Friday, August 29, 2003

Signing theater: The words are on the tips of their fingers

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As Broadway’s first-ever musical with both hearing and deaf cast members begins to gain popularity, here in Maine, deaf people are still struggling to gain access to theater and other performances.

In New York, deaf actor Tyrone Giordano plays Huck Finn in Big River. He signs his dialogue and songs, while Mark Twain (played by Dan Jenkins, who created the role of Huck in the 1985 version of the musical) speaks and sings the words. The show’s hearing actors, including Michael McElroy as Jim, sign the words they are speaking or singing. This is what Maine theaters should aspire to.

"Interpreting, at best, is second-best," said Meryl Troop, who bears the unwieldy title of Director of the Office of Deaf Services and Multicultural Diversity at the state Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services. She is a certified sign interpreter who has interpreted at Portland Stage Company, Maine Gay Men’s Chorus, and elsewhere around the state. "Theater by and for deaf people would be much more preferable," Troop said.

Brenda Schertz, a USM sign-language teacher, who is herself deaf, agrees. When she saw her first sign-interpreted performance years ago, "I didn’t feel like I got the same experience as the hearing audience," Schertz said, via a sign interpreter.

Big River both includes deaf people and gives all audience members a similar experience. Half of the cast is deaf or hearing impaired. Deaf actors so prominent that hearing audiences know their names are on board: Phyllis Frelich, for whom was written the role of the deaf Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God, is now on stage as Miss Watson and Sally. Linda Bove, best known as the deaf resident of Sesame Street, is a consultant to the show.

To help deaf people react emotionally to music, the actors dance while signing, giving visual cues for what hearing audiences could find in their voices.

Yet even in New York, deaf attendance numbers are unable to support a full Broadway show. The trick, Schertz said, is to create a combination that appeals to both hearing and deaf audiences, and then to get the word out to both communities. Big River is proving this is more than possible.

For now, most Maine performances that are accessible to the deaf — which is not many — are signed by hearing interpreters. Some places that do have interpreters are Portland Stage, Theater at Monmouth, Lakewood Theater, and Penobscot Theater. There is demand: "We have some regular consumers, people who are theater addicts," Schertz said.

For their access to theater in Maine so far, they depend on interpreters, who practice a demanding profession, both physically and mentally. Troop once had to figure out how to sign the word "rent" in the musical Rent, when it means not just the monthly payment due to a landlord, but also the tearing of souls.

"Some interpreters are more successful at that than others," Schertz said. And even the best need help. Usually, two or more hearing interpreters and a deaf consultant will work together several times before the show’s opening, usually with a videotape of the show. As the interpreters practice, the consultant will read the signs and stop both interpreter and video to correct an error or suggest changes to improve the signing.

And not all plays are good for deaf audiences. Portland Stage Company canceled the sign interpreting of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia last season because the mathematical concepts were too hard to sign. A deaf person who has a bad theater experience won’t come back, Schertz said. They feel left out of the hearing world on a daily basis as it is.

Even after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, sign interpretation at theaters is still "not 100-percent equal access," Schertz said. Usually, the interpreter is way off to the side, relegating the deaf audience to a corner, with a bad view of the stage.

She has seen better success from interpreters standing partway up a main aisle, or on a raised platform above the stage. Both keep the interpreters out of the actors’ space but allow a deaf person to watch both the play and the interpretation at once.

Another way, and one that can open more plays to deaf people, is also in use in New York: Huck’s dad is played by two men, deaf actor Troy Kotsur and hearing actor Lyle Kanouse, side by side, one signing and the other speaking, while both engage in comic charades that add more than double life to the role. More commonly, this is done with what are called "shadow interpreters," people who follow along with each actor, even costumed similarly, and sign their lines.

No matter how theater interpreting is done, Troop has a solemn reminder about the life of the deaf: just as seeing theater is a luxury for hearing people, "I would not interpret for the theater if I did not also interpret where they really need help," in schools, hospitals, and courtrooms.

Special thanks to ASL interpreter Kirsta McElfresh.


Tim Collins has been hired to perform in You the Man, Cathy Plourde’s play about dating, relationship violence, and sexual assault among young people. Collins’s one-man show Eleventh & Love will come to the St. Lawrence September 18 through 21. He studied in London during college, arriving there on September 10, 2001. The play is based on " the non-American perspectives about the [9/11] tragedy. "

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

State commissioner says slots could save horse industry

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Maine’s agriculture commissioner says the horse industry here is in trouble and needs a major cash infusion to save it – cash that could come from slots at racetracks.

Robert Spear stopped short of contradicting Gov. John Baldacci’s stand against slot machines at racetracks, but said slots are one way the industry could get a much needed bailout.

Spear also suggested that if the statewide referendum on whether to allow slots at racetracks passes Nov. 4, Baldacci might change his mind.

While the referendum question – called “the Bangor bill” because it was proposed by the Bangor Raceway – gives some money to horse owners and trainers, another bill now on Baldacci’s desk – called “the industry bill” because it was proposed by a group from Maine’s horse industry – would give horsemen and women more.

Spear hinted that if the Bangor bill passes with a strong showing, his boss, the governor, might approve the industry bill, which includes permission for slot machines at off-track betting locations as well as racetracks. The two would need to be compromised before either could take effect.

