Megan Grumbling

Megan Grumbling

Capturing an Animal: Legacy Artist Zoo Cain's Loving Documentary

First impressions of Zoo Cain tend to be visceral and vivid. “Something overtook me. It was like a magnetic attraction,” says a gray-haired woman in a spacious room with pink lilies. “‘Wow, look at this duck,’” a fellow with a weathered face says he thought to himself, watching Zoo turn up outside somewhere in 20-below weather and start sharpening a bunch of colored pencils. A blonde woman deems Zoo “beyond any sort of category.” Meanwhile, we intercut with rainbow-colored Chuck Close-ish squares; busts of Jesus and a cartoon spaceman; an apartment’s walls covered with collages of cut-up magazines and license plates, a bicycle suspended in a huge ring. And then, we see Zoo, a shaggy, Dude-like figure, descending his art-laden stairwell and into the snow.

So opens Peace, Love & Zoo, Reginald Groff’s documentary portrait of Zoo, riotously nonconventional artist and longtime stalwart of Portland’s recovery community. Groff’s through-line follows Zoo’s struggle with cancer and his pursuit of romantic love, but paint and colored pencils are constant motifs along the way. “Color him exuberant,” we read of Zoo, in a Press Herald headline. And indeed, Zoo, in the film’s framing and kaleidoscopic footage, adds a lot of color to the world.

We watch bearded, beatific Zoo draw or paint, we see his artifacts (his splattered red and blue shoes, his Technicolor pickup, his rainbow circles on the ceiling), and hear about his bio through the words of friends, daughter, ex-wife, and those he’s sponsored: living on Park Street in the 1970s with fellow art students; his youth of partying, depression, and addiction; his latter-day two decades of sobriety; and his benevolent presence in the recovery community. The interviewees’ universal ardor establishes up front just how much a force Zoo is in these circles, and Groff, whose own rapport with Zoo is clear in the footage, invites us into the legend and phenomenon.

feature zoocain

Courtesy of Reginald Groff. 

We get Zoo in myriad action: Wearing a teal blazer and fitting furniture into his truck (“It’s like a collage,” he says). Making an impromptu floor sculpture of tools and pieces of license plate. Setting up a gallery show in Mechanics Hall; dancing to the Substitutes; sitting at a table of his art on Congress for First Friday. And so Groff’s film is also a portrait of a certain Portland, and of certain bohemian ethos, which Mercedes Mehling’s editing makes exuberant in its psych-rock soundtrack, slo-mo footage of Zoo dancing at Bubba’s, and overlaid FX of paint-splatter.

Especially affecting are the testimonials of those who have struggled with addiction, and who with visibly radiant gratitude credit their recovery to Zoo. Margo Walsh relates how, after completing rehab thanks to Zoo, she founded Maine Works, a staffing company that connects vulnerable workers to construction jobs. We join Zoo at Maine Med as he visits August Murphy, a cystic fibrosis in-patient in recovery, and brings her a mini-AA meeting; her warmth for him is spontaneous and luminous. The cumulative interviews make tangible what one friend of Zoo’s calls “the ripple effect of recovery,” of how transformative and far-reaching even a small kindness can be.

Groff’s affectionate tribute paints a man whose kindnesses are big. It’s easy to be drawn into feeling some of his gentle but relentless optimism, his big-heartedness, his gratitude for simply being around to splatter some color on the planet. Before before he starts his chemo, Zoo pauses, smiling, in opening a jar of bright red paint. “Now that’s the stuff,” he says appreciatively. “I feel pretty damn good.”

“Peace, Love & Zoo, a film by Reginald Groff | Screens at Nickelodeon Cinemas, 1 Temple St., Portland | March 30 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. |

Cast Aside's Gutenberg! Wears Every Hat in the Book

Before heading out to Cast Aside Productions’ latest show, Gutenberg! The Musical!, I googled Johannes Gutenberg, the man who in 1439 famously introduced movable type — and thus mass literacy — to Europe. I found a possible broken betrothal, a few bankruptcies, and lots of gaps in the historical record — slim pickings, I thought, for a musical. Turns out the young writers of Gutenberg!, Bud Davenport (Kyle Aarons) and Doug Simon (Ryan Walker), did exactly the same thing. And with so few facts to go on, they tell us, they’ve created a “historical fiction” of Gutenberg’s life. That’s putting it mildly. And Bud and Doug are themselves the creations of writers Anthony King and Scott Brown. Which is to say that the true subject of Gutenberg! is not Gutenberg, but the hallowed institution of the Broadway musical itself. Celeste! Green directs a show of impeccably performed send-up at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater.

