History's mysteries

Explore Portland's past with AIRE
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 27, 2009

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MIRTH + POVERTY AIRE's look at 19th-century Portland. Photo by CRAIG ROBINSON

Melodrama is a particularly satisfying popular art form for a financial crisis, filled as it is with unambiguous types and tropes — rich ruthless villains, poor but warm-hearted heroes and heroines, music that spiritedly cues our hisses and cheers, and reversals of fortune that reward honest, ordinary people just like us. The rise of the good guys is indeed reassuring in The Streets of Portland, in which the American Irish Repertory Ensemble gives us a charming, funny, and elegantly produced break from our current financial woes. We hearken instead back to 1837, in melodrama's heyday, when too much paper money and reckless banking burst a bubble and brought on that year's infamous Panic.

Dedicated as it is to Irish theater, AIRE has adapted The Streets of Portland from Dublin-born playwright Dion Boucicault's 1857 The Poor of New York. After its initial success in New York, it was adapted to a number of other locations both in America and abroad — and in fact, Boucicault himself adapted his script from the French melodrama Les Pauvres de Paris. Continuing the tradition among our own city's locales, director Tony Reilly urges us to boo the scheming banker Bloodgood (David Butler) and his status-hungry daughter Alida (Autumn Pound) in their mansion up on the Western Promenade. We're rooting for the down-and-out Fairweather family and their friends, who shiver in Cobb's Court hovels and Market (now known as Monument) Square.

Bloodgood ruined the once-upstanding Fairweathers just as the bubble burst in 1837, when he absconded with the family's life savings, sending away his sharp clerk Badger (Wil Kilroy) with hush money. Jump 20 years later, to the Panic of 1857: The widowed Mrs. Fairweather (Maureen Butler) and her grown children Paul (Nate Amadon) and Lucy (Casey Turner) are struggling. Paul can't find work, and Lucy's love for the brought-low Mark Livingstone (Colin Whitely) is thwarted by Livingstone's poverty and the Alida's machinations. But the good guys have a big team: Badger, who returns with a conscience, and the raucous and loveable Seamus Puffy (Tony Reilly) and his missus (Susan Reilly) and son Dan (Erik Moody), once bakers on Brackett Street now reduced to selling on street-corners.

With original music by Robert Gans handily alerting us to the presence of villainy or vice, we range all over old Portland via 19th-century drawings — of Market Square; interiors of mansions and slums; a seascape, to suggest Ferry Village — projected onto a screen. These visuals evoke time and place, enhancing context without distracting from the action that goes on before them. Some drama moves even more intimately into these spaces, when actors slip behind the screen to lend their silhouettes to the city vistas. Costuming (by James Herrera and Mary Readinger) is as adeptly executed, enriching each character's type — from Alida in milks, rich umber fabrics, and turquoise beads, to Badger when he returns from California (hilariously) in a loud yellow plaid jacket and checked pants.

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