Amber McNew and Sophia Mobbs in "Sofonisba," by Maine playwright Callie Kimball, at The Theater at Monmouth, directed by Dawn McAndrews. (Courtesy Aaron Flacke)
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‘I am a bride of my work,” insists the great 16th-century artist Sofonisba Anguissola (the excellent Amber McNew), more than once, each time making the “k” plosive with resolve.

She’s left her homeland of Italy, where she studied with no less than Michelangelo, to serve as King Phillip’s court painter in Spain. And here, everyone is bemused, threatened, or even enraged to see a woman wedded only to her art.

As this rare artist navigates dangerous court and church politics, in Maine playwright Callie Kimball’s brilliant “Sofonisba,” she also considers both the beauty and the cost of the creative act. The comedic drama has a transporting, richly textured world premiere at the Theater at Monmouth, under the direction of Dawn McAndrews. 

Henry Hetz as the Bishop and Amber McNew as Sofonisba. (Courtesy Aaron Flacke)

At court, McNew’s angular, watchful Sofonisba comports herself warily but with a stubborn force, dressed in exaggeratedly plain browns and grays. She speaks in clear-edged syllables as she lands careful ripostes to the King (Reece Santos) or the insidiously patronizing Bishop (Henry Hetz).

As she holds her emotions close, body taut and straight, hands carefully clenched, McNew’s frame and voice make tangible how much control Sofonisba wields over herself. It’s a revelation and a catharsis when we do see her display her true emotions, in monologues to her dead mother and in rare moments in court. 

That court is represented by a set of wooden frames shaped as columns and arches and that also evoke easels, hung with marble plates that double as canvases. Over the course of the plotline, these plates flip to reveal portraits of the several people who become entwined in her life, as they enter and exit it.

Sofonisba’s first subject at court, young queen Isabella (the breathtaking Sophia Mobbs), is under intense pressure to succeed in a different kind of creation: to produce a son and heir. And so over the hours and years, as Sofonisba paints Isabella, portraitist and queen bond over a mutual affection and the hazards of being a woman at court.

Wearing wine-colored satin and things that sparkle, Isabella is a profound contrast to the woman who paints her. In the hands of the superb Mobbs, Isabella is sensuous, exuberant, and mercurial; now delighted, now petulant; quick to smile or squeal, to widen her eyes with teasing, pique, or awe. At times, Isabella operates in high comedic mode: in one delicious sequence, she explains the vicissitudes of her family history with the help of the Fool (Michael Rosas), a pear, a cake, and a footstool.

Other times, Isabella shares her fears and grief with little filter, eyes wide and terrified, particularly as she grows into her twenties and becomes more haunted by her failure to produce a son. In her warmth and candor, Isabella is inherently loveable, and Monmouth’s production also makes subtle work of suggesting the fluidity in which Sofonisba may love her. 

“Sofonisba” was developed in workshop productions at Portland Stage Company and Dramatic Repertory Company in 2016, and since then I’ve been smitten with this work’s emotional depth and luminous intelligence. Every character has such complexity that even those who threaten Sofonisba are never made pure antagonists or shallow symbols of patriarchy. Each has their own wit and ambivalence that makes their dialogue with Sofonisba thrillingly vertiginous. 

In Hetz’s nimble hands, the Bishop meanders on his own time between laconic, poisonous, and faux-convivial. “She is but a child, and French,” he says to her of Isabella, with a wry curve of mouth and intonation. Soon after, he’s calling Sofonisba a “clever cat” with a challenging gaze, questioning her chastity, and inspecting her teeth. Protean Hetz is almost unrecognizable in his dual turns as the Bishop’s counterpoint, Don Francisco, a sweetly comedic nobleman with a wide-open, aw-shucks face, who stutters his love for Sofonisba.

As the King, Santos has a quiet, entitled bemusement as he first sits for Sofonisba, and a curiosity that opens into small moments of humor. Over time, as the King and the Bishop warm up to Sofonisba, a fascinating ambivalence arises between their genuine care for Sofonisba and their own belief and stakes in the values of the patriarchy, and in what they order her to do.

Like its characters, the scenes of “Sofonisba” hold a wide range of emotional valences. Many end on sudden and expertly executed turns – veering from the convivial to the ominous, from rapprochement to threat – and McAndrews’s direction beautifully serves these dizzying moments. 

