Friday, February 27, 2004

It’s not the economy: How a Portland movie-maker is helping unseat Bush

Published in the Portland Phoenix

With a restriction like "we’re not going to have any pissing or farting or burping in this movie," you might be wondering how anyone could make a film about George W. Bush.

But Matt Power, obeying his wife’s diktat, has set out to do just that. Working with Dale Phillips, a friend he met 20 years ago in the Society for Creative Anachronism — that’s the slightly loony but fun-loving group of folks who dress up like medieval knights and villagers and go at each other with double-handed battle axes — Power is melding timeless themes.

The story is one of a bumbling half-human upon whom falls — literally — a position of great power. This might seem boringly like The Lord of the Rings on something like one-quadrillionth the budget. Power has already anticipated that — and not just by adjusting the length of his work to about 20 minutes running time.

You will find in The Nine all of the familiar Tolkien themes — wise elves, capitalist Rangers, unionist dwarves, and "Democrats all sitting around the Rivendell Country Club," lamenting the state of the nation but powerless to fight the evil creeping over the land.

Except the evil is more like roaring over the land. And The Nine are the members of the Supreme Court of the United States. Robed in black, they wield great power without any viable opponents. They ride black snowmobiles through the pristine landscape of Yellowstone, which these nine decaying men and women, entrusted with the rings of lifelong tenure, reopened to motorized traffic.

That scene was shot last January in Mechanic Falls, shortly after Power finished a four-year effort making Throg, a feature-length movie about an "immortal idiot" who travels through time trying to escape his destiny — being eaten alive by a monster.

"We finished a feature film that holds together and has some really funny moments," Power says. He’s not waiting for it to succeed, though he’s submitting it to several film competitions and continuing to market it.

"We’re just going to be like pit bulls of persistence," making another movie with the experience he and the crew earned.

"For basically 35-thousand bucks, we all got a film-school education," he says. It helped that Power sold his house in the middle of production, to help cover the debt. He thinks the education was better than a formulaic approach to filmmaking: "You move your own lights" and learn "what doesn’t work."

Throg was filmed on a shoestring, with actors and crew working for a pittance, if anything at all. "In this project, pretty much everybody gets paid," Power says. "After you make your first movie, you can’t rely on goodwill anymore."

It’s still a cheaper effort than it might otherwise have been, because computers have made production easier. "We try to put all the money in front of the camera," Power says.

That puts the Nine — whom Power calls "the root of all evil" — right in the crosshairs, along with the man they installed in the Oval Office. "We all want to get rid of Bush," Power says.

He’s trying hard to remember that life is more complicated than that. "I want the audience to have to think a little," he says.

"There’s an awful lot of sameness in politics," he says. "We’re going after everybody," trying to get them to "snap out of it." Democrats take a beating, too, for pandering to special interests and for not standing up for their principles.

Co-writer Phillips says too many politicians make deals, not decisions, saying, "We can have this as long as I get my share."

The film’s set itself is an unusual place, with costumes and makeup going on in nearby corners, a dead bird (attention PETA: it’s fake), fencing foils and a miner’s helmet stacked next to oranges, and a key prop that looks remarkably like a Frisbee. (It’s the Seal of the President of the United States of America.)

As crew members watch, Shrub — Bush’s Gollum-inspired character — cavorts about in front of a bluescreen, one moment fishing for dinner in a pool of water and the next, well, you know what happened in Florida.

It’s Phillips who best summarizes the movie’s message of humor and hope, satire and scandal: "Life should be fun, but life should be interesting and you should have to think about it."

Phillips and Power will have you thinking about The Nine later this year.


• The Center Stage Players, a theater company for seniors, will present a theater festival on Friday and Saturday, March 5 and 6, at 2 p.m., at the 55 Plus Center, 6 Noble Street, Brunswick. The group, actors, directors, writers and storytellers, will perform a group of short plays, many original works in development for the past few months. Admission is by donation. For reservations, call (207) 729-0757.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

New racino proposal under investigation

Published in the Current and the American Journal

A member of the legislative committee that came up with a new racino law last week claims his fellow board members shut the public out of negotiations on the plan.

Rep. Kevin Glynn, R-South Portland, has accused legislators of hashing out the proposal in a locked-door meeting.

The proposal would allow Scarborough Downs to seek a new home in two years, according to Glynn, who filed a complaint alleging the meeting was “inappropriate if not illegal,” because it violated the state’s public-access law.

