Friday, December 26, 2003

The ghost of theatrics past: The best of 2003 on local stages

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In this space at the very beginning of 2003, the Phoenix made several wishes and voiced those of others in the theater community.

The big challenge was to improve the diversity on Maine’s stages, and it was wonderful to see that happen this year, though I take no credit for the efforts of others.

The top prize goes to Portland playwright John Urquhart, who interviewed plenty of immigrants while putting together Lion Hunting on Munjoy Hill for the Children’s Theater of Maine. In two hours, it provided a thrilling look at the possibilities of diverse theater, a wonderful story and a strong warning about the plight of many refugees even after they reach the relative safety of Maine.

Just behind — and perhaps rightfully ahead of Urquhart — was the L/A Arts one-weekend production of Love in the Cactus Village, by Omar Ahmed, a Somali playwright living in the Twin Cities. I hope next time they get the word out beyond Androscoggin County.

I applaud these significant efforts to allow theater to play its true role, enlightenment during entertainment, and I look forward to more.

Also providing insight into other aspects of Maine’s diverse communities was Les Acadiens, again a Children’s Theater of Maine production, exploring the French-Canadian communities of Maine during the Second World War; and Thanatron, by perhaps Portland’s angriest playwright, Carolyn Gage, literally bashing men in the head with the empowered-lesbian brand of feminism.

Beautifully illustrating other cultures without relating them to Maine was USM’s magical production of Shakuntala and the Ring of Recognition, including puppets and traditional Indian music in the telling of an ancient Sanskrit legend; and Portland Stage’s production of Fences, setting an all-black cast on their stage in August Wilson’s story of a black man struggling with his identity before the civil rights movement.

This year also had a large helping of social and political commentary on stage. The most powerful was Winter Harbor Theater Company’s performances of Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, by the politically outspoken American playwright Tony Kushner. Brilliantly performed, it carried a message so clear that it kept my wife and me up that night mourning children, the real casualties of American foreign policy. Those who didn’t see it missed a truly important experience.

Shakespeare’s timeless Julius Caesar at the Theater at Monmouth provided clues about how power is used and how people can reclaim it. The performances were stellar, and the environment — including cherubim watching from the ceiling — was stunning.

The intimate dialogical dances of the two characters in The Mercy Seat, put on by Mad Horse Theater Company, were beautiful and instructive about human nature, shedding light on post-9/11 life.

Also illuminating important issues was UltraLight, based on playwright Michael Gorman’s loss of his commercial-fisherman brother to heroin; and To Bear Witness at the Players’ Ring, focusing on the crucial developments of the teenage years, and the choice between struggle and survival, or surrender and suicide.

The work of Kittery playwright Evelyn Jones rounded out the year with reprise performances of her award-winning play Not On This Night, about a French farm girl defending Christmas from the inhumanity of war.

All of this is not to say that theater should not also entertain. Indeed, each of the above shows had strong acting and directing, with interesting scripts to expand the mind and heart beyond the everyday.

There was plenty of that from other quarters, too, this year. Among the best were the Public Theatre’s productions of Proof, a heartfelt drama with a light touch, and Red Herring, a film-noir piece with plenty of laughs.

At Maine State Music Theater there was Hans Christian Andersen, a reworked original with a fantasy feel and wonderful, wonderful singing.

And there was the side-splitting (and crotch-splitting) antics at Arundel Barn’s showing of Grease, including a very real moment when an actor’s acrobatics got the better of his costume and his castmates had to, well, cover for him.

For sheer acting quality and local hard work, the Cast — J.P. Guimont, David Currier and Craig Bowden — were a true highlight of the year in theater. Humble guys with a passion for finding good scripts and doing them simply and well, these are three we should hope to keep. (Guimont has threatened to escape to points west; anyone who loves Maine’s own theater should wish otherwise.) They don’t draw big audiences, but they should.

Their production of Pvt. Wars, looking at war and home from the perspective of combat-wounded soldiers, was a funny and heartening, yet deadly serious, portrayal of the effects of violence on humanity.

Their festival of one-act plays, Hey, We’re Acting Over Here, enlightened, amused and provoked thought, as these talented actors explored nuances and foibles rarely portrayed so well on stage anywhere.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Shaking the tree: Nutcracker Burlesque brings holiday cheer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Few production groups are brave enough to put their rehearsal schedules on the Internet. Fewer still go into brutally honest detail about what will be covered in each rehearsal. The Nutcracker Burlesque crew has done both, specifying scenes to be worked on for several weeks, and then, leading up to tech week, describing in a single word the events of each night’s practice: "panic."

