Sunday, June 22, 2014

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014: The Cocoanuts

Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, and Mark Bedard (top to bottom).
Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, and Mark Bedard (top to bottom). Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

When Mark Bedard was performing the role of Groucho Marx in OSF’s 2012 rendition of Animal Crackers, he was also busy writing his own adaptation of the first Marx Brothers movie, The Cocoanuts. This year, the adaptation has been brought to the Ashland stage. Though it features the Marx Brothers zaniness one would hope for, it’s different enough from its OSF predecessor that it’s definitely worth attending.

At its heart, The Cocoanuts is about two things: The Marx Brothers being funny and elaborate musical numbers. The former of these did not disappoint. Brent Hinkley and John Tufts reprised their roles as Harpo and Chico Marx, respectively; these roles, requiring spectacular choreography and the ability to work as a single comedic unit, were executed as effortlessly as the original Marx Brothers. Special note must go to Hinkley’s facial expressions–he manages to convey subtlety even in Harpo’s constant manic grin.

The musical segments are as lavish and funny as they were in Animal Crackers, but are more tied into the plot of the musical instead of appearing as vaudevillian interludes. Key to these is Eduardo Placer as the hapless Zeppo (the only Marx Brother role to be played by a different actor); his nervous energy and impeccable choreography brings the songs together. The musical definitely feels like it was written by a playwright with modern sensibilities–Bedard moves away from the Marx Brothers’ vaudeville roots, turning the play from a variety show into a farce.

Rounding out the play is the hilarious ensemble cast. K. T. Vogt’s Mrs. Jamison was my personal favorite–Vogt is a very good character actor (catch her in Two Gentlemen of Verona as well!) and plays a role as the stuck-up rich lady common to the subversive wackiness of the Marx Brothers. A stone-faced David Kelley plays the unfortunate Detective Hennessey (who gets probably the best song in the show), and Robert Vincent Frank and Kate Mulligan play a pair of devious thieves.

If you are seeking exactly the kind of comedy you got with Animal Crackers, you will get mostly what you want. Though the structure of the plot is different, and even the gags have changed a little, for the most part The Cocoanuts is the wacky Marx Brothers antics you have come to expect.


Back-A-YardLocation: San Jose and Menlo Park (Note: I have only gone to the San Jose location; this recommendation is about that location.)

Food: Jamaican/Pan-Caribbean

Close to: City Lights Theatre Company, Tabard Theatre, Santa Clara University, San Jose State

There are many things to say about Back-A-Yard, all of them glowing. The atmosphere is warm, friendly, and interesting; the restaurant is located directly across the street from a validated parking garage; several San Jose theaters and entertainment spots are located within walking distance. However, most importantly, Back-A-Yard features a selection of incomparable Jamaican barbecue dishes and sides, making it one of the best restaurants in San Jose.

The menu has a decent selection, most of the entrees falling into one of several large categories. The first is various protein selections (including tofu for vegetarians) covered in Back-A-Yard’s signature jerk sauce. The sauce is spicy, but not so hot that it drowns out the complexities of the flavor. The jerk chicken ($9.75 with rice, salad, and fried plantains, or $7.95 a la carte with bread) is the more traditional option, and certainly worth ordering. There are also several meat options that use a thick, sweet house barbecue sauce, including fall-off-the-bone spareribs ($12.45 for five pieces). Additionally, there are sandwiches, a selection of fried fish, and a rotating menu of more obscure Jamaican dishes like curried goat and beef oxtails ($13.25 to $16.25, check website for availability).

It is important not to ignore Back-A-Yard’s selection of sides. If you are ordering one of the jerk dishes, it comes with some fried plantains; if not, I highly recommend ordering them separately ($2.75). The plantains are firm, rich, and slightly sweet, and once you start eating them it’s hard to go back to the rest of your meal. Also worth considering is the delicious rice and beans ($2.75), dashed with coconut milk to give it a pleasant aroma and mouthwatering sweetness. Some of my fellow diners at Back-A-Yard have made entire meals out of side dishes. Save room for dessert, too, especially the incredibly satisfying sweet potato pudding ($3.45).

Back-A-Yard is the personal project of Robert Simpson, a formally educated chef who previously worked in executive positions in hotels across the world. By establishing his own restaurant, Simpson was able to bring the flavors of his native Jamaica to several locations in California. After eating at Back-A-Yard, you will find yourself thankful that he made this decision.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014: Into The Woods

into the woods
Miles Fletcher (left) and Robin Goodrin Nordli (right). Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Much has been written about Into The Woods, considered alongside such work as Company and Sweeney Todd as one of Steven Sondheim’s greatest musicals. Despite subverting the popular endings to the fairy tales much of us heard as children, Sondheim and James Lapine managed to maintain the fantastical tone of the stories. We can still distinguish the original fairy tales, but the parts add up to a greater whole. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor production captures this spirit, with quality actors, direction that is faithful but not adherent, and outstanding technical design.

Though it could be argued that the baker and his wife are the main characters of the piece, Into The Woods is really an ensemble performance, and each actor stood out in their own way without jostling for attention. My personal favorite performance was Miles Fletcher as Jack: Though he continues to add more emotional guard as his character develops, he doesn't lose the goofiness and na├»vete required of his character. Jack is stupid, but all of his actions are justifiable, and in this way he is both understandable and lovable. Other standout performances include Catherine E. Coulson playing three separate onstage roles (Red Riding Hood’s granny, Cinderella’s evil stepmother, and Jack’s prize cow) in what could be called a true feat of theatre, and Kjerstine Rose Anderson’s rendition of Red Riding Hood, which is understated when needed but not afraid to go over-the-top.

That description could easily apply to the direction of the work as a whole. Amanda Dehnert’s treatment of Into The Woods is different from OSF’s other musicals: Whereas previous shows like The Music Man and My Fair Lady attempted to subvert what we knew, Into The Woods instead rephrases it. There is no elaborate forest set or classic fairy-tale costumes. However, through a multimedia circus with rapid costume changes, projections, acrobatics, and even a little stage magic, we find ourselves in the same woods that Lapine imagined in his original production.

Despite the minimal set, the costumes are decadent in a way that only the astoundingly talented can pull off. Many of the costumes (such as the baking couple and Cinderella’s stepsisters) are obvious patchworks, allowing us to recognize the common in an alien form. Many of the others use gradient dyeing, making the costuming impressive on both a conceptual and technical level. For those of you studying costumes for stage or screen, this production of Into The Woods is not to be missed.

Because it is an Elizabethan Theater production, Into The Woods will last only through the end of summer. If you have the time to make it up to Ashland, please try to get a ticket to this show. Even if you think you are familiar with the work, this particular performance is so outstanding that it will ignite the emotions that remind you why you see theatre in the first place.