Friday, November 28, 2003

Revelry after the feast: Nuncrackers full of holiday cheer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When the big meal’s over, and some relatives have even broken into the leftovers, in sets Thanksgiving’s lethargy. After a few hours of snoozing and reclining, usually someone will pipe up, "We need to go for a walk." But why fight the urge to kick back before the holiday madness really begins?

Get out of the house, relax, and get a big belly laugh from Nuncrackers, the Nunsense Christmas musical, now on at the Lyric Music Theater, "just off Broadway" in South Portland.

You don’t need a Catholic upbringing to get a laugh out of these nutty nuns, putting on a Christmas special for the local public-access cable channel from the basement of Mt. St. Helen’s church, Hoboken. (If you went to Catholic school, though, you’ll recognize the Reverend Mother’s training clicker, now used more widely to train dogs in obedience classes, and a few other gems.)

The studio — which doubles as a nuclear fallout shelter (where else would you rather be during the Apocalypse than in a church basement with cheery nuns?) — was paid for when one of these worldly nuns, Sister Mary Paul (Elisha Walls) won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes.

These and other tidbits tear away some of the burqa-like fabric that literally hides these women of the cloth from the world, showing us the reality of life behind the veil: While restricted and carefully supervised, there’s a lot of freedom to be had.

At least so says Sister Robert Anne, a hilariously troublesome nun wonderfully played by Melissa Bornmann. She plays tricks on poor Sister Mary Paul, leading to big laughs and some great variations on traditional Christmas carols. There’s even a sing-along to get you really in the mood and quite convinced that Thanksgiving is a blip on the holiday radar screen.

The nuns aren’t the only folks on stage. Several of the students at Mt. St. Helen’s school also appear, and are wonderful performers with amazing costumes. They gamely follow the lead of the nuns, and have a blast.

Susan Nappi’s choreography is wonderful — have you ever seen nuns do a Rockettes-style kickline? She maintains an air of comedy throughout, and manages to design a chase of the dueling Sugar Plum Fairies that shows off the dance skills of Patricia H. Davis (as the Reverend Mother) and mocks the lack of same by Joshua Chard (as Father Virgil Manly Trott).

Though Chard himself appears at times to be trying overly hard in this not-at-all-serious play, he carried off a fruitcake-making lesson very well, adding just enough rum to his throat and choosing excellent plastic fruits as ingredients — because "no one will ever know the difference."

But more than just a set of silly anecdotes, this is a musical. The band and performers span a wide range of churchly song styles, from holiday carols to a rousing gospel number sung entirely by white folks. (It’s nearly enough to take your mind off the cranberry sauce you left on the counter.)

There are also a couple of nunly variations on modern songs, including a convent-recruiting song adapted from a number usually performed by the Village People, and a look at what pious, fun-loving nuns really want for Christmas. (Hint: They can’t have it.)

The show gets at the humanity of nuns, and perhaps even pleases real nuns with its humor and candor about life in the convent.

They spread a little holiday cheer with Secret Santa gifts to the audience, including a very handy set of stick-on 10 Commandments. They’re most useful because, Sister Mary Paul points out, "you can peel off the ones you don’t like."

Even puppets get into the act: Sister Mary Annette, a Muppet lookalike, has the secret to why people who decorate Christmas trees put an angel on top. Together with a pair of reindeer sock puppets, she sings out what really happens at the North Pole each year as Christmas approaches.

Yet, at the end of it all, these nuns — for all their wishes of worldliness — know how to do the right thing. They don’t fall prey to their own threats to the children — "be good or Santa won’t come" — but instead do feel the love that should pervade the season, and the sense of gratefulness and compassion Christmas should be about.

Just the thing to remind you it’s time for a snack. Isn’t there some turkey in the fridge?

Written by Dan Googin. Directed by Charles Grindle. With Patricia H. Davis, Melissa Bornmann, Elisha Walls, and Leslie Chadbourne. At Lyric Music Theater, in South Portland, through Dec. 7. Call (207) 799-1421.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Safe at home? You might be better off in Kabul

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In case there’s any doubt, it’s still not safe to travel to Kabul. In its most recent official travel warning about Afghanistan (dated July 28, 2003), the US State Department declares, apparently without irony, that "the ability of Afghan authorities to maintain order and ensure security is limited."

Among the threats to the personal security of American travelers are "remnants of the former Taliban regime and the terrorist Al-Qaida network," as well as "US-led military operations." Of further concern to Americans heading there is that the US embassy in Kabul cannot issue replacement passports. Translation: If your identity gets lost in Afghanistan, you better find it before trying to get home.

