Friday, September 26, 2003

Baring it all: To push honesty over all else

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As Naked in Portland begins, playwright, composer, and lyricist Jason Wilkins strums his guitar and sings a ballad setting the scene: Young artists gather in Maine’s largest city and hope to find themselves. They are, he sings, "experimental people, sampling everything they see, wondering which is ‘the way life should be.’ "

Wilkins’s play is a love song to his own existence, in many ways, with main characters of artists, musicians, struggling creative types, arts critics and vertices of the love polygons that develop among them. (Wilkins is a musician and former theater and music critic for the local daily and the other alt-weekly in town, before the latter began publishing unedited press releases.) A number of the characters make ends meet, not surprisingly, by working in a coffee shop that becomes home to their dreams.

While the "daily specials" remain "regular" and "decaf," the real treats are the clever characters who make the play a rollicking ride through Portland’s art scene. (The Phoenix appears on stage — a nod to its sponsorship of the production.)

A theater critic is present, and begins the music — for this is a musical — with an ode to the hottie artists, the ones who through no fault of their own look like supermodels. (Infatuated, he later tries to diss another artist by making up quotes, gets himself fired, and ends up delivering pizzas. A warning to all journalists, indeed.)

There is a lovely and talented artist (Deni, played by Nancy Brown) with an electric gaze and a stolen heart; a mercurial artist who refuses to change for fame (Janine, Lisa Muller-Jones); a boring but reliable banker (Aaron, Keith Anctil), the love interest of a go-getter art graduate (Donna, Tavia Lin Gilbert); a couple from Presque Isle (Gina, Christine St. Pierre; and Wayne, Ryan Gartley), both of whom want constant orgasms, but only one of whom has figured out how (he works the late shift at the local porn shop). There’s also Donna’s mom, Linda (Monique Raymond), newly divorced and looking for love.

The most fun characters are a sex-crazed art teacher (also Muller-Jones); and the show-stopping Josh (Jeremiah McDonald), the nice guy from Jackman, who cuts loose into ’50s doo-wop and frenetic nude portraiture, drawing peals of laughter from the cast as well as the audience.

The show is a great way to spend an evening, and is performed solidly by some of the best and hardest-working actors in the area. Some of the roughness is Wilkins’s doing: On stage as a guitar player and extra, he gives visual and audible cues to the actors, and occasionally wanders awkwardly around the stage.

Happily, the usually cramped studio theater felt absolutely spacious, with chairs on the floor — not the usual bleachers — and spaced apart a bit. The play was on a raised stage, an excellent modification to the room that I hope will stay for future shows.

The music, composed by Wilkins, had identifiable riffs from "Hotel California," "Stairway to Heaven," and "Should I Stay or Should I Go," and was clearly influenced by the Barenaked Ladies, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, Catie Curtis, and Cheryl Wheeler, among others. Local folkie Abi Tapia made a cameo appearance — or at least her phone number did — and was possibly a further influence.

The lyrics and dialogue are peppered with universal truths, witty wordings, and heartfelt confessions. Sex is never far from the lips of any cast member. Themes of nudity, bareness, and truth are intertwined cleverly, as in Gina’s plea to herself — and the audience — not to be too judgmental when she drops her robe and takes her first real look at her nude body.

It is this theme that remains constant: honesty to self and others. It carries the show through high and low points to a feel-good conclusion that brings all the jokes and innuendo neatly together. Gina’s character development in this area drives the main plot, while subplots show her the lives she could have had, if her choices were different.

There are a couple of glitches in direction, unusual for R.J. McComish, usually a skilled and sensitive conductor. At one point, when Donna is listening to her mother lament lost love, McComish has actor Gilbert fidget, changing facial expression and body position from time to time, to continue "looking sympathetic."

In a later scene, Deni rushes off stage. The line accompanying her exit is delivered by Gina: "I’ve never seen Deni so upset before." Fine, except she didn’t look upset in the least, just like a person who had a bladder emergency.

