Friday, October 31, 2003

Rocky horrors! A young, innocent t-and-a show

Published in the Portland Phoenix

They really should advertise that it’s teenagers prancing around in fishnet stockings, underwear, and lab coats. That would really pack in audiences. But, then again, they’re filling the house without any advertising at all.

A group made up mostly of high school students has been performing a live version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for a year now in Portland, and will wrap up for the winter on Halloween night.

The live action takes place in front of a movie screen, with actors on stage mimicking movements and lip-syncing the lines. So the show is more about the costumes and the atmosphere than acting per se.

Scott Collard (Riffraff) has a scary bald spot befitting an evil butler; the fishnets are fabulous and the leather omnipresent. Even so, Mia Perron as Janet and Connor Tubbs as Brad Majors are innocents abroad among the Transylvanians, though in a sea of friendly (if weirdly painted) faces.

There are lines to be memorized, but not by the usual suspects. The audience has a part in the show, too, calling out comments on characters, superimposing their lines over the film’s dialogue, and drawing attention to arcane details of the film (as evidenced by one chant as a scene opens: "muscle twitch, muscle twitch!").

This is participatory theater at its finest, and Rocky Horror at perhaps its least scary. Often performed by adult actors who bear too-eerie resemblances to the characters, Rocky Horror can be an eye-opener even for the most cosmopolitan late-night freak-show addicts on "Sexchange Street."

This version is by high school students — the oldest one, Andrew Bossie (Rocky) is 20 — and even college types may be alarmed not at the content, exactly, but who’s shouting about dildos and the odd rim job. It is an R-rated movie, after all, being celebrated and performed by teens.

"Technically, we’re not even supposed to be in the theater," said Knate Higgins, the 16-year-old at the center of the show in his role as organizer, director, and player of Dr. Frankenfurter, a "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania" who has found a way to create human life for sexual pleasure.

The experience of being at Rocky Horror has a youthful energy and an innocent flavor — if it’s possible to be innocent while repeatedly screaming the words "slut" and "asshole" — that many performances lack.

Usually, the whole show is performed in mimic, but Higgins said that gets "distracting and monotonous." And picking up from past Portland productions of the show, the cast only does some scenes.

"We just take our favorite songs from the movie and we just go up there and do them," Higgins said.

They do keep much of the flavor of traditional Rocky Horror performances, including a "virgin sacrifice" to select the best-costumed audience member and sales of $1 "bags o’ shit" filled with props to throw. (The money goes to help pay for the Gorham High School chorus trip to Disneyland.)

"We have so much fun doing it," Higgins said. Despite the audience attention, "we never get too stressed out because it’s Rocky Horror."

And the audience-participation lines have just as much gusto as ever, though with a few new twists, including references to Osama bin Laden, JonBenet Ramsey, Austin Powers, and the playoff performance of the Red Sox.

Higgins himself gets some good-natured heckling from time to time, but handled it well when I saw him — better than most stage actors, who aren’t exactly used to voices from offstage.

Overall, the expressive acting — somewhat like mime — is excellent, and we can give a pass to Bossie, who has only been with the show a couple of weeks and still takes his movement cues from the screen, unlike the other cast members, who have memorized their parts. The lip-syncing is also excellent, and if the soundtrack broke, they’d speak right up and not miss a single word.

Still, there is an element of seriousness about it. The State Theatre has come calling, asking Higgins to hold the show there in the future, and a student at the SALT Institute is doing a documentary photography project about the cast and the show. And perhaps serious isn’t bad, for a movie that stars Susan Sarandon. (Then again, this movie also stars Meat Loaf as a sax-playing motorcycle rider who becomes an evening meal.)

There is only one real question left: Does Gorham High School’s chorus director wash his hands after counting that money?

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Directed by Knate Higgins. With Knate Higgins, Mia Perron, Connor Tubbs, and Andrew Bossie. At the Movies on Exchange, in Portland, Halloween night at 10 p.m. Call (207) 772-9600.

