Biddeford Journal Tribune
Three delightful old codgers and a 200 pound stone dog greet audiences venturing to Portland Stage for their current production of 'Heroes." After 90 minutes, audience members find themselves sharing with this quirky quartet a collective dementia that leaves traditional logic behind.
The year is 1959, the setting a stucco terrace of an old soldiers home in the central part of France. Here we meet Gustave, Henri, Phillippe and their stone canine companion. All are World War I veterans of advanced years suffering the infirmities of old age and lamenting the fact that their best years are behind them. However their collective complaint is the dull round of their existence as institutional prisoners stuck in the doldrum of a daily life of monotonous routine, tepid soup and the watchful eye of their detested caretakers.
On their terrace lorded over by the stone dog, they find refuge and consolation in their companionship. They have commandeered this terrace as their own personal outpost insulating them from their unwelcome fellow inmates. Here despite their physical limitations they plot their escape.
Henri is a dapper gentleman of culture plagued by a leg frozen in full extension. Gustave, despite his incisive lucidity suffers from an acute case of agoraphobia. Phillippe is a narcoleptic who routinely falls unpredictably into a state of dreamy unconsciousness. Upon awakening he exclaims, "We'll take them from the rear, Captain!" As the drama continues, we learn that in the addled mind of Phillippe, the Captain is not a military figure but an ancient or imagined paramour. Phillippe's preoccupation with his forgone eroticism is revealed as he lamentably proclaims, "I haven't had an erection in six months!"
In their horizon is a distant hill where tall poplar trees sway in the wind. It is there that they fix their gaze and imagine their liberation. How to accomplish this objective is a constant source of bickering, consternation and contentious argument that moves the comedy along. One zany plan after another is considered, diagrammed, disputed, reconfigured, then disregarded as ludicrous. However the proof is in the planning and through their quixotic imaginings they achieve their true liberation.
Tom Stoppard, one of our greatest living playwrights, adapted this script from the French of Gérald Siblerays. The original title "Le Vent de Peupliers" (The Wind in the Poplars) was regrettably shortened to "Heroes" in its English translation. Stoppard is a wizard of words. His incisive wit, mastery of dialog and his ability to conjure an alternative reality in the guise of a play is in full force.
Although the stone dog remains mute during the proceedings, he remains a focus of the machinations. The endearing trio of actors robustly animate the script along with their silent companion.
Heroes continues through April 22nd with performances on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30 pm; Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm; and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets range in price from $15 to $39. For tickets and more information call the Box Office at 207-774-0465 or online firstname.lastname@example.org.
Four Short Plays by Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) continues to be an heroic figure in American Theater. His prolific list of titles, projected on the back wall of the theater, greets the audience as they enter Portland Stage's current production, "Hidden Tennessee." A selection of four lessor known short pieces was chosen by the Portland company for their tribute to this literary master. Three short plays and a poetic rendering of a short story -- the highlight of the evening -- were presented. Interspersed as prologue, epilogue, and entre acts are an original pastiche of fast-paced dramatic bits that chronicle the events of his long career. Snippets of dialogue, a harangue of awards and literary prizes, critical praise and condemnation, are all part of the mix.
Just four actors assume the challenge of the many dramatic roles testing their muster. In addition to their scripted character roles, each member of the quartet assumes the voice of the author when donning the tattered white dress coat that is a metaphor for Williams himself. The coat remains lifeless on a dress dummy when not animated by the actors who voice his thoughts.
Once again, the scenic environment created by the design staff was laudatory. As each play begins, the hammering of a Smith Corona typewriter clicks in the ear as the typeset letters and words of the title flash by, one by one, onto the backdrop. This is a clever device that puts the audience in the mind of the writer. A whirlwind of passions, disillusionments, and the severed nerves of love and longing are exposed in the four pieces. A concerted effort was made to parallel the life story of Williams with the dramatic narratives presented. This was a noble and highly creative approach by the production staff.
