James Lehr and Mary Fraser in “O’Hare – Gate A4”, by Eddie Adelman Photos by Bree Candland

 

Both Elvis Presley and Willy Loman are in the building for the 18th annual Maine Playwrights Festival.

Elements of comedy, drama, romance, science fiction and much more also make appearances in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater at Portland Stage. It’s all brought to life by local actors, directors and designers working with minimal sets.

A “committee of local theater professionals” was enlisted by Acorn Productions to sort through the more than 45 submissions.  The writers were limited to 8 to 30 minutes for their work. Six plays made the final cut.

Jared Mongeau, Tom Handel, Adam Ferguson and Laura Sacks Morris in “Willy’s Excellent Adventure,” by David Susman.

Danie Connolly’s “Elvis and the Swear Can” got things off on a light note on opening night as an Elvis impersonator (Hal Cohen), who’s hilariously into the role, attempts to rob a bank. Despite all the Presley poses and postures he employs, he’s no match for a stern teller (Deborah Paley) who exacts a cost for his use of inappropriate language. As directed by Stephanie Ross, it’s a funny take on some values that may, like The King, still endure.

Another comic piece also offers a take on contemporary culture clashes. Travis G Baker’s “The Store” opposes the old ways of doing business in a friendly country store with the intrusion of experimental forms of AI. The play makes clear that the distinction between Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Ignorance can be tough to make.

The dialogue becomes spirited, with a nice ensemble feel, as eccentric characters representing the old establishment, played by Howard Rosenfield, James Herrera, Heather Murdoch Curry and Rachel Price Cooper, take on high-tech advocates Seth Berner and JJ Peeler in a confrontation that may ultimately hinge on the power of potatoes. The piece is directed by Jared Culverhouse.

Things get decidedly more serious in three plays that address the impact of loss and disappointment on sympathetic characters.

Thomas Spurr’s “Mr. Puddles’ Last Adventure” has a divorced couple meeting to clean out the room of a daughter they have lost to addiction.  Julia Langham and William McDonough III, under the direction of Cait Robinson, traverse all the ups and downs, resentments and guilty feelings of two people still in the throes of grief.  It’s a touching glimpse into a world turned upside-down and inside-out by a tragic event and both actors make it all-too-real.

Tom Gostanian and Whip Hubley in “Gloria Anderson,” by Kevin O’Leary

Robinson also directed Kevin O’Leary’s “Gloria Anderson,” in which an older man and a younger man, played by Whip Hubley and Tom Gostanian, respectively, have an awkward meeting that may lead to a revelation. There’s a wistfulness undergirding the dialogue, particularly from Hubley’s affable recluse, that keeps the mystery second to the emotions it contains.

“O’Hare – Gate A4,” by Eddie Adelman, posits a coincidental meeting of two stranded passengers in an airline terminal. The piece redirects potential romance between characters played by James Lehr and Mary Fraser into a broader look at personal routes not taken but perhaps still open. Fraser is particularly good at getting beneath her character’s surface in this piece which Stephanie Ross also directed.

“Willy’s Excellent Adventure” brings back the Loman family from the classic “Death of a Salesman” for a graveyard-set celebration of Willy’s insight into the future after some time travel. As directed by Hannah Cordes, the style is just short of absurd as Laura Sacks Morris, Tom Handel, Jared Mongeau, Adam Ferguson, James Herrera and Tom Gostanian play out author David Susman’s vision of an America with all those stuffy definitions of success and failure thrown out the window.

For this latest festival, Artistic Director Daniel Burson and all involved have successfully put together an evening of new work that is thoughtful, moving and more than a little bit wacky at times.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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