Though Afghans are allowed on the streets of their capital without a curfew, American diplomats aren’t. Helpfully, then, the State Department Web site says Americans who insist upon traveling to Afghanistan should "register with" the embassy.

With these types of pronouncements coming from the most powerful nation in the world, whose "force projection" has sent troops throughout Afghanistan, stretching from remote fire bases in the northeast of the country to villages in the southwest, it is easy to want to remain a homebody.

But turn the page on the State Department’s Web site and there it is, in cold, black pixels: "We expect Al-Qaida will strive for new attacks that will be more devastating than the September 11 attack, possibly involving nonconventional weapons such as chemical or biological agents. We also cannot rule out the potential for Al-Qaida to attempt a second catastrophic attack within the US."

We’re really no safer here than anywhere.

Kabul, however, may never be among the safest places, current events notwithstanding. Founded on the banks of the Kabul River — now just a trickle after years of drought — the city has been a crossroads of cultures and a crucible of conflicts for thousands of years.

Tony Kushner wrote Homebody as a monologue by request and later turned it into the first act of the frighteningly prescient play Homebody/Kabul, in which the Homebody goes to Kabul, is reported dead, and her husband and daughter arrive to search for her in ruins left by the Taliban and the 1998 US missile attacks on the country. (Yes, Clinton fans, he pulled the trigger, too.)

This performance, directed by Richard O’Brien and executed by Jane Bergeron, is just the monologue section, nearly an hour of complex language and a sweeping history of Afghan history. Just the thing our president and Congress should have had before getting involved in entangling alliances with peacemakers and warlords alike.

O’Brien is something of a one-act specialist, and has chosen the shorter version here. The original full play Homebody/Kabul took about four hours to perform, though it’s still being revised.

We can thank the director for his compassion, given the seats in the PSC Studio Theater. Or perhaps it’s all part of the experience. As O’Brien observes, Kushner uses language to throw off both actor and audience in this monologue. Not only is his script thin on punctuation and full of complex sentence structure, but the vocabulary required is immense. We are meant to be off-balance, and the chairs help.

In a simple but ornate set reflecting the nature of the play’s words and its ideas, Bergeron sits in a 19th-century armchair with a traveling overcoat slung over the side. She has all the actors’ decks stacked against her: A solo monologue, without any lighting or sound cues, delivered from a sitting position, in very complex language designed to lose both actor and audience in discomfort and confusion. And Bergeron pulls off a masterful performance.

Bergeron took the role because "I didn’t know if I could" handle it, she said, after a recent performance. She has learned that she can.

Her intonation and pacing, facial expressions, head motions, and body language all combine to convey meaning and feeling in a play that could easily lack both. Her character even admits — as if to rub it in the actor’s face — that she is hard to listen to and speaks "elliptically."

She has chosen one book, a 1965 travel guide to Kabul, as her armchair ticket to another world. The play is set in 1998, just after the American missile strikes. The Homebody revisits the history of Kabul, from its legendary founding by Cain himself — he may yet be buried within the city — to the present. The play moves from "the serene beauty of the valleys of the Kabul River" still remembered in the songs of nomadic peoples who traveled through there thousands of years ago, to the shell-shocked and war-torn country of 1998, before it became even more shell-shocked and war-torn.

The play is filled with Kushner’s cutting lines, at once funny and painful, insightful and ironic. It also retains his sparks of hope, which are somehow as impossible to doubt as they are unlikely to ignite.

His voice sings through Bergeron’s own, warning and instructing simultaneously, and drawing to an irretrievable "what if" line, one the State Department, with only four or five fluent Arabic speakers (so how many speak Pashto?) amid thousands of diplomats, would do well to heed: "The truth which does not understand corrupts."

Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Richard O’Brien. Performed by Jane Bergeron. At the Human Theater Company at Portland Stage Studio Theater, through Nov. 23. Call (207) 774-0465.


• A group of local kids is doing a play about ego and nakedness at the Theater Project. Ending a four-week workshop and production class, fourth- through eighth-graders have reworked The Emperor’s New Clothes into a mime performance with live, improvised jazz music by Brad Terry. Check out what they’re all up to, November 21 through 23, by calling (207) 729-8584.