Both dedicate 1 percent of the slots’ take to combat addiction and compulsive gambling.

The Bangor bill gives 75 percent of the take to the operator of the slot machines, 11 percent to help the horse industry, 10 percent to help elderly and disabled people pay for prescription drugs and 3 percent to fund scholarships at state colleges.

The industry bill would send 28 percent of the proceeds from slots at racetracks and OTBs to the state’s general fund and 17 percent to support the horse industry. It does not specifically allocate a percentage to the operators of the machines.

The industry bill also gives 3 percent of the take from slots at Bangor Raceway to the city of Bangor, if Scarborough’s local ban is not overturned.

If the local ban is overturned, however, and slots are installed at both Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs, the two towns would get 5 percent of the tracks’ take. (Scarborough Downs has collected the needed signatures, they say, to put the overturn of the local ban on the November ballot.)

Either bill would be a good beginning to the problems facing Maine’s horse industry, Spear said. “Right now we have a lot of horses leaving the state,” heading to other states with higher racewinners’ purses – some because of slot machines at their tracks.

“We need to find ways to get more purse money into the hands of the horsemen,” he said. The average purse in Maine is around $1,200 a race. In Delaware, where slots at racetracks are allowed, winning a race pays between $3,000 and $5,000, Spear said.

He visited there earlier this year at a meeting of the Northeastern states’ agriculture commissioners, held at Delaware Downs. In addition to a horseracing track, it has a car-racing track, a hotel and a gambling floor. “It looks like a casino,” Spear said.

He was there on a weekend when Delaware Downs had no live racing, but people were there. “The money was coming in through the slot machines. It looked like Las Vegas.”

That cash influx could save racing, he said.

“There’s a lot of history and nostalgia” in the Maine horse industry, he said. A farm census is in progress to gauge the exact size of it, but a University of Maine study commissioned by the Maine Harness Racing Promotion Board in 2000 says the “harness racing industry annually contributes an
estimated $50,724,895 in gross revenue to the state economy.” That includes $27 million in income from outside horse racing, plus $12 million in business spending related to the horse industry and $11.5 million in personal spending by workers in the sector.

“I consider the horse industry very important” to Maine’s economy, Spear said. It also helps Maine’s environment: “It keeps a lot of land open,” especially in Southern Maine.

There are small ways to help the industry, but “until you get some real money out there in the hands of the horsemen” not much will change, Spear said.

Of further concern are actions other states are taking. “I see other states going the route of machines,” Spear said. If they do, Maine’s purses will stay small and horses will leave to make money elsewhere.

A casino also worries Spear. If a casino is approved in November, gamblers may take their money there, cutting tracks’ income even more.

“We’ve got some good breeders in this state. It’s too bad to breed these good horses here and then see them leave the state,” Spear said.

Rabid fox attacks pool swimmers

Published in the Current and the American Journal

A 27-year-old Gorham woman and her 4-year-old son are receiving treatment for exposure to rabies after a rabid fox jumped into a pool with them in Scarborough Aug. 14.

“The night before, around 10 o’clock, we had heard this weird barking sound, a kind of growly bark,” said Janice Reed, who lives on Lane by the Sea, near the Old Orchard Beach line.

It was Reed’s daughter and grandson who were attacked by the fox the next afternoon, as they were swimming in the pool at Reed’s home.

Also the night before, Reed’s husband had seen a fox run “very aggressively” up to the back door of the home. The next afternoon, Reed’s daughter and her daughter’s son were in the new above-ground pool. It was so new there isn’t even a deck around the outside of the pool basin, which stands 52 inches tall.

“She saw this face come up to the top of the rail,” Reed said. Initially she thought it might be one of the family’s cats. “The next instant, this thing was leaping” at her. Reed said she was told that the noise of the two playing together could have agitated the fox enough to attack.

When the fox came at her, Reed’s daughter initially dropped her son, but realizing he couldn’t swim, grabbed him and threw him out of he pool. Screaming, she then jumped out of the pool herself and started running toward the house with the boy.

Reed’s husband and a neighbor heard the screams and came running, to see the fox swimming in the pool. “It managed to climb out,” Reed said.

A police officer showed up on a bicycle and radioed for further assistance, while the fox sat near the edge of the yard, until Reed herself came home. The family’s dogs started barking, which scared the fox off.

An initial check seemed to show that neither mom nor boy had been scratched or bitten, but when the boy was changing out of his bathing suit, they realized he had been scratched on his back and the back of his leg.

When they called the Scarborough police to report that, they learned the fox had been killed by Old Orchard Beach police and would be tested for rabies. The next afternoon, they learned it had tested positive.

The evening after the attack, Reed and her husband took their daughter and grandson to the hospital, where the 4-year-old got the first in a series of rabies shots that are “extremely painful” and expensive – costing over $2,000 for a single shot, Reed said.

They also had to clean the pool out with bleach to kill the rabies, which is transmitted through saliva. “You have this thing foaming at the mouth, and it’s in the water,” Reed said.