What we watch, in King and Brown’s Gutenberg!, is Bud and Doug’s pitch of their creation: a two-hour reading of the show performed by the two of them. They wear literally a dozen different hats, which are bright yellow, helpfully labeled (“Gutenberg,” “Drunk #2,” “Rat,” “Beef Fat Trimmer”), and delivered. Bud and Doug are optimistically certain, to an audience that includes Big Broadway Producers. For some reason, they believe that these producers need explained to them such terms as “score,” “book,” “metaphor,” and a dozen or so other terms, and so we also get a guileless, genially pedantic primer on the principles of musical theater, even as they mangle every trope and tradition in its book.

What ensues is comedy at its broadest. Gutenberg, played by Doug, runs a wine press in Schlimmer, Germany. He is beloved by his dumb blonde assistant Helvetica, played in a hat with two braids. There’s an evil, anti-mass-literacy Monk. There are lots of people singing wistfully about how they can’t read. There’s Aarons in a yellow “Friend” hat, cradling a yellow “Dead Baby” hat and cursing a jar labeled “Jelly Beans,” which “Friend” has accidentally fed to his baby in lieu of life-saving medicine because — well, you know.

And the guys who play them — I mean the real guys, Aarons and Walker — are all in with these hijinks, utterly and abidingly. The show, and Green’s snappily paced direction, puts them through their paces. And they nail the guileless, genial pedantry; they nail every style and trope that Bud and Doug butcher — tap dances, Elvis, Chicago sexy, torch songs, you name it. These are very competent actors playing men of stupefying incompetence but endless sincerity, and at this they are remarkable — rosily, haplessly devoted, one mouthing the words tenderly as the other sings.

They also manage some physical comedy that, as stupid as it looks, is often super complicated. A big counterpoint musical number with Gutenberg, Monk, Helvetica, and a chorus of Drunks and Beef Fat Trimmer, for example, means each actor quick-changes between the voices of the characters of the two to four hats they juggle. There’s a beat box. There’s a “chorus line” of yellow hats clipped to a rope. Aarons and Walker own it, exuberantly, exhaustively — and by the end, they must be exhausted.

My only question is Why? Does the institution of musical theater need another send-up, and one this broad and blunt? Probably not, but hats off anyway to the guys who send it.

Gutenberg! The Musical! | By Anthony King and Scott Brown; Directed by Celeste! Green; Music Direction by Rebekkah Willey; Produced by Cast Aside Productions | Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 517 Forest Ave., Portland | Through April 1 | $20 | 

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Trial in Purgatory: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot balances dark exercises with smart comedy

Purgatory — the waiting-place where the dead await judgment — turns out to have plumbing, bodegas, and a courthouse. So explains a cheery Southern angel (Marie Stewart Harmon), a jury member in the high-profile trial of Judas (Phoenix editor Nick Schroeder), infamous betrayer of Jesus. Among key jurisprudential questions, in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, are who deserves forgiveness, and who has grounds to bestow it. Stacey Koloski directs a nervy, canny ensemble in a standout production for Mad Horse.

Purgatory’s courtroom is both institutional, with cheap office chairs, and mythic, with an eerie detritus of white gravel and gold relics. Up top Meg Anderson’s grey set, the smug, seedy, sexist Judge Littlefield (Burke Brimmer) presides. In a sunken recess below him, catatonic Judas languishes. And on the floor, the sycophantic, thinks-he’s-suave prosecutor, Yusef El-Fayoumy (Mark Rubin), and the much-abused defense counsel, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Janice Gardner), question witnesses from across the ages.

These witnesses provide lenses for considering Judas’s actions — theology, psychology, philosophy, politics — and in portraying Apostles, Romans, and more. Mad Horse’s large, diverse ensemble offers more delights than I have room to name. Mandela Gardner plays a sweet, wrenching young Matthias of Galilee in a beautiful scene with young Judas and a spinning top; Tootie Van Reenen is an absurdly perfect Mother Teresa. Khalil LeSaldo brings measured gravitas to the wary working-class fisherman Peter, and a contained rage to his harder-edged Simon the Zealot, with a breathtaking monologue describing what the horrors of Roman rule would look like in the streets of New York.

