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A handful of memories — Elizabeth Peavey stays connected in one-woman show 'My Mother's Clothes Are Not My Mother'

In what we now think of as the “Mad Men” era, Shirley Peavey was a fashion plate. Shirley’s cocktail gowns and mohair sweaters “advertised her good taste,” explains her daughter, longtime local writer Elizabeth Peavey, and became symbolic — even sacred — in her conception of her mother. And so when Shirley passes away, how can Peavey let these clothes go? Easing her way through her mother’s closet and her own memory, Peavey muses on life, death, grief, and the mother-daughter relationship in her funny, poignant one-woman showMy Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother. After touring the state for years, My Mother’s Clothes has now been revamped in a sharp and moving new production at the Public Theatre in Lewiston, under the direction of Janet Mitchko.

The trajectory of My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother began in 2008, when Peavey’s mother passed away, and she has been touring the show since 2011; two years later, she won the Maine Literary Award for Best Drama. More recently, the Public Theatre was awarded a $10,000 NEA grant to develop the show, looking to elaborate upon its themes around caregiving and the obligations between parent and child. The result, on the Public Theatre’s stage, is an affecting, sometimes edgy, very non-maudlin meditation on how we grieve.

As she moves between the clothing and the containers meant to take them away, on a simple set of racks and boxes, Peavey’s presence on stage is engaging in movement and affect. Angular, lanky, and agile, she gamely takes on a range of physical comedy — bouncing and jiggling as she describes a body-toning machine of her mom’s era; ending a list-y monologue of supermarket items with a grin and some jazz hands. And her onstage persona deftly balances her wit and sadness. Peavey has had some years now with this material, but it still feels fresh and deeply felt.

That’s due partly to her presence and partly to her writing, which is rich in remembered details of her younger mother, her cocktails, cigarettes, and Ayds (“nothing more than chocolate-covered amphetamines).The arc of the show proceeds gracefully from memories of childhood to those of teenage Peavey, including a sartorial standoff between daughter’s “angry urban angst-wear” and mother’s “prissy Talbot’s pastels.” Later, with her mother’s decline and their inevitable role reversal, she describes her mother’s scalp as feeling “small and bony, like a newborn.” And Peavey has a keen way of expressing the irrational but nonetheless real — and sometimes helplessly funny — absurdities we harbor around what a loved person has touched. “Her foot was in this footie!” she exclaims. “I can’t let somebody else wear my mother’s footie!”

And at its best, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother has the stirring specificity of poetry: An image of her mother before a porcelain sink, smoking and ironing as Tangled up in Blue” plays on the radio. Her mother in the bathroom wallpapered with Siamese cats, smoking Lucky Strikes and drawing in her eyebrows with “a pencil that she licked.” Her mother, near the end, while shopping at Hannaford, taking the time to finally really, tenderly look at — to finally “meet” — a small bundle of sage. And Peavey’s description of seeing her mother through her actual passing, moment by moment and right before her eyes, is beautifully likened to pushing a boat out to sea: “All we had to do was open our hands and let go.”

With eloquence and witMy Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother underscores the fundamental, tragicomic tension between our beloved materiality and our mortal, intangible endAll this stuff we love is just stuff, and we know it. But it’s also, as Peavey puts it, what “tethers us to this earth.” It’s not all we’ll keep of the people who have left their tethers, but it’s the easiest to touch.


My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother | Written and performed by Elizabeth Peavey; directed by Janet Mitchko; produced by the Public Theatre, 29 Maple St., Lewiston | Through November 19 | Fri 7:30 pm; Sat 3 & 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $5-20 | www.thepublictheatre.org

 

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Social justice storytelling — Portland writer/mom Kari Wagner-Peck's 'Not Always Happy'

Thorin takes cool Warhol-like photographs of Life Cereal, lays down the law as the fashion police, and is constantly asked by strangers for hugs. He’s also a kid with Down syndrome. The adventure of adopting and raising Thorin is the poignant and refreshingly funny heart of Not Always Happy, a live storytelling performance written and performed by his mom, local writer Kari Wagner-Peck. Her one-woman show runs for one week only as part of the Portland Stage Studio Series, under the direction of Bess Welden.

Wagner-Peck began Not Always Happy as a blog in 2010. “As a parent of a child who has Down syndrome,” she says, “I was troubled by much of what was ‘out there’ about children with Down syndrome.” Much of what she found included, as she puts it, “grief-filled narratives by parents who have a child with Down syndrome and how their own acceptance of their child was proof of their worth.” She found this “parent-centric” perspective problematic. “I wanted to offer a view of a child who had Down syndrome that was like any child's life: complex, thoughtful, smart, funny, wise and painful.” So Wagner-Peck chronicled her own often irreverently comedic experiences on her blog, a typical son, and a memoir adapted from the blog’s stories was published this May. Then, this past summer, for PortFringe-17, Wagner-Peck teamed up with Welden to present her story onstage — a show that won the PortFringe Pulitzer Prize” for excellence in writing.

