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‘The Elephant Piece’ revels in absurdity

It truly is a beautiful thing when I walk into a theater with absolutely no clue as to what I will witness and leave smiling, with my head swimming from the experience. Snowlion Repertory Company stages an absurdist, surreal new musical at the Portland Stage Studio Space, THE ELEPHANT PIECE. A wonderful journey ensues, delivering the audience safely at the destination of self questioning as a society.4-18-14-HW-The-Elephant-Piece-Press-Photo-1

April 22 once again is Earth Day, a day set aside to the issues of environmental longevity. "How do we save nature?", can only be dealt with honesty when humankind realizes we are not removed from, but are a product of our environment. We can not live without it, nature would thrive without us. These themes are explored with humor, music and sometime brutally within this nightmarish world created by director Al D'Andrea. A world intent on tracking down the last elephant, simply to get a piece of it. A trophy for the vanquishing species, having clawed themselves to the top of the food chain. Darryl Curry wrote the book, music, and lyrics through a collaborative workshop process. Mr. D'Andrea also played a major part in the process along with producer Margit Ahlin. Oh, and this score does provide hummable songs with one in particular that I'm still singing in my head.
This is a black box production and the action is within feet of the audience. Craig Robinson's set is simple but effective, allowing the action to move swiftly and smoothly between scenes. Colorful Tapestry was used to frame the piece, highlighting the carnival atmosphere. Lighting Designer Iain Odlin is instrumental with the ambiance of doom and underlying menace. Lighting is so much more than seeing actor faces. Mr. Odlin's effects are much more then the groundwork for the actors to build on, but weaves himself into the storytelling, infusing the emotional triggers fueling the journey. Desiray Roy's costumes are phenomenal, adding to the joyous spectacle these vaudevillian miscreants relish in. Ms. Roy has enjoyed the details and shoes and eyeglasses just add to the visual feast distinctly underscoring the different characters.
Mr. D'Andrea was assembled a wonderful cast, all having a great time on stage. Actors having fun and being in the moment is half the battle with any production. Local Equity Actor David Arthur Bachrach is the leader of this ragtag ensemble, as Bones. Petite Angelica Phipps as Iris has huge stage presence and brings a bit of the "hanger ons" influence from the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW into her character. Autumn Pound is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine's Musical Theater Performance program and portrays Bonita. Ms. Pound brings a certain dynamism when on stage and had one of the better voices. She has the perfect countenance for stage, large eyes with a mischievous smile. Janie Downey Maxwell also kept me with a smile on my face all evening, the face of religion, she is just hysterical in her body language and facial expressions. Pernicia was played by Margit Ahlin, filling in as an understudy for an old friend, Cathy Counts. Ms. Ahlin was up for the challenge, never missing a beat, as she attacked the role. Ms. Ahlin is a fantastic example of acting with every once and inch when on stage.

The whole ensemble is top notch, and Bartley Mullin as Butch is another unique, eyes drawn to character. Butch leads the chant for, '"Mr. Bones to tell them a story." Mr. Mullin brings an interesting cadence, layering with pleading to hostility. Alan Forrest McLucas plays Paul, a task of portraying the normal within the abnormal. McLucas sang many of the softer songs and brought insightful interpretation to the fabric of the story.
The play was loaded with wonderful visuals, many produced through the choreography of Betsy Melarkey Dunphy. Musical direction fell to Jim Colby, who also had the character name, Buzz. Only the electric piano supported the singers, and Mr. Colby kept the music lively and moving. Vocally, the show was tight. The song I can't get away from is the Hacking song. It's hard to let it go.
This is a show you just have to sit back and accept as it wanders through the evening; the end will enlighten all.
THE ELEPHANT PIECE plays for only one more weekend at the Portland Stage Studio space on Forest Avenue, closing April 20. For information and tickets contact www.snowlionrep.org or 518-9305.

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)


Last Updated on Friday, 18 April 2014 01:26

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Thought-provoking 'Tribes' gains its footing at Portland Stage

TRIBES is the latest offering presented at Portland Stage Company, a play by Nina Raine. The play explores interesting terrain regarding the nature/nurture aspect of raising a child.

