Megan Grumbling

Megan Grumbling

Speak the Language — Ziggurat's Electric 'Ninshaba'

In the 1920s, a Syrian farmer discovered some very old bones, which turned out to be from the graves of the lost city of Ugarit, circa 1400 BCArchaeologists also found Ugaritic texts, including one story, written on 10 clay tablets, that they think dates to 8000 BC Turkey. It tells of a young woman named Ninshaba who dreams that her long-lost mother is a goddess on a mountain, and who sets out to find her. Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble re-tells the Ugaritic re-telling in the visually arresting, stunningly performed Ninshaba, on stage at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater under the direction of Ziggurat co-founders Stephen Legawiec and Dana Wieluns Legawiecwho first created and staged the show 20 years ago.

We hear the historical background up front, in chummy everyman narration by Stephen Legawiec, and the story’s entire plot-linewhich unfolds over 10 episodes, is previewed—several times—by a seven-member ensemble, dressed in white robes and headdresses, faces painted white and lips red. In this way, Ziggurat allows to pretend that we, too, have long heard the story repeated, and it prepares us for what is most idiosyncratic and revelatory about the show: Ninshaba is performed almost entirely in an invented language. 

As early as the first tablet, as Ninshaba (Erica Murphy) shakes in feverthen tells her nurse Batzabbay (Kathleen Nation) of her visions, the experience of watching immediately feels differentGesture, costume, and sound become momentous and charged, become the crucial, archetypal currencies of the story, much like Stacey Koloski’s simple set of white-gray pillars, textured like fossils, feels both ancient and timeless. Loosened in time, freed from verbal language, we watch with a different part of the brain, and it is exhilarating.

Murphy’s tall, elegant Ninshaba is an earnest, innocently imperious ingénue, in contrast with the slapstick-y vagabond Quaqsaya (Dana Wieluns Legawiec), a kaleidoscopic fool who guideNinshaba to the mountain, ribbing and joking on the wayLegawiec’s timing, whether guilting Ninshaba out of flatbread or chasing away a paunchy paramour (Megan Tripaldi), is impeccableAnd Murphy is sinuouspreternaturally graceful, and sometimes—in a belly dance or a flailing ritual ecstasy—electric. Without words, everyone’s least gesture resonates. When a rat in a nun’s habit (Molana Oei) shows up, all it has to do is look sideways at Ninshaba—once, twice—and the sense of threat is primal.

That nun, its rat-face mask tapering out eerily from its habit, is one in a gorgeous and inventive array of costumes and masks (by Anne Collins and Beckie Kravetz). The goddess Ashera (Emily Grotz) wears iridescent green-gold; plague victims hang red strips of gauze over noses and mouths; a black-gauzed woman in mourning (Hollie Pryor) stoops under the weight of white-wrapped corpseAs we watch, we hear drums, chimes, and—most importantly—the powerfully tonal human voiceIn their invented language, the voices convey fear, exasperation, and grief; whisper little cacophonies of gossip; and sing Middle Eastern harmonies, carrying the emotions from tablet to tablet.

Each tablet’s scene is short, sweet, and perfectly framed, like poems, or—and I mean this in the best way—like television episodes good enough to binge-watch. It’s a reference I don’t make frivolously, because part of what’s remarkable about Ninshabais how wisely it understands what’s most timeless in how we need and craft our stories. We may currently preserve them in ones and zeros instead of clay and cuneiform, but their essential shapes—dream, joke, mountain—remain our own.

NinshabaCreated and produced by the Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble; directed by Stephen Legawiec and Dana Wieluns Legawiec; produced at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater | Through May 28 | Fri-Sun 7:30 pm | $20, $15 seniors/students, $5 youth 8-12 |www.ziggurattheatre.org


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  • Published in Theater

Every Moment Counts — The Dazzling 'Constellations' at SPACE Gallery

The stage of Constellations is aintimate six-sided spacebeneath a geometric frame of shimmering panes — the stage is like one small cell in a cosmic honeycomb. What transpires here is all possible worlds of connection between Marianne (Phoebe Parker), a physicist studying quantum cosmology, and Roland (Matt Delamater), a beekeeper.

