Friday, April 23, 2004

Behind the wire: Theater classes at Long Creek Youth Development Center

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It’s a Monday afternoon as I walk to the desk at the euphemistically named Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. I surrender my wallet, keys, sunglasses, datebook, and jacket. I have a form that allows me to carry my notebook and pens through the locked doors, into where the children are held.

I’ve come to visit a class run by the Winter Harbor Theater Company, in an eight-week session of theater classes for 12 teens who have been locked up here.

Caitlin Shetterly (who writes "Bramhall Square" for the Phoenix) and Tessy Seward, Winter Harbor’s co-founders, along with technical director Chris Fitze, and local actors Chris Holt and Paul Drinan, arrive just behind me.

As the kids arrive in the classroom, there’s a barely contained tension. The kids are bouncing off the walls, and the teachers are uncertain what will happen that day.

First comes a bit of yoga. We stretch and move together, focusing their energy and helping them learn what their bodies and voices can do.

After a few minutes, it’s time for scene practice. Seward, Shetterly, and the others have chosen four contemporary plays to work from, selecting them and the scenes within them to be applicable and attractive to these kids.

"A lot of them have substance-abuse themes," Seward says. Most have characters between the ages of 16 and 20, a good fit for this group of kids, aged 15 to 19, from all over the state.

The center’s staff asked nothing be performed that glorified or romanticized violence, but they allowed plays in which "it’s clear that these behaviors are problems" for the characters, as Seward says.

The kids get "a chance to play a character that they might be able to relate to." It’s their first foray into theater, and given the embarrassment and playful shyness they exhibit during the warm-up session, the kids could use a little familiarity.

One student, whom I’ll call Keith, announces that he has written a short scene during lockdown. Rather than work on the scene he was assigned, he and his scene partner, "Jim," explore Keith’s own work.

It was inspired by an experience in his own life, attending the funeral of a friend who was stabbed to death in a fight. The minute-long scene offers glimpses into Keith’s life and our society.

Keith and Jim play young men at the funeral, talking over the body, asking what the death was for — why their friend sought out the fight. They mourn the loss, empathize for the mother of the dead man, and invoke the feelings of honor and camaraderie that bind young people together. They laugh that if only the fight hadn’t happened, the three of them would be hanging out with "half-naked women, drinking forties."

This is a playwright who has found his voice. Keith acts and directs, exploring his feelings and explaining them to Jim in the process.

At the end of the eight-week class, the students perform for their fellow inmates, as well as parents, guards, and a few visitors. One student is in the infirmary, and can’t be there. His scene partner bows out as well, instead being the stage manager and hamming it up between scenes, as if to show his parents he did participate.

The show, under a basketball net in the Long Creek gym, is a moving hour of amateur theater. Kids who have been told to go away from society explore their feelings of hurt, rebellion, and anger safely, with no parents or guards in their faces and no peers jeering.

The performance is a tribute to the power of human faith, and the strength of theater. In heartbreakingly expressive voices, these kids — many of whom speak too fast and too quietly, most of whom read their lines rather than delivering from memory — open their hearts through the words of others.

Keith plays a dead-on Vietnam vet with an alcohol problem. An expressive kid who knows the hard side of the world, he describes hitting a girl until she stops moving. It is a riveting portrayal, no doubt made deeper by Keith’s own life experience.

One set of scene partners and a solo actor have scrapped the original, modern scripts they were to have performed, choosing instead to bring Shakespeare to life in this lockdown.

"D.J.," one of the shyer kids most of the time, delivers the chilling gallows speech of Aaron, a Goth prisoner in Titus Andronicus.

He is nervous as he approaches the seats, directing his words and his venom at individuals in the audience, but he pulls off a powerful and heartfelt delivery that earns him props from his friends at the end.

Later, D.J. and "Anne," also one of the quieter of the group, have memorized their scene. At one point, distracted by his buddies, D.J. loses his line entirely. It’s clear from his face that it’s gone. Not giving up this time, he fights — the effort is visible — to reclaim it, and does so, finishing the scene with a large grin of pride.

"Evan" and "Carol" do a scene together, in which both appear shy but impassioned. They, too, have promise in the theater.

Jim and Keith are together in the next scene, in which they again explore the consequences of youthful misdeeds. This time it is a part of The Outsiders, in which two young men seek refuge from fate. Keith delivers a strong performance here as well, struggling for but managing to recite Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay and holding the crumbling character together by force of will.

It is a wonderful thing that Keith and "Wyatt" return in the final scene, as Benvolio and Romeo, from Romeo and Juliet. While their voices are a bit too quiet for the gym, Wyatt demonstrates a mastery of the language that few actors achieve so early in their careers.

