Megan Grumbling

Megan Grumbling

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The Theater Project's exposes the beams in Lisa D'Amour's 'Detroit'

Even though neither couple’s suburban “starter home” is new, both houses feel somehow unfinished. You can see the seams in the sheetrock. Some newer construction is of bare lumber, not cut square. Even fully built parts of these houses feel low-fi, ersatz, or made of failing materials. The sliding door sticks. The lawn is a postage-stamp of turf. In the backyards of these two adjacent houses, two couples face vertiginous insecurity in the trajectory of middle-class American arrival, in Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. Christopher Price directs (and has a swell little cameo in) a superbly cast production, both volatile and empathetic, at the Theater Project.

Mary (Shannon Campbell) and Ben (Brent Askari) may have “arrived,” but since Ben lost his job, they have been desperately trying to hold positionAs he and Mary host a barbecue for their new, younger, under-employed neighbors, Sharon (Lindsey Higgins) and Kenny (Corey Gagne), we can see how much Mary, especially, wants to be their ambassador to the middle class: She gives them the coffee table, serves iced tea in plastic goblets, and shares the gospel of pink sea salt. Her guests, Sharon and Kenny, met in rehab, as Sharon announces with a slightly red-flag lack of preamble, and they are now trying for a fresh start in Kenny’s uncle’s house. Every one of these characters has dark-comedic foibles, aspirations, and a front that will crack.

Higgins’s beautifully protean Sharon, in cut-offs and cut-up t-shirts, is vivid, candid, and unpredictable. You can sense a current of charismatic impulse gleaming beneath her surface, and she is not unaware of her jarring allure. Campbell’s Mary starts off the play as a foil of stability to Sharon, with her slacks, her solidpractical movements, and her bright hostess-talk as she sets out plastic plates and cups. But soon enough, it’s clear she struggles with alcoholism, a reveal that Campbell makes admirably gradual; her Mary rings true in the mingling of offense and defense that she wields in the process of getting a drink.

The men often defer to or try to defuse their more dramatic partners. Askari works Ben’s comedy in an affable schlemiel kind of way, giving him an endearingaw-shucks pathos, an even-tempered decency. Meanwhile, Gagne’s finely restrained, deep-voiced Kenny is so stoic, capable, and protective for so much of the play that his eventual reach for a beer signals a new level of bad news. When it happens, he and Ben reveal how desperately they’re grasping at any stereotype of strong white masculinity, as they plan a trip to the strip club that’s “one step up from trashy.”

As the characters navigate hope and failure, some surprisingly lyrical language sometimes comes out of their mouths: When the women dream of Spartan self-sufficiency in the woods, Mary says she wants “silver guppies nodding their heads on my calf.” After a fail in the woods, Sharon describes the car as sounding “like it was eating celery mixed with ice.” L’Amour’s script also lets Sharon play knowingly with “middle-class” language and tone: One minute she and Kenny are crowing through the possible names of a bar they got high in years ago, their faces screwed into debauched grins, and the next minute, she’s arch and mellifluous: “I’d love some lemon-ginger iced tea!” Such lines, and the nuance of these actors delivery, illuminate the insight, imagination, and savviness in these human beings, even as it strains against the Tupperware tenuousness of their existence.

The optimism that built their suburbsin the 1950snow seems almost surreal — a street around the corner is actually named “Solar Power Lane.” And Price’s cameo, as an older man nostalgic for when the early days of the neighborhood, is a quietly poignant counterpoint to everyone else’s histrionics and insecurity. It was like stealing second base,” he says softly, wistfully, of that time. “You were safe.” Several decades later in the game, it’s clear that not everyone is making it home.


 

Detroit | By Lisa D’Amour; directed by Christopher Price; produced by the Theater Project, 14 School St., Brunswick | Through October 29 | http://www.theaterproject.com.

 

  • Published in Theater

Consider 'Sex With Strangers' — Good Theater mounts a fine one

The Good Theater’s season opener is called Sex With Strangers, but don’t get the wrong kind of excited: the real intercourse behind the title is the one that happens when writers share their intimately crafted extensions of self with an anonymous, indifferent world of readers. Or, as director Steve Underwood more pithily puts it, Sex With Strangersby Laura Eason (a writer on the Emmy-winning House of Cardsis “a play about that little old industry that begins with ‘P’…PUBLISHING!

And a fraught, unfair, and often heartbreaking industry it is — particularly when it comes to new generational and technological clashesThat’s what we get, in Eason’s sharp, funny comedic drama, when millennial best-selling author Ethan (Marshall Taylor Thurman) crashes the cozy writing retreat of late-thirty-something novelist Olivia (Amanda Painter). She’s an unknown, whose first novel got the dreaded “mixed reviews.” He’s a celebrity with a gazillion Twitter followers, whose two books began as a blog about the gazillion women he’s slept with. He has fame; she has artistic integrity: Each has something the other wants at least a little of. Naturally, they hook up.

Thurman’s Ethan enters Olivia’s inn in full-blown bro mode, talking fast, taking over the living room, and reeking of entitlement. Thurman, who was delightfully outrageous as a voguing boy-toy last season in Good Theater’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, is again costumed to be obviously, almost aggressively good-looking, his muscles shown off brazenly under his white t-shirt and jeans. Thurman’s Ethan moves, talks, and multi-tasks with the focused speed of high-functioning internet. He leaps over the back of the love seat, asks Olivia directly about her bad reviews and why she isn’t publishing online. He holds his mouth, and his body, like tools he’s confident he knows how to use.

