Stage Names: Portland Stage’s ‘Red Herring’ a welcome antidote to the season

Dustin Tucker and Robyn Payne in Portland Stage’s production of “Red Herring,” by Michael Hollinger and directed by Michael Rafkin. (click to enlarge; photo by Aaron Flacke)

PORTLAND – I’m convinced that Portland Stage’s executive and artistic director Anita Stewart is a very funny lady.

Not that Stewart isn’t dead serious, and professional about her job and about bringing high quality theatre to Portland Stage’s audiences. I’ve seen her intensity at work first hand.

But every year when the company’s season is announced, I run my finger down the schedule which Ms. Stewart has worked so hard to compile both responsibly and collaboratively, and the first one I circle is the one I know she always makes sure is there: a play that conveys its message while making us laugh from deep within our own blues.

And so it goes with “Red Herring,” by Michael Hollinger and directed by Michael Rafkin—the gray season crime comedy antidote, a play that manages to spoof most everything about the hard-boiled detective genre, and national security, all in the name of love, relationships, and marriage.

It’s difficult to even describe the plot effectively because at my last feeble attempt at a count, 6 actors play 17 parts. But here’s a stab at it, mostly paraphrased from the  Dramatists’ Play Service.

It’s 1952 and we’re in Boston: the United States is about to test the first H-bomb, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower is running for president, and “I Love Lucy” is a TV hit. Three love stories, a murder mystery, and a nuclear espionage plot converge in this noir comedy about marriage and other explosive devices.

Katie Ailion and Josh Odsess-Rubin in Portland Stage’s production of “Red Herring,” by Michael Hollinger and directed by Michael Rafkin. (click to enlarge; photo by Aaron Flacke)

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare is ongoing, all as his daughter Lynn (Katie Ailion) just got engaged to Soviet mole James Appel (Josh Odsess-Rubin), and Boston detective Maggie Pelletier (Robyn Payne) has to find out who dumped some stiff in the Harbor—or pass on a Havana honeymoon with hard-boiled G-man Frank Keller (Dustin Tucker).

If that weren’t dizzying enough, landlady Mrs. Kravitz (Marcy McGuigan) works at luring Russian fisherman-thought-to-be-a-Russki-spy Andrei Borchevsky (Gary Littman) to her bed, all while maintaining an unusual degree of subterfuge.

To be honest, I’m still not sure I have all that right, and with good reason: the pace of this story, along with the many scene, set, costume and character changes—not to mention the dialogue’s rapier wit—is lightning quick.

The best advice for watching this play? Expect the unexpected every step of the way from these excellent actors, who clearly were ready to go under Mr. Rafkin’s sage direction.

Ailion, just a few years out of college, did fine work as she reminded all of us why the future of the theatre remains bright, and in good hands. Likewise, Odess-Rubin’s youthful energy, and versatility in playing 4 parts, was fabulously on display throughout the production.

Littman also tackled 4 roles with the smoothness of transition yet abruptness of expressiveness we expect from such an experienced actor. For my money, not only was McGuigan having way too much fun playing her 3 parts, but her bridal shop proprietress Mrs. Van Nostrand just nearly stole the show, but for her brief presence on stage. A shame, too, because playwright Hollinger really had those lines honed to a fine point.

Payne was the only actor to play one character, and that was perfect because she was the play’s center of gravity. Her Maggie was sassy and self-assured on the job,  smoldering with sensuality, and all nicely balanced by a hesitation in matters of serious love.

Finally, what more can be said about Tucker that hasn’t already been said in past paeans to the man’s ability to take the absurd and make it inane, all while deadpanning his way through the halls of Raymond Chandler’s echos? Bravo, sir – you make the trip to Forest Ave. worth it every time, and the price of admission a bargain.

Gary Littman, Dustin Tucker and Katie Ailion in Portland Stage’s production of “Red Herring,” by Michael Hollinger and directed by Michael Rafkin. (click to enlarge; photo by Aaron Flacke)

Ms. Stewart’s set, once again, was an exceptional puzzle of both multimedia and hard props, not to mention superstructures falling from the rafters in split seconds where the margin of error is nil. It was nicely dovetailed by Karin Graybash’s resonating sound, and Bryon Winn’s incisive light show. Also, the period sense was fleshed out by the costumes of Kathleen Payton Brown.

Following his usual path to excellence, Myles C. Hatch did justice to the Herculean task of stage managing this play. When you see all the bells and whistles during scene changes, as well as the 4 very adept stage hands at it almost the entire time, you’ll agree.

Shows like this with so many moving parts also have a plethora of details always on the tweak: an impressive one was Littman’s correct Eastern Orthodox manner of making the sign of the cross by going to his right shoulder before his left. On the other hand, someone may want to check the local Army-Navy for an early 1950s brown-shoe Army uniform complete with “Ike” jacket, in lieu of the late 20th-century green class-A’s used in the play. For now, we’ll write that off to surrealism.

The full cast of Portland Stage’s production of “Red Herring,” by Michael Hollinger and directed by Michael Rafkin. (click to enlarge; photo by Aaron Flacke)

“Red Herring” ran for 2 hours and 25 minutes, which included a 15 minute intermission.

Yet again, Ms. Stewart’s comedic timing on the calendar is perfect. Her cast and crew have us laughing non-stop at a time when the national mood seems so out of step – but that’s exactly the point. The themes of love, marriage and intimacy are important and serious, but none of us should take ourselves so seriously that we can’t sit back for a few hours and have a rollicking good time of it.

I’ve witnessed many a standing ovation at Portland Stage, and this fact alone is testimony to the acting talent and quality of shows that Ms. Stewart brings in. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Saturday matinee crowd lurch to its feet so quickly and resoundingly as it did at “Red Herring”‘s final curtain.

Which further confirms my annual hunch that the very funny Anita Stewart, who is firmly in charge of this rabble, is nobody’s fool.

“Red Herring” runs through March 25 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit:

Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).

Stage Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.

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Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.