Erica Murphy’s Saint Monica is a hyperactive gangsta in cutoffs, her speech riddled with muthafuckas, yet brings it down to tender softness holding Judas. Tony Reilly kills it as a tweedy, blustery Sigmund Freud; Caleb Aaron Coulthard does a great sleazy Pontius Pilate in a mobster’s peacoat and dark shades; and who but Brent Askari to play Satan? He does so with his trademark crass, petulant swagger, and then with a quiet cruelty, showing how terrifyingly un-dramatic it is to destroy a soul.

As the two counsels parry, Rubin and Gardner, both superb, present exactingly wrought contrasts. Rubin’s fabulously antic El-Fayoumy, in his chest-baring purple shirt, is like a wind-up toy of flattery, boy’s-club rapport and libido. In a zip-up black dress with the zipper low, Gardner makes nuanced, finely calibrated work of Cunningham’s subtler maneuvering: Terse and taut, she starts cool, then raises the heat, striking to the heart of a witness’ weakness.

Guirgis’s script balances intellectual exercise with lower-brow, pointedly modern comedy. On the one hand, we hear Thomas Merton on despair, or how God’s love and justice are the thesis and antithesis that synthesize in mercy. On the other hand, there are hard-ons, Tupac, and the Incredible Hulk. Valence and mood shift constantly, and Koloski’s savvy direction modulates the swerves with energy and precision. When Satan quietly turns to the hearts of the lawyers themselves, their sudden wrecked silence is devastating. And Guirgis’s daring third-act monologue, by an everyman juror (Jody McColman) is pitched so carefully, so obliquely, that its force transcends its leap.

Meanwhile, Jesus (Jason LeSaldo) watches from the shadows with an open gaze, the picture of radical acceptance. And watching Schroeder’s catatonic man on trial is like looking into the bottom of a well — his anguish is distant but discernible. Mad Horse’s ambitious show is a challenging, entertaining, and disarming investigation into what might be at the heart of the world’s wrongs: Any person made to feel small, shamed, and unworthy of even their own forgiveness.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot | By Stephen Adly Guirgis; Directed by Stacey Koloski; Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St., South Portland | Through April 9 | $20-22 (Thu 3/30 pay-what-you-can) |

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Wantonness and Buffoonery: Lyric's Spring Awakening

When it comes to understanding sexuality, abuse, abortion, and suicide, the nineteenth-century German youth of Spring Awakening are on their own. Wendla (Rachel Friedman) can’t get her mom to explain sex. Precocious Melchior (Eric Berry-Sandelin) critiques “parentalism” and tries to imagine the female orgasm. Moritz (Jake Boyce) agonizes over why he dreams of women’s stockings. We follow the trials of these and other teens in Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s acclaimed rock-musical, a remake of Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 German play. Jamie Lupien Swenson directs an exceptional, vitally performed community theater production, at Lyric Music Theater.

Sater and Sheik’s reinvention of Spring Awakening won eight Tonys, and it deserves the laurels. Score and lyrics are smartly and gorgeously interwoven: listen as the violin bends in counterpoint with the singers’ voices, or as the boys’ rhythmic Latin recitations punctuate Melchior singing about the limits of conventional knowledge. Lyrics themselves are refreshingly oblique, poetic, and full of leaps, and juxtapositions of music and word are surprising, as when a sweetly major resolution accompanies Melchior and Wendla’s tender but ambivalent refrain, “You’re gonna be my bruise.”

Lyric’s production team pulls all this off with fierce intelligence, skill, and sensitivity. The five-piece orchestra, directed by Bob Gauthier, performs vividly and with such color that the score seems a genuinely internal voice of the characters. And the young ensemble vibrantly embodies the dual innocence and experience of adolescence. The girls’ modest dresses, skipping and braids, the boys’ school uniforms and buffoonery, juxtapose sharply with the raw pop-rock anguish and desire of their songs.

Berry-Sandelin’s fine Melchior, by turns earnest and wry, has the weariness of one who understands more than those in power. His Melchior has a level, knowing gaze, in contrast with his friend Moritz, whom the engaging Boyce plays as frenzied, wide-eyed and dramatic. As Wendla, falling for Melchior, Friedman mingles innocence and sensual knowledge, at once enchanting and aching. Her Wendla is captivating as she reacts to the revelation of Martha (Alyssa Rojecki, wrenchingly) that her father beats her: Wendla sits shuddering and flushed, at once appalled and, without quite knowing it, aroused.