House Speaker Pat Colwell, D-Gardiner, said he takes Glynn’s allegations “very seriously,” and has begun an investigation, which will include interviews with every member of the committee. “This was a bipartisan mistake,” Colwell said. “There’s nothing more important than public access to public meetings.”

The proposal combines the referendum approved by voters in November with a request from Gov. John Baldacci to increase regulation of racinos, and a new proposal from the harness-racing industry.

Committee documents indicate it would give more money to the state of Maine for “administrative and enforcement costs,” give a percentage of the take to a host community – in addition to any independent arrangement a track might make – and give some of the slot revenue to the state’s two largest Indian tribes.

It would also maintain or increase the percentage of the take approved by voters to support harness racing, prescriptions for seniors and college scholarships; share some of the money between the state’s two harness tracks, even if only one had slot machines; and give part of the take to off-track betting parlors.

New shares of the profits
The bulk of the proposal came from the committee’s two chairmen, Sen. Ken Gagnon, D-Waterville, and Rep. Joseph Clark, D-Millinocket. Gagnon told committee members that officials from Penn National Gaming had approved the allocations, which would give the company 58 percent of the racino take.

If a single racino operates in Bangor, the company’s take is estimated to be worth $15 million in the first year and as much as $48 million by 2006.

Penn National owns the Bangor Raceway and holds a harness-racing license for that track. Penn National also has an exclusive deal with Scarborough Downs to develop a Southern Maine racino.

Glynn, who demanded that committee members end their session in Gagnon and Clark’s locked office, and hold their discussion in the public committee meeting room, thinks the deal would be different if it had been arranged in public.

“I would not believe that the end result could be the same,” he said. “I am hoping that the decisions that were made will be nullified” because of the alleged violation of the state’s right-to-know law.

“Basically, the committee is behaving badly,” Glynn said. “We’ve shut the public out of the process.”

Gagnon and Clark could not be reached for comment on the matter.

After the committee returned to the public committee room, Glynn and others suggested several changes to the proposal. Glynn has repeatedly asked his fellow committee members to prevent Scarborough Downs from seeking a new home, and wants any change to the racino law to go back to voters in a combination question that would also allow Mainers to repeal the law entirely.

Glynn’s changes and others were rejected, though some minor changes in allocations of racino proceeds were made.

“If it wasn’t agreed to in the closed-door meeting, they weren’t going to do it,” Glynn said. He said his complaint was not a result of the rejections of his ideas.

Money talks
In the complaint, addressed to Colwell and Senate President Beverly Daggett, D-Augusta, Glynn said he did not entirely blame the committee leaders and members.

“The (committee) has been under attack by extreme lobby techniques of Governor Baldacci’s office through his staff, paid lobbyists who outnumber the members of the committee and just about every other special interest group within the Statehouse,” Glynn wrote.

“There is so much money on the table” that the committee hearings have turned into “a feeding frenzy,” Glynn said later. Gagnon had at one point suggested a portion of the racino proceeds go to the state’s dairy farmers. That proposal failed.

The Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe had also failed their request that the committee allow them to bid for the racino contract at Bangor Raceway. They would get 1 percent of the racino take under the newest proposal, to compensate the Penobscots for expected losses in their high-stakes bingo operation, Glynn said.

The Passamaquoddies are also cut in, because committee members thought it would be unfair to give money to one and not the other, said Glynn, who opposes any cut for the Indians. The proposal does not give any money to the state’s two smaller tribes, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.

“All this was supposed to do was regulate the slots,” Glynn said. “They’re taking so much heat from so many people that they had to go off into a locked room and cut a deal,” he said. “Now we feel like what the politicians in Washington must feel like.”

Colwell agreed that the committee is under lots of pressure. “The lobbyists have been so thick up there that it’s difficult for the members of the committee to feel comfortable,” he said. “I think there’s more Gucci shoes up there than you would find on Rodeo Drive.”

Rep. Gary Moore, R-Standish, was in the meeting that Glynn complained about. He said there was “a convergence of people” in the office shared by Gagnon and Clark.

“There certainly was no formal meeting,” he said. “I would doubt whether at any one time there actually was a quorum there.”

He said he is still interested in allowing the Downs to look for a new hometown that would allow slot machines, and said he is still finding support for that position among his fellow committee members.

“Nothing has been voted in; nothing has been voted out,” he said.

