Out & About: Dark compositions brighten Maine stages

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By curious coincidence, two exemplars of dark theatrical visions opened last weekend in southern Maine, and both are excellent choices for this weekend.

The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn opened the Maine premiere of “What Rhymes With America,” a wonderfully funny and deeply thoughtful dark comedy centered around four lost characters in contemporary New York City.

In South Portland, Lyric Music Theater opened “The Secret Garden,” a dark musical that revolves around an 11-year-old girl in Edwardian England and her healing effect on a household of emotionally wounded characters.

Easter comes fairly early in 2016, which perfectly jibes with our recent weather. DaPonte String Quartet opens its series of five Easter concerts on March 23. These are geographically spread between Portland and Thomaston and feature the return of a pair of guest singers who will be familiar to Maine classical music aficionados.

‘What Rhymes with America’

Four lost souls meander on stage, threading through a series of difficult and challenging emotional relationships. After 75 minutes, all four of them end up in the same unhappy place where they started. In a nutshell, that sums up “What Rhymes with America,” a play that opened last weekend at The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn and runs through this Sunday.

On the face of it, this doesn’t seem to be a very promising recipe for theatrical comedy. But I found that this play, penned a couple of years ago by Melissa James Gibson, is one of the most engaging shows produced in the company’s quarter-century of existence.

Despite its sparse plot, Gibson displays brilliant writing throughout, and “What Rhymes with America” produces laughs galore. It’s also a Maine premiere, and well worth the trek to the Twin Cities.

Set in a span of a few weeks in contemporary New York City, Gibson has created four fascinating and lovable misfits who seem to forever dwell in some transitional space between where they’ve just been and where they think they want to be.

There’s Hank, who is emotionally stalled between longing for his former wife and starting a new romantic relationship. Hank is the central character, the only one with a direct connection to the other three. Consequently, he’s the most confused and most vulnerable. Kyle Knauf interprets this difficult role brilliantly and thoughtfully.

Hank’s daughter (Carolyn Faye Kramer) is stuck between adolescence and adulthood. Hank’s co-worker (Janet Mitchko) is a frustrated aspiring actress who is perpetually in a state of auditioning and waiting in vain for a call-back. Perhaps the saddest character is Lydia (Lindsey Gates), a 40-year-old virgin who has been unsuccessfully trying to end her sex drought for two decades.

Each character seeks to change an unhappy situation, and also fears the consequences of that change. Ultimately each remains unchanged. But the theatrical merry-go-round ride is a memorable experience.

The Public Theatre, 31 Maple St. in Lewiston, presents a fully professional production of “What Rhymes with America” through March 20 with performances March 17-18 at 7:30 p.m., March 19 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and March 20 at 2 p.m. Call 782-3200.

‘The Secret Garden’

Three of the principal characters suffer from severe emotional wounds. Most of the rest are dead.

That’s one way of looking at “The Secret Garden,” which opened last weekend at Lyric Music Theater. I saw “The Secret Garden” on opening night, and was impressed by the high standard of Lyric’s community production.

It’s the Broadway musical version of the century-old English novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The stage version has a libretto by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon. It opened on Broadway in 1991 and closed nearly two years later after more than 700 performances.

The story revolves around Mary, an 11-year-old girl whose parents died in India in a cholera epidemic. Mary is sent to live in England with her hunchback uncle who is mourning the loss of his wife while caring for his bedridden 10-year-old son.

Mary discovers a long-untended garden that was loved by the dead wife, and brings it back to life. The garden is a metaphor for the healing process that begins with Mary’s indomitable spirit, which in the end heals all wounds — and allows the large chorus of ghosts to fade away in peace.

Of the 18 cast members, my favorite was Rachel Henry, playing the ghost of the dead wife. Her lovely soprano voice adds luster to the three most melodic songs in the show.

Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St. in South Portland, presents “The Secret Garden” through March 26 with 8 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 799-1421.

DaPonte String Quartet

Two of Maine’s favorite singers return to our state as guest artists in the DaPonte String Quartet’s “Easter Program,” to be performed five times during the last week of March.

Soprano Suzanne Nance, once dubbed “Maine’s Queen of Classical,” and baritone Joshua Miller, a former PORTOpera Young Artist who is now making a name for himself in New York, will sing selected arias by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The program opens with Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross,” an orchestral work that was commissioned for Good Friday. The string quartet version of this work comprises seven sonata meditations on Christ’s last words, in which the first violin “speaks” the Latin words musically.

“Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott” is a moving aria from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” that is sung after disciple Peter has betrayed Jesus. Five plaintive, lyrical lines asking, “Have mercy, Lord, because of my weeping” are repeated over and over.

The program then switches gears with the “Peasant Cantata,” a rustic burlesque that highlights Bach’s lesser-known comedic vein. The deliberately bucolic character of the cantata is unique in Bach’s works, and makes it one of his most infectiously enjoyable.

Nance, a conservatory-trained operatic soprano, was host of Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s morning classical program for nearly a decade. She now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Five performances are scheduled in five venues: March 23 at 7:30 p.m. at St. John’s Church, 200 Main St. in Thomaston; March 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Museum, 267 Congress St. in Portland; March 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Lincoln Theater, 2 Theater St. in Damariscotta; March 26 at 4 p.m. at St. Columba’s Church, 32 Emery Way in Boothbay Harbor; and March 27 at 3 p.m. at the Unitarian Church, 15 Pleasant St. in Brunswick. Call 529-4555.

Suzanne Nance, once dubbed “Maine’s Queen of Classical,” will return as the featured soprano in the DaPonte String Quartet’s series of five Easter concerts.