Scott Palmer

2018: A roller-coaster arts ride

Baby 2019's raring to get rolling. But first, a stroll down memory lane with Old Man 2018 and his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Well, that was the year that was, wasn’t it? Old Man 2018 limps out of the limelight with a thousand scars, a thousand accomplishments, and a whole lot of who-knows-what. The new kid on the block, Baby 2019, arrives fit and sassy, eager to get rolling and make her mark. She’s got big plans, and the ballgame’s hers to win, lose, or draw.

New kid on the block: 2019 rolls into the picture, fit and sassy and ready to start fresh. (Claude Monet, “Jean Monet on His Hobby Horse,” 1872, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

On the Oregon arts and cultural scene, 2018 entered the game with similar high hopes and then handled a lot of unexpected disruption, holding his ground and even making a few gains even as his hair grew thin and gray. He can retire with his head held high, if he’s not too busy shaking it from side to side over the things he’s seen.

Continues…

“Bell, Book, & Candle”: bewitched, bothered, bewildered

Bag & Baggage brews up a cauldron of comic fun and theatrical magic but underplays the dark currents of a story about social outsiders.

When I was a kid watching sitcom reruns, I had a major crush on Samantha Stevens, the good witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery in the long running ‘60s TV series Bewitched. I was even more, er, enchanted by her crazy supernatural family, including Paul Lynde’s goofy Uncle Arthur and Sam’s sly mom, Endora, perfectly overplayed with delicious wink and bite (and glorious caftans) by the great Agnes Moorhead.

Bewitched’s story grew directly from its primary inspiration: British-American playwright John Van Druten’s popular 1950 play Bell, Book and Candle, turned into a smash 1958 film starring sometime Oregonian Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemmon.  Van Druten’s original, in a spiffy Bag & Baggage production, adds a welcome dose of theatrical magic to this holiday season; it even has a first act set at Christmas, in a stylishly rendered mid-century New York.

The uses of enchantment: Norman Wilson (from left), Jessi Walters and Kymberli Colbourne in the Bag & Baggage production of “Bell, Book & Candle.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Yet I suspect director Scott Palmer shared my infatuation with Samantha’s crazy magical family members because this production portrays them more like the TV show’s zany characters than the nastier counterparts in Van Druten’s play script. Bell Book & Candle isn’t Bewitched, and this production’s direction — however, er, bewitching — sometimes clashes with the darker story Van Druten tells.

Spellbound

When SWF (Single Witch Female) Gillian learns that Shep, a publisher she’s crushing on who moved in to her building recently, is about to marry her childhood school nemesis, Gillian sees her chance for revenge. In the twinkle of a nose (actually a cat-assisted spell), Shep is ensorcelled into unbounded ardor for Gillian.

Complications arrive in the characters of an author who’s investigating witchery for a book, and one of his primary sources, who happens to be Gillian’s decadent brother, Nicky. Fearing Shep, who might publish it, will learn of her witchy powers — and that their love is based on magical rather than mutual attraction — Gillian squares off with Nicky, with his book and her relationship with Shep in the balance. The familiar (to any Bewitched fan) battle between her desire for human love, and her family and heritage, is on.

But BB&C is no frothy sitcom story. Beneath the urban fantasy facade lies a surprisingly deep and occasionally dark drama about family conflict, self-determination, and regret. Can love won under false pretenses ever be real? Gaining traction in the second act, the play proceeds entertainingly and ultimately movingly to provide some hard-earned, and heart-tugging answers in the touching third act. Though it avoids Hallmark sentimentality, BB&C is a holiday gift that resonates today more deeply than much holiday fare.

Continues…

Palmer’s got a brand new bag

Set to depart for Sun Valley, the Bag & Baggage founder leaves a legacy of adventurous art and passionate advocacy for suburban culture.

Some years ago, Bag & Baggage Productions founding artistic director Scott Palmer was registering at a national theater conference and a staffer asked for his name. Palmer told him. “Palmer, Palmer,” the man said, trying to place him. “Oh yeah, you’re that annoying guy from Hillsboro!”

“That’s exactly who I am,” Palmer cheerfully admits. “I am an advocate for suburban and regional theater. I’m not afraid to be vocal in that essential role.”

