A wronged queen, edgy post-apocalyptic survivors, and an alien octopus – these are just some of the characters to encounter in this year’s Maine Playwrights Festival, which makes a happy return after the pandemic canceled everything in 2020.
Now in its 19th year, the MPF presents the plays that were originally slated for 2020, and as a COVID-19 safety measure, the program is being offered exclusively via video; the five short plays, all with running times of between 15 and 30 minutes, have been fully staged and artfully filmed by videographers Bodhi Ouellette and Danielle Amandolini.
With a strong lineup of scripts, produced and performed with brio, under the leadership of Artistic Director Dan Burson, the festival streams through July 11.
Opening the program is playwright Alexa Gallant’s “Jane Gray,” a historical memory play in which the 16th century Englishwoman known as the “Nine-Day Queen” reclaims her own story.
SaraRose Willey is ardent and vulnerable as Jane, recounting the days that led to her execution at the Tower of London, and a fine ensemble cast (Tony Reilly, Josh Brassard, Michelle Handley, and Lily Collins) gives voice to the range of judgments surrounding Jane, both on the streets and at court.
Gallant’s lyrical script refracts Jane’s experience like a prism, the costumes are sumptuous, and Paul Haley’s deft direction moves the chorus in evocative tableaus across the stage – Jane racing through a court of frozen figures; the chorus converging in a V behind her as she walks to the block. Elegant and tightly executed (no pun intended), “Jane Gray” condemns the fetishization of Jane’s beauty and her reduction by the historical narrative to a “martyr.”
In “Miss Le Gallienne Announces the New Season,” esteemed feminist lesbian playwright Carolyn Gage brings us into the experience of a woman from theatrical history: actress and producer Eva Le Gallienne (played by a superb Emily Grotz).
Structured as a press conference at the New York City theater in 1932, this one-woman show, directed by Tess Van Horn, presents Le Gallienne diverging from her season announcement and instead revealing her trauma in the aftermath of a scandal and a fire.
As Le Gallienne banters with, rages at, and shrinks from reporters in the house, playwright Gage’s characteristic intelligence, wit, and verve are on full display. The script navigates a bracing high-wire between her character’s public face and her interior, and Grotz is arresting as she modulates between the producer’s droll savoir-faire and her devastating suffering.
The MPF program takes a tonal turn with “Rabbit Rabbit,” by Nolan Ellsworth and Shannon Wade, which finds us in post-apocalyptic central Maine and a slow-paced absurdist dramedy, directed by Hannah Cordes.
The play concerns an ad hoc survivor community in a prepper shelter, characters known only as 1 (James Patefield), 2 (Mary Fraser), 3 (Simon Rabatin), and 5 (Meredith Tierney-Fife).
We watch as they variously speak in traumatized ham-radio-speak, make ritualistic use of masking tape, tell proto-origin myths of their community, say ominous things like “We obviously don’t want a repeat of Waterville,” and argue about what to do with an enigmatic Stranger (Robbie Harrison).
Ellsworth and Wade’s idiosyncratic script seeps compellingly between the odd, the comedic, and the poignant, and the cast is all-in on inhabiting this weirdo vibe, all the way through the show’s final swerve of an ending – which is surprisingly, tenderly affecting.
Playwright Hollie Pryor’s “Green Light (Going),” directed by Paul Haley, sets up several swerves in its story. Set in the present on Block Island, on a night threatened by a storm, the play opens with the arrival of a mother named Marge (Laura Morris) and her teenage daughters Liz (Maiya Koloski) and Kat (Chloe Koloski) to the island’s lighthouse. Marge has a particular ritual in mind for her kids to enact, about which smart, sarcastic Liz and silent Kat are alternately exasperated and eye-rollingly indulgent.
As the family hashes all this out in the dark, lit by an intermittently flashing green light, the play’s premise at first feels like a bit of a stretch, but the dialogue and delivery lend it life and wit. And soon enough an unexpected turn, and then, at the very end, another, upend all expectations.
As “Green Light (Going)” genre-hops from family comedy to dark-comedy-with-a-social-message to its third-act surprise, it feels a little ungrounded, but it’s fun and sharp and keeps us on our toes.
Finally, “The Bi-Annual Stone Skipping Competition on Long Lake,” by Stowell Watters, takes us out with a good old-fashioned alien stoner comedy. Directed by Jared Mongeau, this show is a delight of physical comedy and savvy silliness.
Set at the titular lake, it opens as pastoral peace is shattered by heavy metal and the arrival of loud, bro-y, flanneled Tom (Mike Sylvester), Pete (Joshua Brassard), and a bucket of skipping stones.
As the guys reminisce about storied lake-surfaces of years past, Tom’s new “secret skip,” and why Pete is a one-skip guy, a great pleasure of the script is its careening, tongue-in-cheek range. It takes the conversation from Julia Butterfly to Pete’s sexuality to whether or not a human could eat a gold ingot.
Then the girls arrive: loud, beer-swilling Sandy (Brynn Lewallen) and demure Deb (Allison McCall). And then there’s also the little matter of the lights from above that reduce them all to a trance state, and which they address as “Mother.” And a character known only as “Weed Guy.”
I loved all of it.
For all this silliness, the show is carefully developed, with great wit, pacing, and deliciously sent-up character types, which the terrific cast eats up. It’s a hoot of a closer to a fine festival program and a triumphant return.
Haul your laptop out to the patio with a pitcher of cocktails and celebrate Maine playwrights.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
• If you’re raring to enjoy live indoor theater but still taking things slowly, you might appreciate the “socially distanced cabaret-style” seating offered at 3S Artspace, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for the Players’ Ring production of “Tarrytown.” In this musical retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” music teacher Ichabod Crane falls in love with the principal’s husband. The Dive In Productions show runs June 26 and 27; visit www.playersring.org.
• This weekend is your last chance to see the Portland Players production of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” with all its dark chaotic catharsis. Benn May directs. Visit https://www.portlandplayers.org.
• And movies in the park are back: Dance the last year away to Prince’s rarely screened 1987 concert film “Sign O’ the Times,” presented June 25 at 8 p.m. in Congress Square Park by PMA Films; visit https://bit.ly/2Uj444d.
• Finally, a return to theater in Deering Oaks Park is just on the horizon: twin-riddled mayhem will ensue as Fenix Theatre Company presents Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” July 8-31. Hannah Cordes directs. Visit https://www.fenixtheatre.com.
— Megan Grumbling