Olivia, of course, is annoyed, incredulousand sarcastic. But Painter also shows her wistfulness, her yearning to feel her work — and so herself — received. As Olivia opens up to him, Painter does a lovely job illuminating their moments of connection, showing Olivia’s pleasure when they commune, for example, over the smell of old books. In their banter, Olivia keeps up with Ethan’s pointed repartee when she wants to, but sometimes she is slower to respond; we can see her thoughtfulness, her differenceas she processes. hankered to see a touch more of this contrast in the moments leading up their first sexual encounter, to see a little more of the wise hesitation Olivia surely feels about this arrogant wunderkind, even under the influences of wine and that most powerful aphrodisiac: hearing your own words recited by an admirer.

We see more ambivalence and complexity once the relationship adjourns to her apartment in Chicago (the detailed naturalistic set transforms meticulously from cozy inn to book-lined living room). Painter and Thurman have a dynamic rapport that rises and recedes; they engagingly portray both the couple’s visceral connection and the fundamental disagreements between their generations — about privacy, online versus “real” identity, and self-publishing versus waiting for a legacy press to take your book. Over time and tensions, Painter’s Olivia finds herself hanging in doorways, withholding herself, withdrawing into her own computer screen. And when Ethan falls silent, when his postures fall away, when the Twitter-percussiveness leaves his voice, Thurman makes convincing his insecurity, his youth, and his raw anxiety to be taken seriously as a writer.

Make no mistake, Eason knows writers, their insecurities, their terror of mediocrity. One of the play’s smartest and most brutal moments comes when Ethan, after committing an unthinkable publishing offense against Olivia, asks her what she thought of his prose. He looks vulnerable enough that he might as well be asking her how satisfied he was with a different kind of intimate performance. “I thought it was…” she begins. She pauses, seeking just the right knife, then shrugs, fine. I thought it was fine. Ouch.


 

Sex With StrangersBy Laura Eason; directed by Steve Underwood; produced by Good Theater | Through October 22 | St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland | $25-32 | www.goodtheater.com 

 

  • Published in Theater

Is it all just a game? — USM's 'Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom' peers into a possible future

As players in dark hoodies skulk through the digitally rendered suburbs, a voice intones instructions: Drink the chocolate milk. Break the lawn gnome with a hammer. Recall that “the goal during daytime is to blend in.” But as you might suspect, this game the teens are playing is not what it seems. Ha, that sounds like something out of a horror movie,” sasses one of the teen gamers, and how right she it. In Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, playwright Jennifer Haley, author of The Nethercontinues to play with the latest in speculative techno-terror: Virtual Reality. Dana Wieluns Legawiec directs a tart, sly student production of this dark comic quasi-horror show at the University of Southern Maine.

Here where white picket fences hang ajar over identical pastel houses, we watch encounters between an array of “Avatars,” a slew of parent and teen types played with tongue firmly in cheek by an agile ensemble of four: Brittany Burke as the Daughter Type, Griffin Gingrich as the Sons, Savannah Irish as the Mothers, and DJ Monteith as the Fathers. As the parents worry about the new game and the strangers their children are becomingthe kids (depending on type) revolt against parents, try to get laid, obsessively play the game, and/or freak out about something terribly wrong about the game.

Meanwhile, three eerie “IRLs” (the letters stand for “In Real Life”), aka the gamer(Ricky Brewster, Elizabeth Donato, and Emma Zerba), glide through the neighborhood in black, following the instructions of the “Walkthrough Narrator (Sean Arsenault) who directs them when to take a pair of lawn clippers or notice a wormhole near the pooling blood. But the worlds of the IRLs and the avatars are fluid; ever closer do they fold and flip.

Director Legawiec is a renowned physical performer, and much of her work as co-founder of Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble has focused on the mythic. These modes yield rich performances in Requisition, as the standard horror tropes come to take on archetypal importance. The Avatars often land in vogue-like postures of type: the spoiled promiscuous girl sticking out her chest, the “goth cheerleader” frozen in rebelliously athletic stride. The protean Burke, especially, dazzles as she switches up the teen girl Avatars; Gingrich does a convincing boy-next-door; and Irish also shows fine range as she moves between a wistful mom, a superficial social-climber forcing wine on her son’s ex-girlfriend, and an anxious, Fifties-stylemom who ventures over to the neighbor with the weed-whacker and the plastic smock (Monteith, as a possible psychopath with a creepily mild affect).

Legawiec’s attention to movement also shows the ritualistic nature of the game itself. Playing is physically habit-forming, as we see in the teenagers’ carefully choreographed and varied repetitive motion on keyboards and consoles. The IRLs movement through the game, on the other hand, has a distinctly narcotic vibe, like velvet and morphine (a contrast that could be amped even more by upping some of the pacing in Avatar sequences). Their faces half-concealed, the IRLs move with disconcerting smoothness, and, in one interlude, undulate their arms slowly, reminiscent of conjuring or battle, to an atmospheric cover of Radiohead’s “Exit Music.

It’s a sound design choice that exemplifies the production’s overall ethos: both scary and tongue-in-cheek. One the one hand, there are hedge clippers raised in the shadows. On the other, there’s the sharp tang of colloquial teen snark and the pop culture of the suburban rich — vitamin shakes, Vicodin, Hummers, parental misbehavior in gorilla costumes.