Generally, though, the acting was right on, and the laughs came at all the right times. Most remarkably, while humor often relies on stereotypes, there weren’t many to be found here. Wilkins came up with his own sense of comedy and created characters — and found actors — who could pull it all off in a successful portrait of arts life in this mortal city.

Naked in Portland
Written by Jason Wilkins. Directed by R.J. McComish. With Christine St. Pierre, Tavia Lin Gilbert, Jeremiah McDonald, and Nancy Brown. At Portland Stage Studio Theater, through Oct. 5. Call (207) 774-0465.


Help build a theater! Join the staff, board, and friends of Pontine Movement Theater and New Hampshire Theatre Project to finish construction of seating platforms and a lighting booth. Meet at 9 a.m. Saturday, September 27, at the West End Studio Theater, 959 Islington Street, in Portsmouth, NH.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Standish man tried for murder

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Santanu Basu of Standish is on trial for the murder of his girlfriend to allegedly collect on a life insurance policy. The trial started Monday in Cumberland County Superior Court, with prosecutor Lisa Marchese telling jurors that Basu, 34, had killed Azita Jamshab, 29, a resident of Westbrook, to get money to pay off large debts.

“Santanu executed Azita Jamshab by plotting and planning her death for the insurance proceeds,” Marchese said.

Marchese told jurors Basu made a “to-do” list the day he sold Jamshab her insurance policy, on which he was listed as the primary beneficiary, according to the Associated Press. The items on the list, including ammunition and a rental car, were directly related to Jamshab’s death two months later, Marchese said.

Jamshab, who prosecutors allege was in a romantic relationship with Basu, was shot to death and dumped out of a rental car – similar to one Basu rented that day – in a gravel pit just over the Windham line in Cumberland, March 6, 2002.

Her body was found the following day by a Windham man who lived nearby.

Basu asked a friend to tell police they were together the night Jamshab was killed, Marchese said, and later told that friend he had killed a woman for life insurance money.

Defense attorney Karen Dostaler told jurors the prosecution had to presume that Basu is innocent until they were convinced otherwise. She said the prosecution’s case was based on unsubstantiated theories and urged jurors to “test the evidence” by deciding for themselves if they thought testimony and other evidence was truthful.

Kate Bailey, a friend and coworker of the murdered woman at the Smart Styles hair salon at the Scarborough Wal-Mart, testified Monday that Jamshab had planned to go out to dinner with Basu on the evening of March 6, 2002.

Basu, a salesman for Nationwide Insurance, was Jamshab’s insurance agent, Bailey said. “She was trying to tie up some last minute things for her move” to Las Vegas, planned for the following week, Bailey said.

Jamshab did not turn up at work the following morning, and Bailey became worried. Also worried, Bailey said, was Jamshab’s friend, Amhad “Khoji” Khojaspehzad, who began calling the salon that morning, asking where Jamshab was.

Khojaspehzad denied that he was Jamshab’s boyfriend, but said they had a sexual relationship. Both were divorced, and they and their ex-spouses still lived in Southern Maine and were in the small Iranian expatriate social circle here, said Khojaspehzad, who lived in Windham until earlier this year.

Khojaspehzad was named as a contingent beneficiary on Jamshab’s life insurance policy. Basu was the primary beneficiary, who stood to collect
$100,000 if Jamshab died, according to testimony Monday.

Both men had debts far larger than their incomes, according to testimony.

Under questioning by Dostaler, Khojaspehzad said he had filed to collect on the life insurance “March 8 or 9,” very shortly after Jamshab’s body was found. He knew that the only way he could collect was if Basu was convicted of murdering Jamshab or was himself dead, Khojaspehzad told the court.

He hadn’t wanted to be on the policy and had urged Jamshab to make her parents, who live in Iran, the beneficiaries. Monday he said he would give the money to Jamshab’s family if he received any.

Khojaspehzad last spoke to Jamshab at about 8 p.m., March 6, 2002, he testified. He tried to call several times later and again the next day, but was unable to reach Jamshab.

