Friday, May 30, 2003

Tell me lies: Hiding from truth at dinner

Published in the Portland Phoenix

How far will you go to keep up appearances? Or, more precisely, what would you do to keep others from popping the balloon of your illusions about yourself? Are you, like an unseen English peer and his wife in Dinner at Eight, " just like everybody else, only plainer? "

In the play’s world, everyone knows the troubles the others have seen, but don’t want them to know they know. Dinner at Eight peers into the world of how the other — well, not quite half, so let’s say two percent — live. Society women swoon over their engagement calendars, hoping to stay near the top of the social kettle. Their servants aspire to higher goals and better lives, while neighbors and lesser relations know, and keep, their places.

Millicent Jordan (Helen Brock) is impressed by the superficial — say, those who have an office in the Empire State Building (no matter how big, nor what its business) — and wants others to know about her connections, however tenuous, with the rich and famous of New York and even England.

Here is the stuff of gossip columns: One businessman is trying to protect his family company from going under, while another is scheming to take it over; a doctor is having an affair with a whiny trophy wife; an actor trying valiantly to reclaim the star status of his youth; a below-stairs romance is blossoming despite a jealous co-worker and the prior marriage of one partner.

The stories are intertwined cleverly, with strong voices coming through to make sure the audience isn’t lost, and with a more audience-like element on stage in the bodies of Hattie and Ed Loomis (Susan Norris and Jeff Kaplan). The Loomises are quite happy with their lot as middle-class working people, and bemused by the pretenses of their relations. They are also certainly not about to argue over a free meal, even if they were a last-minute addition to the guest list.

The play is a comedy, though a sad one, with unrequited love, lost hope, and true desperation mixed in with the laughably superficial concerns of Millicent.

The casting is genius, with each person selected for his or her strengths and pushed to perform them. And most cast members have more than one part, in a slightly different stratum of society. The recurring faces in different scenarios lends additional power to the theme, " there but for the grace of (insert name of deity) go I. " Brock herself takes a social demotion from flitty rich housewife to nurse, while the man who plays a butler (Steve Erickson) also plays a hotel bellboy.

Of further note is Tim Robinson’s performance. He stepped in to fill the role of Dan Packard when Bruce Allen took ill and was hospitalized a day before the show was to open. Despite still acting with script in hand, Robinson has excellent stage presence and is able to remain a strong performer.

It is fitting that this play should be presented so charmingly in the rough, arty space at the Players’ Ring theater, a historic building long past its original prime, but now gunning hard for a rebirth as an arts and cultural space. The building has no hidden aspirations, instead celebrating its past and its future.

There is an undercurrent of self-reference in the play itself, both to the world of theater, and to the Ring, mainly by happenstance. Perhaps this is the reason for the selection of this script over others that could have been more engaging.

In one scene, an aging widow (Anne F. Rehner) wants to sell a theater on 42nd Street but can’t find an interested buyer, to which a failing businessman (Roland Goodbody) replies that he has long wanted to become a playwright. In another scene, a doctor (Paul J. Bell) predicts the fortunes of the Ring’s current air-conditioning-fund drive, saying " in the future, buildings will be artificially cooled. "

It is too bad that while the pieces are all strong, from acting to costumes and set to lights, the sum of the parts really doesn’t sing the way this play could, or any other play could with this cast. It is possible — and understandable — that everyone was distracted by worry for Allen, who does not have any life-threatening condition, we are assured. But director Rachael Burr should have spent more time on an overall direction for the play than in making sure its details were taken care of.

In fact, the play as a whole is truly remarkable only for its three-hour length, thanks in part to protracted set changes (some nearly three minutes!). Perhaps this production itself wants a higher station in life but could not find a way there this time around.

Dinner at Eight
Written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Directed by Rachael M. Burr. With Helen Brock, Roland Goodbody, Dann Anthony Maurno, and Anne F. Rehner. Theatre on the Rocks, at the Players’ Ring, through June 8. Call (603) 436-8123.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Survey says fees at fort, prosecute parents

Published in the Current and the American Journal

A survey conducted by a Portland market research firm owned by a Cape Elizabeth woman shows that Mainers overwhelmingly support a $5 annual admission fee at Fort Williams, as well as prosecution of parents who “knowingly allow their minor children” to host parties with alcohol.

The survey, conducted by Critical Insights, owned by Cape resident MaryEllen FitzGerald, is part of a semi-annual statewide poll the company undertakes with two purposes. The first is to allow companies to purchase small numbers of questions in a statewide poll without commissioning an entire survey alone. Those questions, and their answers, are shared only with the clients.

