Post5 Theatre

A light & breezy ‘Much Ado’

Post5's rollicking screwball touch gives Shakespeare's comedy an entertaining populist flair, but takes it easy on the dark parts

When I caught up with Post5 Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing on a not-too-sweltering Saturday night, each seat in the little Sellwood theater came equipped with a miniature hand-held fan, just in case. Curious, I fumbled with mine a bit, pressed a button in front, and – spritz! – a mist of moisture sprayed my face. The helpful woman in the next seat gently pointed out that the button for the fan part was on the back, and so it was. Still, I didn’t mind getting a little water in the kisser: it seemed to fit right in with the show.

Cassandra and Ty Boice as Beatrice and Benedick: who's chicken now? Photo: Russell J Young

Cassandra and Ty Boice as Beatrice and Benedick: who’s chicken now? Photo: Russell J Young

It wasn’t just that several of the actors were getting soaked left, right, and upside down like contestants in a wet T-shirt contest at a dive bar. It’s also that spritz and surprise are key to the company’s whole approach to this witty and subtly edgy comedy: a clowning goofiness, a touch of bawdiness, a rollicking swagger, a pie-in-the-face physicality. This production is much ado about laughter, a smooth evocation of Post5’s desire to knock the stuffiness out of Shakespeare and bring him in plain quick language to the people. It’s a friendly sort of Shakespeare, swift and well-spoken and eager to please.

And please it does, for the most part. Cassandra and Ty Boice, married in real life, make an attractive and playful Beatrice and Benedick, those squabbling would-be lovers who have to be tricked into seeing the mutual attraction that’s as plain as the noses on their rubbery faces. B&B are The Taming of the Shrew’s Petruchio and Kate without the troubling sexual politics: they’re more obviously equals, as much give as take, and bound, you get the feeling, for a true partnership (not that P&K aren’t, too, within the context of their times). The whole enterprise has a screwball-comedy feeling, a George Cukor giddiness, with exaggerated physical animism and repartee for the pure fun of repartee. Ty Boice plays the bachelor-misogynist thick and heavy at the start, then tumbles quicker than a gymnast into sappy puppy-love. Cassandra Boice digs into his ribs sharply and mercilessly, but with obvious affection and a rueful sense of reluctant self-deprecation.

Pretty much everything about the show speaks easy-to-follow, from the late ’50s/early ’60s pop soundtrack to Alana Wight-Yedinak’s casual costumes to Aaron Kissinger’s cleverly pop-up set, which finds surprising and amusing spaces all over the tight little stage for director Darragh Kennan to deploy his good-sized cast. And there are some attractive supporting performances here: Stan Brown’s Don John, whose sole excuse for his innate nastiness seems to be that he’s a bastard (this is Shakespeare, so that’s literal); Adam Eliot Davis’s garrulous bad-guy Borachio, whose run-on ad libs drive Don John nuts; Paul Angelo’s Don Pedro, the conquering hero returned from the war; Scott Parker’s gregarious Don Pedro, host to everyone and father of the would-be bride; Olivia Weiss’s Margaret, whose friskiness unleashes unanticipated mischief; Samuel G. Holloway as the Friar, who, like the friar in Romeo and Juliet, seems to have more basic common sense than pretty much anyone else on stage; and, in the major subplot, Chip Sherman as the love-smitten young soldier Claudio and Aislin Courtis as a welcomingly spirited Hero, the object of Claudio’s affection and eventual disdain: I’ve seen Hero played as pretty much nothing but a pretty face waiting to be victimized, and I like the spunk that Courtis gives her instead.

The laughs roll out as the play rolls on, and I enjoyed myself, sometimes quite a bit. Still, a couple of things kept the show from being everything I thought it might be. The first is minor and understandable, a creative idea that doesn’t pan out. For the crucial wedding scene, in which Claudio, having been led to believe that Hero is a bawd, denounces her and she falls into a dead faint, director Kennan has the cast and audience leave the theater space and troop outside to the building’s courtyard. It’s a nice setting, but the interruption breaks the flow, and it doesn’t do the audience any favors. If you’re tall or get out in time to grab one of the few outside seats, you can see the action fine. If you’re short or don’t get a seat, you find yourself straining to see what’s going on. Sometimes what seems like a good idea just isn’t.

