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Megan Grumbling

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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 |

  • Published in Theater

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:


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.



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."  


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.


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


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)


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.



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


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 |


  • Published in Theater

Listen to the Crows — Raw amateur theater forum Crowbait Club readies its fifth annual deathmatch

For five years now, brave and intrepid playwrights have risked it all in the Crowbait Club's monthly theater Deathmatches: If a contestant’s play is drawn from the hat and performed on the spot by the actors, playwrights pray that it will win the audience's raucous love, beat out the competition, and secure a place in the CBC's annual best-of fest, the King of Crows. At King of Crows V, onstage this weekend at the St. Lawrence, expect 10-minute explorations of war, nature, holiday anxiety, and the dangers of the perfect sandwich.

No Escape

No Escape... (L to R): Owen Keller, EB Coughlin, Molly Eliza Donlan, Darby DeFilippis

Each of last year’s Deathmatches was given a theme for submissions, and so the line-up of winning plays has a wide range. In Doni Tamblyn’s Give Till It Hurts (theme: Sacrifice), Uncle Sam and Corporate Greed Head argue over who gives up the most in America. Brent Askari’s The Other Flight (theme: Fear) watches a couple on a plane come to suspect a black man of terrorism. And Mother Nature is, after all, a hippie bro, in Michael Cheung’s Mother Nature (theme: Family). There is even, for the first time in King of Crows, a musical: Kat Loef’s No Escape From the Little Green and Purple People (Theme: Escape), with songs by Victoria Stubbs and the Murder Band.

Tooher says playwrights have of late been tackling some serious content and themes, with complexity that's impressive considering the short-form format. Take, he says, Katy Rydell's Truck Driver (theme: Trash), inspired by a New York Times article about an Afghani man who collects bodies for both the Taliban and the Afghani government despite having lost his sons in the conflict. "It moves from unspeakable pain," says Tooher, "into a gentle hope for the future."  

How has the festival evolved over the last five years? "Well, the writing is a lot more sophisticated, to start. And the audience is too," says CBC president Michael Tooher. "When we started at Mama's Crowbar in 2012, the material tended to the big laugh comedy. However as we matured so did the material." That doesn't mean, though, that the laughs went away. "We still have plenty of comedy, but there is now all manner of styles, from farcical to situational to plain up crude." Probably falling somewhere in that range is Jay W. Jones’s Save the Beer! (Theme: Drunks and Candles).

The CBC crew is excited about a lot of developments in their demographics, too. The playwrights in this year's King of Crows are split evenly along gender lines, Tooher notes, and their actors range in age from 11 to 75. Several writers this year have been getting their plays out there locally and beyond for some time, including Askari; Lynne Cullen, author of Aunt Viola (theme: Insanity); and Tooher, who wrote the memory play 180 (theme: Power). 

"Half of the playwrights have won for the first time," he says, "and two had never written a play before. " One of those is Sally Hinckley, whose Poles Apart (theme: Magic) concerns a stressed-out Mrs. Claus seeking drugs and a therapist.

The CBC members see themselves as a unique and inclusive force in the theater community. "Crowbait Club is sui generis in the theatre both in form and function. What we have is a fun theatre game that doesn't have gatekeepers who pass judgments, just people who want to try it out." 

John Bowker, author of Everything Goes Awry (about that perfect sandwich’s effects on a marriage; theme: No), is a relative newcomer to the CBC who appreciates the inclusivity of Portland’s theater scene, and especially of the Deathmatches. “There's still room to play and experiment here,” says Bowker, “and groups like the Crowbait Club give the average person a chance to be a part of it.” Anyone, indeed, can show up, put their name in the hat, and see what happens.

