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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"The Importance of Being Earnest" at @ Artists Rep

I am glad that I waited to write my review of "The Importance of Being Earnest" until today, because in-between seeing it on Saturday and now, I read an article about the controversy surrounding the "non-traditional" casting of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" at Portland's Shoebox Theatre. This controversy is making national-news, due to the Albee Estate's refusal to grant the rights to the play because of the mixed-racial casting. Of particular resonance to me was a brief mention in the article of the casting of an actress with Muscular Dystrophy in the role of Laura in "The Glass Menagerie" currently running on Broadway, and Rex Reed's truly nauseating criticism of that decision.

Which leads me to "Earnest," and Artist's Rep's choice to have an all-female cast. The other local production with non-traditional casting that comes to mind is PCS's recent "Streetcar" with an all-black cast. I will admit to having initial misgivings about that idea, given that one must totally ignore that the action takes place on a former cotton-plantation and everything that conjures-up. But, in that play, as with "Earnest," the novelty of the casting disappeared within minutes. I honestly almost forgot. I think this speaks to the skill of the performers, above all else. Part of me finds my lack of reaction superficial, that I should have seen something in the "difference" of the casting in either show, to have "learned something" from the new perspective, but another part of me says that what is truly profound is seeing no difference at all. The best "difference" in theatre is that the show is different every night. For example, Ayanna Berkshire, as Algie, got the giggles pretty badly on Opening Night, while forcing the butler to take the blame for not procuring the cucumber sandwiches for the guests, while in reality she herself had eaten them all prior to the guest arrival. It is unlikely any other performer, regardless of gender, would have done precisely that thing at that very moment, and that is the essence of live theatre.

"Constellations" @ PCS

I am walking up the face of the mountain
Counting every step I climb
Remembering the names of the constellations
Forgotten is a long, long time
That's me
I'm in the valley of twilight
Now I'm on the continental shelf
That's me
I'm answering a question I am asking of myself

-Paul Simon, "That's Me", "Surprise" (2006)

I am fairly sure that the above lyrics did not inspire "Constellations", but they were running through my head after seeing the play, and I think they fit. 


"Constellations" is time-bending play, showing moments both significant and mundane, and how they unfold in many theoretical Multiverses. I was somewhat hesitant to see "Constellations," after   having to confess to losing track of "Mary's Wedding" several times. But, I do credit a whooshing sound-cue for making nearly all the difference in my ability to keep track of all the shifting.  "Constellations" greatest asset is its steady and sure balance of the simple and complex. This makes it both a stimulating and relaxing neural-massage.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Marc Cohn @ The Aladdin Theater 5/4/2017

Marc Cohn once again put on fantastic show. I saw him once before, also at the Aladdin. The biggest difference between that show and this one was Cohn's infusion of Gospel-elements into more of his songs. This was most notable on "Silver Thunderbird. A new morsel he shared with us that I do not believe was mentioned at the previous show was a recording of the Muriel of "Walking in Memphis" fame. This was a nice personal touch that enhanced the song. This show was particularly special to me because it came with my first Artist Interview: Crippled Critic Interview: Marc Cohn, which also allowed me a backstage pass, and a brief meet and greet.

Marc Cohn is a remarkable artist, and a very humble man, who does not fit the stereotype I have in my head of the artist so lost in his own brain that fans barely exist. This is always a pleasant surprise.

"Toxic Avenger: The Musical" @ Stumptown Stages

"Toxic Avenger: The Musical" is the most fun I've had in months. Other shows in recent memory have had their moments, but even the most recent comedy I've seen had dark elements. "Toxic Avenger" has violence-galore, but it is cartoonish and schlocky, much like the movie from which it takes its inspiration. Normally I'm a fan of darker themed shows, but lately I've wished the theatre-scene would lighten-up just a bit. I did not stop laughing through the whole show. They even managed some cripple-humor, with a number dedicated to the advantages of possessing a "marketable handicap." The cast and creators never use the cheesiness of the material as an excuse for the quality of the lyrics or singing-quality to dip. It is so, so much fun, and in ways you wouldn't expect, like seemingly ceaseless cross-dressing. It's just fantastic, I can not recommend it more highly.