Nick Payne’s two-hander is on stage now in a transporting show at SPACE Gallery, directed by Sean Mewshaw (the director behind legendary SPACE shows Killer Joe and Gruesome Playground Injuries) and with a dazzling immersive installation by John Sundling. It is far too good to miss.

With its prismatic structure, its cables strung at angles through the gallery, and a few other space-age surprises, Sundling’s installation conjures at once a cell, a universe, and a cathedral, all before the play even begins. The show opens with a mesmerizing little musical preludeas small spots of light grow, float, and melt into each other (gorgeous lighting design by Heather Crocker, sound by Ian Hundt, and projections by Amelia Persans). And then: “Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbow?” Marianne asks a surprised Roland at a barbeque. This first moment of their communion turns out to be miraculously plural: In Constellations, we watch countless variationon this and other scenes of their relationship, given Marianne’s belief that we might be “part of a multiverse” — that all our possible choices might coexist in parallel dimensions.

It certainly is a ravishing premise, and Delamater and Parker execute its fragmented repetitions and fluctuations with agility and abundant tenderness. As they deliver precariously similar lines multiple times, they vary their characters’ tone, confidence, receptivity, innuendo, rage, and/or intoxication. It doesn’t get old. Key to their success is an intimate, less-is-more naturalness, which keeps the show from becoming a series of stylized burlesques. Instead, their variations become a fascinating vehicle of suspenseas we watch the myriad possibilities of whether and how, for example, Marianne asks Roland to leave or to stay.

Soon we are also seeing fragments from farther along their trajectory; the narrative is propelled toward both the “endingand how many ways a given moment can go. Parker’s Marianne takes Roland home now with drunken, laughing sensuality, other times with a self-protective restraint that — depending on Roland — sometimes turns defensive, sometimes softens. Roland’s reaction to an infidelity is stricken, then lit with sarcastic rage, then awash in forgiveness. Both actors are superb, and show a special virtuosity for shifting from a scene of aching closeness, skin against skin in almost cellular intimacy, to dancing at arm’s length and the distance of strangers.

Payne’s writing is funny, colloquial, and particular (Marianne talks of cosmic microphase; a rival is mocked now for his bowl cut, now for his dandruff). It also holds some breathtaking surprises. A suddenly near-silent scene is delivered entirely in sign language.

A struggling Marianne (haunting, in Parker’s hands) lands on rivetingly wrong words: “Before, people had face,” she says haltingly, trying to explain how we once dealt with crisis. “Before things became skin.”

Through Parker and Delamater’s remarkably empathetic performances, any one version of the couple comes to feel like the sum of its multiplicity. And its exquisite final moments, Constellations lets Marianne and Roland waltz in the vastness of their possibilities, much like Tom Stoppard’s Thomasina and Septimusin another play about physics and love, waltz in the face of entropy. As Marianne and Roland dance, their infinite choices — and the limits of knowing only one at a time — scintillate in the air. We might feel our own myriad selves hovering somewhere close.

Constellations | By Nick Payne; directed by Sean Mewshaw | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | Through May 21 | $15 adv, $18 day of | www.space538.org


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  • Published in Theater

Draw the Horns Before the Bull — Pie Man's 'Lascaux' at Mayo Street Arts

Our first glimpse into Lascaux, Kevin O’Leary’s suspense thriller, is an image from the famous French cave drawings that give it its name: primitive beasts, a large charcoaled bull. Simon (Josh Brassard) has drawthese animals from memory; as a child, over 40 years ago, it was he and his friend Marcel (J.P. Guimont) who discovered the Lascaux drawings. Now, in 1983, traumatized Simon sketches bullin a mental institution, while Marcel has gained fame for the discovery. And what will happen now that Simon’s psychiatristKatherine (Mary Fraser)has summoned Marcel to the institution? Secrets abound. Everyone has somewhere dark to descend. There’s an excellent wine cellar under Katherine’s office. What unfolds, in Lascaux, is part psychological thriller, part noir-tinged melodrama, and — this being France — part wine tasting. Stephanie Ross directs the world premiere productionat Mayo Street Arts.