"King of Crows V," short plays | Produced by the Crowbait Club | St. Lawrence Arts Center, 68 Congress St., Portland | September 7-10 | Thu-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 5 pm | $15 |

  • Published in Theater

Peeling Away the Past — Bare Portland's must-see pop-up show 'The Yellow Wallpaper'

One of the most talked-about and transporting shows of this year’s PortFringe was Bare Portland and New Fruit Art Collective’s exploration of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper. Beautiful and eerie, the immersive short work merged theater and installation in the ballroom of the Mechanics Hall. Now, members of the two groups return with a full-length production, staged in a mystery venue that’s far less grand (theater-goers are asked to meet at a pop-up box office called “The Grotto,” at 229 Anderson Street, where they will be led to the site). Devised by Bare Portland’s six-member ensemble and Diana Clark, directed by JJ Peeler, and with set design by Kelly Sue and Gelsey Amelia of New Fruit, this collaboration is one of the most adventurously conceived, bracingly executed theater works I’ve seen in a long time. At once edgy and ethereal, fraught and disarmingly funny, it conjures empathy by some surprising means, and it’s not to be missed.

Gilman’s original text uses journal entries to tell of a woman’s post-partum depression in the late nineteenth century, when the treatment is worse than the disease: forbidden from writing, kept to a regimen of phosphates and bed rest, the woman withdraws into her own increasingly disjointed realityBare Portland’s loose, associative treatment imaginatively elaborates on the world of this woman. Unnamed in the original text, she is here called Charlotte (aptly, as Gilman was writing from experience). The script takes Gilman’s first-person narrative and refracts the experience, like a prism, into myriad voices and forms.

Some of these forms, like the journal entries, are present in the short story. But very many are not, like the booming pronouncements of Charlotte’s doctor husband John, who is said to like “clarity and red meat,and some innovations are whimsical or downright anachronistic a game of hangman, a TED Talk. The ensemble (Catherine Buxton, Tarra Haskell, Allie Freed, Mackenzie O'Connor, James Patefield, and Peeler), clothed identically in black shirts and white petticoats, nimbly trade off lines and roles, executing sequence after sequence with a breathtaking cohesion of vision. The cumulative effect feels like ritual, and it feels like a strange vaudevillein its deliberate shifts between forms and its curious, knowing humor.

In the venue’s concrete space, strung with unraveling lace and paper, simple domestic objects become haunted and haunting — and most particularly ingenious is the use of a bedsheet. Charlotte herself is often represented as a sheet twisted and bundled into the shape of figure, like a doll or a ghost. Sometimes bedsheet Charlotte, being talked at by John, drops abruptly into pile on the floor. Sometimes another human figure, as Charlotte, is wrapped into a sheet like a straightjacket. And sheets also become screens for a roving overhead projector, by which are projected acetate slides of instructions, puzzles, journal entries written live.

Sound, in this mystery space, bounces as if we’re in a concrete drum, and the company uses this quality fully, sometimes to lull us — as with a Tibetan singing bowl or a lullaby-like chant — sometimes to jolt us, with loud knocking or the sudden, self-conscious tittering of parlor laughter. The ensemble barrages us with voices in quick succession about John’s rules or what the help is saying, then leaves us swimming in silence. Such listening is almost physically affecting. Even a broom’s sweep is rich in texture and significance we can somehow feel in our skin.

Perhaps most illuminating and unnerving in Bare Portland’s exploration is how it contrasts internal and external relationships. Its immersive and interactive elements make us now empathize with Charlotte, now feel complicit, merely by our watching, in the social pressures put on her. We are sometimes her witnesses, sometimes her judges, sometimes consumers of the culture that drove her where she is. And sometimes, with a hair-raising new understanding, we are her. It’s a rare work of theater that so contorts and sunders us, and yet leaves us feeling more whole.


The Yellow Wallpaper | Devised and presented by Bare Portland. Directed by JJ Peeler | Through August 26 | Thu-Sun 8:30 pm | Meet at the pop-up box office “The Grotto at 229 Anderson Street, where a team will be standing with flashlights |, or contact 207-558-2234 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  • Published in Theater

Never Turning Back — Cast Aside's 'Hedwig' Blurs Gender and Spots a Star

Holding court this weekend at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater is a captivating glam-rocker, a fabulous chanteuse who will rock, rage, dish, and tell all — of love, division, unification, and the genital stub that was the cost of her emigration to America. Yes, it’s Hedwig, the “internationally ignored song stylist” of John Cameron Mitchell’s wildly beloved Hedwig and the Angry Inch, onstage in a tight, zinging show by Cast Aside Productions, directed by Celeste! Green and David Surkin.