Welden says she was first drawn to Wagner-Peck’s stories in 2013, when she heard about her high-profile confrontation with Chuck Klosterman, then the “Ethicist” of the New York Times. Wagner-Peck wrote Klosterman an open letter condemning his use of “the R-word” — “retard” — as an insult, and asked him to explain the ethics of its use. (The letter went viral, and Klosterman not only apologized, but donated $25,000 to an organization serving the cognitively disabled.“My immediate reaction was this woman is one fierce mama, not afraid of conflict or controversy,” says Welden. A year or so later, Welden asked Wagner-Peck whether she’d ever considered telling her stories out loud. “I had a intuition,” she says,“ that her writing, full of unfiltered candor, swearing, and truly hilarious anecdotes, would translate effectively into an engaging on-stage voice.

The resulting show is made up of 13 stories from Wagner-Peck’s parenting journey, as she uses donut holes to get facetime with DHHS caseworkerswitnesses the shocking use of restraints on her son in a preschool classroom, and uses superhero analogies to explain to Thorin that he has Down syndrome. Onstage, these anecdotes will be told in a different sequence each night, as audience members are enlisted to choose an object from the set — a cupcake, an action figure — then hear the story about Thorin it represents. And Thorin himself (now eleven) contributes to the production through his photography, which will be projected throughout the show. The two collaborators have come to call Wagner-Peck’s genre of performance “social justice storytelling,” says Welden, who believes that the power of hearing personal stories can help us understand the world and the people around us “in a more considered way.”

Part of this deeper understanding can come through commonality. “I want the audience to think: ‘None of that is much different from what we experience,’” says Wagner-Peck, and adds that audiences might be surprised at how often they laugh during Not Always Happy. “This is not a sad story. It is an entertaining story,” she says. “Social justice storytelling can be funny  and angry and subversive. I think audience members will be moved by the truth  we have all had some painful, sharp moment where we didn't feel we belonged.”


Not Always Happy | Written and performed by Kari Wagner-Peck; directed by Bess Welden; produced as part of the Portland Stage Studio Series | November 8-12 | www.portlandstage.org/events/not-always-happy, www.kariwagnerpeck.com, or on Facebook atNotAlwaysHappyLive.

 

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Inspect this! — Good Theater's absorbing mystery classic 'An Inspector Calls'

When Inspector Goole (James Noel Hoban) interrupts a small party at the upper-class Birling home, everyone is certain they have nothing to do with the horrible death he’s investigatingBut Inspector Goole has ways of making people talk, and everyone in the Birling home, as it turns out, has something to say, in An Inspector Calls, the British writer’s J. B. Priestley’s classic 1946 mystery. Brian P. Allen directs a taut, stylish, gripping Good Theater production of this much-laureled thriller-cum-social-critique at the St. Lawrence Arts Center.

It’s the spring of 1912. In their drawing room of dark wood, deep blue, and heavy draperies, wealthy industrialist Arthur Birling (Tony Reilly) and his wife Sibyl (Amy Roche) are dressed in tails and beaded silk to celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Meredith Lamothe) to another, bluer-blood industrialist, Gerald Croft (Christopher Holt). The Birlings and Gerald seem like your typical entitled Brits. They toast, banter, and posture. Sheila, in silk and plum chiffon, bickers with her younger brother Eric (Thomas Ian Campbell), who’s getting goofy on port, while charming Gerald smiles politely at their regression. Perfectly poised Sibyl admonishes burly Arthur for talking business during a toast, and Arthur has just started speechifying about how a man should take care of himself, rather than believe the “cranks” who go around talking rubbish about an interconnected social fabric. And then the Inspector is announced, and the revelations begin.

Inspector1

In the role of this strange Inspector, Hoban is very still and very solid, as if inside his dark pinstriped suit, his body is as heavy and dense as clay. This physical solidity works to give him both bodily stubbornness and a sort of otherness, and there is also something interestingly odd, almost autistic, in his unblinking gaze and blunt, near gestureless speechHe starts in on the Birlings with an inscrutably neutral tone and blank expression, but soon (perhaps a bit too soon), we see his stiff-jawed sullenness, his disgust, and, eventually, his rage at the well-heeled Birlings.

Athe Inspector turns his questions on one and then the next of them, the ensemble gives us much to gauge in the family’s reactions. Early after the Inspector arrives, Arthur is all superior swagger, as he throws around social connections that fail to impress, and Holt’s Gerald listens with an imperious smile, amused and a bit incredulous at the Inspector’s class breaches. But once Arthur is under the gun, his bluster turns defensive, and you can see a simple man’s fear in his eyes; Gerald, faced with his own past, grows raw with confusion and vulnerability, as if he no longer knows how to hold his faceRoche’s Sibyl proves the most unrelenting in the face of the Inspector; her gentile righteousness never wavers as behind her eyes, something cruel and disinterested seethes.

