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Best of Portland 2009

All in the timing

Acorn's Maine Playwrights Festival springs eternal
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  April 1, 2009

PUSHING HER WAY IN The mother in Diana Stern's Hot Dish. 

The annual Maine Playwrights Festival has super timing: Each year, just as everyone starts to emerge from hibernation into sunlight, it also comes time to celebrate those who are often the least visible participants in the theatrical process — the writers. Maine has a lot of good ones, and the Festival, helmed by Acorn Productions, puts out an open call each fall for their scripts. Now in its ninth year, the 

MAINE PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL | produced by Acorn Productions | at the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, in Portland | shorts April 1 @ 7:30 pm and April 4 @ 1 pm | Private April 3 @ 7:30 pm and April 4 @ 4 pm | The Goddess Tour April 2 @ 7:30 pm and April 4 @ 8 pm |

Festival makes a notable and welcome change to its usual program: While in previous years, scripts have been limited to short plays, this year (with the help of a grant from the Maine Arts Commission) the Festival stages two full-length plays — Roger Bechtel's Private and Carolyn Gage's The Goddess Tour — in addition to its shorts.

The short plays, directed variously by Michael Levine and Christopher Price, are acted by a pool of sharp local performers, often in multiple castings that heighten the intimacy of the evening. The program's playwrights include many names familiar to the Festival and other Maine stages, and the themes of the evening center broadly around two areas: Relational strife, and attitudes toward sexual orientation.

In both comedies and dramas, many people are failing to get along in a functional fashion. Diana Stern's taut and hilarious Hot Dish gives us young, medicated Henry (Dave Farthing) blockading himself against his helicopter-mom (Debby Paley), who is outside the door of his new apartment, desperate to deliver him stuffed cabbage. Stern has written Mom a beautifully defined and paced arc, along with pitch-perfect mother-isms, and Paley's delivery is both funny and poignant.

Another comedy, John Manderino's Are You Going to Wear That Shirt?, presents Jill (Laurel Libby) and Jack (Paul Haley) dressing for dinner. Jill's not-so-innocent question homes in on what you might call a synecdoche of their relationship problems, and then off they go barreling over the Niagara of emotional reason. Manderino's dialogue reveals a great ear for marital barbs and passive-aggression, and Libby and Haley range from measured foiling to rage, primitive chanting, and deep desires for flames.

The deep desire of developmentally disabled Sammy (Jesse Leighton), janitor at the comedy club owned by Mr. Morse (Joe Quinn), is somewhat simpler: to be a comedian. John Rizzo's tender Put Your Hands Together is the least-complicatedly feel-good show of the program.

Two dramas counter-balance the comedy. In Bowdoin student Lara Lom's Better, Tomorrow, the intersecting monologues of a young couple (Amanda Painter and Keith Anctil) provide oblique exposition of a woman's illness and the relationship's subsequent breakdown. Lom's writing is sparse, lyrical, and elegant, though sometimes at a slight expense of character development. And in Lynne Cullen's Invisible Men, the tension is filial, with Frank (Nick Schroeder) traumatized over his father. Cullen's script employs an interesting conceit (the reenactment of a significant whiffle-ball game), though its action feels a little abrupt, as if it is a scene from a larger piece and has trouble being contained in a short.

Most relationships grow even more strained when sexual orientation is involved, and two Festival comedies serve as both entertainment and public-service announcements. In Cathy Plourde's Protect Us, the son (Sean McGuire) of a gay couple (Joe Quinn and Keith Anctil) is discouraged by his dads from believing himself gay. Suddenly, up shows federal Officer Butinsky (Heather Perry Weafer) of the Homo Land Security agency, who is on guard against homosexual recruitment, but who also, it turns out, has his or possibly her own problems. The ironies of Plourde's script are cute, if a touch heavy-handed, and the script is played with tongue firmly in cheek.

Closing the evening is Michael Kimball's Reorient, in which a gay man and a lesbian (Nick Schroeder and Reba Short) have for practical reasons signed on to become heterosexualized by a "successfully reoriented" husband-wife team (Keith Anctil and Heather Perry Weafer). The resulting romp is alternately arch and lewd, and truth-to-self is ultimately reaffirmed as a timelessly arousing touchstone.

Megan Grumbling can be reached at

Related: Road trip, Cracking the nut, Music and fashion, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Acorn Productions, Carolyn Gage, Cathy Plourde,  More more >
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