Weekend at Bernie’s

ArtsWatch Weekly: Steampunk Sweeney, award season begins

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

It’s a brilliant beginning. Sitting in the audience you’re not quite sure whether it’s part of the music or some Victorian version of an emergency air raid warning: that long sharp shriek of a whistle that pierces the air and just keeps on slicing like the blade on a piece of heavy machinery run amok. Then the orchestra barges dissonantly in, and the chorus raises a clangor, and you’re attending the tale of Sweeney Todd, the closest thing the world of musical theater and opera has to a steampunk antihero.

Smoke-spewing factories and magical elixir: Toby (Steven Brennfleck) plays the crowd in Portland Opera's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Cory Weaver

Smoke-spewing factories and magical elixir: Toby (Steven Brennfleck) plays the crowd in Portland Opera’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Cory Weaver

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which has two performances left on Thursday and Saturday at Portland Opera in a production featuring the magnetic bass-baritone David Pittsinger as Sweeney and Susannah Mars as the ghoulishly pragmatic Mrs. Lovett, is a musical tale grounded in the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, under whose disruptive rules and relentless sway we still live even if the rough promise it ushered in has taken on the aspect of a ghost revolution. Sweeney! Sweeney! He’s our conscience, our warning, our mirror. Plus, he sings. And that steampunk shriek keeps coming back now and again, just to remind us of what special brand of seductive, human-devised hell we’ve entered.

ArtsWatch reviewers Bruce and Daryl Browne took in a Sunday afternoon performance when the temperature outside was a sweltering 100 degrees, and report an almost-full house. “Perhaps they came in from the “city on fire” in shorts and spaghetti straps because they wanted to see great musical theater,” they write. “Maybe this was their very first opera production. Or they came because it was Steven Sondheim’s grisly musical-turned-opera, a tale of moral decay across classes with magnetic appeal to a diversity of theater goers. But aye, we ought not worry about the why. Just know that Portland Opera conjured the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim and those present were treated to a stunning afternoon of entertainment and artistry.” Read the full review here.



PAMTA, PAMTA, WHO’S GOT THE PAMTA? If it’s June, this must be theater award season. The Tonys arrive in New York this Sunday, June 12, complete with national television audience. Portland’s Drammys follow up on June 27 in the Newmark Theatre. And last night, Monday, the PAMTAs – the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards – kicked things off with a big bash in the Winningstad Theatre.


Weekend at Bernie’s: a little farce and a good stiff drink

A lowbrow movie comedy takes a leap onstage in a low-cost adaptation that's just, well, killer

Rouse, Harris, McGrath: knockin' 'em dead.

Rouse, Harris, McGrath: knockin’ ’em dead.

Dying’s easy, comedy’s hard, as the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean is alleged to have said with his expiring breath. What’s more, to paraphrase the decidedly non-Shakespearean comedian Rodney Dangerfield, it don’t get no respect.

It should. Few things in the theater are tougher to pull off than farce. It takes tick-tock timing, a mechanical turn of mind, a gift for caricature, a certain glibness of tongue, and an apparently incompatible combination of deep cynicism (in farce, almost everyone acts from shocking self-interest, which is how things get so muddled up) and incomprehensible optimism: no matter how deep the doodoo, eventually things work out, if not happily, at least to some denouement of accommodation. It’s a wholly artificial construction that squeezes its laughter from the very real dark impulses of the human soul. O noble crassness! Let the tragedians wail in anguish to the uncaring gods. A good farceur will buckle you up and slap you against the wall with the liberating guilty laughter of the co-conspirator.

All right, then. But: “Weekend at Bernie’s”?

Not even producers Chris Murray and Rolland Walsh are likely to claim this 1989 lowbrow movie comedy is a threat to the reputations of Ayckbourn or Moliere or Feydeau. And to be absolutely honest about this thing, I’ve never seen the movie, which hardly bowled over the critics although it raked in an enviable amount of box-office loot. So maybe it says something about the peculiar charms of the new Portland stage adaptation – performed, appropriately, at a bar called the Funhouse Lounge – that I drove home thinking maybe it’d be fun to rent the movie.

