Myth and legend

Portland theatre: 2007 in review
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  December 19, 2007
Longfellow homage.

With no ado, here are some of the last year’s theatrical highlights.

To celebrate the centennial birthday of Portland’s original native poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, local writer/thespian Daniel Noel regaled us with his marvelous Longfellow: A Life in Words. Noel both wrote and starred in this beautiful and affectionate work, which was culled from the poet’s own verse and letters, and staged as part of Portland Stage Company’s new Studio Series.

Another locally-written play of the last year deserves laurels for its wit, vigor, and spirited production: David Butler’s The Grand O’Neal, a comic drama that follows a Cleveland real-estate agent, obsessed with his Irish roots, all the way to County Leitrim, where things are not quite as he’s mythologized them. Butler’s play, wonderfully produced by the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, was a keen study of the differences and overlaps between our histories and our myths.

Another fine original work came from Pontine’s Marguerite Mathews and Greg Gathers, in Portsmouth, who created and performed Wallace Nutting’s Old America. Raised near Augusta, the preacher-turned-photographer sparked the nostalgic Colonial Revival movement to preserve the New England sense of place. Using Pontine’s signature multi-media cut-outs, puppets, and masks, Mathews and Gathers raised a wise and lovely portrait.

Staging and props were rich on a different scale in Portland Stage Company’s Intimate Apparel, a luxuriously produced drama of an African-American seamstress in early 20th century New York. Anita Stewart’s stunning set depicted three different bedrooms — a white woman’s boudoir, a black prostitute’s room, and the humble single bed of the seamstress who tailored to both. Magenta satins and purple Chinese silks overran the stage in bolts and corsets.

On the other end of things, aesthetically speaking, was the avant-garde, minimalist, and stunningly hypnotic The Stone Fisherman. An experimental theatrical riff on a koan-like poem by Bertolt Brecht, this Open Waters production staged four original plays to culminate a two-month group writing and performance process.

Of this year’s many strong performances, I’d like to highlight a few particularly vivid ones. I was enchanted by young actress Kat Kiernan’s portrayal, in Lanyard Theatre Company’s Devil’s Elbow, of a preternaturally sensitive and very pregnant Missouri girl named Elvis. Both wise and gamine, with wide, lyrical eyes, Kiernan’s Elvis was a magical delight.

The performance of another actress, this one a veteran of many stages, deserves special mention: Lisa Stathoplos, in Michael Kimball’s The Secret of Comedy, portrayed Emily, a vivacious comedy writer dying of cancer. In this exhausting, exquisite lead role, Stathoplos was at once girlish, profane, and wise, and gave a beautiful and wrenching performance.

I’d also like to laud the dynamism of an entire cast, that of USM’s fall production of Proof. Slaney Rose Jordan’s dissolute young math whiz Catherine was keen and beautifully nuanced. She also had splendid, tense rapport with all three of the drama’s supporting characters — Ian Carlsen’s Robert (Catherine’s dad), Bobby Trask’s Hal (Robert’s former student and Catherine’s possible paramour), and Stacy Ann Strang’s Claire. Together, the cast was remarkably tight, and lent power, humor, and grace to the fraught tale.

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