Friday, March 26, 2004

Feeding the hungry: Theatergoers find tough love

Published in the Portland Phoenix

"Orphans are always hungry," says grown-up orphan Harold (Mike Genovese) in Orphans, at the Public Theatre in Lewiston. They’re not just starving for food — though on a diet consisting solely of tuna fish they can’t be well-nourished — but also for love, guidance, help, and attention.

Philip (Righteous Jolly — can that be his real name?) and Treat (Evan Mueller) are grown orphan brothers who have managed to evade capture by social-services agents and somehow still appear to pay rent on a two-story apartment in north Philadelphia.

They have a Lost Boys-type life, playing and cavorting in their pleasantly disarranged home. Mueller is excellent as the subtly menacing Treat, providing for and caring for his brother and yet keeping him subservient, illiterate, and afraid to go outdoors.

Jolly is, well, jolly in his innocent portrayal of Philip, a mentally underdeveloped boy who learns to dream by watching TV. He is manically silly and has a great time with little-kid toys and big-boy strength, racing and crashing around the living room, handling dinosaurs that attack rubber balls and then slam-dunking them into a wastebasket atop a cabinet. Jolly also renders well Philip’s meeker side, complete with fake bravado, and needy I-want-you-to-love-me tenderness.

One night after a bender, Treat brings home an older businessman, Harold, who has apparently come willingly, though his briefcase carries his worldly treasures. Genovese is a great drunk, blustering around the place alternately comforting Philip with a tough-love approach the boy thrives on and calling Treat’s bluffs with a disciplinarian attitude.

Playwright Lyle Kessler’s characters are fascinatingly complex, combining elements of various archetypes into very realistic people on stage. There are elements of the Lord of the Flies, as well as Bloom County, The Wizard of Oz, and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Philip is a curious-but-scared boy whose personality is best suited by the color pale yellow, he and Harold decide. He needs protection from someone, and his courage is only borrowed.

Treat mirrors what he sees, whether it’s passive aggression, outright opposition, or affection. He has an attitude, which barely contains his rage against a world he can’t control. New ideas are dangerous, and Harold can impose order on nearly any amount of chaos, it appears, whether it’s a kitchen full of food, a bus, or an apartment inhabited by kids who have never really had a parent.

Harold is more, though. He’s on the run from unnamed "enemies" from Chicago, and has drunkenly stumbled — literally — onto an easy safe house in Philadelphia. He pays the boys "salaries" to "work for" him, and runs a tight ship.

His main difference from the other adults the boys have dealt with is that Harold’s raised hand signals loving encouragement, not a threat.

It is an engaging play, working the audience’s brain as much as its heart, and never offering a simple solution, except perhaps that love and luck play together to make life interesting and exciting.

Director Christopher Schario has found the moments in this play that keep it moving, and has worked them all very well, empowering Philip with a passionate speech declaring his independence just moments after a riotous lesson in social norms and how to deal with people who take up too much room on the bus.

The experience is fraught with questions, and more arise after the show ends. They’re not just plot-level musings about the characters’ uncertain futures. Instead, the larger questions loom. What happens to orphans in our society, which is short of foster homes? Who cares for the kids who manage to escape the system? And how do people without parents handle losing the only parental figures they know?

Written by Lyle Kessler. Directed by Christopher Schario. With Mike Genovese, Evan Mueller, and Righteous Jolly. At the Public Theatre, through March 28. Call (207) 782-3200.


• Meetings, Part 1: Artists’ Collaborative Theatre Of New England (ACT ONE) will host an informal gathering in the meeting room at the Lane Library in Hampton, NH, on Wednesday, March 31, from 7 to 8 p.m. The theater’s organizers want to know what the wider community wants from its theater elements. They’re also taking email suggestions at

• Meetings, Part 2: Mike Levine is the "point man" for a group forming to develop a shared rehearsal/office/small performance space for individual artists and small performing groups. Levine is inviting interested people to join him at 10 Mayo Street, Portland (A Company of Girls’ space), on Wednesday, March 31, from 6 to 8 p.m. He’s also taking email inquiries at

• If you want to know what the next generation of theater folks are up to, check out what USM’s Student Performing Artists company can do with under $1000 and Neil LaBute’s script The Shape of Things. They’re putting it on at the Russell Hall Lab Theater on the Gorham campus from April 1 through April 6. Call (207) 780-5151 for times and tickets.

Friday, March 19, 2004

A love untold: Sharing hidden joys and sorrows makes Good Theater

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The daily tension of dreams vs. reality can be overwhelming. Some couples dwell inside themselves, holing up and committing to a fate — whether blissful or turbulent — completely tied to each other, with few friends or family members keeping watch, armed with lifesaving rings to throw to sinking partnerships.