There was, however, little actual panic at a recent practice session, in which dancers tried on their handmade costumes — these performers are also brilliant with needle and thread — and got their groove on for an adaptation of The Nutcracker unlike any other.

Ellen Joyce and Brigitte Paulus, friends since high school, grew up dancing in the annual traditional Nutcracker performance, like every other kid who took dance classes through the holiday season.

Over time, they came to wonder, "what else could we do with this show?" Joyce says. They had talked about a burlesque version, using the style that has become popular recently, reaching wide audiences with movies like Moulin Rouge and Chicago.

They had seen shows in New York, New Orleans, and Las Vegas, and thought it would be fun to put on a flashy, curvy show in Portland.

Last spring, when both were involved in Two Lights Theater Company’s dance performance Heroine’s Journey, they saw an independent production could be done and decided to go for it, adapting The Nutcracker into a show that would be "a nice entertaining break" from holiday stresses, and add something to the local holiday performance circuit.

"The Nutcracker really invites interpretation because of that second act that’s kind of like a variety show," Joyce says. And rather than use Tchaikovsky’s European-slanted compositions of various ethnic musical traditions, they thought, "wouldn’t it be fun to do a Nutcracker where the regional pieces are authentic?"

The original gave them a good jumping-off point for this production, which departs from the narrative story at the outset. Most notable is the lack of children on stage. It’s a burlesque, which includes comic skits, what some might call "ribald" dancing, and suggestive body language used in a comic way. They didn’t want kids involved, and don’t want kids in the audience, either.

Still, "it’s comic almost above everything else. It’s a little corny, even," Joyce says. The story starts with a grown-up Clara at an office holiday party. She begins a journey through a polyethnic urban winter wonderland of Spanish dancers, Arabian opium dens, and more.

"It’s, like, sexy and clean at the same time," Joyce says. "We don’t want someone who would normally be at Platinum Plus. You could find something racier on television at pretty much any time of day."

It is a visual symphony, though, of body parts flowing and undulating around the stage. For those sitting in the front row, there are some exciting glimpses if you know where to look. Don’t lean too far forward, though, because there are also some high kicks that might realign your nose.

The dancing itself — there is no dialogue — is excellent. Even in a rough rehearsal during the aforementioned "panic" phase, the group was working well together and molding the action to the stage and the mood.

At the auditions, "all these dancers came out of the woodwork," Joyce says. Many were longtime dancers, and others had some beginning dance experience and little beyond that. "It’s really exciting to work with people like this and see them learn," Joyce says.

Costumes are more seat-of-the-pants, especially for the office party scenes, in which dancers will supply their own clothes. For the fantasy wonderland scenes, the costumes are either handmade or adapted from store purchases. "We’re a little light on the ostrich feathers," Joyce says. They’re expensive; each year they’re hoping to get more flamboyant garb.

The show’s ticket sales will benefit the Preble Street Teen Center, a drop-in support facility for homeless teens and youth at risk. They picked the benefactors because of Brigitte Paulus’s own experiences as a teenager in New York, trying to make it as a dancer.

For eight months, she was homeless, and used a similar drop-in center for support, food, and a hot shower. The shows creators also knew kids in high school and since, who, "for various reasons their home life was unbearable," Joyce says.

"It seemed like a really good fit" with the teen center, though teens are not the intended audience for the show, and the center has been hesitant about the publicity connecting a possibly racy show including opium dens with helping kids. "We never said this was appropriate for teens. It’s a benefit for teens," Joyce says. Next year, they’ll choose another local charity.

"We were hoping they would get a lot of awareness," and the performers used the cause as motivation. "I don’t think we would have done this show for vanity alone," Joyce says.

Nutcracker Burlesque
Adapted by Ellen Joyce, Brigitte Paulus, and Joe Paulus. At the Portland Stage Studio Theater, Dec. 18-21. Call (207) 773-1951.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Local pizza house hurt in tax scam

Published in the American Journal

Steven Orr, the owner of Pizza Time of Westbrook, is frustrated with the state, the IRS and his former accountant, John Baert, owner of Harmon-Baert Associates of Saco.

“I’m one of the people that he didn’t pay any taxes for,” Orr said Monday. His federal payroll taxes haven’t been paid for two or three years, leaving him with a bill “in excess of 10 grand.”

He isn’t very firm on that number, though. When he called the IRS, he learned “they can’t even give me exact figures” on what he owes. He also doesn’t know if penalties and interest will be waived because of the circumstances of the case, in which Baert allegedly failed to pay millions of dollars in payroll taxes for dozens of companies over the course of the past three years.

