Friday, December 26, 2003

The ghost of theatrics past: The best of 2003 on local stages

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In this space at the very beginning of 2003, the Phoenix made several wishes and voiced those of others in the theater community.

The big challenge was to improve the diversity on Maine’s stages, and it was wonderful to see that happen this year, though I take no credit for the efforts of others.

The top prize goes to Portland playwright John Urquhart, who interviewed plenty of immigrants while putting together Lion Hunting on Munjoy Hill for the Children’s Theater of Maine. In two hours, it provided a thrilling look at the possibilities of diverse theater, a wonderful story and a strong warning about the plight of many refugees even after they reach the relative safety of Maine.

Just behind — and perhaps rightfully ahead of Urquhart — was the L/A Arts one-weekend production of Love in the Cactus Village, by Omar Ahmed, a Somali playwright living in the Twin Cities. I hope next time they get the word out beyond Androscoggin County.

I applaud these significant efforts to allow theater to play its true role, enlightenment during entertainment, and I look forward to more.

Also providing insight into other aspects of Maine’s diverse communities was Les Acadiens, again a Children’s Theater of Maine production, exploring the French-Canadian communities of Maine during the Second World War; and Thanatron, by perhaps Portland’s angriest playwright, Carolyn Gage, literally bashing men in the head with the empowered-lesbian brand of feminism.

Beautifully illustrating other cultures without relating them to Maine was USM’s magical production of Shakuntala and the Ring of Recognition, including puppets and traditional Indian music in the telling of an ancient Sanskrit legend; and Portland Stage’s production of Fences, setting an all-black cast on their stage in August Wilson’s story of a black man struggling with his identity before the civil rights movement.

This year also had a large helping of social and political commentary on stage. The most powerful was Winter Harbor Theater Company’s performances of Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, by the politically outspoken American playwright Tony Kushner. Brilliantly performed, it carried a message so clear that it kept my wife and me up that night mourning children, the real casualties of American foreign policy. Those who didn’t see it missed a truly important experience.

Shakespeare’s timeless Julius Caesar at the Theater at Monmouth provided clues about how power is used and how people can reclaim it. The performances were stellar, and the environment — including cherubim watching from the ceiling — was stunning.

The intimate dialogical dances of the two characters in The Mercy Seat, put on by Mad Horse Theater Company, were beautiful and instructive about human nature, shedding light on post-9/11 life.

Also illuminating important issues was UltraLight, based on playwright Michael Gorman’s loss of his commercial-fisherman brother to heroin; and To Bear Witness at the Players’ Ring, focusing on the crucial developments of the teenage years, and the choice between struggle and survival, or surrender and suicide.

The work of Kittery playwright Evelyn Jones rounded out the year with reprise performances of her award-winning play Not On This Night, about a French farm girl defending Christmas from the inhumanity of war.

All of this is not to say that theater should not also entertain. Indeed, each of the above shows had strong acting and directing, with interesting scripts to expand the mind and heart beyond the everyday.

There was plenty of that from other quarters, too, this year. Among the best were the Public Theatre’s productions of Proof, a heartfelt drama with a light touch, and Red Herring, a film-noir piece with plenty of laughs.

At Maine State Music Theater there was Hans Christian Andersen, a reworked original with a fantasy feel and wonderful, wonderful singing.

And there was the side-splitting (and crotch-splitting) antics at Arundel Barn’s showing of Grease, including a very real moment when an actor’s acrobatics got the better of his costume and his castmates had to, well, cover for him.

For sheer acting quality and local hard work, the Cast — J.P. Guimont, David Currier and Craig Bowden — were a true highlight of the year in theater. Humble guys with a passion for finding good scripts and doing them simply and well, these are three we should hope to keep. (Guimont has threatened to escape to points west; anyone who loves Maine’s own theater should wish otherwise.) They don’t draw big audiences, but they should.

Their production of Pvt. Wars, looking at war and home from the perspective of combat-wounded soldiers, was a funny and heartening, yet deadly serious, portrayal of the effects of violence on humanity.

Their festival of one-act plays, Hey, We’re Acting Over Here, enlightened, amused and provoked thought, as these talented actors explored nuances and foibles rarely portrayed so well on stage anywhere.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Shaking the tree: Nutcracker Burlesque brings holiday cheer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Few production groups are brave enough to put their rehearsal schedules on the Internet. Fewer still go into brutally honest detail about what will be covered in each rehearsal. The Nutcracker Burlesque crew has done both, specifying scenes to be worked on for several weeks, and then, leading up to tech week, describing in a single word the events of each night’s practice: "panic."

There was, however, little actual panic at a recent practice session, in which dancers tried on their handmade costumes — these performers are also brilliant with needle and thread — and got their groove on for an adaptation of The Nutcracker unlike any other.

Ellen Joyce and Brigitte Paulus, friends since high school, grew up dancing in the annual traditional Nutcracker performance, like every other kid who took dance classes through the holiday season.

Over time, they came to wonder, "what else could we do with this show?" Joyce says. They had talked about a burlesque version, using the style that has become popular recently, reaching wide audiences with movies like Moulin Rouge and Chicago.

They had seen shows in New York, New Orleans, and Las Vegas, and thought it would be fun to put on a flashy, curvy show in Portland.

Last spring, when both were involved in Two Lights Theater Company’s dance performance Heroine’s Journey, they saw an independent production could be done and decided to go for it, adapting The Nutcracker into a show that would be "a nice entertaining break" from holiday stresses, and add something to the local holiday performance circuit.

"The Nutcracker really invites interpretation because of that second act that’s kind of like a variety show," Joyce says. And rather than use Tchaikovsky’s European-slanted compositions of various ethnic musical traditions, they thought, "wouldn’t it be fun to do a Nutcracker where the regional pieces are authentic?"

The original gave them a good jumping-off point for this production, which departs from the narrative story at the outset. Most notable is the lack of children on stage. It’s a burlesque, which includes comic skits, what some might call "ribald" dancing, and suggestive body language used in a comic way. They didn’t want kids involved, and don’t want kids in the audience, either.

Still, "it’s comic almost above everything else. It’s a little corny, even," Joyce says. The story starts with a grown-up Clara at an office holiday party. She begins a journey through a polyethnic urban winter wonderland of Spanish dancers, Arabian opium dens, and more.

"It’s, like, sexy and clean at the same time," Joyce says. "We don’t want someone who would normally be at Platinum Plus. You could find something racier on television at pretty much any time of day."

It is a visual symphony, though, of body parts flowing and undulating around the stage. For those sitting in the front row, there are some exciting glimpses if you know where to look. Don’t lean too far forward, though, because there are also some high kicks that might realign your nose.

The dancing itself — there is no dialogue — is excellent. Even in a rough rehearsal during the aforementioned "panic" phase, the group was working well together and molding the action to the stage and the mood.

At the auditions, "all these dancers came out of the woodwork," Joyce says. Many were longtime dancers, and others had some beginning dance experience and little beyond that. "It’s really exciting to work with people like this and see them learn," Joyce says.

Costumes are more seat-of-the-pants, especially for the office party scenes, in which dancers will supply their own clothes. For the fantasy wonderland scenes, the costumes are either handmade or adapted from store purchases. "We’re a little light on the ostrich feathers," Joyce says. They’re expensive; each year they’re hoping to get more flamboyant garb.

The show’s ticket sales will benefit the Preble Street Teen Center, a drop-in support facility for homeless teens and youth at risk. They picked the benefactors because of Brigitte Paulus’s own experiences as a teenager in New York, trying to make it as a dancer.

For eight months, she was homeless, and used a similar drop-in center for support, food, and a hot shower. The shows creators also knew kids in high school and since, who, "for various reasons their home life was unbearable," Joyce says.

"It seemed like a really good fit" with the teen center, though teens are not the intended audience for the show, and the center has been hesitant about the publicity connecting a possibly racy show including opium dens with helping kids. "We never said this was appropriate for teens. It’s a benefit for teens," Joyce says. Next year, they’ll choose another local charity.

"We were hoping they would get a lot of awareness," and the performers used the cause as motivation. "I don’t think we would have done this show for vanity alone," Joyce says.

Nutcracker Burlesque
Adapted by Ellen Joyce, Brigitte Paulus, and Joe Paulus. At the Portland Stage Studio Theater, Dec. 18-21. Call (207) 773-1951.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Local pizza house hurt in tax scam

Published in the American Journal

Steven Orr, the owner of Pizza Time of Westbrook, is frustrated with the state, the IRS and his former accountant, John Baert, owner of Harmon-Baert Associates of Saco.

“I’m one of the people that he didn’t pay any taxes for,” Orr said Monday. His federal payroll taxes haven’t been paid for two or three years, leaving him with a bill “in excess of 10 grand.”

He isn’t very firm on that number, though. When he called the IRS, he learned “they can’t even give me exact figures” on what he owes. He also doesn’t know if penalties and interest will be waived because of the circumstances of the case, in which Baert allegedly failed to pay millions of dollars in payroll taxes for dozens of companies over the course of the past three years.

Baert is facing three counts of mail fraud in a Portland federal court.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has requested the IRS waive those extra fees. Nobody expects the agency to forgive the taxes that have not been paid. “In essence we’re double-paying the money,” said Orr, who has filed a civil lawsuit against Baert seeking repayment of the money Baert should have given the IRS.

Orr may have to borrow money to make good on the debt, but it won’t shut down his business. “We’re not going to close.”

It will have a negative impact, though. He had been planning to remodel and open longer hours, hoping to participate in and encourage Westbrook’s downtown revitalization.

“That’s going to have to be put on hold,” he said.

Baert also prepared Orr’s business income tax returns, but Orr paid those bills himself and mailed them in. Orr also made his own sales tax payments to the state. His state payroll taxes are also in good shape, but Orr is unhappy with the state, which was supposed to make sure payroll firms were licensed and posted bonds to secure the money they handled.

“We also feel like the state’s responsible,” he said. “If the state’s receiving money from this person, you’d think they’d check on the person.”

