March 16, 2010

Oldies goodies

BOB KEYES

— By

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, August 7, 2008: The Theater at Monmouth in historic Cumston Hall presents a repertory of plays and also single runs each summer.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, August 7, 2008: The Theater at Monmouth in historic Cumston Hall presents a repertory of plays and also single runs each summer.

Jack Milton

Additional Photos Below

Staff Writer

ONMOUTH — It's 45 minutes until show time, and Bill Van Horn is alone on stage in an otherwise deserted theater, practicing his lines for that evening's production of ''The Merchant of Venice.''

An actor and director in his eighth summer season at the Theater at Monmouth, Van Horn has the stage in Cumston Hall to himself, and relishes the opportunity to bellow.

He loves how his voice sounds in the empty theater, how it resonates among the wooden floors and plaster walls. He loves the warmth of the space, its intimacy.

''The creative energy in this place is palpable,'' said Van Horn, gesturing to the finely detailed ceiling murals overhead. ''Two years ago, we did 'Tempest,' and I was playing Prospero, and I was using the murals to inspire me.

''The theater itself becomes the set. These old dinosaurs -- it's so interesting that they exist at all.''

In many ways, Maine is lucky that it has managed to save as many theaters as it has. Especially on the coast, the state is full of old gems, from the Stonington Opera House on Deer Isle and the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor on the midcoast to the Ogunquit Playhouse in southern Maine.

But the best examples of the state's theatrical past preserved may well be found inland -- in the lakes communities of Monmouth, where the Theater of Monmouth makes great use of Cumston Hall, built in 1900 and subject to continuing preservation efforts; and at the Deertrees Theatre and Cultural Center in Harrison, an old barn of a building that opened 72 years ago this week but was almost lost to neglect in the 1980s.

Thanks to summer programming, both still thrive.

FESTIVAL AT DEERTREES

While the Theater at Monmouth wraps up its 39th summer season this week, Deertrees is in the thick of its ninth annual Deertrees Theatre Festival, which continues on weekends through Aug. 31.

The festival is the brainchild of Thomas and Daria Sullivan, New Yorkers with Maine roots. Daria's family has been summering at nearby Long Lake for generations.

When Thomas started coming to the area, he hit it off with the folks who run the theater, and quickly became entranced by the wooden edifice that sits atop a hill in the idyllic village of Harrison.

''You feel like you are stepping back in time,'' he said. ''It's something out of a different time and place.''

Built in 1936 from hemlock milled from the property, in its day Deertrees attracted some of the country's biggest stars. Photographs autographed by Montgomery Clift, Tallulah Bankhead and others hang in the lobby, and some of their signatures still survive on the dressing room walls.

But as with anything made from wood, without proper maintenance and attention, it deteriorated. By the 1980s, the theater's future looked bleak. Falling down and unsafe, the theater was rumored to be a candidate for a controlled burn by the local fire department.

Soon after, a restoration effort began, and eventually the theater was saved.

Today, it's a testament to a bygone era. Surrounded by verdant vegetation and a babbling brook, the theater feels as much like a summer camp as a place for high art.

On nice evenings, the wooden shutters are drawn open, and moths flicker in the house lights. Tree frogs compete with actors for the attention of the audience.

When it's wet, as it has been lately, it smells like a damp forest. At intermission, when people step outside, bats sometimes send patrons scrambling for cover.

There's a mystery to the place, said Peter Cabot, who builds the sets used on stage during the festival. He can't help but allow his designs to be influenced by the characteristics of the physical space.

''Wood is a living thing, and it absorbs sound. It's just very romantic,'' he said. ''Right away, you respond to things that are made of wood.''

THE MAGIC OF MONMOUTH

Back in Monmouth, house manager Meredith Mulcahy shows people to their seats while pointing out recent improvements to the theater.

Everybody notices the three murals overhead, which represent music, theater and commerce, and many ask about the finely crafted wooden detail that adorns the face of the balcony.

''It's just a magical place, and we tell people it looks like a castle,'' said Mulcahy, who grew up and still lives in Monmouth. ''It helps transport you to a different place.''

The murals were part of the original design by builder Harry Cochrane, a Maine native who built the Romanesque Revival structure in 1900 with plaster ornaments, stained-glass windows, molded wood trim inside and out, stencils and murals.

The building served multiple purposes in the community, including as a meeting place for town and school events. The Theater at Monmouth became a primary tenant for the theater portion of the building in 1970. The building also houses the town library and is host to a variety of community events.

Since 2000, the Monmouth community has raised about $2.8 million for its restoration. The work is almost complete. Only the interior of the tower -- which when viewed from the outside provides a postcard image for the town of Monmouth -- and the ceiling below the balcony still need attention.

David Greenham, producing director of the Theater at Monmouth, said the goal is to raise $20,000 before Christmas, so that work can be completed before the theater begins its 40th season next summer.

''It is such an interesting place,'' he said. ''And by all rights, it shouldn't exist. It doesn't make sense that it exists. But the people saved it. The community decided it was worth saving, and they helped raise the money to make it happen.''

And for that, Van Horn is thankful.

Standing alone on stage in street clothes, he practices his lines, channeling the building's energy so that when the audience is in place 45 minutes later, Shylock will come to life.

''It is always such a pleasure to work here,'' said Van Horn, who spends most of his professional life on stage at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia and on stages in New York. ''It's always just such a pleasure to come back up to Maine every summer and work in a place like this.

''It's a gift. It really is.''

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

bkeyes@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, August 7, 2008: The Theater at Monmouth in historic Cumston Hall presents a repertory of plays and also single runs each summer.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, August 7, 2008: The Theater at Monmouth in historic Cumston Hall presents a repertory of plays and also single runs each summer.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, August 7, 2008: Deertrees Theatre & Cultural Center, in Harrison, has been presenting theater, opera, comedy, and music on its stage for more than 70 years.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, August 7, 2008: Deertrees Theatre & Cultural Center, in Harrison, has been presenting theater, opera, comedy, and music on its stage for more than 70 years.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, August 7, 2008: Peter Cabot, the scenic designer at Deertrees Theatre & Cultural Center, in Harrison, builds a gargoyle for the theater's next production, "I Hate Hamlet." Deertrees has been presenting theater, opera, comedy, and music on its stage for more than 70 years.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, August 7, 2008: The Theater at Monmouth in historic Cumston Hall presents a repertory of plays and also single runs each summer.

Jack Milton



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