The evening ends with a cataclysmic storm that engulfs the stage, scattering set pieces as they break apart and swirl and tumble in the wind. Adding to the turmoil is a stunning barrage of light images and projections that place us in the eye of the storm. It is a fitting conclusion to the theatrical evening, leaving us breathless.
Of special merit is the lighting design work of Bryon Winn. Winn achieves a masterful evocation of the mystery of misbegotten love and ill-fated romance as cascades of tiny blue illumination drift down from the rafters in a floral semblance that places the lovelorn in a dream-like garden of tender remorse. Stunning.
For those of us that have cherished the full-length plays of Williams, like "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Suddenly Last Summer" on film and in the live theater, this production of "Hidden Tennessee" will have special resonance. I grew up in New Jersey and studied his plays in high school, but it wasn't until I attended college in New Orleans that I came to understand the powerful undertow of southern emotion that imbues the Williams' canon.
The 2011-12 season of plays at Portland Stage has been ambitious and challenging. This is adventurous theater that continues to strive for innovative theatrical projects. Their efforts are imaginative and rewarding. Season tickets are recommended.
The Snow Queen
Based on the tale by Hans Christian Andersen
Adapted, Designed and Directed by Anita Stewart
An Old World fairy tale odyssey has been brought to life by the Portland Stage Company to celebrate the holidays and the magic of winter. The SNOW QUEEN opened on December 2nd and continues through Christmas Eve.
An enormous cast, an abundance of special stage effects, and an unabashed acting exuberance strive to make this meandering tale of adventure a holiday treat for the wee ones and those of us who savor moralistic theatrical moonshine.
Based on the epic fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, who gave us “The Emperor’s Clothes”, “The Little Mermaid” and “The Princess and the Pea”, The windy epic tale of the SNOW QUEEN has been adapted, directed and designed by the Portland Stage Artistic Director, Anita Stewart. Tradition looms large during holiday time at the Portland playhouse where the Dickens tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge has been reprised numerous times and The David Sedaris spicy saga of Crumpet the Macy’s Department store elf is now in its fourth incarnation in the small second stage studio theater at Portland Stage.
"The Snow Queen" is envisioned as an antidote to the Dickens Classic to be presented every other holiday season, giving the Ghosts of Christmas and the Crachitts a chance to visit other theaters before returning to the PSC main stage. It is sure to improve with age.
"The Snow Queen" opens with a single tiny snowflake that grows before our eyes into a stage wide animated ornament as the prodigious acting ensemble parades into the auditorium singing a robust overture.
As the action unfolds we are regaled with the visual delights of an old world town square that effortlessly opens like a storybook. Yards of flowing silk become a river, scrims rise from the floor and descend from the rafters, mirrors float, snow flakes and autumn leaves fall from the sky. Shadow puppets appear and disappear, a garden of anthropomorphic flowers-including comic daises, narcissistic morning glories and a trio of vain tiger lilies dance and charm us with their wit.
The Snow Queen herself appears in a symphony of white crowned with an enormous sparkling tiara that frames her head like an oversized Elizabethan cowl that makes the excesses of Elizabeth seem a trifle. She makes a stunning tableau -a magical evocation of the crystallization of snow and ice.
If only the narrative had taken a back seat to this fantasia of imaginative stage mesmerism the play would have taken flight, but it was tethered by an exhaustive and clumsy plot quest .
Luckily, Two fabulous veteran PSC actors, Tom Ford and Daniel Noel keep the drama alive. Tom Ford appears and reappears in a wild panoply of characters, a choraleer, a townsperson, an angel, and his two main roles, the wacky, frenetic maniacal inventor and his spectacular personification of a talking crow with a hilarious vocal habit that keeps the audience laughing aloud in their seats. A spark plug of theatrical energy, Tom Ford rules as the Bob Hope of Portland.
Daniel Noel lends his sonorous rich baritone to the narration of the tale and his voice resonates with dramatic flourish. It’s music to the ear. As the play climbs to the the finish, he dons a pair of antlers and a coat of furs to portray the tireless reindeer ”BA.’’
The steadfast BA struggles through the frozen tundra along with the narrative line.