But after 15 years of pushing in Oregon, Palmer is taking his advocacy — and his art — elsewhere. He’s been named producing artistic director of Company of Fools, an ambitious professional theater company in Sun Valley, Idaho. But though he leaves B&B and Oregon March 1, Palmer isn’t leaving behind his advocacy for the arts outside the usual urban centers. With his track record of artistic accomplishment, Palmer could easily land a plum job anywhere, but in his new job, he’ll continue to push his vision of bringing arts to everyone where they live — on a larger scale.

Having built Bag & Baggage into one of the most respected theater in the region, founder Scott Palmer will take a new post in Sun Valley, Idaho. File photo.

Having grown up in what’s now Oregon’s fourth largest city, and nurtured (with a lot of help from dedicated staff and board members, he notes often) B&B into becoming its leading arts institution and one of the state’s most vital theater companies, Palmer has often had to be annoying, or at least persistent, to get support and recognition.

Continues…

Into the “Deathtrap” and back out with the new

Bag & Baggage balances winking humor and murderous intent to make a meta-theatrical classic feel fresh again.

“Nothing recedes like success,” says the fading playwright at the center of Deathtrap. That’s also true of Ira Levin’s famous 1978 play, one of the most successful thrillers in Broadway history, which ran nearly 1800 performances and became a major 1982 movie success starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Yet you don’t see it staged much by professional theaters these days in spite, or because of, the fact that it pioneered many of the meta-theatrical tricks and winking plot twists common in films and plays ever since.

That’s a challenge for anyone producing Deathtrap today: How do you make what was once so thrillingly outre’ feel fresh?

Bag and Baggage Productions, which produced this new version running through October, also faced its own similar challenge: after a decade of increasing success at Hillsboro’s big, old-school Venetian Theatre, could it maintain that track record in its very different, intimate new space across Main Street, the Vault, which demands a different kind of direction and acting?

I won’t give away the ending (or much of the plot) of Deathtrap, but I’ll tell you upfront the answer to those two questions: in surmounting the second challenge, Bag & Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer also solves the first. His new production’s modern directorial sensibility makes a familiar, four-decade old classic feel contemporary again.

The plot twists won’t let you rest: Bag&Baggage Productions presents “Deathtrap” at the Vault Theater in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography

Deathtrap was an early leader in the now-familiar meta-theater subgenre — it’s a play about playwriting. Sidney, a once successful playwright, needs to revive his career. Clifford, a student he’s mentored, wants to jumpstart his own with a promising script he brings to Sidney’s leafy Connecticut suburban home. Sidney’s wealthy wife Myra, while eager to help Sidney return to acclaim, has her doubts about both writers. Their neighbor Helga, a Dutch pop psychic, and Sidney’s lawyer Porter, seemingly innocuous, both play crucial roles in the twisty plotlines. Homicide and humor happen.

That’s enough plot summary, because though Deathtrap is one of those modern mysteries where the audience knows whodunnit, we’re still constantly surprised and delighted by what happens next. That ironic balance between comical and criminal helped make Deathtrap a breakthrough in its day. A production can easily lean too far one way or the other. Make it too slapstick and lose the power of the murder mystery that compels audience interest. Play it too straight and it’s just another dated puzzler without the satirical delight Levin provides in playing with our expectations.

Stage director Palmer is a past master at navigating that fine line between realism and exaggeration, especially in B&B’s entertaining comedies. But doing so in the Vault’s intimate confines demands a much subtler approach. A master of misdirection (in the good, non-hyphenated sense!), Palmer accentuates the sense of unease with expert little touches — a sidelong glance here, a raised eyebrow there, slightly melodramatic music and light cues — that create an atmosphere of what might be called wry ominousness. We’re nervous and chuckling, surprised and knowing, all at the same time. It’s a Deathtrap for the post-Simpsons generation that plays off the fact that the script’s pioneering self-awareness is now common currency in all kinds of entertainment. And the nuances that make it work would have been lost on the distant Venetian Theatre stage. In a post-show talkback, Palmer revealed that he’s wanted to direct Deathtrap here for ages, but knew it wouldn’t work in the oversized Venetian. It’s a small-scale triumph in the Vault.

Continues…

‘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.

Continues…

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. 

Continues…

“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.

Continues…