Friday, February 20, 2004

My bloody Valentine: Hellas no fury like a god scorned

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The initial rumblings about Mad Horse’s production of The Bacchae included a warning: Don’t wear nice clothes to the show. There would be too much blood. Admittedly, it would be stage blood, but the Mad Horses were considering issuing ponchos to the audience, Blue Man–style.

And there was a missive from director Christine Louise Marshall: Also the show’s costume designer, she was worried about "the challenge of hiding bra straps, the way men’s legs look in skirts, and how to wash all the blood out of the clothes. Plus a cast of 14, which is somewhat like herding cats, although they are awfully cute cats, except once they’re covered with blood, when they’ll be far less cute. January and February will be all about blood," she wrote me.

Now February is here, and there were no ponchos issued at the door to the Portland Stage Studio Theater — which one day I will call the Portland Performing Arts Center Studio Theater, but not until people know that the PPACST is in the same building, and up the same stairs, as the PSST. And not until the acronym for the former is shorter and cooler than the latter.

Suitably forewarned (and simply clad), my wife and I headed to the PSST for a nice Valentine’s evening of theater. With a small but full house, some quite clearly also on romantic dates — "Aren’t you brave," mocked Mad Horse artistic director Andy Sokoloff in his opening remarks — we settled in for the bloodbath.

(When given a choice of Mad Horse shows to sponsor this season, the Phoenix chose the bloodiest, most mind-twisting one of the lot. I had nothing to do with the choice, and have no idea if it sheds any light on the workings of corporate Phoenix-dom.)

First, there was a nice, slowish, Greek scene-setting first act, to begin this 2400-year-old play written by a prolific hermit/writer who was fatally dismembered by royal hounds, perhaps in fulfillment of some Bacchan prophecy.

A stranger visits Thebes — Dionysus in human form — driving the women mad and into the hills to prey viciously on animals wild and domestic. Clad in fawnskin and crowned in ivy, they celebrate the god of wine, nature, and theater. Worship of Dionysus, also known by his Roman name, Bacchus, included trance-like ecstasies and secret rites, which he taught his followers.

The women, a writhing, keening, hissing, drumming, surging band of eight, make a wonderful chorus, and their meaning was clear, despite the energetic drumming drowning out a few lines here and there. The group (Nancy Brown, Darci LaFayette, Lisa Muller-Jones, Jessica Porter, Tootie Van Reenen, Joan Sand, Reba Short, and Barb Truex) seemed truly entranced by their worship, which might have included some wine-drinking off-stage, as there was none on.

Pentheus, Dionysus’s cousin and king of Thebes, is outraged by "this obscene disorder" and vows to restore order to his city, and dominion of men over women. The king (played by Brian Hinds) has not a small measure of hubris, and refuses to come to Earth even when receiving a tongue-lashing from a blind, aged sage (Teiresias, played by Johnathan "J.P." Guimont).

Hinds’s Pentheus is a strong man, with a loud voice and the light touch of tyranny endowed by Euripides. Hinds and Marshall know the playwright — a fan of complexity and confusion — wants us to like this insistent king, despite his disrespect for the gods.

Pentheus is deaf even to his own grandfather, Cadmus (Chris Horton), who begs the king to go through the motions of worshiping Dionysus if only because the god is a blood relation and brings honor to the family. (See, blood again.)

In a confrontation with the god, Pentheus denies the divinity and wonders at the stranger’s escape from a dungeon. Dionysus then turns from his normal gleeful lightheartedness into an angry god, demanding respect or a sacrifice. Stamell — a Dionysus helped at times by the theater’s sound system — flips the emotional switch back and forth with grace, at once threatening the king and smiling beatifically at his followers.

As the second act begins, Euripides melds traditional Greek dramatic forms, turning the scene of foreboding into one of laughter and disbelief. The king, trapped by the god’s words, sets forth incognito to spy on the cavorting women. Hinds displays a youthful enthusiasm and a gender-swapping brilliance as he portrays a warrior-king worrying about the lie of his hem and the placement of his curls.

Much of the action in the play takes place off-stage, and is related by the messengers (David Currier and Burke Brimmer), who perform well the re-enactment of events first imagined millennia ago and never actually seen by anyone.

They make clear the recursive nature of a scorned god of wine: Not only does he bring great misery, but supplies the only true means of relieving suffering.