This combo of fright and humor gives the best horror movies their tension, as does the meta self-reflection in which Haley revels — Neighborhood both scares us and sends up our scare. Finally, also like the best horror movies, it plays on fears both timeless (the Other, the unknowable child) and specific to a particular age or new technology. In the past, it’s been radioactivity or the stupor of capitalist consumerism. Now, it’s a game world that looks a little too much like our own.


Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom | By Jennifer Haley; directed by Dana Wieluns Legawiec; produced by the University of Southern Maine Department of Theatre | Through October 8 | University of Southern Maine, Gorham | Thu 7:30 pm; Fri 10 am & 7:30 pm; Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $16, $12 seniors, $8 students | https://usm.maine.edu/theatre

 

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Street Theater — Snowlion's 'Anything Helps God Bless' reckons with homelessness in Portland

Two street signs onstage read “Preble” and “Marginal.” A triptych of back panels presentsimages of the city intersection, and on the stage floor are the sort of concrete medians that became, not long agocontentious territory in Portland. The stage is set to explore what Snowlion Repertory Company calls the “median strip controversyof 2012-15, when the city attempted to ban activity — namely, panhandling, or “signing” in the medians. After a workshop production last December, the full production of Anything Helps God Bless is onstage at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater, directed by Al D’Andrea, and performed by an adept ensemble of eleven. Written by D’Andrea, MK Wolfe, and the show’s ensemble, Anything Helps tackles the median conflict through a meticulous and dramatically satisfying synthesis of documentary materials, original interviews with actual signers, and the ensemble members’ own self-reflection about signing and the project itself.

Onstage, these ensemble members slip nimbly between versions of themselves and portrayals of nearly 50 city officials, advocates, citizens, and signers. We hear motorists calling dispatch about drunk or intimidating panhandlers. We watch Neighborhood Prosecutor Trish McAllister (RenéGoddess Johnson) have a late-night chat with a cop and set the ordinance in motion. We’re treated to reenactments of city council sessions, presided over by Mayor Michael Brennan (Nick P. Solloway); commentary by journalists Randy Billings (Eric Darrow Worthley) and Chris Shorr (Eric Norgaard); and activists and citizens discussing the larger systemic issue of povertyWe watch the extended legal battle between the city and the ACLU of Maine, a contest that winds up in a U.S. Court of Appeals.

Since many of us followed this issue as it unfolded, we’re watching Anything Helps less for What Happened than for the How and Why of it. And Snowlion’s collected voices provide context for a surprisingly gripping courtroom dramawith some striking emotional moments — as when Allison Prior (Mary Randall), a plaintiff in the ACLU case and a signer, takes the stand. And several portrayals of public officials are zingersHarlan Baker, for example, gets a rise from the audience each time his unctuous Ed Suslovic prefaces remarks with a drawn-out “Thank you, Mr. Mayor.” The facial and vocal mannerisms of Tom Handel’s Police Chief Michael Sauschuck are uncannily on-the-money, Pat Scully does Ethan Strimling with a wide, lupine smile as he explains his personal fundraising m.o.: “I want you to give until it feels great.”

The ensemble’s original research with signers yields some affecting perspectives; Bob Pettee’s thoughtful portrayal of Michael, a sensitive and halting man who tells him, “I never met a stupid homeless person,” is beautifully drawn. The ensemble’s own reflections are also compelling, as when Cathy Counts recalls how her postal carrier father was friendly with everybody, panhandlers included, on his downtown Congress Street beat. And actor Patricia Mew relates trying panhandling, herself, then contends with her ambivalence.

Given its abundant source material, perhaps it’s inevitable that Anything Helps is overwhelmingly verbal, and often dense with wonky legal technicalities. Snowlion wisely breaks up the language-heavy segments with the signers’ slower-paced, colloquial monologues. A few sharp moments of physical staging also help the show’s theatricality — as when, after a vocal montage of incident reports, all of the performers flip their notebooks shut on the same snappy beatBut there could be more of such moments, and some interludes of wordless movement would be welcome, too — perhaps a lone signer “flying a sign” at different times of day, in headlights, in rain.

Ultimately, in synthesizing, contextualizing, and dramatizing Portland’s complex median-strip imbroglio, Snowlion succeeds in what’s often so difficult and so crucial: humanizing the issue. Anything Helps is a valuable, thoughtful, and even entertaining example of the civic work that documentary theater can perform. We could use more of it.


Anything Helps God Bless | By Al D’Andrea and MK Wolfe, and the AHGB ensemble; directed by Al D’Andrea; produced by Snowlion Repertory Company | Through October 8 | Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 517 Forest Ave., Portland | Thu-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $20 | www.snowlionrep.org.

 

  • Published in Theater

Born for a Storm — Mad Horse's 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' sends up populist rage

He’s running against the elites, the establishment, and anyone other than real Americans trying to take up space in America. He cusses, shoots from the hip, refers during speeches to the length and girth of his penis, and riles supporters up about their own victimhood. Sound like any campaigns that have recently made us bleed from our ears and eyes? But hold on, because this is the story of Andrew Jacksonpopulist rabble-rouser and genocidal founder of the Democratic Party. And in Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’s 2006 rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory (the terrific Ryan Walker) is also a sensitive male emo-rocker. Stacey Koloski directs a raucousunnerving, bracingly sustained production of his political hijinx, for Mad Horse.

