The race is on

Running through Acorn’s 24-Hour Play Festival
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 5, 2010

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SETTING SAIL The cast of Michael Kimball’s Life Boat. Photo: Eric Francis/Planet Waves

Around 7 pm last Saturday at the St. Lawrence, a sealed envelope was sliced open and its contents, handwritten on three slips of paper, were revealed to a full house: “Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Mike Levine read aloud. Then: “A ferry.” And finally, “A bottle of wine.” Thus the three required common elements of five plays-to-be, in Acorn Productions’ first annual Maine 24-Hour Play Festival, orchestrated by Levine along with Naked Shakespeare Ensemble member Patricia Mew. These 24 hours of stop-watch theatrical shenanigans capped Acorn’s ninth Maine Playwrights Festival.

Once the line, object, and location were made known, playwrights drew their directors: Michael Tooher was paired with Shawna Houston, Lynne Cullen with Laura Graham, Kathy Hooke with Michael Howard, Carolyn Gage with Stephanie Ross, and Michael Kimball with Michael Levine. Each writer then drew a number from 2 to 5, representing how many actors they’d be allotted of the 21 in the pool; then the actual actors’ names and vital stats; and finally a rehearsal space. With that, it was green light to the playwrights, who had an 8 am deadline. Before departing, Gage remarked of the task before her: “It’s like someone asking you to sing an aria underwater.”

Whatever gargly warbling went on that night will remain mysterious, as this reporter’s coverage did not resume until the next morning, outside the Woodbury Campus Center at USM. There, locked out of their rehearsal space, Kimball and Levine’s cast of Life Boat practiced “swimming” across the grass and onto a picnic table. Having earlier tabled the script and negotiated with Kimball to “spice up” some of the characters, they were now on to dramatic actions: Levine got down on his knees and demonstrated just how Olivia Ruhlin should cleave to Christopher Reilling’s torso.

Across campus, Hooke and Howard’s cast of Fare is Fare had managed to get into Talbot Hall, where Hooke’s classical take on the “ferry” requirement was identifiable at a glance; Eric Worthley’s cape and punting pole left little doubt that old Charon would soon be boating some dead folks around. In the meantime, Howard carefully teased out the physical dimensions of the tension between the notorious ferryman and a strident young goddess-woman (Molly Eliza Donlan) who resists his callousness. When I left them, around 1:45, they were still awaiting the last page of the script.

Back up at the St. Lawrence, around 2, four actors acting out the faux-kidnapping antics of Tooher’s Hush Money had just finished an admirable first off-book run-through (“We got our script at midnight,” director Houston exclaimed, glowing), and went on to do a few speed-throughs and tighten the blocking.

Hush Money got the first of the half-hour tech slots at 3:30, and over the next four hours the other four teams surged in and out of theater, green room, and proximate eateries. Various meals, drinks, and run lines later, everyone reconvened back in the lobby. Just before the house opened, anticipation careened: “It’s sort of like waiting to watch a stock-car race,” Tooher smiled wickedly. “Part of you wants a nice smooth race, but another part of you wants a few parts to fall off.”

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