Friday, June 27, 2003

A Roman candle: What it takes to set theater folk off

Published in the Portland Phoenix

What is the worst that could happen to a project you have worked hard on — so hard that you’ve fallen in love with it, can’t wait to show people, and are just dying to hear reactions to it? Such are the jitters backstage on the opening night of a play.

And what if you are the diva who has staked her reputation on this of all shows, the first by an unknown, a moving, brilliant work? What if it’s so avant-garde, in fact, that, by the end of the second act, even the playwright himself has begun to laugh and walk out? Such are the night terrors that stalk the stars.

How will you react? As Daedalus, staring stunned as Icarus falls to the sea, or as Sisyphus, who, no matter the certainty of futility, will continue to push that rock uphill? In Light up the Sky, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Moss Hart takes a swing at the cheapness and false sincerities that pervaded theater in the 1940s. We would now call that environment " Hollywood, " though Broadway is certainly not immune.

And yet the play retains a song of hope, of integrity, of comeuppance to theater types, of whom Hart was among the most celebrated. He may appear himself, somewhat, in the character of the sage playwright Owen Turner (Bob Dunbar), advising the young playwright on the realities of his newfound craft.

The main characters are all divas in their own ways. There is traditional swanning Irene Livingston (Dee Cooke); her mother, matronly superior Stella (Marie Cormier); overwrought and toujours-near-tears director Carleton Fitzgerald (George Dunn); wannabe top-diva Frances Black (Nikki Hunt); and even fiscal-rabbit-from-a-hat man Sidney Black (Scott Jones).

But none is more a spoiled diva than idealistic newcomer Peter Sloan. Sticking madly to his own ideas and keeping none but his own counsel, the playwright character, played with a light and loving touch by J.J. Barnett, remains aloof from all those who have put so much into making his writing real.

As opening night progresses and the play appears to bomb, the close-knit, passionate team self-destructs, leaving Sloan broken and bitter about the two-faced nature of his newfound " friends. " And yet comes the (ironic and to this one’s mind, frightening) awesome power of the least-seen of all theatrical forces: the reviewer.

The play within this play is an allegory, but so is the entire production, illuminating an essential part of the human condition by using metaphors and analogy. How quick people are to leave a ship perceived to be sinking, and how quick they are to leap aboard when its seaworthiness is proved!

Light up the Sky is about the theater world, complete with lessons on the etymology of " drama, " " theater, " and " audience. " There is sage advice from an experienced director, marketing tips from a man who knows his business, and the frustrated, beaten-down voice of the playwright.

Doree Austin is also an experienced director, who brings to the wings a strong background of wide range. The Gaslight’s marketing folks managed to draw a near-full house without so much as a sign outside. And Hart, of course, was ultimately far from frustrated but had his moments.

There are comic moments, well-delivered lines, and strong character exploration in this production. It would have been nice if Nikki Hunt, fresh from high school, had slowed her delivery a bit, but everyone else did a wonderful job in what approached an open-air performance on a hot night, and even Hunt remained a powerful presence on the stage.

The supporting cast, from unassuming Miss Lowell (Lynn Truman) to one drunk Shriner (Gary Wilson) and another more businesslike (Dan Collins), added an air of authenticity to this 1940s period play, topped off by the Irish accent on a Boston cop (Bob Witham).

Perhaps if we were still in the 1940s and ’50s, before entertainment reporters and gossip columnists showed the warts on the nation’s best-loved faces, the comic disbelief would be sharper. As it is, we know the infidelity — personal and professional — that breaks up shows, acts, and lives of the stars, and it is all too real.

Light up the Sky
Written by Moss Hart. Directed by Doree Austin. With Dee Cooke, George Dunn, Scott Jones, Marie Cormier and J.J. Barnett. At Gaslight Theater, in Hallowell, through June 28. Call (207) 626-3698.


• Hey! They rocked the house over there! The Cast — Craig Bowden, David A. Currier, and J.P. Guimont — along with Elizabeth Chambers, Shannon Campbell, Joshua Stamell, and Jeremy J. LeClerc, put on a fabulous festival of short plays and monologues by three top contemporary playwrights. Carefully selected and cleverly juxtaposed theatrical tidbits showed a vast range of humanity: a second try at a first date, and the secret lives of ironworkers, DMV staffers, the Hardy Boys, and a Mamet minister. Their bare-bones approach exposes the true shine of their acting talents. Seek out their work on other stages.

Jason Wilkins is working on a musical, Naked in Portland, that’s been in the works underground for over a year. A benefit CD is out, a fund-raising concert is coming up (July 24, 7:30 p.m., St. Lawrence, $10) and PSC intern R.J. McComish is on board as director. Word is some of the area’s top actors are being approached right now for parts. The run will be in September and October at the PSC Studio Theater. Watch this space for more.