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The Santaland Diaries with Wade McCollum Review

December 7, 2009 No comments
Wade McCollum in Portland Center Stage's The Santaland Diaries

Wade McCollum in Portland Center Stage's The Santaland Diaries

Wade McCollum is one of the select few performers in Portland that makes whatever performance he’s in one worth seeing. One of the most entertaining and likable people on stage in Portland, McCollum consistently delivers exciting and engaging performances well worth the price of admission. With Portland Center Stage‘s production of David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries we get just over an hour of pure McCollum.

The Santaland Diaries follows one fatefully holiday season when Sedaris decided to work as “Crumpet” an elf in Macy’s New York Santaland. The play takes place during Sedaris’ leaner starving artist period, long before he became a household name for his dry, witty and offen askewed humor. McCollum does an excellent job of capturing Sedaris’ wit and humor while making his performance feel very real and immediate. During the first part of the monologue McCollum reaches out to the audience to directly connect what he’s saying with people in the crowd. He acts more like a guy telling a wild tale at a party than someone on a stage.

As the piece continues more and more characters enter the story and McCollum literally embodies each with pitch perfect vocal and facial technique. McCollum does more than impersonate people he channels them and this makes this one man show feel like it’s populated by an entire cast of characters. One of the risks of McCollum’s Jim Carrey like talent is that he’d get so lost in all the characters he’d lose the sincere undertone of the piece. McCollum seems keenly aware of this and adeptly plays a wide range of emotional notes throughout the piece, ultimately leading a crescendo of emotion that feels as genuine and sincere as if it had really happened to McCollum himself.

Sedaris’ piece itself is far from perfect. There are definite highs and lows to it. The closer the piece gets to Christmas Eve the more rushed and muddled it becomes. But it does finally hit its mark as it covers the flood of last minute Christmas shoppers all clamoring for their chance to hang with Santa. If you aren’t a fan of One Life To Live (which I am not) there are a good number of jokes and references which will go right over your head.

The real reason to see The Santaland Diaries isn’t really for David Sedaris’ humor or even because it’s a nice holiday tale, it’s Wade McCollum. McCollum is so eminently entertaining, any time he steps on stage with this kind of electric energy it’s absolutely worth seeing and The Santaland Diaries is no exception.

The Santaland Diaries runs through January 2nd at Portland Center Stage. Tickets $44-$49. Due to demand the show won’t have any rush tickets.

For More info on The Santaland Diaries with Wade McCollum:

Imago Theater No Exit Review

October 22, 2009 No comments

“…being roasted on the spit, sulpher and brimstone. What a laugh! As if they needed it! Hell is other people.” Jean-Paul Sartre

You wouldn’t think that an existentialist play with three people who emotionally torture each other for an hour and a half would be so enjoyable, but Imago Theater‘s production of No Exit manages to find the playfulness and absurdity buried beneath the surface of Jean-Paul Sartre‘s famous play. Staged on a floating, tilting square, Imago’s No Exit is a dynamic and constantly moving production.

Imago's No Exit Tilting Stage

Imago's No Exit Tilting Stage

Imago’s No Exit stage pitches and moves under the weight and movement of the actors. This tilting and movement becomes more angular and dramatic as more actors are added to the mix. Using such a strong device to present the play, Imago ran the risk of having No Exit be a one trick pony. Through the first part of the play the novelty of the tilting stage does generate strong excitement, which tapers off as the play settles in. This transition point is handled extremely well and the staging transforms from a novelty into an essential character in the show. I loved how the moving stage changes the audience’s physical perspective on the show; at times, actors seem to float in the air in front of us, and at others they seem to be falling away into the darkness.

Director and set designer Jerry Mouawad seems to be constantly playing with the arrangement of the actors on stage, using that constantly shifting dynamic to enhance the tension and create drama. Mouawad does a fantastic job of coordinating the actors’ positioning, lighting and Sartre’s text into a piece that far exceeds anything that could be done on a conventional stage. Mouawad also seems to realize how important it is not to rely simply on the technical device of the teetering stage for the success of the show, so he injects a nice undercurrent of humor to balance things out.

Much of the humor in Imago’s production of No Exit is generated by Bryce Flint-Somerville who plays the role of the Valet. Bryce’s performance of the Valet is a blend of Dr. Daamen Caligari from the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Jim Carrey. It’s a delicious mix of near-comic insanity which starts the play off on a fantastic note and carries it through the first half.

Tim True and JoAnna Johnson in No Exit

Tim True and JoAnna Johnson in No Exit

Bryce’s intensity and humor is well balanced by Tim True who plays Garcin, a pacifist writer who is at constant odds with the world and his sense of self. Tim True plays Garcin in near opposite to Bryce as he constantly draws his energy and intensity inwards rather than playing everything out in exageration. True is excellent throughout the production even though he seemed to stumble with his lines a few times throughout the evening. I’ll give True the benefit of the doubt here as I saw the production on opening night. I’m sure as he settles into the run these stumbles will vanish and he’ll be left with a simply exceptional performance.

Adding a much different kind of intensity is JoAnn Johnson, who plays Inez, an aging, lusting lesbian postal worker who has a flair for the dramatic. “I’m a bitch” exclaims Inez, and Johnson seems to enjoy every last morsel of playing that. At times it felt like Johnson was channeling Gloria Swanson, using her physicality to communicate in dramatic fashion as much as her words. Towards the end of the show Johnson injects something into a very serious moment that is so unexpected and disarming I had a hard time containing my laughter.

