With spring finally springing, it’s time for the new. And for the next two weeks, theater-goers can queue up for two Portland festivals featuring brand new short plays. This week, it’s Acorn Productions’ Maine Playwrights Festival, now in its sixteenth year. And next week, Portland Stage Affiliate Artists’ Little Festival of the Unexpected, turns twenty-seven.
The Maine Playwrights Festival
Acorn stages six short plays, chosen from open call submissions, on an ultra-versatile set (designed by John Sundling) at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater.
In The Thing Carol Saw (directed by Mike Levine), playwright John Manderino interweaves the monologues of an uptight, judgy mom (Tracey Hall) and her frazzled, long-suffering daughter Carol (Chelsea Cook). Manderino’s counterpoised lines are tautly paced and imaginatively worded – Mom’s laugh is “bony”; a porcelain shepherd boy is used as a dig about a failed marriage – and Hall and Cook deliver it deliciously briskly.
Lynne Cullen’s The Wild Hunt (directed by Tess Van Horn) concerns military dogs and their handlers, as veteran Chris (Jason Cunningham) visits rich North Carolinian Kim (Kerry Rasor), the new owner of his former dog. As the script alternates between their debate and flashbacks of Chris in Afghanistan with soldier Freddie (Molly Donlan), it contrasts and develops its characters nicely, though it could be condensed and focused.
Ron Kanecke’s Miracles (directed by Christopher Price) proceeds from a compelling premise: After 10 years of staging fake faith-healing revivals with Winston (Paul Haley), Liv (Mariah Bergeron, hauntingly) tells him she’s felt true healing power. This show holds some of the festival’s most subtle acting, and though the resolution feels a little unfinished, Kanecke’s writing is quietly rich: Liv describes feeling her power like “ball bearings running back and forth under my palm.”
David Susman’s Walter Likes Henny Just Fine (directed by Tess Van Horn), set in a fancy restaurant’s restroom, brings together exuberant elderly Henny (a standout Deborah Paley) and young Ruth (Catherine Buxton, also excellent). Facing a “mirror” played out to the audience, she and Ruth bond over cosmetics and dating. Susman’s script revels in detail and texture, is beautifully shaped, and has some fun surprises. Van Horn stages the show exquisitely; the women seek each other’s eyes at angles in the mirror and then, in key moments, face to face.
In Connection, by David Vazdauskas (directed by Paul Haley), Peter (Joe Bearor) and Trish (Allie Freed) are anxiously hiding out in a cabin when they’re interrupted by an uncanny stranger, Tony (Randall Tuttle). Vazdauskas tips his hand a little early, and could vary the often-stratospheric tension level, but Connection convincingly conjures the intensity and mood of a sci-fi thriller.
The Little Festival of the Unexpected
Little Fest lets audiences watch and even contribute feedback about new full-length plays in the workshop process. Especially exciting about this year’s LF, says PSC literary manager Todd Backus, is that PSC has committed two of its plays, Marisa Smith’s Sex and Other Disturbances and Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, to its 2017-18 mainstage season, and the third, Bess Welden’s Refuge/Malja, to another workshop production.
Sex and Other Disturbances is a sex comedy about a rich woman who starts an affair, as Backus describes it, “to escape her husband’s constant fretting about the collapse of Western civilization.” The Niceties he calls “Oleanna-esque” (after the David Mamet play), a standoff between a biracial student and her white professor that tackles race, history, and privilege. And Refuge/Malja explores the meeting of a Jewish-American photojournalist and a Syrian refugee.
Welden, a local writer and performer, is now a third-time LF playwright. Portions of her play are in Arabic; she’s been collaborating on translations with Ali Al Mshakeel, a new Mainer originally from Iraq, and the production features two actors from the Middle East. “As Portland, and Maine as a whole, become home to more and more immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees from all over,” Welden says, “I think the story will resonate strongly for those who are arriving and for those of us who want to welcome and help them.”
The Maine Playwrights Festival | Produced by Acorn Productions, at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 517 Forest Ave. | Through May 6 | www.acorn-productions.org.
The Little Festival of the Unexpected | Produced by Portland Stage Affiliate Artists in the Studio Theater, 25A Forest Ave | May 10-13 | https://www.portlandstage.org/on-stage/affilliate-artist-events/.
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