It stars the phenomenal Michael Jenkins as Hedwig, who grew up “a slip of a girlyboy” in East Berlin, then married a U.S. soldier, moved to Junction City, Kansas, and became the transgender diva rocker now onstage to wile us with her story, her neurotic charisma, and her rock and roll chops. Hedwig takes us into a low-end rock club where Hedwig and her band, The Angry Inch, have an engagement. Mic in hand, she roams the house with quips, shimmiesnuggets of philosophy, and gasoline-stoked torch songs. She tells us of singing into the oven in East Berlinadoring Bowie, Iggy, and Lou. She tells us of creating rock star Tommy Gnosisex nihilo, from a confused teenaged Kansan. She tells of the mythic “third gender” of Plato’s Symposiu— at once male and female — whose ranks she has inadvertently joined.

Mitchell originally staged the show in rock clubs, and Cast Aside manages to conjure that intimacy and sordid abandon. Set design nicely scruffs up Portland Ballet’s studio theater and draws us into the action with seats onstage amid mic and wig stands, beer cans, random lamps, and scarf-draped amps — and the show, do take note, is BYOB. A back stage door is situated perfectly for Hedwig to kick it open and wallow in rage and self-pity at the sounds of her now-famous former lover, that same Tommy Gnosis, playing to adoring fans. And the house’s risers and wide center aisle let Hedwig strut up and down among us, sitting on and straddling laps, as well as take nostalgic refuge at the high back of the house, at a table and chair that stand in for her childhood apartment. The projector for the show’s trademark animations (by Surkin) also lives up there, and the positioning allows for some fun shadow play when Hedwig moves into the beam, jetting her Farrah Fawcett silhouette in among flying candies and stop-motion cut-outs of split genders seeking each other.

The success of any Hedwig depends above all on its star, and I’m happy to report that Jenkins, a young performer with magnetism and a supple, powerful voice, kills it in the best way. In a gold lamé jacket, white cut-offs, and a gold sequined halter, with more skin-tight gold glimmering beneath, Jenkins’s Hedwig owns the room. Her eyes, fabulously thick with blue glitter and fake lashes, look out now in a wide ingénue gaze, now with a snarky roll heavenward. One minute she has a campy bubblegum vampiness, tongue in the side of her mouth, and then she’s snapping and pacing with spleen and invective. Jenkins’s delivery is deliciously glib in Hedwig’s myriad innuendos about blow jobs and gaping holes, her sly little asides. (Her husband left her for someone he found “on — or whatever we called it back then ... church.)

theater hedwig 

Physically, Jenkins has a slight, lithe, arrogant frame — think a young Mick Jagger crossed with a mincing ingénue. Every moment, small or dramatic, is something to watch — her mouth slowly working the chewy gummy bear she takes from her husband-to-be; a twirl that sweeps remarkably into a face-plant. You never want to look away from her. And while perhaps physically a little young for a rocker now past her twenties, emotionally Jenkins conjures plenty Weltschmerz and ache to let us believe in all that Hedwig has been through. She also lets us understand the extraordinary forces that have gotten her through it — her own charisma and a love of rock and roll that is redemptive as only a religion can be.

As a singer, Jenkins is virtuoso, and he gives Hedwig an emotional and dynamic range that keeps us both infatuated and on our toes. Listen to her down low at the start of a ballad, with her sweet, sensual phrasing, the casual elisions that make us both loosen and lean in. Then feel the blood surge when she kicks it into rock gear. (The music, loving tributein the style of Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy, does rock — Rolling Stone in fact called Hedwig the first rock musical t“truly rock.”). And follow Hedwig’s gradual shifts in feeling over the course of “Wig in a Box,” perhaps one of the catchiest pick-yourself-up anthems in the musical canon. She starts it soft and sad, and by the end of the song (and several wigs) she’s soared into a strong, arch self-ownership.

