Monday, November 9, 2015

Palo Alto Players: Clybourne Park

Left to right: Casey Robbins, Fred Pitts, Damaris Divito. Photo courtesy Palo Alto Players.

Clybourne Park is difficult to classify in terms of “comedy” and “drama.” The play, especially the second act, finds humor in the discomforts of racial tension, but is underscored with the characters’ essential humanity and desire for some amount of dignity in their life. Nobody in this play is a saint, but nobody is irrationally cruel either. Palo Alto Players’ rendition, directed by Jeanie K. Smith, uses brilliant staging to illustrate the subtleties of this challenging, multileveled play.

The first act, taking place in 1959 in the middle-class white Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park (mentioned during Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun), uses many of the same beats as the dramas of the 20th century. It centers on white couple Russ (Todd Wright) and Bev (Betsy Kruse Craig), torn apart by recent family tragedy and contending with neighbors trying to stop them from selling their house to the black Younger family. Smith’s direction organizes the characters and their numerous subplots into understandable units, making the complex maze of relationships clear to the audience.

Wright’s performance as Russ – a weary man battling the recent loss of his son – is spectacular, measuring up to some of American theatre’s greatest patriarchs. In an act where almost every character’s true intentions are obscured by a barrier of politeness, Russ’ motivation is clear – he wants to leave. This clarity of action makes him more sympathetic than Jim (Casey Robbins), who wants to sweep tragedy under the rug, or Karl (Michael Rhone), who cares more about keeping the neighborhood white than about his neighbors’ pain.

Caught in the crossfire are Francine (Damaris Divito), Bev’s black housekeeper, and her husband Albert (Fred Pitts), who have no particular investment in the drama – Francine has somewhere she needs to be – but end up being used as props in everyone’s argument. Albert is by far the funniest character in this act, occasionally stepping in with a piercing remark that deflates the tension the other characters have painstakingly built up. The art of the one-liner is difficult, and in Clybourne Park, Pitts proves that he is a master.

The second act, set 50 years later in what has become an increasingly gentrified black neighborhood, retains much of the previous act’s structure but presents itself as a modern comedy. Michael Rhone and Kelly Rhinehart play Karl and Betsy, a white couple seeking to tear down the house from the previous act, but who have run into opposition in the form of black housing board representatives Kevin and Lena (Pitts and Divito).

In this act the web of relationships is simpler, the veneer of politeness is more fragile, and many of the characters are less sympathetic. Divito’s acting as Lena is superb – she’s singularly focused on protecting her family’s legacy and Clybourne Park as a community, and although she plays along, she quickly stops putting up with Karl and Betsy’s sheer ignorance of the problems they cause. Her performance is powerful but reactive; she doesn’t want to get dragged into a fight, but she can more than hold her own.

Clybourne Park is an intelligent, funny, well-written play about the way people skirt around uncomfortable issues of race and privilege, and how the artificial constructs of polite conversation crumble when faced with reality. Solid acting from the entire company and smart direction make this play a community theatre gem and an absolute must-see. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Palo Alto Players: Chicago

Left to right: Elizabeth Santana, Janelle LaSalle. Photo courtesy Palo Alto Players.

Chicago occupies a space alongside Cabaret as one of the best musicals of Kander and Ebb’s storied career. More light-hearted and macabre than its sister show, Chicago ties together satire of American celebrity criminals, the transitory nature of fame, and the excesses of the Roaring Twenties with a ragtime bow. Palo Alto Players’ version, under the direction of Jamie Scott, employs a talented vocal cast and gutsy choreography to create a Chicago that is dark, sexy, and most of all, entertaining.

Janelle LaSalle stars as literal femme fatale Velma Kelly, becoming more and more distraught as newcomer Roxie Hart (Elizabeth Santana) steals her chance at the spotlight. If Roxie is the dramatic heart of the show, Velma is the comedic; LaSalle plays her with a delightful vindictive streak. As unfortunate as her circumstances have become, LaSalle convinces us that Velma Kelly is not to be pitied.