Backstage

Bob Demers of Open Book Players is the editor of Readers Theatre Digest, which has a new Web site, www.readerstheatredigest.com

Children’s Theatre of Maine is accepting reservations from high schools that want to bring students to see Romeo and Juliet, January 6 through 25. Tickets are $4 per student, and there are two performances each morning from Tuesday to Friday. Call Jeanne at (207) 878-2774 or email edctm@maine.rr.com

Friday, October 24, 2003

Lord have Mercy: Kyrie eleison, Yarhamuka-llah

Published in the Portland Phoenix

With these words, "kyrie eleison" and "yarhamuka-llah," Christians and Muslims around the world have, for centuries, asked God for mercy. These chants, and others more sinister, were heard around the world after September 11, 2001.

In a modernist Manhattan apartment, Ben (Craig Bowden) sits motionless as the audience enters the Portland Stage Studio Theater. The air is murky — dust pervades the city’s air. In the background, a cell phone rings, sirens blare, police radios crackle, TV news anchors drone. There is no murmur of conversation usually heard when the audience is being seated.

Stunned silent, Ben can’t even hear the ringing cell phone in his hand. He is clearly a man overwhelmed — but by what? So many that day were struck dumb by the calamity; others by its call to address their lives’ main issues. Still others saw a chance to begin anew, to take charge of lives they had previously lived only vicariously, watching themselves from afar.

Invited into the living room of this studio, we watch as two New Yorkers, Ben and Abby (Christine Louise Marshall) adjust to the fact that their lives have been exposed to the sunlight, cast from the shadows of the Twin Towers after the collapse. It is a unique chance.

Many New Yorkers fell further in love with their city after that day; many left forever, seeking safer homes in smaller towns less likely to be targets in the future. People across the country re-evaluated their lives. Some married, others divorced. Children were conceived, jobs quit, careers reoriented. For the briefest moment, it appeared America could be reborn into a new world of unity, compassion, and love.

And then the president spoke to the nation, and echoed Ben’s words in Neil LaBute’s powerful play The Mercy Seat. Nothing changes in America, no matter the disaster, Ben tells Abby. "The American way is to overcome, to conquer, to come out on top. We do that by spending, eating, and screwing our women harder," he says.

This excruciating truth is only the beginning of the revelations, both cultural and personal, unveiled as the Mercy Seat, the Biblical covering of the Ark of the Covenant, is lifted away, showing the truth of what life and love contain. LaBute’s unshrinking gaze takes in a world torn apart by tragedy, and finds the moments of uncertainty, doubt, and opportunity.

He focuses on them, on how they affect the human condition, and inserts his crowbar a little deeper into the closed American heart. Bowden and Marshall — two of Maine’s best actors — are heartbreakingly compelling, playing to perfection their complex roles.

As their characters’ relationship is made clear, and their internal conflicts exposed, the tower of each character is built a story higher. Both actors exert control over the emotions of the audience, creating moments of palpable tension and physical release with the honesty of their acting. The range of emotions through which they move in two hours is exhausting and soul-opening for both actors and audience, eliciting laughter, tears, terror, and joy. Relief is the only one not fully present, and that is by design.

The magnitude of September 11 is amplified by their personal losses and the agonies of their solitary choices. Abby’s character is the voice of playwright LaBute himself, needling, poking, digging into Ben’s deepest soul, scrabbling to open his rocky heart. Initially, he fights it, but gives in eventually, seeming to know this is an opportunity he will never have again.

She names his fears, his options, states clearly the repercussions of choices he would prefer to make by obscure reference or implication. It is an excruciating process, as she forces honesty upon the unwilling Ben, compelling him at every turn to question himself and his motives.

He tries over and over to seize the chance he sees, but truth repels him, and ultimately leads to her fateful request, that he be honest and make the call he was about to make, before the towers were struck. Neither expects the fallout to be what it is, and the audience sits stunned as paired planes of truth crash into the twin towers of Abby and Ben, shaking both to their foundations.

