A look back at changing theatrics

Turn and face the strange
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  December 19, 2013

A TOAST TO THE YEAR’S BEST SHOWS A scene from Lorem Ipsum’s Our Late Night. | Photo by David Meiklejohn

Among the last year’s highlights in theater is the second annual PortFringe festival, which was staggeringly successful and even more expansive in its second year, with nearly 50 shows staged in five venues and $16,000 in proceeds funneled back to its artists. Plans are already under way for PF-14 — outré thespians have until January 31 to apply for the lottery.

While we’re on outré theater, Edward Albee’s outrageous, horrific allegory The American Dream is a bizarro plum, and the University of Southern Maine did a bang-up job bringing it to toxic-silly life. The perfectly cast ensemble’s pacing was frisky and sure, the tone of bright nursery-rhyme obscenity was exceptionally wrought, and Madelyn James’s incredible Grandma was out-of-this-world funny with her brisk, smart-ass bustling about, her wry eye-rolling, and her gummy yet sharp-tongued falsetto.

This year, Lorem Ipsum staged several varieties of the outrageous, in a superlative season of offerings: the collective’s production of If We Were Birds, Erin Shields’s re-telling of the Philomena myth, was at once harrowing and tender; Wallace Shawn’s Our Late Night, staged provocatively in the window of Rose Contemporary, struck perfectly its tone of eerie funhouse debauch; and Ian Carlsen’s new play Gargantua was an orgiastic, hyper-meta pleasure of a romp. The collective continues to demonstrate deliciously imaginative vision and impressive ensemble cohesion.

A close rapport in any cast enhances the audience’s sense of intimacy, and two shows in 2013 did an especially fine job of it. First: A Couple of Blaguards, starring the marvelous Paul Haley and Tony Reilly for the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, was a swift, smart, richly funny two-hander about brothers Frank and Malachy McCourt. This marvelously complementary comedic duo, deftly shifting between personas, was an unqualified delight. The second show, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, also an AIRE production, saw an Englishman (Michael Howard), an Irishman (Matt Power), and an American (the Phoenix’s own Nicholas Schroeder) staving off madness in a Lebanese cell, and developing an affecting, complicated camaraderie as they do.

Theatrical affinity was also evident in the new partnership, this season, between Fenix Theater Company and Dramatic Repertory Company. In their joint production of A Bright New Boise, a darkly affecting comedic drama about an apocalyptic fundamentalist in a Hobby Lobby (performed at the brand-new Portland Ballet Studio Theater, a promising new venue), Keith Powell Beyland’s cast delivered performances that are rife with quiet physical nuance, both comedic and tempered with empathy.

A locally written play by Carolyn Gage, Harriet, was another highlight. It is set in a therapist’s office in “another dimension in space-time” — one in which Harriet Tubman’s master owns a psychologist (Gwira Kabirigi), who helps him gauge the emotional states of potential escapees like Harriet (Alfine Nathalie). The script has the distillation and the lyric intensity of poetry. Harriet’s rejoinders to the therapist jump between sullen, enraged, and reelingly comedic, and Nathalie’s performance, in its Acorn Productions show, was breathtaking: Her Harriet was fierce, vertiginous, and eerily self-possessed.

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