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 fiancĂ©e 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.


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.