She knows there are other foxes in the wooded, marshy area behind her home. She is worried that something more will happen: “Last night and the night before, we have heard the same barking sounds” as they heard the night before the last attack, Reed said Tuesday.

This is a very unusual incident, said Scarborough Animal Control Officer Chris Creps. This year has seen fewer rabid animals in town than last year, he said. Two raccoons, one in the Pleasant Hill area and the other in North Scarborough, have tested positive, in addition to the fox.

Friday, August 22, 2003

So little time: And so much to do

Published in the Portland Phoenix

This year, maybe there won’t be a car accident. Leaving town after last year’s ≤15 Minute Festival, host, headliner, and general name-recognition-lender Margot Kidder broke her pelvis when her SUV rolled over after hitting some rough pavement.

But Kidder, who still struggles to overcome the fact that she is best known for playing Lois Lane in the Superman movies, will be back this year to host the second annual festival, to be held in Belfast next Thursday through Saturday, August 21 through 23.

This year’s seven winners, whose short plays will be performed as the main portion of the festival, include two repeats from last year, Bill Lattanzi of Brandeis University, and Tim Collins, who lives in Belfast but will soon be moving to Portland. Two Mainers, J. Emrich Sharks of Brewer and Amy Robbins of Belfast, also were among the 12 runners-up, and will have their plays performed in staged readings on August 23 during the day.

There is also a new festival overture, composed by Blue Hill resident and world-renowned musician Paul Sullivan.

It is the theater, however, and not the music or the star power, that really drives the festival. "We got so many more scripts, and the quality of the scripts was so much higher" this year than last, says David Patrick Stucky, one of the festival’s founders and mainstays. In fact, the number of submissions, 220, was three times more than last year. Grants and donations were enough to pay the actors and give each winning playwright a check for $100. Stucky knows it’s not much, but says it’s a start.

This year’s theme, "Unstill Life: Moments of Change and Transformation," is a fitting topic for today’s world. The winning plays include a monologue about a woman facing a "death sentence" medical diagnosis, a film noir–style piece, one based on a short story, and an Armageddon-type play. The length constraint means they represent inklings of "life with all the boring bits taken out," Stucky says.

This includes Collins’ work, Puzzles, based on an experience he had in downtown Belfast, where he works part-time in a toy store. He was at work when the Iraq war started, and he was trying to gather as much news as he could, switching from radio station to radio station, tuning in the TV, and trying to be an information sponge, all the while selling children’s toys. This was complicated, he says, by the fact that there was a protest going on outside.

Antiwar and anti-antiwar protestors would stop into the store, injecting their political moods into an environment where Collins was ringing up Thomas the Tank Engine sets on the cash register. "There was so much incongruity, so much weirdness," Collins says.

The antiwar crowd would talk about war as a silly way to stop violence, while others would suggest that those leftist folks had driven to the rally using Middle Eastern oil. "Everyone has a point, but everyone’s a little absurd," Collins says. And he started taking notes, which have turned into Puzzles.

"There’s a huge range of subject matter," Stucky says. The theme of change is the limiting factor this year, drawing some focus into what could be a colossally diverse set of pieces.

The actors now rehearsing for their, well, 15 minutes of festival fame, include not only the over-busy Stucky, but also two disabled actors, who will play disabled characters. The festival’s evening shows will be staged at the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped. The organization advocates that disabled characters be played by disabled people, and when two of the winning scripts fit the bill, it seemed like a perfect match, Stucky says.

The runners-up aren’t being ignored, either: The Newburyport Players are rehearsing some of them for the staged readings; other groups will perform the rest. "They’re getting the kind of attention that they deserve," Stucky says.

What’s more, most of the authors of these glimpses of life will be at the festival to see their work performed. They will be among the beneficiaries of what Stucky laughingly terms the festival’s efforts toward "saving the theater audience" from over-extended performances. Some playwrights put together a great 15-minute piece, but then write more, to fit the more conventional molds of one-acts or full shows, he says.

Collins agrees. "Some pieces just are what they are," he says. "I think the piece finds its own length." They can be made to "fit in" a bit better, though: Collins’ winning piece last year, Dateline, was incorporated into a solo show made up of several monologues.

The festival itself is in the process of being reworked slightly, to "fit in" better with the lives of the people who run it.

The timetable will be accelerated — next year’s theme will be announced during this year’s festival, and the deadline for script submissions will be February 15, 2004 — and there is a fundraising drive on to allow Stucky and Brown to take time off from their regular jobs next summer to coordinate the festival, instead of fitting it around their existing responsibilities. "We were racing to keep up the whole time, and we still are," Stucky says.

They want to raise enough to hire professional Equity actors to headline the show, though most parts will still be cast locally. Being with top-caliber actors "raises your own awareness of what your own potential is," Stucky says.

Stucky says, "I’d like this to be inspirational for anybody who gets involved."

Collins is already there: "I want to be involved as long as it’s in existence."

The ≤15 Minute Festival runs Aug. 21 through 23 at the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, in Belfast. Winning plays are performed in the evenings (tickets $15); runners-up get staged readings (free admission) during the day on Saturday at the Belfast Maskers Theatre on the waterfront. Call (207) 338-1615 or visit


• Mad Horse Theatre Company has two new members: actor Craig Bowden and stage manager/production manager Darci LaFayette. Both have worked on a number of Mad Horse productions in the past couple of years and are now part of the full team.