Though Hedwig by nature seizes and hoards the spotlight, her show would of course be nowhere without others. Arrayed upstage, in punk-rock black and surly expressions, is her kick-ass band of ex-pat Serbs, played by Kyle Aarons (who is also musical director), Nathan Galvez, Michael King, and Jonathon Raines. These guys rock the walls of this little ballet theater, and they also do an entertainingly deadpan job of being at once leery, resentful, and begrudgingly respectful of their front woman. Finally, there is the much-abused Yitzhak (Lex Cie), Hedwig’s husband, assistant, and backup singer, and a former Jewish drag queen. Lex Cie carefully measures Yitzhak’s fury and his kicked-dog wariness against his clear concern for what becomes the hot mess of Hedwig. And when he takes the mic, after Hedwig has a meltdown, it’s a treat to watch Yitzhak ease back into the pleasure of performing.

Central to the play’s spirit is just that transformative thrill of making music. Jenkins’s Hedwig convinces us utterly of the euphoria that the music raises in her, and it is infectious. It’s when Hedwig sings that we see into her most. Her pathos, vulnerability, strength, and pure life-force that make her a mesmerizing and gorgeously confounding human being. You’ll be glad you spent a night with her.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch | By John Cameron Mitchell; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask. Directed by Celeste! Green and David Surkin. Produced by Cast Aside Productions | Through August 26 | Thu-Sat 8pm | At the Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 519 Forest Ave., Portland | $20 |


A Story of Fire and Gold — 'Dawson City' Shows the History of Film

Celluloid nitrate, the medium of the first motion pictures, is a direct descendent of a military explosive. Stored improperly, it spontaneously bursts into flameMost of it has burned or been lost. But some reels in the Yukon have survived an improbable life, death and rebirth. Filmmaker Bill Morrison lets the film itself tell its story, in his ingenious, mesmerizing documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time.

Early on, the camera pans over sepia stills of shiny celluloid ribbonstangled and looped through debris. “Lengths of film lying thither and yon,” is how a jovial museum curator describes what Dawson City’s backhoe operator dug up in 1979. How exactly did these films wind up in the Yukonburied in rubbleand then rediscovered? The story unfolds slowly, part mystery, part origin myth, part elegy. As we watch nitric acids pour like quicksilver and steel machines churning clear, viscous liquid celluloid, an ethereal soundtrack (by Alex Somer) intones slow orchestral phrases, epic and minor-key, as if we are witnessing the origins of an elemental and vagarious god. Largely wordless, edited almost entirely from Dawson’s trove of rediscovered silent films, plus archival materials and old home movies, Dawson City charts the rises and falls of this gold rush town, as a native fishing village becomes a city of gold-hungry men and their bars, their brothels, and, eventually, their cinemas. In the process, Morrison’s film also charts the evolution of early film itself, and compellingly aligns two grand human enterprises: the search for gold, and the will to make movies.

Dawson City’s slowness and lack of spoken words is hypnotic. Onscreen titles (designed by Galen Johnson) provide most of the verbal narrative, in phrases as simple and primal as a myth or a children’s story. And accompanying the archival footage of the Alaskan gold rush, in a brilliant b-roll move, are clips of later films about the gold rush — Pure Gold and Dross (1913), Klondike Holiday (1950), City of Gold (1957) — in which glamorous women wink and languish, in which men gamble and bend their faces to creeks.

The archival material is exquisite and wide-ranging — still portraits of prospectors; field images of tiny men and dogs snaking up a mountain pass. In one image, taken after a fatal avalanche, the dead and living alike, in their dark coats, are so stark against such a depthless white that they appear to be floating in midair. And we watch Dawson changefrom a land nestled between pristine bends of rivers to a city of taverns and telegraph lines, and, beyond, a muddy landscape ravaged by men digging for treasure.

Morrison’s project embraces a fascinating circularity — it’s a film about film and gold, told via films about gold — that gains an uncanny momentum assome surprising Yukon-Hollywood connections come full circle. And as long as it’s existed, Dawson City reminds us, film has been a powerful — perhaps double-edged — medium of discovery, ambition, and capture. Those early reels preserve beauty, and they also burned buildings to the ground. The parallel with gold becomes especially acute as the story turns to what we do to the things that are means to ends, or that are no longer profitable — the rivers dredged for gold, the hundreds of silent reels that are thrown downriver, once talkies arrive.