After a hardscrabble childhood in Tennessee, Jackson becomes the ringleader for frontiersmen who feel dissed by Washington. Walker’s Jackson takes to the microphone with crassbabyface charisma while, behind him, a game and witty three-piece punk band (Shannon Oliver, Brendan Daly, and Mike O’Neal, who is also music director) rocks out. And Jackson’s fans, dressed in flannels, leather vests, and the occasional coonskin hat, shout back, in pulsing, hopped-up, delighted rage. They sing, “Populism, yea, yea!” They shout to Jackson, “We want to fuck you! And we hate the tariff!”

Bloody is satire, cartoonish and brash. The script keeps things bright and dirty, riddled with caricatures, anachronistic jokes and allusionsand, at intervals, a sweet, green-visored “Storyteller” (Christine Louise Marshall, unforgettably) steers her motorized wheelchair in to give history lessons. Meanwhile, the musical numbers sometimes thrum and thrust, sometimes turn to sensitive rock-balladry, as Jackson sings about, say, mutual blood-letting with his beloved, Rachel (Allison McCall, nicely balancing infatuation and edge).

The theater set-up feels a little like the old Geno’s, narrow, close, and loud, and Koloski’s ensemble keeps everything taut, fraught, and full of spirited fuck-you. Walker has a strong voice, as befits a lead; much of the rest of the ensemble embraces a cheekylo-fi tonality that feels like the sonic essence of an angry, DIY-punk America. As cast members careen in and out of the Oval Office or rally and chant, the ensemble sustains a volatile, visceral rebel energy that, we sense, there is no reasoning with.

Walker’s Jackson, pouting, carries his self-absorbed hurt as he might a small, adorably helpless animal. But when he’s at the mic, he’s on-message in making rage of victimization; in a scary-funny scene vibrating with ire, a woman vibrates with arousal: “Oh, you’re so angry.

Drolly staged scenes of Jackson’s havoc ensue. Back in Washington is a tableau of worry: James Monroe (Mark Rubin) and John C. Calhoun (Adam Ferguson) furrow brows as Henry Clay (MeredythDehne Lindsey) nervously strokes a mink stole and Martin Van Buren (Michael Shawn Lynch) goes down with gusto on an éclair. Performers Amanda Eaton and Adam Ferguson act out vivid grotesques — a drawling Southern senator; a Tennessee redneck — and Dominic Wolfgang Wallace nails the smoldering cognitive dissonance of Black Fox, Jackson’s emissary to the Indian tribes. And Lynch gives Van Buren a telling arc, from decadentschmucky senator to haggard Secretary of State in a head-setdesperately trying to rein in a cowboy from his cocaine, pizzas, and literal office cheerleader (Megan Tripaldi, with a wily sense of the absurd).

Whew, right? Watching this show in the age of Trump is an ambivalent experience: it comes too late for warning, too soon for catharsis. It comes off as a satirical screed, at once sending up and wallowing in our country’s tainted history. And that history looks so like what we’re living now that our laughter is a little queasy. “The past isn’t dead,” as another Southerner once put it, even more right than we knew.It isn’t even past.”


Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman; book by Alex Timbers; directed by Stacey Koloski; music direction by Mike O’Neal | At Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St., South Portland | Through October 15 | Thu-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $20-23 |  www.madhorse.com/

 

  • Published in Theater

Tracey Conyer Lee summons Billie Holiday in marvelous one-woman show 'Lady Day'

It’s 1959, at a small club in South Philly, and Billie Holiday is poised to sing nearly her last gig. Riven with heroin and alcohol addiction, trailed by Federal narcotics agents, and subject to erratic turns of voice and mood, Holiday shares with this club’s audience not just her musical best-of’s, but her rich and harrowing story, in Lanie Robertson’s music-driven one-woman show, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Directed by Kevin R. Free and starring the marvelous Tracey Conyer Lee, Lady Day gracefully honors both Holiday’s art and the suffering that coursed beneath so much of it.

The set of Emerson’s club makes clear the overlapping quadrants of Holiday’s life: On one side, a full wooden bar, to which Holiday returns frequently for refills of whiskey; on the other, against red velvet curtains, Holiday’s pianist Jimmy (Gary Mitchell, Jr., also the band leader) and a bassist (Ross Gallagher) swing impeccably and effortlessly through standards. Down center, on a round platform and in a spot, is the great singer’s microphone; and behind that, a dim, narrow hallway ends at a door to the backstage from where, at the start of the show, she gives her protest to Jimmy, “I can’t.”

But out she strides nonetheless. In strapless white, Lee’s Holiday looks gorgeous and strong, even as you can see the slight waver in her joints; even as she takes a noticeable moment to balance herself. And then she sings. Holiday’s voice, by 1959, had been stripped of some of that signature muted-trumpet timbre, and Lee pulls that quality out sparingly at first, making us lean in with wanting it. But as Holiday is pulled deep into the music, Lee beautifully conveys the magic she finds and makes of it — her sparkling phrasing in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”; the supple sensuality of her voice in “Crazy in Love.”

Holiday knows that audiences want the “old Billie,” that they want to hear “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” and, as she says, all that damn shit.” But she’s on her own program. She off-the-cuffs Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot” with delicious, raucous, wanton abandon. Lee and the musicians time her whims savvily; Jimmy gives her the opening chords of something on the set list, and she’s about to open her mouth to sing, but then, insteadshe’s talking about her mother (“the Duchess), or her addict first love, or Artie Shaw and his white band sitting with her in a “No Coloreds” restaurant’s kitchen, or her year of prison in West Virginia for narcotics — “Being in prison in West Virginia is what’s called double redundant,” as she quips.

