Scott Palmer

‘The Drowning Girls’ review: Resurfacing violence’s victims

Bag & Baggage’s revelatory story of the first celebrity serial killing puts the spotlight on the women, not their murderer

Bag and Baggage Productions sure got the timing right for its production of The Drowning Girls. We arrived at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre opening night amid a deluge, only to hear the eerie recorded echoes of dripping water and see beautiful projected aquatic imagery against the back wall behind the stage.

Water, water everywhere; the three actors spend much of their stage time in Victorian bathtubs, their hair and bathing gowns drenched. The magnificently minimal set features a trio of three-story tall figurative shower curtains. In this third Bluebeard story of the season (following Shaking the Tree and the Oregon Symphony’s productions), water has replaced blood as a signifier of wife murder.

Those potent production elements, including the gripping acting and directing, make The Drowning Girls overcome a flawed though frequently fascinating script to produce a wonderfully immersive theatrical experience.

Bag & Baggage's 'The Drowning Girls' runs through October at Hillsboro's Venetian Theatre. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage’s ‘The Drowning Girls’ runs through October at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

The timing is apt in another way. This show about the social sexism that contributed to the serial murders of three women opened just hours after a celebrity presidential candidate revealed his serial sexist violation of today’s women.

Of course, Bag & Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer couldn’t have known what was going to happen at the end of the 2016 presidential campaign months ago when B&B chose this play for its fall production. But while the scale of the two violations a century apart differs, the underlying social attitudes that contributed to them remain, as Palmer put it, “sickeningly relevant.” Like The Shining or Silence of the Lambs (though less gruesome than either), it’s that rare Halloween/Day of the Dead show that really makes you think and sympathize instead of just scaring you.

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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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Bag & Baggage’s “Kristmas Karol”: Confounding expectations

Final installment in creative theater company's 1940s radio spoof holiday series offers expected laughs -- and unexpected twist

Parody, Bag & Baggage Productions Artistic Director Scott Palmer says, gives us the best of both worlds: it reminds us of why we love the thing being spoofed, and it gives us the surprise and laughter of a new take on it. The humor comes from invoking those tired and true expectations, and then confounding them.

That combustible combo fuels B&B’s trilogy of holiday parodies, now complete with the world premiere of the third installment, A KBNB Kristmas Karol, which runs through December 23 at downtown Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre. We all know Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life (the targets of the company’s first two spoofs in 2013 and 2014) and this year’s Dickensian tale, so we laugh at how the plots and characters in Palmer’s original scripts scuttle our expectations of heartwarming holiday sentiment, while fondly remembering Jimmy Stewart, Natalie Wood and whoever’s playing Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim in this year’s middle school production.

Phillip Berns, Peter Schuyler, Andrew Beck, Jessi Walters, Clara Hillier, Gary Strong, Jeremy Sloan and Jessica Geffen as the cast of KBNB Radio Classics. Photo: Casey Campbell Photograph.

Jessica Geffen (Lana North-Berkshire-Whiteside) butchers A Christmas Carol as the cast of KBNB Radio Classics look on. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

But now that the Hillsboro-based company’s frequently hilarious series has entered its third year, it, too has attained the status of holiday institution — which means the parody itself is ripe for parody. And in this sublimely silly final installment, B&B confounds our expectations again, capping the trilogy with a triumph. You don’t need to have seen either of the first two installments to howl at this one, which makes a satisfying conclusion to one of Oregon’s most hilarious original theater series.

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Bag & Baggage’s ‘The Best of Everything’: Full Frontal Female

Despite strong performances, woman-centric production ultimately fails to fully flesh out its female characters.

By BRETT CAMPBELL AND MARIA CHOBAN

Bag & Baggage Productions has trumpeted its new production of The Best of Everything as a triumph of female theater: a play adapted by a woman (Julie Kramer) from a novel by a woman (Rona Jaffe’s 1958 book by the same title), directed by a woman (Michelle Milne), mostly designed by women (costumes: Melissa Heller, scenic: Megan Wilkerson, lighting: Molly Stowe) and starring mostly women.

With all that estrogen involved, and the source material’s proto-feminist take on the sexist ‘50s American office culture, you’d expect this new production (the first on the West Coast) to explode the stereotypes of women that the novel and play strive so hard to puncture. But it actually succeeds mostly in one major respect that’s not the one the play intends.

Bag&Baggage Productions' "The Best of Everything." Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag&Baggage Productions’ “The Best of Everything.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Certainly everyone had feminist intentions. The author of 16 books (one titled Mr. Right is Dead), Brooklyn-born Jaffe founded an organization to promote women writers, and, decades before Mad Men, BoE, along with other seminal — make that ovular — books of the era like The Feminine Mystique, published five years later, won notoriety for its scathing portrait of a sexist society’s effect on the women it repressed. Jaffe’s book traced several characters in a New York publishing firm similar to the one she worked in herself when she wrote the novel.

