Local love

Acorn keeps the spotlight on Maine playwrights
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  December 9, 2009

KEEPING THE CRAZIES AT BAY Acorn Productions highlights local works.

For nearly a decade, Acorn Productions has been staging world-premiere works of playwrights who live right here among us. Over the last few years, its spring Maine Playwrights Festival has grown considerably, and now produces full-length as well as short works (next year's Festival runs April 16-May 1). This December, in the company's intimate new Studio Theater in the Dana Warp Mill, Acorn is instituting a new tradition: a "Best of Fest" retrospective series, performed by members of the Naked Shakespeare Ensemble, featuring some of the highlights of Festivals of years gone by. The inaugural edition features six short plays from as far back as 2005's Festival and as recently as 2009's. All are comedic, though they range over the spectrum from heartwarming to dark.

A full half of the selections concern the foibles of love and dating. John Manderino's dark and clever Jill and Jack presents the married title characters (Kerry Rasor and Corey Gagne) in separate chairs on opposite sides of the stage, in a series of quirky and hyper-articulated marital crises: Jill grasping desperately for something strange and unknown about her mate; Jack prescribing babymaking as an antidote for his infidelity; Jill and Jack staving off bourgeois and/or existential ennui via Things and the Footwear Channel.

In Jon Potter's Romance, Laura (Patricia Mew) advises love-lorn Luke (Gagne) to try the personals. The results of Luke's snarky and acronym-riddled ad (TKYPO and TKYI: "The Kid You Picked On" and "The Kid You Ignored") are diverting, to say the least, as three crazies descend upon him. Between Karen Ball's sex-obsessed Treesa; Laura Graham's prim, Christian, and scary Sarah; and Rasor's butch outdoorswoman Veronica, Luke has way more than he bargained for.

And Speed Dating, by Diana Sterne, has a little of both dating and marriage, as Laura Graham's Jennifer machinates her way into a spot on the date-card of her former husband, Tom (Gagne). Her blithely in-denial Jennifer holds plenty of pathos beneath her comic flights, and Gagne's compassionate firmness brings some of the few somber notes of the evening.

Themes dealing with performance get nearly as much treatment as romance. In John Rizzo's Put Your Hands Together, Seth Berner portrays a developmentally disabled janitor at a comedy club, who tells the owner (Jeffrey Roberts) that he wants to be a comedian. Rizzo's script is tender; Berner and Roberts are gently empathetic. There's a lot more irony in Carolyn Gage's The Poorly Written Play Festival. A variety of in-jokingly named characters (Hedda, Loman, Bracknell) sit around a table selecting the worst play ever to produce. As they do, Gage lampoons some of the worst offenses in playwrighting: talking heads with no action; repellent central characters; the premise that repeating a gimmick makes it funny.

And death rounds out these selections. My favorite piece, in terms of both writing and acting, is Clare Melley Smith's dark comedy A Turn for the Worse, in which, over the morning obits and sewing, an aging couple frets and speculates about the mortal tragedies of their friends, who are unwell or found dead at the racetrack. Jeffrey Roberts as Joe and Debby Paley as Rita are a real treat to behold as they talk to, around, and past each other in their abbreviated banter; Smith's sharp writing is both witty and poignant, like Mamet in its comic repetitions and refrains, Beckett-esque in the dual relish and horror with which the couple surveys the mortal landscape.

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