One of the first and most spiritually nourishing shows of 2018 was Babette’s Feast, an adaptation of the Isak Dinesen short story about one woman’s act of culinary sensuality, at Portland Stage Company. Conceived and developed by Abigail Killeen, adapted by Rose Courtney, and performed by a gifted ensemble, it was a production in which all elements felt “precisely, tenderly conceived,” I wrote, and which exuded “warmth, grace, and a true sense of fellowship.”
From the sublime to the marvelously, erotically pestilent, let’s turn to Mad Horse’s 2018 opener, Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare — a gloriously strange and lyrical drama about eros and thanatos during the 17th-century British plague. The show featured fine and subtle performances by Payne Ratner, Mark Rubin, Gracie Brassard, (Phoenix editor) Nick Schroeder, and an especially mesmerizing Deborah Paley; and its production design was haunting: Meg Anderson’s “frozen chaos of white fabric might be the sheets of a bed or of a morgue,” I wrote, while Corey Anderson’s lighting was “the color now of vellum and honey, now of corpses and ghosts.”
Another hypnotic show about insect-borne (and other) horrors was 60 Grit's terrifying production of Tracy Letts’ Bug, starring Shannon Campbell as a susceptible cocktail waitress and Khalil LeSaldo as the Gulf War vet whose buggy ideas soon infect her. Khalil’s conspiracy theorist vet, I wrote, had “a focused, almost chemical clarity,” and Campbell was devastating in showing Agnes’s how live-wire need, void, and purposelessness are fed by his schizophrenic certainties.
Dramatic Rep bookended 2018 with not bugs but cocks, which proved the unifying motif in two exhilaratingly physical shows. In Year of the Rooster, a scarred, sad-sack Oklahoman (Kip Davis) sought to be a winner through his fighting rooster Odysseus Rex, played by a show-stealing Erik Moody in a spiked collar. Davis’s pathos was “almost physically painful to watch,” I wrote; Christopher Holt had a scary turn as a diabolical bully running the fights; and here, again, Meg Anderson’s set design shone, evoking what I called “a kind of primal, elemental sublime.” And in DRC’s more recent Cock (the cockfight play), the feinting and jabbing were done for love of one pathologically indecisive man, played by Andrew Sawyer. Sawyer and his suitors, played by Ian Carlsen and Marjolaine Whittlesey, performed in near-constant but ever-shifting motion in the “ring,” presenting a triumph of physical ensemble work.
Two more special shout-outs for ensembles:
In Mad Horse’s farce The Explorers Club, directed by Christine Louise Marshall, a clubhouse of 19th-century scientist bros (Burke Brimmer, Jake Cote, Jason LeSaldo, James Patefield, and Brent Askari) felt threatened by the attempted membership of a woman explorer (Janice Gardner) who brought herself home an African native (Tom Campbell). Everyone's ensuing hijinks and bickering were fast-paced and perfectly timed, and Paul Haley even had a breathtaking cameo wielding a big stick. “Above and beyond its social critique,” I wrote, “The Explorers Club is just really fucking funny,” adding that “any play in which you get to watch Askari mime a phallus during a game of charades is probably, just on odds, worth the trip.”
Another and decidedly stranger all-boys club took the stage in Manfred Karge’s bracingly weird The Conquest of the South Pole, staged by Snowlion Repertory, about out-of-work mill workers in Rumford who playact a famous expedition to the South Pole. Ian Carlsen was in high form as the wild-eyed ringleader of the ensemble-within-an-ensemble of Ashanti Williams, Cullen Burke, Eric Darrow Worthley, and Caleb Streadwick, who slipped deftly in and out of character, surreality, and the Antarctic.
And two individual performances in 2018 were particularly virtuosic, especially given their roles’ challenges:
Burke Brimmer, playing a dying 600-pound shut-in and wearing a huge prosthesis in The Whale, at Mad Horse, rarely moved his huge frame. In this remarkably nuanced and affecting performance, as I wrote, Brimmer “physicalizes the largely immobile Charlie’s wide range of feeling almost entirely in his eyes.”
And the Good Theater’s The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, about an autistic teenager turned detective, featured a phenomenal performance by Griffin Carpenter, who consulted with the Autism Society of Maine for the role. “Carpenter’s performance is so exacting and so empathetic,” I wrote, “that it’s easy to project our own selves at our most vulnerable, stripped of all emotional tools and social facades.”
Finally, what a pleasure to be in the audience for the return of Portland’s much-beloved American Irish Repertory Ensemble. Its production of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, directed by Dan Burson, starred the irreplaceable Tony Reilly in the role of — could it be more perfect? — cantankerous old Tony Reilly. I wrote that I left AIRE’s show “feeling both warmer and more mortal — a sensation that the plays and people of AIRE have often inspired.” Here's hoping for a little more AIRE, too, among the coming year’s many theatrical pleasures.