The myth of the American male gets a timely take-down in a new version of the Sam Shepard play “True West,” opening Jan. 24 and with performances through Feb. 10 at Space.
Sean Mewshaw directs the dark comedy about two estranged brothers who come together in their mother’s kitchen in the desert east of Los Angeles for a violent, toxic and masculinity-fueled reunion. Matthew Delamater and Rob Cameron play the brothers, with Joe Bearor and Moira Driscoll in supporting roles.
Shepard’s stage direction calls for a bay window in the kitchen, so Mewshaw is setting the action in the window on the gallery side of Space, looking out onto Congress Street – and with passersby looking in and the sounds of the street filtering into the performance. “The notion of building a set in front of the window and having the audience look past the play and into the street was very appealing to me,” said Mewshaw, who is directing his fifth play at Space, including 2017’s lauded “Constellations.” This one will feel more like his version of “Killer Joe” in 2011, paced by Quentin Tarantino-inspired high tension and the threat of violence.
Shepard’s play was a Pultizer Prize finalist in 1983. It’s about sibling rivalry, the mind games that keep brothers apart and the violence that brings them to blows.
Mewshaw is a storyteller and filmmaker – he wrote and directed the Maine-inspired movie “Tumbledown” – and treats each piece of theater that he directs as an installation, using the physical space to create an immersion of theater, music and art. For “True West,” the Portland folk-rock trio Dead Gowns will play songs from its new EP, beginning at 6:30 p.m., and an original score during the performance of the play, which begins at 7:30 p.m.
As rehearsals began, Mewshaw was attracted to the idea of incorporating music, but wasn’t sure if he should call out rock from the ’80s, when the show is set, or country music to reflect the desert setting, or rock ‘n’ roll to reflect the show’s bare-knuckle maleness. He settled on the Dead Gowns, who play right on the edge of country, because he liked the female voice of lead singer GV Beaudoin. Her evocative, emotional voice tempers some of the testosterone exploding on stage, Mewshaw said.
The band will play in the living room of the stage set, adding to a feeling of immersion.
The energy of the show centers on the conflict between the brothers, one an outlaw the other a screenwriter, played by two veterans of the Portland theater scene. Delamater is a Portland-based stage and film actor, who has appeared on screen in “Daddy’s Home 2,” “Detroit” and “Tumbledown” and in numerous plays. Cameron performs with theater companies across Maine and produces plays as artistic director of Fenix Theatre Company.
Mewshaw said Delamater approached him about doing this show now, in part as a tribute to Shepard, who died in 2017, and also to offer commentary about the myth of the American male in this era of political confrontation and shout-downs. President Trump embodies the idea “that I need to dominate you in order to be a full person and that true victories only come at the expense of another person,” Mewshaw said.
“True West” exposes the cult of masculinity “as the empty shell that it is,” he said.
WHERE: Space Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24 (preview), Jan. 26-27, Jan. 30-Feb. 3, and Feb. 7-9; with a performance by the band Dead Gown at 6:30 p.m. before each performance.
TICKETS & INFO: Pay-what-you-can preview on Jan. 24 and Jan. 30; $22 all other performances; space538.org or (207) 528-5600.
Portland Stage Company turns to one its most trusted guest artists to direct Oscar Wilde’s classic “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a classic comedy about two proper English men who live double lives of deception to satisfy their desires. Christopher Grabowski, a professor of drama at Vassar College, has worked at Portland Stage many times over the years and readily signed on when Anita Stewart, the theater’s artistic director and a college friend from Yale, offered him the opportunity to direct Wilde’s social satire.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” opens for previews on Jan. 22 and is on stage through Feb. 17. It is the most famous play by one of the world’s most famous playwrights, exploring themes of marriage, expectation and the easily offended sensibilities of the English upper class. It’s about two bachelors, Algernon and Jack, who lead double lives by creating alter egos named Ernest. This play also is about competition between men, and how far each will go to out-do the other, as they get tangled in their deceptions and disguises. “Everybody lives some sort of double-life and negotiation. But this is a comedy, so everybody gets what they want,” Grabowski said.