There and elsewhere, Holiday’s wit has the glint of an edge honed on hardship and bigotry, and Lee lets us hear both the abundant life-force and the hardness in her humor, the jokes about the “ofays” and “grays” who enacted a world of daily discriminations.

Likewise, Lee fluently conveys the smallest ebbs and flows of Holiday’s mood and confidence: veering between nostalgia and bitterness as she recalls her pastinterrupting one standard with a sudden call to Jimmy for “Somebody’s On My Mind,” into which she slips into with a tangible relief of pleasure. As the night goes on, Jimmy watches expressionlessly from beyond the spotlight, helpless but to start up a new rhythm that might stir her from sadness or withdrawal.

And the lower the bottle gets, the more she hunches over, shakes. Still, when she finally gets to “Strange Fruit,she pulls it out breathtakingly, and Lee conjures the same dignity, grace, and palpable horror that we know from Holiday’s old footage. By the time she sings it, Holiday’s own story, so affectingly told, has both deepened that horror and transcended it.


 

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill | By Lanie Robertson; directed by Kevin R. Free; music direction by Gary Mitchell, Jr. | At Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland | Through October 15 | Thu 2 & 7:30 pm; Fri 7:30 pm; Sat 4 & 8 pm; Sun 2 pm; Wed-Thu 7:30 pm | $35-68 | www.portlandstage.org

 

  • Published in Theater

Modeling a Crisis: Hal Cohen's 'Intervention' Cuts Deep

We encounter the statistics almost daily now: opioid addiction is killing far too many of us. But statistics, as I once heard someone say, never made anyone change their understanding or their life. Stories do that, and in the face of the crisis, we’ve been hearing more of them, both true and invented. Local playwright and physician, Hal J. Cohen, consulted with present and former addicts, and those close to them, for his fictional “dark comedy” Intervention, which he also directs and produces (with On A Dare Productions). The show, billed as a “dark comedy,” is onstage at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater. 

Our story begins as two quirky young people, Sam (Aileen Andrews) and Dennis (Tom Campbell), meet cute in Golden Gate Park – she in a Batman t-shirt, him in Superman. Sam is smart, sarcastic, and coy, and Andrews gives her both a spunky edge and a sympathetic vulnerability and openness. Dennis is a charismatic but idiosyncratic young guy whose conversation jitters and veers, and he is noticeablycagey about the bag from which he pulls some Oreos to share and bicker adorably about with Sam. By the time he jokes warily, “I’m not that clean, but I sure am…squeaky,” we suspect it is Dennis who has the problem with the needle.Portraying him, Campbell makes marvelous work of his careening patter, creating beats of nuance and humor ineach infinitesimal pause or pursing oflips. These moments help us connect to a comedic but erratic character whose tics, arrogance, and Wikipedia-derived knowledge base keeps us somewhat at a distance, even as Sam falls for him immediately.

Meanwhile, we learn about the fraught sisterhood of Sam, the youngest; Mel (Sarah Barlow), the unyielding eldest; and sweet, vivacious Terry (Anna Gravél). As the sisters gather for their mother’s funeral and, later, visit Mel and Dennis, they battle over family history, old gripes, and, eventually, Dennis. Andrews, Barlow, and Gravél conjure a very true and recognizable teeter between sisters’ tetchiness, resentment, and intimacy, and we can also sense the tremor of something yet unsaid between them. Cohen gives them many sisterly antics to perform; much of itis funny, dynamic, and true to any sisters’ inevitable regressions, though we hear perhaps more and longer of their banter than exposition and characterization demand.

The same could be said of the script as a whole; relative to the powerful central story of addiction and its effects, there may be more time than necessary spent on the otherwise admirably specific and tangible means of character establishment – how people eat Oreos or fold clothes. And between the lovers’ meet-cute and the initial background on the sisters’ family, it takes some time to get to the actual meat of the conflict of addiction.

Heroin itself is first visible onstage (along with Dennis’s shockingly unapologetic attitude toward using it) closer to the end of the play than the beginning, and we might be drawn even more into the horrorof Dennis’s crisis if we were to spend more time with the problem as Sam herself is drawn into his world. Deep in the clutches of the drug, Campbell does compelling work conveyingthe nature of withdrawal – slouching in nausea, crawling inside his own shirt and hiding his head. He peppers humor deftly into Dennis’s fatal arrogance about his agency in the face of the drug, even as he also makes physical and visceral the young man’s tragedy.

Finally, the intervention of the title, enacted by a burly character named Will (a mesmerizing, gruffly rhapsodic Steve Leighton),takes an unexpected form – a third act of interestingly, even jarringly different style, tone, and perspective.Though the power of Intervention might be intensified by further narrative honing and focus, Cohen’s fictional story of addiction leaves no doubt about the stakes in the real world.   


Intervention | Written and directed by Hal J. Cohen; Produced by On A Dare Productions and Hal J. Cohen | Through Sep 24 | Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 517 Forest Ave., Portland | Thu-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $18 | https://on-a-dare-productions.ticketleap.com

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The Thing in the North — Camden International Film Festival prepares its 13th season

Collective action Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s Whose Streets? (2017)

Coming to screens (or VR goggles) near you are stories of a god-appointed honey harvester, Syrian refugees, an immersive experience of white supremacist indoctrination, the Ferguson community, the emotional communication of donkeys, and more: this weekend the Camden International Film Festival launches its thirteenth year of documentary films. Produced under the umbrella of the Points North Institute, Maine’s all-doc fest has been steadily increasing its scope, partnerships, and importance in the international documentary world. It kicks off this Thursday, at venues in Camden, Rockport, and Rockland, and runs through Sunday.

