The Universal Notebook: The play's the thing

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Recently, Carolyn and I attended a performance of “Life Sucks.” at Mad Horse Theatre in South Portland. Playwright Aaron Posner updated Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” for laughs and existential angst. Imagine Woody Allen collaborating with Chekhov for black comic effect.

We don’t get to the theater as much as we should. The only other play we have seen so far this year was a performance of “Alice in Wonderland” in which two of our granddaughters were lobsters. We brought tulips and took them out for Chinese food afterward.

I confess I am not always comfortable with live theater, stemming from the fact that I was in several bad plays in high school and college. I always worry that the actors are going to forget their lines, which happened in every performance I ever appeared in.

In high school, I played a heroin addict in “Dope!,” a one-act play by Maryat Lee, who pioneered street theater in Harlem. And I played a baseball player named Bunny in a stage adaptation of Paul Molloy’s “A Pennant for the Kremlin,” a comic novel about how the Russian government comes to own the Chicago White Sox. Timely in 1966 and timely now. But “A Pennant for the Kremlin” was eminently forgettable, except for the fact that I got to kiss my co-star, who was the head cheerleader and one of the cutest girls in my class. We did a lot of rehearsing on our own to get it just right.

In college, I played Yam in “Fam and Yam,” Edward Albee’s indictment of Broadway theater commercialism and corruption. I forget who I played in a disastrous production of Brendan Behan’s “The Hostage” at Westbrook College. But that’s not surprising considering that I forgot my lines most every night. As I recall, “The Hostage” was mostly about USM guys lusting after Westbrook College girls.

The only thing worse than my acting career was my directing career. At USM, I directed a readers’ theater performance of Dylan Thomas’s lyrical “Under Milkwood.” The show was so long and boring (my fault, not the poet’s) that my high school English teacher, who had inspired a love of literature in me, didn’t return after intermission. Between shows the cast and I went down to Forest Gardens and cut it almost in half.

These days we try to get to the Theater at Monmouth at least once a summer, usually when Carolyn’s brother Warren comes for his annual visit. I find it amazing that actors can commit an entire Shakespeare play to memory, let alone two or three at one time. I need cue cards for the grocery store if there are more than three items.

Last year we also attended a very entertaining performance of Paul Portner’s “Shear Madness,” an audience-participation whodunit, at the Good Theater, and a Portland Stage Company production of Michael Hollinger’s “Red Herring.” “Red Herring” was directed by Michael Rafkin, who was once artistic director of Portland Stage and was a founding member of Mad Horse Theatre Company back in 1986.

“Life Sucks.” was deftly directed by Mad Horse member Nick Schroeder. Mad Horse is an intimate theater experience, one in which the actors look you in the eye and you have to keep your feet under your seat so Uncle Vanya won’t trip over them.

Just blocking a play with seven actors on stage in a 50-seat black box theater-in-the-round is an impressive feat. The fact that the performance was riveting speaks volumes about the quality of local theater in Maine.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.