“He calls you his ‘treasure,’” Katherine tells Marcel, smiling brightly, but Marcel is on edge. He bends to smell Simon’s largest bull mural (painted by Brian O’Leary), which is the striking centerpiece of the set, positioned in the proscenium. The mural’s two panels open up cleverly to become Simon’s room, as if he is living in a secret little boxAs Marcel reawakens bulls and a “man-bird” in Simon’s fevered rants, and as Marcel and Katherine elegantly parry, flirt, and drink one superb vintage after another, Ross’s blocking makes stylish use of spaceAction moves well from Simon’s room, on the stagedown to Katherine’s office on the floor and, further down, the cavernous wine cellar (nicely distressed with cobwebs and a sprinkling of cave dust) to which they frequently adjourn.

His voice low, laconic, and brutal, Guimont juxtaposes well against Fraserwhose Katherine is funny and lively, her smile shot with light. As their revelations and the wine progress (without, oddly, much evidence of intoxication in either of them), Fraser navigates nicely between vivacious, coy, witty, and vulnerable. As Simon, speaking in fragments, Brassard goes all out with pathos and intense mannerisms of trauma, shaking, twitching, shouting. He is most affecting when he dials down Simon’s physicality, as he might do a little more often, letting us see the flickering of hidden things in his eyes.

The central mysteries and symbols of Lascaux are compelling, and O’Leary’s writing has many strong moments — many about the act and artifact of drawing: Katherine recounts to Marcel, “Simon tells me the line is the way to the truth,” and Simon shows some interesting glints of intention as he instructs Marcel to “draw the horns first.” Simon’s monologues, filled with lyrically disjointed phrases and images, sometimes feel unfocusedand might be more succinctly sequenced in their reveals. O’Leary might also mete out Marcel’s true nastiness a little more gradually, might make his gratuitous abuse of an underling (on a great chunky 1980’s mobile phone) a little less of a trope. But the script nails many truly creepy moments — as when Marcel opens his trench coat to display its furry lining, beckons Katherine or Simon close to touch, and intones, with Guimont’s excellent gallows-deadpan, “It’s rabbit.”

As the night wears on and tensions spike, some scenes could bear some distillation (like an extended forest search scene), but as the three search for beasts, treasure, or, ultimately, forgiveness, they certainly don’t lack for drama. Lascaux may even, at times, veer toward melodrama in its tropes and villainies. But it speaks with fervor and, at its best, good strong poetry, as it goes into the dark to see what is drawn there.

Lascaux | By Kevin O’Leary; directed by Steph Ross; produced by Pie Man Theatre Company | Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland | Through May 21 | $20 ($15 seniors/$10 students) | www.piemantheatre.org


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  • Published in Theater

Identity and Its Discontents: Portland Stage's 'Disgraced'

Amir (Alex Purcell), a corporate lawyer, and Emily (Roya Shanks), a painter, live in an expensive apartment high over Manhattan, with tall windows and haut-Orientalist décor, Moorish-cum-Art-Deco ceiling lamps. Emily, who is white, is fascinated by Islam and has been using its forms in her paintings, but Amir, born to Pakistani immigrants, denounces his ancestral religion. This tension between them is but the first of many in Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning conflagration about race, religion, and representation. Portland Stage presents a sharp and vigorously paced production, directed by Christopher Grabowski.