One of the problems Orr has figuring out how much he owes the IRS is that Baert had a lot of the company’s financial records. The IRS may have seized them in late November, when agents searched Baert’s home and business. Orr hasn’t seen them, though he hopes to get access to the records soon.

“We have to create the payroll for the last two to three years,” he said. “We just don’t have the records.”

Orr had been using the payroll firm for 15 years – like many other pizza restaurant owners around the state – when he bought his business from two men who had started dozens of pizza joints in Maine.

Those men had used Arthur Harmon, Baert’s father-in-law and founder of the business, as their accountant, so Orr stuck with the firm.

When Harmon died and Baert took over, “we just automatically assumed” everything was above-board.“He’s not the person that we thought he was,” Orr said.

Paul Bureau of the Real Estate Store in Scarborough was also surprised at the news of Baert’s alleged wrongdoing. A customer of Harmon and Baert for 29 years, Bureau said Baert “did great. He was always terrific. I had no complaints.”

Baert did not handle Bureau’s payroll tax money, but did provide other accounting services to his firm.

“We were all shocked,” Bureau said. “It just seemed out of character.”

One big question still lurks in Orr’s mind. Saying he has seen records showing Baert had about $200,000 in liquid assets and a $200,000 home: “We don’t know what he did with the money.”

Call for more gambling regulation

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Local lawmakers agree with Gov. John Baldacci that racinos in Maine need more regulation than provided by the law voters passed Nov. 4.

Baldacci has proposed revisions to the racino law that he says will ensure the gambling enterprises are “tightly controlled to avoid the negative influences of this industry.”

When it reconvenes in January, the Legislature will take up his proposal, which includes setting up a statewide “gambling control board” with power to license gambling operators.

Lawmakers are particularly concerned about regulating gambling to avoid corruption and making sure the state gets a financial benefit. Any solution would require approval by a two-thirds majority in each house.

Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, said state officials told her that proper enforcement of racino rules would cost the state $17 million a year. She wants the enforcement money to come from the slot revenues, which is part of Baldacci’s plan.

Rep. Harold Clough, R-Scarborough and Gorham, hadn’t seen the governor’s proposal to comment on it specifically. “My hopes are we don’t have the gambling. It’s obvious that if we do, we need more regulation,” he said. In particular, he would like to “see that more money stays in Maine.”

Rep. Robert Duplessie, D-Westbrook, said the governor’s plan also addresses other problems with the law. “What was passed actually was written by one corporation,” he said.

The referendum law does not limit the number of slot machines that could be installed, prevents suspension of a racino license in the case of alleged wrongdoing and does not require a minimum “payback,” the amount a machine returns to players.

The governor’s proposal addresses these and other problems Duplessie sees with the law, including requiring what is called “on-line polling,” which allows remote supervision of the machine’s bets and payouts.

“My initial reaction is positive,” Duplessie said. “It’s definitely the right direction.” He expects the proposal to have legislative support, and said party leaders have signed on.

Baldacci and other legislators last week sent a letter to various groups involved in the racino proposals, including Penn National and Capital Seven, the two companies most involved in planning racinos in Southern Maine and Bangor, respectively.

The letter notified the companies that state officials were working on changing gaming regulations and planned to make those changes retroactive.

Duplessie expects the proposal to get the “fast track,” with hearings perhaps in mid-January. “By mid-February, we’ll have a new law,” he said.

Rep. Ron Usher, D-Westbrook, agrees, though he’s not sure how Westbrook’s vote will go. “I expect a low turnout,” said Usher, who is voting in advance, by absentee ballot. He thinks people will be on vacation or perhaps put off by bad weather, and won’t show up to the polls Dec. 30.

Usher is so supportive of a statewide gambling commission that he asked the governor’s office if he could nominate someone from Westbrook to be on the new board. “Now I’m trying to think of somebody,” he said.

Sen. Carolyn Gilman, R-Westbrook and Gorham, also wants to see regulation increased if racinos come to the state. “I’d like to see them out of Maine completely,” she said. “Sooner or later, it’s going to cost the taxpayers money.”

But, she said, if racinos are coming, she wants another statewide referendum on the issue. She has heard from voters who, she said, “want another crack at it. They feel they misunderstood what was being asked of them.” People voted for racinos “with the idea that a few slots were going to help harness racing” and not knowing what was actually being planned.

Sen. Peggy Pendleton, D-Scarborough and Saco, hadn’t seen the governor’s specific plan, but said the racino proposal “snuck in the back door” while the casino issue was distracting voters.

“I was picturing like 100 slot machines in the lobby,” she said. She wants more regulation and possibly another referendum to make sure voters are comfortable with the changes.

She wants more money for the state and for the town the racino is in. “They need to get a good cut too,” said Pendleton.

While legislators agree more needs to be done, Bromley points to a possible sticking point: “People are loath to change something that’s the people’s voice.”

Yet she admits to a certain degree of confusion about the referendum results. “I don’t think I know what the electorate really meant,” she said. They might have wanted slot machines, or to save harness racing or cheaper medicine for the elderly.

She also said a racino in Southern Maine – not just one in Bangor – is necessary if the harness racing industry is to survive.

Further, if the state is to get any projected money from the racinos, it needs the numbers of people who might come to a racino in Southern Maine, Bromley said.

She would be willing to extend the deadline for Scarborough Downs to find a host community and expand its radius beyond the current five-mile limit, but only if increased regulation was being paid for by the racino revenue.

Friday, December 5, 2003

Night of nights: A conversation with playwright Evelyn Jones

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Playwright Evelyn Jones, a former Boston Herald features writer, has lived in Kittery for about 20 years and was working on a novel until she started writing plays in 1996. The novel, she says, now "sits unlamented, gathering dust."

Her play Not on This Night centers on a farm girl, Jacqueline (Juliet Nelson), whose home is commandeered by a German soldier and then an American, on a Christmas Eve in World War II.

The Phoenix sat down at a South Portland keyboard, and Jones at hers in Kittery, to inquire about the play and its upcoming shows, December 21 and 28, at the Seacoast Repertory Theater in Portsmouth.

Phoenix: Is the play based on real incidents? If so, how did you first find out about them?

Jones: Though many people surmised Not on This Night was written in response to more current world conditions, it was maybe 40 years ago that I cut and saved a short article about a Christmas Eve during World War I when enemy soldiers came out of their trenches to sing carols and exchange food and trinkets.

I came across the clipping again in the mid-’90s when the "Christmas truce" was still unfamiliar to most people. I always knew I’d write about it, and by now had become fascinated with the playwriting genre. With the format in place, other things followed. I remember details arranging themselves for me like puzzle pieces. Frankly, how do you get the war into the viewer’s gut? Not the battlefield . . . no, use an intimate setting . . . a normally safe place, like . . . like a kitchen . . . a farmhouse kitchen. Ironic contrasts . . . The battlefield so close, death so close, yet a few chickens outside in the barn. Inside, vulnerable victims of war . . . I’ll make them young, a teenage girl, and she’s alone . . . yes, she’s in danger . . . soldiers sneaking up to her door . . . a German, and an American, enemies bringing the war inside her kitchen. But it will be joyous . . . tears are okay, but it will be heartwarming and make the audience laugh, too. The girl is taking over the story . . . she’s determined there will be no violence, not on this night.

At some point I decided to set it closer to the present. An incident in World War 2, though I’d have to figure how the truce story was tied in. I laid out imaginary troop movements, fearsome weather, a dense forest area . . . and a Christmas Eve battle.

During all this, I thought I’d have a lot of rewriting to be reasonably historically correct.

Anyway, lots of stuff kept happening to my characters and I kept typing, and finally I had a feedback reading in my living room with theater friends. I explained I didn’t want to do all the necessary research if it wasn’t working, but when the reading ended, everyone was sniffling and said of course I had to go ahead.

I spent months with stacks of WW2 history books, dreaming at night about the horrific diaries and photos but the eerie part was finding then — and more since — that almost every detail I’d dreamed up fit actual facts!

Q: What happened to the play after it was reworked?

A: I sent the play off to a few publishers, and some competitions in New York and Hollywood, and I got busy on other plays.

Almost a year later, I got word Not on This Night was a winner in New York City and would be performed in a one-act festival. Later, I heard it was one of the six winners in the Hollywood festival — and the following day I got a contract in the mail from Pioneer Publishing. Like winning a lottery.

I finally got to see the play performed at the Players’ Ring, then at Act One (Hampton) Summer Theater, and Phillips Exeter Academy. After the play won the Seacoast Spotlight on the Arts 2000 Best Play award, the Rogosins read the script and they’ve arranged for two performances at Seacoast Rep on December 21 and 28. I think it’s an ideal stage, and can’t wait to see it.

Q: Why do you think people have given so much acclaim to this play?

A: I think people feel deeply moved and uplifted which, to be honest, makes me very happy. Whenever I’ve gone to see the play I’ve felt a disassociation, until Jacqueline comes on that stage setting the table, singing "Voici Noel," and then I’m in it with the rest of the audience. I suspect that comes from this wow of a cast!

Q: Sometimes writers secretly hope that their writing will change just one life in some specific way. For you, and for this play, how would you like someone’s life to change?

A: I’ll just say that the World War 1 story intrigued me and started me thinking — no, it started me feeling — about war. It’s easy to talk war without experiencing how devastating a death is, beyond the moment and beyond the life taken. But I should mention that feelings about war, and defending one’s country, are so complicated it’s tricky to put labels on anyone.

Not On This Night
Written by Evelyn Jones. With Juliet Nelson, Chris Curtis, and Andy Fling. Performed by Dream on Productions, at Seacoast Repertory Theater, in Portsmouth, Dec. 21 and 28, at 8 p.m. Call (603) 433-4472.

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Column: Decorating for the season on a budget

Published in the Current, the American Journal, and the Lakes Region Suburban Weekly

As new homeowners, my wife and I have a sizable challenge this year: Beyond just unpacking the boxes still stacked around the place, we need to make the place festive, but are not exactly flush with cash.

I’ve gone looking around the area to find some nice touches without emptying my wallet, and found that making a house look great is not too hard. With a little careful thought, it won’t take much time to set up, maintain or take down when the season is over.