"The Snow Queen" will continue through December 24th. For Tickets and information call the Portland Stage Box office at 207-774-0465. Ticket prices range from $12-$40 and the play runs Weds-Sunday. Saturday shows are at 2 pm and 7 pm and Sundays are Noon and 5 pm.
The Christmas Eve show is at Noon.
A dramatic essay exposing the raw nerves and complex web of conflict, repression, rich human love and violent turmoil that surrounded life in South Africa during the latter years of the Apartheid era marks the closing production of the Portland Stage 2011 Main Stage season. It runs through May 22.
The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien, is part first-hand documentary, part fiction, and part remembrance. The play spirals through the youth and adolescence of a precocious and giddy young girl. She is the daughter of a kindly white medical doctor and is lovingly nannied by black domestics. The play concludes with her eventual escape to Pasadena, California, and ends with her heartwarming return to her father, her motherland, and a joyful reunion with her long lost beloved nanny. The story is told by 24 characters, from young children to old grannies who are all embodied by one woman, actress Stephanie Cozart.
It's a marathon acting challenge. Cozart swings from one character to the next as she carries on a fast-paced dialog with herself, changing personas like a chameleon on steroids. We watch as Cozart employs all the tricks of dramatic nuance - voice, physicality, posture and pantomime as she moves the story forward in one hundred minutes of non-stop dramatic action.
It's an exhausting exercise. Cozart is up to the task but excels when portraying her elderly grandmother - her voice cackles with dry grit, her spine contracts in an aged bend as she wrings her weak and cragged fingers.
The soundscape for this production greatly aids the evocation of place, mood and change in temperament. Sound has become a hallmark of Portland Stage productions as of late. The genius of David Remedios has set the standard in past productions and here, Toby Algya has provided an exquisite evocation of South African rhythm. The a cappella chorus of chanting men fades over the sound of distant drums followed by the undertones of a beating heart. Barking dogs, ethereal chimes, and the rising chorus of an enraged mob pierced by the sound of a single bullet is thrilling theater craft that elevates and invigorates the action.
The effectiveness of the lighting also bolsters the heat of South Africa. Upon the bare stage of panoramic tawny burlap that cascades down from the rafters like the rolled backdrop of a desert photo shoot, the lights fade in and out in a dance of time, sunrise to sunset, time past to time present. Designer Phillip Rosenberg showers the stage with a plethora of illumination effects from hot daylight sun to the glowing embers of red ritual fire rising in the night from the earthen floor in an evocation of native spirit.
The bitter fruit and refuge of the shade of the Syringa Tree is a dominant motif throughout, though the tree itself appears only in the imagination of the actress and the audience, in the title and on the front page of the program. Overall, a grand effort that would have benefited by a bit of brevity. The Syringa Tree continues through May 22nd.
Gregory Reynolds Morell
Box 1084, Northampton, MA 01061
THE CENTER OF GRAVITY by John Hischak
Presented by Portland Stage thru March 20, 2011
Written by: Gregory Hischak - Directed By Paul Mullins - Scenic Design: Anita Stewart
Cast: Orville Wright - Matt R. Harrington; Wilbur Wright - Christopher Kelly; Lillian Wright -Maureen Butler; Margot Wright - Sophia Holman
The Center of Gravity, an imaginative historical fantasy of the famous fathers of aviation, the Wright Brothers, takes wind at Portland Stage in a whimsical “what if” aerial adventure that flies until March 20th.
This scenario of sibling rivalry, jealousy and brotherly love is a fictional investigation of the foibles and forces that go hand-in-hand with extreme achievement. The Portland Stage production marks the first flight of the play written by Dayton, Ohio native Gregory Hischak. Hischak grew up in the hometown of the famous brothers and was always fascinated by their mythic presence.
The cast consists of a tight foursome, the two brothers--Wilbur and Orville, Mother Wright, and Margot, the woman of dual affection. The two brothers are polar opposites in temperament and emotion, two distinct faces of the same coin spinning in constant conflict.