The second purpose is to ask people a series of “general interest” questions over time that shows trends in opinion throughout the state. Those questions are created by the company’s staff, and results are made public to promote the firm, FitzGerald said.

She herself comes up with some of the questions, and for the past few years has added a question about parental responsibility for underage parties with alcohol. The question asks if parents who know about such parties should be prosecuted.

A “yes” answer to the question has gotten overwhelming support every time, and in the latest survey was supported by 82 percent of respondents.

FitzGerald said she added the question in response to “the ongoing conversation” in Cape Elizabeth about parents and teenage parties. Cape Police Capt. Brent Sinclair agreed with the survey’s respondents. “Absolutely they should” be prosecuted. When Cape police have enough evidence, “we do issue them a citation.”

Two percent of the survey respondents didn’t give an answer to the question. As for the 16 percent of survey respondents who said parents should not be prosecuted, Sinclair said, “those are the 16 percent of kids we’re dealing with.”

He warned that whether parents know about what their property is used for is immaterial, if a person gets drunk and gets in an accident on the way home. “In the bigger picture, it’s a huge liability for the parents,” Sinclair said.

This year, for the first time, FitzGerald also added a question about a Fort Williams admission charge, using the model proposed by Town Councilor Mary Ann Lynch of a $5 annual fee per vehicle.

The question included a preliminary statement by the questioner, to set a context for the question. The exact wording was: “With the current state budget shortfall, towns across the state are looking for ways to lessen the impact of the budget cuts on their communities. You may have heard that the town of Cape Elizabeth was considering charging a once-a-year fee of $5 for admittance to Fort Williams Park. Taxpayers in the town contribute $30 per household through their taxes to the maintenance of the park, where all visitors (including tour buses) are currently admitted for free of charge. Do you support or oppose charging a once-a-year fee of $5 per vehicle for a pass giving unlimited access to Fort Williams?”

Seventy-four percent of respondents agreed, with people living in Southern Maine supporting it less than people in other areas of the state.

Lynch said she had seen the survey and liked what she saw. “It confirmed my anecdotal gut feeling,” she said.

And though the survey was not just of Cape residents, she said it showed that “people outside of Cape Elizabeth recognize that it’s a resource that needs to be cherished – by paying for it.”

Also in the survey were questions about statewide and national issues.

Nearly half of all Mainers think unemployment and the economy are the two most important issues for the state, and look to Gov. John Baldacci for leadership to solve those problems.

Mainers are split on a casino, with a statistical dead-heat in the response to a question asking whether the respondent supports or opposes “the idea of building a casino in Maine.” When the question was asked again with language close to what is proposed to be on the ballot in November, support climbed to 57 percent.

The survey also included a question on a proposal co-sponsored by Rep. Larry Bliss, D-South Portland, to decrease the voting age to 17. Most people did not agree, with 77 percent opposing it and only 20 percent favoring it Three percent of respondents either did not know or refused to answer.

Friday, May 23, 2003

Not just tall tales: Les Acadiens lends truths to folklore

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It’s not every play in which, on opening night, at the top of the second act, a young actor gets caught up in a stage-fight and breaks his arm. For real. But if it is to be any play, Stacy Begin’s Les Acadiens, exploring the repercussions of risk-taking against social norms, is a good one for it to happen in.

Chased out of Canada by the English, some Acadiens came south across the St. John River in the 18th century. The rest were deported, heading to French lands in what is now Louisiana. They became the Cajuns. The ones who remained up north, however, managed, at great peril, to establish themselves anew in Maine.

And the way Papa (Peter Carignan) tells the story, to cross the river to Madawaska, the tall Acadiens put the shorter ones on their shoulders. When the river became too swift and deep, the tall ones were swept away, and the short ones just barely made it to shore to begin a new life.

" And that is why we are all so short! " Papa proclaims. In a recent performance, an unexpected child’s query from the audience drew as many laughs as the scripted story: " Really? " she asked her parents.

It is moments like these that make Les Acadiens a gem of a play. Based in part on Begin’s own Franco-Canadian heritage (and no, she isn’t very tall), the play looks closely at a time when many French-Americans came of age, but before most of them started truly demanding equal treatment with their Yankee coworkers and neighbors.