The Mercy Seat
Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Andrew Sokoloff. With Christine Louise Marshall and Craig Bowden. By Mad Horse Theatre Company, at Portland Stage Studio Theater, through November 2. Call (207) 730-2389.

Backstage

• The new West End Studio Theatre in Portsmouth, NH, will open its first season October 31 with Artists’ Collaborative Theatre of New England performing three short plays about middle-aged women in awkward situations. WEST is the former home of Pontine Movement Theater, which now shares the space with New Hampshire Theater Workshop. Call (603) 926-2281.

Frank Wicks’ play Soldier, Come Home, based on his great-grandparents’ Civil War letters, played recently in his great-grandparents’ hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It drew over 100 of Wicks’s relatives, as well as a video crew to tape the play for wider distribution. The play is also on sale at www.soldiercomehome.com

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Teachers’ unions, business back competing tax proposals

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Tax reform in Maine is attracting big dollars from the state’s businesses and teachers’ unions, as funds flow in to the coffers of groups supporting the two alternatives on the Nov. 4 ballot. Some of the groups say they are concerned about property taxpayers, but many also have their own agendas.

A chart on this page (corrected from previous versions published in this newspaper) lays out the school funding numbers presented by each side.

Question 1A was devised by the Maine Municipal Association, the statewide association of town councils and town managers. Over the past year, the MMA has donated $320,000 to the political action committee backing the question.

The largest backer for that PAC, however, is the National Education Association, based in Washington, D.C., which has donated $350,000 in the past four months by passing funds through the Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union.

Part of the reason is because Question 1A would dramatically increase state education funding immediately, said Rob Walker, president of the MEA. Further, “there is a chance that some of the money will not go to tax reform” but instead will be used by towns to pay their teachers better, he said.

He is touring the state, giving presentations to groups of teachers about the referendum and encouraging them to vote.

“We’re finding that the more questions we answer” the more likely people are to support Question 1A, he said.

Business backs 1B
Question 1B was developed by Gov. John Baldacci and the state Legislature as a so-called “competing measure” referendum, posing an alternative to the MMA proposal. Question 1B is drawing support from businesses around the state.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, is the chairman of the PAC. Question 1B sets education as “one of our state’s highest priorities,” and pays for it through existing taxes levied on an expanding economy, rather than creating new taxes, he said. Some districts will see less money initially, “but that’s more than compensated for” in future years, Connors said.

The PAC has received funds from many big-name companies, including $50,000 from International Paper, $35,000 from National Semiconductor, $25,000 each from L.L. Bean and Sappi, and $15,000 from UnumProvident.

“We’re very concerned with the fiscal implications of Question 1A,” said Steve Clarkin, regional public affairs manager for International Paper. “The state can’t afford Question 1A without resorting to tax increases.”

One tax break he and many other companies fear may be first on the chopping block is the Business Equipment Tax Rebate, in which the state returns to businesses the amount they pay to towns in personal property tax on business equipment, including manufacturing machinery.

“Our biggest concern would be the BETR program,” Clarkin said. IP is also concerned that just cutting BETR wouldn’t save the state enough money, requiring increases in taxes on services – including accounting and legal work – and the elimination of sales-tax exemptions businesses now enjoy on new production equipment, raw materials and energy used for manufacturing.

“National is backing 1B,” said spokesman Anne Gauthier. “We believe that the phased-in approach is a more fiscally responsible approach.”

BETR cuts also worry her. In 1997, National began investing $950 million in its South Portland facilities, and expects the full benefit of BETR tax breaks to come over 12 years. Eliminating that now would be a big concern for National, she said.

Pushing real reform
L.L. Bean is also weighing in to support Question 1B. “It breaks the inertia of the whole tax-and-spend issue,” said company spokesman Rich Donaldson.

It provides immediate tax relief to the most needy Mainers, and forces towns to make their own decisions on educational funding.

Now, “any town can say, ‘This is what we need for education funding,’” he said. That ups the state’s total expenditure for education without a centralized plan for determining whether those expenses are necessary.