Movements and gestures are by turns stylized and affectingly subtle. As an alarm sound pulses and the light washes red, the boys slap their school slates against their laps and throw their arms into lurid gestures; in the song “Touch Me,” boys and girls physicalize sexual rapture in underwater undulations. There is much to watch in faces alone: Hanschen smiles with tender amusement as Ernst (Ricky Brewster) describes his fantasies of being a country pastor, then his smile turns sensual and sly as he describes his own m.o. of “skimming the cream.” After their first kiss, the two look at each other with lovely, amazed candor and delight.

All of the adults around these teens — parents, teachers, priests, doctors — are played by just two actors, Lynn C. Borer-McKellar and Mark E. Dils, both excellent. Swenson wisely directs them to portray the grown-ups as not monstrous but simply callous, clueless or cowed by convention or their own hang-ups. Their realism heightens the horror when the teenagers’ fates go wrong.

Which some do — tragically, needlessly. But the play also honors young people’s capacity to endure, to synthesize their tragedies into resolutions about the adults they’ll choose to be. Lyric’s arresting Spring Awakening presents a bravely articulate anthem for the young and a warning for the rest of us: as treacherous as forgetting history is forgetting our own youth.

Spring Awakening | Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater; Music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by Jamie Lupien Swenson | Through April 2 | Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer Rd., South Portland | $19-23 |   

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No, You're the Puppet!: Shoestring's Magical Peter Pan

Remember Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up? These days, the premise might seem a little less magical and a little more distressingly non-fictional. Leave it to Shoestring Theater, and its cheerfully anarchic puppet antics, to update and upend J. M. Barrie’s classic. Shoestring’s new Peter Pan, adapted and directed by Nance Parker, runs this Friday and Saturday, as the feature of Mayo Street Arts’ Puppet Cabaret, which opens with the Bad Puppys’ The Man Who Stole the Thunder: The True Story of a Pilot who Ejected into a Thundercloud and Lived to Tell the Tale.

Shoestring has built a brand new puppet theater for Peter Pan, an elegantly simple structure that allows its puppets to cavort on three different stages. Two of these are part of a trifold painted green and blue, with confectionary puffs of white-pink-orange flowers: near the top is an adjustable screen for shadow puppets, and above that is the open realm of hand and stick puppets. Behind that is a larger screen for yet more shadow puppetry, plus the elaborate cutouts and projections that serve as backdrops — island palms, a dreamy skyscape of moon and clouds, a city skyline silhouetted at dusk.

Peter (Zach Rohman) bursts onto these scenes in stripy green hat, skinny jeans, and pointedly orange hair. With a pleased-with-himself smile and bare feet, he struts, climbs the wall, and lounges like a pin-up on the middle stage. “I have no responsibilities!” he gloats in his high, soaring voice. “Just like our president!” He’s a shameless narcissist. “Stupendous, awesome, remarkable me!”

Here and elsewhere, Nance Parker’s adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s book subverts the story cheekily. The show gets in digs at gentrification as Wendy (Dylan Rohman) and her brothers (Zara Machatine and Sacaira Machatine) consider going to Neverland: “No more traffic or hipsters?” says Wendy, tempted. Meanwhile, stylish Captain Hook (Zara Machatine) — wearing a hat with a very long, very erect red feather — has to content himself with being meaner than everybody except Donald Trump. Instead of the problematically exoticized Indian maiden Tiger Lily, we have Tiger Mom (Allison Villani), who vows that every child will make first violin. And the idea of Wendy having to mother everybody gets especially knocked. “She’s the girl,” whine the Lost Boys, “she wants to be the mother,” as Wendy shakes her puppet head in disgust.

Production design has style and savvy to spare. As Hook stalks Peter on pirate ships and through tropical island forests, Cat LaBarre’s gorgeous shadow projections on the two screens offer striking, almost cinematic effects: an injured Hook plunges down the big screen in close-up, then continues downward on the little screen, smaller, as if in a long shot. Shadow-puppet Peter flies in from Neverland tiny and in the distance, as a cityscape cut-out rises beneath him, before the projection shifts to a window inside the Darlings’ house. Shoestring gives us kazoos doing the Star Wars theme, El Malo drummer Rion Hergenhan on sundry percussion, and a soundtrack that includes David Byrne and “Kung Fu Fighting” — the latter of which accompanies a truly awesome hinge-limbed fight scene, as Peter and Hook do mixed-martial-arts à la Neo in The Matrix.

Peter’s got this, of course. But he’s still a narcissist. And can 21st century kids really handle Neverland when they’ve been raised on the alternate reality of Corporate America? Just clap your hands, guys: Shoestring’s Peter Pan is smart, screwy medicine for what ails us.