• And then there are the adults getting not-quite-naked to help local teens. The Nutcracker Burlesque will be at the Portland Stage Studio Theater December 18 through 21 to benefit . . . the Preble Street Teen Center? It’s true. Infidelity at a corporate holiday party leads a grown-up Clara downtown into opium dens and more. Tchaikovsky’s score has been rearranged "into a hot and sultry modern composition" with a "quirky hip-hop style" to the choreography. All of which means we can’t wait to see the Nut-cracking Prince himself, probably sponsored by Video Expo.

In the beginning: The One Ring comes to the Players' Ring

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Reading The Hobbit is a great way to get set for re-watching the first two Lord of the Rings movies, in time for the third and final installment, due out next month. Better yet, see The Hobbit performed live on a stage. Without the digital imagery and special effects, pared down to its basic elements of storytelling, it illuminates clearly the foundations for J.R.R. Tolkien’s subsequent tales.

The Players’ Ring cast begins the Tolkien-authorized adaptation with a pretentious, presumptuous Gandalf (Tim Robinson) arriving at the home of Bilbo Baggins (Bernie Tato). Bilbo has no idea who the wizard is, but recognizes the name and remembers old stories he was once told.

Bilbo, a shrinking violet who has not yet become the fierce warrior or knowing sage of the later volumes, is just a taste of how Tolkien’s characters develop. Gandalf isn’t yet the friendly face he will become, and dwarves are more whining and hungry than noble and strong. Even the elves — who appear here as captors and dungeonmasters — are bitter and mean, protecting their turf from interlopers.

The extraordinary times and alliances brought by the reappearance of the One Ring have not yet come to pass. Instead, the inhabitants of Middle Earth are as they have been, slightly xenophobic, jealous, nervous and, well, hungry.

Bilbo himself is concerned that "adventures make you late for dinner," as any school-age child has learned when exploring a creekbed or forest path. With the jovial arrival of the dwarves, all played by children who know the value of a good exploratory adventure, appetites grow, both on stage and in the seats.

Bilbo learns, with the audience, that the dwarves are seeking a burglar to help them recover treasure lost when a dragon attacked a dwarf city and ate most of the inhabitants. Gandalf has appointed him to the post, and there’s little the hobbit can do but go along.

Tato plays the wide-eyed hobbit to a T, with the even temper of the halflings, and with the hint of reluctance and homesickness that seems innate to the race. He brightens the show with his delivery of such well written, wry lines as "Adventures are not all Sunday strolls in May sunshine," evoking Winnie-the-Pooh’s innocence and equanimity.

Robinson, as Gandalf, quickly tires of his beard, leaving us with a clean-shaven mage shorn of his symbolic wisdom. His presence on stage varies from the welcome to the interruptive, though that is possibly part of the plan: Even this early in the adventure, he disappears and reappears at unlikely times.

Thorpe Feidt plays Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, but really he seems uncomfortable in another’s skin. Rarely making eye contact with any characters, and blustering his way through his lines, Feidt detracts from the show in small ways that add up. (On the other hand, he created Smaug, the sinister dragon, about whom we will hear more shortly.)

The real joys are the children, who are having fun but keep their focus while on stage. They have asides and ensemble lines that draw big laughs — not just from parents — and generally make merry during what could be a drawn-out journey. The trolls and goblins, with excellent masks, also bring both levity and danger to the trip.

Everyone comes together in the escape from the elf-dungeons to create a true atmosphere of urgency and hurry, with only voices and body language, raising the heart rate of all on-lookers. In particular, Bombur (Dylan Schwartz) appears to have a great time, but reins himself in enough to avoid stepping on the performances of his fellow dwarves.

After the escape, Bilbo meets Gollum (Tana Sirois), a brilliantly costumed and acted writhing character, filled with barely contained eagerness and desire, though not yet fully consumed by sinister greed.

In the final scene, Bilbo and Thorin meet Smaug, the greedy dragon, created by Feidt and (without giving away too much) with a realistic presence and threatening voice that startles and alarms.

We see inklings of the Ring’s power — "it makes me feel funny," Bilbo says — but in all this is a wonderful story that whets the appetite for more.

The Hobbit
Written by J.R.R. Tolkien and Patricia Gray. Directed by Todd Hunter. With Bernie Tato, Tim Robinson, Dylan Schwartz, and Thorpe Feidt. At the Players’ Ring, through Nov. 30. Call (603) 436-8123.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Power virtue: Ideals keep society's wheels rolling

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In the duty-bound and caste-rigid northern India of the fourth century, ideals still governed the behavior of every individual, and a sense of obligation ruled the world. Spirits of nature abounded; all living things were truly alive. In today’s America, self-interest governs all — even the most powerful — and nature makes way for humanity in a brutal slaughter of trees and fouling of the air.

