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September 29

Review: 'Sisters Rosensweig' has fun exploring issues


Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig," which opened the 39th season for the Portland Stage Company with purpose on Friday night, is a play that almost has too much in it.

Threads of social, historical, political, economic, religious, ethnic, gender, literary and other issues are woven through the 1992 play's fabric. If all that seems daunting, the play's generous strands of comedy and warm emotions are there to provide relief.

Wasserstein was exceptionally good at combining the serious and the silly in her writings throughout her all-too-brief career (she died at age 55). She used some of the basics of her own life -- being single, Jewish, well-educated, cultured and a feminist -- as well as the events of her time to create theater pieces in which likable characters, particularly female characters, try to make sense of their lives.

The author acknowledged a debt to Chekhov with this play, but her love of classic Broadway theater also comes through clearly here, under the direction of Chris Grabowski.

Though they enjoy many material comforts (the play takes place in an upscale London home), the sisters of this show long for "hope and rebirth" even as they fiercely defend themselves against criticisms of what they've accomplished so far. There's a lot of give and take about whether their Jewish-American heritage is a help or a hindrance to them in a changing world, as well as debates about what they should be willing to sacrifice for emotional security.

Played by Amy McDonald, Sara, whose 54th birthday is the occasion for the gathering of her siblings and their friends, is smart and successful in the man's world of international banking. She resists the advances of guest Mervyn, played by John Plumpis, a fast-talking furrier with a sensitive heart.

Sister Pfeni, a writer and self-styled "wandering Jew" played by D'Arcy Dersham, longs for the flamboyant Geoffrey, played by William Zielinski.

And Gorgeous, the seemingly least complicated sister, played by Carole Healey, wants to be respected for sticking closest to their mother's ideal of the traditionally successful woman.

McDonald employed the tough, "hard woman" tone of the mover and shaker she was playing at Friday's performance. When she softened a bit at the end, the contrast added to an appreciation of what had gone before.

Dersham inhabited her "eccentric" character more easily and offered a number of fine acting touches when not speaking. Her Pfeni seemed real in a way that her sisters sometimes did not.

Healey was a comedic hoot as the sweetheart who chases taste while always searching for just a "moment of pure, unadulterated happiness."

Ron Botting and Michael Dix Thomas round out the male cast as quaint (each in his own way) Britishers who ultimately don't quite fit with the Rosensweig clan.

Megan Dorn, as Sara's college-age daughter, sums up the play's most serious question about whether her family is destined to be made up of "people who will always be watching and never belong."

Maybe, but they are fun to watch and think about in this impressive production of a very well-wrought play.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.





Yesterday at 12:00 AM 


Playing around

It's all about THE PROCESS – and the audience is invited to participate – as four playwrights iron the kinks out during a week of public readings of their new works.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

Three actors sit around two tables formed to shape an L. Their director, Andrew Harris, is at the head of one table, tapping the eraser of his pencil on the hard surface as the actors read from loose pages bound in three-ring binders.

click image to enlarge

Director Andrew Harris talks with playwrights and actors during rehearsal.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Moira Driscoll, left, Tess Van Horn, director Andrew Harris and Mark Honan dissect and discuss during rehearsal.



WHEN: Through Saturday

WHERE: Studio theater at Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland

HOW MUCH: $10/donation

INFO: 774-0465;

DETAILS: "Big Mouth and Thunder Thighs" by Bess Welden, 7 tonight and 1:30 a.m. Saturday; "Broomstick" by John Biguenet, 7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Saturday; "Love/Sick" by John Cariani, 2 p.m. Saturday; "Tomorrow in the Battle" by Kieron Barry, 8 p.m. Saturday



"Tomorrow in the Battle" by Kieron Barry: A tale of obsession and betrayal set in contemporary London. Poignant and brutal, "Tomorrow in the Battle" portrays loyalty and lust, honor and honesty, and the emotional continents that separate even the most intimate.

"Love/Sick" by John Cariani: A series of love stories -- some gone wrong and others gone right -- explore romance in the suburban jungle.

"Big Mouth Thunder Thighs" by Bess Welden: Roller skating, comedy, country-western singing, puppets, flamenco dance and several death-defying acts are all on the bill in a one-woman variety show about body image, weight obsession and compulsive eating.

"Broomstick" by John Biguenet: A witch confesses all -- her first love affair, how she discovered her powers, and how she has used them.

Source: Portland Stage Company

Off to the side, playwright Kieron Barry listens intently, barely raising his head from the script. Pages turn in unison as one line yields to the next.

This is the grunt work that happens in the making of a play. It's not pretty, it's not glamorous, and it's certainly not something that audiences often get to see.

But the curtain comes up on the creative process this week, when Portland Stage Company hosts its 23rd Little Festival of the Unexpected. The week-long event is dedicated to public readings of new plays.

Four playwrights are in residence at the theater, where they work with professional actors and directors to present staged readings of their scripts before an audience for the first time.

Input from the audience is not only welcome, but vital.

"If a chef comes up to you and says, 'Is there too much salt in this?' You just might say, 'Yes, there is,' " said Barry, whose play, "Tomorrow in the Battle," will get a reading at 8 p.m. Saturday. "We welcome that input."

This is Barry's first time at Portland Stage. His play had a reading in London in 2009 and another later in Los Angeles. He's reworked it, cut it and rewrote it. Audience reaction on Saturday will go a long way toward determining if the show is ready for its debut.

The Little Festival of the Unexpected allows the audience to experience the "messiness and excitement" of the creative process, said the theater's executive and artistic director, Anita Stewart.

Added Dan Burson, the theater's education manager, "This is an opportunity to take part in the creative process of making new plays. These are all new plays in development which have not yet had their world premiere but will in the future.

"This is the chance to see part of the creative process and to be in the room when the playwright, the director and the cast work things out."

This year's lineup includes two familiar names: Maine playwrights John Cariani and Bess Welden. Welden developed her comedy "The Passion of the Hausfrau" through the Little Festival, and it received its debut at Portland Stage in 2009. The other playwright is John Biguenet, who is presenting the comedy "Broomstick."

This is Cariani's third Little Festival residency. He is best known for writing "Almost, Maine" and "Last Gas," both of which were workshopped at the Little Festival and later presented on the mainstage. His play "Love/Sick" will get a staged reading at 2 p.m. Saturday, and is slated for the mainstage in the 2012-13 season at Portland Stage.

Cariani likes this festival because it affords him the chance to work with professional actors and directors "who care about your play. They are there to help you make it better. They give your play its first time in front of an audience, and not just read but actually on its feet."

For Cariani, the week is all about solving problems. If a line doesn't work, actors will tell him. If audiences do not laugh at his jokes, he will rewrite them.

Burson is proud that Portland Stage makes this commitment to new work.

"From my point of view, new work is the heart and soul of the theater. If we cannot develop new work that responds to the changing mind-set and changing tastes of the audience, then we will just present museum pieces," he said. "New work is vital to stay in touch with our audiences and to stay in touch with what is going on in Maine and around the country.

"Through this festival, Portland Stage is contributing to the overall fabric of the national theater community."

In addition to its work with professional writers, Portland Stage also supports the creative process of emerging playwrights through the Young Writers Project for high school students. The festival includes readings of short plays by students from Cape Elizabeth, Brooklin and Buxton.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:





May 5 


Theater Review: 'Color of Flesh' captures queen


Toss out the question, "What comes to mind when you hear the name Marie Antoinette?" and many will reply with the infamous line, "Let them eat cake." She has historically been portrayed as a frivolous woman, oblivious to the plight of her people. But what do we really know about the last queen of France?

Playwright Joel Gross blends fact and imagination in "Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh," painting a sympathetic image of the woman behind the opulence.

Caught up in a love triangle with a fictional nobleman, Count Alexis de Ligne (Tony Roach), and her real-life portrait artist and friend, Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun (Caroline Hewitt), Gross' Marie Antoinette (Ellen Adair) struggles to come to grips with her public image.

Gross strips away the facade, and, with every literary brushstroke, also draws a correlation between the social-political happenings of then and now. Have things really changed?

The art of language is all too often lost in today's society. Yet that definitely wasn't the case Friday night. Portland Stage's rendition of "Marie Antoinette" sizzled with wordplay befitting the 18th century. It was a time when words were carefully chosen for maximum effect, and Adair, Hewitt and Roach artfully captured the beauty, duplicity and seductiveness of each turn of phrase.

Costume designer Hugh Hanson has nailed the visual allure of the period with luscious costumes that are absolutely breathtaking. They are eye-catching window dressing on a deceptively simple set that magically transforms with the blink of an eye.

By giving the set a minimalist look, artistic director Anita Stewart shifts the focus to not only the sumptuous clothing, but also to the actors and the intriguing characters they colorfully portray.

Hewitt delivered a passionate performance Friday as Elisa, a strong-willed portrait artist struggling to achieve notoriety in a male-dominated profession. For added realism, the New York-based actress tapped into the artistic knowledge of her dad, Maine sculptor Duncan Hewitt. It was a sort of homecoming for the actress, who was born in Portland and raised in Falmouth.

Naivete, longing and untapped strength mingled in Adair's portrayal of Marie Antoinette, giving depth, color and texture to what historically has been a two-dimensional rendering of the French queen.

Roach nicely rounded out the intimate cast, delivering a believable performance as the handsome, philandering count, who unexpectedly finds himself in love with two very different women.

"Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh" is a tragic tale of love and lust amidst revolution. It's a play that dusts off the history books, encouraging viewers to imagine the people behind the dry facts.

After all, more than 200 years may have passed, but the issues of Marie Antoinette's reign still echo in society today. Class, status and societal expectations still force us to wear many masks. And the count's pronouncement that the "middle-class is being taxed back into the poverty of which it came," could just as easily have come from the lips of any number of reformists today.





Portland Stage's 'Heroes' offers escape for us all


PORTLAND — We all inevitably, barring untimely tragedy, grow old. It's an inescapable fact of life, but does growing old mean we have to relinquish the successes, hopes, dreams, desires and aspirations that make us who we are? Or can we still be heroes to those in our lives, and possibly even to ourselves?

"Heroes," adapted by Tom Stoppard from Gerald Sibleyras' "Le Vent des peupliers" ("The Wind in the Poplars"), offers a sweet, witty take on growing old from the point of view of three World War I veterans, living in a retirement home for soldiers in France in 1959.

The war left physical and mental scars on the war heroes. Henri (Munson Hicks) walks with a limp, Gustave (Edmond Genest) is agoraphobic, and Philippe (Philip Goodwin) passes out without warning, each time comically exclaiming as he comes to, "We'll take them from the rear, Captain."

Craving more excitement and adventure than a daily constitutional, tepid soup and conversation on the terrace can provide, Gustave, Philippe and Henri begin plotting their escape to a distant hill, where poplars blow in the wind.

The fun is in the planning, for both the characters and the audience, in a series of amusing scenes that include Gustave practicing carrying Philippe piggyback in preparation for river crossings and Henri tying the three together with a garden hose in preparation for ascending the hill.

Adding to the fun is Philippe's absurd belief that the head nun is killing off residents to ensure that only one birthday has to be celebrated on any given day, and Gustave's insistence that the stone dog from the terrace escape with them.