And yet, even what has been damaged can hold a strange beauty. Near the end of the film, in a damaged reel, we watch a woman dance with a sheer scarf. As she moves in and out of the ghostly white, undulating her arms, she might be trying to put out flames, and she might be trying to fan them.


Dawson City: Frozen Time | Dir:Bill Morrison | Mon, August 14 7 pm | Co-presentation by Kinonik at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | $8 | 



  • Published in Film

Ogunquit's 'Ragtime' Revives the Musical Ideal

The defining characteristic of ragtime music is its “syncopation” — a style in which the melody falls in between the beats instead of on them. Syncopated rhythms, which originated with African-American musicians, give the sense that the melody is slightly ahead of or even moving against its own beat, and they were new and jarring in early nineteenth-century America. These rhythms are an apt vehicle for the cultural and personal intersections of Ragtime, the musical epic of three very different American families, based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel. Onstage now at the Ogunquit Playhouse, in a dazzling production directed by Seth Sklar-Heyn, Ragtime is a paean to ragtime music and the idealism, unease, and fervors of its time.

Lady Liberty’s face hangs over the stage — literally — during pre-curtain, her eyes stoic. In her fraught city, diverse and new populations come into ever closer proximity, and Ragtime follows how its three families become improbably intertwinedWealthy white Mother (Kirsten Scott), wife of a fireworks magnate (Jamie LaVerdiere)finds new independence when her husband leaves on an exploring expedition. She and her son (Sol Thomas/Tyler Wlads) sharemoment in a train station with Latvian immigrant Tateh (Josh Young) and his daughter (Ella Luke-Tedeschi/Ella Riley). And black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Darnell Abraham) is searching for his love Sarah (Lindsay Roberts), who, unbeknownst to him, has birthed their child and found unlikely refuge in Mother’s house. Their intersections upend the rhythms of all involved.

The city’s shifting movements play out on a deep, nearly square stage, bounded on three sides by tall, moveable gates. Here, blocking and choreography (by Jesse Robb) make physical the era’s cultural curiosity and conflicts, as blacks, upper-class whites, and immigrants circle and eye each other, mingle pell-mell, and warily re-segregate. Energetic street scenes abound, as when Mother’s Younger Brother (Julian Decker) gets radicalized by Emma Goldman (Klea Blackhurst) in Union Square; and the staging draws on stark juxtapositions, as when Irish-American firemen destroy Coalhouse’s beloved Model-T while, upstage, Booker T. Washington (Rod Singleton) speaks against retaliatory violence toward whites. Arch and rambunctious fun is had with other historical figures, such as Harry Houdini (Freddie Kimmel) hanging from his feet, and notorious vaudevillian Evelyn Nesbit (Carly Hueston Amburn) singing in a swing.

Ogunquit’s stellar ensemble executes Stephen Flaherty’s syncopation-rich score impeccably, often with intricate multi-part counterpoint and hairpin swerves in mood. Precision, verve, and character are rife. Young sings Tateh’s numbers with beautiful phrasing, breathing into and against the score; and Scott lends a restrained humor to Mother’s clarion, watchful empathy. As her brother, Decker lets us see the passion and need for connection that drive his political awakening. And in the role of Coalhouse, Abraham has charisma and a marvelously nuanced dynamic range; he surges between murmurs and roars as he sings the secular gospel of a love song, a soaring aria of American idealism, or the dark verdicts of his rage.

As the story progresses, we hear dissonance in the off-beat melodies of this new music, and sometimes a violence in its push against the beat. And “Why can’t I sing it, too?” asks Mother’s Younger Brother, raising specters of both appreciation and appropriation of music that represents variously a curiosity, a passion, a threat, a promise, and a way into other worlds.

Ogunquit’s superb production brings wit, ardor, and affection to the fundamental premise of Ragtime: that it is by proximity and simple, everyday interaction by learning each other’s names, children, fears, and music; by leaving our own neighborhood and listening — that we grow our empathy for those who seem other. It’s an idea that could certainly stand a revival.