The early 1940s were a time of great transition in American society, and French millworkers in Maine towns were not immune. Papa stuck with the old ways — in which fathers worked at the mill until their bodies or spirits were too broken to continue, at which point their oldest sons picked up the mantle.

For Maurice (Joshua Stamell), however, a new world beckons. A year from getting his high school diploma, Papa makes him drop out and head to the mill. In an exchange fraught with youthful optimism and adult pragmatism — " Who needs education, ah, when you have the mill? " — Maurice gives in, grudgingly, and starts to learn to count paper plates " hot off the presses " in batches of 250.

The stories his father told — and that he has learned to tell to his younger siblings — become the undoing of this pattern. Maurice’s Acadien heritage shows through as he rebels against an authoritarian force pushing him against his will. Abuse from the Yankee millworkers who beat down and blacklisted his father does not deter Maurice, who enlists in the Army to avoid becoming just like Papa.

The play abounds in touching vignettes, lovingly crafted by the playwright and faithfully executed by actors both telling the story and performing it, as visions in the minds of the audience. It is these moments, and subtle character elements, that make this a sentimental look at the way things used to be, without being overly sappy or bitter about it.

True-to-life ironies also abound, with Mama (Elizabeth Enck) wanting Maurice to stay home and work in the mill, which is " safe, " despite frequent small fires and worker-disfiguring accidents. It is the distance to which the Army will remove Maurice that makes his mother worried.

The acting is very strong, both from the children and the adults in the cast. Enck and Carignan do well with their French accents, and Marie-Jeanne (Haley Carignan, one of Peter’s two daughters in the show) and Clement (Sawyer Hopps, complete with arm cast) are delightful as young children who idealize both their father and their older brother, despite the contradictions between the two men. Both have mischievous streaks that get them in trouble, but also — particularly in Marie-Jeanne’s case — prove profitable.

The costumes in the play, designed by the ever-resourceful Pamela DiPasquale, are a magical mixture of impoverished drabness and fanciful color, showing the contrasts between reality and the folk stories, as refugees turn to sprites and back again. Lights help, too, and award-winning playwright John Urquhart, this play’s lighting designer, makes transition from fable to reality clear but not too stark.

It is, however, the folktales that make this show an enchanting one for all ages, and bring a sense of historical parallelism otherwise hard to portray. Il y avait une fois — there was a time . . .

Oh — and Sawyer Hopps’ broken arm? After a visit to the emergency room and a weekend off, he’s back on stage going strong, with his plaster cast signed by the acting cast.

Les Acadiens
Written by Stacy Begin. Directed by Pamela DiPasquale. With Joshua Stamell, Peter Carignan, Elizabeth Enck, Haley Carignan, and Sawyer Hoops. At Children’s Theatre of Maine, through May 25. Call (207) 828-0617.


Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s Senior Moments Group will put on a new original play, Dearly Departed, May 31. The group, actors over 55, will show a comic-but-serious look at aging and death.

• Some younger actors, 18 high school students from Brunswick, Bath, Freeport and Topsham, have also written their own play, Voices in the Mirror, showing May 30 through June 1 at the Theater Project. They’ll present teenagers’ views of the world.

Friday, May 16, 2003

The quiz of life: It's multiple-choice at Mad Horse

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It’s hard to keep the door closed against a loud world that keeps pushing. Mad Horse Theatre Company takes four looks — two a night — into the lives of the people who try to keep that world out of their little rented motel room.

The four plays are all by George F. Walker, a Toronto taxi-driver turned playwright who continues to display theatrical genius on the page as he explores the darker sides of modern living. In these four one-hour plays (intermission is between plays, rather than mid-show), some of Portland’s best actors beautifully lay out the desperation and cluelessness so many feel when faced with societal reality.

" Bad luck binds all the unfortunate of the Earth together and makes us unfortunate " may be the defining line of these plays, which explore how bad it can get, and then where " down " is from there. They are the people who have failed what one character calls " the quiz of life, " and probably haven’t studied, though, as they enter the room, they realize it might have been good to do so.

The plays are well written and keep actors and audience in sync despite the discord of the stories. In Criminal Genius, for example, a father/son criminal duo (played by Brian Shorey and J.P. Guimont), unwilling to harm other people, botch their mission and end up sucked into a murderous family feud.

The deep ironies are laughable but are tempered by the tragedies taking place in these characters’ lives. In Problem Child, R.J. (Brian Hinds) and Denise (Lisa Muller-Jones) are a couple who have lost custody of their baby daughter and are trying to get her back. It is a look into a scene that takes place all over Maine and throughout the nation, as people who have had a child behave in ways that make them — at best — questionable parents, but who still have that most important element of parenthood — deep-rooted love.