Outside, we’ve got a few shrubs and a little fence. Local hardware stores and gift shops stock holiday lights in wide varieties, with anything from simple white bulbs to sparkling colors, and even lighted figures like cows, moose and Santa Claus.

Choose ones you like – make sure to get outdoor cords and bulbs – and for a few bucks a strand, you can light up the season. There’s no need to go overboard (though some love to, buying thousands of lights and footing large electrical bills through December). Just a few touches, near the entrance to your yard or driveway, and again near the door, are enough. Remember not to put lights on the ground, or you’ll have to dig them out when the snow flies!

If lights aren’t your thing, or you want to spruce the yard up a bit, head to a farm market. Most close in the fall, after summer’s bounty has ended, but reopen in late November with wreaths, greenery and other festive items. As with lights, there are wide varieties, from traditional evergreen wreaths to painted pine-cone ones. Many places also have garlands, perfect for draping along the top of a fence or hanging around a doorway. Other arrangements often include red berries and sticks in simple, elegant designs.

All of these items can go outside and look beautiful when first installed, as well as with a dusting of snow. Inside, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the possibilities.

Sure, it’s nice to have something in every room, but try to keep a space that isn’t totally taken over by the holiday, as a place you can get away from stresses of the season.

Some folks like candles in each window, though fire departments often worry about them igniting curtains or other window dressings. For safer alternatives that are cheaper over the long run, buy plastic candles that take Christmas-tree replacement light bulbs.

They plug into a regular electrical outlet and stay cool near draperies. There are also electric menorahs for celebrating Hanukkah.

The cheapest way to get pretty decorations is to keep around last year’s greeting cards. Hang a few around early in the season to get in the mood – attaching them to a few simple ribbons can be nice – and rotate them as you get this year’s cards.

Another cheap way to get in the holiday mood is to have a fire, if you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace. Just make sure your chimney is clean and clear, and check the flue for leaks to keep smoke out of your home.

Many people get Christmas trees, and there are several Christmas tree farms in the area, as well groups’ sales. Those sales can also be good places to get
greenery and wreaths for both inside and outside.

Decorating a tree doesn’t have to be a huge production. A few lights, some colorful ornaments – your kids or grandkids will probably make some in school – and you’re all set.

Don’t forget the greeneries, which can look wonderful sitting on windowsills or over doorways, to bring the holiday spirit all over your home. Keep the greens misted from time to time to prolong their life, and always make sure your tree has plenty of water.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Revelry after the feast: Nuncrackers full of holiday cheer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When the big meal’s over, and some relatives have even broken into the leftovers, in sets Thanksgiving’s lethargy. After a few hours of snoozing and reclining, usually someone will pipe up, "We need to go for a walk." But why fight the urge to kick back before the holiday madness really begins?

Get out of the house, relax, and get a big belly laugh from Nuncrackers, the Nunsense Christmas musical, now on at the Lyric Music Theater, "just off Broadway" in South Portland.

You don’t need a Catholic upbringing to get a laugh out of these nutty nuns, putting on a Christmas special for the local public-access cable channel from the basement of Mt. St. Helen’s church, Hoboken. (If you went to Catholic school, though, you’ll recognize the Reverend Mother’s training clicker, now used more widely to train dogs in obedience classes, and a few other gems.)

The studio — which doubles as a nuclear fallout shelter (where else would you rather be during the Apocalypse than in a church basement with cheery nuns?) — was paid for when one of these worldly nuns, Sister Mary Paul (Elisha Walls) won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes.

These and other tidbits tear away some of the burqa-like fabric that literally hides these women of the cloth from the world, showing us the reality of life behind the veil: While restricted and carefully supervised, there’s a lot of freedom to be had.

At least so says Sister Robert Anne, a hilariously troublesome nun wonderfully played by Melissa Bornmann. She plays tricks on poor Sister Mary Paul, leading to big laughs and some great variations on traditional Christmas carols. There’s even a sing-along to get you really in the mood and quite convinced that Thanksgiving is a blip on the holiday radar screen.

The nuns aren’t the only folks on stage. Several of the students at Mt. St. Helen’s school also appear, and are wonderful performers with amazing costumes. They gamely follow the lead of the nuns, and have a blast.

Susan Nappi’s choreography is wonderful — have you ever seen nuns do a Rockettes-style kickline? She maintains an air of comedy throughout, and manages to design a chase of the dueling Sugar Plum Fairies that shows off the dance skills of Patricia H. Davis (as the Reverend Mother) and mocks the lack of same by Joshua Chard (as Father Virgil Manly Trott).

Though Chard himself appears at times to be trying overly hard in this not-at-all-serious play, he carried off a fruitcake-making lesson very well, adding just enough rum to his throat and choosing excellent plastic fruits as ingredients — because "no one will ever know the difference."

But more than just a set of silly anecdotes, this is a musical. The band and performers span a wide range of churchly song styles, from holiday carols to a rousing gospel number sung entirely by white folks. (It’s nearly enough to take your mind off the cranberry sauce you left on the counter.)

There are also a couple of nunly variations on modern songs, including a convent-recruiting song adapted from a number usually performed by the Village People, and a look at what pious, fun-loving nuns really want for Christmas. (Hint: They can’t have it.)

The show gets at the humanity of nuns, and perhaps even pleases real nuns with its humor and candor about life in the convent.

They spread a little holiday cheer with Secret Santa gifts to the audience, including a very handy set of stick-on 10 Commandments. They’re most useful because, Sister Mary Paul points out, "you can peel off the ones you don’t like."

Even puppets get into the act: Sister Mary Annette, a Muppet lookalike, has the secret to why people who decorate Christmas trees put an angel on top. Together with a pair of reindeer sock puppets, she sings out what really happens at the North Pole each year as Christmas approaches.

Yet, at the end of it all, these nuns — for all their wishes of worldliness — know how to do the right thing. They don’t fall prey to their own threats to the children — "be good or Santa won’t come" — but instead do feel the love that should pervade the season, and the sense of gratefulness and compassion Christmas should be about.

Just the thing to remind you it’s time for a snack. Isn’t there some turkey in the fridge?

Written by Dan Googin. Directed by Charles Grindle. With Patricia H. Davis, Melissa Bornmann, Elisha Walls, and Leslie Chadbourne. At Lyric Music Theater, in South Portland, through Dec. 7. Call (207) 799-1421.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Safe at home? You might be better off in Kabul

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In case there’s any doubt, it’s still not safe to travel to Kabul. In its most recent official travel warning about Afghanistan (dated July 28, 2003), the US State Department declares, apparently without irony, that "the ability of Afghan authorities to maintain order and ensure security is limited."

Among the threats to the personal security of American travelers are "remnants of the former Taliban regime and the terrorist Al-Qaida network," as well as "US-led military operations." Of further concern to Americans heading there is that the US embassy in Kabul cannot issue replacement passports. Translation: If your identity gets lost in Afghanistan, you better find it before trying to get home.

Though Afghans are allowed on the streets of their capital without a curfew, American diplomats aren’t. Helpfully, then, the State Department Web site says Americans who insist upon traveling to Afghanistan should "register with" the embassy.

With these types of pronouncements coming from the most powerful nation in the world, whose "force projection" has sent troops throughout Afghanistan, stretching from remote fire bases in the northeast of the country to villages in the southwest, it is easy to want to remain a homebody.

But turn the page on the State Department’s Web site and there it is, in cold, black pixels: "We expect Al-Qaida will strive for new attacks that will be more devastating than the September 11 attack, possibly involving nonconventional weapons such as chemical or biological agents. We also cannot rule out the potential for Al-Qaida to attempt a second catastrophic attack within the US."

We’re really no safer here than anywhere.

Kabul, however, may never be among the safest places, current events notwithstanding. Founded on the banks of the Kabul River — now just a trickle after years of drought — the city has been a crossroads of cultures and a crucible of conflicts for thousands of years.

Tony Kushner wrote Homebody as a monologue by request and later turned it into the first act of the frighteningly prescient play Homebody/Kabul, in which the Homebody goes to Kabul, is reported dead, and her husband and daughter arrive to search for her in ruins left by the Taliban and the 1998 US missile attacks on the country. (Yes, Clinton fans, he pulled the trigger, too.)

This performance, directed by Richard O’Brien and executed by Jane Bergeron, is just the monologue section, nearly an hour of complex language and a sweeping history of Afghan history. Just the thing our president and Congress should have had before getting involved in entangling alliances with peacemakers and warlords alike.

O’Brien is something of a one-act specialist, and has chosen the shorter version here. The original full play Homebody/Kabul took about four hours to perform, though it’s still being revised.

We can thank the director for his compassion, given the seats in the PSC Studio Theater. Or perhaps it’s all part of the experience. As O’Brien observes, Kushner uses language to throw off both actor and audience in this monologue. Not only is his script thin on punctuation and full of complex sentence structure, but the vocabulary required is immense. We are meant to be off-balance, and the chairs help.

In a simple but ornate set reflecting the nature of the play’s words and its ideas, Bergeron sits in a 19th-century armchair with a traveling overcoat slung over the side. She has all the actors’ decks stacked against her: A solo monologue, without any lighting or sound cues, delivered from a sitting position, in very complex language designed to lose both actor and audience in discomfort and confusion. And Bergeron pulls off a masterful performance.

Bergeron took the role because "I didn’t know if I could" handle it, she said, after a recent performance. She has learned that she can.

Her intonation and pacing, facial expressions, head motions, and body language all combine to convey meaning and feeling in a play that could easily lack both. Her character even admits — as if to rub it in the actor’s face — that she is hard to listen to and speaks "elliptically."

She has chosen one book, a 1965 travel guide to Kabul, as her armchair ticket to another world. The play is set in 1998, just after the American missile strikes. The Homebody revisits the history of Kabul, from its legendary founding by Cain himself — he may yet be buried within the city — to the present. The play moves from "the serene beauty of the valleys of the Kabul River" still remembered in the songs of nomadic peoples who traveled through there thousands of years ago, to the shell-shocked and war-torn country of 1998, before it became even more shell-shocked and war-torn.