Baert is facing three counts of mail fraud in a Portland federal court.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has requested the IRS waive those extra fees. Nobody expects the agency to forgive the taxes that have not been paid. “In essence we’re double-paying the money,” said Orr, who has filed a civil lawsuit against Baert seeking repayment of the money Baert should have given the IRS.

Orr may have to borrow money to make good on the debt, but it won’t shut down his business. “We’re not going to close.”

It will have a negative impact, though. He had been planning to remodel and open longer hours, hoping to participate in and encourage Westbrook’s downtown revitalization.

“That’s going to have to be put on hold,” he said.

Baert also prepared Orr’s business income tax returns, but Orr paid those bills himself and mailed them in. Orr also made his own sales tax payments to the state. His state payroll taxes are also in good shape, but Orr is unhappy with the state, which was supposed to make sure payroll firms were licensed and posted bonds to secure the money they handled.

“We also feel like the state’s responsible,” he said. “If the state’s receiving money from this person, you’d think they’d check on the person.”

One of the problems Orr has figuring out how much he owes the IRS is that Baert had a lot of the company’s financial records. The IRS may have seized them in late November, when agents searched Baert’s home and business. Orr hasn’t seen them, though he hopes to get access to the records soon.

“We have to create the payroll for the last two to three years,” he said. “We just don’t have the records.”

Orr had been using the payroll firm for 15 years – like many other pizza restaurant owners around the state – when he bought his business from two men who had started dozens of pizza joints in Maine.

Those men had used Arthur Harmon, Baert’s father-in-law and founder of the business, as their accountant, so Orr stuck with the firm.

When Harmon died and Baert took over, “we just automatically assumed” everything was above-board.“He’s not the person that we thought he was,” Orr said.

Paul Bureau of the Real Estate Store in Scarborough was also surprised at the news of Baert’s alleged wrongdoing. A customer of Harmon and Baert for 29 years, Bureau said Baert “did great. He was always terrific. I had no complaints.”

Baert did not handle Bureau’s payroll tax money, but did provide other accounting services to his firm.

“We were all shocked,” Bureau said. “It just seemed out of character.”

One big question still lurks in Orr’s mind. Saying he has seen records showing Baert had about $200,000 in liquid assets and a $200,000 home: “We don’t know what he did with the money.”

Call for more gambling regulation

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Local lawmakers agree with Gov. John Baldacci that racinos in Maine need more regulation than provided by the law voters passed Nov. 4.

Baldacci has proposed revisions to the racino law that he says will ensure the gambling enterprises are “tightly controlled to avoid the negative influences of this industry.”

When it reconvenes in January, the Legislature will take up his proposal, which includes setting up a statewide “gambling control board” with power to license gambling operators.

Lawmakers are particularly concerned about regulating gambling to avoid corruption and making sure the state gets a financial benefit. Any solution would require approval by a two-thirds majority in each house.

Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, said state officials told her that proper enforcement of racino rules would cost the state $17 million a year. She wants the enforcement money to come from the slot revenues, which is part of Baldacci’s plan.

Rep. Harold Clough, R-Scarborough and Gorham, hadn’t seen the governor’s proposal to comment on it specifically. “My hopes are we don’t have the gambling. It’s obvious that if we do, we need more regulation,” he said. In particular, he would like to “see that more money stays in Maine.”

Rep. Robert Duplessie, D-Westbrook, said the governor’s plan also addresses other problems with the law. “What was passed actually was written by one corporation,” he said.

The referendum law does not limit the number of slot machines that could be installed, prevents suspension of a racino license in the case of alleged wrongdoing and does not require a minimum “payback,” the amount a machine returns to players.

The governor’s proposal addresses these and other problems Duplessie sees with the law, including requiring what is called “on-line polling,” which allows remote supervision of the machine’s bets and payouts.

“My initial reaction is positive,” Duplessie said. “It’s definitely the right direction.” He expects the proposal to have legislative support, and said party leaders have signed on.

Baldacci and other legislators last week sent a letter to various groups involved in the racino proposals, including Penn National and Capital Seven, the two companies most involved in planning racinos in Southern Maine and Bangor, respectively.

The letter notified the companies that state officials were working on changing gaming regulations and planned to make those changes retroactive.

Duplessie expects the proposal to get the “fast track,” with hearings perhaps in mid-January. “By mid-February, we’ll have a new law,” he said.

Rep. Ron Usher, D-Westbrook, agrees, though he’s not sure how Westbrook’s vote will go. “I expect a low turnout,” said Usher, who is voting in advance, by absentee ballot. He thinks people will be on vacation or perhaps put off by bad weather, and won’t show up to the polls Dec. 30.