Question 1A “just sends more money to municipalities. That’s the danger of it,” he said. Towns “have a long and strong history of increasing spending” when they get more money.

“Local governments are going to continue to spend what you give them,” he said. Changing the education funding formula will give them what they need to provide a good education, but will make clear the line between what is deemed necessary for a quality education and what is optionally selected by the town, Donaldson said.

UnumProvident spokesman David Brenerman called Question 1A “a significant financial problem for the state.” He worries that the state may already be facing a $500 million funding shortfall for the next budget cycle, and asking for an extra $250 million a year could break the bank.

“Tax reform is a slow process. It can’t happen all at once,” said Brenerman, who is a former mayor of Portland. “Along with tax reform there needs to be spending reform,” he said.

Some towns back 1A
Not surprisingly, many town councils and school boards are supporting the proposal developed by their umbrella group, the MMA. The Cape Elizabeth School Board has endorsed it, and last week many councilors also voiced their support.

“Clearly 1A (the MMA proposal) is the option for folks in this community,” said Cape Councilor Jack Roberts at a council meeting. Cape Council Chairman Mary Ann Lynch also supports 1A. She is “skeptical of the dire Chicken Little” behavior of legislators who claim that 1A will bankrupt the state. A year ago, legislators handled a $1.2 billion shortfall in the state budget without a tax increase, she said. “It’s a question of priorities. … They’ve closed larger budget gaps in previous years without tax increases.”

South Portland City Manager Jeff Jordan recently sent councilors a memo about each of the proposals. They indicate that if Question 1A were to pass, South Portland would have the second-largest increase in school funding – $5.2 million – among all the towns in the state. (Portland’s increase would be higher.)

If Question 1B were to pass, South Portland would have the greatest loss in school funding – $2.8 million – of any town in the state, Jordan wrote.

Windham Town Manager Tony Plante said his town’s council has not taken a position, but did not support a resolution supporting the MMA proposal (Question 1A) when it came up for a vote. The council has not supported Question 1B or opposed either, he said.

None of the above
Jerre Bryant, Westbrook’s administrative assistant, opposes both, though the City Council has not taken a formal stand.

“They both fall woefully short” of “true tax reform,” Bryant said. Question 1A does not explain where the state should come up with the funds, while Question 1B “not only doesn’t help but harms Westbrook” and other towns. “Neither of these proposals are sound public policy,” he said.

Supporting neither proposal demands better action from the Legislature and the governor, he said. “We desperately need tax reform. We desperately need property tax relief.”

There is an option on the ballot – 1C – to oppose both tax plans. Bryant expects that Carol Palesky’s Maine Taxpayers Action Network tax-cap proposal will get on the ballot next year, and hopes a solution can be devised before that happens. Walker, of the MEA, also wants a tax-reform solution approved to “head off” Palesky’s efforts, which he fears will catch the attention of many taxpayers, and require towns and cities to make drastic spending cuts, hurting teachers.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Fishin’ and fusion: Or was it fission and confusion?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Originally, a red herring was a smoked fish thrown to hunting dogs to distract them from prey. With six actors, each playing one main role and two supporting ones, Red Herring is full of opportunities for distraction, and like any good farce, confusion reigns supreme throughout the play.

The main characters are Frank (David Davalos), an FBI agent hot on the trail of a spy ring leaking hydrogen-bomb secrets to the Soviets; Maggie (Janet Mitchko), a local police detective searching for a killer; Lynn McCarthy (Amanda Rose Rowan), the daughter of Communist-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy (though, in reality, Joe didn’t marry or have a child until later than this play is set); James (Brian Louis Hoffman), an Army lieutenant whose interest in Lynn creates a new Army-McCarthy relationship, and whose desire for world peace leads him to spy for the Soviets; and Mrs. Kravitz (Sheila Stasack), a waterfront boardinghouse landlady whose life’s desire is to vacation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with her lover, Andrei (Neal Hemphill), a Russian fisherman spying for the Soviets to save his wife, in Communist clutches back home.