The character Billy is deaf, raised in a household removed from the deaf world, he is expected to behave as hearing, learning to read lips. Communication and how we express ourselves, layered with the dynamics of a rather odd, dysfunctional family, create an interesting evening of theater. Billy isn't introduced to and immersed within the deaf culture until a young adult, and only after encountering the attractive young woman, Sylvia.4-11-14-HW-Tribes Prod 05

The most engaging through line of the evening was the awakening of Billy as he embraced the culture he had been denied, learning to communicate in their language, sign. Sylvia is a child raised with hearing by two deaf parents, seemingly more comfortable being the bridge within the world of the non-hearing. Genetics has passed an undeniable truth into Sylvia's reality, as an adult, the world grows more garbled, filled with white noise, leading to silence. The playwright allows irony to sophisticatedly seep into the plot, leading to the explosive ending. I never felt the script completely cleared the hurdles to bring the author's themes to fruition, but those themes are so compelling, and through direction and design, this production satisfies. The production was a bit uneven, and I found the second act finally allowing the organic energy of the production to take hold and end the evening on a high note.

Set Designer Rohit Kapoor introduced a set that seemed to get in the way all evening. The main playing area for interior home scenes was dominated by a rather large, long, wooden table. The family even used it as a sofa, always perched upon it or around it. The table didn't bother me, I just didn't need the other time elements. The first few set changes were laborious, sucking energy from the built-up steam created within the scenes.

Bryon Winn added brilliance, though, with his lighting design. The lighting added the emotional palette for the actors to work from. The set was diminished in the second act and more of the action relied on the moods set with the lighting. Kenisha Kelly's costumes added bits of whimsy as well. Subtle gestures such as ties, socks and undergarments had their own subplot.

TRIBES has a cast of only six, with the very busy actor, Portland-based Kat Moraros in the role of Billy's sister, Ruth. The rest of the cast is comprised of actors from across the country, bringing unique skills this production calls for. Elizabeth West plays Beth, Billy's mother. Ms. West crawls into this character, tapping the nuance and emotion the complex Beth bubbles with. Inner energy and the skill of a seasoned performer kept Beth a presence the audience appreciated. Amusingly, I wrote in my notes how impressive her English accent was. The accents throughout the show meandered at times, and I thought Ms. West was setting a standard the others hadn't quite reached. Intermission gave me time to fully read Bio's and learned she is a native of East Sussex, UK.

Kate Finch also nailed her portrayal of Sylvia, an outsider creating change and challenging the mindset within the structure of this family. Ms. Finch gives Sylvia a steel spine, not distracting from the inner vulnerability this character is challenged with. Ms. Finch creates a wonderful emotional arc, allowing the audience to fully understand the journey. Billy is brought to life by Garrett Zuercher. A hearing impaired actor, Mr. Zuercher allows the raw underbelly of universal human needs and emotion to be genuine. We homo-sapiens communicate largely through non-verbal body language and facial expressions. Mr. Zuercher's Billy allows the audience full access to the inner turmoil and jubilation Sylvia has introduced into his supposed laid out existence.

Projections of conversation and sign language help to clarify any areas where confusion may occur. Confronting cultural differences and examining individual limitations within the context of our own tribal bubble can be intimating. This production does what theater does best, through humor, opens our eyes to other realities.

TRIBES is performed at the Portland Stage Company through April 13. For tickets and information please call 774-0465 or www.portlandstage.org.

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)

Last Updated on Friday, 11 April 2014 01:28

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'DA' by AIRE dazzles with charm, wit

The Irish have also been masters of storytelling and the Irish theater offers the English speaking world great playwrights, creating dialogue actors hunger to express. The American Irish Repertory Ensemble, located here in Portland, is offering up one of those gems.4-4-14-HW-AIRE-1

"DA" was written by Hugh Leonard in 1978 and enjoyed many awards and a Broadway run with Barnard Hughes in the lead role. This comedy is set in the late 1960s and don't let the title throw you, it's just Irish slang for dad/ father.
This play lovingly explores the relationships between children and parents, the different stages a child journeys and the different perspective children have of their parents as they themselves age. "DA" doesn't shrink away from the shadows and ghosts in the corner.

The Portland Stage Studio space is where this production is mounted, a wonderful intimate space for this introspective show. Gotious Productions is credited with the Set Design, creating a wonderful working space for the action. Michaela Denoncourt is credited with the Lighting Design, working well to enhance the set and create the ambiance for the actors. Details were not overlooked and the fire in the stove and whistling teapot added the warmth of a living household.

