Written by Harold Withee
A journey to Gorham is normal when attending a theater production mounted by the University of Southern Maine's Department of theater. Once a year the USM thespians load up the truck and head to the peninsula, offering Portland another option within the rich fabric of this Art community.
John Patrick Shanley's DOUBT is being presented at the Studio Space within the Portland Stage Company. All the seats were filled and the in-town experience for these student performers offers them a new audience dynamic. The University should consider bringing more productions to the Arts District. Portland's theater audience is trained to attend and seek out different voices, hungry for content, USM could do very well becoming an integral member of the dramatic offerings found in this city. So, more USM theater productions in downtown Portland is a good thing.
William Steele is the director and has assembled a talented cast to tackle this hard-hitting drama. David Bliss plays Father Flynn and hails from Portland, Maine. David is a sophomore theater major and handled the role of Flynn with maturity and insightful perspective. I was impressed with the character work, but wanted more vocal dynamics. Father Flynn is a man of persuasion and charm, a gifted speaker. During the performance a few scenes depict Flynn preaching from the alter. I have attended church all my life and the impact of a charismatic individual leading the sermon can be transformative. Flynn could be more charismatic.
Sister Aloysius is tackled by Ashley Rood. Ms. Rood nails the stance and physical presence of Sister. This is a strong woman with little flexibility in how she interprets her role as an educator. DOUBT takes place in the 1960's and the attitude of these characters must be viewed from that timeframe. Ms. Rood understands this woman and brings stern compassion into her interpretation. Once again I mention the vocal qualities, which needed to be tweaked. Ms. Rood needs to keep in mind that "robotic" is not a vocal tone the audience wants to sit through. Stern, dry, unexpressive are all human traits of speech , and can accommodate human emotion. Sister is a passionate person dealing with very moral questions of acceptability. Her self control can be challenged through her speech. Scene four finds Sister Aloysius in the garden with Sister James. A very nice conversation between the two ensued and I wanted the natural vocal to remain throughout the show. Ms. Rood does a wonderful job with this woman, just remember to lose the "robotic" speech pattern.
The four person cast is completed by Senior Hannah Perry, playing Sister James and Junior Pamela Yvette Smith portraying Mrs. Muller. Ms. Perry is charming as the bubbly young, wide eyed nun. Ms. Smith as Mrs. Muller was the stand out performance for me though. I will not give away the plotline, but the script is brilliant with showcasing different views of this situation. Ms. Smith handles the emotion well and brings a strong woman with differing worldview to the fore. She has a great conversational quality and not afraid to be the force countering Aloysius.
A great script and good actors' are all an enjoyable evening of theater needs. Shannon Zura respects this and adds her Scenic and Lightning sparingly , just enough to support the story. A large, stained glass oval dominates the central focus of the playing space. Made from scrim and hand painted, many lighting changes of color behind it created a vibrant addition expressing the emotion of the action. Jonna W. Klaiber provided the design for the costumes. Ms. Klaiber provides wonderful period dress and loved Mrs. Muller dress and pill box hat.
DOUBT is presented at the Portland Stage Studio Theater by The University of Southern Maine Theater Department. DOUBT runs through February 16th and tickets may be obtained by calling 780-5151 or usm.maine.edu/theatre.
(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/ AFTRA.)
Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 22:54
Written by Harold Withee
Portland offers so many entertainment and art options, theater being a piece of that economic pie. New, small companies with energetic, fresh faced thespians brimming with talent. Educational offerings from the universities, community theater, impressive high school productions, established professional houses and the Broadway Stage create an abundance of selection.
Thanks to Portland Ovations and Merrill Auditorium, Broadway visits our fair city throughout the season. (It amazes me no one taps into the summer tourist season with theater here in Portland. Thank goodness for the wonderful Shakespeare in the Oaks, but I truly feel a missed opportunity for someone. The Theater District in Boston was always dark during the summer months, then someone went out on a limb and booked LION KING during the high summer tourist season around 2004. Patrons have flocked to the District every summer since.)
Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT graced the Merrill stage last Thursday and proved why "there ain"t nothing like a Broadway show." The scale of this Punk Rock Opera was mind blowing and nothing was spared from the emotional impact of the technical overload. The set was extremely Orwellian, reaching into the catwalks, a steel cage supporting dozens of video screens, staircases, doors and openings. Urban decay seeped onto the stage as we are introduced to the troubled Johnny. Kevin Adams won a Tony Award for his Lightning Design and I have no reason to question why he wouldn't. He is a master at changing the tempo of the show. He never wastes the power of his visual manipulation to deeply move, engage and underline the themes pulsing through the storyline.
