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San Francisco by Richard Connema

2006 Oregon Shakespeare Festival Part 2

Also see Richard's reviews of OSF Part 1 and Small Tragedy

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's spring production reviews continue with a new play by Bridget Carpenter called Up, Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel and William Inge's Bus Stop.

Up

Up
Christine Albright and
Robin Goodrin Nordli

Bridget Carpenter's Up is the surprise hit of the season, playing at the intimate New Theatre to satisfied audiences. This is the type of family drama that will be picked up by many regional companies; it is a fascinating and affecting look into a dysfunctional family living in Southern California.

Ms. Carpenter's play received its world premiere in May 2003 at the Perseverance Theatre in Douglas, Alaska. There has been a revision to the script for its first appearance in the lower 48 states.

Up is based on the real life exploits of Larry Walters, a truck driver who flew over Southern California in 1982 in a lawn chair that he called Inspiration 1. He connected 45 weather balloons to his chair and used plastic water bottles as ballasts. He went 16,000 feet into the air before rapidly descending onto some high electrical wires near San Pedro, California. Larry received his "15 minutes of fame" by going on various talk shows including the David Letterman show. He later committed suicide.

The down to earth drama is set in San Pedro thirteen years after the event, and the center of attention is Walter Griffin (Richard Howard) who has not worked since his famous "flight." He envisions himself an inventor and wants to find a way for another adventure in the sky. The breadwinner in the house is hard-working mail carrier Helen (Terri McMahon) who brings home the money every week. The couple has a fifteen-year-old son Mikey (John Tufts) who is just beginning his sophomore year in high school. He is a nerd and hates school with a passion. He would rather be working to help pay household expenses.

Mikey meets a pregnant sixteen-year-old girl, Maria (Christine Albright), at school. She has left her alcoholic mother and now lives with her Aunt Chris (Robin Goodrin Nordli) who runs a scam business selling office supplies out of the basement of their tacky home. Mikey, who does not know about the scam, becomes telemarketer for the dubious business. He blossoms from a despondent, shy individual to a sweet-talking charmer and racks up $59,400 and change in commission. Unfortunately, the aunt scams the poor kid out of the money. After starting as a good feeling play with everything going "up," the ending brings everyone down to earth with a realistic ending.

Up's cast is extraordinary and all interact with each other perfectly. As Walter, Richard Howard manages to be compassionate and pathological to the point of lying to his family about a job in public relations in a nearby suburb off I-5. Terri McMahon is excellent as the working wife Helen who tries to push her husband into being the breadwinner of the family. John Tufts, now in his second year at OSF, is very good as the 15-year-old son. He not only looks like a teenager but acts like a kid of that age.

Christine Albright as the pregnant adult-child of sixteen is sublime and the interaction between Mikey and Maria is right on the mark. Robin Goodrin Nordli is a real hoot as the chain-smoking aunt who could be on the Jerry Springer Show. She shows off her dancing steps in a country western dance that was choreographed by Jim Giancarlo.

U. Jonathan Toppo plays the real-life Philippe Petit, the daring French high wire artist famed for his illegal walk between the Twin Towers in New York on August 7, 1974. He is in the mind's eye of Walter as the wannabe inventor seeks to emulate the daring feats of the French artist.

Daniel Ostling has devised a two-tier set in the intimate three-sided theatre. The bottom set is a middle class kitchen/dining room while the second tier contains a thin board that looks like a high wire where Toppo walks and discusses Walter's problems.

Up runs through June 23rd at the New Theatre

Photo: Jenny Graham


Bus Stop

Bus Stop
Robert Sicular and
Nell Geisslinger

William Inge has been considered a minor playwright of the 1950s, especially when discussing writers like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. However, in the years between 1950 and 1957, Mr. Inge achieved what no previous playwright had done when four of his plays were presented on Broadway, starting with Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic and in 1955 Bus Stop, which ran 478 performances on Broadway and made into a successful Fox film starring Marilyn Monroe, followed by Dark at the Top of the Stairs in 1957

William Inge was primarily a humanist writer. In The Nation in 1974 Harold Clurman called him a "dramatist of the ordinary who plumbed no great depths. However, he always felt his characters were kin to him." Bus Stop is that kind of drama and Inge gives an honest appraisal of the characters who are stranded at a bus stop during a major snow storm in a small town in Kansas.

Bus Stop is rarely produced today since many modern audiences think Inge's plays are passÚ. Marin Theatre Company did a superb production last year which was reviewed. This production is staged in the small three-sided New Theatre, giving an intimate feeling as the audience looks at a typical bus stop with plastic tables, chairs and counter.