The maddened women exercise unwomanly — and ungodly — power and energy, routing men sent to subdue them, bathing in the blood of their slaughter. A messenger escapes, and must describe the incident to two Dionysian devotees still in Thebes. Currier changes character with ease as he retells the tragic story, and is later joined by a sorrowful Brimmer bearing home a bloody burden.

A gruesome death scene is left to the imagination — for which we can thank Euripides, who has done more combining words and imagination than any actors could do in person. The mourning begins as the madness abates and realization dawns on the women of Thebes, who include Pentheus’s mother Agave and his aunts.

The anguished lament of Agave (Joan Sand) is what first drew Marshall to this play, when she was in a college theater class. Here Sand keens her heart out, understanding what has occurred while the veil of madness was cast over her eyes and mind.

Cadmus’s farewell to a bag of body parts topped by a severed head is powerful and moving as well, grieving his loss and the fate imposed by a vengeful god. (Summary: There will be much call for wine in the lives of the banished Thebans.)

His final plea is one no religion has yet attained: "The gods should be exempt from human passions."

The Bacchae
Written by Euripides. Directed by Christine Louise Marshall. With Joshua Stamell, Brian Hinds, and Joan Sand. Produced by Mad Horse Theater Company at Portland Stage Studio Theater, through March 7. Call (207) 730-2389.


• The Center Stage Players, a theater company for seniors, will present a theater festival on Friday and Saturday, March 5 and 6, at 2 p.m., at the 55 Plus Center, 6 Noble Street, Brunswick. The group, actors, directors, writers and storytellers, will perform a group of short plays, many original works in development for the past few months. Admission is by donation. For reservations, call (207) 729-0757.

• Head up to the St. Lawrence Tuesday, March 2, at 7 p.m. for a forum on the general "state of theater" in the region. Mel Howards is hoping to "develop a collaborative spirit among all those who value theater."

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Saving the lives of unwanted horses

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

Cassie Fernald of Standish was on a mission. In January, she was calling farms and businesses around Maine, trying to find a place to house two dozen horses for a few hours.

She had no luck – people didn’t have the space, the time or the desire to help – until she called Hauns Bassett at Camp Ketcha in Scarborough. Bassett, the camp’s new program director, heard Fernald describe the plight of these horses and said he’d help. Fernald burst into tears, and Bassett “very nearly did too,” he said.

The horses were coming from Alberta, Canada, where they had been on a large farm, raised to supply estrogen to the pharmaceutical industry. Drug companies need estrogen to make hormone supplements for menopausal women. One way they get estrogen is from the urine of pregnant mares.

Fernald is part of FoalQuest, a group originally set up to help handle the “by-product” of the mares’ pregnancy – foals. The group links adopters from the U.S. and Canada with farmers who want to get rid of their foals.

Without the group’s help, many of the foals would be slaughtered, Fernald said.

The group has taken on a new mission in recent months. A medical study late last year called into question the safety of one of the drugs made with pregnant mares’ urine (PMU). As a result, demand for the urine has dropped, causing most of the farms to close or drastically reduce their stock.

The horses Fernald was hoping to unload were mostly pregnant mares, which would be adopted largely by people in Maine. Some horses in the shipment were adopted by folks from Connecticut and New York.

Bassett agreed to donate the use of one of the camp’s corrals, and to coordinate having hay and water on the site when the horses arrived.

The horses arrived Tuesday morning, after a 3,400-mile trip from Canada. People were there to greet them, and horse trailers streamed down Black Point Road for much of the morning, as adopters arrived at Camp Ketcha, picked up their horses and left.

Outside the corral, one spectator, whose friend is adopting a horse, said the gathering was like a meeting of “horse-aholics anonymous.”

“It’s such a relief to see them here,” Fernald said.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a couple of months now,” said Joyce Carney of Rochester, N.H. It’s her first mare from the PMU program, though she has adopted foals in the past.

The mare will be the 11th horse on the family farm, and when she foals in May or June, there will be 12. “I would like to fox-hunt her,” Carney said.

The group may have another shipment in coming months and is asking adopters to visit the Web site to look at available horses.

Friday, February 6, 2004

The mirror has two faces: How to write double entendre

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There is an art to doing it. The approach must be soft and gentle, though the intent is obvious. Unless of course you’re thinking of something else. In which case its meaning is equally plain, but completely different.