Darrel Maloney designed the intricately woven video projections, creating disturbing images and drug-induced imagery, positioning his work as a vital aspect of the furthering of the plot.
Christine Jones also received a Tony award for her Scenic Design regarding AMERICAN IDIOT. A young cast allows for a set filled with athletic possibilities. A staircase that turned over as the singer performed, slowly brought to the stage floor, was impressive. Watching this production was a delight, yet I completely understand the subject matter would not be for all. Based on Green Day's album of the same name, the themes are very raw, language, drug simulation and sexual energy. Slapped up beside the head and forced to witness the ugly side of life is a role theater has worn for millennium.
The cast are all young twenty some things, directly out of drama school and enjoying the opportunity granted to them. Touring the United States in a bus can be tiring, yet the energy level this cast brought to the stage was infectious. Dancing, strong trained voices and impressive character work created a cast with no weak link. Olivia Puckett as Whatsername gave the standout performance. The emotional ride and being in tune with the darkness of the underbelly called America.
I admit the heroin simulation was hard to witness, striking a raw core with the death of an actor I had worked with. I can handle much on stage, yet I felt the scene depicting sexual intercourse a tad too "in my face." Unfortunately the only major complaint with this production was the muddled vocals. I was seated under the mezzanine, and perhaps that had something to do with the sound quality? The band was a five-piece rock band, and when playing at full strength, I was completely lost. I'm aware of Green Day's music and even know a few songs well. I'm not someone who knows all the words, though, and this did hamper my full understanding of the unfolding events presented to me. Acoustic versions of songs were presented and every word could easily be heard. I just want to say this was a kick-ass cast and fun to watch.
I was disappointed at the amount of patrons who used their cell phones during the show. Legally, you can not film these shows. Put the G-D PHONE AWAY and act like your mother taught you something. Also, the people around you paid to hear those on stage, nobody gives a crap about what you are thinking during the show, zip it. I don't like to be disappointed with the quality of the audience.
How lucky we are to be able to see productions direct from Broadway's "Great White Way." Do not be left out and grab your tickets now for the inspirational family musical, MAN OF LAMANCHA, Saturday, March 22 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. PortTix: 842-0800 Portland Ovations.org
(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)
Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 22:55
Written by Harold Withee
"When you reach a certain age you become invisible. I wanted to be seen." BECKY'S NEW CAR is the new production from Good Theater, being mounted at the St. Lawrence Arts Center. The story begins with the lead character, Becky, telling how an elderly woman stripped down to her birthday suit in public and the response she gave when asked why. Becky then starts to describe her own life, which leads to questioning her own position and happiness within her own realm of existence. She explains when a woman states she wants a new car, she is really uttering her desire for a new life. Circumstances create the opportunity for Becky to wade in the green grass from the other side. This delightful comedy allows the audience a front row seat for the humorous ride.
Brain P. Allen directs this cast of local actors and I applaud the use of Maine-based Equity talent. Too often when professional actors are used in this town they are imported from away. Lately, the majority of that talent I have to sit through, just are not worth the price of their plane ticket. Perhaps having a Maine address when holding a union card means our talent has leaked out?
Laura Houck portrays Becky. I have seen this Equity actress is other productions and have always been impressed with the ease she handles in-depth character work. Ms. Houck is the pole in the center of the tent, solidly holding center ground as the world around her unravels. Ms. Houck also handles the absence of the fourth wall very well; opening a show up to audience participation always creates a bit of the unknown. (Relax, you will not be pulled from your seat and embarrassed, unless you want to be.)
The other standout actor in this production is the incredibly amusing performance of Kathleen Kimball. Ms. Kimball plays the social climber Ginger and is a complete joy as the catty yet witty gold digger. What I love about her portrayal is the absence of caricature, layering Ginger with compassion and a feeling heart. Ms. Kimball also had the ability to keep the pace of the show flowing. The humor in the show, at times, is lost because of the slow an uneven timing of some cast members. I did feel the two younger actors, Jesse Leighton as Chris and Allison McCall as Kennni, had well rounded characters but at times seemed to have mush mouth. This is a small venue and I shouldn't have to lean in to hear and understand. Both actors have degrees in theater; prove to me you attended a voice class.
Paul Haley is Walter, the man with millions who is the catalyst in changing Becky's life. Mr. Haley brings adolescent energy to "socially inept" Walter, a man who inherited his father's billboard business and was told not to screw it up. I enjoyed the journey this gentleman travels, taking us through a comedy of errors at one point in the second act.
