By Manuela Brice
The Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center series continued full steam on February 25 and drew a full house of a most delighted crowd with the staged reading of “Five Short Comedies,” a collaborative effort of Stage East and the Lubec Campobello Community Theatre, excellently directed by Sarah Dalton-Phillips, produced by Helen Swallow and exquisitely performed by Damon Weston, Ken Burke, Hoty Briggs, Cookie Repp and Brandy Cogdill. Settings took the captive audience from Russia, across the United States, and all the way to the nearby Algonquin Hotel in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada. Jude Kempe ran sound tech, providing queues and ambience in between each play with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #2, the director’s choice of the perfect musical accompaniment “to unify the disparate plays: humorous and tragic at the same time and slightly manic, which seemed to fit the mood.”

The 5 chosen plays all related to the theme of our need to love and be understood, and all the many ways we thoroughly misunderstand ourselves and each other in the process thereof. A string of mishaps and adverse setbacks with some silver linings nonetheless, familiar themes of misses near and far. What seems to be a tragic and earnest situation from a single minded perspective, provides immense comic relief to an audience that can relate to the topics with a necessary sense of humor that we all would benefit from having, should we find ourselves in similar situations, without however the likelihood of ruining a perfectly spent Sunday afternoon with a wonderful cast of characters with too much seriousness of self-imposed reflection.

Greg Biss, who co-organizes the Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center series with fellow EAC Board member Marged Higginson, welcomes attendees to the event. All photos by Manuela Brice.

In “The Dangers of Tobacco” by Anton Chekhov, Ken Burke skillfully accomplishes the challenging task to open the show with a captive monologue portraying the shaky state of mind of a henpecked man whose wife runs a boarding school. At the end of this tragic-comic piece, the man is ironically saved from a complete breakdown by the sudden arrival of his wife and returns to pretend to present his lecture on “the powerful toxic agent – by which the eye is twitching not just from mental stress.” – tobacco of course is what he is talking about, in case your mind wandered elsewhere… 

Ken Burke is shown in Chekhov’s “The Dangers of Tobacco.”

“Inside The Department of The Exterior” by Philip Hall had the audience absolutely in stitches! A faithfully law-abiding man (Brandi Cogdill) goes to his local zoning office with the simple request of wanting to install a new mailbox since the current one got run over by his truck and thus rendered unfit for any future mail delivery. But with all the forms, questions, and bureaucratic red tape, this “simple request” becomes a whole lot more complicated as details and elements of circumstances reveal themselves to an equally increasingly frustrated Clerk (Cookie Repp) at the Customer Service Desk of the Zoning Office in Cincinnati, Ohio, who had to shred more paperwork in that one meeting due to the rewriting of mystifyingly perplex and discombobulated paperwork requirements over and over, than what they must have had allotted for office paper use for an entire week! 
In the end, it was finally agreed upon that getting a P.O. Box at the Post Office down the street would be the best way to go about the apparently otherwise unsolvable dilemma of not being able to have a new mailbox delivered at a home address without a current mailbox. 
Kudos to both Cogdill and Repp for a fantastic display of expressions and mannerisms taking the audience through a wide range of emotions while decked out in amazing theatrical makeup and wardrobe.

Next we were invited by Cookie Rep and Damon Weston into the intimate portrayal of a marriage with its all too familiar ups and downs, a comedic tragedy of miscommunication or a life well lived in notes after all is said and done?  “Post-its® (Notes on a Marriage)” by Winnie Holzman and Paul Dooley, is brilliantly told through alternating monologues written on post-it notes (and thus excellently suited for a staged reading) by a couple over the course of their lives together. 
An homage to A.R. Gurney’s beloved play “Love Letters,” Post-its is hilarious, moving, and instantly relatable as it takes us through the ups and downs of a relationship. 
Again, Repp’s fabulously appropriately placed display of expressions and mannerisms of her character showcased just how strongly she carries the threads of the relationship—and continues to—even beyond death.

While Repp was most certainly the woman of the hour in Post-its, Damon Weston rose to the occasion as a man of courage in Anton Chekov’s “A Reluctant Tragic Hero” which takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia, and its surrounding idyllic countryside.
The play opens with Ivanovitch Tolkachov  (Damon Weston) beseeching and begging to borrow a revolver from his friend, Alexeyevitch Murashkin (Hoty Briggs). Murashkin inquires to the reason, and Tolkachov complains bitterly about the bad events in his life: having to spend his summer in the city enduring sweltering heat waves, struggling to run his business while his staff prefers to dabble in the amateur theatrics and joys of summer than actually working, and being driven to the brink of delirious mental destruction by various demands to run errands in the city for his wife and daughter and various other immediate and extended family members that demand the schlepping forth and back of many odd items to please them and make their leisure time more enjoyable.
Murashkin expresses his sympathy, but then asks Tolkachov to take a sewing machine and a caged canary to a mutual acquaintance. On hearing Murashkin’s request, Tolkachov finally snaps and chases Murashkin around the room, screaming that he wants blood, and not just the lapels of his coat that he tears at wildly at some point during the altercation, uncovering his friend as just another self-important schmuck, cunningly feigning interest and patience while deliberately manipulating his gullible friend to his advantage.
As a seasoned actor, Weston embodies Chekov’s tragic hero with passionate consistency and fervor that endears the caricature of his character to the audience as charming and delightful while tolerating the thoroughly puny, trivial, and petty aspects of his life. 
Briggs displays an equally strong, albeit straight-faced, fabulous counterpart of a seemingly compassionate friend, until he makes the mistake of losing said face by revealing his true nature.