• Attention ACAT, PSC Studio Theater, and anybody else whose furniture makes audiences feel the pain: Free theater seats are available from Arts Conservatory Theater and Studio (100+ seats, and 20 mounting platforms, (207) 761-2465), and Penobscot Theatre Company (132 seats, (207) 947-6618).

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Mom told to take down ribbons

Published in the Current and the American Journal

A South Portland mother who has been putting up yellow ribbons around the
city to support her soldier son has been told by the city to take them down.

When the war in Iraq first started, Valerie Swiger’s son Jason, 21, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, was serving there. Back home, his mother hung yellow ribbons around the city as a sign of support for all of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

City officials say there is an ordinance on the books that prevents displaying any personal message on public property – including notices about garage sales and missing pets – and while her ribbons have been up for some time, they now have to come down.

Swiger said she never knew about the law, which has been on the books since the 1960s, and told several city officials of her intentions, but none of them ever told her she couldn’t hang the ribbons.

In April, she said, she went to the City Council to tell them about her ribbon campaign. Nobody said a word to her then. She even got a call from
someone at City Hall – she won’t say who – asking if they could have a couple of ribbons to hang there.

Swiger didn’t hear anything but support until City Clerk Susan Mooney called recently to say someone had complained that the ribbons were
getting dirty and tattered. Swiger offered to replace them.

“I feel they should remain up. It’s not over,” Swiger said. She was especially sensitive about the issue because Jason had called the day before to say he was headed back to Iraq.

Swiger said Mooney told her the ribbons couldn’t be placed on utility poles, to which Swiger agreed. Swiger said it wasn’t until the next day Mooney called with the bad news: The ribbons were against the law.

Now Swiger is being told she had violated the law from the first day she put the ribbons up. City Manager Jeff Jordan said police and code enforcement officers do enforce the ordinance, though he said it’s not a “high priority.”

The ribbons violate the ordinance, Jordan said, because they make a personal statement. “We probably should have” told Swiger when she first put the ribbons up, Jordan said. “We might have gotten a bit caught up” in emotion as war began, he said.

He encouraged Swiger to continue her ribbon displays, as long as they’re not on town property.

“They can be put in lots of different places. Just put them on private property,” Jordan said. “Don’t put the city in the position to regulate
content on public property.”

Swiger doesn’t think the ribbons are offensive. “That yellow ribbon doesn’t say Republican. It doesn’t say Democrat. It doesn’t say war. It doesn’t say Bush.” What it does say is, “we respect what you’re doing. Hurry home. We’re waiting.”

District 1 Councilor David Jacobs, who represents the area including Swiger’s home, said he is sympathetic to Swiger, but must stick to
the law. “Even though the ribbons are intended to send a positive message, they are still a symbol of personal expression that’s prohibited by city ordinance.”

He said allowing the yellow ribbons puts the city in a bad position if anyone else wants to put up a sign. “Clearly the city has been looking the other way,” Jacobs said. But that will end now, he said.

Swiger stands firm. “I am not going to take those ribbons down,” she said. Further, she wants a change to the city ordinance that will allow the ribbons. She also wants yellow ribbons to be displayed at public buildings and on the “Welcome to South Portland” signs along roads at the city’s boundaries.

District 4 Councilor Chris Bowring has asked the council to discuss the matter at a September workshop. He wants to see if the language could be modified or interpreted to allow the ribbons.

Swiger said the message is important, and helps keep the soldiers motivated and alive. “I think they deserve a little respect.”

Friday, August 15, 2003

Keep dancing, Sally: Struthers shakes it at Ogunquit

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Starting with a rousing "Yee-haw" from the audience, Always . . . Patsy Cline is a romping love affair of a musical, telling the story of one of the country music star’s most obsessed fans, and the unusual friendship that develops between them.

Louise Seger (Sally Struthers) is a Texas-sized woman with Texas-sized hair and a "Texas-sized imagination" who loves to listen to the music of her favorite singer, Patsy Cline (Christa Jackson). She first heard Cline on the "Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts Show" in 1957 and immediately fell in love with the singer’s voice.

Indeed, Jackson has mastered the twang, squeaks, and near-glottal-stops that made Cline’s singing so unique. But her performance is limited to an impersonation in a staged retelling of a story. Her singing is indeed excellent. And she hits all Cline’s big songs — there are 19 in the show and three as a sort of built-in encore. Yet her character is never truly developed. The only glimpse we really get of Cline’s inner life is in one short letter, the first she ever wrote to Louise, which appears late in the show.

Perhaps this is because the play is "licensed by the family and estate of Patsy Cline," as the program helpfully informs. There is no mention of — not even a cryptic allusion to — Cline’s rocky love life, including two husbands and at least two affairs. The best we get are stand-alone songs about broken hearts and promises, with no explanation that the reason Cline sang them with such feeling was that she identified all too well with the subject matter.

Fortunately, Struthers saves the play from being a flat set of unconnected songs. It is her narration and show-stealing performance that keeps the audience entertained throughout.