Shetterly and Seward are now raising money for a second effort to throw a theatrical lifeline to kids behind the wire.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Folding, not breaking: Kabuki shows the strength of a paper crane

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Take a seat. Sit mute, without moving. Watch. Listen. Feel. Sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts.

Lights brighten as a girl steps forward from a delicately painted set full of robust colors. They are hues of life, of unbridled energy, of unconquerable power. Youthful vigor and atomic fury collide on the walls.

The girl begins to run, already racing towards a future of untold promise, and trying to elude a past that is close behind her and catching up. She is Sadako Sasaki (Michele Lee), now 12, who was a two-year-old girl when, on August 6, 1945, the US dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, Japan.

In a 40-minute performance heavily influenced by the Japanese kabuki style of theater, Sadako’s story is retold at the Children’s Theatre of Maine.

Kabuki plays often deal with the conflict between humanity and a larger system or social structure, such as a wartime government’s impossible choice between the death of millions or merely hundreds of thousands.

This play combines the two main types of kabuki plays, historical dramas and stories about normal people. It includes ritualized gestures and line-delivery that is more singing or chanting than speaking.

There are also amazing masks with bright colors and strong designs, which clarify character elements in this three-actor, multiple-character show. At the same time, the masks slightly obscure speech — not enough to matter, but enough to anonymize the speakers, as when masked doctors report on Sadako’s condition.

Nancy Brown and Richard Gammon play the roles of doctors, parents, and friends, as well as Sadako’s grandmother, felled instantly when the bomb struck. Brown’s presence on stage — and Lee’s — is a significant departure from kabuki’s no-women-actors tradition, but the adaptation is more than appropriate. While the break from tradition would raise eyebrows in Japan, in the US, having men play the female roles would be worse than distracting.

Brown and Gammon work well together, often separated by an entire stage and not even looking at each other, but moving and speaking together and in counterpoint. Their movements and lines are precisely delivered, with just enough passion to have meaning without losing the strict composure and reserved aspect possessed by many Japanese people.

Even Sadako’s lament, when she is struck down by "the atom bomb disease," leukemia, is subdued.

"I don’t have any scars from the bomb. It didn’t touch me," she cries, not understanding that the bomb’s real blast was invisible. It was not just a bomb that leveled her house, killed her grandmother, and seared her neighbors’ shadows on the walls.

As the dead of Hiroshima later tell her in a vision, "The bomb continues to fall, Sadako. It is falling even now."

Youthful innocence attempts to triumph in this tragedy. Sadako’s friend Kenji (Gammon) arrives with a legend and a message of hope: A person who folds a 1000 paper cranes will have her wish granted by the gods.

Sadako wishes for her grandmother to live, for herself to be well, and for no bomb like that ever to happen again. (She forgets it already did, three days after the bomb came to her hometown.)

As Kenji demonstrates folding the crane, he is turned away from the audience — and toward Sadako. It means we can’t see the nimble fingers and intricate movements that for nearly two full minutes are the only action on the stage. Turning slightly toward those watching would show the skill required in executing a flawless crane under stage lights and dozens of watching eyes.

It is with the crane-folding that the play differs from the story told by the World Peace Project for Children, the real-world organization inspired by Sadako’s story. The play says Sadako did not manage to fold 1000 cranes before she died in 1955, at age 12. The Peace Project says she folded more than that number.

The disparity is important. Either she did not manage to appease the gods in time, as the play suggests, or the gods chose which wish to grant — and it wasn’t her grandmother’s resurrection or Sadako’s own survival. Whichever is the case, the story is an inspiring one, simply and powerfully told.

It ends with the description of a statue of Sadako erected in 1958 by Japanese children in the Hiroshima Peace Park. In her outstretched arm she holds an origami crane. On the base is inscribed, "This is our cry, this is our prayer — Peace in the world."

A replica of that statue in the Seattle Peace Park was vandalized in December. The arm holding the crane was chopped off.

A Thousand Cranes
Written by Kathryn Shultz Miller. Directed by Pamela DiPasquale. With Michele Lee, Richard Gammon, and Nancy Brown. At Children’s Theatre of Maine, through April 18. Call (207) 828-0617.


Backstage

• Correction: After a review in the Phoenix, director Michael Howard did not attend the following performance of Macbeth by the Stage at Spring Point last summer. It was not a rehearsal he missed. Backstage apologizes for the error.