After all the excitement in the Russian countryside, the audience had a chance to regain their composure for the last play, “A Tall Order” by Sheri Wilner. During a dinner date, the woman (Brandi Cogdill with Hoty Briggs, her date) stops time to ponder what meal to order, and in doing so ends up thoroughly deconstructing a very familiar and utterly traditional and also relatable dance of the male/female relationship, recapping the theme of these 5 plays perfectly: our need to be loved and be understood, and all the many ways we thoroughly misunderstand ourselves and each other in the process thereof. 
It was captivating to witness Cogdill’s character reaching clarity by the end of her time-warped ponderings, letting the waitress (Helen Swallow) know that she’d simply like to order “Someone who will love all my flaws as much as he’ll love all my strengths. Someone I’m not afraid to reveal the parts of me that feel ugly, weak, and broken. […]  Two arms that will always hold. Two ears that will always hear. Two eyes that will always shine into mine. A partner in everything.“
A tall order indeed – “And anything else?” asks the waitress [beat]: “No, Just a Diet Cherry Coke!”

In her own words, director Sarah Dalton-Phillips “wanted to present a program of short comedies.”  Previously she had directed several serious pieces, so a change was indicated; also, comedy often contains a great deal of seriousness.  “Hoty Briggs put me on to the Chekhov plays and then it was simply a matter of reading my way through 4 volumes of short comedies (thanks to EAC’s library) one of which I had directed previously in Lubec.” 
Sarah had already been familiar with the work of Repp, Cogdill and Weston, and immediately had them cast for their roles. Briggs she had directed in several plays when he was an adolescent.  Burke came recommended from Almost, Maine. Alas, a fabulous cast was born!

While a staged reading comes with the benefit of relying on the play script in hand, which is especially helpful to newcomers of the stage to explore theatre without the pressure of memorizing one’s lines, the “Five Short Comedies” came to life not only through the expertise of a strong and supportive cast, but also by Dalton-Phillips’ strong faith as director in the possibility of “pulling and keeping it all together, greatly aided by the support of my friend and colleague, producer Helen Swallow”, who also assisted Dalton-Phillips with the simplistic but effectful set changes for each of the comedies. 
Dalton-Phillips and Swallow are currently participating in Stage East’s Director’s workshop, facilitated by Brian Schuth, and running at the EAC through May 20. The workshop aims to bring together people who are serious about learning to direct or about deepening their directing practice by doing hands-on exercises. 
Those interested in lending their talents to Stage East are encouraged to try out for a future staged reading, commit to memorize a few, some or many lines of comic or tragic nature, or support a production behind the scenes in the realm of directing, producing, set making, and other wonderful but widely underappreciated tasks, or perhaps even by submitting future play ideas. Interested parties are asked to please contact Schuth at brian@schuth.com.
Manuela Brice lives in Eastport, where she sings with Quoddy Voices and serves on the Peavey Memorial Library Board and with the Stage East Core group. She is involved in many events at the EAC and in the community at large when not spinning her yarns and creating her handknitted wearable art at Lunamuse Fiberart.

Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center programs are held in Eastport Arts Center’s cozy downstairs Washington Street Gallery, amidst rotating exhibitions. Admission is by voluntary donation; proceeds are shared equally between the presenters and EAC ongoing program The Concert Series, which offers year-round programming run by volunteers. No one is turned away for lack of funds. Find the full 2024 schedule and more posts about upcoming and past programs may be found at eastportartscenter.org/the-concert-series.

The Lubec Campobello Community Theatre presented its first production in 2004. Among the group’s credits are multiple stagings of A Christmas Carol, plays including The Mousetrap, Blithe Spirit, The Importance of Being Ernest, Under Milkwood, and The Cocktail Party, four Shakespeare adaptations for children’s theater, and variety shows, including the popular “Christmas Pudding” program of seasonal music and readings to benefit the Lubec Library.

Stage East was founded in 1990 when Cornerstone Theater Company, a group of thespians who had met as students at Harvard, came to Eastport to put on a production as part of their mission to bring theater to rural communities. They adapted the Henrik Ibsen play Peer Gynt, into a play that locals could relate to called Pier Gynt. They mixed their own actors with local, many of whom had never acted before, for the production. After Cornerstone left, the locals who had been involved in the production founded Stage East and put on their first production in the fall of 1990, The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge. Stage East continues to produce popular and thought-provoking plays; more information may be found at stageeast.org.