The University of Southern Maine’s latest offering doesn’t look or sound or feel like the usual university theatrical production.
“Molded by the Flow” connects the audience to Maine’s water, pines, rocky shores and people in ways pictures or music or words alone couldn’t do. More performance art accompanied by music and projected images than a musical with dialogue and songs, the 70-minute piece evokes history and memory unique to each person who experiences it.
“Molded by the Flow” is the result of a collaborative effort among the university’s theater, music and visual art departments. Conceived by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert, it is intended to be “a poetic, visual and musical narrative inspired by southern Maine’s rich natural and human history,” according to the program.
The play is divided into 27 sections that tell a history of the Pine Tree State and its people. The seven actors, who also wrote some of the short monologues, speak directly to the audience. They also read pieces written by historical figures about visiting the state or about past events such as the fire that devastated Portland in 1866.
The set includes movable pieces made of wood, shaped like right-angle triangles, with blackboards on one side. The actors draw on the blackboards to help set the scenes and change the position of the pieces so they become a canvas for videos and projections of swimming fish, moving trains and a mechanized tree delimber.
Like a three-legged stool, the words, the visuals and the music are essential to making the production work. Take one away, and “Molded by the Flow” would topple. The music is, by far, the strongest and most interesting element of the piece.
The program credits 11 different composers, all of whom are part of the ensemble that performs during the show. The music ranges from classical to avant garde. Contributing to the unique sound is the use of glass domes, large, odd-shaped bells sculpted from metal and other objects as percussion instruments.
Eckert said in his program notes: “From the watershed, the multiplicity of streams flow down the side of the mountain, converge to become a few rivers, increasing in speed and power as they flow down to the ocean to be absorbed by that greater body, the body that connects us to the other shores of the world, other ports. And our shores collect the drift from those world, novel objects, ideas, people.”
The production weaves in all of the elements — earth, wind, fire and water. But it is the latter, in its many forms, that dominates “Molded by the Flow.” While the stories told include those of a lumberjack, carpenter, blacksmith, millworker, nurse and others rooted in Maine’s inland soil, the loose narrative returns often to the tales of the fisherman, the lighthouse keeper and the sailor. It is in the flowing streams, rivers and the ocean tides that the production connects emotionally to the audience.
“Molded by the Flow” is a triumph of academic cooperation that allowed students and faculty to create a multimedia production that envelops theatergoers with sights and sounds that not only tell a set of particular stories but evoke strong memories of their own experiences in Maine.
To see it on Good Friday at the Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston, a former Catholic church, subtly added the influence of religion on Maine’s people even though it was not explicitly part of the narrative. Opening night drew a disappointingly small audience of about 50 people.
“Molded by the Flow” deserves sold out houses the rest of the month as it moves to the USM campus in Gorham. It is a unique experience unlikely to be replicated in another place or another time. All involved deserve standing ovations.
“Molded by the Flow” will be performed through April 29 in Russell Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham. For information, call 780-5151 or visit https://usm.maine.edu/theatre/molded-flow-poetic-visual-and-musical-narrative.