Peter Pan, adapted by Nance Parker from the book by J. M. Barrie. Directed by Nance Parker for Shoestring Theater | With The Man Who Stole the Thunder, by the Bad Puppies | Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland | March 17-18, 7 p.m. |

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Up for Babs: Dustin Tucker Soars in Buyer & Cellar

The story of Buyer & Cellar is a work of fiction, its narrator assures us right off the bat, but its bizarre central premise is true: Barbra Streisand designed and built a period 19th-century shopping mall in her Malibu basement. Buyer & Cellar proceeds from playwright Jonathan Tolins’s improbable thought experiment: What if Barbra hired someone to “run” the “shops”?

That someone is Alex, a snarky underemployed actor. The pricelessly funny Dustin Tucker plays him — and Barbra, and several other people — in Portland Stage Company’s confection of a one-man show, directed by Kate Galvin.

The stage is set with Meg Anderson’s pale, gorgeously designed “mall”: a tall façade of shop-front surfaces and signs — a “Gift Shoppe,” “Bee’s Doll Shop,” a “Dress Shop” — and, mid-stage, a clean-lined upholstered sofa and writing desk. Everything, including the stage floor, is a cool ivory (a color Alex calls “putty-linen”) and it makes a lovely canvas for Andrew Hungerford’s lighting as it shifts with the mood. Barbra has spent time and unimaginable money on getting every detail perfect down here, and just watch the doors of Anderson’s putty-linen set open to reveal glistening rainbow hues of candy, ribbons, and dresses. Barbra expects the same perfection of the man hired to play the salesman of all this. “It’s about making it feel real,” admonishes Streisand’s assistant. “Truth is very important to her.”

“Truth” in La-La Land? The show is also very much an homage to and jabs at L.A. — its illusions, its realities, and those drawn to make it there. Alex’s patter is riddled with rent-paying gigs at Banana Republic and Disneyland, snarky analyses of Judy Garland, Little Fockers, and tinsel-y little grace notes (“The trees glistened like sequins on Liza Minelli”).

Tucker, long beloved in this town for his physically agile, antically giddy comedy, is a treat to watch doing almost anything, and he’s especially the man for shows with myriad character quick-changes. He does Barbra, her imperious British personal assistant, and an amazing James Brolin (Barbra’s current husband), giving him a thick, masculine voice and square-jawed smile; he goes maybe a little over the cliché mountain with Alex’s nasal, tetchy Jewish boyfriend Barry. But he’s pitch perfect in navigating Alex’s cocktail of incredulity, skepticism, and wonder, plus several fixes of the quintessential Tucker grin — that of a giddily evil nine-year old.

And how is his Babs? Early on, Alex makes a point to assure that he’s not going to “do” Barbra, but rather “be” her — an astute distinction, and if anybody could pull this off, it’s Tucker. His Barbra is coy, slinky, grand, and insecure, and gives her a range of tenderly particular tics: a heaving, open-mouthed laugh, little sweeping circles she makes with her hands, her tendency to splay the scarf across her like a cape. “More!” she says, clapping her finger-splayed hands, as he makes her a frozen yogurt.

Tucker channels a real entity in his Barbra, whose pathos deepens as she talks about success, weight, and conventional beauty, about how her only doll, growing up in the projects, was a hot water bottle in a knitted sweater. The portrait is at once grotesque and homage, Tucker draws her with both a keen, droll eye and — improbably — uncommon compassion. Pathos? Compassion? Barbra Streisand? Yes, and does Tucker ever run with it. “It just goes to show,” a theater companion was heard to exclaim, “that you can make a play about anything.”

Buyer & Cellar, by Jonathan Tolins. Directed by Kate Galvin. Produced by Portland Stage Company | Through March 26 | $32-48 ($15 day of show tickets for 35 and under) |

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Power Play: DRC's Sex-Obsessed Venus in Fur

“Whatever happened to femininity?” writer-director Thomas (Joe Bearor) complains in his audition room. Poor Thomas can’t find a single actress smart, sensual, and powerfully feminine enough to play the lead in his new show, Venus in Fur, which he’s adapted from the 1870 book that inspired the term “masochism.” And things don’t look any better when crass, slaphappy, unsophisticated Vanda (Casey Turner) shows up. But audition she does, to unexpected ends, in David Ives’s Venus in Fur, a play-within-a-play about power, gender, and sexual fantasy. Peter Brown and Keith Powell Beyland co-direct a deliciously sly Maine premiere of the production, starring Bearor and Turner — both virtuosic — in the much-anticipated return to the boards of Dramatic Repertory Company.