A whole lot of complementary film programming goes on at CIFF: First and foremost, of course, are the film screenings of both features and shorts, and CIFF’s Storyforms Barn hosts works employing VR and other new technology in film storytelling. Running parallel to the screenings are the events of the Points North Documentary Forum, which brings together practicing filmmakers and industry professionals for panel discussions, master classes, and networking opportunities. Finally, for CIFF-goers who shell out for an All-Access Pass, special events let you rub elbows with filmmakers and industry, and the “After Hours” parties let everybody blow off some steam with quirky installations, music, and plenty of alcohol.

2017CIFF NoMansLand

Land grabbers David Byars's No Man's Land (2017) tells an insider's story of the Bundy's occupation of federal lands in Oregon

Here’s some of what’s happening at CIFF 2017:

THE FILMS 

CIFF’s 2017 films include 37 features, 44 grouped shorts, and over a dozen VR works. The festival opens Thursday night with its Opening Night film, the world premiere of first-time filmmaker Dustin Nakao Haider's Shot in the Dark. “This film goes way beyond the foreseeable dynamics and drama of a high school sports story,” say festival programmers. “It is a touching and tenacious portrait of what it means to grow up on the Westside of Chicago today." 

A third of this year’s features are U.S. premieres, many coming from prestigious international festivals like Toronto and Venice. A few notable themes among the features include:  

2017CIFF ZeroWeeks 

Marking the paid leave crisis Ky Dickens’s Zero Weeks (2017) 

Race in America. Films treating this issue include a white filmmaker’s exploration of his great-grandfather’s racially motivated crime (Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?); an investigation of white racial violence and John Brown’s radical abolitionism (Lee Anne Schmitt’s Purge This Land, in a sneak preview); and a portrait of the Ferguson community in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death (Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s Whose Streets?).

International scope. 27 countries are represented in this year’s filmmaker line-up; their works includes an investigation into violence against those who have been “disappeared” in Mexico (Everado González’s Devil’s Freedom); and an inside story from inside a Bolivian prison (Cocaine Prison, by Violeta Ayala).

Matters American. Steve James’s new film looks at the one bank that faced criminal charges in the 2008 financial collapse (Abacus: Small Enough to Jail); David Byars embeds with militants in brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy's infamous occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge (No Man’s Land); and Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettingill mash up archival footage of a made-for-TV president in The Reagan Show.

2017CIFF TheSensitives

Allergic to the environment Drew Xanthopolous’s The Sensitives (2017) 

The environment, from a range of angles, including environmental activists’ use of media in the Amazon “in an age where truth is a relative term” (Mark Grieco’s A River Below); and David Conover’s musical doc Behold the Earth, which speaks to biologists and evangelical Christians about humanity’s separation from nature.

Transit, borders, and migration. Films include the chronicle of a three-year old Syrian girl’s journey from Greece to Uppsala (Egil Håskjold Larsen’s 69 Minutes of 86 Days); a portrait of the Sonoran Desert on the US-Mexican border (El Mar La Mar, by Joshua Bonetta and JP Sniadecki); private footage narrated by Iraqi and Syrian refugees who made it to Europe (Sand und Blut, by Matthias Krepp and Angelika Spangel); and a look at the power dynamics once they are there (Guido Hendrikx’s Stranger in Paradise).

Character Portraits include films about poet Wendell Berry (Look and See, by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell); a punk-turned-Buddhist-priest who helps the suicidal (Lana Wilson’s The Departure); and filmmaker Gustavo Salmerón’s eccentric mom (Lots of Kids, a Monkey, and a Castle).

This year CIFF offers eight different shorts programs, and programmers say they gave special attention this year to shorts curation, saying that "each Shorts Program is thought of as a work in itself.” And returning once again is the Dirigo Docs program, which features shorts by Maine filmmakers

One of the most magical highlights of CIFF screenings can be to hear an admired director talk about her choices and creative process, and happily, Chadwick reports that this year’s CIFF brings an extraordinary number — the creators of 32 out of 37 features — will be on hand.

 

STORYFORMS

This year sees a significant expansion of the Storyforms program; the Storyforms Barn will host 13 new immersive and interactive films; CIFF programmers note that many of these works have thus far only appeared at Sundance, Venice, or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Which works are CIFF staff particularly jazzed to share? “Tree VR is not to be missed," they say of Milica Zec and Winslow Porter's acclaimed work, which lets viewers experience life as a towering rainforest tree. CIFF folks suggest experiencing Tree alongside Priam Givord’s Small Wonders VR, a truly trippy-sounding immersion inside a 16th-century gothic prayer bead, to "completely transcend the scale of your human body."  

CURATED PATHS THROUGH CIFF

One new facet of the CIFF program this year is its "Trail Guides" four suggested "pathways" through the screenings and talks based on "similarities or synergies" in theme or directorial choices: Modern Man (whose films take "distinctly tender approaches to masculinity"), Filmed MigrationLand Rites (exploring American sites of anger and trauma), and (for some levity) Documentary Delights. Festival curators have also assembled film lists and talks for the themes of Maine/Local Subjects, Family Friendly, Tainted Love, Complicated Journalism, and Female Directors.

