Friday, July 25, 2003

To tell the truth: Opening eyes and hearts

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Tessy Seward and Caitlin Shetterly don’t want to entertain people with the theatrical performances they produce. Instead, they are returning art to its roots, of disturbing, informing, and creating social change.

"We want people to see things that will move them in a fundamental way," says Seward. Their new venture, Winter Harbor Theater Company, has put on two brief runs of the first act of Tony Kushner’s still-unfinished play, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy. Their last showing of this work will be at the St. Lawrence July 30 and 31. It is a powerful show, brilliantly performed.

But it is not Little Me, or Hedwig, or any of the other shows recently found at the St. Lawrence. Only We has a harsher worldview than even the Cast’s festival, delivering a political and humanitarian message while still exploring the inner workings of the human mind.

In it, an angel (Stephen McLaughlin) welcomes first lady Laura Bush (Tavia Lin Gilbert) to one of Mrs. Bush’s most common photo-ops, a reading to a group of schoolchildren.

But these kids are Iraqi children killed by American bombs in the 12 years since the end of Gulf War I. The angel gently flays Laura’s confidence in her husband’s rhetoric, revealing a human heart beneath her loyal chest.

It is powerfully eloquent, and even "changed" Seward’s dad, a marine-hardware store owner in Hancock County and Vietnam veteran nervous about the political bent of his daughter’s new venture.

Shetterly and Seward, neither yet 30, speak with a youthful idealism, tempered by practicality and pain: Winter Harbor was formed in the cab of a U-Haul truck heading from Maine to New York, to retrieve Shetterly’s worldly belongings at the end of a broken relationship in a broken, post-9/11 New York.

The two, best friends in nursery school who hadn’t seen each other in 21 years, quickly forged a commitment to speaking out. Shetterly, daughter of painter Robert, wanted to respond to the constant US bombing of Iraq, even before war broke out. Only We fit the bill.

Seward wants to be "a force for creating some positive change." She wants audiences to leave the theater and "see the world with new eyes," hoping they undergo "an emotional transformation" and become more compassionate.

There is also a hard line: "A time like this calls for drastic measures. It calls for courage and truth-telling," Shetterly says. Their productions will "get people to that vulnerable place where you’re so alive and open emotionally," that life literally flows through your veins, and perhaps your tear ducts.

Seward admits people may turn away before they even get in the door: "It’s the risk of absolutely transforming their life that’s terrifying." She believes something about theater, about being together in a space both public and private, "makes it okay to feel more than you might feel if you were alone."

There are economic challenges involved in this work, but Shetterly points to the success of controversial playwright Langford Wilson. Grants are in the works and a board is forming.

Tough pieces addressing sensitive issues may turn off donors, but they say they won’t sell out. "We’re going to do something that challenges people," Shetterly says. "We refuse to have anybody tell us how to do our thing."

They are starting slowly but steadily, planning a short run of one show in October, and a full run of another next spring. August 7, will see Cosy Sheridan’s one-woman show The Pomegranate Seed at the St. Lawrence for one night only. Addressing appetite, body image, and myth in modern culture, Sheridan tells her own story of learning compassion.

Seward and Shetterly saw it not long ago, and were both in tears for much of the performance, opening themselves the way they want others to open during their productions. Any trepidation the pair have is masked by an iron determination. Echoing her painter father’s message, Shetterly is adamant about one thing in particular: "I will tell the truth."

Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy
By Tony Kushner, with Tavia Lin Gilbert and Stephen McLaughlin. Shows at 8 p.m., July 30 and 31, at the St. Lawrence Arts Center. Free. Arrive early and see painter Robert Shetterly’s Portraits of Americans Who Tell The Truth. Call (207) 775-3174.
The Pomegranate Seed
Written and performed by Cosy Sheridan, at 7:30 p.m., Aug. 7, at the St. Lawrence Arts Center. $10. Call (207) 775-3174.


BACKSTAGE

Michael J. Tobin has done it again. In a move he says has " guaranteed a secure future " for the five-month-old Cocheco Stage Company, he has closed its Dover, NH, home and will perform on various local stages, though with what is unclear. (Deathtrap had two last-minute cast changes, and was canceled in the middle of tech week. A reprise of Players Ring hit Gender Bender, slated to open July 25, won’t be happening either.) He initially blamed the closing on the landlord, but now says he’s choosing to avoid the responsibility of a permanent lease. It’s happened before: In the mid-1990s, Tobin opened and quickly closed the Portsmouth Playhouse, leaving bills unpaid. (He chalks it up to being " young and business-stupid. " ) A second try was the late-1990s MainePlay Productions in Portland. After moving locations because he wouldn’t up ticket prices to cover a rent increase, Tobin eventually left, claiming there was no arts support in Portland.

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