By Chris Chase, Coastal Journal Staff

Legends are funny things.  Over the years they expand, the numbers inflate ("He was seven feet tall!"), events twist, until the end product might have just a smidgen of truth left in it.  They say Jim Cullen was such a man, a giant with the strength of five, his fearsome visage under a fiery head of red hair.

Griff Braley's latest production takes this legend, one partially forgotten in the annals of Maine history, and turns it into a theatrical experience I don't think you can get at any other theater.  It tells the tail of aforementioned Jim Cullen, the only man who has ever been lynched in New England.  Based on historical facts and information in "They Lynched Jim Cullen," a book written by Dena WInslow about the event,"The Legend of Jim Cullen" is an interesting tale full of music, laughter, and in the end, a bittersweet and unavoidable tragedy.

Before I go too much further, in case you're busy and can't read a whole article, let me say this early: See this show.  It is well worth the $20 ticket price.  More than worth it, I feel.  Whether you enjoy this bit of fairly experimental theatre or not, the experience is well worth it.

The show begins with the angelic voice of Adele McAllister as Mary  Black, who seemingly materialized in the dark theater.  From then on, you're taken on a journey through the life of Jim Cullen, and watch the man's long but slow fall from grace, if he ever had any at all.

The opening scenes give you a real taste of just how special a space the Poe Theater is.  A tiny little black box theater, the space is more intimate than any other I've ever been in.  The lighting and close proximity of the stage put you right into the show.  It is one of the first theaters I have been in that really made me feel like a part of the show.  In most theatres, there are clear indications of where the stage ends and the audience begins, be it the pit band, or exterior decorations that say "this is the stage, where the show is."  But at the Poe Theater, there's just a small raised area that indicates there is a stage there.  There's no line denoting where the show ends and the audience begins.  It does wonders for suspending your disbelief and putting you into the experience.

The one character you'll see the most consistently throughout the show is Professor Luther C. Bateman, played by David Connelly.  A larger-than-life, cane spinning master of phrenology (the art of interpreting the bone structure of the human skull), Bateman narrates the entire production, periodically butting into the action in the middle and providing background information.  Connelly plays two other parts within the play as well, and sells the differences between all the parts well.Jim Cullen, played by Jed Aicher, really does seem larger than life up on stage, with a booming baritone voice that echoes throughout the theater.  He looks like the kind of character that would inspire many a legend, and while on stage it's easy to see why he plays the part he does.I don't want to spoil too much of the story, as it is a compelling one.  it follows Jim Cullen through his life, from early beginnings near his family to the town of Mapleton in Aroostook County in 1873.  The population at the time is just 600, and Jim Cullen is a stranger with a "common law" wife and a deaf son, a partial outcast in the community.  As the play goes on, events turn Cullen towards a life of petty thievery.  The play's final acts have Cullen committing the brutal axe murder of a sheriff and deputy, before being lynched in the final moments of the production.The play (I call it a play knowing it is not just a play for lack of a better word) raises questions about the nature of good and evil.  Were the men who lynched Jim Cullen, a man who was in their view a beast, wrong in what they did?  Why is it that the character Swanback, a German man who fought in the Civil War, is considred a just man after he killed many there?  Is Cullen, a man manipulated and pressured his whole life, truly evil, or just the victim of circumstances?  It wrestles with morality and responsibility, while entertaining you the whole time.This play has a lot of interesting things going on in terms of figuring out how to represent actions.  From the lynching itself, which was accomlished with the whole cast and many lengths of rope pulled tight all at once in a large web, to the murders, which had our victims seeming crucified behind large crosses formed by the actors holding up planks, Braley has managed to overcome some major hurdles in representing events with just a few common objects.  A baptism in an icy river is represented by a few pieces of cloth, chord on a guitar, and interesting proejction work.  A store is formed by moving a few shelves and setting up a pillar.  A saw mill emerges as the cast sings and goes through the motions of cutting up a large piece of wood.  A few simple items do a lot to turn the space into something both minimalistic and easily recognizable.In addition to that, the play uses a wide variety of tools and items scrounged form antique shops and barns in the area.  The actors, who switch between acting, singing, and playing instruments throughout the show, use the set, itself, as instruments on occasion.  Music, speech, and dance are blended together through the show in a seamless experience that defies a simple genre classification.That music, by the way, is catchy and performed flawlessly.  Even though there are just three dedicated instrument players for the whole show, they do a substantial job of creating an entire performance between them.  And that number ebbs and flows as various actors take up a guitar or cello or washboard to add to the sound.I could go on about the production for a while longer, but describing it would take an essay.  It's not a normal piece of theater, and it will probably challenge you a bit with some of the more abstract parts later in the show, but like I said earlier, you should see this show.

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