• Starting April 23, Pontine Theatre in Portsmouth will be performing an original production inspired by and based on the New Hampshire ties of e.e. cummings. Pontine artistic directors Greg Gathers and M. Marguerite Mathews created and will perform the show, called Silver Lake Summers: an e.e. cummings revue. Cummings spent many summers, as a boy and as an adult, in the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains. Call (603) 436-6660 or check "Listings" for details.

Friday, April 9, 2004

What price loyalty? Mixing business and friendship

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In an intricately detailed junk shop on Portland Stage Company’s main stage, a battle of loyalties rages. David Mamet’s American Buffalo juxtaposes loyalty to friends with business relationships, showing with what force divergent points of view can collide.

Don (Dwight Bacquie) is a fatherly type for whom giving is important. He would give, for instance, a risky robbery assignment to a friend, Bobby (Gregory Russell Cook), even though Bobby is pleasantly clueless and seems likely to botch the job.

Teach (Don Harvey) also likes giving, but from the other side of the transaction. He demands that his friends give him whatever he wants — whether it’s a slice of toast or the task of breaking and entering.

"Business" for both is a secondary matter, one less personal and less infused with the demands of interpersonal relationships.

The two mix, though, when Don asks Bobby to help with a task Teach considers "business" — stealing back a buffalo nickel bought from the shop. Don figures it’s worth well more than the $90 that was cheerily paid for it, and assumes he needs it more than the purchaser does.

Teach argues he should do the deed because he’ll get it done and Bobby likely won’t. He browbeats Don into changing his mind, swapping business for friendship, and cutting Bobby from the deal.

Teach’s raging-animal is well handled by Harvey, who last appeared at PSC as a similarly disaffected man in Sam Shepard’s True West. Teach’s wildness becomes evident when he fears he is being cheated (by a friend) on the (business) deal. He berates Don and abuses Bobby, even while ignoring signs that there may no longer be a need to steal the nickel.

Then Donny’s wrath surfaces, emphasizing friendship, defending Bobby from Teach’s assault. Bobby and Teach then swap roles to a degree, with Bobby suddenly worldly wise, and Teach cowed into boyish submission.

As is usually the case with Portland Stage, the set is beautiful and the costumes are well done. (Though how PSC managed to convince Bacquie to shave his head into male-pattern baldness is beyond me . . .)

The direction includes elements of slapstick humor and other comic devices to keep the show moving, and to prevent it from being overly heavy. It is Mamet, after all, and Mamet’s language, which some have compared to Shakespeare in its complexity and cadence, is primarily a means of conveying feeling, and of preventing the action from being mime. The words wash over the listener, who need only absorb feelings to follow the meaning. The words themselves bring extra layers, and clues to recurring themes, including oblique references to nickels from time to time.

The blocking carries much of the passion of the story, and all three actors use the physical space very well, alternately occupying the center and fading to the edges. Their individual movements — how they use the space — add depth to their characters and understanding for the audience.

The real conflict, though, is in every house seat, as viewers weigh what they might do in the place of each character, each a very real, very human face.

American Buffalo
Written by David Mamet. Directed by Tony Giordano. With Dwight Bacquie, Gregory Russell Cook, and Don Harvey. At Portland Stage Company, through April 18. Call (207) 774-0465.


Backstage

Add Verb Productions Arts & Education is seeking a high school student to join the board of directors. AVP’s mission is to bring about awareness, dialogue, and social change using theater. While AVP currently tours two programs around the country addressing eating disorders and dating abuse/sexual assault, additional new programming is in the works. This is an exciting opportunity for a student to be a part of a growing organization that has a statewide and national presence. For more information, contact AVP board secretary Tavia Gilbert at TGilbert@DDLAW.com or ClownPoppy@aol.com

• Newburyport, Massachusetts, playwright David Mauriello has reworked A Passage of Time, produced at the Players Ring in 1995. Generic Theater will give the new version a staged reading at the Rice Public Library in Kittery at 7 p.m., April 13. The story follows two men whose relationship is tested when the family of one of the men comes to live with them.

• British playwright Marcus Lloyd will be at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor April 24 and 25 for the opening weekend of his play Dead Certain. It is the New England premiere of the play, a two-person thriller that opened at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, England, in 1999. Lloyd has been working with director Mark Torres via email during rehearsals. Penobscot Theatre will hold a special reception in Lloyd’s honor and have audience discussions with him as well. For more information, call the box office at (207) 942-3333 or visit www.PenobscotTheatre.org

Friday, April 2, 2004

Think, wait, fast: Siddhartha comes to Portland Players

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the man who will become the Buddha searches high and low for meaning and understanding in his world. Along the way, he sees many things and learns three powerful lessons about himself: "I can think, I can wait, and I can fast."

