Three years ago, who could have imagined how thrilled we’d be to experience theater that’s live, in-person, and peopled with full casts? I’m grateful to share some theatrical highlights of 2022.
Viva Jen Silverman!, at DRC and Mad Horse
Two of the shows that most surprised and delighted me in 2022 were by the same playwright: Jen Silverman, whose smart, weird, bizarrely funny scripts veer between the profane and the lyrical, the absurd and the common, as they contemplate the human need to be seen and loved.
In the spring, Dramatic Repertory Company produced Silverman’s fantastic, genre-bendy dark comedy “The Moors,” a mash-up of a Brontë-inspired Gothic, a psychological thriller-horror, and a “Chicago”-style musical, under the direction of Sally Wood and Keith Powell Beyland.
Anna Gravél and Megan Cross gave bewitching performances as two very different spinster sisters served by their eye-rolling maid, a terrifically wry Phoebe Parker. As a new governess, Kat Moraros did superb work balancing pluck with confusion and dread, and the show also featured Nate Stephenson as an emo Mastiff in love with Hannah Daly’s bemused Moor-Hen — both excellent in their creature-inflected poignancy. The ensemble deftly navigated Silverman’s hairpin tonal swerves in a show that was satisfyingly, unsettlingly ambiguous.
I was so jazzed about “The Moors” that I couldn’t believe my luck when another Silverman show opened just a month later at Mad Horse Theatre Company: the raucous “Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties,” a comedy of lesbian and genderqueer love and ire.
The show featured an uproarious yet nuanced ensemble of “Betties” — Janice Gardner, Marie Stewart Harmon, Keela, Hayli Hu Kinney, and Ophelia Hu Kinney — under Hannah Cordes’ vibrant and gleeful direction. As the Betties vented, sparred, considered their vaginas, staged a play-within-a-play, and ate a mound of rainbow ice cream, “Collective Rage” offered us a vision of radical tenderness, as messy and colorful as it gets.
The Portland Theater Festival
This summer saw the first full season launch of the Portland Theater Festival, with a slate of three thought-provoking and inclusive shows staged at Mayo Street Arts and Mechanics’ Hall.
The fest opened with Annie Baker’s comedy “Body Awareness,” directed by Sally Wood, with Moira Driscoll and Courtney Cook doing fine and poignant comedic work as spouses thrown into conflict with the arrival of a photographer of nudes, played by Whip Hubley. Parker Hough gave an especially fine and physical performance as a troubled young man on the autism spectrum.
Also in the lineup was Sylvan Oswald’s “Pony,” a noir-ish melodrama about a trans man’s arrival in a new town, starring Ian-Meredythe Lindsey and directed by Jess Barbagallo, with a standout performance by Michaela Micalizio.
And the highlight of the festival for me was Antoinette Nwandu’s brilliant and provocative “Pass Over,” directed with breathtaking precision and force by Bari Robinson. “Pass Over” riffs on “Waiting for Godot” to depict the thwarted lives and racial violence of the Black American experience, as two unhoused men long to — but can’t — leave their city block.
As the Gogo-and-Didi-like Moses and Kitch, Ashanti Williams and Jay Mack had an electric and intimate rapport, and as the characters modeled on Beckett’s Pozzo and Lucky, Jared Mongeau (who specialized in uncannily creepy roles this year) was terrifying, giving a master performance in both physical and psychological menace.
Mythmaking in The Desert of Maine
This year I saw a show staged in a locale so epically well-suited for theater that I was astonished it had never been done before. I’d never even been to the Desert of Maine, so I was even more transfixed by the beautifully hallucinatory vision that was Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble’s “Caravan of Dreams,” a desert myth that unfolded on the golden glaciated dunes of Freeport.
Written and directed by Stephen Legawiec, the show mingled the mythic with the commedia dell’arte tradition in classic Ziggurat style, with entrancing movement and physical comedy, choreographed by Dana Legawiec, and Anne Collins’ gorgeously colorful desert garb. And the show’s theme, I wrote, “is timeless and crucial: that tyranny can be bested through the power of art and communion.”
“The isle is full of noises”
I’ve seen “The Tempest” approximately a million times, and still count it as my favorite Shakespeare play. I found certain performances in Fenix Theater Company’s summer production especially moving.
Joe Bearor brought to Caliban an uncommon dignity, grounding the rage of the “monster” in the experience of injustice and sorrow. And Peter Brown gave his Prospero a fine vulnerability, as his wrath is spent and replaced with a sense of an ending.
The Wild West and Magazine Writers
Two sharp shows at Good Theater peered into the dynamics of two cultures: one of cowboys, saloon prostitutes, and nuns; the other of writers, editors, and fact-checkers.
I honestly didn’t think I could be all that interested in Good Theater’s “Desperate Measures,” an Old West musical comedy — until I found that it is also a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” and is even written in iambic pentameter. And Good Theater’s production of it was a crackerjack tour de force. The ensemble moved fluently through a spate of intricate language, pick-ups and physical gags; they soared through the Western- and ragtime-inflected score; and they boasted something truly marvelous: Tony Reilly as a German villain with waxed mustaches.
And a writer, an editor, and a fact-checker find themselves at odds about a contentious article, in “Lifespan of a Fact.” Good Theater’s well-matched cast included Mark Rubin, Jay Mack, and the ever-formidable Denise Poirier, who played against the cliché of the aggressive New York editor with subtlety and an offbeat humor. The show ended with a quiet paean to the power of story that almost made me weep.
Here’s to ever more stories keeping our stages lit through the new year.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.