Akhtar, an American playwright himself and born to Pakistani immigrants, intricately constructs the racial and religious tensions of Disgraced. Emily is vigilant about racist slights against Amir that he himself shrugs off. Amir resists the pleas of his nephew Abe (Salar Ardebili) to help an imprisoned imam. And Amir is not so keen on Emily’s new art — particularly her portrait of him, à la Velazquez’s portrait of the slave Juan de Pareja. But the biggest catastrophes of the play (as with many recent Pulitzer winners) hinge on one dinner party, when Amir and Emily host gallerist Isaac (Jonas Cohen), who plans to exhibit Emily’s new work, and his wife Jorie (Robin Payne), who works with Amir. Isaac is Jewish and Jorie is black, and what might sound like the set up to an identity-politics joke winds up being far more bitter and outrageous.
Purcell’s handsome, arrogant, self-consciously alpha Amir is well-paired with the more measured and idealistic Emily, whom Shanks ranges between nurturing, sexy, and self-righteous. Sometimes the couple shares a sly, sensual connection; other times they look across the room at each other like they aren’t in the same dimension. Ardebili’s young Abe, slurring and plaintive, is endearingly loose-limbed against Amir’s harder-edged words and his svelte but aggressive movements.


Then there’s the party. Its tensions depend on constantly shifting alliances and characterizations that frequently re-calibrate our sympathies. And Grabowski’s actors make their faux-chummy banter and veiled condescension not just convincing but electrically entertaining. Isaac navigates between entitled magnanimity, affront, and contempt, and sassy Jorie speaks her mind with no-nonsense wryness (“Moor?” she says laconically, brows raised. “I haven’t heard that word in a minute.”). And Emily’s ethics, love, and self-interest are equally tangible as they tie her in knots while she is trying to keep everything civil.


Akhtar instructs that Disgraced be performed “allegro con brio”, without letting it get slogged down by “the ideas,” and these actors pull it off. As conversation ranges between the Koran, constitutional originalism, and Mormons, they expertly raise, hold, loosen, and spike the tension. Behind every “idea” is a need, insecurity, or desire. Islam “happens to be one of the great spiritual traditions,” says Isaac, every bit the self-satisfied liberal, and Amir responds, high on his own condescension, “You must be reading Rumi.” There’s talk of the TSA, wife-beating, the veil in France, and how Amir felt about Islam on 9/11. It’s all smart and emotionally grounded. It’s also a lot — race and religion are never off-stage. Each new stroke of race-infused chaos, ironically, winds up setting off a rather neatly symmetrical catastrophe.


Ultimately, everyone in this play proves flawed, selfish, self-deluded or naïve, but the one most scorched in a crucible of forces is Amir. The fate Akhtar writes for him will prove contentious to some. Does Amir fulfill the stereotypes he himself denounced? Is he a victim of racial forces beyond his control, or of his own self-loathing and rage? It is hard to say, and it is only at the end of the play that the man really looks at his own portrait.


Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar | Directed by Christopher Grabowski; produced by Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland | Through May 21 | www.portlandstage.org

Reading Homer in the End Times: Mad Horse's 'Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play'

In a near-future scourged by nuclear fallout, these few humans, banded together, probably look a lot like humans of the far past: they huddle around a fire in the dark, telling stories. The main story they’re telling is a certain episode of The Simpsonscalled “Cape Feare” — a riff on a film that’s a remake of a film that’s an adaptation of a novel. How this already intertextual story continues to evolve, across 80 years of the future, is the through-line of Anne Washburn’s smart, primal, brilliantly strange Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. Reba Short directs an agile, game-for-anything ensemble at Mad Horse. 

We open with the flicker of flames in an oil drum, the pale white of headlamps, and the tall shadows of Matt (Jake Cote), Jenny (Shannon Campbell), and Maria (Allison McCall), as they remember the death threat written in ketchup, the “Die Bart Die” chest tattoo. Dressed in flannels and vests, they sit at the foot of a tilty wooden shanty with mismatched siding, moving in and out of the firelight (lovely lighting design by Corey Anderson). Barely visible, Sam (Corey Gagne) sometimes intones a Southern-tinged phrase out of the shadows; another companion, Colleen (Marie Stewart Harmon) stays at a traumatized distance in the darkness.

