Friday, September 19, 2003

Corpses and darkness: Recurring theater themes this fall

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Dead bodies, darkness, nighttime, ghosts. Now that fall is here and the days begin to shorten, Maine’s theatrical offerings have taken a black turn, bringing more death and despair to the stage than in recent years. Were producers, directors, and actors really that depressed in the spring and summer? Is the state of the arts truly that dismal?

The Phoenix is well aware of Maine’s recurring budget "gap," the skyrocketing costs of Bush’s war on terror, and Ashcroft’s war on the Constitution. They are not calls for despondency, though. Rather, this is a time for the arts to shine, to call out to the masses and ignite our passions, not to darken our hearts with doom and death. This is not to say we need more frilly, happy pieces. We need to be disturbed, alerted, cattle-prodded into action by theatrical performances, galvanized as a community, a society that takes charge of its fate and does not dally in the pits of despair. In the meantime, be sure to catch glimpses of the high notes, like those below.

BEST SPOT FOR A GOOD SHOW

To get a good start, drive to Portsmouth regularly. The Players’ Ring is putting on some amazing shows there. Full of local actors end energy, the performances are always enjoyable and offer a much needed break from the mainstream of theater. (Because how many productions of Proof does Maine really need? We had one last year, two this summer, and one coming up. QED.)

At the Ring, Rhiannon Productions will ask Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, September 25 through October 5. Examining truth and illusion through a Cold War lens (or is it a "War on Terror" lens?), the play follows an evening of self-destruction by professors and their wives.

October 10 through 26 will see Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, continuing Shepard’s incisive investigations of the American family.

Then comes The Cask of Amontillado, October 30 through November 9. It’s a Halloween tale, adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, inspired by something he saw in a basement at West Point, before he got kicked out. A wine cask, a dark confined space, the glittering coats of arms of ancestors . . .

Finally for the fall, trading on the Tolkien resurgence of late, from November 13 through 30, The Hobbit brings the One Ring to the Players’ Ring. Oh, and there’s this guy called Bilbo, a cave-dweller called Gollum, and a fire-breathing dragon. Is there any more to say?

Speaking of the Ring, last year’s best original script, Not on This Night, by Kittery’s Evelyn Jones, will return to the Seacoast in late December, with two showings at Seacoast Repertory Theater December 21 and 28. Amid the Battle of the Bulge in World War 2, soldiers try to commandeer a home, finding all the things a home offers, including humanity and love.

BEST STUFF WE USUALLY DON'T COVER

There’s a lot of theater going on at Maine’s colleges. Colby College, for example, will have a number of fascinating offerings, starting with a 10-minute play festival October 3 and 4.

Moving into November, Shenandoah Shakespeare Express will visit the campus to explore what it is to be English, performing Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest November 5, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One (November 6), along with Two Gentlemen of Verona (November 7).

Colby’s fall season will finish November 14 with a 21st-century reinterpretation of the 17th-century comedy The Man of Mode, exploring the cultivation of wit and manners as opposed to morality.

Also along the cultivation theme is USM’s The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Obie-winning play slated for October 3 through 12 in Gorham. Find out what can grow from even a barren landscape.

From November 7 through 16, check out the timeless tale of Shakuntala, an ancient Sanskrit piece revived by Assunta Kent. It includes music and dance to tell the story of a king who finds his perfect match but must elude a curse to win her.

Rounding out the fall semester at USM will be two student plays, Ghosting by Michael Thomas Toth and Goin’ to Graceland by M. Calien Lewis, performed together December 5 through 13 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center. Ghosting is a peek inside the lives of performers in a city theater, while Graceland is a set of character studies linked in a pilgrimage to Elvis’s home.

BEST STUFF WE USUALLY COVER

The Public Theatre in Lewiston earns top billing with two strong and intriguing fall pieces. First there’s Red Herring (October 10 through 19), of which director Christopher Schario says, "Imagine Sam Spade meets I Love Lucy." This 1950s noir comedy will have to be done well to work, but the Public Theatre is great at finding the best actors for the roles.

Then comes The Belle of Amherst (November 7 through 16). Based on the life of poet Emily Dickinson, the play stars Ellen Crawford, who was last onstage in Lewiston in the same show during a break from E.R.

Good Theater has also picked a strong starting pair. First, September 25 through October 19, is Baby, a Tony-nominated musical following three couples, in their twenties, thirties, and forties, each of whom is having a baby. Explore that life change with GT regulars Stephen Underwood and Kelly Caufield, and musical director Beth Barefoot Jones. Second (November 6 through 30) is Loot, by British comic playwright Joe Orton, a black comedy deftly twisting corpses into money and cops into robbers.

Penobscot Theater Company has updated its schedule. No more Moon Over Buffalo; instead put A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters on the calendar (October 1 through 12). It’s a picture of a friendship painted in the letters two people write to each other over the course of their lives. And from November 5 through 23, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker will take the stage, telling the story of Annie Sullivan and her famous student, Helen Keller.

Mad Horse will have a fascinating production about starting over on September 12, 2001, in The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute. Facing their true identities, two New Yorkers (played by Craig Bowden and Christine Louise Marshall) dive into themselves. Keep your eyes on the Portland Stage Company Studio Theater October 16 through 26.

Down the hall at Portland Stage Company proper, the season begins September 23 with Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, in which mistaken identities nearly shipwreck a reunion of people split years ago by, well, a shipwreck.

NEW STUFF WITH BEST POTENTIAL

Jason Wilkins’ Naked in Portland is an original musical by a former theater reviewer for the other alt-weekly and currently a reviewer for the city’s main daily. Having crossed the line into being reviewed, Wilkins is mixing love, sex, and art, following three young women "as they learn how to become the people they want to be." Directed by R.J. McComish, who knows how to guide a cast towards even a strange vision, and featuring Lisa Muller-Jones and Tavia Lin Gilbert among others, the show should be worth a look, though it’ll be a challenge to shoehorn a full musical into the cramped PSC Studio Theater (September 19 through October 5).

Emerging from their own secure, undisclosed location are Castle Theater Productions’ Tony Cox and Anthony Pizzuto. After a three-year silence, the 22-year-old Tonys are back with Agency (November 20 through 23) by UMaine-Machias theater professor Lee Rose. It’ll be a world premiere, but in all the hoopla about their personal career developments in the past 36 months, the Tonys — who won’t even be in the show — neglected to say what it is about.

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