Billy Flynn, a sleazy lawyer and male lead of the show, is one of the pivotal roles of the show. In this production, he is performed by Michael Monagle, a former corporate attorney who returns to the stage after a 20-year hiatus. Despite two decades away from the stage, Monagle doesn’t miss a beat as he grandstands and flim-flams with flair to match Flynn’s gigantic ego. Combined with frequent costume changes and elaborate choreography, Monagle’s acting demonstrates that Flynn has risen from the dirty world of celebrity crime to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

In a cast brimming with excellent vocalists, the best among them has to be Jennifer Taylor Daniels, a Santa Cruz jazz/blues vocalist who plays the part of capitalistic prison ringleader Matron “Mama” Morton. Though, sadly, she only gets two numbers, she displays an impressive acting range within them: A powerful matriarch in “When You’re Good to Mama” and a dejected colleague to Velma in “Class.” Daniels’ comedic skills and belting ability make her the perfect fit for Mama Morton.

The set, designed by Patrick Klein and lit by Nicholas Kumamoto, features a lavish stairway set common to early 20th-century variety shows, braced by rows of prison cells. Kumamoto’s lighting makes frequent use of spotlights upon the dreary, gray set, adding subtle splashes of color and playing into the themes of dramatic ego present in the musical. This set gives the impression of location and time without being too specific, complimenting Chicago’s lean script and winking acknowledgement that it’s a show.

Palo Alto Players’ Chicago represents the theatre group’s ambition as a community theatre. Not content to take the obvious routes when producing crowd-favorite musicals, Palo Alto Players takes artistic risks and makes bold statements. Combined with intelligent set design and a well-chosen cast, Chicago is a must-see production. 

Friday, September 4, 2015


Location: Ashland, OR

Food: Hamburgers

Close To: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Oregon Cabaret Theatre

Flip is the third of Jamie North’s Ashland culinary creations, after bakery Mix and fine dining establishment Amuse. This new burger joint, located in Agave’s former location on Main Street, is meant to capture the casual atmosphere of a diner while maintaining the level of edible excellence that has kept fast food out of Ashland for years. The small menu focuses on the basics: Burgers, fries, sodas, and shakes crafted to perfection.

You won’t find any main courses on the menu other than burgers ($6.95). However, for vegetarians, or those trying to eat a little leaner, Flip offers meatless (mushroom) and chicken burgers for the same price. All burgers come with lettuce, onion, and a kind of aioli called Flip Sauce. These ingredients enhance the protein texturally without overpowering its naturally delicious flavor.

When I received my French fries ($2.25 plus $.75 for dipping sauce), I was skeptical; they were thin-cut fries whereas I prefer larger steak fries. Most fries are monotonous in taste and are best when they have a thick, fluffy interior. Yet Flip competes on an entirely different level, bringing out a deep flavor I didn’t even realize was possible in a French fry. They work well dipped in the sauce (similar to what’s on the burger), in ketchup, or eaten on their own.

Flip’s attention to detail extends to its beverages. Rather than making deals with a big-name soda corporation, they exclusively stock sodas from Boylan Bottling Co., an old-fashioned soda company that has been in operation since 1891. The restaurant offers familiar flavors like cream soda, cola, root beer, and ginger ale.

For the truly indulgent looking for a milkshake to seal the deal, Flip offers unbelievably rich shakes and malts ($5.50) crafted using high-quality Straus Creamery ice cream. Although they offer vanilla and chocolate shakes year-round, their fruit flavors are dependent on what’s in season. In summer, look for a classic strawberry shake!

Flip is an elevated take on a burger joint that strives for quality in everything it makes. The difference between the restaurant and someplace that just adds a burger to its menu to please picky tourists is immediately noticeable as soon as you take a bite. With long open hours and relatively cheap prices, Flip is not to be missed.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2015: Long Day's Journey Into Night

Left to right: Jonathan Haugen, Michael Winters, Judith-Marie Bergan. Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night has been long acclaimed for its haunting portrayal of the Tyrone family, loosely based on O’Neill’s early life as the son of former actor James O’Neill. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s version, directed by Christopher Liam Moore (King Lear) is slow, raw, and painful – the wound at the core of the Tyrone family gradually coming to the harsh light of day.

