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.