RagtimeBook by Terrence McNally; Music by Stephen Flaherty; Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow. Directed by Seth Sklar-Heyn; Musical Direction by Jeffrey Campos | Through August 26 | Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main St, Ogunquit |


  • Published in Theater

Monmouth's Excellent 'Red Velvet' Depicts a Society Unable to Act its Values

In 1833, London was embroiled over slavery in Britain’s coloniesafter a revolt in Jamaica and pressure on the home front, Parliament instituted the Slavery Abolition ActEnter Ira Aldridge (the excellent Ryan Vincent Anderson), a young African-American actor, to replace an ailing Othello at Covent Garden — and to exposeas the first black actor on that stageLondon’s hypocrisies and bigotriesIn the beautifully crafted comedic drama Red Velveton stage at the Theater at Monmouth, playwright Lolita Chakrabarti imagines what happened offstage at Covent GardenJennifer Nelson directs a dynamic and deftly performed production of the play, both an affectinportrait of Aldridge and an acute meditation on the politics and powers of theater.

Chakrabarti bookends that night with glimpses of an older Iraabout to play Lear. He stoops, coughsand swats away a feisty young Polish reporter (Meghan Leathers)Compared with the aggressive reporter, a tightly wound German stagehand (Emery Lawrence), and his own worried Scottish assistant (James Noel Hoban), Anderson’s Ira is wry, lyrical, looseHis languidly delivered remark that last night’s moon was “like a bowl of milk — I wanted to drink it,” reveals his casual but powerful sensuality. Under the reporter’s questioning, this aged Ira circleambiguities about why, since 1833, he has never again played Covent Garden.

Then it’s 1833in a green room set with simple chairs and tea thingsthe actors of Edmund Kean’s Shakespeare company are arguing about slavery and who should take sick Edmund’s place as Othello. Company manager Pierre Laporte (Bradley Wilson) announces that Ira will step in. Most of the actors have never seen him, but much talk is made of his reviews, esteem, and purported sexinessAnd then Ira arrives, is seen. The physicality of this moment is comedic — immediate dramatic gasps, stares, turned backs — but the emotional valence drops to the floorDignified, measuredunsurprised, Ira is no stranger to such reception, and you sense his fatigue, already, in dealing diplomatically with bias. As he presents himself to the company, Anderson masterfully calibrates Ira’s caution against his exasperation and rage, his passion and sensuality, and awareness of his own power and its limits.

We’re in the belly of the theater (upstage, a tall brick wall and ropes, a swath of red velvet curtain), and Chakrabarti, an actor herself, delights in the personalities and work of the theater tribe. The actors banter nimbly and deliciously, and scenes of the craft in action are revelatoryWorking a scene with Ellen, the show’s Desdemona (Kelsey Burke, with careful nuance), Ira introduces impulse to a company grounded in formal tradition, and elevates the desires of Desdemona. “So I may play what I feel?” Ellen asks, beguiled. “How … avant-garde.” As they stop and start through the scene, eliciting shocked giggles and enraged outbursts from the rest of the company, they are an object lesson in the deep and humanizing intimacy of the act of performance.

Other theater debates that Ira stirs play out on several philosophical levels — does theater support traditional values or is it “progressive”? Should Ira act with gradualist “kid gloves” on an audience unready for integrated theater? — but always feel wholly grounded in the theatrical. This is an agile show physicallyfrom the young reporter’s comic antics to fine, sexually charged subtleties as Ellen and Ira choreograph their strangling sceneLeft alone together, Ira and Pierre (in Wilson’s hands, animated and mellifluously Frenchrelax: In the unleashed heaving of their laughter, we understand their sense of intimacy and likeness — the passionate natures they both must tether in London, their shared perception of being outsidersAnd watch the mere eyes of the Jamaican maid Connie (Maggie Thompson) as — powerless, carelessly treated, far less seen than Ira — she observes all this theater from behind the tea tray.

Expertly paced and pitchedMonmouth’s superb Red Velvet trains a savvy, clear-eyed gaze on a culture that does not yet act on what it professes to believe, and of an artist’s role in change — the power, the pleasure, and the toll.

Red Velvet | By Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Jennifer Nelson | Theater at Monmouth, Cumston Hall, 796 Main St, Monmouth | Through August 17 |

  • Published in Theater
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