It is into this soiled arena that King Dushyanta (Dave Ciampa) and Shakuntala (Piper Silverthorne) bring their penance grove and wedding bower. The powerful king, whose son has been prophesied to rule "the ocean-bounded Earth," encounters the virtuous half-nymph, who lives in a holy hermitage.

The pair fall in love, but duty calls each to other tasks. First, they elope, wedding in a ceremony witnessed only by the woodland and its creatures. Dushyanta gives her his signet ring as a token of remembrance.

As they each return to their lives, Shakuntala is so overcome by emotion that she neglects her obligations of hospitality toward a powerful guest, who curses her: The king will forget ever meeting her until she produces something to remind him.

When she goes to his royal court, the king rejects her; she is clearly pregnant, and his virtue will not allow him to covet another man’s wife. Worse, she has lost the ring that is the key to his memory.

Set to Indian drum and flute music and chanting by Amos Libby of Portland (a longtime student of the Indian arts), and couched within the good-vs.-evil struggles of ancient Indian manuscripts, Shakuntala and the Ring of Recognition is a wonderful, enchanting vision of a world where complex interactions are governed by simple principles that all remember and obey.

From the very beginning — a Sanskrit chant in praise of Lord Shiva, god of destruction and rebirth and patron of performers — to the final blessing of the audience, the play is a magical journey that has meaning for all ages and stations.

The set has extravagant detail, but remains a simple layout of a forest grove and several sitting areas allowing scenes outside the woods. The costumes — made of real silk purchased by costumer Jodi Ozimek on a special trip to New York — are sumptuous and beautiful, cloaking all the actors in garments worthy of their posts.

The actors are well rehearsed and handle difficult language with aplomb. This is, after all, Kalidasa, the Indian equivalent of Shakespeare. Director Assunta Kent has assembled the script from eight translations from the Sanskrit, and has reproduced the wit, wisdom, and beautiful imagery that has carried the original into modern times. (As a taste, consider this perspective on aging and memory: "My mind is like a lamp whose oil is getting low. It flares brightly one minute and then suddenly dims.")

The actors are also dancers, performing ritual footwork and hand movements used by Indian performers to tell their stories without words. While this play accompanies those motions with their spoken meanings, the experience is as in a fairy tale, where meanings are always made clear.

Yet this story is no fairy tale. Though its main character waters trees she calls friends and raises orphaned deer out of compassion, the king’s virtue is of a different form. He is a warrior, head of the lunar dynasty, and must fend off evil from the hermitage and join with the army of the sun god, Indra, to drive demons from the heavens.

The requirements of Shakuntala’s virtuous behavior contrast with the kingly duties of her husband. It is a lesson world leaders would do well to remember: "Vigilant kings who tax their subjects should tax themselves in protecting their subjects."

Once reminded by a fisherman’s recovery of his ring, the king is overcome by "Shakuntalitis," as the gleeful court jester (Jae Rodriguez) declares. He forgets himself and his role for a time, until recalled to duty and then rewarded by finding his beloved and his first-born son.

Of special note are the puppets — both three-dimensional and shadow varieties — created by Chelsea Cook, a USM junior, and Kris Hall. They provide elements of fantasy and fulfill the true role of theatrical performers: deepening the story-telling by expertly portraying story elements in eye-opening ways.

Shakuntala and the Ring of Recognition
Written by Kalidasa. Adapted and directed by Assunta Kent. With Piper Silverthorne, Dave Ciampa, and Amos Libby. At USM, through Nov. 16. Call (207) 780-5151.


• The Human Theater Company is putting on Tony Kushner’s eerily prescient play Homebody/Kabul at the Portland Stage Studio Theater through November 23. It explores the life of an Afghan-obsessed British housewife who ventures to Kabul and loses herself. Written before 9/11, it explores and explains many of the emotions Americans only discovered after that tragedy.

Laura Emack is putting her play Writers Block up for comment Saturday, November 15, at the Bangor Public Library, at 2:15 p.m., as part of a Made in Maine Theater Workshop. It looks at " the maddening marketplace " of writing and writers. Emack was a finalist in the 2001 Maine Playwrights Festival and just incorporated feedback from her writers’ group into the script. Lend your hand to this work in progress.