Portland Stage's cast brought out the delightfully quirky nuances of each endearing character Friday, all the while delivering witty lines that sent peals of laughter through the audience.

Between laughs, Genest, Goodwin and Hicks captured the poignancy of the situation, making sure their characters didn't become caricatures.

We've all met one of the characters in "Heroes" at some point in our lives. There's Genest's Gustave - smart, cultured and sharp-witted; Hicks' Henri - thoughtful, polite and practical; and Goodwin's Philippe - a somewhat delusional individual who doesn't like to make waves. Maybe we can even see some of ourselves in the characters.

After all, who hasn't dreamed of escaping the mundane routine of life, or the suppression from authority, even if only for a moment?

Sibleyras' story shows that boys will be boys, no matter how old they get, and Stoppard's quick-witted translation keeps the conversation lively.

The play weaves the poignant and absurd together, deftly turning the seemingly banal lives of three aging friends into a production that is both entertaining and heartwarming. And Portland Stage's cast makes you root for the characters, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they face.

In the end, maybe freedom and heroism aren't far-flung ideas, but rather more a matter of coming to terms with your current mental and physical state of being. No matter how infirm the body, the spirit can still soar.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:




March 28, 2012 

Live audience gets a season preview

A social event and survey help Portland Stage subscribers and board members be more involved.
by Bob Keyes

PORTLAND — The current theater season is still very much in progress, but on Monday night, Portland Stage Company paused briefly to look ahead.

Anita Stewart, the theater's artistic and executive director, and Daniel Burson, education director, stood on the set of the play "Heroes," which opens tonight, to give donors, board members and subscribers a preview of the 2012-2013 season. 

The wine-and-cheese social event was a new twist for the theater, which traditionally has announced its programming decisions as part of its regular communication with subscribers, ticket buyers and the community at large. 

"It seemed like the thing to do," said Stewart. "It gives people an opportunity to see the process of putting a season together and gets them talking about it out in the community and among their friends." 

Assembling a season involves balancing several factors, including the cost of hiring actors, the shows that are available and the desires of theater-goers.

This year, more than 1,000 people told Portland Stage what they wanted to see on the schedule in the coming year. The play with the most nominations was Wendy Wasserstein's 1992 "The Sisters Rosensweig," a story about three Jewish-American sisters reuniting for a birthday in London. It will open the season Sept. 25.

The season also will include two world premieres, a popular comedy that has been a staple of community and summer-stock theater for years, and an obscure title or two. 

Noteworthy on the schedule is another new play by Maine-bred playwright John Cariani, "Love/Sick." Portland Stage has produced two of his plays, "Almost, Maine" and "Last Gas." 

"Love/Sick" is a series of vignettes about modern love, set in suburbia. It will open a year from now, in March 2013.

Cariani will be in Portland in May to work on the play as part of the theater's Little Festival of the Unexpected, in which playwrights have the chance to present new work with a cast of actors and in front of live audiences. 

Also getting its premiere will be a comedy by a Massachusetts playwright, William Donnelly. The show "Homestead Crossing" was part of last year's Little Festival, and had the title of "Ash." 

It's about a long-married couple and their quiet routine, which is interrupted by a young stranger and her boyfriend. The unexpected appearance of the strange young couple prompts the older lovers to question where they are in their lives and where they are going. 

Perhaps the most interesting and daring title in the new season is "Greater Tuna." The off-beat comedy has been produced countless times across America, usually by community theaters. Stewart has hired two experienced actors for the show - Dustin Tucker and Tom Ford. Both have worked many times at Portland Stage, and approached Stewart about their desire to do the show.

It's a daring programming choice because "Greater Tuna" is widely known and overexposed. But Stewart predicted that the experience and acting abilities of Tucker and Ford will distinguish this production.

The other titles in the season are "A Song at Twilight" by Noel Coward, and "Wittenberg" by David Davalos. For the holidays, Portland Stage also will produce "A Christmas Carol" and "The Santaland Diaries." 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:
Twitter: pphbkeyes



March 4 

Review: 'Hidden Tennessee' is well worth finding


Maine theater companies have lately been paying some respect to Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest American playwrights, who would have turned 100 years old last year.

Freeport Factory Stage just finished a run of "The Glass Menagerie" (another production of that play will open at Monmouth this summer) and now Portland Stage is presenting a Williams anthology, "Hidden Tennessee."

Best known for his long-form plays such as "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," written during his prime years around the middle of the last century, Williams also wrote numerous one-act plays, short stories and poems.

For this production, director Sally Wood has selected three plays and one story and tied them together with various recited lines from his poetry, memoirs, stage directions and reviews of his work.

Four performers carry the load and, as seen on opening night, give us some compelling glimpses of what Williams was all about.

The show, which runs two hours with an intermission, begins on a high point -- literally, a raised set of railroad tracks upon which a young girl balances precariously. "This Property is Condemned" also reaches a fine dramatic height in its subtle narrative exposition as the girl relates her story of the family dissolution that has brought her to be living alone in a decaying building.

Williams' sensitivity to exploitation and poverty are at the center of this moving little tale. It's all handled very well by Justin Adams, as the boy who hears the touching story, and especially Sarah Lord, who gave her character just the right elements of that sweet, tragic and almost noble innocence that are at the center of many of the author's best creations.

Lord also stood out in a more comedic secondary role in the other major piece of the program, "The Field of Blue Children."

This dramatized short story was appropriately heavy with the sort of thick poetry bright youngsters often embrace as they move toward adulthood. Its story of a brief romantic encounter between a restless college girl and her slightly nerdy classmate consummates in a field populated by numerous blue lights dropped from the rafters.

Courtney Moors and Adams play the enraptured couple in this depiction of intensely passionate, if ill-fated, attraction -- another specialty of Williams.

Maureen Butler figures prominently in the other two plays of the evening. In "Steps Must Be Gentle," she plays the mother of Hart Crane (Adams), a gay poet who committed suicide. This piece is given a wonderfully otherworldly set designed by Anita Stewart, but Butler's reading seemed just a bit lacking in variation on Friday.

Butler fared much better in the awkwardly titled "The Long Stay Cut Short, or, The Unsatisfactory Supper." She was quite moving as an elderly woman trying to live out her days with unwelcoming relatives.

Adams shone here as one of Williams' familiar louts, with Moors as his slightly more sensitive spouse. Butler effectively got at the desperation of a woman forced to be with people who have no idea what she means when she says flowers are "poems of nature."

Like the greatest writers, Williams knew how to locate the poetry in his people, places and things. Good show. 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland. 





March 4 

Bob Keyes: Actor returns for some home cooking at Portland Stage

The last time Sarah Lord hopped on the boards at Portland Stage, in 1998, she was a hot-shot young local amateur working with a bunch of New York professionals.

By all accounts, the teenage Lord stole the show. "The Loman Family Picnic" was a huge hit, and she was singled out for her outstanding work.

Lord, who grew up in South Portland, is back at Portland Stage this month, starring in "Hidden Tennessee," a two-act showcase of short plays and a dramatic short story by iconic American playwright Tennessee Williams.

This time around, Lord is the New York professional coming home to show the locals how it's done. But you will never catch her boasting such things. She's thrilled to be back at Portland Stage, and humbled that theater artistic director Anita Stewart and show director Sally Wood extended an invitation to work at her home theater.

"Coming home to work has its own pressures," she said with a laugh before a rehearsal last week.

A few nights before this interview, Lord and the rest of the cast went through a technical rehearsal. Lord said she has rarely been more nervous than she was with Stewart sitting in the front of the theater taking notes. It was Stewart, after all, who helped her gain the confidence she needed to make the move to New York and pursue theater as a career.

"Steven Spielberg could have been in the room, and I would not have cared as much as Anita being there. It's because I respect so much the people here and the work that goes on here. I want to make them proud and make the people here proud," she said. "I want to do good work in New York, too. But it's different when it's the people you have known your whole life."

To be sure, Lord is doing great work in New York. She has made her living as a working actress there for the past decade. She is modest about her accomplishments, saying only that she continues "plugging away" in the Big Apple. But last year, she worked seven straight months in theater, which is no small accomplishment. She hopes to make the move to Los Angeles in the next year or so to pursue film and TV projects.

Lord gets back to Maine once or twice a year, usually to visit family and friends. Coming back to work on the Portland Stage mainstage has been a different kind of fun. She spent last week answering emails and Facebook messages from friends and teachers who wanted to reconnect.

And for old times' sake, she begged her mom for rides to and from the theater, just as she did as a young girl when she had a bit part in Portland Stage's very first production of "A Christmas Carol."

"I don't have a car, and I don't drive. I feel like a 15-year-old kid – 'Mom, can you pick me up at the theater?' "

Now in her late 20s, Lord's experience as a youth at Portland Stage, Mad Horse and other local theater companies cemented her decision to pursue theater professionally.

"I knew I wanted to act when I was 10 years old in my first-ever play," she said. "I was in 'Pinocchio' at the Children's Theater of Maine. That was it. From that point on, I was always in plays. It was quite a natural progression to come here to Portland Stage even as a kid."

She admits it feels oddly comforting to come into the building on Forest Avenue every day. It reminds her very much of those early years during rehearsals for "A Christmas Carol."

Back then, she and her acting friends discovered every nook and cranny of the building. She had fun rediscovering those old hiding spots "and the same evocative qualities" of the building during the rehearsal process for "Hidden Tennessee."

This is her first experience with Tennessee Williams. "Hidden Tennessee" combines three short plays and a short story, interwoven with biographical material about the playwright. It's presented in two acts, with a cast of four. Lord appears prominently in two of the pieces – the one-act "This Property Is Condemned" and the short story "The Field of Blue Children."

She's thrilled to finally have the opportunity to work on a Williams piece. "He is one of the best playwrights, if not ever, then certainly in American theater. There are not a lot of roles for little old me in a lot of his best works, so this is a very special opportunity."

Not surprisingly, Lord's first theater experience with Williams came at Portland Stage. She watched from the audience when it presented "The Glass Menagerie" many moons ago. She also saw "A Streetcar Named Desire" by Mad Horse.

She feels grateful for the chance to work in Portland again.

"The talent in the theater community here has always been amazing," she said. "Working in Portland is what gave me such a great foundation, and prepared me for working in New York.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes.



Jan 28, 2012

Crime, wit, whiskey brew some 'Trouble'


PORTLAND - As Philip Marlowe approached the double doors of 25A Forest Ave., he paused, casting a wary eye around the lamp-lit street. That fickle dame, Mother Nature, had done a number on Portland, turning the city into her personal snow globe, and then spitefully spitting an ice-cold rain that chilled him to the bone.

This weather was a far cry from what he was used to on the mean streets of Los Angeles, but no amount of thuggish weather was going to trouble this private eye. "After all," he thought as he pulled open the door and stepped into Portland Stage Company's stately lobby, "trouble is my business."

All who crossed that threshold Friday walked back in time to the jazz-age setting of Raymond Chandler's detective thrillers, and into the world of his protagonist, private eye Philip Marlowe. It was opening night of the world premiere of "Trouble is My Business," featuring two of Chandler's short stories, cleverly adapted for the stage by James Glossman.