The play is filled with Kushner’s cutting lines, at once funny and painful, insightful and ironic. It also retains his sparks of hope, which are somehow as impossible to doubt as they are unlikely to ignite.

His voice sings through Bergeron’s own, warning and instructing simultaneously, and drawing to an irretrievable "what if" line, one the State Department, with only four or five fluent Arabic speakers (so how many speak Pashto?) amid thousands of diplomats, would do well to heed: "The truth which does not understand corrupts."

Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Richard O’Brien. Performed by Jane Bergeron. At the Human Theater Company at Portland Stage Studio Theater, through Nov. 23. Call (207) 774-0465.


• A group of local kids is doing a play about ego and nakedness at the Theater Project. Ending a four-week workshop and production class, fourth- through eighth-graders have reworked The Emperor’s New Clothes into a mime performance with live, improvised jazz music by Brad Terry. Check out what they’re all up to, November 21 through 23, by calling (207) 729-8584.

• And then there are the adults getting not-quite-naked to help local teens. The Nutcracker Burlesque will be at the Portland Stage Studio Theater December 18 through 21 to benefit . . . the Preble Street Teen Center? It’s true. Infidelity at a corporate holiday party leads a grown-up Clara downtown into opium dens and more. Tchaikovsky’s score has been rearranged "into a hot and sultry modern composition" with a "quirky hip-hop style" to the choreography. All of which means we can’t wait to see the Nut-cracking Prince himself, probably sponsored by Video Expo.

In the beginning: The One Ring comes to the Players' Ring

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Reading The Hobbit is a great way to get set for re-watching the first two Lord of the Rings movies, in time for the third and final installment, due out next month. Better yet, see The Hobbit performed live on a stage. Without the digital imagery and special effects, pared down to its basic elements of storytelling, it illuminates clearly the foundations for J.R.R. Tolkien’s subsequent tales.

The Players’ Ring cast begins the Tolkien-authorized adaptation with a pretentious, presumptuous Gandalf (Tim Robinson) arriving at the home of Bilbo Baggins (Bernie Tato). Bilbo has no idea who the wizard is, but recognizes the name and remembers old stories he was once told.

Bilbo, a shrinking violet who has not yet become the fierce warrior or knowing sage of the later volumes, is just a taste of how Tolkien’s characters develop. Gandalf isn’t yet the friendly face he will become, and dwarves are more whining and hungry than noble and strong. Even the elves — who appear here as captors and dungeonmasters — are bitter and mean, protecting their turf from interlopers.

The extraordinary times and alliances brought by the reappearance of the One Ring have not yet come to pass. Instead, the inhabitants of Middle Earth are as they have been, slightly xenophobic, jealous, nervous and, well, hungry.

Bilbo himself is concerned that "adventures make you late for dinner," as any school-age child has learned when exploring a creekbed or forest path. With the jovial arrival of the dwarves, all played by children who know the value of a good exploratory adventure, appetites grow, both on stage and in the seats.

Bilbo learns, with the audience, that the dwarves are seeking a burglar to help them recover treasure lost when a dragon attacked a dwarf city and ate most of the inhabitants. Gandalf has appointed him to the post, and there’s little the hobbit can do but go along.

Tato plays the wide-eyed hobbit to a T, with the even temper of the halflings, and with the hint of reluctance and homesickness that seems innate to the race. He brightens the show with his delivery of such well written, wry lines as "Adventures are not all Sunday strolls in May sunshine," evoking Winnie-the-Pooh’s innocence and equanimity.

Robinson, as Gandalf, quickly tires of his beard, leaving us with a clean-shaven mage shorn of his symbolic wisdom. His presence on stage varies from the welcome to the interruptive, though that is possibly part of the plan: Even this early in the adventure, he disappears and reappears at unlikely times.

Thorpe Feidt plays Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, but really he seems uncomfortable in another’s skin. Rarely making eye contact with any characters, and blustering his way through his lines, Feidt detracts from the show in small ways that add up. (On the other hand, he created Smaug, the sinister dragon, about whom we will hear more shortly.)

The real joys are the children, who are having fun but keep their focus while on stage. They have asides and ensemble lines that draw big laughs — not just from parents — and generally make merry during what could be a drawn-out journey. The trolls and goblins, with excellent masks, also bring both levity and danger to the trip.

Everyone comes together in the escape from the elf-dungeons to create a true atmosphere of urgency and hurry, with only voices and body language, raising the heart rate of all on-lookers. In particular, Bombur (Dylan Schwartz) appears to have a great time, but reins himself in enough to avoid stepping on the performances of his fellow dwarves.

After the escape, Bilbo meets Gollum (Tana Sirois), a brilliantly costumed and acted writhing character, filled with barely contained eagerness and desire, though not yet fully consumed by sinister greed.

In the final scene, Bilbo and Thorin meet Smaug, the greedy dragon, created by Feidt and (without giving away too much) with a realistic presence and threatening voice that startles and alarms.

We see inklings of the Ring’s power — "it makes me feel funny," Bilbo says — but in all this is a wonderful story that whets the appetite for more.

The Hobbit
Written by J.R.R. Tolkien and Patricia Gray. Directed by Todd Hunter. With Bernie Tato, Tim Robinson, Dylan Schwartz, and Thorpe Feidt. At the Players’ Ring, through Nov. 30. Call (603) 436-8123.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Power virtue: Ideals keep society's wheels rolling

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In the duty-bound and caste-rigid northern India of the fourth century, ideals still governed the behavior of every individual, and a sense of obligation ruled the world. Spirits of nature abounded; all living things were truly alive. In today’s America, self-interest governs all — even the most powerful — and nature makes way for humanity in a brutal slaughter of trees and fouling of the air.

It is into this soiled arena that King Dushyanta (Dave Ciampa) and Shakuntala (Piper Silverthorne) bring their penance grove and wedding bower. The powerful king, whose son has been prophesied to rule "the ocean-bounded Earth," encounters the virtuous half-nymph, who lives in a holy hermitage.

The pair fall in love, but duty calls each to other tasks. First, they elope, wedding in a ceremony witnessed only by the woodland and its creatures. Dushyanta gives her his signet ring as a token of remembrance.

As they each return to their lives, Shakuntala is so overcome by emotion that she neglects her obligations of hospitality toward a powerful guest, who curses her: The king will forget ever meeting her until she produces something to remind him.

When she goes to his royal court, the king rejects her; she is clearly pregnant, and his virtue will not allow him to covet another man’s wife. Worse, she has lost the ring that is the key to his memory.

Set to Indian drum and flute music and chanting by Amos Libby of Portland (a longtime student of the Indian arts), and couched within the good-vs.-evil struggles of ancient Indian manuscripts, Shakuntala and the Ring of Recognition is a wonderful, enchanting vision of a world where complex interactions are governed by simple principles that all remember and obey.

From the very beginning — a Sanskrit chant in praise of Lord Shiva, god of destruction and rebirth and patron of performers — to the final blessing of the audience, the play is a magical journey that has meaning for all ages and stations.

The set has extravagant detail, but remains a simple layout of a forest grove and several sitting areas allowing scenes outside the woods. The costumes — made of real silk purchased by costumer Jodi Ozimek on a special trip to New York — are sumptuous and beautiful, cloaking all the actors in garments worthy of their posts.

The actors are well rehearsed and handle difficult language with aplomb. This is, after all, Kalidasa, the Indian equivalent of Shakespeare. Director Assunta Kent has assembled the script from eight translations from the Sanskrit, and has reproduced the wit, wisdom, and beautiful imagery that has carried the original into modern times. (As a taste, consider this perspective on aging and memory: "My mind is like a lamp whose oil is getting low. It flares brightly one minute and then suddenly dims.")

The actors are also dancers, performing ritual footwork and hand movements used by Indian performers to tell their stories without words. While this play accompanies those motions with their spoken meanings, the experience is as in a fairy tale, where meanings are always made clear.

Yet this story is no fairy tale. Though its main character waters trees she calls friends and raises orphaned deer out of compassion, the king’s virtue is of a different form. He is a warrior, head of the lunar dynasty, and must fend off evil from the hermitage and join with the army of the sun god, Indra, to drive demons from the heavens.

The requirements of Shakuntala’s virtuous behavior contrast with the kingly duties of her husband. It is a lesson world leaders would do well to remember: "Vigilant kings who tax their subjects should tax themselves in protecting their subjects."

Once reminded by a fisherman’s recovery of his ring, the king is overcome by "Shakuntalitis," as the gleeful court jester (Jae Rodriguez) declares. He forgets himself and his role for a time, until recalled to duty and then rewarded by finding his beloved and his first-born son.

Of special note are the puppets — both three-dimensional and shadow varieties — created by Chelsea Cook, a USM junior, and Kris Hall. They provide elements of fantasy and fulfill the true role of theatrical performers: deepening the story-telling by expertly portraying story elements in eye-opening ways.

Shakuntala and the Ring of Recognition
Written by Kalidasa. Adapted and directed by Assunta Kent. With Piper Silverthorne, Dave Ciampa, and Amos Libby. At USM, through Nov. 16. Call (207) 780-5151.


• The Human Theater Company is putting on Tony Kushner’s eerily prescient play Homebody/Kabul at the Portland Stage Studio Theater through November 23. It explores the life of an Afghan-obsessed British housewife who ventures to Kabul and loses herself. Written before 9/11, it explores and explains many of the emotions Americans only discovered after that tragedy.

Laura Emack is putting her play Writers Block up for comment Saturday, November 15, at the Bangor Public Library, at 2:15 p.m., as part of a Made in Maine Theater Workshop. It looks at " the maddening marketplace " of writing and writers. Emack was a finalist in the 2001 Maine Playwrights Festival and just incorporated feedback from her writers’ group into the script. Lend your hand to this work in progress.

Tim Collins is back at the St. Lawrence with another multi-character solo piece called An Evening of One-Man Comedy. It’s on one night only, Wednesday, November 19, so seize the evening and check out this talented multi-personality performer.