Cast in the role of patriarch James Tyrone is Michael Winters, who can be remembered from his exemplary King Lear last season. Winters’ drawling speech hangs a verbal guillotine over everyone he addresses–there’s an unsettling feeling that even if he’s being nice now, the next instant he might bring down the blade. He plays James Tyrone with incredible depth, creating a figure as pitiable as he is despicable.

Though Michael Winters was outstanding, the actor who made the truly most interesting decisions was Judith-Marie Bergan in her role as Mary Tyrone. A common interpretation of the text is to present Mary as the perfect housewife, gradually revealing more and more her painkiller addiction in a cliché Stepford Wives farce. Bergan, however, presents a fierce, high-status mask, someone who has fought against James’ ego for decades and refuses to let him fully control their kids. Her descent into pill-stoked madness becomes all the more heartbreaking when we see how powerful she used to be.

Christopher Acebo’s set design takes a lavish 20th-century house, warm colors and multiple stories, then distorts it into a dreamlike realm through judicious use of scrim and suspended props. Carefully inserted pieces of raw wood, including a tree trunk jutting through a staircase at the back of the three-quarters thrust stage, represents the creeping forces that intrude on the life of a family desperately trying to keep themselves together. This is a fitting piece of scenery crafting, and an impeccably subtle one as well – something isn’t right but it takes a while to define what it is.

A cornerstone of the American theatre, Long Day’s Journey Into Night could also be considered the cornerstone of the 2015 OSF season. Moore’s version is faithful to the original play, while staged in a way that enhances the intimate tragedy at its heart. If you’ve been waiting for a chance to see one of the most important plays of the 20th century, now is the time.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2015: Guys and Dolls

Left to right: Daniel T. Parker, Rodney Gardiner, David Kelly. Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Loesser, Swerling, and Burrows’ classic musical Guys and Dolls has a lot going for it even before it hits the stage: A toe-tapping score, well-developed characters taken from the Manhattan of Damon Runyon, and clever lyrics. However, OSF has elevated this Broadway standard even further through the direction of Mary Zimmerman. Zimmerman’ s techniques of representational fantasy, known at OSF for 2013’s transcendent White Snake, makes Guys and Dolls the best show of the season and one of the best OSF musicals in recent memory.

Most of the action in Guys and Dolls takes place on a nearly empty stage, save for the occasional prop: A movable storefront and benches for the Save-A-Soul Mission or a rain of beach balls for Havana. This allows the play to have fun with space through light and motion, changing the vast space of the Angus Bowmer into a cramped room by lowering a single light and moving some furniture. The backdrop is cast in a dark green light and painted to look like tile carvings in a train station, giving a feeling of city life without being too specific where in the city it is.

The ensemble cast is hilarious to a tee. Jeremy Peter Johnson plays the ever-smooth Sky Masterson, intent on winning a bet by taking prohibitionist Sarah Brown (Kate Hurster) to Cuba. As his heart gradually opens over the course of the play, Johnson’s carefree manner becomes replaced by a palpable regret, but he never loses the flair at the core of his character. Hurster plays Sarah Brown with a sense of strength and integrity: Even when she’s backed into a corner, she stands up and takes responsibility, never placing her fate in someone else’s hands.

My personal favorite character in Guys and Dolls, however, was Rodney Gardiner’s Nathan Detroit. Gardiner lends a nervous energy to the role that makes the escalating situation of his floating craps game even funnier. His unlikely friendship with Sky only serves to bring out their contrasting personalities even further, as Sky largely succeeds at what he sets out to do while Detroit flounders deeper into trouble. While Sky is the textbook definition of a hero, Gardiner’s Nathan Detroit is a character with which the audience can identify.

Guys and Dolls is true theatrical magic, combining beautifully choreographed dance numbers and a script with a heart of gold. Mary Zimmerman’s rendition draws from her storytelling experience without turning the show into a fairy tale, and the acting company performs at the top of their game. Though you could see this musical in many places, I doubt you’d find any performance quite like the one at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.