Others retain strong ties to people outside the partnership, drawing strength, relief, and perspective from extramarital wisdom. Outside perspectives have helped save relationships and salvaged individuals from shipwrecked love.

Into this messy world, Good Theater brings Same Time Next Year, a play in which two married people seek refuge in each other, though their wedding vows were to others. The two, who meet in a chance restaurant encounter in 1951, devise a unique way to get a break from their marriages, and find some solace and perspective.

We follow the couple, Doris (Lee K. Paige) and George (Stephen Underwood), through 24 years of annual weekend reunions, as they explore each other and themselves (doesn’t that sound sexy?), and as their lives and worlds change. The story revisits them roughly every five years, making plain what would otherwise be incremental changes in personality and society, not to mention appearance.

Paige and Underwood are both excellent laugh-line deliverers, and alternate in the role of straightman to the other’s funny man. But the biggest laugh-getter at a performance last weekend was actually in Good Theater artistic director Brian Allen’s intermission speech. Apologizing for several technical glitches — not to mention the black piece of Styrofoam that quit blocking light from an exterior window and instead fell on the head of an audience member, Allen draw guffaws and applause with: "We’re glad you’re here to share our pain."

And while some of the problems stole a bit from the show, Underwood and Paige performed mightily, demanding audience members’ attention turn to them and away from whatever was going wrong. After intermission, all was well, and what could have been a distracted, failed set of climactic scenes was instead a wonderful romp through laughter, into heartbreak and tears, and back again.

Apart from the comic lines playwright Bernard Slade has supplied, the play depends on the connection between the two actors.

Paige and Underwood show their skills, transforming through the play from blushing, teen-like first meetings into the solidity that only comes with time.

They expertly marry humor and relief — the weekends they spend together seem truly a vacation for each — with phone calls from home, stories of the past year, and the guilt that racks them even as they try to indulge in pleasure.

As the relationship deepens, it becomes more than an annual one-night stand, providing each the comfort of familiar company and a simultaneous escape from quotidian stressors. They provide new perspectives on each other as they grow up together and apart.

It is in the fourth act, just after intermission, that the characters collide most spectacularly. In 1965, the newly liberated Doris is an adult student at Berkeley and marching and rallying with the best of them. George, on the other hand, is a year past voting for Goldwater and still thinks the nuke-the-Vietnamese presidential candidate was right.

Doris’s affable greeting that year, "Hey babe! Whaddya say? Wanna fuck?" is met with stentorian disbelief from CPA George, forcing the two actors to suddenly not rejoice in each other’s presence.

But it is in that same scene, as Doris gently calls out George’s fears, that we see the true power of the love they share. Unable to mourn a huge loss properly at home, George finds tears in Doris’s arms.

Five years later, in act five, they are completely different characters again, testing the range of Paige and Underwood — who are well known for their ability to play diverse roles.

Underwood shows gentleness in place of his former cold heart, even talking Doris’s husband down from a marital high ledge. And Paige has reformed her belligerent student ways, now running a growing business and finding power within.

Costume-designer Joan McMahon is also put to the test. George’s suit of 1961 has turned to a dashiki, just as Doris’s flower-child flowing hair and dress have become more conservative.

As we watch the annual confessional visits of this torn-but-loving couple, we share heartbreak and triumph, lonely bitter moments and sweet tender times. We exult in their mutual joy, hope they can keep the secret of their love, and our hearts break with theirs as time and life take their due.

A story of these two people’s actual marriages would be less compelling than the tale of their hidden romance. And yet we get that, too, learning about their spouses and families from their annual stories of the past year. And we remember that most important, though rarely spoken, promise of true commitment: "If you won’t make me laugh, just hold my hand."

Same Time Next Year
Written by Bernard Slade. Directed by William Steele. With Lee K. Paige and Stephen Underwood. Produced by Good Theater at St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, through April 4. Call (207) 885-5883.


• Congrats to the Camden Opera House for investing in their space, to make the historic building even better for modern uses. They have renovated the backstage area, updating rigging, rehanging lights, and replacing drapes. The stage is five feet deeper and the drapes now hide the off-stage areas from the audience. And for audience members, there are new climate-control and fire-alarm systems for comfort and safety.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Overlooking presidents: Contrived script too much for this one man

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Looking back across the street to the White House from a bus stop, Alonzo Fields (Larry Marshall) also looks back upon his 21 years of service as a butler in the president’s mansion.

"The ol’ house," as Fields calls it, is familiar ground. He knows every inch of the place, and every moment of its history, from its construction by black men — both slave and free — to the day he retired from service.

Fields, black himself, served four presidents there, in real life and in James Still’s play, Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, based on Fields’s memoir and his personal journals.