The two-part evening flowed, like a draft [sic] of fine whiskey. Sets and props glided in and out with the cast as the locales changed. And an oversize, fully functioning set of blinds, spanning the back of the stage, doubled as a projection screen, lit up with telltale images, and windows/doors that unveiled hidden truths.

Marlowe's (David Mason) world began to unfold even before the curtain rose. A piano-playing bartender (Anthony Blaha) quietly chatted up his soon-to-be-patron (Ron Botting). Intrigue was brewing in the air, whetting the audience's appetite for the literary feast that was to ensue.

Mason, as Marlowe, had the audience, hook, line and sinker from the moment he opened his mouth and began the first-person narration of Act I, "Red Wind." Colorful descriptors rolled off his tongue, smooth as silk, painting images of a bygone era, riddled with crime, greed, corruption, intrigue and passion.

Dames with legs that wouldn't quit; gun-toting thugs who'd pop a guy for looking the wrong way; a confidence-keeping bartender, serving hard liquor to even harder men; rich businessmen with mob ties; husbands with mistresses stashed in secret love nests; and crooked cops willing to look the other way for the right price - all the requisite elements of the genre were represented with full film noir flair.

Blaha, Botting, Paul Murphy, Leigh Poulos, Dustin Tucker and Daniel Noel stepped in and out of these roles and others, showcasing their acting versatility. All the while, Mason's Marlowe wove two rapid-fire tales of coincidence and murder.

An unwitting witness to a hit in the bar across the street from his apartment in "Red Wind," Marlowe became embroiled in a mystery revolving around a femme fatale named Lola (Poulos). Meanwhile, the red winds (aka the Santa Ana winds) kept blowing, igniting tempers and stoking the flames of desire.

Act II, "Trouble is My Business," once again found Marlowe up to his eyeballs in trouble, harassed by thugs and cops alike, as he worked a case for his employer, Anna, played with great hilarity by Murphy. As with the previous act, all roads led to a woman, Harriet Huntress (Poulos).

With the body count mounting, and his fair share of brushes with the Grim Reaper, Marlowe knew the only things he could count on were his wit and his smarts. And, so can the audience.

Portland Stage has stacked the deck in the audience's favor with this wonderfully quirky, period-locked piece.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:


Jan 26, 2012 by Bob Keyes

Philip Marlowe knows how to walk down the
seedy streets of Los Angeles without getting dirty.

A moral man in an amoral world, Marlowe comes to life in a gritty time-stamped production of "Trouble Is My Business" opening Friday at Portland Stage Company. The production marks the world premiere for the thriller, which is based on two short stories by detective novelist Raymond Chandler.

Adapted for the stage by New Jersey writer and director James Glossman, the play evokes early 20th-century Los Angeles. It has a fast-paced, film noir appeal. Swift scene changes take viewers down dangerous alleys and into dark bars and stately mansions as Marlowe slips thugs and cops alike while navigating the city's underworld.

"Trouble is My Business" tells two stories. Act I is based on the Chandler short story "Red Wind" and involves murder, blackmail and a necklace of pearls. Act II, based on the story "Trouble Is My Business," involves infidelity, a femme fatale and a string of murders.

Dave Mason, who appeared at Portland Stage last fall in John Cariani's "Last Gas," plays the hardboiled, tough-talking Marlowe. The rest of the cast is an ensemble, with a half-dozen actors playing multiple roles. Local talent Daniel Noel, Dustin Tucker and Ron Botting mix with a group from New York.

"I've been interested in Chandler ever since I was maybe 13 or 14," said Glossman, who directs. He first heard about Raymond Chandler through the TV character Lou Grant, played by Ed Asner on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Mary is showing Lou some of her writing, and he barks, "You want writing -I'll show you writing!"

He pulls a book from a desk drawer, reads the opening lines of "Red Wind" and tells Mary, "That's Raymond Chandler."

Glossman has been enamored of Chandler ever since. He's read all the novels and short stories, and has for many years carried around the idea of adapting a few of them for stage. These two particular stories seemed a logical pairing because of their overlapping characters and common tempos and moods, he said.

The play has had readings in New Jersey and New York, but the Portland Stage production marks the first time it will be staged in full.




December 3 

Review: 'The Snow Queen' will warm old and young


There's no truth to the rumor that Scrooge demanded time off to pursue a career as a political consultant. The real story is that director Anita Stewart simply wanted to try something new for this year's holiday production at Portland Stage. She chose well.

"The Snow Queen," a play based on the famous Hans Christian Andersen story, opened on Friday night to an audience including many small children. The lack of the chatter and squirming that often go with a youthful audience is one measure of what an absorbing and delightful show this is -- and not only for the kids.

The fun that it must have been to put this show together, not to mention the hard work, comes through loud and clear in the finished product.

The sets, designed by Stewart, make extensive use of scrimsand projections to create realms within realms as the youngheroine, played by Lauren Orkus, goes on a wildly adventurous journey to find her friend who has been lured to the castle of The SnowQueen.

Orkus' Gerda is at the center of most of the action. The youthful actress was excellent as an innocent abroad who nonetheless summons much courage as she battles the elements, natural and human.

Challenged at one point by a band of cutthroat robbers, she eventually befriends the Robber Princess, played by Portland Stage veteran Sally Wood. Wood had a lot of fun with the role and got some of the biggest laughs of the evening with her roguish bluster.

Patricia Buckley plays the chilly Queen whose multilayered white costume, designed by Susan Thomas, adds to her spooky presence. Buckley also got to double, this time in a flowery red outfit, as a bewitching gardener.

Ian Carlsen plays the young man under the Queen's control. Carlsen easily conveyed that his Kai is really a darling at heart, once his heart is thawed out.

Daniel Noel provides narration, at times with welcome touches of comedic attitude, anddoubles as a reindeer who provides crucial help in getting to the castle.

Original music by Hans Indigo Spencer, with lyrics interestingly borrowed from Emily Dickinson, add to the magical atmosphere as many eccentric characters are drawn into the story.

Even talking flowers (particularly memorable are some oblivious daisies) and crows are encountered in the quest. As one of the latter, Tom Ford is a swooping sweetheart in guiding the heroine.

A strong supporting cast and a nice ensemble concept helps to make this show truly fun for all ages while gently delivering a moral message, as all good tales should.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

This year, Portland Stage says, let it 'Snow'

The theater company debuts a mega production of 'The Snow Queen,' based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer 

For 14 years, Portland Stage Company has dutifully rounded up the actors, dusted off the sets and props, and put up its annual holiday play, the Charles Dickens classic "A Christmas Carol."

This year, things have changed.

This year, Anita Stewart and her small army of worker bees are opening a brand-new spectacle. Beginning Friday, "The Snow Queen," based on the fairly tale by Hans Christian Andersen, will turn Portland Stage into a winter wonderland. The theater has scheduled 34 shows of the new production through Christmas Eve, including those for school groups.

The mega production is the largest and most complex show the theater has produced in many years, involving numerous fantasy sets, more than 100 colorful costumes and an ensemble of two dozen actors.

Portland Stage intends to bring this show back on an every-other-year basis, rotating with "A Christmas Carol" as its December offering on the main stage. The off-color Christmas comedy "The Santaland Diaries" remains a lock in the Studio Theater.

"The Snow Queen" offers a complex story about a young girl, Gerda, who is searching for her friend, Kai, who has been bewitched by the Snow Queen. During her journey to find her friend, Gerda receives assistance from a variety of characters and creatures, including a prince and princess, flowers, crows, a reindeer named Ba and a river, among others.

"We've been doing 'A Christmas Carol' successfully for a number of years, and I was feeling that we needed a change," said Stewart. "I was looking for something that had a winter theme and that also had some magic to it, but not necessarily a Christmas or holiday theme."

"The Snow Queen" appealed on many levels. Stewart loved the story, and felt it would translate well on stage. She also liked the fact that it features a strong heroine. "Most of the time, it's a male hero. But this is a female hero," she noted.

Perhaps most important, Stewart subscribed to the notion that "The Snow Queen" would appeal to kids and adults alike with its themes of love and friendship -- an important element in drawing crowds during the holiday season, when families seek well-rounded, wholesome entertainment.

So far, so good.

Advance ticket sales have been great. Tickets remain for opening night and Saturday night, but both the Saturday and Sunday matinees on opening weekend are sold out.

This show also comes with a host of technical and artistic challenges. Anderson wrote his original story in Danish, which meant that Stewart turned to a variety of translations when she wrote her adaptation.

She also took the leap of including the words of poet Emily Dickinson in various musical passages that appear throughout the play. Dickinson's poems, which Stewart felt blended well with Andersen's prose, provide the lyrics for the music in this local adaptation. Hans Indigo Spencer composed the music, and serves as music director.

The scope of the production itself posed another challenge. "The Snow Queen" features seven distinct stories in seven different worlds. That meant the theater's shops worked overtime to build sets and costumes for each fantasy world.

Further complicating the process was one big practical roadblock. The show that was up previous, "God of Carnage," had a short, three-week run. Technical director Ted Gallant and his carpentry staff had only two weeks to build sets for "The Snow Queen." Because of space limitations, Portland Stage can build sets for the next show only while the current show is in production.

The issue wasn't the number or complexity of the sets, which Stewart designed and helped build, but the short window available for building them. "This is a really big show to build in two weeks," Gallant said.

Another aspect that vexed the staff briefly was the breakdown of the "God of Carnage" set. It included a huge sandbox that was full of sand. The theater went from sand to snow overnight. It hired a local company to come in and remove the sand with an industrial vacuum.

For costume shop manager Susan Thomas, "The Snow Queen" has been a top-of-mind concern since summer. She designed 100-plus different costumes for this show. After the show was cast, Thomas and her crew spent the heat of the summer thinking about winter as they made the costumes.

The cast for "The Snow Queen" includes many familiar local professional actors, as well several from New York.

Patricia Buckley comes from out of town to play the Snow Queen; she last appeared in Portland for the premiere of "Out of Sterno." Portland actor Ian Carlsen plays Kai. New York actress Lauren Orkus plays Gerda. This is her Portland Stage debut.

Other local actors with long histories at Portland Stage include Daniel Noel and Sally Wood. Tom Ford, who has appeared many times at Portland Stage, returns in a dual role.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:


November 6 


Theater Review: 'Carnage' a battle of breaking points


Two respectable Parisian couples sit down over clafoutis and espresso to discuss a playground fight between their sons, Bruno and Ferdinand. Sounds pretty innocuous, right? That's definitely not the case in Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage." As the title implies, it's all-out war, resulting in deplorable behavior that would make the worst-behaved children look like angels.

The play is cleverly set in an apartment that is both figuratively and literally an oversized sandbox, complete with sand floors and a boxed-in feeling. Beyond the confines of the apartment, the set opens up into a three-dimensional scene that includes real trees and a detailed backdrop of the 14th arrondissement in Paris.

Are we all just children, duking it out in the sandbox, on the playground that is our lives? Are we so wrapped up in our own narrow worlds that we are unable to see the wide open spaces beyond? With "God of Carnage," Reza provides a scathingly witty commentary on adult society and the masks we hide behind on a daily basis.

