Saturday, May 10, 2014

REVIEW: Zany "The Love of Three Oranges" at Longview's Dana Brown Mainstage a Peach

Forget all your dusty misconceptions about the traditions of commedia dell'arte (if you know anything about it at all) as "The Love of Three Oranges," by Hillary DePiano, based on a scenario (and opera) by Carlo Gozzi, provides a wild, raucous slapstick comedy that is completely retooled and revised for today's audiences.

A Mixed Fruit Salad

The play, based on the opera, is presented at the Dana Brown Mainstage in Longview, Wash. by the combined efforts of R.A. Long and Mark Morris High Schools. This is our first review for the theater/schools.

The basic plot involves a quest. Prince Tartaglia's life is filled with misery until an evil witch and her equally evil henchmen curse him to search for three giant oranges. But this quest proves more fruitful than anyone could have imagined as a once-lonely prince discovers love, friendship, and laughter when he encounters wizards, monarchs, and a wild narrator who isn't sure how far removed from the story he really is. Along the way much wackiness ensues.

For those unfamiliar with the form, Commedia dell'arte is improvisational 16th century Italian theater. The craft concerned troupes of actors (and actresses) which traveled about performing improvisational sketches wearing masks. This form is how improv and sketch drama came about.

Okay, enough of the history lesson (if you want to know more go to Wikipedia. Suffice it to say that what I experienced last night may have been a form of archaic theater, but it was also advent garde, experimental and...downright goofy.

Think of it as throwing equal amounts of Carol Burnett, Monty Python, Shakespearean comedy, Fractured Fairy Tales, Who's Line is it Anyway?, a melodrama, and one of those snarky-over-acted-Disney-channel kid shows (with a bit of Benny Hill tossed in for good measure) into a big blender and whirling it around on stage for a couple hours. Voila!

The Pick of the Crop

Honestly, I had never seen anything like the production I saw last night. I have no singular experience with which to compare it. So, how can I be qualified to comment on if it was done well or right? I do think it was creative and a very good exercise for the students. I would throw in the word bizarre, too. I would also note that it would be a challenge to direct and that I think, perhaps, that it might be a lot like herding cats.

So, with that said, I conclude in all my sophistication that director Susan Donahue did a fine job. Did I always laugh at the extremely broad, often bawdy, and brash comedy? No. Did I, for the most part, enjoy the show? Yes. And here's why:

Students were challenged, stretched and basically, "thrown to the wolves." And they ran with it. (I guess I'm kind of mixing metaphors there, but hodgepodge is in here.)

The acting was broad, often melodramatic and inventive. Much appeared to be off-the-cuff, but, unless the students are very brave and brilliantly imaginative, must have been well rehearsed. There were a handful of standouts, but the cast consisted of a mixed bag of talent levels. I will mention only those I felt were exceptionally adept at this type of theater.

Kristina Cox (Creonta and chorus), Jared Cox (wonderful as the aged Pantalone), Ashton Ruiz (Brighella) and Amy Raappana (Smeraldina) all presented memorable characters, acting chops and exercised good comic timing as did Ethan Feider (Leandro) and Anais Torres (Princess Clarice). All were daring in their approach.

Rising above these fine performances was Zach Christin (as King Silvio) whom I perceived to be a particularly strong actor, probably in many forms. However, the creme d' le creme of the crop were Carlie Arledge (Fata Morgana) and Andy Jones (the narrator).

Arledge was simply delightful as the wicked witch (loved the stockings). I loved how she played the role--part vanity, part mischievously playful, part malevolent, part sinister, part cocky--all with great comic timing. It was a complex and satisfying performance. A very strong and forceful actress who commands the stage. I see a future in show biz for this one.

Jones was amazing and engaging. If I could pick anyone (aside from Morgan Freeman) to be my narrator I would chose this young man. The sparkling delivery was storytelling at its very best. I loved his voice, his accent, his pitch, his cadence, his gentlemanly charm, his...everything. And there's certainly a dry, underlying wit and droll sense of humor. I could listen to him for hours, but he was also good to watch. There was a style to his acting (he did more than narrate) that set him apart and could take him far if he follows the glittery (and gritty) trail to the great white way.

