“Peter and the Starcatcher”

story by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
adapted for theater by Rick Elice
music by Wayne Barkerr
directed by Matt Goodrich

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Preston Mead (Boy), Grace Chan Ng (Molly). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Preston Mead (Boy), Grace Chan Ng (Molly).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I didn’t grow up watching, reading, or otherwise being infused with Peter Pan lore. Sure, I knew that there was a kids’ story about him and fairy we clapped for named Tinkerbell. But, when I walked into the theater for Peter and the Starcatcher I didn’t remember anything about lost boys, Mrs. Darling, or any plot.

My ignorance ultimately didn’t keep me from applauding this very fast-paced comedic prequel. But, it took me a while to figure out who people were and why I cared. For much of the first act characters popped up and took roles that most of the audience apparently recognized from Peter and Wendy. Those in the know enjoyed the fresh take on the characters and appreciated the skill of the backstories. On the other hand, I was left a little dizzy at the rapid-fire, sometimes very broad or very obvious activities on stage.

The moments of juvenile humor didn’t help my struggle to get into the play. Fart jokes –even when executed with the supreme skill of K.T. Vogt — start me looking for the exit.

Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Cyndii Johnson (Ted), Grace Chan Ng (Molly), Preston Mead (Boy), Dan Lin (Prentiss). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Cyndii Johnson (Ted), Grace Chan Ng (Molly),
Preston Mead (Boy), Dan Lin (Prentiss).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The second act was much better for me. There was more word play and no farts. Moreover, by then I’d figured out who was who and had some sense of their motivation. That let truly enjoy the comedic acting gems on stage.

Throughout the performance, even when I was dazed by the early comings and goings, the cast gave perfectly-timed, strong moments. Preston Mead (Boy) has a sense of presence that’s for days. He was innocent one moment and determined the next. I kept checking the program trying, in vain, to find the Equity* asterisk that would have explained his experience in developing character in a basically fluffy piece. Michael Hume (Captain Scott) was a sometimes stuffy, sometimes knowledgeable, caricature who was just believable enough to support the story. Very fun.

I was especially happy to see Brent Hinkley (Smee) be differently ridiculous than I have seen him before. And, wow! — James Ryen (Black Stache) was simply fun.

This is another OSF production where I feel that each actor should be separately praised. Molly, the boys, the crew members, the teacher, the other lords — everyone fit in and zinged the story along.

One of my favorite moments is a scene of mermaids, and the gaudy, but appropriate, outrageous by costume designer Melissa Torchia were a real treat. Those items of apparel doth definitely proclaimed the maids.

By the end of the second act I was hearing and understanding and immensely enjoying every moment. There’s so much inventiveness and witty words, I would like to see Peter and the Starcatcher a second time. It’s may be a romp, but it is a head-spinning romp.

I saw the play opening night, and some of the rushing and frenzy of the first act could be related to that excitement. After some performances, the timing and clarity may improve and draw in people not steeped in Peter and Wendy lore. For the show I saw Act I was 3 stars while Act II was 5… so

Ozdachs rating:
4 out of 5 Syntaxes

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“Bring Down the House, Part II”

by William Shakespeare
adapted by Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski
directed by Rosa Joshi

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Bring Down the House, Part One: Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Bring Down the House, Part One (no photos yet posted for Part Two)
Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Through a scheduling snafu I missed the opening of Bring Down the House, Part I and took up the Henry VI story halfway through. Because co-adapters Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski have done such a good job of curating scenes and speeches, I fell right into the story, despite the potentially confusing rush of characters and battles.

I had a fun time watching the alliances among the red rose and white rose nobles. I enjoyed the progressive terminal weakness of Henry (Betsy Schwarz) and the frustration of his queen, Margaret (Vilma Silva). York (Catherine Castellanos), Edward (Brooke Parks), and Warwick (Kate Wisniewski) grab the story, move it forward — or switch it up — with decisiveness and clarity.

I confess that the crispness of the story line has gone from my mind in the two weeks since I saw the production, but at the time it was crystal clear who was doing what to whom and why. There was a terrible, logical march of activity. The characters and action were the cleanest I’ve seen in a Henry VI.