In my own travels, these principles have often proved fruitful, as has a corollary from The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife: "I can hold it."

Marjorie (Irene E. Lemay) is the frustrated intellectual wife of an allergist. She and her husband live down the hall from her mother in a New York apartment building. For Marjorie, everything is trifling, including herself. Perhaps she is right: She has written a book "heavily influenced by Thomas Pynchon" and punctuated with a system of her own devising. This, of course, she considers her most worthwhile accomplishment. Her sense of self-pity is bolstered by her failure to understand Waiting for Godot.

She has a passion for German literature, and repeatedly invokes the inspiring story of Siddhartha as she journeys through life herself, though largely without looking away from the pavement.

Her life is much like the play itself. She begins with insignificance; passes through confusion, introspection, and obscure literary references; and ventures into an uninspiring political moment. Then returns to insignificance.

The acting is strong, for the most part. The oddest thing is that doorman Mohammed (Keith Brown) is supposedly from Iraq but has an accent modeled on that of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, owner of the Springfield Kwik-E-Mart.

Lemay is herself strong as a tormented rich woman at loose ends because she need not work and is exhausted from 30 years of volunteering. Clay Graybeal is mincing and barely present as her husband, but that’s how the character is written, so he does well. Anne Sibley O’Brien (as Lee) swans around the stage like the diva her character is.

It is Betty Longbottom (as Frieda, Marjorie’s mother) who steals the show, though, with the most laugh lines. Sadly, nearly all of them involved gratuitous profanity that was only funny because it was said with a straight face by an old Jewish grandmother-type.

Indeed, playwright Charles Busch has Marjorie lament the "dumbing down" of culture to "the lowest common denominator," and then has an old woman say "fuck" over and over again, predictably drawing huge guffaws from the audience.

To be fair, Longbottom also did very well with her bitter aspect and the detailed descriptions of her intestinal function. She also had a wonderful lament for what apparently used to be her "beautiful BMs." Again, though, we see a denominator not far above the floor.

Much of the plot is very funny, with good writing, interesting twists, and great acting. Even weird plot developments — is one of the characters really there? and if so, how can there be a menage-a-trois about to happen? — are handled well by the cast and director Michael Rafkin.

And yet, by the final scene, Busch has lost focus, leaving director, actors, and audience at sea. It is as if Busch noticed that his play was getting close to an end, and hadn’t yet Said Anything Important. Frustrated with his inability to maneuver complex literary allusions and purely comic plot lines into a Message For The People, Busch gave up.

He starts by dropping "fucks" all over the dialogue, drawing more and more laughs with less and less meaning. Then he launches Ira and Marjorie into an indictment of Lee that gives a current-events tie-in, a clue about why Portland Players chose this script when others might have been more entertaining, and more satisfying.

They call her a terrorist. Over and over and over, they call her a terrorist, of the soul, of the heart.

Suddenly, a pleasant, fun evening of light theater turns into a clich├ęd, poorly argued piece of political theater. It is a stunning piece of theater bait-and-switch.

What’s worse, it drags on and on, as Busch gets his characters around to their points — lacking all of the wit and mental cleverness that made the first six scenes fun and interesting. And then the play just stops, leaving a sense of relief that the ordeal is over. The audience wants no more.

The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife
Written by Charles Busch. Directed by Michael Rafkin. With Irene E. Lemay, Keith Brown, Clay Graybeal, Betty Longbottom, and Anne Sibley O’Brien. At Portland Players, through April 4. Call (207) 799-7337.


Backstage

Prospective cast members beware. "Backstage" is officially stunned: Michael Howard, who didn’t show up to rehearsal after the Phoenix panned Macbeth last summer, didn’t get fired. He will be back directing for the Stage at Spring Point, which will have 12 performances of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in July. No word yet on whether Stage executive director Seth Rigoletti will attempt to star again.

• Sunday nights from 9 p.m. to midnight, hit rtsp:/./wmmc.mmm.edu/wmmc.sdp to listen to Theatre Trash with Braden Chapman, originating from New York and including news, gossip, reviews, interviews, and more.

The Escapists are arriving at Casco Bay Books with a sizzling 20-minute show, including short plays, pop songs, comedic improvisations, and one aria. Performers Chris Fitze, Ryan Gartley, Christine St. Pierre, and Shelia Jackson, with writers Jason Wilkins and Jamalieh Haley, and director R.J. McComish, will be there on Friday evening, April 2, with three shows: at 7:30, 8:30 and 10 p.m. Admission is free.