Priestley ultimately aligns the younger generation against the elder, and Lamothe’s graceful, reed-like Sheila has perhaps the most dynamic arc of the show. She starts off the perfectly spoiled rich girl, strident, trilling, impatient, and delighted with herself. But when confronted by the Inspector, her face and her entire frame seem to ache with her candor and dismay. Campbell’s Eric likewise poses a contrast to their parents’ posturing; red-faced and volatile, he hunches over, fumbles, contorts.

As the Birlings’ dark night of the soul wears on, Allen deftly paces their reveals, doing justice to Priestley’s deliciously plotted hairpin turns: Good Theater puts on a sharp and absorbing show. And Priestley’s script so elegantly subverts the mystery genre to his own ends that the result is the best of both worlds — both a succinct social treatise and a very satisfying thriller. Now is a fitting time of year for the thrills of An Inspector Calls, as we hover between Halloween and A Christmas Carol, and it’s an even more fitting time in the cultural moment for Priestley’s unambiguous social message: that no one, no matter their wealth or power, lives alone.


An Inspector Calls | By J. B. Priestley; directed by Brian P. Allen; produced by Good Theater | Through Nov 26 | St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland | $25-32 |www.goodtheater.com

 

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Learning to Brace Yourself — Butler and company soar in 'Complications From a Fall'

Elizabeth (Maureen Butler) could keep a library of just one book, Middlemarch, she half-jokes, because she reads it over and over, but never remembers the ending. She suffers from dementia, and her present is often lost to her. Elilzabeth’s own past she remembers clearly — but only now, after a bad fall makes her even more dependent, does one of her children think to ask her to tell it. In Kate Hawley’s comedic drama Complications From A Falldirected by Paul Mullins at Portland Stage and featuring a beautiful performance by Butler, we’re reminded that our elders stories are also part of our own.

Since her fall, Elizabeth has been in the care of her eldest child, impatient, type-A Ibsen scholar Helen (Eva Kaminsky). But when Helen is called off to a conference, the task falls to Teddy (Erik Saxvik), a shaggy, carefree musician. Teddy’s tasks, Helen explains briskly, include not just dispensing their mother’s medications, cooking her meals, and keeping her “in the present,” but also helping her shower and changing her disposables. “I haven’t seen her naked since I was five,” says Teddy, alarmed. “Well,” smiles Helen a little too sweetly, “it’s not about you.Teddy is out of his depths almost immediately, and Elizabeth demands to see her beloved former caregiver, Lucy (Katie O. Solomon), whom Helen recently fired. Thus begins an adventure in caregiving, one that ultimately will bring everyone new understanding.

Our story takes place largely within the high, floral-stenciled walls of Elizabeth’s apartment, the set of which spins impressively between the bedroom and living room. As Saxvik’s bearded, loose-limbed Teddy settles in, he is immensely, effortlessly endearing. He moves expressively and without pretense and is generous in his laughter; the bond between him and Elizabeth builds with warmth, candor, and easy understatement. “You were a gift,” Elizabeth tells Teddy. When Teddy, visibly moved, responds, “Well, that’s good,” it’s all he needs to say.

And Butler here is at her most generous, empathetic, and finely calibrated. One moment her Elizabeth is musical, grand, and charismatic, now aggrieved and exasperated; one moment she’s bemused (I lit a fire?”) and the next, imperious and wry (“I wouldn’t hinder my progress” — to the bathroom – “if I were you.”). And when Lucy arrives, we can see immediately why Elizabeth so loves her: In Solomon’s empathetic hands, Lucy is just as animated and irreverent as Elizabeth; their synergy is magical. It’s quite something to watch how deftly and compassionately Lucy draws Elizabeth into song and, at the same time, helps her pull on a new disposable: the small misdirection does worlds for helping Elizabeth hold her dignity.

It’s what Helen, we gather, has not been able to do for her mother, and indeed poor Helen is written as a caricature of insider Norwegian jokes and repressed academia gradually unleashed. Kaminsky owns all of that above and beyond the call of comedic duty (including a priceless drunk-bad-karaoke scene), but she also, crucially, lets us see Helen’s own need to be appreciated for who she is and what she loves.

Hawley’s script levies a few boilerplate comedic lines (“Please come back. I’ll give you my firstborn child.” “You don’t have any children.” “I’ll adopt some.”), but other comic moments zing with specificity and surprise (Teddy to Elizabeth: “I’m just wondering how you know what a Turkish brothel tastes like”). And Hawley crafts some nicely constructed turns and ironies: “I think things are settling down now,” Teddy tells Helen on the phone, as, in the other room, Elizabeth has literally started a fire.