The set design by Sara Ryung Clement helped. Unlike the convoluted, endlessly plotting plot that only a contemporary of Shakespeare would instinctively understand, the stage for Henry VI is both simple and helpful. The design is mostly bare which allows the performers to describe the events, react, and act without distraction. There is way more than enough opportunity for confusion in the play without having competition from busy scenery.

Even more helpful, the family tree of the protagonists was written on the floor. Throughout the show you could glance and visually check the various relationships being discussed. At some points, the actors added more family boxes in chalk to emphasize the family complexities. The approach is novel and brilliant.

The worst aspect of Bring Down the House, Parts I and II is the unfathomable decision to change the title from Henry VI. Changing the title falsely conveys the idea that this production changes Shakespeare’s language or story. It doesn’t.

It’s common for directors to “adapt” Henry VI‘s three parts into just two. Moreover, productions of Shakespeare nearly always have cuts and maybe even some reordering of scenes. Cutting and reordering is what was done by Joshi and Wisniewski for Bring Down the House. They did it extremely well. BUT, the words and plot are pure Will.

I have heard some people wonder if they could count Bring Down the House as part of the canon. I hesitated buying a ticket myself because I am not sure I want to see Shakespeare rewritten. All of this worry is unnecessary. Bring Down the House IS Henry VI.

The other concern for traditionalists is the casting. All of the actors are female or non-binary.

“That decision had a double purpose: to serve the social justice mission of [the adaptors’] company, upstart crow collective, which is to open up opportunities on the stage for non-binary and women actors; and, simultaneously, to underscore the plays’ depictions of gender in ways that would resonate with a modern audience,” explains OSF’s blog post “Adapting to Change“.

Regardless of their gender, the actors play their parts strongly and traditionally.

My quibble is that the public deliberateness of a gender-bending cast violates Checkhov’s gun rule: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

But, ultimately, traditionalists can again relax. The cast is superior, Shakespeare’s text and intent is unmolested, and the Yorks and the Lancasters tear down their houses quite thoroughly.

My one wish is that Joshi had shortened the choreographed battle scenes. They are over-styled and go on too long. Her Henry V had the same problem. We don’t need to see the horrors of war so slowly and eloquently displayed.

But overall, Bring Down the House, Part II is an engrossing study of flawed characters unable to stop themselves from destroying their families. This OSF production is powerful and memorable.

Ozdachs rating:
4 1/2 out of 5 Syntaxes

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I’m Undecided

Donkeys Looking at you

The California Democratic primary is only a week away, and I haven’t decided who to vote for. I cannot remember ever not having settled on a candidate so close to an election.

And, you know what? I am happy about my indecision.

My Facebook feed is crowded with memes and links for one candidate or another. There are a lot of positive reasons going around to vote for each contender. Posts about their good proposals to improve the country, their high ratings on environmental issues, their high rankings on justice issues, their character, and just about every aspect of their life.

I like seeing the many reasons so many of the candidates have ardent supporters.

Of course, I have also seen negative slams and cautions about candidates who are not the favorite of the author. Some of these fail fact-checking and seem straight out of Russia. Others fault the targeted candidate by bringing up their 25-year-old recanted position on an issue or attack with regretful-sounding, supposedly intellectual, analysis the flaws of their victim… and seem straight out of Russia. I am definitely not happy seeing these anxious and holier-than-thou buzz kills.

But, I am truly happy about the praise for all the good characteristics, positions, and statements of so many of the candidates still in the race. I see unique positive points that argue I should cast my vote for (in no order) Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden, or Michael Bloomberg.

Seriously.

Kicking Donkey

I watched last week’s debate, and the TiVo is set up to record tomorrow’s. I want to see what remains consistent in each candidate, what evolves, what ideas are stressed, and how each person deals with the stress! Make no mistake, these are good humans working very hard to do what they think needs to be done for the country.

I know we are supposed to hate politicians, but look at the Democratic candidates. They are working very, very hard to come up with effective solutions and sell those solutions to a wary public. The candidates are living pretty disgusting lives right now, trying to kiss enough babies to seem likable, eat in coffee shops to show that they are as regular as you and me, and simultaneously come up with detailed, bullet-proof plans to solve the nation’s problems.

Wow. We don’t ask much.

And, frankly, the candidates I mentioned all seem to show the desired behavior.