Friday, November 7, 2003

Choosing life: Internal control vs. intimacy and trust

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Writers can live solitary lives, enjoying more the fruits of their imaginings than the actual ups and downs of life. Thus is Jake (Hugh J. Barton), in Neil Simon’s poignant, funny play Jake’s Women. Simon gives us a view into his own writerly world, and the challenges of coming down from his writing world into the real one, where he must surrender control to others and to the universe.

In a series of imagined and real conversations, Jake confers with the women in his life — his sister, his analyst, his first wife (killed in a car accident 10 years ago), and his daughter at two different points in her life. His second wife, Maggie (Lisa Kristoff) appears both in reality and imagination, while a literal-minded girlfriend (Sheila, played by Sandi Panati) is just a reality.

The characters are hilarious, and well played, especially Karen (Shirley Bernier), Jake’s popcorn-crunching sister, who appears in wildly garish costumes — as she is imagined by Jake.

Jake’s marriage to Maggie is in crisis. She feels trapped by her life, and needs to escape. Jake, for his part, is just trying to get "from there to here" and may need to go by way of Calcutta or Hong Kong.

The audience serves as another imaginary interlocutor for Jake, who has periodic asides demonstrating the actual level of self-awareness he possesses. The imagined conversations also contain humorous reminders to Jake — from himself — that he’s creating both sides of the dialogue. "My mind has a mind of its own," he says at one point.

As the play progresses, Jake’s internal dialogue appears more and more, and begins to influence his relationships with real people.

The causes and consequences of his choices in life become clear as he explores himself, prodded by his loved ones’ voices in his head. His daughter, Molly, appears both as an innocent 12-year-old girl (Diana Bernier Siegler) and a grown-up woman (Natasha Bernier Siegler) attending the college Jake thought his first wife dreamed of. (Not so, we learn in a funny aside.)

Maggie, too, finds her voice and through a passing night of infidelity reaches her own rock bottom and begins to rebuild herself, her way.

The pair are great at interacting both awkwardly and lovingly as the plot requires, and their emotions are palpable even from the seats. The other characters also fit in well, except the older Molly, who is flat at key moments.

The play is very funny, with lines explaining why people need psychiatrists if all we do is pop pills to feel better, but also sentimental, reminding us of loved ones we have lost and can only revisit in our memories.

Jake struggles mightily for his sanity. He begins to lose control of the one life he has total dominion over — the one in his mind. And Maggie challenges him to surrender control over his flesh-and-blood life, too, asking him to trust people and become emotionally intimate.

Simon probes deeply into Jake’s independence, and director Jim Colby demands a lot of actor Barton. At times, Barton can seem overwrought, carrying emotions too long in their moments, but he bridges well Jake’s gap between the writer-observer and the life-liver.

Maggie, too, wrestles powerfully with her own emotions, deciding whether she can truly love Jake or must leave his insane world to reclaim her own heart and mind.

Jake must create a vision of his own ideal, controlling the conversation and then surrendering to its momentum. It is then that he sees the potential in human emotion and begins to truly feel with his heart.

When the voices come back, Jake sends them away in favor of real love, a non-ideal, often out-of-control situation in which trust and hard work are required.

Jake’s Women
By Neil Simon. Directed by James Colby. With Hugh J. Barton, Lisa Kristoff, and Amanda Smith. At Studio Theatre of Bath, through Nov. 16. Call (207) 443-2418.


Mad Horse Theater Company has extended the run of The Mercy Seat, its season opener, through November 9. It’s at the Portland Stage Studio Theater. Call (207) 730-2389 for information.

• The Theater Project in Brunswick is having a new-plays festival this weekend, November 7, 8, and 9. First up, November 7 at 7:30 p.m., will be The Bridge, by USM theater teacher Thomas A. Power, about a small-island lawyer who becomes the owner of a large, valuable piece of waterfront property. Next, November 8, at 7:30 p.m., will be Shooting Dreams, also by a USM theater teacher, William Steele, about a deer overpopulation problem on a Maine island. And November 9, at 2 p.m., will be a double-header, Warm Ashes by New Mexico playwright Robert F. Benjamin, a comedic drama about aging and the meaning of life, and H.R. Coursen’s adaptation of Hippolytus by Euripedes. The events are all pay-what-you-can. For reservations, call (207) 729-8584.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Rocky horrors! A young, innocent t-and-a show

Published in the Portland Phoenix

They really should advertise that it’s teenagers prancing around in fishnet stockings, underwear, and lab coats. That would really pack in audiences. But, then again, they’re filling the house without any advertising at all.

A group made up mostly of high school students has been performing a live version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for a year now in Portland, and will wrap up for the winter on Halloween night.

The live action takes place in front of a movie screen, with actors on stage mimicking movements and lip-syncing the lines. So the show is more about the costumes and the atmosphere than acting per se.

Scott Collard (Riffraff) has a scary bald spot befitting an evil butler; the fishnets are fabulous and the leather omnipresent. Even so, Mia Perron as Janet and Connor Tubbs as Brad Majors are innocents abroad among the Transylvanians, though in a sea of friendly (if weirdly painted) faces.

There are lines to be memorized, but not by the usual suspects. The audience has a part in the show, too, calling out comments on characters, superimposing their lines over the film’s dialogue, and drawing attention to arcane details of the film (as evidenced by one chant as a scene opens: "muscle twitch, muscle twitch!").

This is participatory theater at its finest, and Rocky Horror at perhaps its least scary. Often performed by adult actors who bear too-eerie resemblances to the characters, Rocky Horror can be an eye-opener even for the most cosmopolitan late-night freak-show addicts on "Sexchange Street."

This version is by high school students — the oldest one, Andrew Bossie (Rocky) is 20 — and even college types may be alarmed not at the content, exactly, but who’s shouting about dildos and the odd rim job. It is an R-rated movie, after all, being celebrated and performed by teens.

"Technically, we’re not even supposed to be in the theater," said Knate Higgins, the 16-year-old at the center of the show in his role as organizer, director, and player of Dr. Frankenfurter, a "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania" who has found a way to create human life for sexual pleasure.

The experience of being at Rocky Horror has a youthful energy and an innocent flavor — if it’s possible to be innocent while repeatedly screaming the words "slut" and "asshole" — that many performances lack.

Usually, the whole show is performed in mimic, but Higgins said that gets "distracting and monotonous." And picking up from past Portland productions of the show, the cast only does some scenes.

"We just take our favorite songs from the movie and we just go up there and do them," Higgins said.

They do keep much of the flavor of traditional Rocky Horror performances, including a "virgin sacrifice" to select the best-costumed audience member and sales of $1 "bags o’ shit" filled with props to throw. (The money goes to help pay for the Gorham High School chorus trip to Disneyland.)

"We have so much fun doing it," Higgins said. Despite the audience attention, "we never get too stressed out because it’s Rocky Horror."

And the audience-participation lines have just as much gusto as ever, though with a few new twists, including references to Osama bin Laden, JonBenet Ramsey, Austin Powers, and the playoff performance of the Red Sox.

Higgins himself gets some good-natured heckling from time to time, but handled it well when I saw him — better than most stage actors, who aren’t exactly used to voices from offstage.

Overall, the expressive acting — somewhat like mime — is excellent, and we can give a pass to Bossie, who has only been with the show a couple of weeks and still takes his movement cues from the screen, unlike the other cast members, who have memorized their parts. The lip-syncing is also excellent, and if the soundtrack broke, they’d speak right up and not miss a single word.

Still, there is an element of seriousness about it. The State Theatre has come calling, asking Higgins to hold the show there in the future, and a student at the SALT Institute is doing a documentary photography project about the cast and the show. And perhaps serious isn’t bad, for a movie that stars Susan Sarandon. (Then again, this movie also stars Meat Loaf as a sax-playing motorcycle rider who becomes an evening meal.)

There is only one real question left: Does Gorham High School’s chorus director wash his hands after counting that money?

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Directed by Knate Higgins. With Knate Higgins, Mia Perron, Connor Tubbs, and Andrew Bossie. At the Movies on Exchange, in Portland, Halloween night at 10 p.m. Call (207) 772-9600.


Bob Demers of Open Book Players is the editor of Readers Theatre Digest, which has a new Web site,

Children’s Theatre of Maine is accepting reservations from high schools that want to bring students to see Romeo and Juliet, January 6 through 25. Tickets are $4 per student, and there are two performances each morning from Tuesday to Friday. Call Jeanne at (207) 878-2774 or email

Friday, October 24, 2003

Lord have Mercy: Kyrie eleison, Yarhamuka-llah

Published in the Portland Phoenix

With these words, "kyrie eleison" and "yarhamuka-llah," Christians and Muslims around the world have, for centuries, asked God for mercy. These chants, and others more sinister, were heard around the world after September 11, 2001.

In a modernist Manhattan apartment, Ben (Craig Bowden) sits motionless as the audience enters the Portland Stage Studio Theater. The air is murky — dust pervades the city’s air. In the background, a cell phone rings, sirens blare, police radios crackle, TV news anchors drone. There is no murmur of conversation usually heard when the audience is being seated.

Stunned silent, Ben can’t even hear the ringing cell phone in his hand. He is clearly a man overwhelmed — but by what? So many that day were struck dumb by the calamity; others by its call to address their lives’ main issues. Still others saw a chance to begin anew, to take charge of lives they had previously lived only vicariously, watching themselves from afar.

Invited into the living room of this studio, we watch as two New Yorkers, Ben and Abby (Christine Louise Marshall) adjust to the fact that their lives have been exposed to the sunlight, cast from the shadows of the Twin Towers after the collapse. It is a unique chance.

Many New Yorkers fell further in love with their city after that day; many left forever, seeking safer homes in smaller towns less likely to be targets in the future. People across the country re-evaluated their lives. Some married, others divorced. Children were conceived, jobs quit, careers reoriented. For the briefest moment, it appeared America could be reborn into a new world of unity, compassion, and love.

