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On tarp of the world One Blue Tarp'

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One Blue Tarp' One Blue Tarp' photo courtesy Magnus Stark

World premiere humorous, heartfelt

BANGOR It has been said that at its best, the theater serves as a mirror to life. It offers us a chance to get a better look at our own reflections outside insight into who we are.

Penobscot Theatre Company is offering area audiences a glimpse into one such mirror with their world premiere production of Orono playwright Travis Baker's award-winning 'One Blue Tarp.' The show is running through Feb. 16 at the Bangor Opera House.

David Stillman (Tom Mikotowicz), a longtime resident of the coastal Maine town of Clara, has a pile of what the less-charitable among us might call junk in his front yard, covered up with a big blue tarp. While the tarp itself is periodically replaced, the general tarpness the metatarp, if you will has been present in front of his house for years.

But change is coming to Clara. David's neighbor Ira (Arthur Morison) informs him that a new town ordinance has been passed that forbids blue tarps from being prominently visible; it's all part of a series of town beautification ideas coming from Gale Pritchard (Irene Dennis), a woman 'from away' who has taken up residence in the town and taken it upon herself to improve the community.

David in typical Maine fashion chafes at what he perceives as a violation of his rights and freedoms and soon plants himself atop his tarp, rifle in hand, daring anyone to try and take it away. His wife Joan (Julie Arnold Lisnet) does her best to explain to David just how ridiculous his behavior is. Meanwhile, his grandson Buddy (Ian Buck) is recruited to the cause, joining his grandpa atop the pile, .22 in hand.

David's daughter Judy (Brianne Beck) arrives from Boston, hoping to talk some sense into her father. While both her occupation (lawyer) and orientation (lesbian) are sources of consternation and confusion to her parents, their relationship is certainly a loving one. When Gale arrives to serve David with papers along with her daughter Hester (Kat Johnson) and local cop Carl (Steve Estey) the stand-off unsurprisingly escalates.

In her efforts to do right by her father, Judy finds herself at odds with Gale and oddly drawn to Hester an attraction that is most definitely reciprocated. But her attempts at following the letter of the law are undone by the machinations of small-town politics, leaving David with no choice but to stick to his principles and fight for what he believes is right both for himself and for the town he calls home.

There's humor here and lots of it; Baker shows a knack for mining cadences and colloquialisms for laughs. But these aren't laughs of scorn or superiority the play works precisely because the laughs are with us, rather than at us. There's a palpable affection for the subject matter that shines throughout. Yes, there's humor, but at the core of 'One Blue Tarp' beats a very large heart a heart filled with love for the people of Maine.

The script won Best Maine Play in Portland Stage Company's prestigious Clauder Competition; it would seem that it plays just as well as it reads. While Baker is straightforward about his own status as a flatlander he himself is 'from away' he has clearly been in Maine long enough for his writer's ear to pick up the native nuances, both subtle and not-so-much. 

Mikotowicz does a good job in bringing David's indefatigability to the forefront; we see his frustrations and fears slowly grow beneath a stubborn veneer of principle, along with heartwarming flashes of familial affection. Lisnet is bedrock-solid as Joan, embodying the Maine woman with an entertaining broadness that never crosses the line to caricature. Ditto Morison, who with his unflappable amiability and ever-present pipe is the quintessential Maine neighbor.

Beck is great as the grew-up-and-left local; she wears Judy's conflicted relationship with her home on her sleeve and makes a complex character easy to understand. Johnson gives Hester a not-quite-nave innocence that is quite engaging; there's also just a hint of an edge to her. The interactions between the two are both genuine and quite funny. Throw in Dennis's faux-sweet grandiose megalomania, Buck's energetic goofiness and Estey's aw-shucks Gomer Pyle attitude and you wind up with a dynamic (and dynamite) cast.

Director Daniel Burlson was a champion of this script in his position as Literary & Education Manager at Portland Stage. As such, he is uniquely suited to helming this production and bringing the world of Clara to life. He has brought the text and the cast together in such a way as to elicit the best from both. Chez Cherry's set is stylish; simple without being overly so. He has created a space that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing while still harnessing a small-town essence. Gregg Carville's lighting design, Brandie Rita's sound design and Meredith Perry's prop design seamlessly blend into the world of the play, fleshing the production out without feeling flashy. And costume designer Kevin Koski's work is exceptional particularly with regards to the big reveal that I desperately want to share but refuse to spoil.

From the opening moments watching David replace his weatherworn old tarp with a bright blue new one all the way to his Jimmy Stewart-esque 'Mr. Smith Goes to Clara' town meeting speech, 'One Blue Tarp' is a wickedly funny, wonderfully heartwarming glimpse at one man's journey of self-discovery. 

The opportunity to watch a world premiere is a rare one, so take advantage of the chance to check out 'One Blue Tarp.' It's a good time so good that even folks 'from away' will enjoy it. You won't even have to pry it out from under anyone's cold, dead butt.

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