Christopher Kelly as Wilbur is a firecracker of energy, spontaneous combustion and boyish charm. Orville (Matt Harrington) is the staid voice of reason, practicality and measured judgment. Harrington has the challenge of moving the story through its time perambulations and he handles it with calm finesse.
Mother Wright is the champion of comic relief as she peppers the dialog with a constant stream of Malaprop musings: “You were born in this room, do you remember?” “No” “Well, you were so young” and when she comforts her son by saying “You were just like a son to me.” She’s batty, well meaning, and slightly up in the air herself.
Margot (Sophia Holman) is caught in the middle and has the distinction of delivering the line “I dreamt I was a bird having a walking dream.”
At times, Margot floats across the stage with her voluminous Victorian skirts trailing behind her, and at other times she’s stripped of her bodice and stays and sports a set of Victorian undies that preserve her modesty but somehow allow a successful “angle of incidence.”
The Center of Gravity leaves linear logic and the unity of time and place on the ground and explores the atmosphere of dreams, flashbacks, remembrance and regret. Fueling the journey is the passion of fame and flight, but the wings of desire are charred by the breaking of the sibling cardinal commandment: “Thou shall not covet thy brother’s wife.”
The stage setting is dominated by an enormous raked traverse--it’s a giant airplane wing canted on a steep incline, supported by struts and cables, upon which the actors move over, under, and across as they traverse time and distance. However, the most successful stage element, so well serving the themes of the drama, is the floor-to-ceiling straight ladder upon which the actors ascend and climb to the heavens.
Poet and playwright, Gregory Hischak, crafts a highly imaginative literary vortex with studied repetition of word and phrase. These devices reach a full flowering in the dream sequence near the close of Act 1. Like an operatic quartet, the four actors engage in a sustained chorus of simultaneous dialog greatly enhanced by clever voice echo reverberation engineered by the smart sound designer, David Remedios. Here, all the elements of scenography, deft directorial staging and bold writing create a fabulous evocation that is the highlight of the production.
This world premiere of The Center of Gravity was workshopped at the Portland Stage this past May and was chosen over 150 other submissions as the winner of the 2010 Clauder Play Competition for New England Playwrights. Portland Stage has been hosting the play competition for the the past few years. The commitment to new work and the talents of the production staff keep the action at Portland Stage exciting, engaging and adventurous.
Gregory Reynolds Morell
2 PIANOS 4 HANDS by Ted Dykstra & Richard Greenblatt
Presented by Portland Stage thru Feb. 20th
Written by: Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt Directed By : Tom Frey Scenic Design: Anita Stewart
For lovers of the piano, especially those who have first-hand experience with piano lessons, The Portland Stage presentation of 2 PIANOS 4 HANDS is a must-see. A tour de force of musicianship and character acting, the theater reverberates with sound, fury, and tasty comedic repartee.
The entire action is framed by an austere classical facade of towering floor to ceiling pilasters. Two shiny black enormous concert grands dominate the stage space, their tops removed revealing their golden interiors glowing under the heat of white hot stage lighting.
Our two actors/pianists enter stage in the formal pomp of white tie and tuxedo tails as they ceremoniously march to their respective piano benches. Our expectations are soon undone as instead of an opening overture, we are greeted with a silly slapstick pantomime that would make Laurel and Hardy groan.
It is quickly apparent that this play is going to be peppered with humor and dramatic irony. Jefffrey Rockwell and Tom Frey, two veteran actors and masters of the 88 keys, make their debut at Portland Stage and their abilities are impressive.
Throughout the evening we are treated to piano pyrotechnics, including snippets of Mozart, Bach, Elton John, Billy Joel and even a bit of the Linus and Lucy theme. The music is always wonderful and the cutely constructed medleys of popular music are cheerful and gleefully funny.
The two actors portray young boys on their journey from early childhood through their first lessons, their early competitions, and their trials as conservatory students trying to make their mark as Carnegie Hall stars.
Much, way too much, of the action explores the relationship of Piano Teacher to Piano Student. The actors ping pong back and forth from being the Teacher or the student in a quick change barrage of quirky characterizations. In addition to a collection of eccentric piano teachers, we are regaled with cameos of pushy parents, boring competition M.C.'s, heartless mean spirited judges, and drunken bar patrons.
