When Bari Newport was on a plane bound for Bangor in 2011, someone said something to her she has never forgotten. She was having a conversation about why she was headed to Maine. At the time, she was about to interview for a position with Penobscot Theatre Company.
“The woman in front of me turned around and said, ‘We want to laugh in February,’” Newport recalled. “I’ve held that with me.”
As producing artistic director at PTC since January 2012, she held onto that woman’s words and has since dedicated Februarys to laughing.
From “The Sugar Bean Sisters,” a southern gothic comedy in 2013, and “One Blue Tarp,” the story of a man, his pile of junk and people “from away” in 2014, to “Guys on Ice,” a satire about the joy of fishing with your buddy in 2015, Newport has dedicated Februarys to making Maine audiences smile.
She hopes to achieve the same results for the world premiere of “Hair Frenzy,” which will run from Jan. 28 to Feb. 14 and was written by Travis Baker, an Orono playwright who won Best Play for the State of Maine in the Clauder New England Playwright Competition for “One Blue Tarp” in 2013.
“Hair Frenzy,” Baker’s newest creation, chronicles the events that ensue when a bad haircut leads character Toryn Bennoch, played by AJ Mooney, back to her hometown of Clara, Maine, and into the graces of her old friend and hairstylist Tina, played by Jen Shepard. With new ideas presented to Tina in the form of her worldly friend, she begins to consider a different way of life, outside of Clara. Fans of Baker’s first work, “One Blue Tarp,” may recognize the salon’s name, Hair Frenzy. It had its original debut as a mention in the 2014 production and Baker has created a story from that with entirely new characters.
“In ‘One Blue Tarp,’ the character of Judy, who is the daughter of the main characters, comes up from Boston to help her dad out. One of the first things her mother said to her was that she needed to get her hair cut and told her to go to Hair Frenzy to visit Tina. It seemed to be a logical step for the next part of the story about Clara,” Baker said.
“As I’m writing more about the town, more stories are popping up. More characters are kind of standing up at the town hall and saying, ‘I have a story I want to tell you,’” he said.
For Baker, the deeper meaning of this story is about the struggle of trying to make a living in Maine.
“The main character Tina is a small-business owner. She’s also a single mom raising a teenage daughter,” Baker said. When her best friend Toryn shows up again in town, the allure of going away — the allure of making it somewhere else — is something that’s hard to resist.
Newport added to that with some of her own takeaways from the show.
“It deals with the notion of home, it deals with friendship, small-town life and the virtues of it, how things change over the course of a lifetime — universal human themes that are relatable to anyone,” Newport said.
Much like “One Blue Tarp” before it, “Hair Frenzy” was a carefully considered choice for Newport.
“At this time last year I had another play in that spot and Travis asked if I would come to a reading of ‘Hair Frenzy’ in Orono,” Newport said. “And I did. And I believed so much in the play at that time, and of course that was an early draft of it, that I moved things around in the season after already having set out the season — that’s how much I believed in it.”
That resolve hasn’t changed. After five read-throughs, multiple rewrites and one year’s time, “Hair Frenzy” is almost ready to hit the stage. Newport explained the process that she went through when deciding to add the show to the season’s docket.
“Choosing a wide variety of plays is No. 1,” Newport said. “We choose plays that suit our wide demographic. Do we have a classic, do we have a mystery, do we have a world premiere, do we have a musical?”
Much like previous selections that Newport has made, “Hair Frenzy” offered audiences a humorous show that went beyond a typical comedy and would reflect life in Maine.
“It’s nice for people to go to the theater and see a reflection of themselves,” Baker said. “In ‘Hair Frenzy,’ the consumption of Moxie comes up, which is a unique beverage to our state. That sort of connection brings the audience into the story. They see their neighbors. They see the places they walk into every day. They see the places they work.”
Newport said plays are also chosen based on the company of actors. Toryn Bennoch, a Hollywood superstar who is led back to her hometown of Clara, plays on the talents of one of the production’s actresses.
“I had AJ [Mooney] in mind, especially after working with her,” Baker said. “And Bobtom, played by Brad Labree, was definitely written with him in mind.”
Newport hopes these roles will allow the actors and actresses to show the audience something new.
“I feel that plays reach either the heart or the head. Some communities are more heart or more head. I feel that the community here is very much heart,” Newport said. “‘Hair Frenzy,’ I think, will get people out of the house because it is charming and funny, and a story with a lot of heart. And at the end of the day, that’s why it was chosen.”
For Dominick Varney, director of the show, taking on his first world premiere has been a challenge, but one he’s been happy to take on.
“I feel like Travis has honed into the idea of what Maine communities are like,” Varney said. “They come together in good times and bad times. They support each other.”
Varney, who also directed “Guys on Ice” for PTC, worked with Baker on the production through its read-throughs and rewrites and has helped the cast bring the roles and the hair salon to life.
“It’s a hair salon, but the characters that come into that hair salon — you see your community on that stage,” Varney said. Creating an authentic sense of Maine in the piece wasn’t difficult, because the play itself was already full of “Maine-isms,” as Varney put it.
“I think it’s a modern take on farce. It’s a comedy with a lot of physical, fast-paced humor. It’s the idea of this small town coming together. Travis has done such an amazing job writing heartfelt words that are both funny, meaningful and honest,” Varney said.
For Baker, his words come from a sincere place. Though some would consider Baker to be “from away” (he was born in Boston and grew up in Texas), Maine has become his home.
“We love it here,” Baker, who resides in Orono with his family, said. “I feel at home here.”
“We believe so much in this work that no one else has seen, heard or read it. It has no track record. It’s only track record is our belief in it, our belief in Travis and our belief in the team we’ve put in place to bring this story to life,” Newport said.
“It is a bright, funny, happy story that was written for us, for here, for this community.”
For more information about “Hair Frenzy,” including showtimes and tickets prices, visit PTC’s website.