Courtney Cook in
Courtney Cook as Phyllis in Annie Baker's "Body Awareness," a Portland Theatre Festival play directed by Sally Wood at Mayo Street Arts. (Courtesy Kat Moraros)
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Body Awareness Week is a chance to “just kind of check-in,” psychology professor Phyllis (Courtney Cook) eagerly tells students and faculty, in Annie Baker’s comedy “Body Awareness”:

“First, with ourselves, and our own bodies, and then with our thoughts and judgments about other people’s bodies.” 

One of the week’s guest artists who deal with bodies is Frank (Whip Hubley), who photographs female nudes. He believes he offers his models “a way to reclaim their own body image.”

Phyllis disagrees, and not all that respectfully. 

Moira Driscol and Whip Hubley in "Body Awareness"
Moira Driscoll, left, and Whip Hubley in Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness.” (Courtesy Kat Moraros)

Which is awkward, because Frank is spending the week lodged with Phyllis, her partner Joyce (Moira Driscoll), and Joyce’s grown and possibly-on-the-spectrum son Jared (Parker Hough). Over the week, Phyllis will rail against Frank’s photos, Joyce will find herself tempted to model for him, and Jared will ask him how to have sex and so prove himself “normal.” 

That’s all to say that the week’s “check-in” will be a thorny one for the family in “Body Awareness,” Baker’s smart, sharp inquiry into bodies, minds, intimacy, and how we think about all of them. Staged at Mayo Street Arts, as the first of three shows in the inaugural Portland Theater Festival, this strongly cast and compellingly physical production runs through the weekend, under the direction of Sally Wood. 

Aside from the spotlighted blackboard where Phyllis addresses her college each morning of Body Awareness Week, the set includes the family’s kitchen island and the couple’s bed. And behind them hangs a humungous blow-up of Frank’s photos, representing his outsized effect on the household: a contact sheet of myriad female clefts and curves that, in tight close-up, are almost unidentifiable as bodies.

Speaking of bodies, 21-year-old Jared has been watching lots of porn.

“We’re fine with you masturbating, Jared,” are the first words that we hear between affable Joyce and her rigid, volatile son. “The thing is, you can’t rack up those charges.” Also, real women have pubic hair.  

Jared quietly seethes and then, over the next minute or so, asserts that he is not “retarded,” calmly relates the etymology of “imbecile,” calls Joyce an idiot, turns on the electric toothbrush he uses to self-soothe, and screams that he could “garrote” both Joyce and Phyllis in their sleep. It’s one of several incredible escalations handled masterfully by Hough. Joyce is left completely enervated, her head in her arms on the table.

Amid this fraught domestic energy, silver-maned Frank is a foreign body in his jeans-on-jeans outfit and Zen-cowboy self-ease. In Hubley’s hands, Frank holds space and power effortlessly, almost unthinkingly, quite in contrast to everyone else in the house.

Phyllis’s face and wiry frame are constantly strained in self-righteous irritation at Frank, while Joyce, after hearing his Buddhism schtick, moans, “I wish I meditated mooooore,” drawing it out in comic self-reproach and agitated longing, her head again almost prostrate on the table.

The physical contrasts are particularly well-calibrated between Joyce and Phyllis. As Joyce, Driscoll is slouchy and self-effacing against the Cook’s taut, painfully high-strung Phyllis. Where Phyllis articulates her academic buzzwords with aggressive intention, showing lots of teeth, Joyce kind of shrugs her mouth into and away from phrases tentatively, as if trying them out – even this question, which she mildly poses to Frank about his photos: “Do you jerk off to them?”

And Driscoll makes Joyce’s moments of almost-disrobing for Frank breathtakingly intimate. Her steady flickering between comedy and intense vulnerability as she takes off her socks makes the scene scintillate.

Finally, Hough is superb as Jared – subtle and then startling, with sterling comic timing and a fascinatingly nuanced physicality. You can gauge Jared’s inner state by the pace at which he gently bounces his knees, by how his gaze shifts from an unsettling laser focus to uneasy flitting to a searching, devastating openness. 

These fine physical performances emphasize an especially interesting aspect of “Body Awareness,” which is how inclusively it treats the idea of “the body.” Baker’s angled comedy and this fine, gutsy production remind us that our minds are anything but separate from the parts of us that can touch and be touched.

Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.

“Body Awareness,” by Annie Baker. Directed by Sally Wood for the Portland Theater Festival, at Mayo Street Arts, through July 31. FMI: https://bit.ly/3b3L1Uh.

Aliza Dwyer
Aliza Dwyer, a theater performance major at the University of Southern Maine, plays Little Sal in “Blueberries for Sal: The Musical.” (Courtesy Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine)

Musical matters

Generations of Maine kids have adored the classic children’s book “Blueberries for Sal,” and this summer they can see it brought to life and song: The Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine is staging a musical adaptation of the beloved Robert McCloskey book, which runs through Aug. 21. FMI: https://www.kitetails.org/see-a-show

Another musical literary adaptation hits the stage in Brunswick, where Maine State Music Theater mounts Alice Walker’s celebrated novel “The Color Purple” as a musical, replete with ragtime, jazz, gospel, and blues numbers. The show runs through Aug. 6. FMI: https://msmt.org/the-color-purple/.

The musical that’s up now at Portland Players in South Portland is a pure vehicle for rock: “We Will Rock You,” a jukebox musical of Queen hits, takes the conceit of a near-future whose conformist fashion and thought must be liberated by a group of Bohemian songsters. Through Aug. 7. FMI: https://www.portlandplayers.org/.

And the wildest musical of them all is homegrown: “An Evening at Dave’s Sauna,” Jonathan Leavitt’s show about a night in the life of the real-life (in)famous South Paris sauna in the year 1980. Meet hippies, swingers, unhappy neighbors, and Dave himself in this adult-oriented show that runs at the beautiful Deertrees Theatre, in Harrison, Aug. 5 and 6. FMI: deertrees-theatre.org.

— Megan Grumbling