The characters come in one by one as a snow storm rages outside. All have different backgrounds, beliefs and behavior. Cherie (Tyler Layton) is a nightclub singer and chanteuse trying to get away from rancher Bo (Danforth Comins), an overly aggressive and crude young man who is sure that Cherie is the gal for him. There is an ostentatious university professor (Robert Sicular), who has been run out of St. Louis for his sexual predilections for 16-year-old girls. Added to this mix of character is Virgil, the guitar-playing close friend of Bo; Grace (Shona Tucker), the restaurant owner; Elma Duckworth (Neil Geisslinger), a high school student working as a waitress at the bus stop; Carl (Tyrone Wilson) a happy-go-lucky bus driver; and Will Masters (Jeffrey King), the local sheriff.

Danforth Comins as the headstrong rancher from Montana looks like a hunk of a cowboy in Levis. However, he tends to be too aggressive and rude for any sympathy. Even when he attempts to tone down his liabilities in the second act, he is still not believable. Tyler Layton plays the chanteuse role like Marilyn Monroe in the film and her accent tends to become too "hillbilly."

Robert Sicular is very good as the alcoholic professor who loves to spout Shakespeare at a moment's notice. You can see his self-hatred. Neil Geisslinger is stimulating in her role as the na´ve young student who loves culture. Jeffrey King is upstanding in the role of the no-nonsense officer of the law. Tyrone Wilson as Carl the bus drive gives a jocular performance. Shona Tucker as the owner of the bus stop is perfect as the woman who does not want a man to tie her down.

Bus Stop plays at the New Theatre through October 29th.

Photo: Jenny Graham.


Intimate Apparel

Intimate Apparel
Erik LaRay Harvey and
Gwendolyn Mulamba

Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel recently opened at the Angus Bowman theatre. This story of an African-American seamstress in 1905 New York has been getting rave notices all over the country. It has become one of the most produced plays for regional theatres since it closed at the Laura Pels Theatre in New York. TheatreWorks did a superb production of the drama last year.

Seamstress Esther (Gwendolyn Mulamba) had just turned 35 and is still a virgin. She lives in a boarding house run by Mrs. Dickson (Perri Gaffney) and designs and sews for one of her housemates. She also works designing clothes for a rich white woman, Mrs. Van Buren (Terri McMahon), who is very unhappy with her life. Mrs. Dickson wants Esther to meet some single men but none have met her standards.

Through her church group, Esther receives a letter from a construction worker digging the Panama Canal. Because Esther cannot read or write, Mrs. Van Buren writes for her to worker George (Erik LaRay Harvey) who is from Barbados. Through their correspondence, romance blooms between George and Esther. Esther falls in love with the writing of George and he comes to New York to make Esther his wife.

Esther has two very good friends, a prostitute named Mayme (Tiffany Adams) and a Jewish rug dealer Mr. Marks (Gregory Linington) whom she confides in. Esther's world, following the marriage, begins to crumble when she finds out that the honorable George is not as honorable in real life. He is dishonest and not faithful to the na´ve Esther and there are many let downs in the second act. Disillusionment sets in and Esther returns to the boarding house to sew for the rest of her natural life. Even with this down ending, she appears to be happy in her own world of being a seamstress.

Intimate Apparel's cast is excellent. Gwendolyn Mulamba, who understudied the role in the New York production and played the role at the Cleveland Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Louisville and Seattle's Intiman Theatre, is perfect as the virgin seamstress. She gives a heartfelt performance, especially when she finds out that George has not been true to her.

Erik LaRay Harvey has the Barbados accent down pat and he gives a powerhouse performance as the unfaithful husband. Gregory Linington as the orthodox Jewish merchant from Romania gives a wonderful sympathetic performance. Tiffany Adams is foxy as the prostitute Mayme. Terri McMahon and Perri Gaffney are excellent in their supporting roles.

On the large stage of the Angus Bowmer, Intimate Apparel loses some of its intimacy. It would have been perfect for the smaller New Theatre.

Scenic Designer Richard L. Hay has basically the same set that was on the TheatreWorks stage, but spread out more. He has designed a fabric lining of an old trunk for the background and floor. It is a two-tiered set with George reading and reciting his letters in the first act from the upstage second level. Small, wheeled-in sets come in and out for Mayme's bedroom and the dressing room of Mrs. Van Buren. (On opening night, there was a technical glitch when a double bed for the honeymoon failed to rise from under the stage and the second act was delayed for about 15 minutes while technicians fixed the problem.)

Intimate Apparel runs through October 28.

Photo: Jenny Graham

I will return in September to review David Edgar's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, Merry Wives of Windsor and Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, along with Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac and the rarely performed King John at the intimate New Theatre. The outdoor series opens on June 6 and will run through October 29th.

For tickets to all of the above, visit www.osfashland.org or call the box office at 541-482-4331.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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