Once a year, the University of Southern MaineTheatre Department presents a play off-campus at Portland Stage’s black box Studio Theater.
This year’s “An Evening With Christopher Durang,” is a collection of one-act comedies written by the title’s namesake with the witty tagline “Nothing beats the winter blues like satire, swizzle sticks, and a pistol-packing nun!” Durang provides not only scathing social and religious satire in this collection, but also all-out roasts the classics with parody intended to unleash a deluge of laughs from those in the know.
The two-act evening opens with a short prologue play, “Mrs. Sorken,” with Elinor Strandskov as the title character, and delivers an amusing monologue on the etymology of drama. Rather than seeking “terror and pity” like the Greeks, she claims modern audience’s go to the theater looking for “slight irritation” and “a generalized sense of identification.”
In keeping with the winter blues theme, Mrs. Sorken also compares theatergoers to plants in need of photosynthesis. “The text of the play is the light, the actors help put it together, and we are the plants in the audience.”
Under the direction of William Steele, the USM Theatre Department takes on Durang’s trademark satire with gleeful abandon. Nothing is off limits, and the student performers clearly revel in playing-up every sarcastic barb and thought-provoking witticism.
“For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls” is the first of two one-act plays. Durang playfully alters the title of Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel – and John Donne’s 1624 poem – but it’s Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie” that’s ultimately being parodied.
Durang swaps out Laura and her menagerie of glass animals for Lawrence (David Bliss) and his ridiculous collection of glass swizzle sticks. The gentleman caller, Jim, is now a hard-or-hearing lesbian named Ginny (Marisa Bickford). And Tom’s (Josh Cohen) subtly implied homosexuality has intentionally lost its subtlety.
Those familiar with “The Glass Menagerie” will recognize Durang’s clever perversion of Williams’ dialogue and storyline. Familiarity with the classics isn’t a prerequisite, though, for seeing, or laughing at, Durang’s plays.
The cast members of “For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls” all have their share of over-the-top lines, but Mary Kate Ganza has some real doozies as the mother, Amanda. Her sardonic delivery of such lines as, “I’m not bitter dear. I just hate my life” are a wonderful lead-up to even more hysterical lines, too outrageous to print,
USM chose “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” for the second act of the evening. For this one, Durang ramps up the religious satire, crafting a play that’s exceedingly sacrilegious, and potentially offensive to devoutly religious Catholics.
Some may recall the 2001 movie staring Diane Keaton as Sister Mary Ignatius. Courtney Pomerleau slips into the nun’s habit for USM’s production, delivering a caustically funny, indigent portrayal.
Pomerleau’s dialogue-intense role is comically punctuated by the periodic appearance of seven-year-old Thomas, absurdly played by John Rocker, a strapping college sophomore.
The farce kicks into full gear when four former students – Gary Sullivan (Cohen), Diane Symmonds (Caroline O’Connor), Philomena Rostovich (Caroline Smart) and Aloysius Benheim (Jacob Hammond) – show up to perform a play that’s ludicrously reminiscent of a church camp skit gone wrong. Smart and Hammond are absolute scene-stealers as Mary and Joseph’s camel, Misty.
USM delivers an irreverent evening of dark satire that is both facetious and poignantly biting. “An Evening With Christopher Durang” is not a production that will appeal to everyone. But, those looking for a no-holds-barred parody with revel in Durang’s wit and USM’s deliberately exaggerated delivery.
WHAT: “An Evening With Christopher Durang” by University of Southern Maine Department of Theatre
WHERE: The Studio Theater, 25A Forest Ave., Portland
DATE REVIEWED: Feb. 6; play runs through Feb. 14
TICKETS: $15; $11, seniors, USM employees and alumni; $8 students
CONTACT: 207-780-5151, usm.maine.edu/theatre