So, yeah. I don’t know today what I’ll decide on election day. Or possibly I’ll choose earlier. Maybe I’ll have a break-through vision after the next debate or later in the week while on the elliptical at the gym.

But I want everyone to know that I am happy that there is no one obvious candidate to support this week. Moreover, I have not delayed my decision because every candidate has too many flaws and I am trying to divine who is the least bad one. No!

Blue Donkey

All are more moral, patriotic, and progressive than the current President. Each gives rational arguments and cites that facts I recognize as actual facts. And, each of the candidates has unique strengths which makes it difficult for me to choose among them.

I see the moderate group as being most likely to be able to end the vicious divide in the country. But, maybe not!

I see the progressive group as being most likely to rally younger and non-traditional voters. But, maybe not!

I like some of the progressive policies a lot. I like the successful background of some of the moderates a lot. I also like the moments of the Mid-West niceness a lot.

This is truly a happy dilemma. In some years it seemed there were no really fine people running. In 2020 we have a choice among talented, sincere, and White-House ready Americans.

And, y’all who have made up your mind are invited to tell me the positive reasons I should vote for your choice. Really!

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“Significant Other”

San Francisco, CA
at San Francisco Playhouse

We walked away from the theater disappointed that a witty, entertaining evening ended with the message that straight millennials will couple up in happy marriage while their gay contemporaries are destined to remain single and desperate.

As much as I love throwback memories, reliving the experience of watching a negative stereotype of lonely queens wasn’t what I expected,… or wanted.

The play watches four best friends, three women and one gay man, navigate social life in their late 20’s. The four start out spending all their time together and being jaded about traditional dating/family. But, one-by-one the women fall in love with a man and get married.

The friends all celebrate Kiki getting married (from left to right: Ruibo Qian*, Kyle Cameron*, Hayley Lovgren, and Nicole-Azalee Danielle*).
The friends all celebrate Kiki getting married.
From left to right: Ruibo Qian*, Kyle Cameron*, Hayley Lovgren, and Nicole-Azalee Danielle*.
Photo: San Francisco Playhouse

Our gay protagonist juvenilely attempts contact with lust objects in ways designed to fail.

At the end of the play the women’s lives have changed, matured. The gay guy is still immature, and now he’s facing stereotypical life of a lonely queen.

We expected a better story. I demand a better story in 2019.

There were a lot of fun, witty, well-acted, enjoyable moments. Kyle Cameron as gay Jordan did a terrific job carrying most of the dialogue of the show. The characters felt comfortably overwrought as they progressed through the scenes in a pleasant, predictable, comical procession.

The crafts were fine. Everything except the story was fine.

I’ve looked at reviews of other performances of Significant Other and I am appalled at the lack of acknowledgement of the main theme of the play. In fact, several reviews touted the breakthrough nature of the gay character. In SO Jordan is not relegated to being a bit-playing sidekick, the reviewers applaud. Instead, in SO he is the main character.

So? A loser gay man in the spotlight is a triumph of Pride?

I simply cannot recommend spending time or money on a gay-bashing piece of theater, no matter how wittily it is written and delivered.

Ozdachs rating:
1 out of 5 Syntaxes

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“Sister Act” at Theatre Rhinoceros

San Francisco, CA
at Theatre Rhinoceros

Theater Rhinoceros’ gender-bending production of Sister Act brings an updated excitement to this early 1990’s staged musical that really benefits from the quality, energy, and queer freshness that director AeJay Mitchell’s vision delivers in the intimate Gateway Theatre.

The Cast of SISTER ACT
The Cast of Sister Act
Photo by David Wilson

The show is simply a lot of fun. A supremely good 2 1/2 hours of entertainment.

The plot is simple and simplistic, and it comes from the hit 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie of the same name. A gangster’s (Curtis played by Crystal Liu) moll (Deloris played by Branden Noel Thomas) runs afoul of the mob and has to hide in an unlikely place, a nunnery. The moll is helped by a good cop (Eddie played by Jarrett Holley). She makes friends with most of the sisters, especially a novice (Sister Mary Robert played by Abigail Campbell). The Mother Superior (played by Kim Larsen) is a sourpuss most of the play, but in the end Deloris, Mother Superior, and all of the nuns affirm their sisterhood. It’s a light, antic, feel-good structure designed to showcase the singing and dancing of the actors.