These falsities were entertainingly stripped away Friday with Portland Stage's opening night performance. What began as a seemingly civil conversation between Ferdinand's parents, Alain (Scott Barrow) and Annette (Amy Bodnar) Reille, and Bruno's parents, Michel (Kevin Cutts) and Veronique (Kate Udall) Vallon, rapidly deteriorated into something far more interesting: the ugly truth behind the sugar-coated pleasantries.

The one-act, 90-minute production flew by at high velocity. Alliances were made and broken with the drop of an insult, and etiquette fell by the wayside as the character's true colors began to seep out. And it wasn't just amicable relations between the two sets of parents that took a hit: The marriages also crashed and burned.

There were a few sight gags and physical altercations mixed in to heighten the laughter, but overall it was a verbal beat-down of witty one-liners and intellectually based barbs. The audience ate it up, knowing full well that they, or someone they know, could be any of the four characters. After all, who doesn't know the cellphone addict with no regard for others, the neurotic perfectionist who has to have it their way, the Neanderthal man hiding behind sophistication, or the sweet-acting hypocrite with pent-up hostility.

The four cast members were clearly having fun misbehaving as they deconstructed the lives of their characters, turning a high-powered lawyer, a wealth manager, an art lover/writer and the manager of a wholesale company into scrabbling children. And that was before the rum started to flow!

Reza's sharp-edged commentary deftly rolled off the actors' tongues, humorously filleting social expectations, all the while making the audience question their own sensibilities and social obligations.

Everyone has a breaking point. Do you know what yours is?

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:


Posted: November 3

Behave yourself

Portland Stage's production 'God of Carnage' is about parents – not kids – who act appallingly.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

Kate Udall and Kevin Cutts in “God of Carnage,” which also features Amy Bodnar and Scott Barrow.
Darren Setlow photo

A little boy knocks out two teeth of his playground playmate.

That evening, the two sets of parents come together to discuss the matter. Before long, they engage in their own confrontation, the two couples attacking each other and acting more childish than their kids.

The living-room scenario plays out in Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winning play "God of Carnage," opening Friday at Portland Stage Company. It's a biting comedic drama full of wit, savage dialogue and many uncomfortable moments.

Anita Stewart, artistic and executive director at Portland Stage, tabbed the show because she believes a lot of people can relate to its central premise.

"What follows on stage reminds me of the conversations I often play out in my head when I imagine confronting the neighbor with the dog who doesn't pick up the mess, the school administrator who comes up with a curriculum choice that seems utterly crazy, or a politician who spins every event to fit their agenda," she writes in the playbill. "I imagine myself in all sorts of brutal scenarios that will never, in fact, be realized."

In "God of Carnage," they are fully realized. These folks hold nothing back.

The show won a Tony in 2009 for Best Play. It also won the Best New Play award that year at London's Olivier Awards. Roman Polanski is directing a film version starring Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster.

It's one of the hottest theater properties out there right now, and Portland Stage is not the only Maine company producing the show: Everyman Repertory Theatre presents its version Nov. 18-27 at the Camden Opera House. The Portland Stage version is the Maine premiere.

Sam Buggeln directs the Portland show. He has worked at Portland Stage many times over the years, almost always directing comedies. His credits include "Noises Off" and "The 39 Steps," among others, but he says "God of Carnage" is something else altogether.

"This one has rhythm, a fast pace and it's very funny," Buggeln said. "But it's a different kind of funny, a different kind of farce. It has emotional and intellectual violence, and the kind of violence that can happen when very polite people who are pushed to moments of incivility when passion is mixed in."

The show remains true to the original, which was set in Paris and written in French. It was translated into English, and when it opened in New York in 2009, it was set in Brooklyn.

Buggeln opted to return to a Paris setting for the Portland show, though it will be performed in English. It takes place in real time, with the 90 minutes that transpires on stage reflecting the time it takes for both couples to tear each other apart.

The play has a cast of four: Scott Barrow, Amy Bodnar, Kevin Cutts and Kate Udall. All but Barrow are new to Portland Stage. Bodnar has worked at Maine State Music Theatre and the Ogunquit Playhouse.

Cutts saw the show on Broadway.

"I really wanted to do it when I saw it," he said. "Some of it is dark, but I laughed hard throughout. I thought it was really funny."

Udall calls the show "realistic and absurd," and says "the challenge of doing this play is that it changes quickly and goes to not an untrue place, but to a larger-than-life kind of place. It's tricky to make it recognizable human behavior."

For Bodnar, the attraction of "God of Carnage" is the opportunity to play a character "who says things that nobody would say out loud -- but she is saying them out loud, which is always great fun."

Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice to say the kind of violence that plays out in "God of Carnage" involves verbal violence and a little bit of physical confrontation.

"Let's just say that it's outside the bounds of what people should do in the living room," Buggeln said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:  |  Twitter: pphbkeyes


October 15 

Footlights find young Falmouth violinist

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

Seoyeon Kim knew nothing about the play and little about theater when her music teacher approached her about joining the cast of “The Morini Strad” at Portland Stage Company.

“I didn’t know there was a Portland Stage, actually,” said 12-year-old Kim. “But I am glad to be here. I love performing in general. I love audiences.”

Kim, an eighth-grader at Falmouth Middle School, has a small but significant role in the drama, presented by Portland Stage through Oct. 23. She has no lines in the play, but performs with her violin several times throughout the show. We see her as a violin student at the beginning, and then throughout the play as a memory of the lead character as she recounts her life.

Kim performs a variety of music throughout the show. Following a matinee that begins at 2 p.m. Sunday, Kim will perform a brief recital.

Written by Connecticut playwright Willy Holtzman, “The Morini Strad” tells the story of Erica Morini, a 20th-century, Austrian-born violinist who began her career as a child prodigy and followed that dream all the way to Carnegie Hall and other grand stages around the world.

In his play, Holtzman explores the cost of the commitment of a life in music and the pressures faced by child prodigies, especially as they age.

Kim smirks at the idea of seeing herself in Morini’s story.

“I’m not from America, so I can relate to her that way. I came here from another country, as did she,” Kim said. “But I don’t see myself as a prodigy. I just like music.”

Kim was cast in the role after a conversation between Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart and Kim’s instructor, Clorinda Noyes. Noyes told Stewart that Kim could learn and memorize the music in the play. The young student did all that – and more.

Just a day before the first public preview, the play shifted, and new music was inserted into a scene. Kim showed up the next day with the new music memorized and performed it the following night, Stewart said.

“She showed up for rehearsal on Tuesday to put that in. We found we needed one day to let it settle, so she actually played the new music, memorized, in the show on Wednesday, having first seen the new music on Monday,” Stewart said. “Talk about a fast learner.”

Kim moved to the United States from South Korea five years ago with her father, Jongjib Kim, and mother, Eunra Ko. They moved to Maine when her father got a job with Fairchild Semiconductor.

Being in a play has been a good learning experience for his daughter, Jongjib Kim said. It’s helped reinforce the importance of commitment and efficiency.

His daughter has had to study harder to keep up with her schoolwork while coming to the theater several nights a week and every weekend, he said. “It’s a good opportunity for her to improve her time management skills.”

In addition to the violin, Kim also plays the piano. She is a member of the Portland Youth String Orchestra and has won first place in the Kotchsmar Organ Competition.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:



Oct 1, 2011 

Review: 'Morini Strad' actors hit the high notes


The term "struggling artist" is so often used in daily life that it has become a cliche. But occasionally we get a glimpse of what it really means to be an artist. 

The season opener at Portland Stage provides such a peek, and it makes for both a thought-provoking and moving evening at the theater.

"The Morini Strad," a new play, is based on the true story of an aging violinist who formed a bond - at times an uneasy one - with a luthier she hired to repair her instrument.

The instrument in question was the Davidoff Stradivarius, a violin worth millions that had accompanied Erica Morini through her long career on the top concert stages of the world.

In failing health, the aging Morini accidently damages her precious instrument while trying to show a young student how to play.

She calls Brian Skarstad, who needs the work but would rather be making his own instruments than repairing others' work.

But handling a famous Strad is hard to resist, and, despite being verbally pushed around and berated by Morini as she seeks to make sure she receives the respect she feels she deserves, he takes on the job.

What ensues is a marvelous confrontation/conversation between the two characters on subjects the relate personal, professional and artistic themes as only good writing - by Willy Holtzman - and good acting - by Laura Esterman as Morini and John G. Preston as Skarstad - can.

Esterman was excellent at conveying both the comically sardonic wit of the experienced artist and the touching vulnerabilities of the still young-at-heart woman who never fully allowed herself a "normal" life.

Conveying both a physical frailty and an iron will, Esterman's Morini was a strong presence throughout Friday's opening performance of the 80-minute play. You get to know her character without losing the sense that really knowing a person, particularly an artist, is not an easy thing.

Preston's Skarstad, by comparison, is still full of youthful indecision as he slowly begins to see Morini's wisdom about what the artistic life can and should be.

Preston's definitely the second banana here but he hit all the right emotional marks to fill out the role of a guy entering the "third movement" of his life.

Director Paul Meshejian and set designer Anita Stewart have provided all that these two fine actors need to make their characters come to life (with a little musical help from young Seoyeon Kim on violin).

This fine production is a refined but not esoteric pleasure that audiences won't have to struggle to enjoy, though it might make some think about their own lives a little more critically.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.




September 29

Art and Theater: Beautiful Music

Portland Stage prepares to open 'The Morini Strad,' about the unlikely friendship between an aging musician and the craftsman repairing her valuable old violin.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

Back in college, Willy Holtzman became buds with a guy named Brian Skarstad. They became best friends, and have remained so since.

Holtzman turned his passion for language into a career as a playwright. Skarstad used his skills as a craftsman to make high-end violins.

That friendship forms the foundation of "The Morini Strad," the season-opening play at Portland Stage Company. Holtzman wrote the play based on a real-life experience of his friend.

"The secret to writing is knowing interesting people," said Holtzman, who lives in Connecticut. "Brian called me one day with this story."

The play, which has its final preview tonight and opens on Friday, tells the true story of violinist Erica Morini and her relationship with Skarstad. She hired him to repair her valuable and beloved Stradivarius violin. "The Morini Strad" explores their friendship, what it means to be an artist, and the sacrifices made to become a world-class musician or craftsman.

By the time she came into Skarstad's life, Morini was an aging diva, difficult to get along with and just prickly enough that Skarstad's first instinct was to turn down the job. But the prospect of working on such a fine and valuable instrument was too tempting.

The one-act play, set in the recent past in Manhattan, stars Laura Esterman as Morini and John G. Preston as Skarstad. In addition, 12-year-old Seoyeon Kim of Falmouth performs behind a curtain as a violinist, offering the play the texture of live music. Paul Meshejian, founding artistic director of PlayPenn in Philadelphia, directs; he worked with Holtzman in the developmental stages of the play.

"Brian met Morini near the end of his life," Holtzman said. "She was not a very happy person. All she had left was this violin. She knew she needed to do something about it. Her husband was long gone, and she never had a family."