Maureen Porter in Imago's No Exit

Maureen Porter in Imago's No Exit

Maureen Porter rounds out this excellent cast playing a fantastically alive Estelle, a woman who lived to be desired and persued by men. Porter is captivating and when she performs her key monologue you simply can’t take your eyes off her. Unfortunately Porter’s performance is handicapped by an absolutely horrid blond wig that she wears through out the show. It’s Halloween bad and it greatly distracts and detracts from the performance. It may seem petty, but it sticks out so accutely and is really my only gripe with an otherwise fantastic production.

In other hands Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit might be a tough piece to get through. Loose in its narrative structure, extremely morose and tightly confined in a single space, a performance of No Exit runs the risk of making you feel utterly trapped and miserable. There is no schadenfreude in watching three people emotionally torture each other, but Jerry Mouawad and the Imago Theater company have found something immensely entertaining and even absurdly enjoyable within this play. Through its innovative staging and deliciously performed characters, Imago has created a fantastic piece of theater that is extremely enjoyable and absolutely worth seeing.

Imago Theater’s No Exit runs October 15th – November 15th [Thursday @ 7:00 ($28); Friday @ 7:30 ($33); Sat @ 2:00 ($33) & 7:30 ($39); Sunday @ 2:00 ($28) Youth/Senior tickets are $3 less.] The theater is located at 17 SE 8th Ave (just south of Burnside).

For more information on Imago Theater’s No Exit:

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Portland Center Stage Ragtime Review

October 12, 2009 1 comment
Gavin Gregory in Portland Center Stage's Ragtime

Gavin Gregory in Portland Center Stage's Ragtime

Portland Center Stage didn’t take the easy road in selecting Ragtime for their 2009-2010 season. Ragtime is a huge production, with a large cast, quickly changing scenes and children who play two key singing roles. Given the complexity and scale of the show, it’s a little surprising that a regional theater company would try to tackle such a large production, especially in a recession when production funds don’t flow as freely.

Director Chris Coleman seems aware of the issues of scale in his production of Ragtime and places his trust in his performers and their ability to come together to fill in the spaces where set pieces and backdrops would traditionally be. At first I didn’t like the stark staging of Portland Center Stage’s Ragtime. G.W. Mercier’s design consists of a bare patterned wood floor, a few chairs and four massive swinging doors that open and close throughout the production. That’s it. As the production rolled on I found that I did really warm to the set, due in large part to the phenomenal lighting design and pitch-perfect staging of the actors. By the middle of the first act I found myself completely lost in the world of Ragtime.

In addition to the phenomenal lighting, a lot of credit goes to the performers, who absolutely commit to seeing and interacting with objects that aren’t there on stage. There’s one moment when actor Gavin Gregory (who plays Coalhouse Walker) sits down to play at an invisible piano that is truly magical. There’s no doubt that he’s playing piano, it’s just not there. As the production progresses there are a number of pretty sophisticated transitions which happen seamlessly – no small feat when you have twenty four people on stage.

One of the reasons Ragtime has such a large cast is that it is much more a portrait of a period in American history than a conventional narrative. At its core is a story of a Ragtime piano player and the struggles surrounding the woman he loves, but the show uses this main throughline to tell dozens of little stories. Terrence McNally does a fantastic job pulling E.L. Doctorow’s novel together for the stage. All the right pieces are there to present a mural of a pivotal time of change in history. Unfortunately the lyrics aren’t as strong as the adaptation.

There are some strong moments musically in Ragtime, especially when the ensemble come together and their interweaving narrative threads unite into a single chorus and there are at least two solo numbers which are strong enough to bring down the house (one performed by Gavin Gregory and the other by Susannah Mars). But none of the songs get stuck in your head and I can’t see myself humming anything from Ragtime anytime soon.

In terms of the performance, there’s a lot to like about Portland Center Stage’s Ragtime. Most notably is Gavin Gregory who is the absolute stand out of this cast. Gregory brings such an amazing emotional presence to stage and is so vocally talented that it’s impossible not to be captivated. I’d recommend running out to see this production of Ragtime for Gregory’s performance alone. He’s that good. Ragtime is an ensemble piece and while Gregory is the standout there are a number of other extremely strong performances including Susannah Mars who is excellent, Danny Rothman who does a tremendous job with a role that could have easily fallen into the background, and Alex Thede, a sixth grader who is an absolute inspiration to any young aspiring actor or actress.

The only performance I didn’t care for was Leif Norby who is horribly miscast as Tateh, an immigrant from Latvia who comes to America to find a better life. Norby, decked out in a horridly fake beard, does a caricature of an immigrant that is cartoonish and amateurish. His character goes through a transformation in the show that is played so rough by Norby that it’s completely lost, and the following duet between Leif Norby and Susannah Mars is the real low point of the show. The only saving grace of Tateh’s storyline is Anna Jane Bishop who plays Tateh’s daughter. While she doesn’t have a lot of lines, Bishop’s stage presence is extremely strong, especially for a ten year old.

Norby aside, the production of Ragtime in its entirely is really something to experience. Director Chris Coleman has demonstrated with Ragtime how a regional theater can tackle a very ambitious production intelligently, thoughtfully and skillfully. There are a lot of choices out there for Portland Center Stage to select from and I’m very pleased to see them aim high and tackle something that other theater companies might dismiss as ‘too big’ or ‘too complex’ for a regional theater.

Ragtime is a very satisfying evening of theater, and when you add Gavin Gregory and his performance to that mix it makes it an evening of theater not to be missed.

For more information on Portland Center Stage’s production of Ragtime:

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