This is very different from how many of us know Struthers today, on television raising money for Save the Children. It is a reminder that Struthers won two Emmy Awards — admittedly, the most recent in 1979 — for her role as Archie Bunker’s daughter, Gloria, on TV’s All in the Family.

Here she plays a Southern woman, complete with a garish fringe-shirt like those an editor of mine in Missouri used to wear. Despite her middle-aged girth, Struthers remains remarkably flexible, and uses her entire body to convey her character’s deep emotions, from a celebration of divorce that nearly lifts off the stage to a "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" seated dance performance that must be seen to be believed.

Her stage presence is what makes this play. And though the Oregon native sometimes makes her Texas accent sound like a Dana Carvey impression of President George Bush I, she carries the stereotype of a fawning fan to a new height.

Chancing to meet Cline before a Houston show, Louise steps in and appoints herself Cline’s manager, then chauffeur, hotelier, and chef. She takes personally every aspect of the show, even conducting the band with a spare drumstick to make sure they don’t rush Cline’s soulful singing.

This is not a band that needs conducting. They play a number of characters as well, from a perhaps-they-do-need-a-conductor local backup band, to musicians in the spotlight themselves. All of them, including the steel player whose name is inexplicably omitted from the program, are excellent, neither overpowering nor undersupporting Cline and maintaining a current of energy throughout the show.

Some of that energy should have gone to the lighting crew. The spotlight operator was regularly late illuminating the stars. There was a strange "moonrise" during "Walking After Midnight," apparently because the light wasn’t lined up properly to begin with. And during some of the slow songs, the lights over the band flickered, not only distracting the audience but no doubt making the musicians’ jobs harder.

Struthers, however, needed no extra energy. Her outrageous antics sent both her and Jackson laughing regularly, and interactions with the audience brought everyone into the show.

The popular appeal of Cline’s music is made clear as she sings in Louise’s kitchen late at night: Louise identifies with every word. The audience left feeling like Louise’s reaction had been made manifest 40 years later: "It made me feel so alive."

Always...Patsy Cline
Written by Ted Swindley. Roy M. Rogosin, producing artistic director. With Sally Struthers and Christa Jackson. At the Ogunquit Playhouse, through Aug. 16. Call (207) 646-5511.


• Thanks to the efforts of a lot of people from across the world, and most notably the teens themselves, the Story Quilt performance by the students in the Theater Project’s International Teen Festival went off superbly, melding tales and traditions to honor many cultures. Complete with an Arabic-speaking fox in a Palestinian fable, an overflowing pasta pot in the Italian tale of Strega Nona, and a practical solution for a too-noisy house, the teen actors amused audience members of all ages, including a little boy who added, from the seats, a second chicken sound-effect to the delightful cacophony.

• At Sanford Maine Stage, Rumors, by Neil Simon, opens August 15, detailing the calamitous evening a group of houseguests have, including gunshots, a car crash, and a visit from the police. Call (207) 324-9691 for tickets to the show, which runs through August 30.

Friday, August 8, 2003

British humor: Like the food, a bit dry

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Alan Ayckbourn is one of the funniest living playwrights in Britain. It is, therefore, no surprise that in a theater named after a region the British plundered, his humor doesn’t exactly hit the mark.

Ayckbourn’s play Relatively Speaking, now at the Acadia Repertory Theatre, no doubt has sent thousands of English audiences grasping at their sides and gasping for air.

And yet at nearly every laugh-line, the Acadia Rep audiences were silent. This is not the fault of the playwright, the director, nor even the actors, who, with a stiff English upper lip, kept on and made at least bearable what, elsewhere, would have been an entertaining show.

The problem was in the audience, and in particular the choice of this play for this audience. New Englanders are a genial lot, to be sure, but when faced with a play whose sole stock-in-trade is a cultural reference to somewhere else, we’re not a barrel of laughs.

Acadia Rep has built a strong reputation over the years as a place to see good, solid, fun summer theater. Ayckbourn’s plays have been well received by audiences before, the theater reports. If this year’s customers are like the overly considerate characters in the play, no doubt Relatively Speaking will be, too.

The plot hinges on people who are too polite to say what they mean, and overreach themselves to assume the best, imagining good things where they in fact have no clue what is happening.

A young man (Greg, played by David Blais), in love with a woman he has known less than a month (Ginny, Kimberly J. Forbes), proposes marriage just before she heads off for a weekend out of town. She says she’s going to visit her parents. Despite unmistakable signs that she is having an affair, he decides to surprise her — and them — by arriving unannounced to ask her father for her hand.

But he’s in for a surprise about his hosts’ identities. And they (Philip, played by Fred Robbins, and his wife Sheila played by Fred’s wife Liz) each suspect the other is cheating but are again, too polite to devise a confrontation about it.

Rather than the old-fashioned Yankee directness, the entire play is saturated with British deference. It requires, therefore, an implausibly large suspension of disbelief.

Nobody asks a pair of unknown arrivals who they are; when Ginny tries to tell Greg what’s going on, she doesn’t say, "they’re not my parents," but, rather, "she’s not my mother."

