Lesbians unite

Reclaiming the state's history and image
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  August 26, 2009

lesbos main
Photo: Shannon Zura
IDENTITY IN MID-AIR Aerialist Janette Hough-Fertig.

For centuries, sundry artists have extolled Maine as a locale for all sort of idylls and creations. This weekend, a series of plays will limn our state's romanticism with seductive specificity: as a setting for imaginative and sensual women loving women. In Greetings From Lesbos, Maine: A Theatrical Journey through Maine's Lesbian History, our own prolific and internationally lauded lesbian playwright, Carolyn Gage, in collaboration with USM theatre instructor Meghan Brodie, celebrates women with remarkable passions and metaphors, including fly-fishing, poetry, and trapezes, not to mention the reveries, jealousies, and sexuality of love itself.

The show includes three world premieres and one performance of a play from a collection by Gage that was just awarded the prestigious national Lambda Literary Award for the best LGBT drama in the US. It runs for one weekend only at the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, with direction by Gage and Brodie.

The first of the parts plays of Greetings, "Souvenirs from Eden," concerns a summer spent in Bar Harbor in 1899 by Renée Vivien, a British poet who took on the language and style of the French Symbolists, and Natalie Barney, an American writer and heiress who lived as an ex-pat in Paris. The two women, at the center of the voluptuous Left Bank salon scene, had a tumultuous relationship, fraught with baroness rivals, laudanum, break-ups, and verse-laden re-wooings. In Greetings, we meet Vivien (Heather Scamman) and Barney (Shannara Gillman) in a suite at Bar Harbor's Malvern Hotel, on one summer evening of 1900.

From there Greetings move south to the South Berwick of 1849-1909 and various periods in the life of one of Maine's most beloved local writers, Country of the Pointed Firs author Sarah Orne Jewett (Janice Gardner). Jewett kept an energetic correspondence with many women, writers, and critics, including her great love, in her later life, the philanthropist Annie Fields (Karen Ball). Gage's treatment of their relationship, Deep Haven, draws upon Jewett's extensive letters and journals, researched first-hand at the University of New England's Maine Women Writers Collection.

The third act of Greetings offers no less than aerial dance as accompaniment. Sappho or Suicide is a dramatic adaptation of a work by Marguerite Yourcenar, who moved to Mount Desert Island from France after World War II. Her central conceit presents Sappho (the celebrated lesbian poet of antiquity, whose life on the island of Lesbos gives us the very word) as a trapeze artist, and the sense of her sexual identity, Gage says, as being "in mid-air, neither here nor there." Under Brodie's direction, aerial artist and instructor Janette Hough-Fertig will perform on the trapeze as Sappho, while Audra Curtis reads the adaptation of Yourcenar's work.

Finally, Gage will perform in her own prize-winning work, The Parmachene Belle. In it, she portrays the late 19th-century Maine hunting guide "Fly-Rod" Crosby. From up in Rangeley in 1899, this uncommon lesbian shares fishing tips as well as her fantasies about her passionate crush: on her sharpshooter show-business friend, Annie Oakley.

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