The more consequential second drawback, I think, keeps the production from digging into the difficult dramatic territory that darkens the play when Hero is so deeply wronged, and makes the tale more than just a rollicking lark. I wish that Kennan and the Boices had put the brakes on the immediate affability between the bickering lovers – had made their self-realization seem less a foregone conclusion and more a prize they can win only by fighting through the thickets of their own self-delusions. In this key sense the production is let down by its eagerness to entertain. Benedick and Beatrice are jolly misanthropes, and the Boices give us a lot of jolliness without much misanthropy. B&B think they despise each other, and then, in this production, give it up almost on a whim: without battling to overcome their own prejudices, everything comes too easily. It deflates the fury in Beatrice’s demand of Benedick – that he kill Claudio – and robs Beatrice and Benedick of the stern morality and willingness to stand against the tide that separates them from the rest of the play’s pack. Suddenly the petty injuries inflicted amid the general amusement of the evening have mortal consequences, and the terror of the thing should be felt.

Even the lightest of Shakespeare’s comedies are jagged things, with reminders of the tragic flip side of the game, and the best productions meet that reality head-on rather than shying away from it. The Boices’ B&B are great fun as far as they go. I think they could deepen, and give the show a greater impact. What isn’t there, though, shouldn’t detract from what is: an enjoyable, approachable, and imaginative evening of Shakespeare that at its best is genuinely beguiling. It’s a cheerful Much Ado, a date-night show, an elaborate entertainment and, for the Shakespeare-phobic, a good introduction to the joys to be had inside the bardic universe.

Shakespeare’s comedies are remarkably elastic, open to varying interpretation, and it’s interesting to compare this Much Ado to the Portland Shakespeare Project’s current Twelfth Night. Both productions emphasize (in different ways) clear language and a clean narrative. Much Ado has a modern setting and Twelfth Night is traditionally Elizabethan, but that’s a surface difference. While Much Ado seems lighter than it might be, Twelfth Night seems darker than it often is: its comedy comes with a melancholic air that’s inherent in the script but not always played with such determination. Jim Butterfield’s Toby Belch is less the lovable comic drunk of many productions and more clearly a plain old sour and bleary-eyed alcoholic. Allen Nause’s fool Feste is almost bellicose, capable of something close to viciousness, joking around while a raincloud hovers over his head. David Bodin’s maltreated Malvolio does not go gently into that comic-foil night. Together, they alter the atmosphere. The stakes are pounded in sharply, and the laughter comes, but nervously.

A little nervousness might help this bright and friendly Much Ado reach a higher (or perhaps a better-rounded) plane, too. Or maybe that’s just the spritz talking.

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Much Ado About Nothing continues through August 16 at Post5 Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert Street. Ticket and schedule information are here.

News and Notes: A BCA shutdown, summer shows galore, grants

Business for Culture & the Arts closes up shop and lots of other items, three-dot style.

News and Notes has been in a bit of slumber, but we were awakened from our deep sleep by Business for Culture & the Arts, the nonprofit that links the arts with businesses. The group has announced that it’s going out of business June 30, though it will hold a special membership meeting currently slated for August 11. Declining memberships and staff transitions led the board to conduct some research with its members and stakeholders, and in late May, the board voted to start to shut things down.

BCA is looking for homes for its primary programs, including the Art of Leadership board training program, the Arts Breakfast of Champions, which recognizes successful business-arts partnerships, and Associates and Business Volunteers for the Arts. We’ll let you know what happens to these programs as soon as we know.

And now back to our usual News and Notes programming!