Usher is so supportive of a statewide gambling commission that he asked the governor’s office if he could nominate someone from Westbrook to be on the new board. “Now I’m trying to think of somebody,” he said.

Sen. Carolyn Gilman, R-Westbrook and Gorham, also wants to see regulation increased if racinos come to the state. “I’d like to see them out of Maine completely,” she said. “Sooner or later, it’s going to cost the taxpayers money.”

But, she said, if racinos are coming, she wants another statewide referendum on the issue. She has heard from voters who, she said, “want another crack at it. They feel they misunderstood what was being asked of them.” People voted for racinos “with the idea that a few slots were going to help harness racing” and not knowing what was actually being planned.

Sen. Peggy Pendleton, D-Scarborough and Saco, hadn’t seen the governor’s specific plan, but said the racino proposal “snuck in the back door” while the casino issue was distracting voters.

“I was picturing like 100 slot machines in the lobby,” she said. She wants more regulation and possibly another referendum to make sure voters are comfortable with the changes.

She wants more money for the state and for the town the racino is in. “They need to get a good cut too,” said Pendleton.

While legislators agree more needs to be done, Bromley points to a possible sticking point: “People are loath to change something that’s the people’s voice.”

Yet she admits to a certain degree of confusion about the referendum results. “I don’t think I know what the electorate really meant,” she said. They might have wanted slot machines, or to save harness racing or cheaper medicine for the elderly.

She also said a racino in Southern Maine – not just one in Bangor – is necessary if the harness racing industry is to survive.

Further, if the state is to get any projected money from the racinos, it needs the numbers of people who might come to a racino in Southern Maine, Bromley said.

She would be willing to extend the deadline for Scarborough Downs to find a host community and expand its radius beyond the current five-mile limit, but only if increased regulation was being paid for by the racino revenue.

Friday, December 5, 2003

Night of nights: A conversation with playwright Evelyn Jones

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Playwright Evelyn Jones, a former Boston Herald features writer, has lived in Kittery for about 20 years and was working on a novel until she started writing plays in 1996. The novel, she says, now "sits unlamented, gathering dust."

Her play Not on This Night centers on a farm girl, Jacqueline (Juliet Nelson), whose home is commandeered by a German soldier and then an American, on a Christmas Eve in World War II.

The Phoenix sat down at a South Portland keyboard, and Jones at hers in Kittery, to inquire about the play and its upcoming shows, December 21 and 28, at the Seacoast Repertory Theater in Portsmouth.

Phoenix: Is the play based on real incidents? If so, how did you first find out about them?

Jones: Though many people surmised Not on This Night was written in response to more current world conditions, it was maybe 40 years ago that I cut and saved a short article about a Christmas Eve during World War I when enemy soldiers came out of their trenches to sing carols and exchange food and trinkets.

I came across the clipping again in the mid-’90s when the "Christmas truce" was still unfamiliar to most people. I always knew I’d write about it, and by now had become fascinated with the playwriting genre. With the format in place, other things followed. I remember details arranging themselves for me like puzzle pieces. Frankly, how do you get the war into the viewer’s gut? Not the battlefield . . . no, use an intimate setting . . . a normally safe place, like . . . like a kitchen . . . a farmhouse kitchen. Ironic contrasts . . . The battlefield so close, death so close, yet a few chickens outside in the barn. Inside, vulnerable victims of war . . . I’ll make them young, a teenage girl, and she’s alone . . . yes, she’s in danger . . . soldiers sneaking up to her door . . . a German, and an American, enemies bringing the war inside her kitchen. But it will be joyous . . . tears are okay, but it will be heartwarming and make the audience laugh, too. The girl is taking over the story . . . she’s determined there will be no violence, not on this night.

At some point I decided to set it closer to the present. An incident in World War 2, though I’d have to figure how the truce story was tied in. I laid out imaginary troop movements, fearsome weather, a dense forest area . . . and a Christmas Eve battle.

During all this, I thought I’d have a lot of rewriting to be reasonably historically correct.

Anyway, lots of stuff kept happening to my characters and I kept typing, and finally I had a feedback reading in my living room with theater friends. I explained I didn’t want to do all the necessary research if it wasn’t working, but when the reading ended, everyone was sniffling and said of course I had to go ahead.

I spent months with stacks of WW2 history books, dreaming at night about the horrific diaries and photos but the eerie part was finding then — and more since — that almost every detail I’d dreamed up fit actual facts!

Q: What happened to the play after it was reworked?

A: I sent the play off to a few publishers, and some competitions in New York and Hollywood, and I got busy on other plays.

