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Performing arts academy brings back classic dark comedy in series of performances

If You Go

What: "Arsenic and Old Lace," an adaptation of Joseph Kesselring's 1939 play

When: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 25-26, Nov. 1-2; 2:30 p.m. Oct. 26 and Nov. 2

Where: SALT Academy and Performing Arts Co.,

333 N. Main Ave., Gresham

Tickets: $16 for ages 14 and older; $12 for ages 3-13, seniors and veterans

Website: saltacademy.com/events/shows-and-recitals/19-arsenic-and-old-lace

Call: 503-919-7258

COURTESY PHOTO: SALT ACADEMY  - Arsenic and Old Lace centers on the eccentric and often downright sinister and evil shenanigans of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Brewster family. In both title and content, SALT Academy's fall theater production is 180 degrees different from last year's season opener.

"We're flipping (themes) with 'Arsenic and Old Lace,' '' said SALT Artistic Director Regina Stewart. "Last year we did 'A Christmas Carol.' "

In planning SALT's fall and winter season, a discussion arose among Stewart and her colleagues about whether to stay in the feel good/holiday mode, or "do something like a dark comedy," she explained. "Some of the actors in this particular season also performed in 2017. 'Arsenic' was such a hit in 2017, everyone wanted to do it again."

SALT Academy will present playwright Joseph Kesselring's 'Arsenic and Old Lace' in six performances between Friday, Oct. 25, and Saturday, Nov. 2, including four 6:30 p.m. shows and two 2:30 p.m. matinees at its workshop theater at 333 N. Main Ave., in downtown Gresham.

Written in 1939, "Arsenic" is a farcical black comedy centered on the Brewster family. Descended from American settlers off the "Mayflower," the Brooklyn, New York, family has since degenerated into, well, homicidal insanity.

Two sweet old aunts and their nephews figure prominently in the story, which references several points in history, particularly the significance of the Panama Canal.

"It didn't play on stage until World War II," Stewart said. "There are some funny references based on that. Even if you weren't alive then, you can still get the references."

Hero Mortimer Brewster is a drama critic who must deal with his family members and police in Brooklyn as he debates whether to follow through with his recent promise to marry Elaine Harper, his next door neighbor and daughter of the local minister.

But it's the sinister, if well-meaning mission of the two aunts that forms the play's black comedic heart.COURTESY PHOTO: SALT ACADEMY  - Written by playwright Joseph Kesslering, Arsenic and Old Lace was a hit with World War II -era audiences, but its unique comedy and characters transcend any particular time period.

"The funny thing about the play is you're endeared to the old women at the same time you know they're doing something horrible," Stewart said. "That's what dark comedy is, where you feel the humor and the ridiculousness in what they're doing."

The two cast members playing Mortimer and Elaine are returning from the 2017 production.

"They loved it so much they asked to come back," Stewart said. "Another (cast member) said, 'Well, give me any role. I want to play in it.' I wouldn't think a younger actor would consider it something they'd want to do, but (because it's) funny and farcical, we really had a lot of people clamoring to be in it this year — younger and older."

Stewart, who was among SALT Academy's founders in 2007, became familiar with "Arsenic" through the 1944 film starring Cary Grant as Mortimer.

"I thought it was hilarious," she recalled. "It's just a very funny story line. It could apply to any time in history, but the fact that it was written then, when people had such strong morals, makes it even funnier."

COURTESY PHOTO: SALT ACADEMY  - Written by playwright Joseph Kesslering, Arsenic and Old Lace was a hit with World War II -era audiences, but its unique comedy and characters transcend any particular time period. A nonprofit performing arts institution providing education in dance, voice, music and theater for students ages 3 through high school, SALT offers daily classes, a major theatrical production during the summer, smaller quarterly productions, recitals and summer camps.

It was a longtime goal of Stewart and her SALT cohorts to adapt the movie version of "Arsenic" to broaden its appeal to modern-day audiences.

"Always what we wanted to do was resurrect it," Stewart said. "We brought it back but adapted it to be more understandable. It was a great success in 2017. Many asked us to bring it back, so we are!"


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