Their ragged group’s Simpsons-telling is loose and colloquial, and the cast, led by Cote’s Matt and his giddy impersonations, paces it impeccably, with a natural, fluid momentum and a tangible pleasure in the telling. But despite the survivors’ laughter, anxiety is never far, and Short’s ensemble turns the mood on a dimeWhen they first hear a newcomer, Gibson (Brent Askari), out in the dark, laughter drops away into a practiced survival modewhich is as quickly replaced by a stoic sadness as they discuss where Gibson has been and what he’s seen. The ensemble conveys the wreckage of their characters’ circumstances with restraint, but with enough gravity to let us understand why these survivors so eagerly shine their headlamps on Gibson for an impromptu rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids.

Seven years later, both the survivors’ social system and their relationship with story have changed. Now, story is their professional livelihood: Colleen is the director of their roving Simpsons theater troupeHere, there’s much to appreciate in the ensemble’s “let’s put on a show” camaraderie and squabbling, and in the wit of Janice Gardner’s scavenger-minded costume design — a tower of small blue plastic crates for Marge’s “wig”; lengths of orange poly rope attached to a stocking cap for Sideshow Bob’s dreads. And Gagne doing Homer’s voice, in construction-hat baldness, is priceless. Washburn has some sly moments here, especially in the troupe’s “commercials,and in a medley of oldies by 50 Cent, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears — the ensemble’s low-fi performance of which, completely sans irony, is simply awesome.

What happens 75 years after that is a leap both inevitable and unnerving. This production succeeds in conjuring a time at once new to us and deeply old, a mood at once funny and eerie, and a spooky aesthetic that straddles Greek tragedy, opera, rap mash-up, vaudeville, passion play, and Punch-and-Judy showI have some questions about how the tone of ending is pitched, but overall and overwhelmingly, this show is an exhilarating, beautifully performed revelation. With intelligence, moxie, and a kind of innocence, Mad Horse’s production of Mr. Burns reminds us how crucial stories are, if we want to survive.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric PlayBy Anne Washburn; score by Michael Friedman; lyrics by Anne Washburn; directed by Reba Short; produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St., South Portland | Through May 21 | $23, $20 seniors (pay-what-you-can 5/11) | www.madhorse.com


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Flowers of the Real: Little Fest and Maine Playwrights Festival

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 marriageand 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 levelbut Connection convincingly conjures the intensity and mood of a sci-fi thriller.

Finally, Elwood’s Last Job (directed by Christopher Price), by Elaine Ford, lines up three rural Maine characters – a leopard-print divorcee (Carolyn Ezzy), an old schoolteacher (Patricia Mew), and a pregnant woman in a lotto shirt (Courtney Pomerleau) – at a laundromat. Enter simple, long-abused Elwood (Joshua Chard) and a hold-up. Ford’s characterizations aren’t too kind to its stock rural types, but the script tweaks some heist tropes with fun gags, and we certainly sympathize with poor Elwood.

 

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 Nicetiesto 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/.

Keep Your Eyes Wet: USM's 'Molded by the Flow' Makes Spirited Theater

Molded by the Flow is a show about water and work. As it begins, musicians tap mallets against tall glass jars and suspended silver goblets. Workers in coveralls move among wood crates stacked high against a blue screen, which flickers to life with a pale, fluid ripple. Visions of water are the pulse of this original multi-disciplinary performance and the culmination of a year-long collaboration between students and faculty in USM’s departments of Theatre, Art, and the School of Music. Led by acclaimed composer and professor Paul Dresher on an invited Libra Professorship (Dresher’s winning proposal sought to create a work inspired by the dynamic interaction of Southern Maine’s spectacular natural environment” and “the area’s centuries-long history of human habitation and development”) along with USM faculty, the students collaboratively devised Molded's script, musical composition, and production design in this imaginatively staged miscellany of histories and impressions about water, through land and time.