The acting, as audiences have come to expect from Mad Horse, is excellent, with honest emotion, hilarious cluelessness, rising frustration, and heartbreaking desperation all laid bare on the stage.

The characters have depth and all the actors find the voices reaching out from within criminals, druggies, and alcoholics; the sounds made by lovers, parents, and children the world over. These sounds, though, are wrenched from deep down and twisted through the wringer of what life has done to these people, who are either too weak or too distracted to have noticed before.

These are all strong actors who, with good scripts and excellent direction, bring the audience in to be flies on the wall of a room in a cheap motel where all of these wondrous and terrible things occur.

Directing is a challenge in this production like few others, as it has four plays and three directors. Further, each play has at least one character who appears in another play, making communication between directors vital to the plausibility of character development.

For example, Bob Colby plays motel manager Phillie in Criminal Genius and Problem Child, a hilariously pathetic alcoholic who has discovered over time that it is hard to clean the rooms drunk, and so takes Wednesdays off the bottle. His character is consistent throughout both plays, a testament to his acting skills as well as the clarity of direction from Hinds and Mad Horse artistic director Andy Sokoloff.

These plays also clearly portray the " normal " people from the outside world who appear, as if characters in a play, from time to time in the lives of the underdogs playwright Walker is focusing on here.

Helen (Elizabeth Enck), a social worker with the power to decide the fate of a child now in foster care, is as smarmy and condescending as we all fear those state-employed Solomons are in real life. The saving grace for her, and a sign of Walker’s strong writing ability, is that she shows glimpses of the same pathetic nature as the couple she is interrogating. Her self-righteousness appears to come not from any innate superiority, but from having overcome something she isn’t talking about.

These are the subtleties on which these plays depend, and they are all here. Comedy or tragedy? It depends on the moment.

Suburban Motel
Written by George F. Walker. Directed by Andrew Sokoloff, Brian Hinds, and Lisa Muller-Jones. Mad Horse Theatre Company, at the Portland Performing Arts Center Studio Theater, through June 1. Call (207) 347-5218.


• The Stage at Spring Point is a new nonprofit theater company and will present Macbeth in an outdoors venue June 25 through July 12, with the support of the South Portland recreation department.

• The Stage’s educational arm, the Young Actors Institute, is accepting applications through May 20 from high-school thespians who want to deepen their theatrical experience this summer. Call (207) 828-0128 for more info.

• Props to the folks at L/A Arts for putting on a show by a Somali playwright now living in the Twin Cities. Omar Ahmed’s play Love in the Cactus Village is about arranged marriage and love in an African family. Canadian television was there, as was a National Geographic photographer and more than 600 locals of many ethnicities. Did Mayor Larry Raymond show up?

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Bank robber nabbed at Super 8

Published in the Current and the American Journal

A man who allegedly robbed a Portland bank Saturday was arrested Monday at the Super 8 Motel on Larrabee Road in Westbrook. Steven Conway, 34, who gave police an address in Cape Elizabeth, was scheduled for arraignment Tuesday on a charge of armed robbery.

Portland Police Deputy Chief Bill Ridge expects the state charge to be dropped and a federal bank robbery charge to be filed against Conway.

“Robbing a bank is at the same time a state crime and a federal crime,” Ridge said. The federal charge “has far more severe penalties.”

On Saturday just after noon, a man walked into the Key Bank branch at 400 Forest Ave., Portland, “displayed a firearm and demanded money,” Ridge said.

An undisclosed amount was loaded into two paper bags, and the man left. As he walked down a nearby street, a dye packet concealed in one bag exploded, marking the stolen bills. The man left that bag, and police were able to recover “a large amount” of cash from the street, Ridge said.

“He eluded the police at that point,” Ridge said. Nothing more was heard until Portland police got a call at 8 a.m. Monday morning from a desk clerk at the Super 8 Motel on Larrabee Road. That person had money in the cash register “that appeared to be tainted with red dye,” Ridge said. The clerk said the man who had passed the money was still in his room.

Portland and Westbrook police responded, as well as the FBI. Just after 11 a.m., the clerk called the room to ask for the occupants to pay for another night or to leave.

“Mr. Conway and a woman who was with him” came out of the room. Conway had some red-tainted bills on him, Ridge said. The woman was questioned and released as a witness who was not involved in the crime.