Thomas’s play concerns Severin, an aristocrat who has come to fetishize submission. He falls for a woman — also named Vanda; what are the odds? — who considers herself “a pagan,” living entirely for pleasure. What ensures is “erotic,” quips Vanda the actress, “if you’re into humiliation.” This pains intellectual Thomas. But in his very un-erotic audition space — institutional metal desk, plastic coffeemaker, shabby green divan — actress and director get quite into playing the roles.

theatre venusandfur PhotoByCraigRobinson

Rich in profanity, playful kink, and slow-burn reversals, Ives’s script is a sensual playground for two skilled actors, and Bearor and Turner fully own both its broad strokes and its subtleties. When Vanda arrives, Bearor’s self-regarding, metrosexual Thomas condescends just dickishly enough — disdainful eyebrows, the tone of a teacher with an unruly teen — to seem a certain kind of Everyman. Turner’s cheerfully brassy Vanda keeps him on his toes as she veers from one thought to the next with a sudden, guttural “Ooooh,” tongue in teeth, feet stomping. Turner’s characteristic brightness lends her Vanda something interestingly wholesome even in her vulgarities, lends something compellingly alarming to the high-beam brilliance of her smile.

It’s as they shift in and out of the play-within-a-play that things really get interesting. Wearing now modern S&M-wear, now a white gown, Turner turns on a dime from the actress Vanda’s brashness to the character Vanda’s sophistication, bringing it down several registers in volume, tone, and gesture. The first time she speaks as the character Vanda, her body motionless, her voice is suddenly rich with subtext; listen for her suddenly exquisite articulation as she says, of Severin’s erotic bookmark, “Your Venus is as well-thumbed as your Faust.” Like Thomas, we lean in, hold our breath, watch closely for what knowledge or urge her newly controlled face and frame might reveal.

As Vanda swerves in and out of character with Thomas, with a build that Brown and Beyland pace expertly, Bearor navigates cannily between condescension, fascination, rage, arousal, and pathos. He lets us see a man from whose feet Vanda pulls the carpet repeatedly, and he registers it in the shifting set of his jaw and shoulders, in his hands poised or slack, in how the arrogance inflates or leaches from his voice. Turner, meanwhile, does an electric job of modulating each new glint of the actress in the character and the character in the actress. And an incredible “improvisation” scene, in which Vanda channels a jolly German Aphrodite — a jaw-dropping send-up of the feminine ideal — is itself worth the price of admission.

As the terms of power are renegotiated, DRC’s savvy, charged production seduces as it reveals how skewed, and how laughable, the projections of the male gaze can be. What “happened” to femininity? How about what hack writer came up with it?

Venus in Fur, by David Ives | Directed by Peter Brown and Keith Powell Beyland | Produced by Dramatic Repertory Company, at the Portland Stage Studio Theater | Through March 12 | $20-35 |

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Love and Rage — Watching James Baldwin's I Am Not Your Negro


Some of the most acute and devastating insights on race in America came from African-American writer James Baldwin. He grew up in Harlem, moved to Paris to flee racism, and returned for a time during the American Civil Rights Movement; his analysis of the nation has the depth of a thinker who is at once native son and outsider. Director Raoul Peck places Baldwin at the center of a new film, I Am Not Your Negro, which screens at the Portland Museum of Art this weekend. In this searing, elegantly crafted documentary, Peck sets Baldwin’s life and ideas against imagery from the nation’s political history and popular culture, both celebrating the writer and using him as a lens to consider our long and continued racial wounds.

Peck frames I Am Not Your Negro around an unfinished project of Baldwin’s, begun in 1979, to examine America through the lives of three close friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin got as far as 30 pages of notes toward the project, titled Remember This House. Peck lets Baldwin’s own words drive the film, carefully excerpting from notes, letters, and essays (read by a subdued, reverent Samuel L. Jackson), and including dazzling footage of Baldwin himself, speaking at debates and on television.

As B-roll to Baldwin, Peck assembles an extraordinary body of archival material — of the three murdered leaders, segregationists, black marchers, politicians, and more.  Sometimes Peck follows the lead of Baldwin’s words, and sometimes he elaborates pointedly: As Baldwin talks about the disconnect between “America's moral stance and public life,” we see a vapidly smiling white family shopping in a shiny 1960's supermarket. As Baldwin talks about the "corpses of your brothers and sisters" piling up, we see smiling school portraits of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.


