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?