The work’s narrative follows the loose arc of water from the mountains to the sea, paying homage to the parallel flows and falls of the state’s industrieslumber, mills, shipping. As the narrative progresses, action onstage shifts constantly with inventive stagecraft. Projections range from drawings and video of trees to lyrically abstracted rivers and ice. The chief physical set pieces are five wedge-shaped wooden units, painted with blackboard paint one side and set on wheels – they come together upright, roll apart, lay on their backs to form a raked platform, and are chalked in real-time by the acting ensemble (Luis del Valle, Emma Fitzgerald, Nate Genrich, Ben Holmquist, Ted Ingraham, Emma Jane Page, and Jessie Umu Vander). As workers describe Maine’s forest industries, actors draw mountains and rivers, projectionist Elizabeth Darragh sketches trees live on the screen, and the music ensemble at the foot of the stage (conducted by Cameron Prescott) repeats circularbusily upbeat phrases, like water burbling through a wheel.

Musically, Molded is especially rich and varied. In addition to an array of woodwinds (Amy Murphy, Lori Arsenault, Jordan Dube, and Hunter McCay), electric guitar (Anthony Braca), strings (Bryan Waring, Shannon Allen, and Arsenault), and percussion (Noah Franklin and Cassandra Snider), the ensemble has invented two large stringed instrumentsone made of wooden crates and played horizontally, the other a tall tower strung verticallyCompositions are beautiful, and smartly aligned to the script’s themes. For a sequence on the steam engine, we hear repeated motor-like staccato phrasesaggressive percussion on sticks. With monologues about workmen’s morning rituals comes a warm dawn of woodwinds, plucked cello and violin. An actor’s monologue of childhood days in the surf is refrained as a jazz ballad on electric guitar, sung by a bluesy female vocalist (Saigelyn Green).

 

The script draws on historical sources and original material, from a chronology of floods to childhood anecdotes of the sea. Understandably, its breadth exceeds its depthits meditations function as an affectionate, soft-focus, sometimes prosaic survey, and it sometimes strains a bit to pull together its narrative threads – as when, near the end, we arrive a little too neatly at talk of personal origins, with one character telling of being born in a war zone. And given the theme, it’s surprising that Molded doesn’t address industrial pollution, sea level rise, overfishing, or warming oceans. Ultimately, though, its varied voices do cohere around its through-line, sometimes with glints of poetry: “I think we’re the only ones here,characters refrainlike a touchstone, just before the course moves on and they are no longer the only ones. 

In its best moments, the show’s multiple disciplines synthesize in strange and delightful surprises: To conjure a glacier, an actor lies supine, projections flicker with ice melt, and the cellist blows into a six-pack of glass bottles. Sounds of squawky bowed strings and a bunch of wiggled walking canes become a flock of geese – another force in transit over water. In such unexpected leaps, Molded by the Flow succeeds in not just marrying its diverse disciplines but sometimes transcending their sum. Overall, the synthesis achieved is impressive, praising how something so protean as water has so definitively shaped us.

Molded by the Flow | Conceived by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert; Directed by Rinde Eckert; Musical Direction by Daniel Sonenberg | Produced at University of Southern Maine, Russell Hall, Gorham | Through April 29 | $15 | https://usm.maine.edu/theatre/molded-flow-poetic-visual-and-musical-narrative


 
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  • Published in Theater

Grief Lessons: Portland Stage's String Around My Finger

In the aftermath of a miscarriage, Emma (Marjolaine Whittlesey) and her fiancé Kip (Chris Davis) must contend with their loss, with their own hearts, and – especially trying, sometimes – with other people’s help. A stranger writes to Emma comparing her lost child to the death of a dog. Kip’s tone-deaf, type-A sister Lisa (Danielle Slavick) hovers by the hospital bed and kibitzes. The physician assistant, Dave (David Mason), is jaded and monosyllabic. It’s all so absurd that it must also be funny, in Brenda Withers’ String Around My Finger, the winner of Portland Stage Company’s 2015 Clauder Competition. Having gone through a workshop process with PSC artists, String is in production now on the mainstage, under the direction of Sally Wood.

That we're in a hospital is conspicuous at all times in Anita Stewart’s marvelous modular set, a system of moving walls that rearrange to form several hospital settings, colored an institutional robin’s-egg blue. Even as we shift between specific locations – Emma’s room, hallways, a nurse’s station, a chapelother parts of the hospital often remain visible through gaps between the walls. It’a brilliant design for conveying both the general labyrinthine chaos of a medical institution and the constant presence of one particular person in a particular room, no matter where you are in the building.

