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Portland's newest playhouse ready for its opening act

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Portland's newest playhouse ready for its opening act

PORTLAND — A small group of performers were rehearsing their lines and finding their marks Monday night at Portland's newest playhouse.

The Old Port Playhouse, in the former Head Games salon next to The Works on Temple Street, is scheduled to start its inaugural season on Oct. 9 with a production of "Sylvia," billed as a story about a husband and wife – and the dog who comes between them.

The play is the sort of light-hearted production that playhouse owners are planning for their first season, which intentionally leaves heavier and more experimental theater to more established groups like Mad Horse Theater Co. and Portland Stage Co.

"Not everyone can do cutting edge," co-owner Jeffrey Caron, 45, said. "Not every one wants to see cutting edge."

The lineup for the 2009-2010 season, which includes "Greater Tuna" (Jan. 8-24), "Almost, Maine" (Feb. 5-21) and "Love, Sex and the IRS" (April 8-25), is just one of the ways the professional, non-equity theater company is hoping to distinguish itself in Portland's theater scene.

Co-owner Michael Tobin, 46, said theatergoers can expect an experience like no other at the Old Port Playhouse, which he said is ideally located near the restaurants and parking garages between the Congress Street Arts District and the heart of the Old Port.

"It's intimate and unique," Tobin said, noting the space's resemblance to Off-Broadway theaters in New York. "People aren't just going to be watching it; they're going to be experiencing it."

The plays will unfold on a 12-by-21-foot stage, elevated 3 feet above a 70-seat house. With high ceilings, wooden floors and bare walls, the room will not require sound amplification, and the actors' expressions should be easily discernible.

"A simple twitch of the eyebrow or a finger point is going to mean so much more in a smaller venue," Tobin said. "Here, those little subtleties are going to play beautifully." 

Caron said everything fell into place for establishing the playhouse at 19 Temple St., where he said a theater was once located. The pair had little to do, other than build a stage, paint the walls purple and green, and update the fire alarms. 

In addition to hosting plays, the partners, who live in South Portland, hope to offer acting classes for children and adults, and expand entertainment offerings to include musical performances of low-key acoustic and classical musicians. They may eventually offer stand-up comedy, too.

There will also be a small gallery in the back of the playhouse featuring regional artists whose work somehow converses with the play. This month, the Bacchus Gallery features the canine-themed work of Portland-based artist Jessica Esch

Another way the Old Portland Playhouse hopes to stand out is by offering year-round summer productions. Caron said the summer line-up for the air-conditioned playhouse will be driven by what the people want to see.

"We're listening to the community," he said. "We're asking them what they want to see." 

While the duo plans to offer lighthearted comedies and musicals, they will not shy away from the classics, including a seasonal staple, "A Christmas Carol," which will run Dec. 3-20. The season takes a more brooding turn March 5-21 with "Yours, Anne," a haunting musical based on the life of Anne Frank, the World War II Jewish girl who kept a diary about dodging Nazi persecution before she eventually died in a concentration camp at the age of 15.

Out of all of the scheduled shows, however, Tobin, who has worked in professional theaters for more than 20 years, seems most excited about "The Wizard of Oz," which will run Oct. 30 to Nov. 15.

The playhouse will offer pay-what-you-can previews of its productions the Thursday before each opening night. A preview of "Sylvia" will take place Thursday, Oct. 8. 

Tickets are $18 for adults, and $15 for students with current identification, children under 16 and seniors. The group offers a "flex pass" for $110, where theatergoers can get eight tickets for the price of six. Student rush tickets cost $10 and will go on sale 10 minutes before each show and discounts are offered to groups of 15 or more people.

Even though the stage lights, window shades and a main curtain have not been installed, Tobin said the company ready for its first act. 

"We're over the major hump," he said. "I can see the curtain rising before we even put it up."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net