The Portland Piano International Summer Festival opens Thursday at Lewis & Clark with a busy schedule of lectures, workshops and performances, involving a great lineup of musicians. You’re going to have to visit the website to get the big picture…Post5 Theatre has announced its schedule for 2016 (which seem further away than it really is), and it involves a generous helping of Shakespeare or Bard-influenced plays—Lear, and all-female Othello, Richard III, The Complete Works [abridged] revised, along with a little Christopher Durang, Rashomon, and Jeff Whitty’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. We’ll get you linked up for the details once they are available on the website.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has received $25,000 from Arts Midwest’s Shakespeare in American Communities program. The money will support reduced or complimentary tickets for schools in Oregon and northern California to Much Ado about Nothing, Pericles, Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night the next two years, and also go to related classroom curricula and actor workshops, post-show discussions, tours, and teacher training classes. Since 1971, the festival’s School Visit Program has reached more than 2 million students, according to OSF…Coho Productions’ Summerfest is in full swing—this weekend’s show (June 18-21) is Deanna Fleysher’s Butt Kapinski, a sexy and gender-confused murder mystery, with a big dollop of comedy mixed into its Noir…Third Rail Repertory Theatre runs a mentorship program, and on Thursday those, um, mentees (?) will open the Off the Rails Festival, June 18-28, 7:30 pm Thursdays-Sundays at Action/Adventure Theater. The playbill includes three fully-staged productions of plays that are on the edgy side, and a reading of a new play by resident playwriting mentee, Alexandra Schaffer.

MJ Anderson, Eyrie, 2014, green onyx, 13 x 20 x 8"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

MJ Anderson, Eyrie, 2014, green onyx, 13 x 20 x 8″/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Sculptor MJ Anderson is giving an artist’s talk at Elizabeth Leach Gallery at 11 am Saturday, June 27. Anderson has sculpted stone for the past 30 years, and she’ll be talking about the process, including her shift in the current exhibition, Acqua Pietrificata, away from the female form to something more abstract and metaphorical, using rare stones, such as the green onyx above.

A-WOL takes its circus to the trees in Art in the Dark.

A-WOL takes its circus to the trees in Art in the Dark.

One of the best adaptations by an arts group to Oregon summer (and lots of successful one exist including Third Angle’s Porch Music and Bag & Baggage’s outdoor summer Shakespeare, Richard III this year) is A-WOL Dance Collective’s August Art in the Dark show in West Linn’s Mary S Young Park. This year’s performances are August 7-9 and 14-16, and they start at dark. The theme involves Old World circus acts—and since it’s an aerial company, they’ll be hanging and swinging from the trees…Richard Maxwell is the artistic director of the New York City Players, a band of theater experimentalists, and he’s going to be in town for a series of performances of his Showcase, a play in which “a businessman alone in his hotel room reflects on his day, and his life.” It plays 7, 8, and 9 pm Thursday, June 18-20, in the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower, 921 SW 6th Ave. It’s free, but you have to RSVP, because seating is tight in the actual hotel room where Maxwell will perform it. Yale Union is the sponsor—visit the site to RSVP.

Spectravagasm’s ‘Gender-gasm’ goes all the way

The sixth installment of Post5's frankly undersung late night sketch series "offends everyone equally," and amuses ArtsWatch a lot.

It’s a small, special club of people who’ve had the pleasure of witnessing all six of Post5 Theatre’s Spectravagasms, a series of sketch shows tackling various themes (horror, the future, religion, etc.) devised by wily buffoon Sam Dinkowitz and a small, brilliant team of other clowners-around. Too small, really. The work that obviously goes into these smartly written, tightly timed shows continues to be less than halfway met by potential audiences not bothering to venture all the way “out” to Post5, or those already on site for an earlier show who decide not to stay. Their loss! Why buy an evening of theater and not go for the ‘gasm?

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The current installment, Gendergasm, is onstage through Valentine’s Day in the late-night time slot following Woman on The Scarlet Beast and Gender Tree, and takes its thematic cue from the latter. In addition to Dinkowitz, the players are Nicole Accuardi, Chip Sherman, Brett Wilson and Rebecca Ridenour. Fast-paced, unpredictable and sometimes literally winking, it’s one of those rare satires that you could reasonably call a “romp.” And it’s faaaabulous, Bitches!

Oh. Wait. Sorry. I didn’t mean to call you “Bitches.”