That person in our story is johnny-garbed, often bed-bound, and healing tenderlyin both senses of the word. Lovely Whittlesey portrays a young woman with the empathy to keep it together for the sake of those around her, even as just beneath that, as her eyes and self-cradling show us, she processes a complex hurt. Emma’s humor is a soft, warm balm; and the tone of her choked-but-kind “Hi!”, as she greets Lisasays much about her inherent graciousness. These are endearing characterizations, and Whittlesey is even more affecting when Emma goes deep, as in a very fine, carefully calibrated monologue about her fears she was to blame in the death of their child.

About Emma’s relationship with Kip, we know little. Davis gives him clear affection and good-natured Everyman devotion, but also, often, a hint of remove. His regular-guy plain speech and his hoodie contrast well with his hyper-verbalmeticulously dressed sister, whose over-the-top energy Slavick sustains admirably and with jittery physicality. As the other comedic character, Mason’s beleaguered physician assistant is solidly, amusingly laconic, then relents in small moments: listen for how quietly but completely his voice transforms when Kip asks about the sex of their dead child. And in a luminous, too-brief appearance, a purple-swathed Lisa Stathoplos plays the show’s requisite sage – a free spirit in a wheelchair who figuratively and literally sings, to a bemused Lisa, about why a hospital needs music.

Involved only obliquely and without much follow throughStathoplos’ character feels like a cameo role, and elsewhere, too, the script feels a little broadWe know little of the characterbeyond what happens in real-time, and the script touches on so many interrelated tensions – loss and miscarriage, the financial and procedural indignities of the health care system, Kip’s relationship with his sister and to Emma – that for a while the show’s focus feels a little fuzzy.

Where String succeedbest as a script is in its high-spirited empathy and in the bravery of its eventual ambivalence. PSC’s production, with its strong cast and striking design, skillfully conjures the greys that are both a product of grief and a lightening of its dark.

String Around My Finger | By Brenda Withers; directed by Sally Wood; produced by Portland Stage | Through April 23 |www.portlandstage.org.

  • Published in Theater

Giving In to The Lure: A Lush, Lustful Mermaid Film at SPACE Gallery

A Disney mermaid movie “The Lure” is not. “Help us come to shore,” sing its two young mermaid sisters, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska), in dulcet duet to three drunk revelers on the shore, and then: “We won’t eat you yet.” We shift to a techno beat and a sparkly, boozy cabaret, where those revelers are the house band. In a back room, they examine their catch. “Smooth as Barbies down there,” one of them marvels. Naturally, Silver and Golden crush it as a sister act.

So begin several obsessions in Agnieszka Smoczynska’s 2015 musical-horror-fairy tale, with screenplay by Robert Bolesto, which has garnered a slew of indy awards, including a Special Jury Prize for World Cinema at 2016’s Sundance. Gorgeously executed, conjured with stylish, savvy magical realism, “The Lure” is both a fable about identity – and the urge to change it – and a critique of a species prone to enchantment, fetishization, exploitation, and indifference. It screens at SPACE Gallery on April 12, and lovers of musicals, horror, and/or mermaids are in for some sexy, subversive fun.

These sisters are long-haired, lovely, and uncannily amused by the world on land. Innocent, strawberry-blonde Silver is susceptible to romance with humans, while Golden, darker and demonic-sexy, is just impatient to eat themIn the mixed company of dressing rooms and Playboy shoots, the sisters have the benefit of telepathy; we hear their unspoken communion accompanied by otherworldly sound design. Their tails are not slender, sparkly, or feminine, but muscular, spiny, and monstrously phallic. They have, when the occasion presents itself, very sharp teeth.