Worried, he went to Jamshab’s apartment in Westbrook and saw her car there. He broke into the apartment, thinking he might find clues about her whereabouts, but “there was no sign of her.”

From her apartment, he took a videotape he had taken of Jamshab the previous week, in which she called him “honey,” because he didn’t want anyone to see it, Khojaspehzad testified. He also took a note with Persian and Farsi writing on it, again because he wanted to keep it private, he said. He later gave both to police.

The trial is expected to continue all week.

Friday, September 19, 2003

Corpses and darkness: Recurring theater themes this fall

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Dead bodies, darkness, nighttime, ghosts. Now that fall is here and the days begin to shorten, Maine’s theatrical offerings have taken a black turn, bringing more death and despair to the stage than in recent years. Were producers, directors, and actors really that depressed in the spring and summer? Is the state of the arts truly that dismal?

The Phoenix is well aware of Maine’s recurring budget "gap," the skyrocketing costs of Bush’s war on terror, and Ashcroft’s war on the Constitution. They are not calls for despondency, though. Rather, this is a time for the arts to shine, to call out to the masses and ignite our passions, not to darken our hearts with doom and death. This is not to say we need more frilly, happy pieces. We need to be disturbed, alerted, cattle-prodded into action by theatrical performances, galvanized as a community, a society that takes charge of its fate and does not dally in the pits of despair. In the meantime, be sure to catch glimpses of the high notes, like those below.


To get a good start, drive to Portsmouth regularly. The Players’ Ring is putting on some amazing shows there. Full of local actors end energy, the performances are always enjoyable and offer a much needed break from the mainstream of theater. (Because how many productions of Proof does Maine really need? We had one last year, two this summer, and one coming up. QED.)

At the Ring, Rhiannon Productions will ask Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, September 25 through October 5. Examining truth and illusion through a Cold War lens (or is it a "War on Terror" lens?), the play follows an evening of self-destruction by professors and their wives.

October 10 through 26 will see Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, continuing Shepard’s incisive investigations of the American family.

Then comes The Cask of Amontillado, October 30 through November 9. It’s a Halloween tale, adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, inspired by something he saw in a basement at West Point, before he got kicked out. A wine cask, a dark confined space, the glittering coats of arms of ancestors . . .

Finally for the fall, trading on the Tolkien resurgence of late, from November 13 through 30, The Hobbit brings the One Ring to the Players’ Ring. Oh, and there’s this guy called Bilbo, a cave-dweller called Gollum, and a fire-breathing dragon. Is there any more to say?

Speaking of the Ring, last year’s best original script, Not on This Night, by Kittery’s Evelyn Jones, will return to the Seacoast in late December, with two showings at Seacoast Repertory Theater December 21 and 28. Amid the Battle of the Bulge in World War 2, soldiers try to commandeer a home, finding all the things a home offers, including humanity and love.


There’s a lot of theater going on at Maine’s colleges. Colby College, for example, will have a number of fascinating offerings, starting with a 10-minute play festival October 3 and 4.

Moving into November, Shenandoah Shakespeare Express will visit the campus to explore what it is to be English, performing Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest November 5, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One (November 6), along with Two Gentlemen of Verona (November 7).

Colby’s fall season will finish November 14 with a 21st-century reinterpretation of the 17th-century comedy The Man of Mode, exploring the cultivation of wit and manners as opposed to morality.

Also along the cultivation theme is USM’s The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Obie-winning play slated for October 3 through 12 in Gorham. Find out what can grow from even a barren landscape.

From November 7 through 16, check out the timeless tale of Shakuntala, an ancient Sanskrit piece revived by Assunta Kent. It includes music and dance to tell the story of a king who finds his perfect match but must elude a curse to win her.

Rounding out the fall semester at USM will be two student plays, Ghosting by Michael Thomas Toth and Goin’ to Graceland by M. Calien Lewis, performed together December 5 through 13 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center. Ghosting is a peek inside the lives of performers in a city theater, while Graceland is a set of character studies linked in a pilgrimage to Elvis’s home.