She called Skarstad to evaluate the violin and ask his advice. High-end makers generally are pretty jaded; when they are called out to appraise an instrument, they do so with skepticism. "Everyone think Uncle Wally's attic violin is the greatest in the world," Holtzman said.

In this instance, it truly was. Skarstad recognized Morini's Stradivarius as a special and rare instrument, valued at $2 million or more. After researching his client and establishing the veracity of her story, he took the job.

Holtzman uses that story as a springboard for a larger narrative about the life of an artist and the friendship between two artists. Morini, who was born in 1904 and died in 1995, was a child prodigy, and spent her life living up to her legend. She performed in her native Austria for the elite, and came to the United States at age 16 for a 60-concert tour, beginning in 1921. She made her life in Manhattan.

Morini performed at a high level for many years, and gave her final concert in 1976. She spent her final 20 years in obscurity, and died relatively unknown and largely forgotten.

The old woman depicted in the play was a young woman once, with a thriving career. We see her as an aging diva whose skills have long since deserted her.

It's a very sad, poignant story, and Holtzman does not gloss over that aspect in his play. Similarly, he explores the evolving dynamic of friendship between the two characters. They are unlikely friends. She is critical of Skarstad and some of his life choices, and he bristles at her brusqueness. But they overcome their odds and find mutual respect.

There are other elements to the play, including one compelling mystery that presents itself toward the end. In the interest of not spoiling the story, we'll leave those details to the live-theater experience.

Holtzman developed "The Morini Strad" with Meshejian in Philadelphia in 2009. It had several readings across the Northeast and one in Colorado before premiering last November in Pittsburgh. It will get its New York premiere in 2012.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457
Twitter: pphbkeyes



May 8 



One actor deftly depicts many faces of apartheid


For its recent productions, the Portland Stage Company certainly couldn't be accused of overpopulating its wide stage with actors. Their last show, "Halpern & Johnson," featured just two performers, and their final offering of the season has a cast of one.

Of course, Stephanie Cozart, the solo star of "The Syringa Tree," plays close to two dozen roles in the hour-and-40-minute production. And, as viewed at Friday's opening performance, she plays them with great force and energy. "Wow!" and "Whew!" are words that came to mind while watching Cozart accept her standing ovation at the close.

The play, based in part on the real-life recollections of author Pamela Gien, takes place in apartheid-era South Africa. There, a middle-class, white family of English origin tries to carry on under an Afrikaner-dominated system that they believe treats nonwhites much too harshly.

It gradually becomes clear to this family that the system is falling apart. The human costs exacted and the glimmers of hope that may survive form the core of the story.

Cozart thoroughly inhabited the central role of Elizabeth, a self-described "hyperactive" pre-teen (for most of the play) who is as comfortable with the nonwhite staff of her parents' household as she is with her mother and father.

As the youngster, the actress gets to add a substantial amount of cute to the proceedings while also relating the ramifications of the birth of a "secret" child to Salamina, an earthy charmer who, in addition to her household duties, teaches Elizabeth a thing or two about traditional African culture.

The brilliance of the play is how it reveals so much through the eyes of a child for whom what happens in the world comes sprinkled with a sense of wonder. Headstrong and sometimes exasperating to the grown-ups, Elizabeth nonetheless conveys an endearingly naive sincerity. Cozart nailed that element Friday, along the way eliciting many chuckles from the crowd.

Folklore, song and dance, though heard and seen mostly in snippets, are crucial elements in a story that seeks to reveal both where cultures meet and where they part ways.

Though the set by Wilson Chin is minimal, it fits well for a play that is really a sort of performance art piece -- a storytelling with portions acted out (originally performed by the author). The lighting by Phillip S. Rosenberg nicely accentuates scenes and situations that range from joy to despair.

Director Jenn Thompson appears to have given a lot of freedom to Cozart, who had played the role(s) in the past. A tour de force performance is what this play calls for, and Cozart is certainly ready, willing and able to let that fly in telling the story of good people living in troubled times.


May 5

Art and Theater: Get into the swing

Portland Stage opens 'The Syringa Tree,' a one-woman show that tells the story of two South African families.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

Stephanie Cozart acted in the one-woman play "The Syringa Tree" six years ago. It's been part of her soul ever since.

"The characters have become friends," she said. "When I last did the play, I was sad. I didn't know if I would revisit them. I used to dream about them."

Cozart portrays multiple characters. Collectively, they tell stories about the loving bonds between two South African families, one black and one white, that span four generations.

Her main character is 6-year-old Elizabeth, the daughter of an upper-class white family who is cared for by a black woman in the employ of the family.

Without invoking the word "apartheid," "The Syringa Tree" explores the complex political world of South Africa and the social consequences of the legal system of segregation that governed the country from 1948 to 1993.

"The Syringa Tree" has its final preview tonight, and opens Friday at Portland Stage Company. It runs through May 22.

While specific to a time and place, the play is a story with universal themes of home, identity, loss and anguish. It has moments of sadness but ultimately feels hopeful, Cozart said.

"I hope the audience at the end of the play feels comforted and uplifted, particularly by the characters. It is a drama, but it is not a downer," she said. "There are healing elements in the story that anyone can respond to. That's why it's had such a profound effect on me."

"The Syringa Tree" was written by Pamela Gien, who was born in South Africa in 1957. The play grew out of a writing exercise, and premiered in Seattle in 1999. After being endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, it became an off-Broadway hit and has since been performed around the world.

A New York-based actress, Cozart makes her Portland Stage debut with "The Syringa Tree." Joining her in this adventure is Jenn Thompson, who is directing. Thompson last appeared in Portland in 2005 as a cast member of "The Foreigner"; she has since moved exclusively to directing.

Thompson has an interesting connection to this piece. In 2006, she was cast to act in the play, but the production was canceled just as she immersed herself in the role. She remembers thinking that the project was immense for a single actor to tackle. In the time since, she has adopted a girl from Ethiopia, and travels regularly to the African continent. She feels very close to the play.

Before coming to Portland, Thompson and Cozart met in New York to talk about the play and their approach to it. Their dialogue was informed by recent world events. As they followed the news of social uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, they realized "The Syringa Tree" was surprisingly topical.

"So many of the images I was pulling up were of young Arab women at protests and rallies. The world moves forward on the backs on the young," Thompson said.

The set for the Portland Stage production is abstract and simple -- a large tree swing as the centerpiece, framed by a massive burlap backdrop that covers much of the stage. The tree swing is young Elizabeth's refuge. When the world becomes too much for her to comprehend, she goes to the swing to escape.

The swing also serves as a refuge for Cozart. This is an exhausting show for a single actress. Even though Gien wrote it for a single actress, many productions feature multiple cast members.

Cozart has no opportunity to pause, no chance to take a drink of water or even clear her throat. The only opportunity she has to regroup are those moments when she can sit on the swing and go for a little ride.

As exhausting and challenging as the play is to perform, she feels honored to do it again.

"I really care about this story," Cozart said. "It's a story that must be told, and it's a story that I want people to hear.

"It matters. It's not a political story at all. It's a love story."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

 April 6

Theater Review: Light touches carry
Halpern & Johnson over a love not lived


"You stole my life," says one character to another in Lionel Goldstein's Halpern & Johnson, the latest offering from the Portland Stage. Fighting words? Almost. But the two senior gentlemen named in the title are a decade or so beyond where that would prove much.

There is plenty of verbal sparring in this two-character play directed by David Ellenstein. Though the audience may 'get' the message early on, there's enough humor and touches of melancholy to carry one through to the somewhat improbable final scene.

The story begins at a graveside, where Joseph Halpern, played by Robert Grossman, is saying his final goodbyes to his wife, Florence. Into the picture comes Dennis Johnson, played by Jonathan McMurtry, a seeming interloper carrying flowers, which Halpern points out are inappropriate for a Jewish grave.

The comedic strand of the production is quickly established as the men uneasily feel each other out in an off-kilter question-and-answer sequence. Eventually, it is established that Johnson, unbeknownst to Halpern, had a long relationship with Florence that began as a romance but retreated into friendship when he could not marry her because of their different faiths.

The scene shifts to a park (a rather nice set by Marty Burnett) where the men meet to hash out exactly what's been going on for the past 50 years. Halpern, who gets most of the good lines in the play, goes through an anguished process, lightened by comic interludes, in coming to terms with Johnson's revelations. He then adds a few of his own.

At Sunday's matinee, Grossman all but stole the show with his cock-eyed takes and comebacks as Johnson revealed what Halpern never knew.

McMurtry, whose Johnson in the early going came on as borderline creepy in his insistence on setting the record straight, gradually suggested his character's softer side. The truths that both characters discover through comparing lives that might have been to those that (they thought) were, is what gives the play that bit of substance to chew on after the lights come up.

One almost thinks that the absent character Florence could probably have put it all in a greater perspective for us. But she's gone, if not forgotten.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


Posted: March 31  |  Updated: Today at 10:34 PM

Telling secrets
Portland Stage's latest, 'Halpern & Johnson,'
is an engrossing study of emotional infidelity.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

A secret can be devastating, especially in a marriage.

"Halpern & Johnson," a drama that opens this week at Portland Stage Company, explores the idea of emotional infidelity. The topic seems particularly appropriate in this age of Facebook, when many friendships blossom and are nurtured without the knowledge or consent of a spouse.

"Halpern & Johnson," written by playwright Lionel Goldstein, tells the story of two strangers, Joseph Halpern and Dennis Johnson. They meet at the grave of Halpern's wife, Florence, who has just died. He is mourning her loss when Johnson arrives with a bunch of flowers to leave at the grave.

As the men talk, Halpern learns that Johnson had a relationship with his wife before he married her. Not only that, Florence and this stranger maintained an active friendship - without any hanky-panky, Johnson assures Halpern - throughout a half-century of marriage.

They met for lunch several times a year, and as Florence became sick, she asked for Johnson's assurance that he would attend her funeral. His presence at the cemetery is the fulfilment of that pledge.

Halpern is devastated. He's just lost his wife, and now has to reconcile her secret life.

Johnson is devastated, too. He tells Halpern that he and Florence were quite an item before she married, and the only reason she didn't marry him was because of religious differences - she was Jewish and he was Catholic.

Not only does Johnson have to deal with the loss of his closest friend, he has lived all these years knowing that his true love was with another man.

Other secrets are revealed, and anger flares. In the play, we see these two men work through their conflict over the course of a year.

As the drama unfolds, the play becomes a match between these two older gentleman. They spar and spat, and parry back and forth as they trade hurt and jealousies. Eventually, they form a friendship based on their shared memories of Florence.

Goldstein initially wrote the play as a 1983 made-for-TV movie starring Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason. He adapted it for the stage in 1995.

The Portland Stage production stars two veteran actors -- Jonathan McMurtry as Johnson and Robert Grossman as Halpern. McMurtry was last seen at Portland Stage as Judge Biddle in "Trying," while Grossman is making his Portland Stage debut. David Ellenstein directs.

The actors played these same roles six years ago at North Coast Repertory Theatre in California, where McMurtry lives.

"A lot of people can identify with what love is, and how two people can love the same woman," said McMurtry. "The complicated thing is trying to explain it."