Ken Ludwig has great skill at it, carefully constructing his characters’ words and actions to present two versions of reality: the one we think should be happening, and the one we know the characters believe their parts in. Vague words assume specific meanings and errors in judgment abound.

In Lend Me A Tenor, Ludwig has created a mad world inhabited by a John Cleese–like theater producer, a boring dweeb (who turns out to have incredible strength in his, well, you know), a mercurial Italian opera singer, an incredibly capable bellhop, and a gaggle of women who see right through the men, except when the men don’t get it either, at which point the hilarity begins. That’s right at the start.

The Portland Stage promo literature says the comedy hinges (ha, ha) on a door opening or closing at "just the right moment," but it’s fortunate that isn’t true. In fact, if it were, this play wouldn’t be funny at all. Synchronized door-opening, intended to move the action from one part of the set to another, is not a strength of this cast.

But only the promo-lit writer might care. These actors — the actual crux of this or any comedy — are wonderful, with movement and timing honed by long nights of rehearsal. They have immersed themselves, with the help of director Drew Barr, until they see the brilliant comedy of each moment.

It doesn’t hurt that the aforementioned dweeb-cum-hero (Max, played by Tom Ford) is familiar from two years as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, adding a new facet to an old character, or that Aled Davies, playing the theater manager Saunders, has been heavily influenced by Basil Fawlty (and has played Scrooge, himself, interestingly). And they’re helped along by Ron Botting, as tippling womanizing Italian tenor Gary Hart — I mean Tito Merelli — who channels Governor John Baldacci’s physical mannerisms and Father Guido Sarducci’s accent. (As an aside, has anyone ever met a hotel bellhop (John Hildreth) who is both fluent in Italian and could play a wonderful Parsifal?)

The women are excellent, too. Janice O’Rourke (as Maggie) opens with a lip-sync number Milli Vanilli should emulate, and goes on to discover true passion in disguise. Barbara Mather (as Julia) swans around the stage like a good theater-board diva; Jordan Simmons (as Diana) hunts down her quarry but misses the final blow. Meanwhile, Michele Ragusa (as Maria) lays down her smoky blaze around Tito, lighting fires under Max and Saunders.

Other participants in the opening night production included a chatty, well dressed group in the seats behind me, who often had useful information to add to the play’s goings-on. For example, when Tito takes too much phenobarbitol in this 1930s-era play, a man helpfully remarked that the drug was "one of the first medicines." In the past I’ve inveighed against the surround-sound nature of performances at other theaters. I am glad to see that Portland Stage, no doubt mindful that access to theater is a culturally enriching experience, has not yet banned nattering nabobs from its seats. (Can’t plays, like movies, include brief mind-your-manners scenes before the main show begins?)

A note of caution for those who fail to suspend disbelief upon entering a theater: Don’t believe Max’s words when he tells you, "This is not an opera." Of course it is. Besides the obvious operatic singing from time to time (which is very well done), this play bears all the hallmarks of good opera, not least of which is the larger-than-life performance by an underdog who becomes the real star.

Another excellent indicator of the play’s true genre is the amount of alcohol consumed by the main character. Ron Botting downs a half-bottle of wine in about 10 minutes; blissfully, the next task assigned to his role is to lie still abed for quite some time. Nevertheless, he is prepared for a second-act Keystone Kops-like runabout. (It should be noted that those illustrious officers never had women like these. Seems they’ll toss off their clothes for anyone who can find the right note.)

The finale — a reprise of the entire show in under two minutes — showcases the physical comedy and illustrates the fun playwright Ludwig — and the audience — has with words, made notable by their absence in the mimed closing credits.

Lend Me A Tenor
Written by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Drew Barr. With Ron Botting, Tom Ford, Aled Davies, and Janice O’Rourke. Portland Stage Company, through February 22. Call (207) 774-0465.


• Democracy in action at Portland Stage Company: PSC is asking for input on what you want to see on its stage next season. A short list of plays for your perusal is available at the theater, so go check it out and cast your vote!

• For those who say new or unknown theater work doesn’t draw well, you should sit down with Mike Levine, who has figured out how to get big audiences to come to unknown plays by little-known playwrights. In the I-hope-you-didn’t-miss-it department at the Maine Playwrights Festival this past weekend: Paul Haley howling like a wolf, Stephen McLaughlin as a short-order genie, Miranda Hope releasing stress and an egg, Michael Crockett wishing for pierced eardrums, and Suze Allen’s twisting look at incest.