March 4, 2010

At the new Old Port Playhouse, less is more intimacy, urgency

BOB KEYES

— By

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Beginning Friday, the Old Port Playhouse joins a crowded Portland theater scene with a promise of professional-quality theater in an intimate downtown space.

Artistic directors Michael J. Tobin and Jeffrey Caron have planned an ambitious inaugural season with four plays, three musicals and a Christmas show. They've renovated a space on Temple Street that has a history with Portland theater, and carved out a 70-seat black box.

The signature physical features of the Old Port Playhouse are tall windows facing out to Temple Street. The windows, which will be curtained during performances, allow the tenor of the city to permeate the theater and invite people on the outside to take a peek.

The season opens Friday with the comedy ''Sylvia'' by A.R. Gurney, best known for writing ''Love Letters'' and ''The Dining Room.'' First produced in 1995, ''Sylvia'' is about a dog (played by an actor) and the couple that adopts her. Sarah Jessica Parker starred in the New York production, winning a Drama Desk Award nomination.

This will be Tobin's third time directing the show. It has a cast of four: Mark Dils, Cynthia M. O'Neil, Jesse Manson and Christine Muehlhausen playing the dog.

The playhouse hopes to capitalize on its location on the edge of the Old Port. The theater shares a block with the Nickelodeon movie theater. There's a parking garage within walking distance, and numerous restaurants and coffee shops nearby.

''But there's no theater. We are the only ones down here,'' said Tobin. ''You can park your car once, grab a bite to eat and then see a show.''

The physical space will lend itself to fast-paced theater, Tobin noted. There are no wings to the stage and no backstage area, and minimal room for sets and lights. Actors will enter through the audience, creating a sense of intimacy and urgency with spectators, Tobin said.

Tobin and Caron feel they have history on their side as they launch this endeavor. When they approached the city for permission to pursue their plan, they were surprised to learn that the site was already zoned to allow theater.

Only then did they realize this site once was home to the Profile Theater, which later became Portland Stage Company.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

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