Continues…

Fertile Ground Review: Bon Ton Roulet at the Shakespeare Cafe

Elizabeth Huffman's new comedy is a spicily blended Shakespearean gumbo

Throw a lot of Shakespeare romance from different plays into one pot, simmer and serve with late-90’s coffeehouse fashion, New Orleans flair, and Mardi-Gras masquerade. That’s Elizabeth Huffman’s basic recipe for Bon Ton Roulet at the Shakespeare Cafe…and it’s pretty delicious.

Bon Ton 1

Orlando from As You Like It pens furtive poems to Rosalind from a corner coffee table. Benedict and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing flip each other attitude (while checking each other out) en route to the restroom, while Ursula councils them wisely from behind the bar. Will (perhaps taking his lines directly from Shakespeare’s sonnets?) and Julia from The Two Gentlemen of Verona have spirited drunken spats and passionate public reconciliations. And Pym, a whimsical addition, offers his coworker Ursula a bit of well-deserved (though unrequited) love.

There’s something fun and unique about each performance in this milieu. Nathan Dunkin as Benedict is probably the most stereotypically “Shakespearean,” with a dark beard, a furrowed brow, and a haughty demeanor that gradually softens as he nears true love. Nicole Accuardi’s Beatrice is witty, proud and flirtatious, and Ben Buckley’s Will is as mild as Kristen Fleming’s Julia (with a broad Fraunch accaunt) is firey. Pym (Yohhei Sato) silently bartends and cleans until we’re used to him, then bursts out of nowhere with a poetic declaration. Kristopher Mahoney-Watson plays Orlando as a nervous nerd, and Ithica Tell as Ursula glues the whole show together, slinging drinks and singing blues numbers by Anderson Qunta with Shakespearean lyrics.

But the show-stealer is Chantal DeGroat as Rosalind, who does rare justice to one of Shakespeare’s silliest comic conceits—woman dressing up as man to spy on a suitor. Let’s face it: that routine usually looks dumb, because a) most actresses’ drag-king attempts are far too demure to truly pass, and b) has any man in history ever actually been fooled by a woman suddenly slapping on a hat and bellowing? Well…DeGroat’s impression of a jocular, goatee-wearing old bluesman is eerily and hilariously close to the real thing. We can believe that she fools Orlando, because, against our better judgment, she fools us, too.

Shakespeare’s plays were never intended to be sacrosanct; they’re timeless because they’re dynamic, entertaining, and infinitely adaptable. This is something Post5 Theatre consistently demonstrates whenever it stages the Bard…which is often. Boasting a packed house for much of its run, Bon Ton Roulet has equal appeal as a sample platter for the Shakespeare-curious, and as a revue for aficionados.

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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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A one-man ‘Christmas Carol’ that spotlights Dickens

From playing Tiny Tim to reciting the whole show off-book, Phillip Berns relishes the role(s) he's grown into—most notably, narrator.

What “The Nutcracker” is to dancers, “A Christmas Carol” is to actors: a show presented regularly in almost every town, that you can do every year, and gradually grow into. You start off as a young Cratchit (ideally—gender irrelevant—Tiny Tim). Next you’re Ignorance or Want, or Fannie or the boy who buys the turkey, then you’re Martha or Peter or Boy Ebenezer or (provided you’re mysterious enough) Christmas Past. By high school, you can be Belle or Young Man Ebenezer…and finally, all the remaining roles open up to you.

Phillip J. Berns and Chris Beatty perform at Picnic House.

Phillip J. Berns and Chris Beatty perform at Picnic House.

Phillip J. Berns’ experience of “A Christmas Carol” follows this model. He began acting at age nine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, playing Tiny Tim in his town’s production, and picking up other roles in subsequent years.

“My dad also used to tape every version that aired on TV,” he explained at the show’s Post5 opening night. “We had a drawer full of VHS’s of it.” Such prolonged, immersive exposure to Dickens’ well-worn text might inoculate other actors against the story’s power, but it only enriched Berns’ appreciation. “I love this story,” he gushes, “I never get tired of it.” Hence the one-man show he’s been refining since 2011, “presented for the first time off-book!”