The Public Theatre in Lewiston earns top billing with two strong and intriguing fall pieces. First there’s Red Herring (October 10 through 19), of which director Christopher Schario says, "Imagine Sam Spade meets I Love Lucy." This 1950s noir comedy will have to be done well to work, but the Public Theatre is great at finding the best actors for the roles.

Then comes The Belle of Amherst (November 7 through 16). Based on the life of poet Emily Dickinson, the play stars Ellen Crawford, who was last onstage in Lewiston in the same show during a break from E.R.

Good Theater has also picked a strong starting pair. First, September 25 through October 19, is Baby, a Tony-nominated musical following three couples, in their twenties, thirties, and forties, each of whom is having a baby. Explore that life change with GT regulars Stephen Underwood and Kelly Caufield, and musical director Beth Barefoot Jones. Second (November 6 through 30) is Loot, by British comic playwright Joe Orton, a black comedy deftly twisting corpses into money and cops into robbers.

Penobscot Theater Company has updated its schedule. No more Moon Over Buffalo; instead put A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters on the calendar (October 1 through 12). It’s a picture of a friendship painted in the letters two people write to each other over the course of their lives. And from November 5 through 23, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker will take the stage, telling the story of Annie Sullivan and her famous student, Helen Keller.

Mad Horse will have a fascinating production about starting over on September 12, 2001, in The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute. Facing their true identities, two New Yorkers (played by Craig Bowden and Christine Louise Marshall) dive into themselves. Keep your eyes on the Portland Stage Company Studio Theater October 16 through 26.

Down the hall at Portland Stage Company proper, the season begins September 23 with Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, in which mistaken identities nearly shipwreck a reunion of people split years ago by, well, a shipwreck.


Jason Wilkins’ Naked in Portland is an original musical by a former theater reviewer for the other alt-weekly and currently a reviewer for the city’s main daily. Having crossed the line into being reviewed, Wilkins is mixing love, sex, and art, following three young women "as they learn how to become the people they want to be." Directed by R.J. McComish, who knows how to guide a cast towards even a strange vision, and featuring Lisa Muller-Jones and Tavia Lin Gilbert among others, the show should be worth a look, though it’ll be a challenge to shoehorn a full musical into the cramped PSC Studio Theater (September 19 through October 5).

Emerging from their own secure, undisclosed location are Castle Theater Productions’ Tony Cox and Anthony Pizzuto. After a three-year silence, the 22-year-old Tonys are back with Agency (November 20 through 23) by UMaine-Machias theater professor Lee Rose. It’ll be a world premiere, but in all the hoopla about their personal career developments in the past 36 months, the Tonys — who won’t even be in the show — neglected to say what it is about.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Redemption songs: They're all some never have

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Have you ever done something you really shouldn’t have? Not something small, either, like "borrowing" the boss’s car or taking off your wedding band in a bar filled with attractive singles. Something really, really big, that you’ve known all your life you shouldn’t do. Like threatening a loved one, and following through.

Is it possible to make up for that? Should it be? Who deserves a second chance? Is there anyone who doesn’t?

Admittedly, there are the Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers of the world, folks the law — and most of society — condemns to never get another shot. Some, like Bundy, are executed legally, by badge-wearing officials reading black-robed justices’ sentences. Others, like Dahmer, meet their fates in murkier ways, killed in jailhouse "incidents" by "out-of-control" fellow inmates, while overworked guards just happened to be looking elsewhere.

Enough about serial killers. What about the people who kill the living, the slaughterers of souls and spirits, extinguishers of dreams and hopes: people who commit domestic violence. (We don’t even have a name for them, like "murderer," and are left with an emotionless legal term. Instead, let’s call them DVers.)

Somehow, society tends to view DVers as lesser transgressors, even though their deeds, too, are destructive, unreasonable, and impossible to forgive. Rather than facing universal condemnation, DVers’ moral futures are muddy. Can victims — can society — forget, even without forgiving, or alternately move on, having done neither, but tolerating the violators’ presence? Or should DVers, too, be cast beyond the pale, like Bundy and Dahmer? Second Chance starts the discussion with a snap.