Pruning the Production

The show was produced on a bare, but multileveled stage backed by a color-lit cyc. On the center's top most rise was a large book (pages turned to depict scene locale). The set was designed by director Donahue. There were many hand props and a few cubes used in the production. Masks, cheap elastic-attached beards, kitchen utensils and even a couple of rubber chickens were used.

The costumes (by Kim Barnwell who also served as her own assistant) were eclectic and colorful. The show was well lit (by Nick Powers, good name for an LD) with a variety of fixtures mostly gelled in bastard amber with some downward blue mixed in. I felt some surprise pink and lemon yellow could have been added to tickled the palette a bit.

The show might have benefited from a few special effects as well, but, then again, the show was presented well in its simplicity. There were several old-school music tracks used to good advantage in the show. None of the students would relate to these as well as the over 40 crowd. The sound and music design was also put together by the director. Presented in a lovely, old theater (you should see this) at R.A. Long high school, the show was acted--and well heard--without microphones of any kind.

What dancing there was was done well. The choreography, by the director and Rachel Schmaltz, was cute, concise, and tight. I especially liked the curtain call. And I should also give mention to the very rubbery antics of Rachel Schmatlz who is quite the gymnastic genius. She was also one of two musicians, along with Kendall Rogers, who nicely provided incidental pieces for the show.

So, yes, it was the weirdest form of theater that I've seen. It was briefly bawdy and so at times not to my taste. It had some PG language, too, so I recommend 14 and up at least. The thing is that some of the material is adult and some is quite adolescent, so it's hard to say at what audience the show is aimed. You could say "something for everyone," but then the opposite is equally true: "something not for everyone." All in all, I enjoyed the show, though I found it in several ways outside my norm. I was stretched and I learned some things from the viewing and from my research for writing my review. I think you might find it interesting, too.

Of special note: There are snacks (candy bars) available in the lobby for purchase, but, if you really want the good stuff, opt for the VIP tickets. For $5 extra you get to go to a special reserved, VIP dining area during intermission where you will meet part of he cast (still performing improvisationally in character) and be able to enjoy things like fruit juice, mixed fruit, veggie sticks, cookies, chips, etc. The group of cast members visiting the VIP area alternates every other  night between the "good" and "evil" characters.

Remaining performances are May 10, 16, and 17 at 7:30 p.m. and May 17 at 2 p.m. Tickets $5 (available at the door). For $5 extra, VIP tickets (reserved seating and snacks during intermission) may be purchased by calling 360.575.7133 in advance or at the door. The school is located just off Nichols directly across from Lake Sacajawea. Park in front of the school and go in the front doors to find the theater.

CAUTION: The play is rated PG for language and sexual innuendo.

By Gregory E. Zschomler


  1. This is such a great review! Thank you for coming to see our play and for also mentioning me by name in the review. The cast and I have put our hearts into this show and I'm glad that you had an amazing time!
    - Kristina Cox

  2. Thank you for your gracious thanks Kristina. You'd be surprised how few take the time to do so (but every once in while someone will tell us what we did "wrong" lol). Greg

  3. Thank you so much for your honest review - when I attended the show I honestly felt very uncomfortable hearing some of the language and innuendo... I feel like that sort of thing is out of place in a high school play, but most people think I'm "too old-fashioned." Maybe if more people speak up, they will re-think the standards they have for their productions? You don't have to sink to that level - in fact, in my opinion, it cheapens the experience. Otherwise it was a great play, with lots of talent- but makes it hard for me to recommend it to friends and relatives when the content/language isn't something I feel comfortable with...

  4. Jolly Rogers, I agree with you, but would also say that nothing was said that they probably don't hear (and/or say) on a daily basis. Things being as they are.