Monday, May 1, 2017

"The Talented Ones" @ Artists Rep

I was first introduced to the work of playwright Yussef El Guindi by Portland Center Stage's "Threesome" You'll notice the extreme brevity of that review. Act I was one long, disgustingly unprintable, but nonetheless hilarious, joke about sex.  I dubbed Act II an "unexpected gut-punch." I start with "Threesome" because comparing the two highlights the strengths and weaknesses of his new play, "The Talented Ones."  As was the case with "Threesome," there's a large portion of sex-humor, and ruminations on sexual-politics, unlike "Threesome," there're lengthy breaks between the humor and insightful discussions about the pitfalls of relationships, but "Threesome" saved all of the serious things for Act II. On the one hand, such a mixture must have been more difficult to finesse, which is an admirable feat when it succeeds. On the other hand, sometimes the most astute lines come across as far too calm and philosophical, considering the situations which give rise to them. This is somewhat believable, given the self-conscious intellectualism of the two leads, which is integral to the prominent theme of the immigrant expectation of over-achievement. Still, while sometimes this high-toned rationality provides a kind of humor of its own, it also has the frequent effect of drastically undercutting hard-won tension. All of that said, "The Talented Ones" remains enjoyable throughout.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Mary's Wedding" @ Portland Center Stage

There are plenty of plays with only two characters. I've even seen a few in which one actor plays multiple roles. I've also seen plays with time-shifting aspects, and devices akin to dream-sequences. But, combining all of those elements into one play can certainly cause confusion. Such is the case with "Mary's Wedding."

There are definitely things that merit praise.: The two leads manage a truly remarkable juggling act, the projections are frequently beautiful and evocative. But, I can't remember ever being quite so lost.

The plot is a nice, serviceable love story amid war, which is all the more reason to wonder why playwright Stephen Massicotte chose to complicate the narrative so needlessly. Despite the significant difficulties I had, I don't wish to steer you completely away. Perhaps if you are prepared for its eccentricities, you won't be thrown quite so off-balance.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Crippled Critic Interview: Marc Cohn

Today marks my first celebrity interview, with singer-songwriter Marc Cohn. His new album is "Careful What You Dream: Lost Songs and Rarities." The album is entirely comprised of outtakes from his self-titled debut. I chose some highlights to discuss with him: "Maestro", and "Street of Windows" "Maestro" is about George Zell, the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, who lived next-door to Cohn in his youth, and had a crush upon both Cohn's mother and step-mother, so he would invite the family to use his box-seats. "Street of Windows" takes its title from a line in Gabriel García Márquez's Magical Realist novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera" I also gained some insight into one of my favorite Cohn songs, "Walking in Memphis," which was incited by James Taylor's advice to travel for inspiration.

I often find myself using religious language to describe the experience of watching concerts, and I owe the habit at least partially to my favorite lyric from "Walking in Memphis":

"Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
And she said
'Tell me are you a Christian, child?'
And I said 'Ma'am I am tonight' "

I asked Mr. Cohn if performing is akin to a religious experience, if the feeling of transcendence is the same from his side of the stage. He said that it was, even going so far as to say that music has healed him from pain and illness. That has happened to me many times.

I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Marc Cohn, and I hope that interviews become a regular feature of this website. I will be reviewing his upcoming performance at The Aladdin Theater on May 4th.