FOCUS ON MAINE

As in past years, CIFF has chosen current Maine issues to explore in pairings of screenings and panel discussions with leaders and advocates. This year, these focus on Maine’s opioid crisis, with Elaine Sheldon’s short film Heroin(e); and the movement for paid family medical leave, with the world premiere of Ky Dicken’s Zero Weeks

POINTS NORTH FORUM 

A defining and bracing highlight of CIFF is always the Points North Pitch: a shark-tank session in the Camden Opera House duringwhich the six Points North Fellows talk up their films-in-progress to a panel industry leaders, hoping to win post-production support.

And this year’s Forum includes an especially excellent line-up of panel talks, including on recent assaults on freedoms of journalists and non-fiction storytellers; a conversation on verité filmmaking with directors Steve James and Jeff Unay; talks on VR and on the creative side of working with archival materials; and the panel “Whose Stories,” a discussion of how both black and white filmmakers in America can tell of the nation’s racial traumas. Oh, and a beer-and-pizza conversation billed as Cryptoparty!, about practical digital privacy strategies for filmmakers.

2017CIFF ResurrectingHassan

Montreal Street Musicians in Carlo Guillermo Proto’s Resurrecting Hassan (2016)

THE PARTIES

Limited to all-access pass-holders, the "after hours” bashes on Friday and Saturday nights have in the past included karaoke, indoor swings, and a human maze. All we know yet about this year is that Friday night will feature a Brooklyn band called Javelin, and that the drinks, as always, are flowing.

 

IF YOU GO: TICKETS

Individual film tickets are $10 a pop, so if there’s a lot you want to hit, you might consider buying one of two types of passes (each of which also gives you access to the priority line at screenings): All-Access Passes, for $195, get you into everything — films, Storyforms, Points North Forum events, special industry events, and the late-night parties. A Festival Pass, for $95, gets you into everything but the special events and the parties. You can also buy your way into the Friday iteration of the after hours party for $45.

 

  • Published in Features

The fall theater season is here — Our roundup of dramatics to come

KSTIENNON LadyDay 151

Tracey Conyer Lee as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. 

Whenever presidential politics hit a new benchmark for gross, mean, and ignorant, perhaps some musical satire is in order. Mad Horse Theatre Company is here to help with its season opener, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (September 21 through October 15), which explores the class divisions, racism, and rabble-rousing populism of an earlier era and president — and with a rock soundtrack, too.

In our own era, digital means make possible all manner of obsession. Good Theater’s first show of the season, Sex With Strangers (September 27 through October 22), tells of a young man fascinated with an older novelist and what happens when he tracks her down. And the suburban kids are glued to a video games et in those suburbs — replete with zombie versions of local friends and family — in Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom (September 29 through October 8), at USM (in Gorham).

On August 31, the world observed International Overdose Awareness Day, and right on the heels of it comes Intervention (September 14 to 24, at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater), a new play about heroin addiction and its impact. Playwright Hal Cohen (On A Dare Productions) describes it as “a comedy; a dark comedy, until it isn’t funny anymore.”

Homelessness is another spiking problem in Portland, and for about a year now, Snowlion Repertory Company has been at work on a play that addresses the issue of panhandling, or “signing,” which the city has attempted to ban. After a workshop production last December, Snowlion mounts the full production of Anything Helps God Bless (September 29 through October 8), at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater.

A critique of the British upper class is at the heart of An Inspector Calls (November 1 to 26), the second show up at Good Theater. And in Detroit (October 12 to 29), onstage at The Theater Project in Brunswick, class, financial stress and failed upward mobility haunt the barbeques of two couples in a “first-ring suburb” of the city.

Legendary singer Billie Holiday weathered shocking deprivations and violence in her youth. She tells her story in between songs during one of her last performances, in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (September 19 through October 15), which opens the season at Portland Stage. They later go on to mount Complications From a Fall (October 24 through November 12), in which a prodigal son cares for his elderly mother and comes to see her as he never has before.

If family dysfunction is more your speed, it doesn’t get much more fraught than Long Day’s Journey Into Night (September 29 through October 15), which Threshold Stage Company presents in Kittery, at the Star Theater. In Not Always Happy (November 8 to 12), as part of the Portland Stage Studio Series, local blogger, memoirist, and performer Kari Wagner-Peck shares “funny, touching, and subversive true-life tales” of the challenges raising a child with Down Syndrome.

Another new and locally-written show mounts at The Players’ Ring, in Portsmouth: Michael Kimball’s Patience Boston (September 15 through October 1) is billed as “a colonial crime drama” about a Native American servant convicted of drowning her master’s grandson. The Ring continues its season with William Mastrosimone's Extremities (October 6-22), about a woman, her would-be rapist, and her two roomates; Dr. Van Nostrond’s Cabinet of Curiosities (October 26 through November 5), a “classic carnival-style sideshow”; and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (November 10-26), about long-lost friends and tensions around class, money, and race.

The tensions are existential in Sartre’s classic one-act No Exit, which Pie Man Theatre Company pairs with its co-founder Josh Brassard’s Hell Is, which applies Sartre’s vision of hell to his own personal dramatis personae. The two shows, billed as “Two one-acts, one evening in Hell,” runs October 19 to 29 at Mayo Street Arts.

Existential terror happens to be the specialty of the dentist in Callie Kimball’s new show, Things That Are Round (September 18), which gets a workshop production as part of a Portland Stage Studio Series that also includes an evening of “raw, edgy and dangerous short stories” by Maine authors, billed as The Haunting Hour (October 25 through November 4).

