning into Butter, playing through September 24 at Bag & Baggage’s cool, cozy new home The Vault, is a production that should be seen by anyone in the greater Portland community who’s at all interested in one of the most pressing issues of our time and place. Especially if you’re willing to set your own preconceptions aside for a couple of hours.

Carlos Trujillo and Kymberli Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Spinning into Butter.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

To say it’s important is not to say it’s a great play, though. Dramatically flawed and somewhat dated, Spinning may be more important for the conversations it sparks than for what happens onstage. However, one thing that actually does happen onstage — Kymberli Colbourne’s fully realized, yet understated leading performance — should also start a conversation, about the best performance on a Portland stage in this young theater season.

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“The Graduate: review: Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

Superficial script undermines Bag & Baggage's production of the theatrical version of a '60s classic

Many of us probably fondly remember The Graduate as a tale of idealistic young lovers Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson triumphing over a corrupt, plastic Cold War American establishment embodied by Elaine’s alcoholic mother, Mrs. Robinson.

But Terry Johnson’s lumbering 2000 theatrical adaptation of Charles Webb’s 1963 novel makes the story seem surprisingly dated, the ostensible main characters superficial.

St. Cyr and Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions' 'The Graduate.' Photo: Casey Campbell.

St. Cyr and Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘The Graduate.’ Photo: Casey Campbell.

What Bag & Baggage Productions‘ staging, playing this month in Hillsboro, does have, though, is some deft comedy and a fascinating Mrs. Robinson who’s almost worth the price of admission, despite being onstage for only about half the show. Rather than merely embodying hypocritical society’s denial of both Ben and Elaine’s wishes — the resistance they must overcome to find fulfillment — she becomes a fierce, tragic heroine who’s ahead of her time.

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‘Moby Dick, Rehearsed’ review: Welles’ whale tale

Bag&Baggage Productions' staging of Orson Welles's 'Moby-Dick, Rehearsed' is a qualified triumph of imagination over obsession

Moby-Dick isn’t a novel, it is an entire imaginative world. It is massive, bulky, colossal, terrifying, majestic and ultimately unfathomable. It is the physical representation of one man’s will, one artist’s transcendent vision, an entire internal universe externalized…”

So writes Bag & Baggage productions artistic director Scott Palmer on the company blog. Of course, the “one man” he’s referring to is author Herman Melville, who transformed his own obsession with the particulars of whaling and the fictional obsession of a foolhardy sea captain, Ahab, into the 1851 epic that eventually (though not initially) came to be regarded as an American classic.

But obsession and imagination also describe Ahab himself, obsessed by a whale and the manifold metaphors it represents, not to mention the minutiae of whaling. They characterize the great American film director Orson Welles, obsessed (as he was by so many other hugely ambitious projects he started but never quite pulled off) by Melville’s novel, which he spent years transforming into the play, Moby Dick, Rehearsedwhich the company is staging at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre this month. They also apply to Palmer, one of Oregon’s and perhaps America’s most artistically ambitious theater artists, himself.

“Who in their right mind would decide that Moby Dick was appropriate source material for a play? Only a maniacal genius like Orson Welles, really. B&B has a long history of doing staged adaptations of American novels, and this just felt like such a perfect fit for us and our style of work,” Palmer said in a question & answer interview on the B&B website. “That unapologetic ambition, that willingness to take a massive risk and potentially fail spectacularly — that feels very Bag&Baggage to me.” You might say Palmer is obsessed with transforming unlikely material, from Shakespeare’s worst plays to Arthur Miller’s weighty The Crucible and many others, into stage triumphs. He usually succeeds.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents "Moby Dick, Rehearsed" at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents “Moby Dick, Rehearsed” at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Neither Ahab nor Melville nor Welles nor Palmer let the challenges of their tasks daunt them. Ahab caught his prey, but it cost him his life and those of his crew. Melville’s novel was widely regarded as a crazy failure in its time, and its overabundance of non dramatic material still repels many readers. Welles’s misguided attempt to turn so inward-gazing a novel as Moby Dick into compelling stage drama amounted to hunting a white whale; as Palmer acknowledged in a pre-show talk, it’s perhaps a good thing that Welles devoted himself to filmmaking rather than playwriting.

In nevertheless choosing to stage Welles’s whale folly (in his centennial year), Palmer again plays the white knight, this time trying to save the white whale. Does he catch the object of his obsession in this new production and redeem Welles’s hubristic vision? Like the others, it’s a foredoomed, magnificent failure that, if you can stick with it long enough, you ultimately can’t let go of.

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