And then the president spoke to the nation, and echoed Ben’s words in Neil LaBute’s powerful play The Mercy Seat. Nothing changes in America, no matter the disaster, Ben tells Abby. "The American way is to overcome, to conquer, to come out on top. We do that by spending, eating, and screwing our women harder," he says.

This excruciating truth is only the beginning of the revelations, both cultural and personal, unveiled as the Mercy Seat, the Biblical covering of the Ark of the Covenant, is lifted away, showing the truth of what life and love contain. LaBute’s unshrinking gaze takes in a world torn apart by tragedy, and finds the moments of uncertainty, doubt, and opportunity.

He focuses on them, on how they affect the human condition, and inserts his crowbar a little deeper into the closed American heart. Bowden and Marshall — two of Maine’s best actors — are heartbreakingly compelling, playing to perfection their complex roles.

As their characters’ relationship is made clear, and their internal conflicts exposed, the tower of each character is built a story higher. Both actors exert control over the emotions of the audience, creating moments of palpable tension and physical release with the honesty of their acting. The range of emotions through which they move in two hours is exhausting and soul-opening for both actors and audience, eliciting laughter, tears, terror, and joy. Relief is the only one not fully present, and that is by design.

The magnitude of September 11 is amplified by their personal losses and the agonies of their solitary choices. Abby’s character is the voice of playwright LaBute himself, needling, poking, digging into Ben’s deepest soul, scrabbling to open his rocky heart. Initially, he fights it, but gives in eventually, seeming to know this is an opportunity he will never have again.

She names his fears, his options, states clearly the repercussions of choices he would prefer to make by obscure reference or implication. It is an excruciating process, as she forces honesty upon the unwilling Ben, compelling him at every turn to question himself and his motives.

He tries over and over to seize the chance he sees, but truth repels him, and ultimately leads to her fateful request, that he be honest and make the call he was about to make, before the towers were struck. Neither expects the fallout to be what it is, and the audience sits stunned as paired planes of truth crash into the twin towers of Abby and Ben, shaking both to their foundations.

The Mercy Seat
Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Andrew Sokoloff. With Christine Louise Marshall and Craig Bowden. By Mad Horse Theatre Company, at Portland Stage Studio Theater, through November 2. Call (207) 730-2389.


• The new West End Studio Theatre in Portsmouth, NH, will open its first season October 31 with Artists’ Collaborative Theatre of New England performing three short plays about middle-aged women in awkward situations. WEST is the former home of Pontine Movement Theater, which now shares the space with New Hampshire Theater Workshop. Call (603) 926-2281.

Frank Wicks’ play Soldier, Come Home, based on his great-grandparents’ Civil War letters, played recently in his great-grandparents’ hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It drew over 100 of Wicks’s relatives, as well as a video crew to tape the play for wider distribution. The play is also on sale at

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Teachers’ unions, business back competing tax proposals

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Tax reform in Maine is attracting big dollars from the state’s businesses and teachers’ unions, as funds flow in to the coffers of groups supporting the two alternatives on the Nov. 4 ballot. Some of the groups say they are concerned about property taxpayers, but many also have their own agendas.

A chart on this page (corrected from previous versions published in this newspaper) lays out the school funding numbers presented by each side.

Question 1A was devised by the Maine Municipal Association, the statewide association of town councils and town managers. Over the past year, the MMA has donated $320,000 to the political action committee backing the question.

The largest backer for that PAC, however, is the National Education Association, based in Washington, D.C., which has donated $350,000 in the past four months by passing funds through the Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union.

Part of the reason is because Question 1A would dramatically increase state education funding immediately, said Rob Walker, president of the MEA. Further, “there is a chance that some of the money will not go to tax reform” but instead will be used by towns to pay their teachers better, he said.

He is touring the state, giving presentations to groups of teachers about the referendum and encouraging them to vote.

“We’re finding that the more questions we answer” the more likely people are to support Question 1A, he said.

Business backs 1B
Question 1B was developed by Gov. John Baldacci and the state Legislature as a so-called “competing measure” referendum, posing an alternative to the MMA proposal. Question 1B is drawing support from businesses around the state.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, is the chairman of the PAC. Question 1B sets education as “one of our state’s highest priorities,” and pays for it through existing taxes levied on an expanding economy, rather than creating new taxes, he said. Some districts will see less money initially, “but that’s more than compensated for” in future years, Connors said.

The PAC has received funds from many big-name companies, including $50,000 from International Paper, $35,000 from National Semiconductor, $25,000 each from L.L. Bean and Sappi, and $15,000 from UnumProvident.

“We’re very concerned with the fiscal implications of Question 1A,” said Steve Clarkin, regional public affairs manager for International Paper. “The state can’t afford Question 1A without resorting to tax increases.”

One tax break he and many other companies fear may be first on the chopping block is the Business Equipment Tax Rebate, in which the state returns to businesses the amount they pay to towns in personal property tax on business equipment, including manufacturing machinery.

“Our biggest concern would be the BETR program,” Clarkin said. IP is also concerned that just cutting BETR wouldn’t save the state enough money, requiring increases in taxes on services – including accounting and legal work – and the elimination of sales-tax exemptions businesses now enjoy on new production equipment, raw materials and energy used for manufacturing.

“National is backing 1B,” said spokesman Anne Gauthier. “We believe that the phased-in approach is a more fiscally responsible approach.”

BETR cuts also worry her. In 1997, National began investing $950 million in its South Portland facilities, and expects the full benefit of BETR tax breaks to come over 12 years. Eliminating that now would be a big concern for National, she said.

Pushing real reform
L.L. Bean is also weighing in to support Question 1B. “It breaks the inertia of the whole tax-and-spend issue,” said company spokesman Rich Donaldson.

It provides immediate tax relief to the most needy Mainers, and forces towns to make their own decisions on educational funding.

Now, “any town can say, ‘This is what we need for education funding,’” he said. That ups the state’s total expenditure for education without a centralized plan for determining whether those expenses are necessary.

Question 1A “just sends more money to municipalities. That’s the danger of it,” he said. Towns “have a long and strong history of increasing spending” when they get more money.

“Local governments are going to continue to spend what you give them,” he said. Changing the education funding formula will give them what they need to provide a good education, but will make clear the line between what is deemed necessary for a quality education and what is optionally selected by the town, Donaldson said.

UnumProvident spokesman David Brenerman called Question 1A “a significant financial problem for the state.” He worries that the state may already be facing a $500 million funding shortfall for the next budget cycle, and asking for an extra $250 million a year could break the bank.

“Tax reform is a slow process. It can’t happen all at once,” said Brenerman, who is a former mayor of Portland. “Along with tax reform there needs to be spending reform,” he said.

Some towns back 1A
Not surprisingly, many town councils and school boards are supporting the proposal developed by their umbrella group, the MMA. The Cape Elizabeth School Board has endorsed it, and last week many councilors also voiced their support.

“Clearly 1A (the MMA proposal) is the option for folks in this community,” said Cape Councilor Jack Roberts at a council meeting. Cape Council Chairman Mary Ann Lynch also supports 1A. She is “skeptical of the dire Chicken Little” behavior of legislators who claim that 1A will bankrupt the state. A year ago, legislators handled a $1.2 billion shortfall in the state budget without a tax increase, she said. “It’s a question of priorities. … They’ve closed larger budget gaps in previous years without tax increases.”

South Portland City Manager Jeff Jordan recently sent councilors a memo about each of the proposals. They indicate that if Question 1A were to pass, South Portland would have the second-largest increase in school funding – $5.2 million – among all the towns in the state. (Portland’s increase would be higher.)

If Question 1B were to pass, South Portland would have the greatest loss in school funding – $2.8 million – of any town in the state, Jordan wrote.

Windham Town Manager Tony Plante said his town’s council has not taken a position, but did not support a resolution supporting the MMA proposal (Question 1A) when it came up for a vote. The council has not supported Question 1B or opposed either, he said.

None of the above
Jerre Bryant, Westbrook’s administrative assistant, opposes both, though the City Council has not taken a formal stand.

“They both fall woefully short” of “true tax reform,” Bryant said. Question 1A does not explain where the state should come up with the funds, while Question 1B “not only doesn’t help but harms Westbrook” and other towns. “Neither of these proposals are sound public policy,” he said.

Supporting neither proposal demands better action from the Legislature and the governor, he said. “We desperately need tax reform. We desperately need property tax relief.”

There is an option on the ballot – 1C – to oppose both tax plans. Bryant expects that Carol Palesky’s Maine Taxpayers Action Network tax-cap proposal will get on the ballot next year, and hopes a solution can be devised before that happens. Walker, of the MEA, also wants a tax-reform solution approved to “head off” Palesky’s efforts, which he fears will catch the attention of many taxpayers, and require towns and cities to make drastic spending cuts, hurting teachers.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Fishin’ and fusion: Or was it fission and confusion?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Originally, a red herring was a smoked fish thrown to hunting dogs to distract them from prey. With six actors, each playing one main role and two supporting ones, Red Herring is full of opportunities for distraction, and like any good farce, confusion reigns supreme throughout the play.

The main characters are Frank (David Davalos), an FBI agent hot on the trail of a spy ring leaking hydrogen-bomb secrets to the Soviets; Maggie (Janet Mitchko), a local police detective searching for a killer; Lynn McCarthy (Amanda Rose Rowan), the daughter of Communist-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy (though, in reality, Joe didn’t marry or have a child until later than this play is set); James (Brian Louis Hoffman), an Army lieutenant whose interest in Lynn creates a new Army-McCarthy relationship, and whose desire for world peace leads him to spy for the Soviets; and Mrs. Kravitz (Sheila Stasack), a waterfront boardinghouse landlady whose life’s desire is to vacation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with her lover, Andrei (Neal Hemphill), a Russian fisherman spying for the Soviets to save his wife, in Communist clutches back home.

When Mrs. Kravitz tells Frank and Maggie that a corpse in Boston harbor is Andrei (to hide the fact that she killed her husband), the net of lives becomes tangled and then begins to unravel.