Almost a year later, I got word Not on This Night was a winner in New York City and would be performed in a one-act festival. Later, I heard it was one of the six winners in the Hollywood festival — and the following day I got a contract in the mail from Pioneer Publishing. Like winning a lottery.

I finally got to see the play performed at the Players’ Ring, then at Act One (Hampton) Summer Theater, and Phillips Exeter Academy. After the play won the Seacoast Spotlight on the Arts 2000 Best Play award, the Rogosins read the script and they’ve arranged for two performances at Seacoast Rep on December 21 and 28. I think it’s an ideal stage, and can’t wait to see it.

Q: Why do you think people have given so much acclaim to this play?

A: I think people feel deeply moved and uplifted which, to be honest, makes me very happy. Whenever I’ve gone to see the play I’ve felt a disassociation, until Jacqueline comes on that stage setting the table, singing "Voici Noel," and then I’m in it with the rest of the audience. I suspect that comes from this wow of a cast!

Q: Sometimes writers secretly hope that their writing will change just one life in some specific way. For you, and for this play, how would you like someone’s life to change?

A: I’ll just say that the World War 1 story intrigued me and started me thinking — no, it started me feeling — about war. It’s easy to talk war without experiencing how devastating a death is, beyond the moment and beyond the life taken. But I should mention that feelings about war, and defending one’s country, are so complicated it’s tricky to put labels on anyone.

Not On This Night
Written by Evelyn Jones. With Juliet Nelson, Chris Curtis, and Andy Fling. Performed by Dream on Productions, at Seacoast Repertory Theater, in Portsmouth, Dec. 21 and 28, at 8 p.m. Call (603) 433-4472.

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Column: Decorating for the season on a budget

Published in the Current, the American Journal, and the Lakes Region Suburban Weekly

As new homeowners, my wife and I have a sizable challenge this year: Beyond just unpacking the boxes still stacked around the place, we need to make the place festive, but are not exactly flush with cash.

I’ve gone looking around the area to find some nice touches without emptying my wallet, and found that making a house look great is not too hard. With a little careful thought, it won’t take much time to set up, maintain or take down when the season is over.

Outside, we’ve got a few shrubs and a little fence. Local hardware stores and gift shops stock holiday lights in wide varieties, with anything from simple white bulbs to sparkling colors, and even lighted figures like cows, moose and Santa Claus.

Choose ones you like – make sure to get outdoor cords and bulbs – and for a few bucks a strand, you can light up the season. There’s no need to go overboard (though some love to, buying thousands of lights and footing large electrical bills through December). Just a few touches, near the entrance to your yard or driveway, and again near the door, are enough. Remember not to put lights on the ground, or you’ll have to dig them out when the snow flies!

If lights aren’t your thing, or you want to spruce the yard up a bit, head to a farm market. Most close in the fall, after summer’s bounty has ended, but reopen in late November with wreaths, greenery and other festive items. As with lights, there are wide varieties, from traditional evergreen wreaths to painted pine-cone ones. Many places also have garlands, perfect for draping along the top of a fence or hanging around a doorway. Other arrangements often include red berries and sticks in simple, elegant designs.

All of these items can go outside and look beautiful when first installed, as well as with a dusting of snow. Inside, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the possibilities.

Sure, it’s nice to have something in every room, but try to keep a space that isn’t totally taken over by the holiday, as a place you can get away from stresses of the season.

Some folks like candles in each window, though fire departments often worry about them igniting curtains or other window dressings. For safer alternatives that are cheaper over the long run, buy plastic candles that take Christmas-tree replacement light bulbs.

They plug into a regular electrical outlet and stay cool near draperies. There are also electric menorahs for celebrating Hanukkah.

The cheapest way to get pretty decorations is to keep around last year’s greeting cards. Hang a few around early in the season to get in the mood – attaching them to a few simple ribbons can be nice – and rotate them as you get this year’s cards.

Another cheap way to get in the holiday mood is to have a fire, if you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace. Just make sure your chimney is clean and clear, and check the flue for leaks to keep smoke out of your home.

Many people get Christmas trees, and there are several Christmas tree farms in the area, as well groups’ sales. Those sales can also be good places to get
greenery and wreaths for both inside and outside.

Decorating a tree doesn’t have to be a huge production. A few lights, some colorful ornaments – your kids or grandkids will probably make some in school – and you’re all set.

Don’t forget the greeneries, which can look wonderful sitting on windowsills or over doorways, to bring the holiday spirit all over your home. Keep the greens misted from time to time to prolong their life, and always make sure your tree has plenty of water.