Monday, April 24, 2017

"Beehive" @ Broadway Rose

I spent most of my childhood obsessed with the Oldies station, so "Beehive" is right up my alley. It's a '60s Musical Revue, veering just slightly into the Seventies. There is just enough "book" to satisfy those like myself who prefer a bit of structure. But, "Beehive" is about the music, and that is not a bad thing. Highlights from the sprawling score include a Supremes Medley, and truly energetic versions of "Respect" and "Natural Woman" If "Beehive" is nostalgic for me, as someone who grew-up with these songs when they were old, I can only imagine it would be even more fun for those who grew-up with them when they were new. I'll close by noting that "Beehive" is one of a handful of musicals, or music-infused plays currently running on local stages, and it is the most unabashedly fun and light. That is becoming harder to come by, so enjoy it while you can.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"Rodney King" @ Artist Repertory Theatre

I am just a little too young to truly remember the Rodney King Beating. My first vivid recollection of it was its presence in the opening-title sequence of Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" That is somewhat fitting, because Spike Lee and the star of "Rodney King," Roger Guenveur Smith have had a long collaboration with each other, including the upcoming Netflix premiere of this very show. While I am quite sure that Mr. Lee will do a characteristically stellar job, I also suspect that we are very lucky to be the last to see this production live.

To call it "breathless" would seem at first to be a cliche, but I mean it quite literally, Mr. Smith's stream-of-consciousness meditation on the event is so rapid-fire I actually did wonder several times how he was able to breathe. Unfortunately, due to some astoundingly rude behavior by a few audience members, Mr. Smith was forced to pause and admonish them.

That aside, "Rodney King" is a piece that pulses with urgency, because things have gotten much worse. It is a work of art that deserves more attention than it is getting. It is part of what Artist Rep has dubbed The Frontier Series, which is in addition to its Main Stage Season. I only knew about it from handbills prior to the Press Release. It only runs through Sunday, and Opening Night was not at capacity. I hope to do my part to change that.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Lauren Weedman Doesn't Live Here Anymore" @ PCS

Lauren Weedman's first show at PCS was "The People's Republic of Portland" and I remember enjoying it, but thinking that it could've used more structure. Ms. Weedman's new show, "Lauren Weedman Doesn't Live Here Anymore" has a stronger sense of structure due to the plot-device of an imaginary Country-Western Variety show. This device also allows for frequent musical interludes and impressions. But, the best of Weedman's humor comes from the brief moments outside of the show-within-a show,  in moments like when she tells a story about freaking out her preschool-mommy  yoga class with a dark quip about Jonestown, and her desperate desire not to be judged by them when the joke didn't land. This was also true of "People's Republic of Portland," the one moment which stayed with me in the years since, was a story she told about not wanting to be judged by Portland parents who prized low-tech entertainment, as she tried to hide that she was keeping her own child occupied with an iPad. Weedman is at her funniest and most truthful when she is palpably anxious about not fitting in wherever she goes, despite her best efforts.

The addition of music and impersonations does help to create a fuller show, and I think it has broad appeal.

"Wild & Reckless" @ PCS

"Wild & Reckless" is a collaboration between Blitzen Trapper and Portland Center Stage. They term it a "concert event," and it is indeed a good concert, but I did find myself thinking that its dystopian plot,  having to do with a drug made from lightning,  needed a bit more spoken-narration than it received. Still, the music is gorgeous throughout, so much so that I am now a fan of Blitzen Trapper on the strength of this score alone. The show is as loud and as "wild" as its title suggests, with moody "trippy" projections to help set the scene. It is a truly unique piece, and a strong signal that PCS is making a commitment to new-work, which is laudable in itself. I'd say the audience for this show is made-up of people who like theatre and like music, but are not huge fans of theatre-music. This is an example of what can be done if the two worlds unite and yet keep their own identities.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Feathers and Teeth" @ Artist's Rep.

"Feathers and Teeth" is a strange show, to put it mildly. Darius Pierce has long made a home in strange shows, but it is still disconcerting to see Agatha Olson in darker roles, having first become acquainted with her in "The Miracle Worker." She set a precedent for such a shift in Third Rail's "The Nether", but even then she was in the role of a victim. Here, she is almost a villain, though there is room for doubt.