Written and directed by Kittery playwright Evelyn Jones, the play unravels the twists of fate, allowing the audience to follow the twisting of strings paying out through time from incidents in the past, intertwining lives in unexpected ways.

Starting with a quality facade hiding drugs, alcohol, and egotism, Second Chance moves through the logical conclusion to all domestic violence — murder — and beyond, exploring the vagaries of the DVer’s mind. We follow a search for direction devoid of a moral compass.

(A brief digression: The play itself seems to lack a compass or map. The first scene is in the evening somewhere in New York state; 24 hours later, on a run for the Canadian border, Dennis (Andrew Fling) still hasn’t made it. If he were serious, on a highway and doing roughly the speed limit, he’d have cleared customs by daybreak, regardless of starting point.)

We watch, electrified, as a control freak tries to dictate to a corpse, and later, denying culpability, vows revenge on the attacker of his beloved DV victim.

The most compelling moment of the story is when the veil of hints is swept away in a panic-stricken exchange between a lonely man and two parents (not his) in the middle of the night. "Sit back, on the edge of your seat," as the Host (Jennifer Mason) says in the prologue. This is a ripper of a tale, cleverly told, with all threads tied, though not at all neatly, by the end of Act 2.

The play is beautifully acted, though giving specifics would reveal too much. Dinah Schultze, in her debut as a lead role (Jill), gives a taste of what she can do, and promises — both plot-wise and professionally — power far beyond what we see on stage. Fling, as the DVer, mixes the Jekyll and Hyde well, both shaking and stirring the audience. Thorpe Feidt is a frightening (for this journalist, at least) caricature of those spot-news TV freelancers who appear at the most unusual moments in real life.

There are several elegant touches to the stage management: Stagehands’ faces are shrouded in Eyes Wide Shut maroon hoods; an actor whose character is dead has her body hauled off as if to the coroner. The set itself is pure Players’ Ring, flexible and functional, but unadorned and not distracting. The overhead projector is lovingly jury-rigged to the ceiling, and the swingset’s two beam-embedded eyehooks hold. The makeup also helps, subtly reinforcing the line between life and death.

The music, too, all well known pieces, supports the storyline in clever ways. It is, though, the writing that brings this show to its peak and the audience along, simultaneously willingly and inextricably.

"They make horror movies about beautiful young women materializing out of the dark," Dennis says. If only those beautiful DV victims — for they all are — could appear out of the darkness, reborn and empowered, then the DVers would see real horror begin. In seats before a stage, we look on helplessly. Are we — and they — doomed to have us do the same in the real world?

Second Chance
Written and directed by Evelyn Jones. With Andrew Fling, Dinah Schultze, and Nicole MacMillan. At the Players’ Ring, in Portsmouth, NH, through Sept. 21. Call (603) 436-8123.


• If you haven’t yet, find a way to see UltraLight, Michael Gorman’s homage to his love for his brother, killed by a heroin addiction. Yes, it occupied plenty of space on this page last week, but it’s even better than it was billed to be. Just go.

Eleventh & Love, Tim Collins’s show offering an international perspective on September 11, will be at the St. Lawrence, September 18 and 19, at 7 p.m., and September 20, at 4 and 7 p.m.

Friday, September 5, 2003

Love and a light touch: What it takes to be your brother's keeper

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Looking out the window of the old Levinsky’s storefront during a rehearsal recently, actor Dave Bennett saw something. He called the others over, and they, too, had a startlingly relevant vision: "There’s a guy fixing up and shooting, in a picture window on Congress Street," said Michael Gorman.

The group has been using the vacant space to rehearse for the Maine tour of Gorman’s play UltraLight, an elegy for his brother, who died at 40 of a heroin overdose. Alone with his pencil and paper, Gorman had control in a way his real life never offered. "It’s about sanctuary of storytelling," he said. "I can say whatever I want."

