Out & About: A pair of Maine Americana acts in Portland

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Attention aficionados of Maine’s Americana musical artists: Two different local acts are playing this weekend in Portland.

On Friday, fiddle wiz Erica Brown and her Bluegrass Connection will be playing One Longfellow Square. The former child prodigy is nowadays one of New England’s top musicians.

On Saturday, also at One Longfellow Square, Bold Riley, another Maine ensemble, will take the stage. Plus there’s Pumpkin Bread, from Boston.

Want an otherworldly theatrical experience? That’s what’s on the boards at The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn. The current offering is “Marjorie Prime.” Prime? In this context it means a high-tech futuristic ghost.

Erica Brown and the Bluegrass Connection

A quarter century ago, when I first became interested in the Maine music scene, I heard one refrain over and over again: “You’ve got to go see Erica Brown! She’s a phenomenal fiddler and she’s not even 10 years old.”

I checked her out and yes, she was indeed a sub-10 fiddling phenom. Nowadays she’s a middle-aged music teacher, and she’s still a fiddling phenom. She’s also been designated by the Maine Arts Commission as a “Master of Traditional Fiddling,” one of many honors she’s acquired over the decades.

She’s an all-around musician with deep roots in multiple styles and genres. Born into a musically gifted French-Canadian family in the Lewiston area, her first professional gigs were with the Maine French Fiddlers. She also gigged for years with the late “Mac” McHale and his Old-Time Radio Gang, which played traditional country music from the 1930s and 1940s. She was also a star student of classical violin with Ron Lantz, a founding member of the Portland String Quartet, and she performed for years in the Bates College “Fighting Bobcats” symphony orchestra.

Currently, she and her husband Matt Shipman run a music teaching studio in Portland. Performing together they’re the Darlin’ Corey duo, which has regular bookings in southern Maine.

This Friday Brown is again putting on her bluegrass hat and appearing in Portland with her own band, the Bluegrass Connection. It’s a very traditional five-member group. Playing behind Brown, the Bluegrass Connection comprises Shipman on guitar, Steve Roy on mandolin, Read McNamara on banjo and Ken Taylor on upright bass.

I’ve heard them a number of times over the past few years, and they’re absolutely topnotch.

Catch Erica Brown and the Bluegrass Connection at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland at 8 p.m. March 23. Call 761-1757.

Bold Riley

Another Maine ensemble specializing in traditional American music is Bold Riley, an exuberant fivesome that began as a jam session among friends and has since grown into a polished act that’s been playing out for about five years.

Their range covers traditional folk tunes, social protest songs written by Woody Guthrie and others plus a set of original Bold Riley numbers.

Bold Riley comprises fiddler-guitarist Michael Hayashida, banjo wiz John Gunn, guitarist-accordionist Julia Edwards, vocalist Erin Sampson and bassist Dennis Boyd Jr. Bold Riley members take turns on lead and harmony vocals, plus there’s a variety of percussion instruments pulled out on occasion, including tambourine and bodhran.

Their performing experience includes folk festivals, foliage festivals and bookings in clubs and coffee houses.

The opening act will be Pumpkin Bread, a similar fivesome from Boston.

Catch Bold Riley at 8 p.m. March 24 at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 761-1757.

‘Marjorie Prime’

There’s a new kind of futuristic cyber ghost in Lewiston. It’s called a prime.

You have one more weekend to see this phenomenon. And not just one prime – three primes.

Let me explain. “Marjorie Prime” is the name of a play that’s currently running at The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn. Written by Jordan Harriston, “Marjorie Prime” was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

In Harrison’s imaginative world, a prime is a computer reproduction of a dead person. Using holographic and audio projections, linked with a computerized artificial intelligence, a prime is essentially a ghost – one you can talk with and interact with. That’s the dramatic conceit that underlies “Marjorie Prime.”

The play is set about 50 years in the future, but due to the protracted time span of its characters and their memories, key events in the story straddle the present.

It opens with 85-year-old Marjorie, in a nursing home and clearly at the end of her life, talking with the prime of her husband Walter, who died 10 years earlier. As Marjorie and Walter Prime converse, another quality of these cyber ghosts is revealed: They must be programmed. Walter looks like Walter once did, but he has no innate memory. Whatever information Walter Prime has about the real Walter was fed to him by Marjorie at some point.

And this information can be highly selective and even deceitful. That’s another key feature of “Marjorie Prime.”

There are two additional characters. Tess is the middle-aged daughter of Marjorie and Walter, plus there’s Jon, husband of Tess. The play takes place in three scenes. In the first, Marjorie, Tess and Jon are alive. In the second, Marjorie has died and Tess is having a difficult conversation with Marjorie Prime. Tess and Marjorie serve as the dramatic axis for this play. They are the only characters presented both alive and in their prime form.

In the third scene, Tess too has died, and Jon has to deal with three primes.

Harrison’s exposition is intentionally fractured. We learn about events in the lives of the characters through scraps, tidbits and twisted fragments of conversations, some in the present, some in the past. Sometimes we hear two quite different versions of the same story. This disconnectedness is deliberate, and reflects and relates to key themes in the play.

Harrison and his four characters explore a number of topics. What is real? What do people wish were real? What price are people willing to pay to manipulate and influence the answers to the first two questions? Can technology ever substitute for real people?

Director Chris Schario gets fine performances from his cast. The difficult, sometimes torturous conflict between Diane Findlay, as the title character, and Mhari Sandoval, as her daughter, provides the primary dramatic horsepower. Jackson Thompson, as Walter Prime, and Russell Bergeron, as Jon, represent foils and mirrors.

The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn, 31 Maple St. in Lewiston, presents “Marjorie Prime” through March 25 with Thursday and Friday performances at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call 782-3200.

Bold Riley is a Maine Americana act that’s playing at One Longfellow Square in Portland on Saturday, March 24.

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