The play can be funny, deeply sad, and sometimes genuinely psychologically unnerving, and at other times, recall the late-night horror creature features of yesteryear. It is a delicate mix, but one that the strong cast and script pull-off effortlessly. I would recommend it equally to those who are intrigued by that last sentence, as well as to those who read it and mentally exclaimed "huh?" Those who are intrigued will not be disappointed, and those who said "huh?" will see how well such disparate themes can coalesce. As one final enticement, and/or warning, depending upon your preference for such things, be careful where you sit, one side of the theatre is informally designated as a potential splash-zone.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"His Eye is on the Sparrow" @ PCS

"His Eye is on the Sparrow" is a an ambitious, likely grueling endeavor for Maiesha McQueen.  It is a one-woman biography of Ethel Waters.

I will briefly compare and contrast it with "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" because they were both both one-person shows about musical icons. What I enjoyed most about "Irving Berlin" was being told about the tragic and triumphant life of someone most of us probably know only from his songs that became Standards, so many that it's not common knowledge that he wrote them all. Ethel Waters has some tragic moments as well, most interestingly terrible treatment despite her star-status during tour-dates in the South, but the play spends a little too much time on the incompatibility of fame and love, and McQueen singing is so rapturous that I would have preferred an extra song or two instead of the romantic subplot. Seriously, McQueen could sing the ABCs and I'd be enthralled. As further proof of her magnetism, I offer that circumstances demanded I take my father along,  a man who defines "reluctant theatre-goer, and he enjoyed himself as well. All that's left to say is that I can't wait until she graces the stage again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"Marjorie Prime" @ Artists Rep

Well, at least I'm not the only one. Prior to curtain at Opening Night at "Majorie Prime" I chatted as I often do with an usher. She mentioned that the play was a strange-read, and mused that perhaps the forthcoming film version would make things clearer.

The play is a mere 75 minutes, which seems far too short to explore as many plot-lines as "Marjorie Prime" does. Scene One worked fine for me, and delved into a few themes I find particularly interesting, given my disability.  Namely, the replacement of human caregivers with robots. The questions raised by such a shift are fertile territory for drama, and to my knowledge the only work of art to tackle it thus far is the obscure film "Robot & Frank," which spends much of its time as a robot-assisted heist movie. "Majorie Prime" does address some of the expected issues, such as, the patient obeying the robot in matters of nutrition more readily than a human relative, and adds a layer of complexity because the robot can be made to appear as a person of their choosing, in this case, the deceased husband of the patient. There are also engaging moments dealing with caring for a relative with whom you have unresolved conflicts.

But then, things take a turn. Suddenly the play is no longer about the aforementioned themes. Scenes Two and Three revolve around using the robots not as replacements for caregivers, but rather replacements for psychologists, as tools to work out trauma caused by deceased people. I found these scenes much less interesting, especially since all scenes up to this point have included a large portion devoted to "programming" the robot with memories, a process that reminded me of monotonously calibrating a speech-to-text program. There are seemingly important details about the "truth" of a certain situation that vary depending upon who is doing the programming and whom they are programming, but the information revealed in these sessions remains unclear to me. But, all of that pales in comparison to the final-scene, which is the most frustratingly murky scene in recent memory. I have a guess as to what happens, but no idea what it's supposed to mean.....


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"Murder on the Nile" at Lakewood

My favorite Lakewood productions have been mysteries, and "Murder on the Nile" fits in well with what I would call by now the "Lakewood Tradition".  It is an Agatha Christie play, so it's not as brisk or funny as Lakewood's frequent mystery-farces, though it does have a sprinkling of humor. What's most important in a Christie play are the twists, and "Murder on the Nile" has an abundance of those. All of Lakewood's cast is in top-form and the set of the opulent ocean-liner is gorgeous.

Due to the winter-storm,  I was forced to attend a performance closer to the end of the run than I would have liked, but it runs through February 12th, and imagining yourself floating along with them near Egypt's warmer climate is a welcome diversion.