Anyone terrified of love and/or marriage might stand the advice of Ida LeClair in the theatrical guide Makin’ Whoopie (September 29 and 30) at The Footlights at Falmouth. Footlights will continue the season with “one boy’s journey to fabulous” in Lip-Schtick (October 5 to 7); and two romantic comedies involving widows, local playwright Michael Tobin’s romantic comedy Falling Leaves (October 12 to 28) and Philip Reilly’s Seasons In The Sun (November 2 to 18).

Summer retreats, but some musicals stick around: Nunsense (September 22 through October 8) at Portland Players; Nice Work If You Can Get It (September 15 through October 1) at Lyric Music Theater; and Tophat Miniature Stage Productions’ one-man performance of Little Shop of Horrors at Mayo Street Arts (November 4). The Ogunquit Playhouse offersthe Elvis-music-vehicle Heartbreak Hotel (through September 30) and a musical adaptation of From Here To Eternity (October 4 to 29); while Seacoast Repertory Theatre takes us back to Charlotte Bronte’s England in (yes) a musical Jane Eyre (September 15-October 8).

Up in Lewiston, the Public Theatre readies Lauren Gunderson’s Tina Fey-witty, girl-powered comedy The Revolutionists (October 20-29) before a newly revised and restructured version of local scribe Elizabeth Peavey’s original one-woman show My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother (November 10 to 19), for the first time under the care of a separate director. 

The Bard, too, abides. USM presents Twelfth Night (November 10 to 19); and Acorn Productions Naked Shakespeare goes back to its roots with scene nights performed in local watering holes. Their fall offerings include scenes on the theme of “ShapeShifters” (October 5-6 at Mechanics Hall and October 9 at Portland House of Music), “Sirens” (November 2-3 at Mechanics Hall and November 7 at Port City Blue), and “Cross-Dressers” (November 30 and December 1 at Mechanics Hall and December 4 at Bull Feeney’s).

This fall also brings a theatrical experience you don’t see every day: On November 13, the Deering Masonic Lodge will host a new “Masonic-themed” one-act, "In The Interests Of The Brethren," written and directed by Mason Aaron Joy and acted by six actors from across the area’s nine lodges.

Finally, for some classic children’s stories: The Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine presents the tale of the peace-loving Reluctant Dragon (November 2 to 19); while New Hampshire Theatre Project gives us a new adaptation of The Time Machine (November 10-26).

  • Published in Theater

Is this play just about music? — Portland Stage and MSMT combine for 'The All Night Strut'

If the late-summer blues, or just the mind-numbing present, have you yearning to escape into yesteryear into breezy musical nostalgia, Portland Stage and Maine Stage Music Theatre have your ticket. For their second summertime collaboration on PSC’s mainstage, they present The All Night Strut, a concert production of hits from the 1920s through the 1950s, performed by four singers and a three-piece band. There’s no story to distract from the tunes. There’s barely even any dialogue. Just singing and swinging. It may well be all you need for the evening.

Dressed in turquoise and peach, and later in evening wear, the ensemble — Curt Dale Clark, Missy Dowse, Bryant Martin, and Esther Stilwell — performs on a set of multiple prosceniums, wings, and underlit levels. The stageis tinged in dusky nightclub purples, haloed with little lightbulbs, and lit upstage with footlights, and the band — Kinnon Church on bass and Jacob Forbes on the drums, directed by Edward Reichert on piano — is right up there with the singers, swinging deftly through decades of styles.

Both performers and production designers change up the style vigorously as they move through the set list. From the bright, wholesome mood, precise articulation, and happily square train gags of “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” the lights dim, the shadows turn long and snaky, and the ensemble slinks and vamps into the opening strains of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” — complete with wily, sinuously delivered scat and refrain.

It’s fun to settle into truly great and sui generis songs like “Minnie,” and the show includes a few others that have such patent singularity of voice and composition. Martin’s performance of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” — a perfect song if ever there was one — is arrestingly restrained, with long moments of silence, a poignant arc, and real feeling in the anguish where it lands.

Other numbers are gleefully hammy. Martin and Dowse act out efforts in a Latin dance competition in “I Get Ideas,” farcing around and dancing badly on purpose; and in “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” — a tune about a mad good piano player — the ensemble comes around with small model pianos for audience members to lay hands upon. Then there’s the slow, mysteriously sensual delivery of “Java Jive, with the performer’s wide, knowing eyes and crypto-blissed-out coffee-pot gestures. (Is this song really just about coffee?)

The foursome delivers great harmonies, cuts it up nicely onstage, and brings a range of styles to its singing personae. Dowse is vivacious, nimble and high-energy; while Stilwell has great soul and a casual, expressive sensuality, lending feeling and narrative meaning to her numbers. As for the guys, Martin, the younger man, brings suave charisma, while Clark’s more workmanlike presence tends toward the jovially hammy. Gregg Carville’s lighting design helps pace them through their shifts in style and character, dimming and brightening becomingly apace the mood and dynamics.

The All Night Strut is an affectionately performed stroll through the American songbook, staged by PSC and MSMT with simple stagecraft, lovely harmonies, and ample high spirits. The show is a welcome reminder that the nation has produced some beautiful popular art, even — and especially — in times of trial.


The All Night StrutConceived and originally directed by Fran Charnas; directed and choreographed by Buddy Reeder; musical direction by Edward Reichert' | Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave. | Through Sep 10 | $48-68 | www.portlandstage.org

 

  • Published in Theater
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