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.