The play, which premiered in 2012, presents characters representative of the era’s various female stereotypes — the naive Midwesterner shamed for her normal sex drive (spunkily played by Kaia Hillier in one of the show’s best performances); the driven, career-oriented Radcliffe grad (the central character, portrayed by B&B resident actor Cassie Greer) who embodies the coming second wave feminist generation; the icy, bitchy executive (Morgan Cox’s Amanda Farrow) who has to repress her humanity and femininity to claw her way near (but never all the way to) the top in an aggressive man’s world; the superficially sexually adventurous Gregg Adams (played by B&B resident actor Arianne Jacques) who secretly longs for a traditional marriage; the prudish repressed virgin Mary Agnes Russo (hilariously played by B&B resident actor Jessi Walters) who derides women who actually acknowledge the natural sexual appetites that she herself appears afraid to unleash. In her program note for this West Coast premiere, director Milne promises that the arc of the play will show the reality of the women busting out of those cultural stereotypes.

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Bag & Baggage’s ‘Richard III’: Tricky Dick

Scott Palmer’s Shakespeare adaptation uses comedy to gain sympathy for the devil.

I’m not sure which is the more demented notion: Bag & Baggage Productions turning Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tragedy Richard III into a comedy, or seeing it outdoors on Hillsboro’s charming Main Street in 100°+ temperatures. In fact, Bag & Baggage’s Richard III is both a perfect summer theater experience — and way too fulfilling to be a mere summer fling. Thanks to the shade of the buildings looming over Hillsboro’s Civic Center Plaza and a gentle breeze, even the heat proved no problem. An audacious production like this happens only once in a blue moon, and fortunately, there’s one rising this weekend.

Peter Schuyler, Eric St. Cyr and Eric Nepom star in Bag & Baggage Productions' Richard III. Photo: Casey Campbell.

Peter Schuyler, Eric St. Cyr and Eric Nepom star in Bag & Baggage Productions’ Richard III. Photo: Casey Campbell.

B&B Artistic Director Scott Palmer conceived this Richard’s crazy concept — transforming one of theater’s best known bloody tragedies into a comedy — a dozen years ago when he was running Scotland’s Glasgow Repertory Company. What would the story of an ambitious English lord who’s willing to murder and manipulate even his own family members in order to claim the crown look like, Palmer wondered, viewed through its antihero’s evil eyes?

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‘Our Country’s Good’: drama in the penal colony

Bag & Baggage's production demonstrates theater's revelatory power

The opening scenes of Bag&Baggage Productions Our Country’s Good take place behind backlit screens set up on either side of the stage at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theater. Brutal, carnal, and penal, those Platonic (fore)shadows suggest that theater’s contrivances can reveal deeper truths about people and history than literal portrayals. That’s the conceit of theater, of art itself, and this production, which runs through May 31, makes a strong case for theater’s revelatory power.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents "Our Country's Good" at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. (Photo: Casey Campbell Photography www.caseycampbellphotography.com)

Bag & Baggage Productions presents “Our Country’s Good” at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play-within-a play, set in late 18th century Australia, tells the semi-fictional story of a British Royal Marine prison guard regiment that allows convicts to stage the first play ever performed in that province, during its original incarnation as a penal colony that allowed the Brits to rid themselves of criminals and other lower-class unfortunates whom the ruling elite judged undesirables. The British military governor’s idealistic (for its time) goal is to use theater as a kind of artistic cure for the prisoners sins. But by the end of B&B’s gripping performance, which is masterfully directed by Scott Palmer, it’s the soldiers and the audience who achieve the greater enlightenment – and a visceral, unexpected emotional catharsis. The events that follow affirm the notion that the play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king, though in a different way than Shakespeare suggested.

B&B’s version of Our Country’s Good is several levels removed from the actual events that transpired in 18th century Australia and are its original source material. The story shifts to Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, based on that history; Wertenbaker’s award-winning 1988 play that Keneally’s novel inspired; and finally, Palmer’s production. What we experience in the Venetian is the story of a young British Army lieutenant, Ralph Clark (played by Andrew Beck, who seemingly had to endure a surgical implantation that initially makes him appear the very embodiment of stick-up-his-ass pompous officer), who’s volunteered to direct an evidently stiff Restoration comedy, George Farquhar’s 1706 The Recruiting Officer, acted by the convicts his troops are guarding.

Clark’s motives are initially self-serving: he wants to curry favor with his commander. Like those who run arts-in-prison programs today, Captain Philip explains to Clark his hopes that performing in the play will provide a model for his prisoners’ rehabilitation. It’s the play’s first sign that its initial portrayal of the soldiers as cold, brutal occupiers is incomplete. We’ll soon learn that so is the soldiers’ view of the convicts.