Friday, May 9, 2003

Living and loving well: Choosing An Infinite Ache

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If " marriage is what brings us together today, " in the words of the Princess Bride minister, it can also be what drives us apart tomorrow. The mooring lines of love, affection, and attraction that cause people to merge their lives can loosen, if untended, allowing the ship of life to run aground.

In the waning moments of a brutally difficult evening out — seen by the young man as a first date and by the young woman as a favor to a friend-of-a-friend who is new in town — a vision appears. What if, instead of an exit with a promise to " call you sometime, " a person who has drunk too much didn’t walk out of your life forever, but, instead, became your life’s partner? So begins An Infinite Ache, penned by a 29-year-old man in the throes of unrequited love. The brilliantly written script looks forward into the imagined future and sees Charles (Pierre-Marc Diennet) and Hope (Ann Hu) as their lives and loves develop and change, all the way through grandparenthood and Hope’s death.

Committed couples — and those considering lifelong partnership — will find themselves, and perhaps a glimpse of the future, in these characters.

It is up to the actors, working with a single set location and little off-stage time for costume changes, to unlock the power and wisdom in the play, and Hu and Diennet do so powerfully. To make the point that minutes can represent weeks, even decades, watches and clocks are taken off, put away, and left entirely alone until the play’s end. Even a repeatedly missing camera reinforces the inability one has to tangibly capture any particular moment.

Hu and Diennet carry well the challenging script’s rapid changes in plot and emotion. Hesitancy about cohabitation and marriage morphs into proposal, and rejection is followed by acceptance, marriage, and a baby. Life takes its terrible and dreadful course, as well as its pleasant and joyful one, and the couple endures tragedy, child-rearing, infidelity, divorce, reconciliation, sickness, and death.

Themselves young, if accomplished, actors, Hu and Diennet impart a wisdom greater than their years as a fight over laundry becomes an announcement of unexpected pregnancy and deep emotions bubble to the surface, dreams and hopes of youth clashing with the responsibilities of adulthood.

Watch for a fight they have while she packs to move out. It quickly transforms into her unpacking the suitcase instead. Here, Charles’s impassioned speeches, answered by Hope’s wordless changes of action and meaning, are bolstered by excellent stage management, making sure all the props are in the right place at the right time.

As the two age and grow in Charles’s imagination, the deepest elements of the two characters are exposed, culminating in abrupt and frank true confessions of realizations that only slowly dawn on the members of any real-life partnership as it matures. It is a play, and a performance, that brings forward the pressing issues of love and commitment, which are simultaneously under siege and triumphant in today’s world. The anguish and pain are as visible as the happiness and joy, and the limits of the Yiddish word " bashert " — fated or meant to be — are tested by the firm independence of two people who badly long for each other.

The lessons they learn and articulate are lasting ones: Always communicate, even if it’s a small thing; be honest, even if it hurts; and sometimes partners must agree to disagree and move on. The ultimate lesson? That the choice to spend time and share a life with another is a choice made wholly of love.

An Infinite Ache
Written by David Schulner. Directed by Janet Mitchko. With Ann Hu and Pierre-Marc Diennet. At The Public Theatre, through May 11. Call (207) 782-3200.


Winter Harbor Theater’s first show went off very well at the St. Lawrence April 28 through 30, with a scene from Tony Kushner’s yet-to-be-finished Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy, performed by Tavia Lin Gilbert and Stephen McLaughlin. Gilbert played a convincing and powerful Laura Bush, visiting a group of Iraqi children killed by American bombs. Slowly self-destructing as she comes to terms with the effects of US policy on the kids, she turns her husband forward and back through the lens of Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, in which evil and good are flip-flopped and eventually left intertwined. It was a masterful piece, a strong performance, and a promising beginning for the theater company, whose goal is to challenge people — including themselves — intellectually and emotionally.

• New Hampshire Artist Laureate Marguerite Mathews’ theater company, Pontine Movement Theater in Portsmouth, is showing an actor-created performance based on 32 poems by New Hampshire summer resident Ogden Nash through May 11.

The Players’ Ring is having a special showing of Lose Some Win Some by Noah Sheola, winner of the F. Gary Newton Playwriting Competition. The show runs May 8 through 18, with a benefit performance May 9 for the theater’s air-conditioning fund. In the play, Santa has been locked in the basement, forced to compete in a high-stakes game show. If it’s like most New England basements, he could use some fresh air.