And what must be one of the funniest lines to all Britons is completely dead here: Fully uncertain who he is or why he has appeared in her back garden, Sheila invites Greg to stay for lunch. This invitation is one most British people could identify with, either as reflective of themselves or someone they know who is so proper they might just invite the bus conductor in for tea after a cheery request for a ticket. And it is also a line next to nobody in the US would ever utter to a stranger.

Nonetheless, the cast does well without much help from audience energy. Fred Robbins is an excellent blustering English country squire, his wife Liz is a dutiful Sheila, Forbes is a strong professional young woman with a streak of noblesse oblige, and Blais’s Greg is lovably missing something. Their awkward interactions are clever, and the actors seem to genuinely believe only what the characters "know" at the time.

Perhaps the crowning moment in this play, however, is the slapstick scene change partway through Act 1. Accompanied by the William Tell Overture, three stagehands, dressed as British removal men (that’s "movers") convert a London bedsit into a Home Counties estate garden. It was the first scene change I have ever seen that drew its own applause.

This is not Ayckbourn’s doing, however, but director Ken Stack’s. The playwright himself appears to falter from time to time in the play, resorting to weather as a conversation topic, as if even he couldn’t figure out where to go next.

He offers hints of hilarity, and of failure, including in this funny-but-not-here comedy a moment when Philip starts to laugh at a newspaper item, but then hems and haws his way to a halt. When Sheila asks what it was, he says, "I thought it was amusing, but it wasn’t."

Relatively Speaking
Written by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Ken Stack. With David Blais, Kimberly J. Forbes, Fred Robbins, and Liz Robbins. At Acadia Repertory Theatre, Mount Desert Island, through Aug. 10. Call (207) 244-7260.


• This weekend in Brunswick: Frank Wicks’s Soldier, Come Home on Friday ($10; (207) 729-6606 for reservations); teens’ international Story Quilt at the Theater Project, once Friday, twice on Saturday, and, just-added, once on Sunday (pay-what-you-want; (207) 729-8584).

• What’s J-C got this time? Revenge. John-Charles Kelly, a Maine State Music Theatre regular with a Vegas past, brings the Strip to Brunswick August 11. Lynne McGhee, Ed Romanoff, Joyce A. Presutti, and Ray Dumont will share the stage with three theater critics — but not the Phoenix’s. Call (207) 725-8769.

• The Deertrees Theatre Festival in Harrison hits August 14 and 15 with Vanities by Jack Heifner, a female coming-of-age story for the 1960s and ’70s. You may yawn (another coming-of-age tale?), but the off-Broadway hit made loads of folks laugh. Call (207) 583-6747.

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Candidates line up for county charter commission

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Nine local residents have put their names in for candidacy for the Cumberland County Charter Commission, which will be elected in November to find ways to improve county government.

Some issues that seem certain to come up in the discussions, no matter whom is elected, are increasing the size of the county’s governing commission, appointing rather than electing certain county officials and consolidating emergency services dispatching.

Seven are running in District 2, representing Baldwin, Cape Elizabeth, Frye Island, Gorham, Scarborough, South Portland, Standish and Westbrook. Voters will choose two.

Shawn Babine is a town councilor in Scarborough who believes “it’s the perfect time and opportunity” to look at “how we can improve all levels of government.” He wants to look at whether the county should have its own taxing authority, rather than sending bills to the towns, which then impose taxes. He wants the town to have a voice. “As Scarborough is growing, we need to become more involved in regional issues,” he said.

James Damicis of Scarborough also is running. He worked on a project 12 years ago at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service that predicted regionalization would have taken place around the year 2000. Formerly with the Planning Decisions company as a consultant for Scarborough’s Growth and Services Committee, Damicis wants to “make county government more efficient.” He also wants to make it “more visible.”

In Aroostook County, people who are asked where they’re from will say “The County,” while here, “they might not even know the county that they’re in,” Damicis said.

David Bourke of South Portland spent 30 years in private industry and plans to advocate for what members of the public say they want from the county during a series of workshops with the charter commission. He said his experience living in other areas of the U.S. could give him valuable ideas on how to do things differently here. “New England is really behind the times when it comes to” regionalization, Bourke said.

Nancy Larsen of South Portland said she has not had a lot of time to look at the charter. A former city councilor and mayor in South Portland, she said she knows that city’s charter very well but did not know the county doesn’t have one.

John McGinty is a Cape Elizabeth town councilor and a member of the county’s budget advisory committee who has expressed reservations in the past about the county’s budget process. “One of the first things on my mind is to make the county more accountable,” McGinty said. He wants there to be more commissioners. Now, “essentially you have two people controlling a $25 million budget.”

Harold Parks of Gorham spent his career working in public administration, including as administrative assistant to the mayor in Westbrook. He wants to regionalize services, including emergency dispatching. “We have these needs and at the same time we have limited resources,” Parks said. A regional view could help meet those needs with less money.

Robert Reynolds of Gorham, a Portland firefighter, said he believes it is time to consider “regionalization or consolidation of services.” He said 495 municipal entities for a million people is too many. At the same time, “I also want to make sure that there’s no degradation of services.” Now, there is too much fragmentation. “Every community acts as if the world stops at the town line,” Reynolds said.