When Mrs. Kravitz tells Frank and Maggie that a corpse in Boston harbor is Andrei (to hide the fact that she killed her husband), the net of lives becomes tangled and then begins to unravel.

Among the revelations to which the audience arrives with great laughter are these: Maggie has been married before, James seeks truth in an H-bomb blast and finds temporary blindness, Lynn has deep questions about the true nature of Velveeta, Frank has no problem shooting up a bridal shop, and Andrei can play a mute with great aplomb.

The supporting characters are also exquisite. Among the best are a coroner who eats lunch over a corpse and uses the sheet as a napkin, a divorce-obsessed marriage-license clerk, a priest driven from his post by impatient confessors, and a leering Army officer needling the junior James.

The comedy is heightened by strong one-liners with excellent delivery, brilliantly funny facial expressions to clue in the audience to the real action, and witty repartee.

It is not all a rollicking laugh, though. Each character also has deep insights into the nature of marriage, with pithy lines and comic grace notes alike. The issues of partnership and commitment are revisited throughout.

Admittedly, these are often in unusual ways, like a man asking his fiancée to deliver a secret microfilm to his spy contact, all in the name of love. Another character heroically saved her own husband from death, only to regret it years later, and not fully understand how much until near the play’s end. Then there’s the marriage proposal at gunpoint.

Oddly for a play with this title, none of the anecdotes are red herrings for the audience. All are eventually closely tied together. The vignettes pick up speed as the show progresses, exposing the single weakness of this production.

While the set is elaborate and provides an excellent dockside feeling, it is not a multi-purpose space. There are literally dozens of scenes, and each requires the lights to go down for stagehands to rearrange small areas. It would have been better, perhaps, to switch the action back and forth, moving rapidly between areas of the set, keeping the audience’s attention on the actors while stagehands worked quickly elsewhere on stage.

The play also includes an original interpretation of a famous painting. Winslow Homer’s "The Herring Net," probably painted in Scarborough and based on his observations of a herring catch off the coast of Maine, hangs above the set as part of a herring firm’s advertising campaign. It is commonly thought to be a portrayal of a fisherman and his boy pulling in a large catch.

Andrei believes it is of a fisherman and his wife, working together to stay afloat. "Marriage has a small leak," Andrei says. If both husband and wife ignore it, waiting for the other to bail, both will drown. If both work hard, they’ll survive. This causes his turn of phrase to be both amusing and poignant, as he gives vital advice to a woman about to get married: "Don’t forget to bail."

The lesson is revisited later in the play, as James proclaims the insight he received at the moment he went blind. Fusion is better than fission, he says, "joining together is a thousand times more powerful than splitting apart."

Red Herring
Written by Michael Hollinger. Directed by Christopher Schario. With David Davalos, Janet Mitchko, Amanda Rose Rowan, Brian Louis Hoffman, Sheila Stasack, and Neal Hemphill. At the Public Theatre, in Lewiston, through Oct. 19. Call (207) 782-3200.


Backstage

Louis Philippe, the Portland man who is suing AOL for delivering spam email to his inbox, is also threatening to sue the First Parish Congregational Church in Gorham. In a press release issued last week, Philippe, who heads the Reindeer Group, said he is giving up on establishing a performing arts venue in church-owned space on School Street in Gorham. He blamed the church’s leadership for the deal’s collapse and wants $2600 in claimed actual losses, "plus an unspecified amount for residual damages," by November 1 or he’ll sue.

Kippy Rudy, former marketing director at Portland Stage Company, is the new general manager at Portland Opera Repertory Theater, which is now calling itself PORTopera.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Tax plans offer relief for a price

Published in the Current and the American Journal; co-written with Kate Irish Collins

While Maine property taxpayers may save millions if the Maine Municipal Association’s tax-reform referendum passes Nov. 4, supporters of the governor’s competing proposal say it will lead to tax increases in other areas. And opponents of both ideas say neither will have any real effect on the state’s overall tax burden.

