When the political gets personal
Belfast — A disparate group of local and once-local folk has come together to premiere a work by local playwright William Nelson at The Playhouse in downtown Belfast. Their divergent backgrounds and motivations reflect those in “A Natural Fractal,” which will be presented as a staged reading Friday and Saturday nights, Feb. 21 through March 1.
The play’s title refers to a mathematical set of repeating patterns, a “self-similarity” that repeats at every level of observation. A classic example from nature that Nelson is using in publicity materials is the Romanesco cauliflower as captured by local photographer Lynn Karlin, whose most recent work turns a fine artist lens on produce.
“A Natural Fractal” is planted in a field as emotionally fertile as it is physically artificial. The action takes place during the summer of 2012, when volunteer phone banks made calls that proved to be a vital component of the successful-in-November campaign for marriage equality in Maine. The play is about the different kinds of people with varying motivations committed to the cause. It’s also about the banality of phone banking, said cast member Jen Wendell of Lincolnville. And she should know.
“I helped out during Obama’s first run. Phone banking is soul-crushing — people don’t want to talk to you and you don’t want to bother them during supper — but you’re dealing with something you’re willing to stand up for with every fiber of your being,” she said.
Nelson also has put in his time on the phone and recognized the theatrical potential of the process. Marriage equality in particular has proven to have a very diverse base of support, from old-school Republicans to gay activists and every political and gender point in-between. “A Natural Fractal” fills The Playhouse stage with a wide variety of people who volunteer to engage perfect strangers in conversation about very personal matters, every Tuesday night one 21st-century summer.
Wendell plays “cool, calm and collected” volunteer coordinator Alex, a character she describes as the glue that holds things together.
“She’s also a walking, talking dictionary of the LGBT community and kind of helps the audience along with the oddities of that territory,” she said.
Other volunteers, embodied by a true sampling of Midcoast talent, are streetwise Sally, played by Tabitha Ordway of Rockland, sharing the stage with her fiancé Brad Fillion, who plays Steve — a gay man in committed relationship who is not at all sure same-sex marriage is that good an idea. Also traveling from Rockland is artist, gallery and frameshop owner Jonathan Frost, portraying Owen, who hosts the phone bank in his art gallery.
Belfast's Diane Coller Wilson plays dedicated mother Fran; Dan Kirchoff takes on lawyer Michael, divorced but still in favor of marriage for all; and Ellen Marlow plays a college student with an unresolved past.
Jake Tremblay, a 2007 Belfast Area High School grad who now lives in New York City, is coming back to his hometown to play Robbie, Steve’s boyfriend and “a real romantic” who sees passing the Maine initiative as a historic landmark — as indeed it turned out to be, Maine being the first state to authorize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Tremblay grew up performing with the Belfast Maskers and at BAHS but never got a chance to be part of Mary Weaver’s children’s theater on Church Street.
“So I’m very happy to be at The Playhouse now,” he said, squeezing a phone chat into a week that included film shoots for “Law & Order,” “Louis” and a television game show, for which he was a paid audience member.
Tremblay majored in theater at the University of New Hampshire and was part of the Seacoast’s regional theater scene for a couple of years.
“I got to play Romeo! I’m a real fan of the classics and of new work,” he said.
But by the end of 2012, the aspiring actor had run out of money and decided to move back to Maine. A friend in New York City invited him down for New Year’s Eve, however, and that visit proved life-changing. He got a modeling gig while in the Big Apple; and he and one of the photographers made a connection that has become a partnership.
“I fell in love and ended up moving in with him in February, so now I live in an artist’s loft in the South Bronx! It feels like it’s out of a movie, but that’s how life works,” he said.
The way life works for a young actor making his way in NYC turns out to reflect the age-old advice to meet the right people and be in the right place at the right time. While he did recently appear in an Underlings outdoor production in Queens of “Much Ado About Nothing” — the cast also included Gabi Van Horn, who grew up in Freedom — Tremblay said he has done a lot less theater than he thought he would … and a lot more film. Changes in the tax codes have made the city a lot more accessible to filming, he said, and there is a lot of it going on. In addition to popping in and out of TV shoots, he has been working in indie movies and music videos.
“I played Moxxie’s love interest in one, told her about the real Moxie,” he said.
He often gets very little notice. A call will come for a young man with a certain set of clothes to be somewhere within the hour, and Tremblay does his best to oblige. He has done a lot of extra work; it pays something and he gets both experience and the opportunity to meet creative people “in the business.” Viewers will have to keep a sharp eye for him in an art installation in a later-this-season episode of “Louis,” for example, but Tremblay got to meet the C.K. and watch the multi-talented comedian at work.
“He was directing, as well [as acting and writing], and it was amazing to watch him come up with ideas. He’s the editor too! I find that so inspiring. I mean, he has the same 24 hours to work in as we do,” Tremblay said.
Given how ad hoc all this is, blocking out two weeks to spend in Belfast is perhaps a bit of a risk, but Tremblay said is looking forward to seeing friends and family.
“A Natural Fractal” is a staged reading, so the actors will have their scripts in hands. But it has been in rehearsal since January and there is some movement between two “rooms” on The Playhouse’s diminutive stage. The show only has one true set piece, but that’s got theater cred.
“We do have a door, designed by John Bielenberg,” said Wendell.
Tremblay said the reading will be a reunion of sorts for him, as the cast includes a former classmate and Coller, “a huge mentor for me.” A former Maskers castmate recommended him to Nelson, and Tremblay said he is glad to take part.
“I love it! It takes on something of a very sensitive and personal nature without getting preachy,” he said.
Wendell said it has been wonderful to have the person who wrote the play directing, likening the process to the opening of a videogame Easter egg as far as its characters are concerned.
“It’s been great to work with Bill, he has a great mind. I would love to see a full production of this! We’ve done all we can do with a bare-bones group but could dive into so much more. There’s a lot of meat there,” she said.
The staged reading performances take place Friday and Saturdays at 7 p.m.; doors will open 15 minutes before curtain. Seating at The Playhouse is quite limited, so advance reservations are encouraged by calling 338-5777. A donation of $10 is suggested at the door, to benefit Weaver’s children’s programming at the theater. Audience members can expect to hear a measure of coarse and colorful language.
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional, for 30 years and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.