Grossman, who lives in Texas, compared this play to the Samuel Beckett classic "Waiting for Godot."

"These two guys meet in this kind of suspended place," he said. "Neither of them have all that much time left to live. They are old men, and everything in the preceding 50 years of their lives has to resolved."

That is especially true for Halpern, who comes late to the secret. In a matter of hours and during the time of deepest need, he has to deal with questions that he never imagined.

From an actor's perspective, "Halpern & Johnson" presents unique challenges. There are a lot of words, and much of the texture of the play lies in things unsaid. The challenge both actors face is giving life to Florence, who never appears on stage but is a major presence throughout the show.

"It requires a lot of concentration, and the pressure never lets up," McMurtry said. "It intensifies as more information is revealed.

"These men have stronger conflicts to deal with, but they are held in and held back by the situation and their ages."

The show concludes one year after the burial, when both men gather at the cemetery where they first met. By play's end, the audience feels sympathy for both men. They have both suffered a loss, and both have managed to make some sense of the situation and find common ground.

This is the third time Ellenstein has directed "Halpern & Johnson." It is his first experience at Portland Stage.

He has worked with both actors many times before, and reveres their skills individually and collectively. As director, his job is simply to create an environment where they can do their best work, and guide them along.

Their experience takes care of the rest, he said.

"If you counted up the number of plays these guys have done, you're probably looking at 600 or 700 plays between them, maybe more. They have 100 years of experience between them."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:


March 6 

Theater Review: Witty 'Gravity' dazzles as it revisualizes pioneers of flight


History took a fanciful flight Friday at Portland Stage with the world premiere of Gregory Hischak's "The Center of Gravity (or, the Disinvention of the Airplane)." The play seamlessly folds time and inverts reality, as we know it, to tell a fascinating, fictionalized tale of two of history's most private inventors, the Wright brothers.

Other than the fact that Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first man-powered flight on Dec. 17, 1903, what do we really know about them?

The details of their lives have been reduced to a few footnotes in history: They grew up in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1800s; they were two of seven children; Wilbur was four years older than Orville; their father was a strict minister; their mother died in 1889; both were consummate bachelors; Wilbur died of typhoid in 1912 at age 45; Orville died in 1948 at age 77.

The brothers largely kept their personal lives out of the press. As a result, their identities have become blurred, making the two almost indistinguishable in history, eclipsed by flight. But what if events had played out differently?

Fascinated by this notion as a boy in Dayton, playwright Hischak cleverly crafted an alternate reality based on a series of "what ifs." What if Wilbur and Orville were the only children and grew up as rival muses for each other? What if their mother hadn't died in 1889 and continued to be a quirky influence? What if Orville married a woman with whom both men fell in love? And, most importantly, what if it were their competitor, Samuel Langley, who successfully flew the first flight and the Wright brothers' plane literally crashed and burned in 1903?

"The Center of Gravity" upends everything we know about the Wright Brothers, reversing their personalities and rewriting their fate. It morphs forward and backward in time in a whimsical, dreamlike way that challenges our concept of the passage of time. And, through the subversion of scientific terminology and theology, Hischak has created poetic dialogue that crackles with wit.

Christopher Kelly (Wilbur Wright), Matt Harrington (Orville Wright), Sophia Holman (Orville's wife, Margot) and Maureen Butler (the brothers' mother, Lillian) vivaciously bring the play's characters to life.

Harrington, Kelly and Holman magically become the younger and older versions of their characters mid-sentence, without skipping a beat and with only a change in demeanor to mark the change in age.

Butler is a riot as the re-invented eccentric mother. Her character highlights the rapidly changing world at the turn of the century into the 1900s with clueless ramblings and bungled terminology. Butler never failed to elicit laughter Friday with her perfectly timed delivery.

"The Center of Gravity" comes to Portland Stage as the 2009 winner of the Clauder Competition, a contest adjudicated by Portland Stage that identifies new works by New England-based playwrights. It's a fresh, intriguing look at what might have been and what never was.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:


Flight of Fancy

A whimsical reimagining of the Wright brothers' historic quest takes wing at Portland Stage Company.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Gregory Hischak grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where the Wright brothers were revered as local heroes. The city named parkways and ballfields in honor of the brothers, and their greatness was proclaimed universally.

But no one really knew much about their lives. People knew the brainy brothers achieved flight and satisfied their quest to build a heavier-than-air flying machine.

In a community of tinkerers, where inventors wore pocket protectors as a badge of honor, the Wright brothers stood out as cardboard figures void of personality, Hischak said.

"They seemed bland. Which one was Wilbur? I never knew," he said. "I still might get it wrong. People in Dayton, where they were everywhere, nobody would know which one is Wilbur."

It was from that perspective that Hischak began writing his new play, "The Center of Gravity (or, the Disinvention of the Airplane)." Portland Stage Company presents the premiere through March 20.

It's a magical play about legacy and legend, both of which the playwright turns on its head by reimagining the Wrights as failures.

They loved each other as brothers, but feuded like them, too. Their lives were layered with rivalries and jealousies.

The play asks "what if" -- what if they failed, and what if their flaws serve as reminders that the Wrights were merely men? What if greatness was not achieved?

"The Center of Gravity" is a historical fantasy. It's a funny play based loosely on the fact that Wilbur and Orville Wright committed their lives to inventing a flying machine. But the playwright takes liberties with all aspects of their stories.

Hischak imposes his invented story on historical figures whose personal lives are masked by unknowns.

"They are an open book," says Hischak, who now lives on Cape Cod. "A clean slate."

Hischak began his project after coming across a speech the Wright brothers delivered to the Western Society of Engineers in Dayton in November 1903. The passionate quality of the writing impressed him and spurred him to think about the brothers in a different and more personal light.

"It was a lovely piece of writing," he said of the speech, which he quotes in the play as a recurring theme. He sets the tone of the play to the cadence of the Wrights' actual words.

Despite coming of age in the brothers' hometown, Hischak realized he knew little about the men. They occupied a monumental piece of history, but did so relatively anonymously. The confusion between the two -- which one is Wilbur? -- is a running gag throughout the story.

Paul Mullins, who makes his fourth appearance as a guest director at Portland Stage with this show, answered artistic director Anita Stewart's call because he loved the script the first time he read it.

"I liked it from the first scene," said Mullins, a company member at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

Mullins began his reading of "The Center of Gravity" knowing little about the Wrights beyond the obvious. As he read on, his intrigue grew. He never knew the Wrights were so interesting, their story so complicated.

Only as he got deeper into the script did he understand that Hischak had pulled a fast one on him.

"As I kept going, I kept saying to myself, 'Oh, my God, I didn't know that.' 'Oh, my God!' And then about halfway through, I finally Googled something and realized that none of this happened."

Hischak tells his story quickly. It moves in a nonlinear sequence among Orville's memories -- some set in Dayton, others on the beach at Kitty Hawk, N.C., where the brothers made history in 1903, and some from the home where he and his wife, Margot, have retired.

It's a four-person cast, with Wilbur and Orville, their mother and Margot.

Stewart designed a spare, mostly open set with ladders, poles and a ramp that mimics an airplane wing providing a sense of lift.

Christopher Kelly plays the impulsive Wilbur, who is obsessed with human flight and soaring alongside birds. Matt Harrington plays Orville, the more sensible and level-headed of the boys.

Their friendship and tension -- that battle for control and balance -- is really the pulse of this story. At its core, "The Center of Gravity" is a story about brotherhood.

Maureen Butler, an Affiliate Artist of Portland Stage, plays Mother, and Sophia Holman portrays Margot. Aside from Butler, the other three actors make their Portland Stage debuts with this show.

That also is true of Hischak. He moved to Massachusetts from the West Coast in 2006, which was about the time he began writing this play in earnest.

He submitted it to the Clauder Competition for New England Playwrights in 2009, which provides exposure, encouragement and feedback to promising playwrights.

"The Center of Gravity" won the competition, which carries a cash award and the promise of a production. Portland Stage workshopped the play at the Little Festival of the Unexpected, and now it gets its premiere, with a full set, sound and lights.

Under Stewart's direction, Portland Stage is a safe haven for new work. This season alone, Portland Stage has mounted three premieres -- two back to back, no less: "The Real McGonagall" in the studio theater last month, and now "The Center of Gravity" on the main stage. In November, it premiered John Cariani's "Last Gas."

"This theater has an excellent reputation for presenting new work," Hischak said. "It's actually pretty famous for it in the theater world. It is very nurturing and enthusiastic. It's great to be here, because everyone is fawning over me: 'Oh, the playwright's here, the playwright's here.'"

It's great fun for the actors to work on a new piece, too. They have complete freedom to invent their characters, to leave a mark on a show during its formative stage. It's a chance that few actors get, and it comes with risk and reward, said Kelly.

"Right before I got on a plane to come up here, a veteran actor told me, 'Working on a new play is the best thing you can do in theater,'" Kelly said.

Added Harrington, "It's analogous to making this thing fly. It's an amazing experience." 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Posted: February 14

Updated: Today at 7:46 PM

Theater Review: Quirky hero of 'McGonagall' charms

To all you dreamers out there, who haven't taken the plunge because you're afraid to be laughed at, meet William "Topaz" McGonagall, a handloom weaver who lived in Dundee, Scotland, from 1825 to 1902. When the writing bug struck him at age 51, he gave up everything to pursue his newfound passion, becoming arguably the worst poet in the English language.

He was ridiculed, lampooned by critics and the butt of many a practical joke. But for the last 26 years of his life, he was doing what he enjoyed. And to this day, his works are published and his name still resounds in the annals of history. So, in the end, who really got the last laugh?

You'll be laughing right along with McGonagall at Portland Stage's outrageously funny, yet touching, Studio Theater production of "The Real McGonagall," which opened Saturday night with a world premiere performance.

Portland Stage has transformed its intimate Studio Theater into an 1887 tavern in New York City called Leary's Hell's Kitchen Grog Shop and Eatery. Crushed peanut shells cover the floor like sawdust, and rough-hewed tables and chairs skirt three sides of the performance area. Brave patrons who show up early can sit at the tables and enjoy a bucket of peanuts and a tankard of nonalcoholic cider, served by the production's director, Ron Botting.

"The Real McGonagall," written by Willy Holtzman and based on Topaz McGonagall's autobiography, stars Mark Honan. The British-born actor doesn't just play McGonagall, but rather seems to channel the essence and artistic fervor of the real-life man, complete with Scottish brogue. Topaz may have been a common, relatively worthless stone in the 1800s, but in Honan's hands, McGonagall and his life story are priceless gems.

A twinkle gleamed in Honan's eyes from the moment he appeared on stage Saturday in full kilt and cape attire, crushing peanut shells underfoot while sweeping and chatting with patrons at the tables. And that was before the show officially started.

McGonagall envisioned himself to be an actor, poet, songwriter and performance artist, and Honan put his heart and soul into bringing all of Mc-Gonagall's quirky, ungifted glory to life once again.

It was nonstop fun as Honan's McGonagall regaled the audience with tales of a priest whispering from the grave that he should write poetry, his unintentionally comic forays into acting, his quest to become poet laureate to Queen Victoria and his harrowing travels to America to claim his "fame and fortune."

