Charlotte’s Web weaves spell again

By Timothy Gillis

A Company of Girls, the local youth acting troupe, is performing “Charlotte’s Web,” adapted from E.B. White’s revered children’s book by Joseph Robinette. The play is at the Lucid Stage this weekend, and at the Studio Theater at Portland Stage on May 4-6. Although the cast is young, by Broadway’s standards, there is an undeniable enthusiasm amidst the actresses, the stage crew, and the fifty-plus people who turned out this past Thursday afternoon for the opening show. Made up of mainly moms and young daughters, the audience also featured a smattering of dads and grandparents. The energy from the performance was equally felt by all.

For children, there is something magic and powerful about dressing up as an animal, and the kids got right into it, decked out as a goose and a gander that repeats itself, a sheep and a lamb, Templeton the rat, Wilbur the pig, and of course Charlotte, the spider who saves Wilbur’s life with the power of words. She weaves “some pig,” “terrific,” and “radiant” into her web, and the humans are overcome with wonder at this special pig, saved from the butcher’s block.

A Company of Girls (ACOG) is an after-school theatre and arts-based resiliency program for girls aged 8-18. The members of ACOG are “from many diverse communities in the greater Portland Area. Transportation is provided for those girls who need it to get to and from the program,” according to their website. “At ACOG, girls can come together after school and learn about theatre, the arts, and social skills. It is a safe place where they can discuss issues that are important to them. It is also a fun place, just for them, where they can discuss ‘girl things.’ Their time together also includes journaling, painting, attending arts events, creative writing, sleepovers, apple picking, community service, pot-luck family dinners, dancing, fundraising, and much, much more,” the website says.

“ACOG is composed of different mixed age ensembles and meets after school through-out the entire school year, with breaks that coincide with school holidays. Each ensemble produces at least one play a year. Productions have included “Eloise,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Cynderella Cycle,” “On the Bench and Sticky Like a Frog,” and “A Wrinkle In Time,” according to the website.

Working for the company is not easy, as the young actresses can attest. Most of them play two or more roles, assuming different roles on different days. Sadie Cross, who plays Charlotte and Fern, goes to East End Community School. The ten-year-old does not prefer one role to the other. “It’s sometimes confusing since I’m also in the chorus, which tells the story, but I usually don’t mix up my lines.” Cross said she was inspired by E.B. White’s granddaughter, Martha White, who spoke at the University of Southern Maine about her famous relative, his writing, and her own. “She talked about when he started writing the books,” Cross said. In addition to “Charlotte’s Web,” forever a favorite for children of any generation, White also penned “The Trumpet of the Swan,” and “Stuart Little” which, like the spider story, has found fame on the stage and the big screen. White lived on a salt-water farm in Maine, and was also an accomplished essayist and grammarian. His co-authored “Elements of Style” is still the writer’s bible. Children love him for his animal books, though. And the cast revelled in dressing as farm animals and carrying on human conversation. Asked about her favorite part of the acting company, Cross said “You get to meet and make some great friends. You come here, you can be yourself. Sometimes, at school, kids tease. It’s always safe here. It’s really fun.” Cross, in her third year with the company, previously played in their productions “How the Children Stop the War” at the Studio Theater and “Holes” at Portland Stage.

Gina Laramore-Jones plays Templeton, Uncle, and Fern, and is also in her third year with ACOG. She attends Presumpscot Elementary School. She said her favorite aspect to acting was getting up on stage. “I like having a good time, making people laugh.” Next up for Laramore-Jones is “Seussical, the Musical” put on by Stages. She said she also likes ostriches, wherever she can find them – in books or at the farm.

Cat Bernier and Kaylie LaCour are friends who love spending time together at ACOG. Bernier, who plays Charlotte, the sheep, and the chorus, goes to Hall Elementary School and is in her second year with the company. LaCour plays Edith Zuckerman, goes to Lyman Moore Middle School, and has been acting with ACOG for four years. “Everything is all happy and exciting here,” Bernier said. “We can always do a new project, and all the plays are fun.”

“This is a place where you can be safe, and hang out with your friends,” LaCour added. Both stressed that it wasn’t all fun and games, however. It is a lot of hard work, to memorize lines for several characters, but persistence pays off. “The more rehearsals the better. If you miss any, you don’t know where you are,” LaCour said. Part of the Ensemble group for middle to high school girls, LaCour is working on “Lord of the Flies” next. She plays Rachel, the female version of Ralph from the William Golding novel. One of the signature styles of the company is the way they interpret and reinvent male-centered works through female perspectives. For example, they produced “Queen Lear” to offer a female POV on the Shakespeare regicide. The Fledgling group of the company is comprised of beginning actresses, aged 8-11.

Mackenzie and Maiah Marles keep acting all in the family. Mackenzie goes to Portland High School, and was in the company for seven years. Even though she left the company three years ago, she still has volunteered for the last two, and plays Mrs. Arable in the play. She is involved in the musical theater class at Portland High, as well as the Drama Club, which produced “The Curious Savage” most recently. Her younger sister, Maiah Marles, has been with the company for three years, since she was six. “I left Charlotte on stage a little too early today,” Maiah says of her day’s first performance. “She had to improv a little bit.” Not deterred by the slight miscue, Maiah was buoyant about the next show that evening. “I love the plays, when everybody finds out their parts. When I heard I was going to play Wilbur.. that was exciting!” Mackenzie said she got into theater because she enjoys pretending to be someone she’s really not. “The memorization is tough, but I’ve gotten used to it. I get really nervous if a line is skipped. I’m not sure if I will be able to pull myself back to where I’m supposed to be. Usually, though, someone is pretty good at saving the scene.” The sisters practice at home as much as possible, and thereby limit the potential misspoken lines.

Jen Roe, the executive and artistic director of ACOG, is excited about the power of this production company that uses the arts to strengthen the minds and spirits of young girls. The company was founded 16 years ago by Odelle Bowman, who stepped down last year. Roe’s first year in this new position has been filled with exciting challenges.

“Strengthening and empowering youth benefits all of us in the greater Portland area and beyond. Resilient girls are better able to withstand the stress to which they are subjected, can adapt to change, and can move through adversity. That means we get safer, healthier, more prosperous communities with lower crime rates, less substance abuse, and fewer girls having babies before they reach their own adulthood,” according to the theater company’s brochure. “We get young people who care about, appreciate, and are invested in the communities in which we live,” it reads.

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