The musical focuses mainly on enjoyable scenes sugared with blatant moments of touching emotion that are so set up that I hate to admit I felt like tearing up during a couple of them. Of course I didn’t tear up for the schlocky heartstrings-tugging moments, but it’d be okay if you did.

This Sister Act owes its success to a massive amount of talent on stage and in the crafts. Theatre Rhino properly uses the fluffy story as backdrop for boisterous performances, and the actors and costumes deliver!

Branden Noel Thomas’ Deloris unleashes a force of nature. His/her voice could carry the show on its own, but it’s paired with a body filled with C2 that explodes in a barely controlled way in scene after scene. Thomas alternates and combines belting out songs with strong aerobic choreography (also designed by AeJay Mitchell). But, Thomas also slows down and exploits the tender moments of the show. He’s extremely impressive.

Branden Noel Thomas* as Deloris in SISTER ACT.
Branden Noel Thomas as Deloris in SISTER ACT.
Photo by David Wilson.

Other actors deserve special applause.

Abigail Campbell’s Sister Mary Robert as the nunnery’s novice is a perfect counter to Deloris’ barely-under-wraps, worldly lounge singer. Thomas as Deloris is a hefty mountain of in-your-face flesh, and is armed with a supremely secure voice. Campbell counters with a small frame and a much lighter tone. While Campbell overcomes her insecure attitude and allows her timid voice to roar by the end of the show, the balance between the styles and characters is both appropriate and satisfying.

Kim Larsen as Mother Superior provides a different, but also complementary, show-enriching contrast to Deloris. Larsen sings with meaning and feeling (and class and quality), often slowing down the ambient madness. He avoids being a hammy prude caricature, and instead fulfills the necessary foil role. Well, he is hammy at times, but not an annoying spotlight-hogging ham. It’s a difficult balance, and Larsen carries it off.

Joyce Domanico-Huh as Joey, John Charles Quimpo as T. J., Crystal Liu as Curtis, and Abraham Baldonado as Pablo. Photo by David Wilson.
Joyce Domanico-Huh as Joey, John Charles Quimpo as T. J., Crystal Liu as Curtis, and Abraham Baldonado as Pablo.
Photo by David Wilson.

A third acting standout of the show is Jarrett Holley as the police officer. The richness and sweetness of his voice make his songs unreasonably pleasurable. I loved his fantasy role-switching scene, and whenever he was onstage he added to the depth of the characters and story.

Crystal Liu’s stereotypical villainous mobster Curtis also worked completely. Liu was sexist, crass, self-centered, and fun. She brought a strong, if not menacing, sound to Curtis’ songs. I even enjoyed her faked pencil mustache drawn to masculine-up, if not butch-up, the character.

By the way, the gender swapping of Deloris, Curtis, and Mother Superior, the male nuns, the female mobster boys, and the other gender non-conforming casting is never acknowledged. There’s not even a knowing wink or nod. Nor should it have been. Maybe the gender switching made the show more qualified for the Theatre Rhinoceros season — the 41st season of the world’s longest-running queer theater. But, this Sister Act never jumped the shark and pretended to be a over-the-top drag queen romp. The production aims for — and achieves — quality, not kitsch.

My final special appreciation is for David Draper’s costumes. I loved how Deloris went from wearing slutty tight lounge singer outfits with gaudy accessories to nun habits. And, the moments of patterns and color on all the actors were especially striking after several scenes of the black and white nuns. Very fun.

Theatre Rhinoceros also coped well with the stress of putting on a large-cast musical as a community theater company. Only Thomas/Deloris is an experienced Equity actor, yet the cast delivered a professional show. I heard a show craft member worry about the production glitches he noticed in the performance I saw… but I was not distracted as an audience member by what grabbed his attention.

In fact, we all left the theater feeling spectacularly entertained. We’d heard excellent singing. We’d experienced fun dance moves. We’d enjoyed a well acted, happy story.

Theatre Rhinoceros’ Sister Act is very, very good live entertainment — go see it!

Disclaimer: I do Internet work for Theatre Rhinoceros. My opinions here are really what I think. But, I admit, that if I hated the production, I would have simply not mentioned it!

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