It is an entertaining play, exploring the more personal attributes of Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. It views the presidents as men, and judges them on how they treat their household help.

As playwright, Still collected a set of interesting tidbits about the presidents’ domestic lives, and used them to construct a chronologically choppy narrative. Perhaps it was meant to draw the audience in and heighten the dramatic tension, but it was disorienting to hop from 1941 to 1939 to 1940 to 1942.

He also uses Fields’s longing for music as a device that seems contrived at times. While Fields put off his singing career to support his family through the Depression, Still returns to the theme over and over. Still makes Fields seem a whiner who really would rather do something else than serve in a position of incredible luxury and privilege, sheltered from the bread lines and homelessness of the Depression.

Such an attitude is surprising, given Fields’s background. He is a grandson of slaves who speaks four languages, studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, and learned etiquette working at the home of MIT president Samuel Stratton.

It’s more likely — as suggested by the play’s final aria — that Fields longed for more time with his sickly wife, who spent most of her life in Boston visiting doctors. But most audience members won’t get that suggestion — the aria is obscure and sung in Italian, making it impossible to know what it was lamenting. (I was only able to learn that much by asking PSC staff, who had to ask around themselves.)

Beyond the play’s own challenge to belief comes Marshall’s acting. The role of Fields is hard to cast. It needs a black man, at least six feet tall and solidly built, who can sing with an opera-quality voice, do a range of impersonations, and memorize a two-and-a-half-hour show.

In Marshall, they found all that, including a man who has a very expressive face and can spin a good yarn. They also found a man who hesitated at a large number of lines — not just for the effect of an aging man reminiscing about his career. It seemed at times that he was struggling for his lines.

Marshall is also no butler. A man with 21 years’ experience butlering in the most protocol-conscious building in the entire country would not touch his nose with a white glove, nor allow a tablecloth to touch the floor, nor drop a giant piece of lint on the floor and allow it to remain there, nor shut a door anyway other than silently. All of these small flaws, repeated throughout the show, weaken the suspension of disbelief.

PSC Artistic Director Anita Stewart wrote to the audience that she chose the play to have its presidential anecdotes contrast with election-year scrutiny of presidential candidates.

And the play does offer fascinating insights. They include Hoover’s assumption that FDR wouldn’t run because "the American people don’t want half a man for president" and a Supreme Court justice’s prediction that the handicap would be made invisible to the public by FDR’s handlers. Fields throws new light on old stories with FDR’s reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor — he called the Japanese "the little yellow sons-of-bitches" — and generals’ talk of a retreat from California to Chicago.

Fields also gives good presidential advice, showing examples we can only wish for in today’s political environment. Hoover was so rich he gave his presidential salary back to the government. Just imagine! Arnold’s not the only one working for free.

There are contradictions left untouched, however. Under FDR — who appointed a Klansman to the Supreme Court — the atmosphere in the mansion made Fields say, "It felt like the White House belonged to the people — all the people."

One piece of advice would be well heeded in by politicians who only act when forced by public outcry. "A good servant always anticipates the needs of those he’s serving," says Fields, who could be admonishing public servants as much as household ones.

Looking Over the President’s Shoulder
Written by James Still. Directed by Regge Life. With Larry Marshall. At Portland Stage Company, through March 21. Call (207) 774-0465.


• A group of directors, actors, and others convened last week at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, because, in the words of Mel Howards, "We rarely ever talk to each other and we hardly ever meet each other." The group, seven panelists and 10 audience members, all voiced different aims for their work, but found significant areas of common ground in which to potentially cooperate. Some group members plan to attend the "creative economy" conference in Lewiston in May. Others may be planning to lobby the city of Portland for help. "If this city doesn’t have an arts policy, it’s in the Dark Ages," said actor Drew Harris, who urged the group’s members to get city help with space and funding. More meetings are in the works.

• On Tuesday, March 16, explore the complex issue of self-inflicted violence in a workshop performance at Portland Stage Studio Theater at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free, and there will be a short "talkback" with the author and actors after the show.

Friday, March 5, 2004

Surfin’ safari: Sampling the hidden treasures of community-access TV

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Tired of corporate "reality TV?" Me too. The remedy? Explore the local version. My South Portland home theater (uh, basement 19-inch TV) features the best basic-cable package Time Warner Cable of Maine offers. It’s called "Lifeline," and it comes complete with one TV Guide channel, five major-network affiliates, C-SPAN 1 and 2, two public-television stations, and 4000 shopping channels. Blah, blah, all of it.

To interest me, it has to be local. I don’t mean "We have studios in Portland" local. I don’t mean "We used to employ actual native Mainers until we sold to a big out-of-state company" local.