If Berns loves “Carol” as much as he claims, it certainly shows. And if he doesn’t…feigning this much enthusiasm for the material makes him the best actor ever. Naturally, he “does the voices”: His Scrooge is imperious with rolled R’s, nasal and wheezing with age. His Ghost of Christmas Past has a hollow, almost echoey timbre; Present is jocular save sudden flares of blustering temper. Marley’s Ghost is, as yet, a bit undelineated from Scrooge—but rattles, thrashes, and whips a real chain for emphasis.

Despite the inherent blocking challenge for one man playing multiple parts, Berns uses the whole stage and even ventures into the seating. He gives animated performances, confident that his own unflappable command of who’s who in the script will pull the audience through any confusion. About 90 percent of the time, he’s right, and we see a multiplicity of characters interacting where he’s placed them in his mind’s eye. The other 10 percent shows some flailing, but he coasts through on charm and comedy.

Berns, himself, is an interesting character—not, as some others at Post5, a natural lead, but rather a studious observer, a tireless supporter, and a nimble, exacting mimic of other, broader personas. He’s slight of stature and one of his eyes is inclined to rove—though with each successive performance this past year, he’s reined that tendency in tighter. Now barely perceptible, it’s less a flaw than a unique tool in his character kit. Berns has dabbled in drag, but eschews sexiness in favor of funny, careworn characters like Phyllis Diller and Carol Channing. In keeping with this pattern, Berns plays all the “Christmas Carol” characters, including women, well—but none better than the story’s narrator, Charles Dickens.

It’s typical for narration to play some role in stage versions of “Carol,” but much of Dickens’ original wit is too frequently pared away in favor of simplicity. The author has a (bad? good? undeniable) habit of contradicting or complicating his main premise with quippy asides. He starts almost as soon as the story, using the popular simile “dead as a doornail” to describe Marley—then in the next breath, challenging it! Coffin-nails actually seem deader, he says, but who is he to argue with conventional wisdom? Only after resolving this petty semantic self-argument does he proceed with the tale.

This pattern of questioning his own (and also society’s) assumptions persists throughout Dickens’ voice; in fact, it’s almost as “Dickensian” as wage inequality. Dickens routinely admonishes his readers to think twice—sometimes via moralistic rhetoric, but almost as often by the cagier means of example-setting. His way of reframing various arguments, of self-second-guessing, becomes a model one can follow to correct for bias and think more broadly. Berns leaves most of these asides intact, and dispatches them with meaningful inflection, proving he really gets it.

As of opening night, the actor and his keyboard accompanist, Post5 music director Chris Beatty, were still working out a few wrinkles. The music behind the first scene was unsuitably sentimental and warm, full of the kind of wafty arpeggios, major sevenths, and uncertain resolves with which a pianist fills space while puzzling. After the first cue (a bell, I believe) the soundtrack smoothed out into well-timed clock chimes, ominous rumbling, and a set of Christmas tunes, variously major and minor to meet the story’s changing tone. “He’s so great to play for; he has such a particular cadence,” says Beatty, who, though part of the show, doubles as a responsive audience, laughing, clapping, and occasionally toasting Berns with a beer. (Pro tip: a pint glass might be more suitable than a PBR can).

“It’s the first night I’ve worked with the robe,” Berns confided of a baggy piece of Scrooge costumery while he and Beatty tended the theater bar at intermission. “A few minutes in, I was like, “I definitely can’t wear THIS the whole time.” Not noticeably hampered, he’d shucked the garment off mid-scene as if the change was planned. Berns also polled friends about whether or not to announce the staves at future shows. “I didn’t do it this time,” he told fellow actor Chip Sherman. “I didn’t miss it,” Sherman assured.

Already scheduled for 8 performances at Post5 and two dinner theater shows at Picnic House, up from just 6 shows last year, this engaging solo act could foreseeably become Berns’ holiday bread and butter. Good thing he’s developed a taste for it.

carol_berns

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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

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!