kymberli colbourne

“Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol’” review: Dickens framed

Bag&Baggage Productions’ holiday comedy shows the writer creating his most famous story -- and getting upstaged by it

Charles Dickens was a rock star. On his reading tours in both England and America, fans crowded the venues to hear him read excerpts from his novels, cheered his speeches about social issues.

Charles Dickens was a clown. Yes, the author of The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield and the rest was also the most popular English language novelist of the 19th century, but he was also known to his friends as a total cutup who loved assuming comic personae and telling uproarious stories, most of which he made up himself.

Charles Dickens was also, therefore, an actor. He liked playing roles so much that he acted in his friends’ plays and even wrote his novels by acting out the various characters in his studio to capture their voices.

Bag & Baggage Productions’ “Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol’ continues through December 23. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Such an inherently theatrical backstory proved irresistible to Bag & Baggage productions artistic director Scott Palmer, an inveterate historical researcher who in 2010 used Dickens’s life story (drawn from his diary and remembrances by family and contemporaries) to create his original comic take on the Victorian English author’s heartwarming Christmas classic. The revived Charles Dickens Writes “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 23 at The Vault theatre. (The information above comes from the company’s characteristically comprehensive study guide to the play)

Palmer’s adaptation — really an old story within a new play — has the added advantage of doubling the show’s appeal. It presents enough of Dickens’s original 1843 Scrooge story to entertain kids and others who are experiencing the holiday classic for the first time in a long time, or ever, while giving those who know the original by heart get an entirely new story around it. But although the combination makes for a generally entertaining holiday show, that framing narrative resembles one of those massive, Dickens-era Victorian picture frames, so ornate that they sometimes distract from the picture they surround. Even so, the show has so much going for it that it makes an easy holiday recommendation.

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Spinning into Butter review:  white noise

Bag & Baggage Productions' season opener should spark needed conversations about race

“It is a play,” writes Bag & Baggage Productions Artistic Director Scott Palmer in the program notes, “that deals with well-meaning, liberally minded, white people dealing with issues of racism in a way that I think is hugely relevant to me personally and to the community of Hillsboro.”

I’d go further: Spinning into Butter, playing through September 24 at Bag & Baggage’s cool, cozy new home The Vault, is a production that should be seen by anyone in the greater Portland community who’s at all interested in one of the most pressing issues of our time and place. Especially if you’re willing to set your own preconceptions aside for a couple of hours.

Carlos Trujillo and Kymberli Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Spinning into Butter.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

To say it’s important is not to say it’s a great play, though. Dramatically flawed and somewhat dated, Spinning may be more important for the conversations it sparks than for what happens onstage. However, one thing that actually does happen onstage — Kymberli Colbourne’s fully realized, yet understated leading performance — should also start a conversation, about the best performance on a Portland stage in this young theater season.

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“The Graduate: review: Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

Superficial script undermines Bag & Baggage's production of the theatrical version of a '60s classic

Many of us probably fondly remember The Graduate as a tale of idealistic young lovers Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson triumphing over a corrupt, plastic Cold War American establishment embodied by Elaine’s alcoholic mother, Mrs. Robinson.

But Terry Johnson’s lumbering 2000 theatrical adaptation of Charles Webb’s 1963 novel makes the story seem surprisingly dated, the ostensible main characters superficial.

St. Cyr and Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions' 'The Graduate.' Photo: Casey Campbell.

St. Cyr and Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘The Graduate.’ Photo: Casey Campbell.

What Bag & Baggage Productions‘ staging, playing this month in Hillsboro, does have, though, is some deft comedy and a fascinating Mrs. Robinson who’s almost worth the price of admission, despite being onstage for only about half the show. Rather than merely embodying hypocritical society’s denial of both Ben and Elaine’s wishes — the resistance they must overcome to find fulfillment — she becomes a fierce, tragic heroine who’s ahead of her time.

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‘Moby Dick, Rehearsed’ review: Welles’ whale tale

Bag&Baggage Productions' staging of Orson Welles's 'Moby-Dick, Rehearsed' is a qualified triumph of imagination over obsession

Moby-Dick isn’t a novel, it is an entire imaginative world. It is massive, bulky, colossal, terrifying, majestic and ultimately unfathomable. It is the physical representation of one man’s will, one artist’s transcendent vision, an entire internal universe externalized…”

So writes Bag & Baggage productions artistic director Scott Palmer on the company blog. Of course, the “one man” he’s referring to is author Herman Melville, who transformed his own obsession with the particulars of whaling and the fictional obsession of a foolhardy sea captain, Ahab, into the 1851 epic that eventually (though not initially) came to be regarded as an American classic.

But obsession and imagination also describe Ahab himself, obsessed by a whale and the manifold metaphors it represents, not to mention the minutiae of whaling. They characterize the great American film director Orson Welles, obsessed (as he was by so many other hugely ambitious projects he started but never quite pulled off) by Melville’s novel, which he spent years transforming into the play, Moby Dick, Rehearsedwhich the company is staging at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre this month. They also apply to Palmer, one of Oregon’s and perhaps America’s most artistically ambitious theater artists, himself.

“Who in their right mind would decide that Moby Dick was appropriate source material for a play? Only a maniacal genius like Orson Welles, really. B&B has a long history of doing staged adaptations of American novels, and this just felt like such a perfect fit for us and our style of work,” Palmer said in a question & answer interview on the B&B website. “That unapologetic ambition, that willingness to take a massive risk and potentially fail spectacularly — that feels very Bag&Baggage to me.” You might say Palmer is obsessed with transforming unlikely material, from Shakespeare’s worst plays to Arthur Miller’s weighty The Crucible and many others, into stage triumphs. He usually succeeds.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents "Moby Dick, Rehearsed" at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents “Moby Dick, Rehearsed” at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Neither Ahab nor Melville nor Welles nor Palmer let the challenges of their tasks daunt them. Ahab caught his prey, but it cost him his life and those of his crew. Melville’s novel was widely regarded as a crazy failure in its time, and its overabundance of non dramatic material still repels many readers. Welles’s misguided attempt to turn so inward-gazing a novel as Moby Dick into compelling stage drama amounted to hunting a white whale; as Palmer acknowledged in a pre-show talk, it’s perhaps a good thing that Welles devoted himself to filmmaking rather than playwriting.

In nevertheless choosing to stage Welles’s whale folly (in his centennial year), Palmer again plays the white knight, this time trying to save the white whale. Does he catch the object of his obsession in this new production and redeem Welles’s hubristic vision? Like the others, it’s a foredoomed, magnificent failure that, if you can stick with it long enough, you ultimately can’t let go of.

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