Per Elizabeth’s failing memory, Complications circles back often over certain questions and responses — the whereabouts of Helen; the name of Teddy’s band. Teddy reacts a little differently each time he answers her, and these refrains and variations give the play a hint of Groundhog Day, in both its comedy and its redemptions. Over time, finally, Elizabeth’s illness comes to seem not just a sentence, butchance at wisdom.


Complications From A Fall | By Kate Hawley; directed by Paul Mullins; produced by Portland Stage | Through November 12 | Thu-Fri 7:30 pm; Sat 4 & 8 pm; Sun 2 pm; Wed-Thu 7:30 pm | $15-35 | www.portlandstage.org.

 

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Draw the circle — Pie Man Theater Company plays with concepts of Hell

The walls are a bland institutional off-white. Upstage, they narrow at a door that locks from the outside. There are no mirrors here, or windows, or toothbrushes. The furniture is unpleasing and the people are trying. This is hell, literally, and it’s the setting for two one-act plays staged by Pie Man Theatre Company: Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (wherein Sartre conveys his famous verdict that hell is “other people), and playwright/actor Josh Brassard’s original riff on it, Hell Is, in which Sartre himself and his circle find themselves sharing the room. The two short plays, acted by the same four-person ensemble, are billed together as "An Evening in Hell," directed by Brassard and Stephanie Ross, respectively, in a darkly bracing production at Mayo Street Arts.

One by one, in No Exit, a Valet (Danny Gay) brings in each of the three people who will co-occupy this particular room of the infinite. First comepasty, arrogant, insecure journalist Cradeau (Josh Brassard), then the hostile Inez (Allison Kelly), stalking about in mannish pants, and finally Estelle (Mary Fraser), in powder blue and pearls. And so the triangulations begin, as the three accuse, use and confess to each other in this, the first in their eternity of hours together.

As they do, their mutual dissonance is nicely pitched in dress, gesture, and manner.

Kelly’s laconic Inez, in severe red and black, is a force of dour, low-register rage, and she finds a fine contrast in Fraser’s marvelous, shimmering Estellewith her lilting, childlike vanities. Fraser conveys much with her eyes, prevaricating in every widening and lowering of her lids, and her musical voice veers between trilling innocence, knowing sensuality, and, later, suddenly, a thrillingly low-pitched, brutal cynicism. Kelly’s Inez is at her most compelling when her hostility fluctuates — softening to seduction, as she entreats Estelle to use her eyes as a mirror, or to hurt, as she watches a new couple “back thererent her old flat — and she might find a few more such moments to complicate Inez’s rancor. Brassard’s Cradeau, now whiny, now cruel, easily seduced, makes visceral the close relation between insecurity and self-importance. And he gives keen articulation, finally, to not just the wretchedness but the fundamental banality of their fate. “I want some real suffering!he shouts.“ Anything but this pain that never hurts enough!”

In Hell Is, Brassard personalizes hell for Sartre (Brassard), in an infernal ménage à quatre of himself and three other players in a storied real-life love quadrilateral: feminist intellectual Simone de Beauvoir (Fraser), who sustained a 50-year open marriage with Sartre; Wanda Kostakiewicz (Kelly), who Beauvoir seduced and then passed along to Sartre; and Sartre’s handsome friend Albert Camus (Gay), whose affair with Wanda killed their legendary bromance.

Brassard takes the pawn of the original relationship, Wanda, and gives her a refreshing new centrality, wisdom, and agency. In the role, Kelly works more of a range than she does as Inez; her initial defiant, faux-subservient mask slips to reveal terror and rage when she finds herself, too, a prisoner in the roomAs Sartre and Camus have it out, Brassard and Gay convincingly brandish both the writers’ egos and their need (Gay might dial back Camus’s posturing a bit), and Fraser gives Simone a wry, ironic amusementhaving arch fun with some of the script’s zingiest lines: “Are you two quite finished,” she dryly admonishes the men, swinging your cocks around?”

As the four go at each other over about their political inconsistencies and hypocrisies, about the women they shared with and stole from each other, their banter has the irritable intimacy of family. If the script is a little expository at times, the biographical fodder is certainly hard to resist, and both script and performancemake vivid how closely, how incestuously, these very smart people loved and inspired, hurt and endured each other. Their lives were messy. Luckily, there’s plenty of time now to work things out.


An Evening in Hell, Two One-Act Plays: No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre, directed by Josh Brassard; and Hell Is, by Josh Brassard, directed by Stephanie Ross | Produced by Pie Man Theatre Company | At Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo Street, Portland | Through October 29 | www.piemantheatre.org 

 

  • Published in Theater

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 

 

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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.

 

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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
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