Among the revelations to which the audience arrives with great laughter are these: Maggie has been married before, James seeks truth in an H-bomb blast and finds temporary blindness, Lynn has deep questions about the true nature of Velveeta, Frank has no problem shooting up a bridal shop, and Andrei can play a mute with great aplomb.

The supporting characters are also exquisite. Among the best are a coroner who eats lunch over a corpse and uses the sheet as a napkin, a divorce-obsessed marriage-license clerk, a priest driven from his post by impatient confessors, and a leering Army officer needling the junior James.

The comedy is heightened by strong one-liners with excellent delivery, brilliantly funny facial expressions to clue in the audience to the real action, and witty repartee.

It is not all a rollicking laugh, though. Each character also has deep insights into the nature of marriage, with pithy lines and comic grace notes alike. The issues of partnership and commitment are revisited throughout.

Admittedly, these are often in unusual ways, like a man asking his fiancĂ©e to deliver a secret microfilm to his spy contact, all in the name of love. Another character heroically saved her own husband from death, only to regret it years later, and not fully understand how much until near the play’s end. Then there’s the marriage proposal at gunpoint.

Oddly for a play with this title, none of the anecdotes are red herrings for the audience. All are eventually closely tied together. The vignettes pick up speed as the show progresses, exposing the single weakness of this production.

While the set is elaborate and provides an excellent dockside feeling, it is not a multi-purpose space. There are literally dozens of scenes, and each requires the lights to go down for stagehands to rearrange small areas. It would have been better, perhaps, to switch the action back and forth, moving rapidly between areas of the set, keeping the audience’s attention on the actors while stagehands worked quickly elsewhere on stage.

The play also includes an original interpretation of a famous painting. Winslow Homer’s "The Herring Net," probably painted in Scarborough and based on his observations of a herring catch off the coast of Maine, hangs above the set as part of a herring firm’s advertising campaign. It is commonly thought to be a portrayal of a fisherman and his boy pulling in a large catch.

Andrei believes it is of a fisherman and his wife, working together to stay afloat. "Marriage has a small leak," Andrei says. If both husband and wife ignore it, waiting for the other to bail, both will drown. If both work hard, they’ll survive. This causes his turn of phrase to be both amusing and poignant, as he gives vital advice to a woman about to get married: "Don’t forget to bail."

The lesson is revisited later in the play, as James proclaims the insight he received at the moment he went blind. Fusion is better than fission, he says, "joining together is a thousand times more powerful than splitting apart."

Red Herring
Written by Michael Hollinger. Directed by Christopher Schario. With David Davalos, Janet Mitchko, Amanda Rose Rowan, Brian Louis Hoffman, Sheila Stasack, and Neal Hemphill. At the Public Theatre, in Lewiston, through Oct. 19. Call (207) 782-3200.


Louis Philippe, the Portland man who is suing AOL for delivering spam email to his inbox, is also threatening to sue the First Parish Congregational Church in Gorham. In a press release issued last week, Philippe, who heads the Reindeer Group, said he is giving up on establishing a performing arts venue in church-owned space on School Street in Gorham. He blamed the church’s leadership for the deal’s collapse and wants $2600 in claimed actual losses, "plus an unspecified amount for residual damages," by November 1 or he’ll sue.

Kippy Rudy, former marketing director at Portland Stage Company, is the new general manager at Portland Opera Repertory Theater, which is now calling itself PORTopera.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Tax plans offer relief for a price

Published in the Current and the American Journal; co-written with Kate Irish Collins

While Maine property taxpayers may save millions if the Maine Municipal Association’s tax-reform referendum passes Nov. 4, supporters of the governor’s competing proposal say it will lead to tax increases in other areas. And opponents of both ideas say neither will have any real effect on the state’s overall tax burden.

Each side says there is no guarantee the other’s would lead to true property tax reform, although elected officials in area municipalities say any additional state funding would be used to reduce or stabilize property tax rates.

The MMA proposal would require the state to fund 55 percent of the cost of education starting next year. The governor’s proposal would phase the
increase in over five years. The key concern about the MMA plan is where the money will come from.

Preliminary numbers indicate that under the MMA proposal, Westbrook schools would see an increase in state education funding of $3,555,704. Under the governor’s plan, Westbrook would lose $357,571 in the first year. In Gorham under the MMA plan, the town would see an increase in education dollars of $3,221,394 and a decrease of $267,283 under the governor’s proposal in the first year.

Windham is the only regional town that would see an increase under both plans. Under the MMA plan, Windham would get $3,821,269 more and under the governor’s plan the town would get $94,970 more.

School Administrative District 6, which includes Standish, would gain the most under the MMA plan, with an increase of $4,989,105. Under the governor’s proposal, the school district would lose $673,298 next year.

In the 2005-2006 fiscal year, with an overall increase in education funding under the governor’s plan, Westbrook, Gorham and Windham would see an
increase in spending of just over $1 million. SAD 6 would see an increase in funding of over $3 million.

The governor’s proposal will never equal the total school funding dollars offered under the MMA plan because that proposal also requires the state to pay 100 percent of all special education expenses.

The total cost of the MMA plan, next fiscal year, would be roughly $255 million. State Rep. Harold Clough, R-Scarborough and part of Gorham, told the American Journal it is not possible for the state to expend that kind of money without major tax increases or significant program cuts.

The governor’s plan would improve state education spending more gradually and also increase funding to statewide tax relief programs, like the “circuit-breaker” program, which refunds a portion of property taxes and rent paid by low-income Mainers, Clough said.

State Rep. Christopher Barstow, D-Gorham, said he is supporting the governor’s proposal because it takes a progressive approach to increasing state funding of education. But he’s also not strongly against the MMA plan.

“I believe the governor’s measure would be legally binding and that the Legislature would keep its commitment. Both questions are being touted as providing tax relief and, to some extent, they will, but what we really need to do is engage the leadership in reviewing the tax code itself,” Barstow said.

Bob Stone, treasurer of the political action group, Common Sense for Maine Taxpayers, and chairman of the finance committee in the city of Lewiston, has spoken against both plans, and is urging voters to choose “none of the above” on the ballot.

“History tells us that you’re only dreaming” if you believe claims of lower taxes, Stone said. While property taxes may drop, the money will have to be made up from other taxes. He said cutting state spending is the only way to truly lower the state’s tax burden.

Statewide polling shows voters are evenly split among the MMA proposal, the governor’s plan and the “none of the above” option. Gorham Town Council Chairman Michael Phinney told the American Journal Monday the council is backing the MMA proposal. Phinney said it would provide additional money to the town immediately.

He said the governor’s plan would provide less funding from the state for education than what Gorham is currently getting.

“Gorham is one of the towns that would get more money back. From that standpoint it should help out with the property tax level,” Phinney said.

While the MMA plan has come under some fire for not detailing where the funding would come from, Phinney said it would be up to the Legislature and the governor to find the money.

“No doubt it would be a difficult decision. But education should be our first priority. It is in Gorham, and it should be at the state level,” he said.

Westbrook Mayor Don Esty said the city has not taken any official position on the education funding referenda, but said any help the state could provide to help pay for education either under the MMA proposal or the governor’s plan would be appreciated and welcome.

“Should either one pass, we will use the money to keep property taxes as much under control as possible,” Esty said.

Esty said it is his hope that before Election Day, state officials will outline whatever cuts in spending or increases in revenue would be available to support either education funding option. “It’s that missing information that leaves people unsure about how to vote,” he said.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Radiation sickness: Living a half-life

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Marie Curie was among the first to learn that exposure to high doses of radiation can stunt organisms’ growth and cause premature death. In The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a budding female scientist takes a different route to the same lesson.

Tillie Hunsdorfer (Chelsea Cook) is a bright student whose mother, Beatrice (played by Annette L. Bourque), is jealous of her success. While she doesn’t actually hit her daughter, Beatrice is emotionally abusive and often prevents Tillie from even going to school, instead making her do endless chores around the house. Tillie’s sister Ruth (Andrea Wickham) is allowed to go to school, but seems not to make much of the opportunity.

It becomes clear, though, that Beatrice sees herself in her smart non-conformist daughter, and fears for Tillie’s future. When Beatrice learns the students laughed at Tillie during a science assembly, she turns on her. "They laugh at you, they’re laughing at me," she says, remembering the scorn she endured in her school days, just for being different. That radiation has seared Beatrice, and she in turn irradiates Tillie and Ruth.

Beatrice confesses her feelings in a conversation with Tillie about a science project. Tillie is planting marigold seeds that have been exposed to cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope with the relatively short half-life of 5.3 years.

Beatrice, she tells her daughter, knows all about half-lives. She is "the original half life," she says, and launches into a brief soliloquy offering a view into another world, the inner corridors of "the other half"’s lives: Beatrice has one daughter — the panic-suffering Ruth — with "half a mind," the other — science-brained Tillie — "half a test tube," her house is half full of the droppings of the family’s pet rabbit, and she shares a living space with half a corpse, the elderly Nanny (Ellen Thomas), whom Beatrice cares for to earn extra money.

It is a speech that could be both heartbreaking and pathetic. Bourque, however, only gets to the pathetic part of Beatrice’s character. The play is written to be slow-moving, and Bourque’s Beatrice properly sucks the life out of each scene in which she appears. But even in moments of redemption and openness, Bourque draws only pity from the audience.

Cook’s Tillie is a far more sympathetic character, playing her middle-woman role strongly, and showing the promise of youthful enthusiasm in scenes without Beatrice. When faced with Beatrice, Cook immediately adopts deferential tone and bearing, though keeping sparks alive under the bushel.

Ruth is more stereotypical, and is played well by Wickham, a newcomer to USM’s main stage. First a flighty teenage girl, she morphs into a younger version of her mother, but one more bitter and with less hope.

The characters are complicated and conflicted. It is their depth that earned this play both a Pulitzer and an Obie. Beatrice’s grudging acceptance of duty, dashing her own dreams, is briefly inspiring, when she is made to understand that Tillie’s finalist status in the school science fair is not a chance for people to mock Beatrice but to celebrate Tillie.