And, yes, the audience is treated to samples of McGonagall's poetry, all the inappropriate rhymes and rhythms, weak vocabulary and poorly chosen imagery robustly recited for all to hear.

Join Honan on the eve of McGonagall's return voyage to Scotland and revel in McGonagall's quirky shortcomings. After all, who's to say he wasn't a comic and artistic genius? It's hard not to admire his unrelenting spunk. And, as Honan's McGonagall asks the audience at the end, "Have you never wanted to rise above your workaday life?"

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

February 13

Behind the really bad poetry, a big heart
Bob Keyes, Staff Writer

Mark Honan stars as the Scotsman Sir William Topaz McGonagall.
Robbie Kanner photo

PORTLAND - Sir William Topaz McGonagall was a lost, wonderful soul.

A Scotsman, he lived from 1825 to 1902, and went down in history as one of the worst poets of his time - or any time, for that matter.

The American playwright Willy Holtzman has been interested in McGonagall since he spent time in Dundee, Scotland, some 30 years ago.

"My research consisted of pub crawls," said Holtzman, who lives in Connecticut and was in Portland last week helping to prepare for the premiere production of his new play "The Real McGonagall" at the studio theater at Portland Stage Company.

The one-man, one-act show starring Portland actor Mark Honan runs through Feb. 27. Ron Botting directs.

In every pub that Holtzman frequented during his Scottish sojourn, he heard the poetry of McGonagall and stories of the man. Bar dwellers would stand up and recite the lines, often from memory. "It was perfectly bad, and there is something to be said for perfection," said Holtzman.

The playwright sympathized with McGonagall because of the poet's commitment to his art. Despite his lack of polish, the guy was a determined artist. He found the muse at age 50 and pursued it hard the rest of his life. He gave up his job and almost everything in his life to follow a poet's dream. He never accepted the ridicule that sometimes came his way as anything other than encouragement.

In the end, despite being treated as somewhat of a joke, he achieved what could only be described as success. He published more than 200 poems, and to this day is the second most well-known poet in Scottish history, after Robert Burns.

"Any of us who has done this can identify with McGonagall," Holtzman said. "We have our wounds. We have our dark nights, but you go on. He was our patron saint."

This play celebrates McGonagall's life. It is set in a New York pub on the night before McGonagall is to return to Scotland.

Honan, a Englishman, does a great Scottish accent, and also affects many other accents and dialects as he moves from one character to another throughout McGonagall's life.

As Honan learned more about McGonagall, he too found the sympathy for the man.

"He really does have a soul of a poet. His enthusiasm and his passion cuts through the fact that he can be a complete prat," said Honan, invoking English slang for a twit.

Botting fell in love with Holtzman's script when he read it, because it exposed McGonagall's vulnerabilities and humiliation with a measure of dignity and determination.

"In the end, he's got a big, open heart, and that is what we want to get across," Botting said. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or


January 30

'2 Pianos 4 Hands' tickles both ivories and funny bone


If you've ever aspired to be the best at your craft - be it sports, dance, theater, art or music - Portland Stage's latest play is sure to stir memories and tickle the funny bone.

For lovers of music and theater, the production is a tempting treat that has it all. "2 Pianos 4 Hands" crackles with laughter and leaps to life with acting versatility, all the while providing an intimate piano recital from two highly skilled musicians.

"2 Pianos 4 Hands" is based on the collective memories and experiences of co-writers Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, The two first met in 1993 while appearing on the Canadian show "So You Think You're Mozart." It's said they immediately thought, "Wow, you're as good as me!" It was rivalry at first listen.

As the two began to swap stories about their lives, they realized that, although eight years apart in age, they shared a similar life story. Both underwent intensive piano training from the age of 7 to 17, at which point each had a fateful conservatory audition that would reshape his life from that day forward.

Encouraged to write down their memoirs, by 1994 they had begun workshopping a script at the Tarragon Theater in Canada under their own company name, Talking Fingers. The result was a production that fictionalizes their lives from age 7 and has the pair growing up together as competing proteges. It premiered in 1996 and has since been seen by millions of audience members around the world.

Early performances of "2 Pianos 4 Hands" starred Dykstra and Greenblatt who, along with being talented pianists, are also accomplished theater, television and film actors. The pair performed together in the production over 750 times before relinquishing their musical reins. No more than 20 people have played the parts, though, due to the multitalented complexity the roles demand.

Portland Stage brings two of those performers to Maine: Jeffrey Rockwell as Richard and Tom Frey as Ted. Frey also serves as director. Each has tried their hands at both roles, and Frey alone has performed in the production over 600 times.

The amount of talent on stage is astounding. Frey and Rockwell vividly, and hysterically, bring to life a variety of real-life colorful characters from Dykstra's and Greenblatt's lives, including their parents, teachers, judges and an outrageous bar patron. They transform into the characters by changing their accent, posture, attitude and facial expressions. There are no costume changes. They also dig deep to get in touch with their inner child, magically regressing into the childhood and teenage versions of the story's co-writers.

The pair's acting prowess and comic flair alone are worth seeing. But that's just the icing on this ever-so-tasty cake. The title "2 Pianos 4 Hands" refers to a challenging duet style that requires two pianists to play their parts on two facing pianos. For the production, Portland Stage has brought in two stunning grand pianos, on loan from Starbird Music & Piano Gallery.

Frey and Rockwell aren't just required to occasionally play passable piano pieces. They must demonstrate fluency in compositions by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Albeniz, and Schubert, as well as a variety of pop and jazz tunes. And, they do so masterfully, in a setting that's up close and personal. Two lifetimes' obsession with 88 keys has never been more fun or enjoyable to watch.


April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco.
She can be contacted at:

A single line on his acting resume landed a 10-year gig




By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

The play "2 Pianos 4 Hands" tells the story of two aspiring musicians who grow up with the piano as the focal point of their lives.

As they reach adulthood and discover they don't have the chops to make it professionally, they question whether they'd want to even if they could. In an extreme scenario, the piano becomes an object of derision and represents something to be loathed.

"The first time I saw it, I was just so moved by it, because what I had done in my life mirrored what the real Ted and Richard had done in their lives," says Tom Frey, who stars in a production of the show opening this week at Portland Stage Company.

"I quit playing at age 17 and went into acting school. At some point along the way, I had developed a crippling fear of playing the piano in front of people, so I went to acting school instead."

Frey has been associated with "2 Pianos 4 Hands" for more than a decade. He has performed in it hundreds of times. In addition to starring in this production with Jeffrey Rockwell, Frey also directs. For the Portland show, the two men reprise roles that each played last fall in Peterborough, N.H.

"2 Pianos 4 Hands" is a phenomenon, one of Canada's best-known cultural exports. Musicians Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt wrote the play about their common experiences growing up around the piano. They premiered it in Toronto in 1996, and a year later it moved to New York.

More than 150 theaters have produced it, and it has been translated into three languages and performed on five continents.

For many years, Dykstra and Greenblatt performed the show themselves. They have since recruited a few other actors to play the parts, but it's a select few. The roles demand that actors be fully adept at playing the piano.

"It uses every single tool that you have in your tool belt as an actor and as a musician," says Rockwell.

It's a two-person show, although the actors portray 20-plus characters, including pushy parents and demanding teachers.

They tell the stories of their lives as they meet at competitions and reconnect at events over the years. In a larger context, the story is about dreams and how the path people take to achieve them shifts and bends.

This story uses the piano as a metaphor for hopes and dreams. It could just as easily be tennis or dancing.

Frey understands the pressure that ascending musicians face. During the height of his progression as a pianist, he practiced six to seven hours a day. The piano became his most important focus, and was nearly all consuming.

He eventually walked away. For 10 years, he barely played at all. "I had a bad break-up with the piano," he says.

Then one day, his agent noticed a line on Frey's resume -- an afterthought, really. It said, "Plays piano."

She told him about "2 Pianos 4 Hands" and advised him it might provide an outlet for steady work. The originators were seeking replacements, and Frey might be a candidate if he sharpened his piano-playing skills.

Frey surprised himself when he showed up for the audition.

Preparing for the role means full immersion into the life of a pianist. Each of the two parts demands an actor first and a musician second, but the show's success hinges on musical harmony between the actors.

The show involves the performance of a great variety of music, and it culminates with the first movement of Bach's Concerto in D minor, with both pianists playing.

It's a demanding piece, and must be performed seriously. These guys really do play -- and play well.

For Frey, success at "2 Pianos 4 Hands" has meant conquering deeply held personal demons. As a young man, the discomfort of performing live forced him to walk away from music. Now he's on stage at the piano two hours every night.

Rockwell experienced less trauma with the piano as a youngster. He began lessons at age 9, and continued to study performance through his early 20s. He never harbored dreams of becoming a concert pianist; he simply stopped playing seriously.

Each time he does "2 Pianos 4 Hands," he's impressed with the depth of the characters and the abilities of the play's writers to make them as real as possible.

"They put everything of their lives in these parts," Rockwell said. "Thank God one of these guys wasn't able to juggle chainsaws. They'd throw that in there too."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Posted: December 8

Updated: Today at 9:06 PM 

Theater Review: 'Christmas Carol' cures seasonal humbug


There are only 17 days until Christmas. And if the words "Bah! Humbug!" are rattling around in your brain, or you're looking for some holiday cheer, then head over to Portland Stage for its 15th annual staging of "A Christmas Carol."

Ghostly apparitions, a curmudgeonly miser and a little boy with a heart of gold are a definite time-tested recipe for a spirited Christmas.

Those who are familiar with Portland Stage's "A Christmas Carol" will notice some changes in this year's production. Maureen Butler, a staple as Mrs. Cratchit, has relinquished the role to Portland Stage affiliate artist Bess Welden.

Tom Butler ("Bach At Leipzig," "Two Rooms" and "Magnetic North") steps into Ebenezer Scrooge's miserly shoes and Torsten Hillhouse ("The 39 Steps" and "Out of Sterno") tackles the role of Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Portland Stage newcomer Jenny Maguire exuberantly takes on the three-part role of the ghosts.

Expect a few changes in the presentation of the story as well, including a new opening that provides a visual of Jacob Marley's funeral. And, overall, Scrooge interacts more with the shadows of his past, present and future.

Susan Thomas has provided enhancements to her luscious costuming. Most notably, the Ghost of Christmas Past has a new breathtaking, bell-shaped, sleeveless gown that magically glistens with silver beadwork.

Children will delight in Butler's portrayal of Scrooge. A cross between Mr. Magoo and the Cowardly Lion, he whacks his cane emphatically, stabs the air with it like it's a stake of holly and laughs at his own mean-spirited jokes. But the slightest bump in the night turns his legs to jelly.

Mark Honan returns as Scrooge's poor clerk, Bob Cratchit. It seems impossible that Honan could embody the spirit of Mr. Cratchit more, but each year he manages to outdo himself. The British-born actor is a marvel to watch as he dances, bowlegged, across the stage with childlike enthusiasm. And his grief at the loss of Tiny Tim tugs at the heartstrings.

