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.