Each side says there is no guarantee the other’s would lead to true property tax reform, although elected officials in area municipalities say any additional state funding would be used to reduce or stabilize property tax rates.

The MMA proposal would require the state to fund 55 percent of the cost of education starting next year. The governor’s proposal would phase the
increase in over five years. The key concern about the MMA plan is where the money will come from.

Preliminary numbers indicate that under the MMA proposal, Westbrook schools would see an increase in state education funding of $3,555,704. Under the governor’s plan, Westbrook would lose $357,571 in the first year. In Gorham under the MMA plan, the town would see an increase in education dollars of $3,221,394 and a decrease of $267,283 under the governor’s proposal in the first year.

Windham is the only regional town that would see an increase under both plans. Under the MMA plan, Windham would get $3,821,269 more and under the governor’s plan the town would get $94,970 more.

School Administrative District 6, which includes Standish, would gain the most under the MMA plan, with an increase of $4,989,105. Under the governor’s proposal, the school district would lose $673,298 next year.

In the 2005-2006 fiscal year, with an overall increase in education funding under the governor’s plan, Westbrook, Gorham and Windham would see an
increase in spending of just over $1 million. SAD 6 would see an increase in funding of over $3 million.

The governor’s proposal will never equal the total school funding dollars offered under the MMA plan because that proposal also requires the state to pay 100 percent of all special education expenses.

The total cost of the MMA plan, next fiscal year, would be roughly $255 million. State Rep. Harold Clough, R-Scarborough and part of Gorham, told the American Journal it is not possible for the state to expend that kind of money without major tax increases or significant program cuts.

The governor’s plan would improve state education spending more gradually and also increase funding to statewide tax relief programs, like the “circuit-breaker” program, which refunds a portion of property taxes and rent paid by low-income Mainers, Clough said.

State Rep. Christopher Barstow, D-Gorham, said he is supporting the governor’s proposal because it takes a progressive approach to increasing state funding of education. But he’s also not strongly against the MMA plan.

“I believe the governor’s measure would be legally binding and that the Legislature would keep its commitment. Both questions are being touted as providing tax relief and, to some extent, they will, but what we really need to do is engage the leadership in reviewing the tax code itself,” Barstow said.

Bob Stone, treasurer of the political action group, Common Sense for Maine Taxpayers, and chairman of the finance committee in the city of Lewiston, has spoken against both plans, and is urging voters to choose “none of the above” on the ballot.

“History tells us that you’re only dreaming” if you believe claims of lower taxes, Stone said. While property taxes may drop, the money will have to be made up from other taxes. He said cutting state spending is the only way to truly lower the state’s tax burden.

Statewide polling shows voters are evenly split among the MMA proposal, the governor’s plan and the “none of the above” option. Gorham Town Council Chairman Michael Phinney told the American Journal Monday the council is backing the MMA proposal. Phinney said it would provide additional money to the town immediately.

He said the governor’s plan would provide less funding from the state for education than what Gorham is currently getting.

“Gorham is one of the towns that would get more money back. From that standpoint it should help out with the property tax level,” Phinney said.

While the MMA plan has come under some fire for not detailing where the funding would come from, Phinney said it would be up to the Legislature and the governor to find the money.

“No doubt it would be a difficult decision. But education should be our first priority. It is in Gorham, and it should be at the state level,” he said.

Westbrook Mayor Don Esty said the city has not taken any official position on the education funding referenda, but said any help the state could provide to help pay for education either under the MMA proposal or the governor’s plan would be appreciated and welcome.

“Should either one pass, we will use the money to keep property taxes as much under control as possible,” Esty said.

Esty said it is his hope that before Election Day, state officials will outline whatever cuts in spending or increases in revenue would be available to support either education funding option. “It’s that missing information that leaves people unsure about how to vote,” he said.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Radiation sickness: Living a half-life

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Marie Curie was among the first to learn that exposure to high doses of radiation can stunt organisms’ growth and cause premature death. In The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a budding female scientist takes a different route to the same lesson.