Peck also draws cannily from popular culture. We see cuts from films and performances that are part of Baldwin’s analysis — heroism in Uncle Tom’s Cabin versus in Stagecoach; the tonal America of Gary Cooper and Doris Day versus that of Ray Charles. We see old ads featuring subservient blacks with bulging eyes, and a white woman bemoaning her daughters’ black boyfriends on a talk show. We even see the banalities of “The Gong Show,” while Baldwin memorably observes, "To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality." 

Particularly penetrating are Baldwin’s reflections about the psyche of the subjugator, about the terror and damage at his core. "You cannot lynch me and keep me in the ghetto without becoming something monstrous yourselves," we hear, as Peck shows us photos of hung black men. And Baldwin, live in debate: “If you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it. If I am not a nigger here, and you invented him — you, the American people, invented him — then you've got to figure out why.”

And the expressive nuance of Baldwin’s delivery is arresting — his sad glance down or tired look away, the unexpected warmth of a grin, his hands come suddenly alive, how he wistfully draws out an s. At times, he projects almost embarrassment for white America. At times, almost pity. 

Peck’s film is a revelation of Baldwin’s spirit and a continuation of his formidable cultural synthesis. The filmmaker asks us to by turns witness, contemplate, condemn, praise, and, above all, to look. "Not everything that is faced can be changed,” Baldwin writes, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced." I Am Not Your Negro brings Baldwin’s words into a present America that still desperately, urgently needs to hear them.


I Am Not Your Negro | Written by James Baldwin. Directed by Raoul Peck. Screens at the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Sq., Portland | Fri March 10, 2 & 6:30 p.m.; Sun March 12 11:30 a.m., 2 & 5 p.m. | $8 |  

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Unromantic Squabbling Actually Quite Hot in George Bernard Shaw Classic

Just how sweet and honorable is it to go to die for one’s country? George Bernard Shaw looked askance at such romantic notions in Arms and the Man, which tells of how war-dazzled young Raina falls for enemy soldier Captain Bluntschli, a jaded, pragmatic soldier-for-hire. Pie Man Theatre Company presents the classic comedy at Mayo Street Arts, under the direction of Stephanie Ross.

Staged intimately in the round, the show opens in the bedroom of well-off Raina (Emily Grotz), who marvels with her mother (Patricia Mew) over the military braveries of her beloved Sergius. Later, alone, she has a gun pointed at her by Bluntschli (Joshua Brassard), a Swiss soldier fighting for the Serbs, who is looking for a place to hide. She mocks his lack of soldierly grandeur; he mocks her syrupy naivete. Yet Raina decides to help him, and despite — or because of — the two’s quite unromantic squabbling, something between them is lit.

Grotz’s Raina has an expressive heart-shaped face and long, graceful limbs, and her every sinew moves in service of the high-flown. She’s supple and sonorous as she thrills and declaims, and her mellifluous, glamorous indignation at Bluntschli contrasts nicely with Brassard’s haggard stooping, his gaze and voice seem to hold ache and scraped exhaustion both physical and spiritual. In their crucial first scene together, they make high, vividly rancorous sport of their mutual exasperation. I’d like to see more of the moment — granted, a fleeting one — when she decides to risk hiding him.

The next day, Sergius returns to Raina from battle, and Cameron Foley gives him the smarmy self-righteous swagger of a bantam cock as he panders to Raina’s mother and father (Howard Rosenfield). But later, as he comes on to the cynical maid Louka (Allison Kelly), he shows his real, lecherous self, and Foley shifts gears admirably, bringing the volume down and the valance up. In Kelly’s hands, Louka poses a bewitchingly dark, subtle foil to Raina’s bright posturing, with her disdainful sidelong second looks and infinitesimal sneers. She scorns her fiancé, fellow servant Nicola (Kyle Aarons, who gives the servant’s priggishness a sympathetic dignity), but also shows an interesting ambivalence when he finally releases her to her higher aspirations.

Pie Man’s production design gestures at the 19th-century period and its stations, but also contains a few odd anachronistic touches. Raina’s father’s jacket — red velvet, many-zippered — seems plucked from the 1970s; a scene furnished with upper-class wicker inexplicably finds the table set with suburban-style plastic cups — maybe a nod at the provincialism of these self-regarding “sophisticates,” but still a little puzzling. Director Ross also makes a few cute slapstick comic strokes, with a big teddy bear, that perhaps overshoot Shaw’s comedic flavor.