Also returning are Daniel Noel and Sally Wood. Noel lends an eerie effect to the play as Marley, which contrasts nicely with the jollier roles he steps into for the rest of the production. Wood always pleases in her roles as Belle and Fred's wife. Genuine heartbreak is audible in her voice when she, as Belle, realizes she has lost Scrooge to the tight-fisted grip of greed.

Eighteen charming ensemble members, mostly children, round out the robust cast. As usual, there are two ensembles, red and green, that rotate through the show schedule. Saturday night's performance featured the red ensemble, with third-grader Tommy DiPhilippo cast adorably as the frail Tiny Tim.

April Boyle is a free-lance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:


November 25 

Art and Theater: A right jaded old elf

And you'll laugh when you see him in spite of yourself –
Dustin Tucker, that is, in David Sedaris' 'The Santaland Diaries.'

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

 Dustin Tucker will be driving around in his car in June and start picking off lines from "The Santaland Diaries."

"They're just there," he says. "All the time. I don't know if that's good or bad."

We'll take it as a good.

Tucker is back for this year's run of "The Santaland Diaries," the saucy, adults-oriented David Sedaris comedy at Portland Stage Company's studio theater. The show opens Friday and runs through Dec. 19. Sedaris, a regular voice on public radio, wrote the show about his experiences as a costumed elf at Macy's. He offers a wickedly cynical, behind-the-scenes look at what it's really like. This is the third year Portland Stage has presented the one-man show, and Tucker has done every performance. The role has become his signature."I'll be walking down the street and people will say, 'You're the elf.' That makes me very happy. I love being the elf," says Tucker. "I've never had a show that has been this big of a hit. It's gratifying to know that people enjoy it."

The show runs in tandem with the Portland Stage's family-friendly "A Christmas Carol" on the mainstage.

Tucker likes this role because it's pure storytelling. He's alone on stage in a ridiculous outfit, and gets to vamp for 90 minutes. He tunes in to the particular vibe of each audience, and tailors each performance to the feedback he feels. Tucker goes through a new set of tights each year, and he and director Dan Burson talk about tweaks here and there. But the script is the same, and the blocking doesn't change much year to year. Doesn't have to, Tucker says. It's easy to get people to laugh, because Sedaris "is a truth-teller," he says. "He has a way of speaking the truth that we all feel in the back of our heads."The holidays are a very trying time. They're a wonderful time and a loving time, but they are also a lot of anxiety and stress. 'Santaland Diaries' is particularly important because people need to know that everyone is dealing with some anxieties and frustrations. That is why the show works so well. It gives people the chance to sit back and laugh and forget their cares for an hour."

For several years, Tucker appeared in the mainstage production of "A Christmas Carol." He's a member of the Affiliate Artists at Portland Stage.

Tucker has never met Sedaris, and says he would like to. But he definitely would not want Sedaris to see the show. Essentially, Tucker is playing Sedaris on stage, and he said he would feel uncomfortable if he knew Sedaris was in the audience. "He was in town two years ago doing something at Merrill around the same time," Tucker said. "I was in a panic: 'Oh god, I hope he does not come and see it.' No one can do it justice."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

November 7, 2010 

'Last Gas' a full tank of unfulfilled desires
by Steve Feeney

Maine-born playwright John Cariani's latest work had its world premiere in Portland on Friday night. And while it may still be a work in progress, "Last Gas" is both very funny and surprisingly thought-provoking. It feels like it comes from the author's heart.

The play takes place at a gas station/convenience store run by three generations of the Paradis family. The business is located near the Canadian border in northern Maine, and much is made in the play of the pluses and minuses of living under the bright stars that sometimes illuminate unfulfilled desires.

Nat Paradis, played in an appropriately halting performance by David Mason, suffers the most as he serves up cigarettes and wine coolers and longs to "get back to happy." As a divorced man with a teenage son and an aging playboy dad, he's a likable if depressed bumpkin.

Nat's buddy Guy, played by Mike Houston as the local burly friend we all sort of think we know, tries to cheer him up with a gift of Red Sox tickets and an invitation to drive through the night to see the game. But then Nat's old flame Lurene shows up.

Portrayed by Kathy McCafferty with that sort of room-filling effervescence that we sense borders on desperation, Lurene is looking hard for something she later learns might never have been real. McCafferty's energetic performance made even her character's rediscovery of a familiar regional confection into a remarkable event.

As Nat's ex-wife, Moira Driscoll had a lot of fun as a forest ranger who likes to give out citations and warn of moose crossing the highways. She unsuccessfully tries to leverage their son Troy's needs to get Nat back into her household.

It is necessary to suspend disbelief just a little to imagine the tall, 20-something Dave Register as the 16-year-old son, but he does a fine job at making it work. Nat's dad Dwight, played as a not always convincing voice of reason by Tom Bloom, chases younger women and tends to walk in on scenes at the wrong time -- or maybe at the right time in terms of moving the story along.

To "take charge" of one's life or to just "live with what's real" are the issues bandied about as the play adopts a more serious tone after a very funny first act. Nat's latest fling with Lurene, which includes some fancy country dancing followed by a most unusual use of Red Sox fandom as an excuse for not getting intimate, ultimately fails. The play then veers a bit sharply and must spend a good deal of its remaining time filling in its narrative to bring things back into line.

Artfully directed by Sally Wood, the acting in "Last Gas" was very good at the opening, and the evocation of place was nicely accomplished. With a perfect two-story set designed by Anita Stewart, the play's technical elements as a whole are among the best in recent memory for Portland Stage.

Though it still may benefit from a few tweaks, the play already is strong in reminding us there are big things in addition to moose that can sometimes wander into our paths and change our lives.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

Posted: October 31
By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

Almost there

PORTLAND - John Cariani spent six weeks up north in Presque Isle when he got serious about writing his latest play, "Last Gas."

Cariani went there to think, because it's sometimes easier to accomplish big thoughts in a small town than in New York, where he makes his living as an actor and playwright.

"You only write what you know, and you only really know the first 20 years of your life," he said.

So Cariani went home.

He stayed in the spare bedroom of a high school friend and did a lot of walking while he considered the story he wanted to tell.

The result is "Last Gas," which gets its premiere this week at Portland Stage Company. It's Cariani's second major Maine play. The first, "Almost, Maine," has achieved astounding success, becoming one of the 10 most-produced plays in the country. It also premiered at Portland Stage, in 2004.

Although the setting is familiar, "Last Gas" is vastly different from "Almost, Maine."

"Almost, Maine" is a quirky comedy, with some sad moments. "Last Gas" has funny moments, because Cariani is a funny man and handles comedy well. It's a play filled with happiness and hope, but also has moments of heavy, leaden sadness.

"Last Gas" tells the story of Nat Paradis, who manages a convenience store in northern Maine. It's the last place to get gas before crossing into Canada.

The idea germinated in 2007, after the Boston Red Sox won their second World Series title in four years. Like a lot of Sox fans, Cariani wondered what his life would be like now that he had experienced what he wanted most. It's a case of "be careful what you wish for" -- once you achieve it, you may be left with an empty feeling.

But this play is not about the Red Sox. It's about the quiet things that kill people, the internal what-ifs that we all experience, and the everyday choices that we make without thinking about the consequences that reach far beyond our imaginations or expectations.

Nat, an inconsequential man of middle age, has never left home, never seen much of the world. It's May 2008, and Nat and his buddy, Guy, are getting ready to go to Boston to see the Red Sox play the Yankees at Fenway Park. Those plans get pushed to the side when a high school sweetheart of Nat's returns home to inter her deceased mother. Lurene's mom died earlier in the winter and had asked to be buried back home after the spring thaw.

Recently divorced, Lurene shows up at Nat's store, curious if her feelings for him are what she thinks they are, and whether Nat feels the same.

The story unfolds from there. In the interest of preserving the play's secrets, we'll leave the rest of the story untold so theatergoers can experience the drama for themselves.

Suffice to say, it's an emotional roller-coaster with an ending that may be happy or not, depending on your perspective. In truth, as of this writing, the ending was very much in flux.

Cariani, who has camped out at Portland Stage for three weeks, has furiously rewritten large swaths of the play almost every day after rehearsals. Last week, actors tried several endings to see what worked best. They were not complaining about working on a play so much in flux and having to remember lines one day only to find out the next that they no longer existed.

They were exhausted, but energized to be involved with a work in progress of such emotional impact.

"John finds and honors what's extraordinary in ordinary lives," said actress Kathy McCafferty, who plays Lurene. "He's writing something that people can identify with and understand. I don't know anyone who writes silent desperation as well as he does, or how he writes adults with a sense of wonder. His plays are filled with moments of wonder-filled beauty and moments of grand devastation and moments that are uncomfortable but funny."

McCafferty has acted in three productions of "Almost, Maine," including one in upstate New York that Cariani directed. She learned a lot about Cariani's sensibilities as a playwright and director when he gave her a note after an "Almost, Maine" rehearsal that said, "I want you to be an elastic. I want you to go up, and I want you to go down within seconds."

She fell in love with "Last Gas" the moment she read it. To her, the play is about love and the power of hope. "It's so easy to let hope die, because you have to get on with life," she said.

Cariani agrees that his play is about hope, but adds a caveat: "It's also a lot about broken hope. It's a story about a guy who is sad, and who might also be depressed, though he hasn't been treated for it."

Nat is at a point in his life, somewhere north of 30, where he has come to terms with the fact that he has let opportunities pass. He never went to college and never signed up for self-discipline training. Now, when it's almost too late, he realizes his past is defining his present.

Cariani, 41, has great affection for Presque Isle. He grew up there and made his home there for many years. He is not one of those people who felt he had to leave Presque Isle or Maine to improve his life.

It's true that he did leave Maine, and has made his life in New York -- and made a good life, too, appearing on TV and in movies, even garnering a Tony Award nomination for the acting job he turned in for "Fiddler on the Roof." He recently filmed a movie with Ed Asner, and you can find him on "Law & Order" reruns regularly.

But he comes home often, and centers his best work on the people and places he knows from his youth. He likes to set his plays in Maine because he wants people from New York to recognize that they are not at the center of the universe, as they sometimes believe.

When he goes to the theater in New York, he rarely sees people he knows in the characters on stage. His goal is to write plays that people from Maine or anywhere else in rural or suburban America will recognize and find relatable.

"Intelligent people live in northern Maine, and people do not have to go away from Maine to do what they want to do," he said. "Sometimes they do leave, yes. But leaving Maine does not make you better. Just because you live in a city, that doesn't make you better or smarter."

Portland theater artist Sally Wood is directing "Last Gas." This is the fourth play she has directed for Portland Stage, following "Doubt," "The Gin Game" and "The Drawer Boy."

She met Cariani at the Little Festival of the Unexpected two years ago, when "Last Gas" received its first reading. She knew right away that she wanted to be involved when the show moved to the main stage.

"He is so bright, he is luminous," Wood said. "Being around John is like capturing fireflies."

His writing sparkles because of its honesty and integrity, Wood said. As director, her goal is to create an environment for the actors that supports them emotionally and otherwise, so they can find the true characteristics of the people they portray on stage.

These people are flawed, she said. Their toils are real. Their hurts are tangible.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:











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