Tillie Hunsdorfer (Chelsea Cook) is a bright student whose mother, Beatrice (played by Annette L. Bourque), is jealous of her success. While she doesn’t actually hit her daughter, Beatrice is emotionally abusive and often prevents Tillie from even going to school, instead making her do endless chores around the house. Tillie’s sister Ruth (Andrea Wickham) is allowed to go to school, but seems not to make much of the opportunity.

It becomes clear, though, that Beatrice sees herself in her smart non-conformist daughter, and fears for Tillie’s future. When Beatrice learns the students laughed at Tillie during a science assembly, she turns on her. "They laugh at you, they’re laughing at me," she says, remembering the scorn she endured in her school days, just for being different. That radiation has seared Beatrice, and she in turn irradiates Tillie and Ruth.

Beatrice confesses her feelings in a conversation with Tillie about a science project. Tillie is planting marigold seeds that have been exposed to cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope with the relatively short half-life of 5.3 years.

Beatrice, she tells her daughter, knows all about half-lives. She is "the original half life," she says, and launches into a brief soliloquy offering a view into another world, the inner corridors of "the other half"’s lives: Beatrice has one daughter — the panic-suffering Ruth — with "half a mind," the other — science-brained Tillie — "half a test tube," her house is half full of the droppings of the family’s pet rabbit, and she shares a living space with half a corpse, the elderly Nanny (Ellen Thomas), whom Beatrice cares for to earn extra money.

It is a speech that could be both heartbreaking and pathetic. Bourque, however, only gets to the pathetic part of Beatrice’s character. The play is written to be slow-moving, and Bourque’s Beatrice properly sucks the life out of each scene in which she appears. But even in moments of redemption and openness, Bourque draws only pity from the audience.

Cook’s Tillie is a far more sympathetic character, playing her middle-woman role strongly, and showing the promise of youthful enthusiasm in scenes without Beatrice. When faced with Beatrice, Cook immediately adopts deferential tone and bearing, though keeping sparks alive under the bushel.

Ruth is more stereotypical, and is played well by Wickham, a newcomer to USM’s main stage. First a flighty teenage girl, she morphs into a younger version of her mother, but one more bitter and with less hope.

The characters are complicated and conflicted. It is their depth that earned this play both a Pulitzer and an Obie. Beatrice’s grudging acceptance of duty, dashing her own dreams, is briefly inspiring, when she is made to understand that Tillie’s finalist status in the school science fair is not a chance for people to mock Beatrice but to celebrate Tillie.

In the second act, the effects of the radiation become clear. As Tillie’s marigold experiment showed, seeds with a little radiation were normal; moderate radiation resulted in mutants. Seeds that endured large amounts of radiation were stunted or killed.

Beatrice, boosted by pride in Tillie’s accomplishments at the science fair, starts to heal and face her fears. But her radiation has ruined Ruth, who turns on her mother and destroys what remains of the life in Beatrice’s soul, triggering a rapid decay of spirit and turning Beatrice into a shell of her former self.

While the show is billed as a redemptive story, there is little hope left at the play’s end. Despite Tillie’s claim that "some of the mutations will be good ones," the spectre of radiation sickness lingers in the theater after the lights go up.


The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
Written by Paul Zindel. Directed by Minor Rootes. With Annette L. Bourque, Chelsea Cook, and Andrea Wickham. At University of Southern Maine, Russell Hall, through Oct. 12. Call (207) 780-5151.


Backstage

The Public Theatre in Lewiston recently received two grants: $10,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to support educational outreach programming, including ticket-price subsidies for students and local community organizations, and student internships at the theater; and a $5000 unrestricted grant from the Shubert Foundation, the charity arm of a company owning 17 Broadway theaters, recognizing general excellence at the Public Theatre.

