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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: July 27, 2017

Venue Review: Hackmatack Playhouse packages country charm with quality theater

Written by: Bob Keyes
Seen through barn doors, players perform the musical "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" at the historic Hackmatack Playhouse. Staff photos by Derek Davis

Seen through barn doors, players perform the musical “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” at the historic Hackmatack Playhouse. Staff photos by Derek Davis

Michael Guptill takes a low-key, folksy approach to his curtain announcements at the Hackmatack Playhouse. The theater’s producing director and son of its founder mentions upcoming shows, thanks sponsors and spins a little history.

He points out that the barn theater really was a barn at one time, and the names of its former resident cows are written on the wall where their stalls were: Ethel, Dottie and Lil. “Also my mother’s relatives names,” he adds. “Just a coincidence, I’m sure.”

Low-key and down-home are recurring themes at Hackmatack, which takes its name from a kind of tree that grows in Maine. It has retained its charm and rural appeal throughout its 45 years as a summer playhouse. It’s also retained its artistic edge, producing consistently good theater and presenting it in a comfortable setting that helps create memories and tradition.

Delaney Baldwin, 8, of North Berwick ushers guests to their seats at Hackmatack Playhouse.

Delaney Baldwin, 8, of North Berwick ushers guests to their seats at Hackmatack Playhouse.

Everything about the theater is rooted in community.

Most of the actors are regional, and much of the audience is from around here — or here for a visit.

The theater on Route 9 in Berwick is situated on the Guptill farm, which is home to Michael and his wife, Gayle. The farm has been in the family since the 1600s, and the pastures remain active. Two dozen farm-raised bison graze on 30 acres out back and often are visible to theater-goers before the show and at intermission. Gayle makes strawberry shortcake and blueberry pies, when the berries are ready, and sells them at intermission. They usually sell out every night.

She also sells her high-end artisan Azul Chocolates, which she makes in the kitchen of her home next door to the theater. The coffee comes from Carpe Diem Coffee Roasting Co. in North Berwick.

Guests mingle outside the historic Hackmatack Playhouse

Guests mingle outside the historic Hackmatack Playhouse

The grounds are neat and well-kept, and inviting for pre-show gatherings with picnic tables, sturdy chairs and shade under the trees. Rocking chairs on the theater’s porch beckon people to sit. On a recent evening when the skies opened up, the porch offered welcome refuge.

A new addition this year are giant letters planted in the field facing the highway, spelling out the theater’s name – H-A-C-K-M-A-T-A-C-K – like the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles.

The performance barn was moved to its current location after a fire destroyed the original structure in 1934. It was moved, inch by inch, over three days, on the strength of a single white horse, and functioned as a working barn until it became a theater in 1972. Guptill took over its operation after the death of his father, S. Carlton Guptill, in 1995. Carlton’s portrait hangs in the theater in tribute.

It’s a nice place for a show. The seats aren’t plush, but they’re comfortable. The acoustics are good and the sight lines are clean. It can get a little warm at times, but electric fans keep the air circulating.

Guptill and his creative team do a good job balancing their season with musicals and plays that appeal to a variety of audiences and hire many actors from the ranks of recent New England college graduates. They present four shows each summer and have two left on the schedule: “Steel Magnolias,” which just opened, and “The Fantasticks.”

It’s truly a labor of love, Guptill says. His day job is just outside of Boston, and he leaves Berwick most days at 3 a.m. He’s home in time for the curtain talk most nights, which means every Wednesday through Saturday from early summer through Labor Day. He’s always worked here, always enjoyed it and rarely complained.

HACKMATACK PLAYHOUSE

LOCATION: 538 School St. (Route 9), Berwick
TICKETS & INFO: $23 to $30; hackmatack.org
SEATS: 218
SEATING STYLE: Barn-style. Back in the day, that meant sitting on hay bales. Today, folding theater seats.
REFRESHMENTS: Snacks, chocolates, pies, coffee and soda, among other things.
PARKING: On site
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
UP NEXT: “Steel Magnolias” through Aug. 12; “The Fantasticks” Aug. 16 to Sept. 2.

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