In the second act, the effects of the radiation become clear. As Tillie’s marigold experiment showed, seeds with a little radiation were normal; moderate radiation resulted in mutants. Seeds that endured large amounts of radiation were stunted or killed.

Beatrice, boosted by pride in Tillie’s accomplishments at the science fair, starts to heal and face her fears. But her radiation has ruined Ruth, who turns on her mother and destroys what remains of the life in Beatrice’s soul, triggering a rapid decay of spirit and turning Beatrice into a shell of her former self.

While the show is billed as a redemptive story, there is little hope left at the play’s end. Despite Tillie’s claim that "some of the mutations will be good ones," the spectre of radiation sickness lingers in the theater after the lights go up.

The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
Written by Paul Zindel. Directed by Minor Rootes. With Annette L. Bourque, Chelsea Cook, and Andrea Wickham. At University of Southern Maine, Russell Hall, through Oct. 12. Call (207) 780-5151.


The Public Theatre in Lewiston recently received two grants: $10,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to support educational outreach programming, including ticket-price subsidies for students and local community organizations, and student internships at the theater; and a $5000 unrestricted grant from the Shubert Foundation, the charity arm of a company owning 17 Broadway theaters, recognizing general excellence at the Public Theatre.

• Need a great Halloween costume? Check out the Maine State Music Theatre’s costume shop sale October 11, from 8 a.m. to noon, at MSMT’s new building, 22 Elm Street, in Brunswick, across from Hannaford. Most items will sell for $5, and all proceeds benefit the theater. Local theaters can get first dibs by calling Crystle Martin at (207) 725-8760 x15.

• A group of 10 Boothbay Harbor residents has purchased the town’s Opera House and plans to restore it. The 20,000-square-foot building will house gallery space, dance studios, a banquet hall, reception areas, and a 350-seat main theater. The first event, a concert by Jackson Browne, will be November 3. To learn more, visit

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Standish man found guilty of murder

Published in the Current and the American Journal

A Cumberland County Superior Court jury Tuesday afternoon found Santanu Basu of Standish guilty of murdering Azita Jamshab to get the proceeds of a $100,000 insurance policy.

In closing arguments Tuesday morning, the prosecution told jurors there is “overwhelming evidence” that Basu was guilty.

Basu was listed as the beneficiary on Jamshab’s life insurance policy, which he had sold to her. In addition to Jamshab’s blood in the car Basu rented that day, and a “to-do” list preparing for the murder in Basu’s handwriting, prosecutor Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said Basu had confessed to the crime, in detail, to a friend who then told police elements of the crime that had not yet been discovered.

The defense countered that Basu and Jamshab had instead been kidnapped at gunpoint by Jamshab’s “jealous boyfriend,” Amhad “Khoji” Khojaspehzad, who then murdered Jamshab.

Basu’s actions after the killing, which the prosecution called incriminating, were instead because Basu was trying to protect his family from Khojaspehzad, defense attorney Neale Duffett told jurors.

Jamshab, who lived in Westbrook, was shot to death after stepping out of a rental car – similar to one Basu rented that day – in a gravel pit just over the Windham line in Cumberland March 6, 2002. Her body was found the following day by a Windham man who lived nearby.

Marchese said Basu was “deep in debt and going further,” with high credit card balances and his job in jeopardy.

When Jamshab came into Basu’s office in January 2002 to buy car and health insurance following her divorce, Basu saw his chance. He sold her life insurance and persuaded her to name him as the beneficiary, Marchese said.

“He had all the information he needed to make Azita’s parents the beneficiary but he didn’t because he didn’t want to, because then he wouldn’t get the money,” Marchese said.

Instead, he put himself on the policy and then began to plan Jamshab’s murder, she said. In late February 2002, Jamshab told Basu she was moving out of the area and wanted to cancel the policy.

“Within two weeks Azita is dead,” Marchese said.

After the murder, Basu confessed to a former Navy buddy, but pleaded with him not to tell the police about any of it, prosecutors said.

That friend, Dexter Flemming, told police intimate details of the crime before the medical examiner or police were able to uncover them. Later discoveries supported what Flemming said Basu had told him, Marchese told the jury.

Marchese also described the killing, saying Basu drove Jamshab to the gravel pit in a rental car and told Jamshab to close her eyes because he had a “big surprise” for her.

“She holds out her hand and he pulls out the gun and shoots her,” Marchese said. The first shot was in the hand and arm. Then Basu shot her twice in the chest, and she fell to the ground.

“For some inexplicable reason he needs that coup de grace shot and shoots her in the back,” Marchese said.

The defense story that the pair was kidnapped by Khojaspehzad was invented recently and first told to investigators when Basu took the stand last week, Marchese said.

Khojaspehzad was the secondary beneficiary of Jamshab’s insurance policy and would only get the money if Basu were dead or convicted of killing Jamshab.

Speaking for the defense, Duffett disputed each of Marchese’s claims, saying Basu was not in financial trouble, would not have killed Jamshab for any
money, rented a car to hide an affair from his wife and made the to-do list to plan a “romantic date.”

Duffett said Basu did not dispute Flemming’s testimony about the confession because Basu was trying to cover for Khojaspehzad, for fear his family would be hurt if the police investigated Khojaspehzad.

Duffett said Khojaspehzad was a “jealous lover” who murdered Jamshab in a “crime of passion,” because he feared Basu and Jamshab were having an affair.

Marchese dismissed that explanation as “nonsensical.”

Friday, September 26, 2003

Baring it all: To push honesty over all else

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As Naked in Portland begins, playwright, composer, and lyricist Jason Wilkins strums his guitar and sings a ballad setting the scene: Young artists gather in Maine’s largest city and hope to find themselves. They are, he sings, "experimental people, sampling everything they see, wondering which is ‘the way life should be.’ "

Wilkins’s play is a love song to his own existence, in many ways, with main characters of artists, musicians, struggling creative types, arts critics and vertices of the love polygons that develop among them. (Wilkins is a musician and former theater and music critic for the local daily and the other alt-weekly in town, before the latter began publishing unedited press releases.) A number of the characters make ends meet, not surprisingly, by working in a coffee shop that becomes home to their dreams.

While the "daily specials" remain "regular" and "decaf," the real treats are the clever characters who make the play a rollicking ride through Portland’s art scene. (The Phoenix appears on stage — a nod to its sponsorship of the production.)

A theater critic is present, and begins the music — for this is a musical — with an ode to the hottie artists, the ones who through no fault of their own look like supermodels. (Infatuated, he later tries to diss another artist by making up quotes, gets himself fired, and ends up delivering pizzas. A warning to all journalists, indeed.)

There is a lovely and talented artist (Deni, played by Nancy Brown) with an electric gaze and a stolen heart; a mercurial artist who refuses to change for fame (Janine, Lisa Muller-Jones); a boring but reliable banker (Aaron, Keith Anctil), the love interest of a go-getter art graduate (Donna, Tavia Lin Gilbert); a couple from Presque Isle (Gina, Christine St. Pierre; and Wayne, Ryan Gartley), both of whom want constant orgasms, but only one of whom has figured out how (he works the late shift at the local porn shop). There’s also Donna’s mom, Linda (Monique Raymond), newly divorced and looking for love.

The most fun characters are a sex-crazed art teacher (also Muller-Jones); and the show-stopping Josh (Jeremiah McDonald), the nice guy from Jackman, who cuts loose into ’50s doo-wop and frenetic nude portraiture, drawing peals of laughter from the cast as well as the audience.

The show is a great way to spend an evening, and is performed solidly by some of the best and hardest-working actors in the area. Some of the roughness is Wilkins’s doing: On stage as a guitar player and extra, he gives visual and audible cues to the actors, and occasionally wanders awkwardly around the stage.

Happily, the usually cramped studio theater felt absolutely spacious, with chairs on the floor — not the usual bleachers — and spaced apart a bit. The play was on a raised stage, an excellent modification to the room that I hope will stay for future shows.

The music, composed by Wilkins, had identifiable riffs from "Hotel California," "Stairway to Heaven," and "Should I Stay or Should I Go," and was clearly influenced by the Barenaked Ladies, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, Catie Curtis, and Cheryl Wheeler, among others. Local folkie Abi Tapia made a cameo appearance — or at least her phone number did — and was possibly a further influence.

The lyrics and dialogue are peppered with universal truths, witty wordings, and heartfelt confessions. Sex is never far from the lips of any cast member. Themes of nudity, bareness, and truth are intertwined cleverly, as in Gina’s plea to herself — and the audience — not to be too judgmental when she drops her robe and takes her first real look at her nude body.

It is this theme that remains constant: honesty to self and others. It carries the show through high and low points to a feel-good conclusion that brings all the jokes and innuendo neatly together. Gina’s character development in this area drives the main plot, while subplots show her the lives she could have had, if her choices were different.

There are a couple of glitches in direction, unusual for R.J. McComish, usually a skilled and sensitive conductor. At one point, when Donna is listening to her mother lament lost love, McComish has actor Gilbert fidget, changing facial expression and body position from time to time, to continue "looking sympathetic."

In a later scene, Deni rushes off stage. The line accompanying her exit is delivered by Gina: "I’ve never seen Deni so upset before." Fine, except she didn’t look upset in the least, just like a person who had a bladder emergency.

Generally, though, the acting was right on, and the laughs came at all the right times. Most remarkably, while humor often relies on stereotypes, there weren’t many to be found here. Wilkins came up with his own sense of comedy and created characters — and found actors — who could pull it all off in a successful portrait of arts life in this mortal city.

Naked in Portland
Written by Jason Wilkins. Directed by R.J. McComish. With Christine St. Pierre, Tavia Lin Gilbert, Jeremiah McDonald, and Nancy Brown. At Portland Stage Studio Theater, through Oct. 5. Call (207) 774-0465.


Help build a theater! Join the staff, board, and friends of Pontine Movement Theater and New Hampshire Theatre Project to finish construction of seating platforms and a lighting booth. Meet at 9 a.m. Saturday, September 27, at the West End Studio Theater, 959 Islington Street, in Portsmouth, NH.