We suffer along with the students as they struggle through tedious hours of practice, endless exercises, ear tests, and harangues about dedication, desire, and commitment.
Personally, my favorite moments in the piece were the dialectics between the Italian Teacher and the French Teacher as they poetically explain why playing the piano is like making love to a woman - here the dialogue is witty and spirited and a memorable highlight.
The drama, however, reaches its climatic peak during the scathing evaluations by the admission counselors who sadistically bludgeon our piano heroes with their ill-tempered verbal flogging, thereby crushing their dreams and aspirations.
For some, victory springs from the jaws of defeat. And the Canadian playwrights who penned this intimate dramatic tale are now laughing all the way to the bank. Their play has been translated into three languages, enjoyed an Off-Broadway run of six months at New York's Promenade Theater, garnered numerous awards, and has been presented in over 150 different theaters.
Gregory Reynolds Morell
LAST GAS by John Cariani
Portland Stage has a favorite new playwright. His name is John Cariani from Presque Isle. His brand new play, LAST GAS, opened this past week to an enthusiastic audience response that reveled in its humor, laughed at its jokes, and cherished its warm embrace of life in the Northern reaches of upcountry Maine, a few miles from the Canadian border.
Cariani's other Maine play, "Almost Maine", made its debut at Portland Stage in 2004 and went on to win numerous prestigious awards. It has enjoyed great success at the regional theater level and has become a high school and community theater favorite.
Portland Stage deserves applause. LAST GAS is a noble effort. The play takes us into the closeted life of a 34 year-old Maine milquetoast. Nat Paradis (played by David Mason with benign charm) is a huge Red Sox fan and convenience store operator. As the play unfolds, he attempts to come to terms with the fact that his life has reached a tipping point. He was arrested the night before for DWI, his darling high school sweetheart has returned from New York City to rekindle their romance, his rude/crude overbearing father is amping up parental pressure, and he and his best friend are dealing with the "Love that dares not speak in Maine."
There is much to cheer about in this cleverly crafted Cariani portrait of three generations of Maine men living above their convenience store that has become their cage.
Anita Stewart designed a tri-part stage that simultaneously presents us with action above, below, and on the outside in the 'warm' 39 degree spring thaw. The interior of the convenience store is a marvel of realistic detail: coffee, donuts, whoopee pies, cigarettes, lottery machine, packed coolers, baseball paraphernalia, and carefully placed bottles of windshield wiper fluid. The exterior is a simple set of steps, a full scale ice machine, some cleverly utilized red plastic coke cases that double as outdoor furniture, and a huge Pepsi sign that glares at the audience like a giant cyclops. The upstairs apartment is not as successful as a dreary interior that hasn't changed in twenty years. The upstairs affords us a few gems of sofa gymnastics but features an awkward door to nowhere. The setting is most effective when the action above is counter-pointed with the action below.
Cariani is a fine storyteller and weaves an effective layering of plot convolutions and crosscurrents of emotion and intent that keep the play moving. His competent six-actor ensemble delivers his words with relish.
Especially noteworthy is Kathy McCafferty as the ignominiously named Lurene Legassie. Lurene has returned to Maine to bury her mother who passed away in February but poor mama had to wait for the frozen ground of Maine to thaw before she could be laid to rest. Lurene, despite her name, lights up the stage with every entrance and charms with her effervescence. She is a delightful open window of fresh air but her character is betrayed by the author in an unlikely scene wherein she attempts to seduce the 16 year-old son of her high school sweetheart. Lurene deserved better.
Tom Bloom as Nat's father plays a zippy senior citizen, seemingly souped up on Viagra, chasing every available skirt. Though brutish and hardheaded, he adds a zestful optimism to Act One.
The understated Mike Houston as Nat's long time best friend Guy Gagnon puts in a controlled and practiced effort. This is a tough role with steep challenge.