For District 3, representing Bridgton, Brunswick, Casco, Freeport, Gray, Harpswell, Harrison, Naples, New Gloucester, Pownal, Raymond, Sebago, Windham and Yarmouth, there are three candidates, including Thomas Bartell and Lani Swartzentruber, both from Windham.

Bartell, a town councilor, said he wants to continue his involvement in county government, where he has served on the budget advisory committee and is now a trustee for the Civic Center. He wants to look at what other counties do, both in the state and around the nation. “I’m for effective government,” he said.

Lani Swartzentruber is a Portland attorney specializing in corporate charters and bylaws. She wants to do thorough research on the issues involved in a county charter. She supports smaller, more efficient government with fewer regulations but is reluctant to cut government positions in a state that “needs more good jobs.” And though if elected, she herself would be representing people in Brunswick, she disputed the ability of a Brunswick resident to accurately represent the needs of people in Windham, where she lives. “You can’t tell me that someone who lives in Brunswick” knows what’s best for Windham, she said.

Couple sues over bedbugs at hotel

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Richard and Lyn Alleborn of Wayne, Maine, have sued the owners of the South Portland AmeriSuites hotel, claiming that bedbugs ruined their Christmas shopping trip.

It is an incident state health inspectors say has never happened before in Maine.

The Alleborns checked into the hotel on Dec. 21, 2002. And just hours later, they fled the hotel, covered in bites from bedbugs.

Lyn Alleborn had won a stay at the hotel as a prize for doing good work with her employer, State Farm, according to their lawyer, Tracie Adamson.

The suit, filed in Kennebec County Superior Court, names Ocean Properties of Portsmouth, N.H. AmeriSuites immediately addressed and corrected the problem, according to the state.

According to the lawsuit, Richard Alleborn began to itch over much of his body shortly after he got into bed in his room at the AmeriSuites. His wife then saw a bug on her and pinched it on the bedding, causing the blood-engorged pest to burst in a spray of blood on the sheets, the lawsuit says.

“He was bitten all up his legs,” Adamson said. “She had many bites over her hands and wrists,” as well as elsewhere on her body. “Mrs. Alleborn was literally vomiting, she was so horrified,” Adamson said. Some of her bites started to scar as they healed.

The suit seeks payment for medical expenses as well as compensatory damages. “The medical payments are minimal,” Adamson said.

Even Adamson didn’t know that bedbugs actually existed until she heard the Alleborns’ story. Bedbugs normally hide in mattresses and in the walls, but are drawn out by body heat, Adamson said. “They actually suck your blood,” she said.

After the Alleborns left, the hotel staff disposed of the bedding, mattress and box spring and fumigated the entire room, according to a state Bureau of Health report obtained by the American Journal.

The company that conducted the fumigation agreed with hotel staff that “bed bugs were present,” in what a state inspector called an “infestation.”

No adjacent rooms were affected, and the room had been vacant for 20 days before the Alleborns checked in, the report says. By the time the state received a complaint from Lyn Alleborn, on Jan. 7, the problem had been rectified, and an exterminator had verified that multiple insecticide treatments had killed all of the insects, according to the report.

The report says “the hotel has taken both immediate and appropriate actions to remedy the situation.”

After reviewing state health inspection records, “we cannot recall another incident like this,” said Newell Augur, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services.

A duty manager at AmeriSuites said the hotel had done “more than the state asked” to fix the problem, and referred calls to the hotel’s general manager, Michael Siemion, who did not return several phone calls before the American Journal’s deadline.

Adamson plans to ask for a jury trial in the case. She doesn’t expect it to go before a court for at least a year.

Friday, August 1, 2003

Weaving stories

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Twenty teenagers — 18 from Maine and two Palestinians from East Jerusalem — are still hard at work exploring themselves and weaving a Story Quilt, which they will perform at the Theater Project, in Brunswick, next weekend. At any price, it’s a must-see. Even better, it’s pay-what-you-want.

The show is the culmination of the Theater Project’s three-week teen theater camp, which for the past two years was a Shakespeare festival. This year, renamed the International Teen Festival, it took on an international flavor and included instruction by theater professionals from Poland and East Jerusalem, with classes in improvisation, storytelling, dance, and music. Theater Project mainstay Al Miller made the international connections, and fellow TP regular Barbara Truex composed music along the way.

They brought in Khitam Edelbi, a drama teacher with the Palestinian Counseling Center in East Jerusalem. Edelbi, who taught at last year’s teen camp, helps Palestinian teens write, develop, and perform theater pieces about their personal lives in East Jerusalem. Also joining the group in Brunswick was Robert Wyrod, who runs the "We are the World" Theater Company for orphaned teens and homeless adults in Cracow, Poland.

Wyrod was supposed to bring two of his students, as Edelbi did, but the US State Department’s terrorism sentries barred the way, freely allowing two Palestinian teens to come to the US, but preventing two Polish teens from doing the same. (Thanks for the help in Iraq, Poland!)

The 20 teens "get along beautifully," according to the Theater Project’s Frank Wicks. Any potential differences among them are "just no big deal," he said. "They’re having so much fun."

In the process of theater games and other exercises, the show is still in development. "I think they’re just exploring themselves," Wicks said. "They’re playing with ideas of their own personal stories."