The St. Lawrence has a small stage, yet the design and use of space is always impressive with good theater. Craig Robinson is the set designer and creates a very functional playing space, providing four distinct zones. The stage never seems cramped and Mr. Allen is a master with creating interesting stage pictures. Cheryl Dolan is credited as the scenic artist and is responsible for my favorite aspect of the set, the painted flats of blue sky and white fluffy clouds. These flats are positioned around the set and as soon as I walked into the auditorium I wanted to take a deep breath and meditate as I watched the clouds float by. The technical credits are filled out by Justin Cote's costumes, lighting by Iain Odlin and sound design provided by Stephen Underwood.
BECKY'S NEW CAR is a charming new play, produced by capable hands.
Good Theater performs at the St. Lawrence Arts Center on Munjoy Hill and runs through Feb. 23. For tickets and information, call 885-5883 or www.goodtheater.com.
(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)
Last Updated on Friday, 07 February 2014 02:42
Written by Harold Withee
WORDS BY: IRA GERSHWIN AND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK. America's classical music, the big band era produced some of the most memorable songs and nurtured artists who will ride history with the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Verdi.
The name Gershwin brings a sense of sophistication, personifying the Art Deco world of the Great Depression and World War ll. George is the brother most have heard of, but this evening is reserved to honor the memory of his older brother, Ira. Ira didn't write the music, he wrote the unforgettable lyrics America has been singing for close to a century now. I played saxophone in school and was fortunate to play first chair in the big bands at Jazz Camp, starting a love affair with this musical era and was thrilled to spend an evening with songs that have become old friends.
The evening is spent with Ira himself, as he shares his life story with the audience, backed by a four-piece band and two singers. Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper brilliantly inhabits the character of the late Ira Gershwin, setting a pace invoking meeting the man in his parlour for tea.
Mr. Mongiardo-Cooper is an excellent storyteller, inviting the audience to walk with him through the life of an American Master. The majority of the music is sung by two others, Amy Bodnar and Robert Yacko, though, and we don't hear him truly sing until the second act.
Hans Indigo Spencer is the Musical Director, playing piano and saxophone and has assembled a very talented ensemble of local musicians. Jacob Forbes on drums, Pat Keane on guitar and veteran Jim Lyden on bass, seem to enjoy themselves and each is given moments to shine with improv and soloist skills. The band was tight and I wished was used more within the staging of the show; the first act was coming to a close before any cast member joined them to sing.
The design team produced a marvelous stage picture, once again laying the framework for revisiting the world of Deco. Anita Stewart uses very simple materials to conjure a beautiful mosaic of framed fabric, doubling as a screen to project images upon. The story is told with the help of slides, giving visual recognition to people, places and things that are discussed throughout the conversation. Stephen Jones paints with bold swaths of color in his lighting, reinforcing the influence of Art Deco.
Hugh Hanson provides a rich palette as well with his costume design, the first act evening gown being a striking example. The only misstep, in my opinion, was the wearing of boots with the sequin dress to begin the second act, a bit too country music queen. I understand why, making the costume change into the next song easier. The image just didn't work for me within the style the design so carefully crafted.
Unfortunately, the elements of this show that glaringly lacked were the vocal capabilities of the two singers. During the show one of the notes I made to myself was "if doing a show about Gershwin, cast people who can actually sing."
Whenever the two entered, the energy changed to sketch comedy, creating jarring entrances all evening long. Yacko had an interesting stage stance, always in knee bend. Throughout the evening an image of watching a marionette haunted me. King of Ham would describe how every song of his ended, milking the audience with over the top mugging. Bodnar had better stage presence, yet had a very tinny, often off key voice with little power. These are some of my favorite songs and hard not to remember: Judy Garland singing "The Man That Got Away," Frank Sinatra crooning "A Foggy Day (In London Town)" or just recently Audra McDonald belting out "I loves you Porgy." Short of painful was being witness to these two performing from PORGY AND BESS. "Union Square" was a nice number that worked well with all three singers, adding nice energy and choreography.
Mr. Mongiardo-Cooper as Ira is given a few solo numbers toward the end of the show and that's when the light bulb went off, WORDS BY should have been a one-man show. Mr. Mongiardo-Cooper is an exceptional singer as well, but more importantly, he has done his homework. Every word uttered is dripping with internal meaning, magically weaving the lyrics throughout the music, building with utmost clarity, a message delivered.
WORDS BY: IRA GERSHWIN AND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK is presented on the Main Stage at Portland Stage Company through Feb. 16. For information please call the Box-Office at 774-0465 or www.portlandstage.org
(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAGAFTRA.)
PHOTO: Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper portrays the famous lyricist Ira Gershwin in Portland Stage's production of "Words By: Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook," by Joseph Vass. (Photo by Aaron Flacke)
Last Updated on Friday, 31 January 2014 03:06