In true siren form, the sisters sing with bewitching plainness, and “The Lure” takes on its targeted tropes with tongue in cheek, but also with beguiling sincerity. We get a big rags-to-riches number in a department store; lounge acts with wigs, glitter, and bubbles; Golden’s awesomely edgy cameo at a punk rock club; a quiet bathtub love song ratcheting into a rock ballad on a light-up floor. We get erotically-charged gore, lurid scars, gritty back alleys, a pre-tryst lesbian duet about ravens pecking at nuts.

It’s all somehow at oncecampily absurd, lusciously fun, and disarmingly moving. And in its emotional force, “The Lure” remains true to the older, pre-Disney fairy talesthe ones that deal in violence, sadness, and true, devastating stakes.

The Lure | Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska | Screening at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St. | April 12, 7:30 p.m. | $8 | www.space538.org

 

  • Published in Film

Long Lost America: Good Theater's Tender Trip to Bountiful

In post-WWII America, many families left their farms, and men who had once been their own bosses were now answering to office supervisors and managers. Social critics have written about the demoralizing effect this had on men. But what of the women? After widowed Carrie Watts (Louisa Flaningam) is forced to sell off the vast family farmlands in Bountiful, Texas, she finds herself trapped in a two-room apartment in Austin, with her worried son (Christopher Holt) and snooty daughter-in-law (Amy Roche). Cramped, dependent, and infantilized, Carrie longs for the open land in Horton Foote’s classic, The Trip to Bountiful. Brian P. Allen directs a tender and beautifully nuanced production for Good Theater.

It’s 1953 in Austin, and the set gestures succinctly at the scale, textures, and close proximities of the city – narrow brick walls, a strip of wood shingles, modest early-century moldings. Carrie’s bed is in the living room, though she sits awake in the moonlight, dreaming of Bountiful. Ludie, too, pines for his childhood lands, as well as a certain archetype of manhood; Jessie Mae wants lights, radio, picture shows, nightclubs. She treats Carrie like a troublesome child, chastising her not to run in the house or sing hymns. The household is a tinderbox of resentment and yearning.

Foote draws careful symmetries of his Carrie and her nemesis Jessie Mae, and Flaningam and Roche, both excellent, physicalize their differences acutely. Carrie often touches her face in impulsive, artless gestures, cradling her chin, at once fraught, pensive and self-soothing. Jessie Mae, endlessly vain and superficial, moves with more practiced gestures, lightly primping her hair or silky robe. Where Carrie runs through the apartment with endearing, flailing-arms awkwardness, Jessie Mae struts with a controlled swing of her hips.

Holt’s Ludie is the archetypal Organization Man, repressed, emasculated, ashamed. (Here we might consider parallelwith certain men of our own historical moment.) Pale, with trapped terror in his eyes, he is so subdued that your heart rises for him when his lips tease briefly into a smile. As he remembers Bountiful, his face opens into pleasure for a few light-filled seconds, then clenches into pain. Faced with Jessie Mae’s nagging, he often withdraws into the void, but Holt and Roche also crucially show us the love between them, their easy physical affection in rare moments when both loosen from their plaints and fears.

During the journey of the title, which begins at the bus station, the marvelously empathetic Flaningam shows us the woman Carrie once was, letting her inhabit space more confidently – her hands on hips, head up, smiling broadly. And it’s revelatory to hear the wisdom and compassion in her rough but melodious twang once she finally has occasion to share it, to speak her story and give an elder’s counsel, when a young woman on the bus, sweetly played by Hannah Daly, treats her as a person to be listened to. (Daly also does some subtle and very funny reacting to Jessie Mae’s nastiness.) The gentle bonding and easy laughter of the two is a balm of an antithesis to Carrie’s dehumanizing battle with Jessie Mae.

And Carrie’s synthesis, once she’s reunited with the farm, is one of limitations and acceptance – the world is not what it was. But her reawakening is grounded in the idea that in even limited communion with the landwe can find dignity and strength. It’s an old-fashioned breed of conservatism that all of us, perhaps, could get behind.

The Trip to Bountiful | By Horton Foote; Directed by Brian P. Allen; Produced by Good Theater | Through April 30 | At St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. | Visit www.goodtheater.com

 

  • Published in Theater
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