But Shaw’s comedy is certainly big and full of bombast, and the show excels at this. What we might see a touch more of is the lower, more knowing levels, the cracks in the bombast. We see it in Louka’s scenes with Sergius, played deliciously low and dirty, and Grotz does drop what Bluntschli calls Raina’s “thrilling voice” when it counts, at the climax. I’d love to see a few hints of the real Raina even before then, a few more little glimpses of how his candor beguiles her before she understands why.

Like Raina, we surely feel the most ardor for the lover who sees through our bullshit and calls us on it. Perhaps love of country, at its finest, is no less clear-eyed? Suffice it to say that Shaw’s critique isn’t ready for the dustbin just yet.

Arms and the Man, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Stephanie Ross. Produced by Pie Man Theatre Company | through February 26 at Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland | 

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Crass gags and a smart cast in Cocktails and Travails

Are the nonstop national news alerts making you anxious, desperate, and easily triggered into dread and nausea? Well, you’ve got nothing on Greg (Mark Rubin) – he’s up for tenure. He and his wife Emily (Heather Perry Weafer) are about to host tenure committee heavy-hitter Professor Stilton (Lisa Muller-Jones) for cocktails, and his career depends on absolutely nothing going wrong. What could possibly go wrong? Ever so much, in Portland writer and actor Brent Askari’s giddily uncouth farce Cocktails and Travails, winner of the 2015 Neil Simon Festival National New Play Contest. Christopher Price directs a boisterous production with a smart, very game cast, at the Theater Project.


How many times can a new person think they’re the only one spiking the punch? A bunch of times, as it turns out, and it somehow keeps being funny. Askari’s is not a bedroom farce but a farce of food and inedibles, alcohol, and hi-lo cultural divides – cheese curls, coconut massage oil, whether mixed nuts may be served in their tin. Greg and Emily subscribe to both the Atlantic and People, and the décor of their apartment itself is somehow a marriage of starter academic class – dark green walls and ruddy wood, modern art, an Asian table – and casual low-brow – a frumpy gray couch, rainbow striped blanket, lots of pink flowers.


The constellation of the show’s characters and relationships are true to classic formulations of farce. As Greg and Emily, Rubin and Weafer do a super job both complimenting and ramping each other up; we see their differences even in the manner in which each pours vodka into the punch. Rubin’s fiercely insecure, buttoned-up Greg is impossibly taut, jittery, in constant seized motion, while Emily, in flowing clothes, is maternal, competent, and warmly measured, but with her own limits and exasperation. The situation is tenuous even before anybody uninvited shows up.


Which naturally they will. With the unexpected arrival of Greg’s deadbeat brother Dylan (Keith Anctil), stubbly in baggy gray everything, I felt actual panic on Greg’s behalf. Anctil’s in fine comic form playing Dylan’s disastrously misguided fraternal affections as earnest and good-natured; and he’s in good company with the marvelously brash Kate O’Neill as fellow tenure-deterrent Margaret, Emily’s loud, red-haired, low-brow, eternally wronged mom.


And what of the feared Sphynx-ish historian, Professor Stilton? Muller-Jones has her enter with a bored sideways non-smile that shows you exactly how she feels about being there, and we see that Greg had every reason to be paranoid about being judged. In large tortoise-shell frames and a blazer, Muller-Jones’s Professor perfectly exudes the wry, quietly disinterested superiority of someone confident in their power. Her role requires a lot of reaction and nuanced comedy over the long haul, and she misses not a moment as she quietly grows queasier and more confused. Later, when she stumbles getting up from the couch, she slurs, with priceless dignity, “Tripped.”


Askari’s script has plenty of fun verbal moments that highlight failures of verbality, as Greg fakes intellectual conversation (“Some theses are flawed and boring, but this one was flawed and interesting”) or describes the as-yet-nonexistent hors-d’oeuvres (“They look like food. Like little food”). And the physical gags are gleefully, unapologetically crass. Pacing careens from the get-go, and though things slow a bit in the second act, the farce sustains the momentum of its low-brow hijinks.


And the low-brow eventually proves useful, of course, in rectifying the wreckage it has caused for Greg. Perhaps that will prove true on the larger cultural stage as well. I wouldn’t count on it, but we still do need to laugh.


Cocktails and Travails, by Brent Askari. Directed by Christopher Price. Produced by the Theater Project, in Brunswick, through February 12. Visit

  • Published in Theater
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