Tony Reilly directs this piece with the help of Portland theater veteran Michael Howard. Mr. Reilly also plays the lead role. The cast they have assembled handles the material very well, pulling out the charm and humor this script is packed full of.

Christopher Holt plays Charlie, the son. Charlie is the straight man amongst the memories and mayhem the rest of the characters bring to the stage and Mr. Holt is intense with his interpretation. The emotional journey this character rides is shrewdly paced and packed with nuance. I would like to see Mr. Holt take more time with the papers going into his briefcase instead of busily rearranging them though.

Young Charlie is played by Thomas Ian Campbell, a Senior Theater Major at the University of Southern Maine. Playing Carlie as a younger man, Mr. Campbell certainly has the same profile as Mr. Holt, leading the audience to completely buy into the fact these two actors were playing the same man at different stages in life. Mr. Campbell fills his presence with energy and optimism which we painfully can see has been lost in the older Charlie. I favorite character of mine was Mary Tate, the love interest of young Charlie, portrayed by Marie Stewart. Ms. Tate entering onto the stage is like a slap in the face, hard not to notice and takes your breath away. The multi-layered dynamics of this woman are easily revealed, leaving us with a very mixed emotional attachment to the complex Mary.
Ma is played by Susan Reilly and has a wonderful scene with the younger Charlie, giving him advice on how to live his own life. Ms. Reilly brings get insight as well as energy to this role. Tony Reilly is Da and this production is worth seeing just to witness his performance. The greatest joy in attending the theater for me is when I witness an actor having the time of their life inhabiting a character. Mr. Reilly was born to play this role and brings the wonderment of a child at Christmas to this role.
"DA" is filled with touching moments as well as humorous insights into the human condition. The scenes involving the young lovers and the father / son at the harbor, standing on the ladder, both stand out in my memory. The Irish accents with the minor characters were not consisted, but overall this is an evening of theater you should partake in. Only one more weekend.
"DA" is produced by the American Irish Repertory Ensemble at the Portland Stage Studio Space through April 5. For information and tickets please contact A.I.R.E. at 799-5327 or www.airetheater.com

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)


Last Updated on Friday, 04 April 2014 03:22

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'Man of La Mancha' embodies renewal, rebirth

The Great White Way sweeps into Portland this weekend, bringing one of the most memorable and longest running Broadway shows into the glorious confines of Merrill Auditorium. The magnitude of experiencing a lavish, Broadway production is exhilarating and MAN OF LA MANCHA is a theatrical classic with the ageless inspiration of "The Impossible Dream. The New York Times stated, "one of the most pervasive anthems of uplift in showbiz history."3-21-14-HW-la-mancha1

This show ran for 2,328 performances in New York, from 1965-1971 and garnered five Tony Awards during the original production. Since 1971 the show has been revived four times on Broadway, with this national tour kicking off on Jan 4, 2014. The tour will visit close to 40 cities throughout the United States, from California to Maine.
Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote" was first published in 1605 and is the base on which this musical is built. Set against the horrific undertaking of the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes, aging and an utter failure, has been thrown into a Seville dungeon awaiting trial for offense against the church. Seeking to save his unfinished manuscript, Cervantes proposes entertainment and when the "court" agrees, recruits the participation of fellow inmates as other characters while he and his manservant transform themselves into Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. They proceed to play out the story, hitting the road to restore the age of chivalry, to battle evil, and right all wrongs. A classic tale of the triumph of man over his own follies.
The performances will be even more poignant this weekend as the theater community mourns the passing of LA MANCHA composer, Mitch Leigh. Mr. Leigh passed March 16 at the age of 86 and had only one hit on Broadway, having spent most of his life as a jingle writer for commercials. His score will always be part of the fabric of the American Musical Theater.
Jeffrey B. Moss has been chosen to direct, and the cast includes Jack E. Curenton as Don Quixote and Rick Grossman as Sancho. Also expect the full imagination of technical overload only a Broadway spectacle can deliver. This will be an event the entire family can attend and enjoy. The New York Daily News hailed "the musical that's set above and apart from all others by touching the heart!! An exquisite musical play..."
Spring is here and ushers in the spirit of renewal and rebirth. MAN OF LA MANCHA is the embodiment of those sentiments.
MAN OF LA MANCHA will be playing at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Saturday, March 22, with two performances at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. For information and tickets, contact porttix: 842-0800 or portlandovations.org.

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA)

Last Updated on Friday, 21 March 2014 01:01

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