Also, Wicks and Miller are looking for host families to sign up to house more international students next summer. Don’t miss the show, which is certain to be as unique a creation as are the people who are dreaming it up even now. "We’ll see what the kids come up with," Wicks said.

The show runs August 8 at 7:30 p.m., and August 9 at 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., at the Theater Project, in Brunswick. Call (207) 729-8584 to reserve tickets.

Leaders look out: Beware Election Day

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There are times when loyalty to a higher ideal must surmount loyalty to a leader, and when those "in the know" believe that the people must be saved from themselves. Witness, for example, the politically divided nation in which we dwell: For many dissenters against war and imperialism, against unrestricted police surveillance and ignored freedom of information laws, loyalty to liberty trumps any fealty to President George W. Bush.

They fear losing the foundations on which this country is built. They join a grand (if not conspiracy, then) alignment, to bring down King Dubya. And yet, as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar warns, the Bush-backing majority (though their numbers are falling), would take their own revenge on any successful conspirators, sinking the teeth of their ballots into the fleshy political careers of those who would gainsay the nation’s leader in a time of crisis.

Julius Caesar, at the Theater at Monmouth through August 22, is the most politically insightful play performed on Maine stages this summer, and it is brilliantly done.

(Enough about the distance. Monmouth is less than 90 minutes from Portland. You’d drive further to a Boston theater. Save time, see great theater, keep the money in Maine. It’s not that far. Really.)

In brand-new seats in the theater’s beautifully ornate surroundings, the trappings of power never seemed so real. This group of professional actors, most handling more than one role in the four plays TAM has running simultaneously, truly understand Shakespeare, his language and his characters.

The street scenes hearken directly back to the days of the Globe Theater, which it is believed opened for the first time with this show in 1599. Plebians among the audience look up at the aristocrats, catcalling and conferring among themselves. This is the raucous populism that made Shakespeare famous in his own time.

Julius Caesar himself (Mark S. Cartier) is excellent as the publicly adored citizen-king, who humbly refuses the crown thrice and arrogantly throws off the warning of a soothsayer (Jonathan Miller) to "beware the ides of March."

Cassius (Joshua Scharback) is also a victim of hubris — a particularly virulent sort — infecting as it does Brutus (Paul L. Coffey) and the rest of the conspirators.

The lessons of how power works are legion in this play. Brutus is vital to the plot because he can get close to Caesar, yet numbers are important for safety. The manipulation of information is clear, as is the flouting of substantive warnings. It all sounds painfully similar to the newspaper headlines, and yet these words are 400 years old.

Brutus issues a warning Bush and his cronies should heed: "The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power."

All of the ensemble cast are top-notch, from Portia’s (Adele Bruni) impassioned wifely plea for her husband’s trust to the dream reinterpretation by Decius Brutus (Dennis A. Price). The staging is courageous, adding tableaux where Shakespeare had none, Caesar’s ghost watching the slaughter that follows his death.

The music (some taken from the Gladiator soundtrack), sound effects, and lighting all combine in a full, rich atmosphere that keeps the play moving and its central tensions close about the audience. Violin notes, as in Eyes Wide Shut, up the blood pressure, as sinister words disturb the miasmic air. Lighting illuminates the harshness and desperation. With the cherubim watching from the ceiling, the suspension of disbelief is complete.

Brutus and Cassius play well off each other, and Coffey, playing Brutus, remains in command of his character’s complex mind, switching immediately from the Quisling murderer to a man who can say with only a touch of comic irony, "Publius, good cheer," as a senator cringes in fright.

It is then that Mark Antony (Jeffrey Thomas) comes into his own with grand eloquence and great emotion. Thomas handles triumphantly the most famous speech of the play, his eulogy of Caesar, not just a tribute to a fallen leader but a call to arms. Ripe with scorn and sarcasm, his voice literally dripping with contempt, it is as if Thomas himself will go backstage and bring forth actor Coffey, out of costume and pleading for mercy.

Yet Antony’s motives are not without impure effect. The slaughter that begins as the factions split and mobs roam the streets is, in part, his doing, too. Caesar’s spirit’s most frightening act occurs when the mob seizes a poet who shares a name with a conspirator. Cinna the poet is beaten and carried off, echoing the fates of people like management consultant Asif Iqbal of Rochester, New York. His crime? He shares a name with a suspected Al Qaeda member now held prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. The innocent young professional finds himself now on a government terrorism watch list.

Julius Caesar
Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Greenham. With Mark S. Cartier, Paul L. Coffey, Joshua Scharback, and Sally Wood. At the Theater at Monmouth, through Aug. 22. Call (207) 933-9999.


• Check out Maine’s Civil War history on stage with Frank Wicks’ Soldier, Come Home at Brunswick’s First Parish Church, Friday, August 8, at 7:30 p.m. It’s based on letters between Wicks’s great-grandparents, Philip and Mary Pringle, as Philip fought with the Union Army. To reserve the $10 tickets, call (207) 729-6606.

• A reprise of The Food Chain by Nicky Silver raised some good cash toward better seating at the PSC Studio Theater, but they could still use more, so open your wallets or pay with your behinds.