Jahnavi Alyssa

‘Emma’ & ‘Grand Concourse’ reviews: Instigating women

Characters in Bag & Baggage and Artists Repertory Theatre productions pit good intentions against hard reality

The upstart Portland Trail Blazers are leading the greatest team in NBA history at halftime. It’s the crucial game in the second round of the playoffs.  No one expected the young Blazers to even be here. How could I tear myself away to hear repressed Victorians prattle on about who’s gonna marry whom??

Besides, haven’t we more important things to worry about — homelessness, human-caused climate change, the potential for the Greatest Upset in NBA Playoff History?

And yet, Bag&Baggage’s production of Jane Austen’s Emma held promise. Hardly anyone pulls off snappier dialogue than Austen, not even NBA broadcast commentators Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal or Kenny Smith.  So grumbling only slightly, I headed for Hillsboro.

Cassie Liis-Hillier & Cassie Greer in Bag & Baggage's 'Emma.' Photo: Jess StewartMaize, LensFlare Photography.

Clara Liis-Hillier & Cassie Greer in Bag & Baggage’s ‘Emma.’ Photo: Jess StewartMaize, LensFlare Photography.

Unfortunately, Michael Fry’s 1996 stage adaptation falls victim to the problems that often plague translations of art from their original medium. In trying to remain faithful to Austen’s novel, Fry bogged down the stage adaptation with slow-playing exposition, just like the many NBA teams who failed to successfully adapt to new rules intended to enliven the game. Here I was watching the equivalent of the Memphis Grizzlies onstage while my mind kept drifting to the Moda Center and the Golden State Warriors with their high-flying offense.

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Heidi Schreck dishes the soup

The author of Artists Rep's new "Grand Concourse" chats about writing, acting, soup kitchens, and getting from Wenatchee to the Big Apple

Things clip along pretty quickly in Grand Concourse, the new play at Artists Repertory Theatre, which takes place in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx and performs a bravura juggling act between comedy and psychological drama. Played out on a meticulous commercial kitchen set by Kristeen Willis Crosser (the show features lots of chopping of carrots, potatoes, and the occasional finger), it’s a four-hander that features an unlikely showdown between an activist nun (Ayanna Berkshire) and a volatile 19-year-old volunteer (Jahnavi Alyssa), with excellent support from veterans John San Nicholas as the soup kitchen jack-of-all-trades and Allen Nause as a shambling, slightly addled perpetual client. As directed by JoAnn Johnson, it’s an expertly careening race of two locomotives heading toward each other on the same track, speeding somewhere between possibility and inevitability.

And it audaciously introduces Portland audiences to the work of Heidi Schreck, a New York actor and rising playwright who grew up in the Pacific Northwest.

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Rep. Photo: Nicole Lane

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Rep. Photo: Nicole Lane

Grand Concourse opened Saturday night, and I saw it Sunday afternoon after chatting with Schreck on Friday afternoon. She showed up for our interview at Artists Rep trailing a rolling suitcase behind her, a woman on the move: she’d flown in the day before and was staying only through the weekend. Still, this was a homecoming of sorts, and she was upbeat, insightful, and obviously very smart.

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