The adaptation, which I’m assured tosses out a lot of the movie’s padding and cuts to the chase, is by co-stars Sean McGrath and Jason Rouse, based on the original screenplay by Robert Klane. It clocks in at something under an hour and a quarter, and like a good television situation comedy (another grossly underestimated art form, at least when it’s done well) it’s chockablock with action without getting overly frenetic. This being American lowbrow comedy (can a stage version of “Porky’s” be far behind?) a running streak of crassness is a given. And, yes, the entire enterprise carries a whiff of the ramshackle, like a hastily erected gallows held together with too few nails.

But, damn, friends, this thing is funny!

In case you don’t know the setup: Richard (Rouse) and Larry (McGrath) are a couple of low-level office schlubs at an insurance company run by the fabulously successful Bernie (Andrew Harris). Richard discovers a $2 million scam, and he and Larry take the evidence to Bernie, convinced they’ll be amply awarded. They are. Bernie invites them to a weekend at his Hampton Island beach house, and plots to have his mob pals knock ’em off: turns out it’s Bernie who’s been cooking the books. But a stiff-necked henchman (the comedically invaluable Kevin-Michael Moore) knocks off Bernie instead, via heroin injection, mainly because Bernie’s made the big mistake of shtupping the mob boss’s girlfriend (Lori Ferraro, who has a deliciously funny post-coital and post-rigor mortis scene). When Richard and Larry discover Bernie’s body they realize they have to make it seem like Bernie’s still alive if they don’t want to take the fall for killing him.

Whew. Got that? There’s more, but that’ll do. It’d be fabulous to be able to commend Harris for his stiff performance as Bernie, but in fact he’s impressively limp in the role, acting like a rag doll as Rouse and especially McGrath manipulate his head and limbs for the passing crowd, having Bernie nod and wave and generally act as if he’s pleasantly stewed instead of shuffled off this mortal coil. Yes, it’s physical comedy. Yes, it’s a kick in the pants.

Rouse and McGrath, meanwhile, are terrific physical foils, like Mutt and Jeff or Laurel and Hardy. Richard is the nose-to-the-grindstone, eager-to-get-ahead half of the odd couple. Larry’s the schemer: he’d love to succeed but doesn’t see the point of actually working to do it. Theirs is a friendship of circumstance, littered with nonsequiturs and misunderstandings that pass for actual communication:

“Plenty of fish in the river.”


“Plenty of sea in the river.”

The funny thing about farce is that it has to be crisp but it has to be loose, too: wind the clock too tight and the springs will break. Director Ted Douglass keeps the show loosey-goosey, neatly structured but just this side of anarchy – the actors have space to slop around a little bit. In this sense “Bernie’s” hits the mark better than the popular Michael Hollinger comedy “Red Herring” at Artists Rep, where a good cast is kept so tight that the show doesn’t get a chance to breathe. “Red Herring” needs to loosen its belt a notch. “Bernie’s”’s pants are falling down.

Which gives you a good sense of the level of this comedy. But as cheesy as it is, it’s also classic farce, and classically knowing, and jaded, about the ways that humans operate and survive inside the structures of what Freud called “civilization and its discontents.” Everyone has a weak spot. Everyone has a price. Could be a dollar, could be a dame. Either way, ethics are adjustable. And there are two ways to look at that. You can cry. Or you can laugh. “Bernie” laughs.

There’s good support from Ilona Alaniya as a wandering bikini babe; ensemble members Murray, Douglass, Walsh, Yohhei Sato and Tyler Miles; and especially Haley Talbot as Gwen, Richard’s office crush, for whose affections he’s willing to commit unspeakable deeds. Everybody pitches in to do the frequent scene changes, a process that could be clunky but becomes part of the fun with a dreadlocked Floyd Cruse crooning smooth Caribbean tunes to bridge the gaps.

So, yes, it’s in a lounge, with low ceilings and cramped stage and folding chairs and a few round tables at the edges, and the bar and all of its activity is only feet away. And maybe that’ll turn you off. Or maybe it just adds to the overall effect: this is shoestring theater, pulled off with what-the-hell bravado and a couple of dimes to rub together. People’s theater, in a people’s place.

And you can watch it with a good stiff drink.


“Weekend at Bernie’s” is a short-run show, with remaining performances Thursdays-Sundays through March 3. Minors are permitted for all shows except March 2. Funhouse Lounge is at 2432 Southeast 11th Avenue; ticket information is here.




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