Some of the most bracing of these scenes involve the Fool, who, as in many classical narratives, walks a fine line between clowning and truth, service and self-interest. Loose-limbed Rosas gives him deceptively lazy, affably lecherous goofiness. But when his story of a witch hinges from a happy ending to horror, it brings goosebumps. Like Sofonisba herself at court, we can never be sure exactly where any encounter is headed. 

The 16th-century Catholic patriarchy was not just dangerous for a woman, but dehumanizing. “I stare at them, painting ghosts in my heart,” Sofonisba says of the women around her, “giving them more dignity than they give themselves.” Monmouth’s resonant “Sofonisba” celebrates an artist with the strength to know herself, and the worth of her art, wherever she goes.

Robbie Harrison as Scott Gibson dreams of becoming an astronaut. “Apollo to the Moon” runs through Aug. 29 in Maddy’s Theatre at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. (Courtesy Katie Day)

From his youngest years, Scott Gibson (Robbie Harrison) has wanted one thing: to go to the moon.

As a child, he watches a rocket launch on TV and stays up to gaze at a three-quarter moon. As a young man, he studies astronomy and dreams of becoming the first scientist in space. His hard work and imagination fuel “Apollo to the Moon,” a vibrant multi-media production of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, directed by Michael Dix Thomas in the gorgeous, brand-new Maddy’s Theatre. 

As the ebullient Scott, Harrison is perfectly cast – warm, enthused, with a musical voice and nimble form. In his knee socks and space-themed shirt, his eyes wide, he fully captures the wonder of childhood and then keeps it alive in the young man who studies and strives.

Some elements of Scott’s story will have particular significance for the grownups in the audience, like the archival footage of JFK’s pledge to put a man on the moon, photos of the race riots and Vietnam, and vintage rock ‘n’ roll. This larger contextualization may go over the heads of younger kids, but adds historical and emotional grounding for the rest of us.

And there’s plenty of visual wonder to occupy the young ones. The projection screen upstage shows us not just the footage of people and rockets, but of the huge luminous moon itself.

“Moon,” I heard intoned in the audience many times in small, awed voices. I wanted to say it out loud, too.

Harrison’s gifts as a physical actor are also great – energetic, bendy, and beautifully suited to space imaginings. In one sequence, Scott pulls a glimmering white astronaut suit from inside a book, dons it, and moves through a series of space test enactments: running elastically on a treadmill, jittering feverishly under a g-force simulator. And to watch his imagined moonwalk is magical, as he descends the steps to the moon under blue lights, in a silver suit and balletic slow motion.

The Children’s Theatre of Maine is the oldest continuously operating children’s theater in the country, and its new performance space at Thompson’s Point marks a major milestone in its life.

The venue is a spacious house with raked seating, a thrust stage backed by the huge projection screen, and – ingeniously – a sound-proof “viewing gallery,” where any audience members experiencing high-volume emotional responses may find refuge. At this time, seating capacity is limited, and masks are required for those older than 5. 

Under Artistic Director Reba Askari, the theater’s lineup of shows will include more children’s shows performed by professional adult actors, with kid-performed shows planned for down the road. It’s an exciting time for Maine kids to fall in love with theater, and it’s hard to imagine a more welcoming and inclusive space for them to start.

“Sofonisba,” by Callie Kimball. Directed by Dawn McAndrews. Produced at The Theater at Monmouth, in rep, through Aug. 21. FMI: www.theateratmonmouth.org

“Apollo to the Moon,” by Mary Hall Surface. Directed by Michael Dix Thomas. Produced at Maddy’s Theatre of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, through Aug. 29. FMI: www.kitetails.org/.

3 aliens walk into a coffee shop …

Outdoor theater continues this week at Tandem Coffee in East Bayside, with a site-specific production of the great playwright Annie Baker’s “The Aliens.”

Set and staged behind a coffee shop, the show follows three alienated men as they contemplate music, Bukowski, and their lives. Directed by the most excellent Sally Wood and produced by Mayo Street Arts, East Shore Arts, and Tandem Coffee Roasters, the show features actors Dave Register, Sam Rapaport, and Parker Hough.

Through Aug. 15. FMI: https://mayostreetarts.org/aliens/.  

— Megan Grumbling