• Need a great Halloween costume? Check out the Maine State Music Theatre’s costume shop sale October 11, from 8 a.m. to noon, at MSMT’s new building, 22 Elm Street, in Brunswick, across from Hannaford. Most items will sell for $5, and all proceeds benefit the theater. Local theaters can get first dibs by calling Crystle Martin at (207) 725-8760 x15.

• A group of 10 Boothbay Harbor residents has purchased the town’s Opera House and plans to restore it. The 20,000-square-foot building will house gallery space, dance studios, a banquet hall, reception areas, and a 350-seat main theater. The first event, a concert by Jackson Browne, will be November 3. To learn more, visit www.opera-house.org

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Standish man found guilty of murder

Published in the Current and the American Journal

A Cumberland County Superior Court jury Tuesday afternoon found Santanu Basu of Standish guilty of murdering Azita Jamshab to get the proceeds of a $100,000 insurance policy.

In closing arguments Tuesday morning, the prosecution told jurors there is “overwhelming evidence” that Basu was guilty.

Basu was listed as the beneficiary on Jamshab’s life insurance policy, which he had sold to her. In addition to Jamshab’s blood in the car Basu rented that day, and a “to-do” list preparing for the murder in Basu’s handwriting, prosecutor Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said Basu had confessed to the crime, in detail, to a friend who then told police elements of the crime that had not yet been discovered.

The defense countered that Basu and Jamshab had instead been kidnapped at gunpoint by Jamshab’s “jealous boyfriend,” Amhad “Khoji” Khojaspehzad, who then murdered Jamshab.

Basu’s actions after the killing, which the prosecution called incriminating, were instead because Basu was trying to protect his family from Khojaspehzad, defense attorney Neale Duffett told jurors.

Jamshab, who lived in Westbrook, was shot to death after stepping 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.

Marchese said Basu was “deep in debt and going further,” with high credit card balances and his job in jeopardy.

When Jamshab came into Basu’s office in January 2002 to buy car and health insurance following her divorce, Basu saw his chance. He sold her life insurance and persuaded her to name him as the beneficiary, Marchese said.

“He had all the information he needed to make Azita’s parents the beneficiary but he didn’t because he didn’t want to, because then he wouldn’t get the money,” Marchese said.

Instead, he put himself on the policy and then began to plan Jamshab’s murder, she said. In late February 2002, Jamshab told Basu she was moving out of the area and wanted to cancel the policy.

“Within two weeks Azita is dead,” Marchese said.

After the murder, Basu confessed to a former Navy buddy, but pleaded with him not to tell the police about any of it, prosecutors said.

That friend, Dexter Flemming, told police intimate details of the crime before the medical examiner or police were able to uncover them. Later discoveries supported what Flemming said Basu had told him, Marchese told the jury.

Marchese also described the killing, saying Basu drove Jamshab to the gravel pit in a rental car and told Jamshab to close her eyes because he had a “big surprise” for her.

“She holds out her hand and he pulls out the gun and shoots her,” Marchese said. The first shot was in the hand and arm. Then Basu shot her twice in the chest, and she fell to the ground.

“For some inexplicable reason he needs that coup de grace shot and shoots her in the back,” Marchese said.

The defense story that the pair was kidnapped by Khojaspehzad was invented recently and first told to investigators when Basu took the stand last week, Marchese said.

Khojaspehzad was the secondary beneficiary of Jamshab’s insurance policy and would only get the money if Basu were dead or convicted of killing Jamshab.

Speaking for the defense, Duffett disputed each of Marchese’s claims, saying Basu was not in financial trouble, would not have killed Jamshab for any
money, rented a car to hide an affair from his wife and made the to-do list to plan a “romantic date.”

Duffett said Basu did not dispute Flemming’s testimony about the confession because Basu was trying to cover for Khojaspehzad, for fear his family would be hurt if the police investigated Khojaspehzad.

Duffett said Khojaspehzad was a “jealous lover” who murdered Jamshab in a “crime of passion,” because he feared Basu and Jamshab were having an affair.

Marchese dismissed that explanation as “nonsensical.”