At its 2000 New York debut, UltraLight found an unusual theater audience: "Recovering addicts started showing up," Gorman said. After the curtain, many of them would express gratitude for the respect and truth in the tale.

The play, whose subtitle is "A True Fishing Story," hooked cast members too. "Every night you’d have to go through a decompression process," said local musician/composer Joshua Eden.

Fishing metaphors abound in the play: lines of love and emotion become tangled in the tides of time. Ultralight fishing uses super-fragile equipment. Eden explains, the hook is lodged carefully in a fish’s mouth, like a needle in a vein, and the fisherman must work cautiously to reel it in.

The loving act of "catching something so you can release it," as Bennett puts it, is crucial to UltraLight, as is the behavior of a hooked fish. Stephen, the heroin-addicted character in the play, is caught by the carefully baited lure of his brother, Jim (played by Bennett).

Stephen (Oz Phillips) tells fish stories — tall tales making himself look good — in an attempt to wriggle out of Jim’s grasp. "Everybody associates lying with fishing stories," said Mike Kimball, who plays the supporting role of a salesman. "A lot of addicts are extremely adept at that."

Stephen ducks, hides, runs, does all the things fish do to avoid being drawn into the open. When Jim’s soul-fishing proves too skillful, though, Stephen enters the raging current and begins a fight for his life.

UltraLight shows the dexterity family members need to overcome denial and avoidance, telling the story of a brother unwilling to part with a segment of his own soul. "A lot of people get left behind that aren’t the addicts," Kimball said.

Touched with love, irony, even humor, UltraLight is a call to arms for families to help their addicts, in a nation whose drug policy criticizes them, marginalizes them, criminalizes them, and fails to extend a hand.

Maine’s jails and prisons are full of non-violent repeat drug offenders. Maine’s towns are riddled by prescription opiates stolen from patients who really need them. Heroin is cheaper and easier to find than marijuana.

And thousands are just waiting for a chance to get clean, said Marty O’Brien of the Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery. In 2000, 75,000 Mainers tried to get into rehab programs, but there was only room for 15,000.

MAAR is helping sponsor the Maine tour, which runs throughout September, designated as National Recovery Month. "It’s very important to me ... that we convey a sense of hope," said Brian Glover, who is directing the show. "Recovery is real and not just another fishing story."

The play seeks action. "It’s not enough to say that there is a secret hidden in the American family," Glover said. Nor to say that there’s a "fog," as in Dickens’ Bleak House. "You can turn the fan on and blow the shit out," Glover said.

It takes a soft touch. "These are not people separate from us. When you wage a war on drugs you wage it on your own family. You wage it on your community," Gorman said. Many involved with the play know this firsthand, including Bennett: "I recently lost a friend to a heroin overdose. I just felt so helpless. This is about the only thing I can do for him."

Phillips’ role made him ask, "Why am I an actor? What does this do other than please me?" Now, his mission is clear: "Take a stand. Be socially responsible." Of particular importance, not just to the play, but to Phillips himself, is family.

"Maybe call up your brother and see how he’s doing," Phillips said. In fact, this play moved him to do just that. After two years of not talking to his brother, Phillips picked up the phone a couple of weeks ago. His brother is coming to see the play.

UltraLight is at Portland Stage Company, September 4, 5, and 6 at 8 p.m. and September 6 and 7 at 2 p.m. (207) 774-0465; Penobscot Theater, in Bangor, September 12 and 13 at 8 p.m., and September 14 at 2 p.m. (207) 942-3333; and the Grand Theater, in Ellsworth, September 18 at 2 p.m., and September 19 at 8 p.m. (866) 363-9500. Photos of recovering addicts will be on display, and each show will be followed by a group discussion.


• Local playwright Cathy Plourde will direct Lysistrata in its October run at Central Connecticut State University. Her adaptation is called Lysistrata: Everything Aristophanes Wanted To Know About Sex but Was Afraid To Ask, adding a new character who draws in the audience and turns the play on its head.