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Out & About: Voices from the Renaissance (and far beyond)

Lifestyle

Out & About: Voices from the Renaissance (and far beyond)

The holiday season wraps up with several intriguing choices in music and theater in Portland and Westbrook.

Renaissance Voices can boast one of the best of southern Maine’s Christmas concerts, and it’s also among the latest on the calendar. The ensemble’s annual Christmas program, which draws inspiration from its namesake period to the present, is slated for two Portland performances Dec. 21-22.

Hanukkah may be over, but Maine playwright Mike Levine is offering up his second annual original drama centered on Jewish themes. “The Dybbuks of Park Slope” invokes a supernatural voice from the time of the Second Temple (about two millennia ago). Performances run through Dec. 29 in Westbrook.

Levine is also the producer of an annual multi-performance celebration of physical comedy: “Phyzgig” fills the yawning entertainment gap between Christmas and New Year’s, with events slated for both Westbrook and Portland.

Renaissance Voices

Of all the venues for a Christmas concert, I can think of none as beautiful as the nave of St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland, with its inspiring Gothic architecture surrounding all and its extraordinary wood carvings as backdrop to the musicians.

When 21 voices rise in joy and exultation in this extraordinarily beautiful setting, a perfect Christmas concert results. That’s what’s in store for those who attend Renaissance Voices’ two concerts this weekend.

I’ve been attending this annual concert for the past several years, and it’s truly a moving experience.

Renaissance Voices is a 21-member ensemble that was formed two decades ago by a group of Maine singers on tour in Europe. The group performs primarily a cappella, with a repertory that ranges from the medieval period to the present.

The ensemble is led by Harold Stover, a Juilliard School-trained organist who’s best known in Portland as the music director at Woodfords Church. He’s also known as a composer and musicologist, the epitome of music’s “Renaissance man.”

Less known about the ensemble are two secondary focuses – New England and women – both of which are heavily featured in this weekend’s program.

Two pieces from the late 19th century were written by New Englanders: George Chadwick and Charles Ives. The latter is considered one of America’s groundbreaking innovators in harmonic structure.

“The Ives is pretty amazing,” Stover said. “The chorus sings in two different keys simultaneously in a piece written by a teenager in Connecticut when Tchaikovsky and Brahms were still alive.”

Two pieces were written by Mainers. Supply Belcher lived in Farmington circa 1800, while Patricia van Ness is a contemporary composer who lives in Saco.

Van Ness penned both the music and the lyric for “Into Winter’s Glimm’ring Night,” which was written for the Harvard University Choir. It is receiving its first Maine performances this weekend as part of Renaissance Voices’ commitment to music by women composers.

Here’s a note from Stover on her piece:

“The words speak of divine love expanding into our lives from ‘unseen, endless worlds,’ and find beauty, joy, delight, stillness and peace in the form of the Christ Child. The music unfolds very slowly from a single note in the alto range and expands into rich and luminous harmonies for the entire chorus before subsiding to a quiet and peaceful close.”

Catch Renaissance Voices in concert at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland. Two performances are scheduled: 8 p.m. Dec. 21 and 2 p.m. Dec. 22. Call 773-9711.

‘The Dybbuks of Park Slope’

Seeking and discovering one’s personal identity and suite of values has always been a powerful theme in theater. It’s the central focus of a new play written by Mike Levine, a longtime theatrical activist, teacher, director and producer who is the driving force behind Acorn Productions in Westbrook.

For the past four years, Acorn has offered a December production on Jewish themes. For two years running, Levine has written a new play. This year’s offering is “The Dybbuks of Park Slope,” a contemporary love story with a supernatural twist.

The setting is today’s Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, where two non-observant Jews are planning a wedding. David (Christopher Davis) wants to reconnect with his heritage via a traditional ceremony. He and Rabbi Wolinski (Hal Cohen) confer in the opening scene before fiancee Charlotte (Elizabeth Chasse) barges in and expresses her views.

Charlotte wants whatever her mother Rachel (Patricia Mew) wants, which is something elaborate, expensive and utterly secular.

The conflict between values intensifies when Rachel is possessed by a dybbuk – the spirit of a departed person who has unfinished business on earth – and reverses her position on the wedding. Rachel brings in a couple of Brooklyn dybbuks (David Handwerker and Erica Thompson) who provide color and comedy.

The dybbuk who possesses Rachel comes from a woman who lived about 2,000 years ago, during the period of the Second Temple, and exorcising this ancient spirit is the final stage of the plot. And as the dybbuk disappears into the mists of time, David and Charlotte rediscover their lost spirituality. And their mutual rediscovery intensifies their love for each other.

Levine characterizes his work as “a sweet play about finding your spirituality in today’s complex 21st-century world.” I’ll concur heartily. Cohen, Mew and Handwerker get my nod as the best actors.

Acorn Productions presents “The Dybbuks of Park Slope” through Dec. 29 with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. The venue is the Acorn Studio Theater, in the restored Dana Warp Mill, 90 Bridge St. in Westbrook. Call 854-0065.

‘Phyzgig’

Levine is also the impresario behind “Phyzgig,” a celebration of physical theater that takes place each year between Christmas and New Year’s.

Physical theater? Think mimes, clowns, dancers, jugglers, jesters and magicians who perform visual jokes and sight gags. Maine is a hotbed for this sort of artistry, mostly due to the enduring influence of the late Tony Montanaro and his Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris.

This year’s Phyzgig marks the event’s 15th anniversary, and this year’s dates are Dec. 27-31. There are three performance venues: Acorn Studio Theater, 90 Bridge St. in Westbrook; SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St. in Portland; and Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave. A total of 12 artists have been engaged for a total of 13 different performances. About half the programming caters to kids, while the “Vaudeville” shows at Portland Stage are also good for adults. I’ve attended several of these in recent years and I’ve bee thoroughly entertained.

Call Acorn Productions at 854-0065.