One storyline depicts the conflict between idealistic officers who want to save these noble savages (Rousseau is explicitly invoked) of the criminal class via culture and modeling good behavior, and their colleagues, who see brutality as the only way to impose order on criminals. Already resentful at being assigned to the Empire’s harsh backwater as punishment (or so they believe) for losing the American Revolution, the latter group see the comedy, which lightly spoofs upper-class manners and authority figures, as a threat to their control, in an isolated land where reinforcements and help of any kind might be months or years away.

OCG’s military characters represent the spectrum of the soldiers’ attitude toward their prisoners, from Colin Wood’s cruel Major Ross to Luke Armstrong’s guilt-ridden Midshipman Harry Brewer (who agonizes about having carried out Philip’s order to execute young prisoners caught stealing food) to Captain Philip himself, who embodies his Empire’s moral ambiguity, capable of flogging or even killing prisoners for minor infractions as well as trying to save them.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents "Our Country's Good" at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. (Photo: Casey Campbell Photography www.caseycampbellphotography.com)

Bag&Baggage Productions presents “Our Country’s Good” at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

In working closely with his amateur actors over several months of rehearsal during which he must cross class barriers to transform ruffians into thespians, Clark — and the audience — soon learn to see the inmates as complex people rather than stereotypical evildoers, thanks to the play’s gradual revelation of their pre-transport back stories and their actions in the colony itself. Their crimes, we learn, range from petty thievery to being Jewish, or female, at the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re even capable of falling in love, with each other – and with the soldiers who guard them.

Palmer presents this absorbing story in a series of brief, taut chapters (each preceded by more shadow-screen action, accompanied by the actors repetitively chanting chapter titles) that push the pace, while risking losing continuity. For the most part, the strategy pays off brilliantly, the brisk tempo keeping the audience mesmerized throughout the two and a half hour run time. But the brief scenes force the play to rely heavily on the actors to convey the kind of emotional depth that ordinarily unfolds in longer scenes. Bag&Baggage’s resident actors, who’ve developed a powerful chemistry with each other and with Palmer over the years, rise to the challenge, creating a sense of sympathy and identification through the strong, distinctive characterization that’s a hallmark of B&B productions.

With twenty roles but only ten actors, each must double, playing one character from the top of the power pyramid and another at the bottom. The doubling whiplashes cast members through a wrenching series of character switches that they pull off almost flawlessly, especially given the emotional range the play covers – from humor (wannabe actors making their pitches to be part of the production) to an immensely poignant scene in which an amateur hangman measures a woman for the noose that will kill her. Palmer adeptly uses subtle physical and vocal exaggeration to make each a little larger than life, reinforcing the notion that the colony is itself a giant stage upon which these soldiers and convicts are re-enacting British class conflicts.

The compelling characterizations also compensate for the lack of textural depth that a different kind of production would convey with incidental music or more elaborate scenery and props. This surprisingly spare one effectively keeps the focus on the people rather than their historical setting. And that emphasis pays off: what could have been merely a historical morality play blossoms into an emotionally moving, at times heart-wrenching drama.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents "Our Country's Good" at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents “Our Country’s Good” at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Because this production is really a group triumph, I’m reluctant to single out individual actors. But Strong, Schuyler, Clara-Liis Hillier, Ross, and Cassie Greer as the victimized Duckling (“I wish I was dead,” she says. “At least when you’re dead you’re free.”) excel. Yet really, every actor offered multiple moments of real power in what has to be one of the strongest across-the-board ensemble performances I’ve seen this year.

Still, even their best efforts can’t supply all the missing pieces. Not having read Keneally’s novel, I’m not sure where to pin the blame for Our Country’s Good’s occasional flaws — the novel, the script, or this production. But whatever the source, the prisoners seem a bit too good to be true; while many transported convicts were no doubt guilty of little more than poverty, some were doubtless rough characters, and it would have made the soldiers’ eventual transition to compassion feel braver and harder-earned had we seen more of that rough side. (Portland nice is a common problem in Portland plays that call for darker dimensions.) Clark’s transition from uptight snob to sympathetic director seems a tad abrupt; I craved one more scene that dramatized his shift in perspective. Some storylines and characters (like the underwritten Malagasy and aboriginal characters ably portrayed by Damaris Webb) still suffer from gaps that even superior acting and directing can’t quite fill in.

But none of those flaws impedes our enjoyment of this mostly terrific play and Bag&Baggage’s irresistible production, both of which offer ample testament to the ability of theater — an art form founded on artifice — to tell us deeper truths than reality can manage.

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Bag&Baggage ProductionsOur Country’s Good plays at The Venetian, 253 E. Main Street, in Hillsboro. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 2, through May 31. Tickets available online and at boxoffice@bagnbaggage.org or 503 345 9590.

 
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