I mean so local it hurts. Raw, uncut, "I think I saw that woman in the line at Hannaford" local. And, in fact, the first face I saw when I turned on South Portland’s Channel 2 Thursday night was a familiar one.

There in living color was Al Barthelman of Cape Elizabeth. He was asking the South Portland Rotary club for a donation to help maintain and improve Fort Williams. And in the first five minutes of his plea, I learned something new about the landmark park: folks who look out to sea help pay for upkeep, Barthelman told the Rotarians. "The binoculars, you know. Every quarter helps," he said.

I settled back into the recliner couch, nursing my Labatt’s (party leftovers — it’s my chore to clean out the fridge). This was what I was hoping for. Barthelman had it going on. All the facts, the figures, his lines well-rehearsed.

The lighting showed his face clearly as he worked his way through a single emotion. Standing in front of the unseen Rotarian hordes, Barthelman evoked memories of fun times spent at the fort, lit my patriotic fervor with allusions to its past military grandeur, and above all, won the thunderous applause of the audience, and me, as he wound up his presentation with a simple expression of gratitude.

Suddenly considering joining a group whose symbol is a sprocket, I switched to Channel 4, the Greater Portland Community Television Network.

It bears reminding that these public-access stations are our birthright.

In exchange for co-opting public-communications assets for profit, Time Warner is required to provide equipment, funds, and channels for local folks to have our say, even as we drown in "content" about Michael Jackson’s role in the Princess Diana crash. (Is Ashton his alibi?)

Over on Channel 4, PowerPoint slides full of tiny print sped past — too fast to read completely. The slides’ topics included the Maine Association of Nonprofits, the United Way, and strangest of all, Cumberland County. (Does a geographic area really need to advertise?)

Later, on Channel 2, I got to watch an Air Force Television News report about domestic violence. "The Air Force has always taken an aggressive approach to the problem," the newscaster said. They’re so tuned in to "early warning signs" that Air Force authorities offered one couple counseling right away when "the problem progressed to the point where Beverly got injured." It made me glad we took over Iraq before seeing any "early warning signs" of WMDs.

I also learned, in a helpful notice from the Portland traffic department, how to push the "pedestrian button" when trying to cross the road.

Friday evening, I sat down again to enjoy the fruits of our local videographers. I found South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond opening a new fire station. Not content to explain that now residents of the western half of the city might actually get some water before their houses burn to the ground, the chief called it a "wonderful, practical building."

Network execs had pitted Guimond against a self-promotion show on Channel 4, in which a vapid interviewer lobbed questions at Channel 4 program hosts. Asking longtime host Janet Alexander about her show, Healthviews, the interviewer queried, "You have doctors and experts and people like that involved?"

No doubt shocked at her simpleton interlocutor, Alexander flubbed her line. The script read, "Yes, you moron. It’s a show about health. You think I’d just go grab the clients of Portland Biologicals?" Instead, Alexander treated the probe like a serious question, helpfully explaining that people with "MD" after their name sometimes know a thing or two about sickness.

Channel 4 features two shining stars. One is No Hit Videos, in which a cameraman records live concerts of local bands and televises them, in case we prefer to have our music experience un-enhanced by body odor. The other is Shine, on which local artists perform in a sort of TV talent show.

It is "packed with talented Maine performers," said Jill Newman, the airy emcee who should be recast immediately. (Her delivery improved when she read directly from the index cards in her hand.)

Shine co-host Will Berlitz was no better. He tried to deliver a nursery rhyme about "Will and Jill," who went up the hill to have a tag-team wrestling match with reading teachers Dick and Jane. Did it fail? And how.

The show itself did feature talented Mainers, from the Hurdy Gurdy puppet show to Katherine Rhoda on antique "play-by-number" instruments such as the Marxophone and the violinguitar. There would have been more room for talent without Will and Jill’s insipid banter.

Other thrilling programming on Channel 4 includes the meetings of the Portland Water District, in which elected bureaucrats discuss things like "storm-water events," which is technical shorthand for "when sewage overflows into Casco Bay."

The PWD trustees got a good laugh from a proposal by the town of Windham to spend $10,000 improving public access to an MTBE-contaminated pond. The laugh came when two trustees asked that the project be "low-impact." For $10,000, they snorted, Windham could barely do anything.

They did not need to explain that while $10,000 would re-side my entire house and leave enough to repave the driveway, in a municipality’s hands, it was about enough for a single gumball at the supermarket.

This was high comedy, and after I got up from the floor — I’d fallen in a fit of laughter (or was it pique?) — I decided it was high time to change the channel.

Back on Channel 2, I heard from a spokesman for the Maine Army National Guard, who said the work of the Mainers in Iraq would "perhaps bring some vestige of freedom" to Iraqis. Certainly not the whole complicated democracy thing. And definitely no incendiary community television.