Tim Collins is back at the St. Lawrence with another multi-character solo piece called An Evening of One-Man Comedy. It’s on one night only, Wednesday, November 19, so seize the evening and check out this talented multi-personality performer.

Friday, November 7, 2003

Choosing life: Internal control vs. intimacy and trust

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Writers can live solitary lives, enjoying more the fruits of their imaginings than the actual ups and downs of life. Thus is Jake (Hugh J. Barton), in Neil Simon’s poignant, funny play Jake’s Women. Simon gives us a view into his own writerly world, and the challenges of coming down from his writing world into the real one, where he must surrender control to others and to the universe.

In a series of imagined and real conversations, Jake confers with the women in his life — his sister, his analyst, his first wife (killed in a car accident 10 years ago), and his daughter at two different points in her life. His second wife, Maggie (Lisa Kristoff) appears both in reality and imagination, while a literal-minded girlfriend (Sheila, played by Sandi Panati) is just a reality.

The characters are hilarious, and well played, especially Karen (Shirley Bernier), Jake’s popcorn-crunching sister, who appears in wildly garish costumes — as she is imagined by Jake.

Jake’s marriage to Maggie is in crisis. She feels trapped by her life, and needs to escape. Jake, for his part, is just trying to get "from there to here" and may need to go by way of Calcutta or Hong Kong.

The audience serves as another imaginary interlocutor for Jake, who has periodic asides demonstrating the actual level of self-awareness he possesses. The imagined conversations also contain humorous reminders to Jake — from himself — that he’s creating both sides of the dialogue. "My mind has a mind of its own," he says at one point.

As the play progresses, Jake’s internal dialogue appears more and more, and begins to influence his relationships with real people.

The causes and consequences of his choices in life become clear as he explores himself, prodded by his loved ones’ voices in his head. His daughter, Molly, appears both as an innocent 12-year-old girl (Diana Bernier Siegler) and a grown-up woman (Natasha Bernier Siegler) attending the college Jake thought his first wife dreamed of. (Not so, we learn in a funny aside.)

Maggie, too, finds her voice and through a passing night of infidelity reaches her own rock bottom and begins to rebuild herself, her way.

The pair are great at interacting both awkwardly and lovingly as the plot requires, and their emotions are palpable even from the seats. The other characters also fit in well, except the older Molly, who is flat at key moments.

The play is very funny, with lines explaining why people need psychiatrists if all we do is pop pills to feel better, but also sentimental, reminding us of loved ones we have lost and can only revisit in our memories.

Jake struggles mightily for his sanity. He begins to lose control of the one life he has total dominion over — the one in his mind. And Maggie challenges him to surrender control over his flesh-and-blood life, too, asking him to trust people and become emotionally intimate.

Simon probes deeply into Jake’s independence, and director Jim Colby demands a lot of actor Barton. At times, Barton can seem overwrought, carrying emotions too long in their moments, but he bridges well Jake’s gap between the writer-observer and the life-liver.

Maggie, too, wrestles powerfully with her own emotions, deciding whether she can truly love Jake or must leave his insane world to reclaim her own heart and mind.

Jake must create a vision of his own ideal, controlling the conversation and then surrendering to its momentum. It is then that he sees the potential in human emotion and begins to truly feel with his heart.

When the voices come back, Jake sends them away in favor of real love, a non-ideal, often out-of-control situation in which trust and hard work are required.

Jake’s Women
By Neil Simon. Directed by James Colby. With Hugh J. Barton, Lisa Kristoff, and Amanda Smith. At Studio Theatre of Bath, through Nov. 16. Call (207) 443-2418.


Mad Horse Theater Company has extended the run of The Mercy Seat, its season opener, through November 9. It’s at the Portland Stage Studio Theater. Call (207) 730-2389 for information.

• The Theater Project in Brunswick is having a new-plays festival this weekend, November 7, 8, and 9. First up, November 7 at 7:30 p.m., will be The Bridge, by USM theater teacher Thomas A. Power, about a small-island lawyer who becomes the owner of a large, valuable piece of waterfront property. Next, November 8, at 7:30 p.m., will be Shooting Dreams, also by a USM theater teacher, William Steele, about a deer overpopulation problem on a Maine island. And November 9, at 2 p.m., will be a double-header, Warm Ashes by New Mexico playwright Robert F. Benjamin, a comedic drama about aging and the meaning of life, and H.R. Coursen’s adaptation of Hippolytus by Euripedes. The events are all pay-what-you-can. For reservations, call (207) 729-8584.