The fall theater season breaks down into two categories: comedies and everything else.

There’s one school of thought that says if audiences are going to come to back to the theater, they’re going to want to come back with the expectation of lightness and laughter. Enough with the heavy stuff. The other school of thought says, given all we’ve been through globally and locally over the past 18 months, the theater is a perfect place to explore and process our grief and anger to find a way forward together. Heavy lifting is the obligation of artists.

Both ideas are irrelevant if audiences do not come back. We’ll start to get a better sense of audience appetites soon, as the fall theater season begins anew amid great hope and greater uncertainty, along with a commitment of theater community to be more diverse and inclusive in its casting and programming.

Lyric Music Theater in South Portland opens its season Sept. 17 with the one-woman musical-comedy “Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class,” part of the “Nunsense” series. It stars Molly Frantzen, who grew up on local stages and spent several years working and auditioning in New York before returning to Maine during the pandemic. She’s never performed in any “Nunsense” musical or taken on the challenge of a one-person show, but there’s no time like the present.

“I saw the posting for this one-woman show, and I thought, ‘Do I do this? Is this crazy?’ I have never done anything like this before, but I just went for it. I am dying to get back into things,” she said.

This show will move fast – 80 minutes without an intermission, fueled by Frantzen’s energy and piano accompaniment by music director Bob Gauthier. Joshua Chard directs.

In this show, Sister Robert Anne shares her tips for staging a cabaret and uses her most-loved songs from the other “Nunsense” shows in her class. “Before becoming a nun, she had a passion for the stage and wanted to be a star. Once she joined the church, she was always second fiddle and never got the starring part,” Frantzen said, embodying her character. “In this show, you are coming to my Catholic school class to learn how to be a star and how to command the stage.”

As the part was originally written, Sister Robert Anne interacts with members of the audience, but Lyric is revising and restaging those scenes because of the pandemic. In this version, Sister Robert Anne won’t stray from the stage.

Playwright and “Nunsense” creator Danny Goggin consulted with Lyric on the changes, including where and how to trim and how to compensate for the lack of interaction. He said theaters across the country are producing various “Nunsense” shows this fall and winter, because of their small casts, simple staging and history of box-office success.

“Because of this horrible situation, everybody wants comedies. Everybody wants laughs,” he said. “The goal when I write these shows has always been to give you two hours of just forgetting all your troubles so you can be silly and laugh. Hopefully, we can be of service to people who want to start back out to the theater.”

Frantzen, 30, lives in Portland. She graduated from Falmouth High School in 2009 and studied visual arts at Colgate University. She performed in musicals throughout high school and college, and starred as Maria in “The Sound of Music” at Lyric right out of college. Then she was off to Manhattan “doing the New York grind,” working in restaurants and auditioning and hoping for a theater break that never came. “I got some call-backs, but nothing very substantial. There were a lot of auditions,” she said.

The unforgiving nature of the auditioning process prepared her for whatever comes her way – including the challenge of a one-person show.

“I am so glad to be back in Maine. I was in New York for seven years, and every time I came home, I didn’t want to leave. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go back to New York, but I got this achy feeling that I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “There are so many benefits that outweigh the negatives of Manhattan. It’s nice to feel I am home and making it my own version of home and not my childhood home.”

“Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class,” 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17-18 and Sept. 24-25, 2:30 p.m. Sept. 19 and Sept. 26;  $19 to $23; vaccinations or proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours required; lyricmusictheater.org.

In Falmouth, the Footlights Theatre opens its ninth season Oct. 7 with the romantic comedy “I Think I Love You” by Patrick McGrail about an unlikely group of characters cast together in a love triangle. Artistic director Michael Tobin produced it four years ago and sold it out, and thought it would be a good way to start the season. It’s up through Oct. 23. A drama follows, “The Colors of My Life” by Celia Lewis, Nov. 4-20, about an artist who loses her ability to see colors. Masks are required while moving around the theater, and vaccinated people may remove them when seated. The theater asks unvaccinated people to wear masks at all times. thefootlightstheatre.com.

In South Portland, Mad Horse Theatre Company returns with a dark comedy, “You Got Older” by Clare Barron, Oct. 7-31. Directed by company member Reba Askari, the show was a few weeks away from opening in March 2020 when the pandemic hit. It’s about a woman who is down on her luck without a boyfriend or a job when she learns her father has cancer. It’s about desire and death and the moments in between. Mad Horse hasn’t announced it COVID-19 protocols. madhorse.com

In Lewiston, the Public Theatre opens its season with “Middletown,” a funny and heartfelt play about about friendship and the importance of longstanding relationships. Written by Dan Clancy, “Middletown” is a play about two couples who have been friends nearly all their lives and get together many years later to share memories. Vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours required. thepublictheatre.org

Good Theater, in residence at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland, also returns with a comedy – “a comedy of manners,” says artistic director Brian Allen – “Jane Austen’s Lady Susan” by Rob Urbinati, opening Oct. 20 and playing through Nov. 14. This is a new play about a young recently widowed English woman who visits her brother and sister-in-law to help sort out her affairs. Romance ensues. Allen chose the play because it’s funny and has great costumes. “It felt like a good way to open the season and get people back to the theater with something that is really fun,” he said. Vaccination or proof of negative COVID-19 test required. goodtheater.com.

At Portland Stage, artistic director Anita Stewart opted for a drama to open the season, “Perseverance” by Brunswick playwright Callie Kimball, Sept. 29-Oct. 17. Kimball wrote the play for the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage, creating a story about two women whose lives intertwine through their work in the same physical space a century apart. On Nov. 3, Portland Stage presents “Searching for Mr. Moon,” a play by Richard Topol and Willy Holtzman that contemplates the mysteries of parenthood and mortality. Portland Stage hasn’t formally announced its COVID-19 protocols, but Stewart has indicated it would require vaccinations or proof of negative COVID-19 test, with some exceptions; portlandstage.org.

In Freeport, Snowlion Repertory Company will christen the new stage at Meetinghouse Arts, operated by the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Freeport, with the premiere of John Ahlin’s “My Witch: Margaret Hamilton’s Stories of Maine, Hollywood, and Beyond,” Oct. 29-31. The one-woman, 80-minute play starring Jean Tafler tells of the life and times of “The Wizard of Oz” actress who made her home in Maine, directed by Snowlion’s Al D’Andrea. Snowlion hasn’t announced its COVID-19 protocols. snowlionrep.org.


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