Grabowski has directed nine plays at Portland Stage over the years, including a 2017 production of “Disgraced.” But he’s never directed “The Importance of Being Earnest” – in Portland or anywhere. He called Wilde’s play perfect. “It really is a perfect play,” he said, “and the demand it makes on everybody is tremendous. Everybody must be so sharp.”
Wilde’s play hit a chord that resonates still today, because it revolves around our desire to fit in and the conflict between what we want and how we are supposed to be, Stewart said. It opened in February 1895 at the St. James Theatre in London. Wilde wrote it as a four-act play, but squeezed it down to three. Portland Stage will present it in three acts, with one intermission and total run time of about two hours.
Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (previews); 7:30 p.m. Friday; 4 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; Jan. 22 through Feb. 17; $36 to $54; portlandstage.org or (207) 774-0465.
This being a time of women rising, of course a woman is cast in the title role of “An Act of God.” Good Theater gives the comedy by David Javerbaum its Maine premiere with Laura Houck playing God. It opens Wednesday and runs through Feb. 10 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland.
Houck is a regular at Good Theater. She starred in “Becky’s New Car,” “Regrets Only,” “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” as well as “Shear Madness” twice. She’s also acted with Portland Stage Company, Snowlion Rep and the Originals at the Saco River Theater, among others.
This is her biggest role.
“My god, Laura is the perfect God,” said director Brian P. Allen. “I asked her if she wanted to do it, and she said she has been longing to do a show like this for a long time. There are two other actors in the show, but so much of it is her talking.”
Houck is funny and fearless, Allen said. “She is always prepared, and she works harder than almost anyone I have ever worked with in my life. It’s such a massive role, we wanted to give it to someone dedicated, hard-working and committed, and she is all that – and really funny, too.”
Paul Haley plays her archangel Gabriel, and Michael Lynch, Good Theater’s box office manager, plays the archangel Michael. This is his stage debut. Haley is a Good Theater regular, appearing with Houck in several shows and in “A Comedy of Tenors,” “Act One,” “Frost/Nixon” and “Death by Design.”
In this play, God comes to earth with a new set of commandments, updated for the 21st Century. Allen called it “hysterically funny and very irreverent.”
Javerbaum has won 13 Emmy Awards, 11 for his work on “The Daily Show.” He’s known for anti-religious and anti-Christian tweets, which provided the fodder for this play.
“An Act of God” opened on Broadway in 2015 with Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory” as God. It returned in 2016 with Sean Hayes of “Will and Grace” as God. Allen saw it with Hayes and liked it, but thought it would be more interesting with a female God.
“An Act of God”
Good Theater at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland; through Feb. 10; 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; $25 and $32; goodtheater.com or (207) 835-0895.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mad Horse Theatre Company hosts the New England premiere of “Deer” by Aaron Mark through Jan. 27 at its theater at 24 Mosher St., South Portland. Director and Mad Horse company member Stacey Koloski describes the play as “a deceptively simple and mundane premise, but starts with a bang and spirals into myriad unexpected directions — some hilarious, some terrifying.”
Ken and Cynthia are driving to their vacation home for the weekend when they hit a deer. Ken wants to spend the weekend with his wife; Cynthia wants to tend to the bloody deer. The animal takes over their lives, revealing unexpected breaking points in their relationships and uncovering uncomfortable truths.
Company member Christine Louise Marshall and guest David Heath star. Maine artist Bridget McAlonan created the deer.
Playwright Aaron Mark wrote the play after a New York friend hit a deer in the Poconos.
Madhorse Theatre at Hutchins School, 24 Mosher St., South Portland; through Jan. 27. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday; $23 adults, $20 seniors. Pay what you can for ages 24 and younger for all performances and for all ages on Thursday, first-come, first-served; madhorse.com or (207) 747-4148.