Moira Driscoll as Lady of Maine Forest Ranger "Cherry-Tracy" is a colorful and constant source of wacky humor that caricatures those irritable officers of the law.
And here in lies the rub. At times the direction could have benefitted from the less is more dictum. As often, the awkward kisses were too awkward, the plot convolutions a bit too convoluted, the hesitation a little too hesitant and the embarrassment a shade too embarrassing.
Also, the basic premise of the piece requires a bit of suspension of disbelief as it is difficult to imagine that two dyed-in-the-wool Red Sox fans from the wilds of Maine could find themselves moonstruck at the local Recreation Center.
LAST GAS provides a very rich look at the life, loves and lies of our Maine neighbors on the Canadian border and offers a memorable night of theater. It is a tribute to the folks at Portland Stage that they continue to present new works as part of their main stage season that are especially relevant to the Maine audience.
Playwright John Cariani both an actor and writer. He is probably best known for his long time television role on Law and Order as Julian Beck.
LAST GAS continues through November 21. Ticket information is available at the Portland Stage box office, 207-774-0465 or on the web at www.portlandstage.com. Ticket price ranges from $16.50 to $37.
Performances are Wednesday-Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm only. The Portland Stage production has a running time of 2 hours and has one 15 minute intermission.
Gregory Reynolds Morell
Hitchcock’s ’39 Steps’ at PSC is theater at its best
By Laura Slap-Shelton, Journal Tribune Arts Reviewer
PORTLAND – The Portland Stage Company opens its 2010-2011 season with Patrick Barlow’s award-winning adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” a brilliant send-up of Hitchcock’s movie of the same name, and of the spy thriller genre in general.
Immediately engrossing, surprising, hilarious and moving, this energetic theatrical romp marks an auspicious beginning to a promising new season.
In these nervous times as we cope with war and terrorism, “The 39 Steps” is the perfect balm, providing the opportunity to step back in time and laugh in the face of adversity as we cheer on the hero in his fight to exonerate his name and save his country from the activities of Nazi spies.
At the outset, the audience joins a weary, modern-day night watchman, the main character, Richard Hannay, who faces the predicament of being labeled a murderer on the run. A mysterious female spy sets the plot into motion and the audience follows.
Part of the genius of this production is that four actors are called on to play more than 130 roles, leading to the incredible disguises and character changes, which occur almost midsentence, highlighting the core theme of identity that runs through the play.
The fact that the audience somehow never becomes confused is a testament to the excellent direction by Samuel Buggeln, who returns for his 10th season at the Portland Stage, and to the actors who make this play sing.
Paolo Andino, plays a charming, heroic and athletic Richard Hannay, at one point hanging in parallel off a stage girder.
New England native Gardner Reed, also debuting at PSC, plays three female roles, each one highly defined and different from the other. Her combination femme fatale/diva rendition of Annabella Schmidt Is very funny, while her portrayal of the isolated Pamela on the Scottish moors is heartfelt. She brings the irony to her rendition of Margaret as the traditional romantic female lead and carries off the famous handcuff scene – in which she removes her stockings while attached to Hannay – with aplomb.
The approximately 126 other roles are masterfully played by Dustin Tucker and Torsten Hillhouse, who play and work as a seamless duo in many scenes.
The amazing work of set designer Anita Stewart, lighting designer Byron Winn, costume designer Loyce Arthur and sound designer Shannon Zura complete the show. Together they bring complex scenes to life and create almost another character from the stage and its props, essential to the humor of this play. One small example is the use of a toy plane on a stick and lighting and sound to depict Hannay’s escape across the Scottish moors.
Hitchcock’s 1935 movie “The 39 Steps” originated from John Buchan’s eponymous novel, published in 1915 and considered to be the first novel of the spy thriller genre. Hannay, the hero of the novel, became the prototype for later heroes of espionage, such as James Bond. Two remakes of the film have been made, in 1959 and 1978, Patrick Barlow, British actor, playwright and comedian, adapted Alfred Hitchcock’s movie into a play in 2005.
Running through Oct. 24, “The 39 Steps” is a delight and not to be missed.
Halpern & Johnson