Cuban-American baking doesn’t translate perfectly in rural Maine. Beatríz (Ashley Alvarez), a young baker from Miami, says she can’t sell guava turnovers to Mainers — they’re way too sweet, agrees Blake (Dustin Tucker), himself a new Mainer from Kentucky.
But Beatríz has grown to love whoopie pies, and overall, the culture she shares is a much-needed balm for her friends and neighbors, in “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas,” a feel-good dramedy by Maine Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco and playwright Vanessa Garcia. Commissioned by Portland Stage Company before COVID, “Sweet Goats” now takes the stage under the direction of Sally Wood, in a show with a big heart and a cast of beloved Portland actors alongside ace visiting artists.
Beatríz has already built strong friendships in Maine, and she and her bakery enrich the lives of her closest neighbors in myriad ways.
Georgette (Karen Ball), an elegant Kennedy from Boston, comes running in for Beatríz to read her love prospects in the cowrie shells — a ritual Beatríz learned from her mom. “Classic” Mainer Maynard (Kevin O’Leary), a taciturn whittler with a big beard and plaid jacket, comes in every morning for Cuban coffee. And when Blake brings over a sack of homemade goat cheese, Beatríz envisions ways to further interweave her passion with her local culture, creating new deliciousness for everyone.
Despite the solace of a bakery, all of these Mainers have their struggles.
Georgette is bitter and lonely after being cheated on by Maynard, who mopes around in morose self-punishment. Blake is still figuring out his identity in Maine after moving here with his veterinarian husband. And Beatríz is estranged from her mother (Jezabel Montero), communicating with her only through prank phone calls. When Beatríz’s Tío Eme (JL Rey) visits from Miami, she is thrilled — but still resists his urges to reunite with her mother.
As its characters navigate their conflicts and grief with food and friendship, “Sweet Goats” celebrates community and forgiveness, in a story told with broad but loving strokes, abundant good spirit, and — of course — plenty of sweetness.
Set over “just a couple of days in Maine and Miami,” the show’s set design emphasizes little “islands” of characters’ locales, from which they emerge and connect. The distant locale of Miami is represented by an oversized Cuban cigar box, which opens up into a platform where Beatríz’s mother receives her calls about fake prizes.
Beatriz’s Maine realm, center-stage, is the thick, raw-wood butcher-block counter of her bakery. The homes of her nearest neighbors — represented by Georgette’s little table and luxe pillows, a weathered post fence where Blake sneaks out to smoke, and Maynard’s chair under a stylized tree hung with whittled birds — are close enough that folks encounter each other in their pajamas while wandering outside for a peep at the huge (and beautifully rendered) full moon.
These characters are brought to life through animated and empathetic performances. Alvarez’s Beatríz beams with a feisty radiance, personifying the idea that when we eat bread, we’re eating light. Ball brings Georgette both a self-conscious comedic poise and a deep compassion, and O’Leary creates for Maynard a singular marriage of OCD old codger and spacy, rhyming woodland mystic.
As usual, Tucker’s bright and angular comedic work is a beacon; he delivers some of the script’s best bits of humor.
“I like how this sticks to your hand,” says Blake of the guava turnover, with deadpan irony. “It kind of imposes itself on you.” And a bit later, flicking pointedly at sad-sack Maynard with his wrist, “Maybe it’s not too sweet. Maybe we’re too bitter!”
And as Beatríz’s Tío, Rey gives an especially satisfying physical performance. He shimmies and drums on the wooden counter for emphasis as he talks; he sweeps a hand over the wood in a tenderly epic gesture as he recalls when he and his sister first started baking Cuban bread in Miami.
The script at times is a little expository, as when Tío Eme goes over the history of how children like him and his sister were flown to Miami in the early sixties; and some of the plot’s tropes sometimes feel a bit breezily pat.
But “Sweetgoats” revels with such vibrant affection in its characters’ quirks — Blake’s goat cheese, or Maynard’s devotion to his single lovebird — that it is easy to love. And when Beatríz finds herself grieving, throwing flour and kneading dough with anguished moans, the show presents a powerful depiction of catharsis — and of the community that gently gathers around her, like fingers of a hand, to lift her up.
Such is the sweetness and the nourishment of “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas.” It reminds us to value forgiveness, community, and the good of raising, ever again, both bread dough and our spirits.
The Wabanaki, the People of the Dawnland, have been telling and performing stories in what we now call Maine for thousands of years. This Saturday, Feb. 4, brings the opportunity to listen to five Wabanaki artists from several nations as they share some of those tales, in “Wabanaki Stories,” at Merrill Auditorium.
Commissioned by Portland Ovations and directed by Passamaquoddy artist and author Chris Newell as part of the Resonance Series, “Wabanaki Stories” presents five artists who bridge disciplines.
Tania Morey, a Tobique musician and artist will sing of the Wolastoq people; and Mi’kmaq storyteller Jennifer Pictou will perform stories alongside a large puppet. Passamaquoddy teacher and storyteller Dwayne Tomah, who is the youngest fluent speaker of Passamaquoddy, will share stories in the language. Penobscot musician Jason Brown, a.k.a. Firefly, will perform compositions that bridge electronic and traditional sounds. And Passamaquoddy singer and educator Newell will interweave these performances with narrative and music.
The Saturday performance starts at 3 p.m.; tickets are available through PortTix. FMI: https://portlandovations.org/event/wabanaki-stories/