Theater at Monmouth in Cumston Hall
At first glance, the lakeside community of Monmouth, Maine, looks like many of New England’s other small towns, complete with a village green, café, and corner market. But there’s something special here that sets it apart—Cumston Hall, which is home to the town’s library and Theater at Monmouth. With its Romanesque Revival styled architecture that includes more than 100 brightly-colored stained glass windows, elaborately molded trim, a cluster of columns, and a soaring tower, it resembles a castle conjured from a child’s book of fairy-tales. And that’s just the structure’s exterior.
Venture inside the theater, and you’ll take in frothy plaster ornamentation that adorns the stage and swirls around the hand-stenciled fresco mural ceiling. Truly magical.
Whenever my husband and I are in the area, we try to get tickets to a show at Theater of Monmouth. As luck would have it, the box office was open when we drove by in early July, and we were able to scoop up seats in the balcony for that night’s performance of Tartuffe. And when I asked if anyone could give us a quick tour of the theater, we were graciously invited to the pre-show reception.
When we arrived, producing director Dawn McAndrews was on hand to usher us around and give us some background information on the theater. The summer season, which is performed in repertory, launches a new play each week until all five are in rotation. That sounds like a lot to handle, but Dawn exudes an air of unflappability that tells you within minutes of meeting her that she has everything under control.
On our tour, she also shared some of the building’s historical highlights with us: Cumston Hall, which was completed in 1900 for the sum of $20,000 and gifted to the town of Monmouth by Dr. Charles Cumston, was designed to house town offices, a meeting hall, public library, and auditorium; the theater had been named the Shakespearean Theater of Maine by the State Legislature in 1975; and while Dawn assured us that there was no fairy-tale princess hiding in the tower, ghost hunters had investigated the building for evidence of paranormal activity and would be coming back to do it again.
The biggest reveal, however, was the amount of support this modestly sized, 250-seat theater garnered from the community of Monmouth (and beyond). Since 2000, multiple organizations have banded together to raise $2.9 million to restore the opera hall, revitalize the building, and construct an addition. 2.9 MILLION DOLLARS! That’s quite the fundraising feat for a small-town theater, and one that speaks to its far-reaching reputation and popularity. In 2011 alone, visitors from 33 states passed through the doors of Theater at Monmouth to take in a show .
With all this new knowledge rattling around in our heads, we climbed the stairs to the balcony and took our seats to watch Tartuffe. It wasn’t long before we were lost in the very funny story of Orgon, a bumbling patriarch who offers up his fortune and family to a con artist masquerading as religious man as those around him try to expose the pious pretender. The play — performed all in verse — was executed flawlessly and had the audience roaring with laughter. All the actors played their parts beautifully, but I have to admit to having a soft spot in my heart for Theater at Monmouth regulars Mark S. Cartier and Janis Stevens.
As for those last-minute balcony seats, between the unobstructed view of the stage and unparalleled acoustics of the theater, I think they’re as good as any other in the house, and the people who abandoned their seats on the main level to settle in behind us for the second act seemed to agree. I doubt there are any bad seats there, but if you want to guarantee yourself a spot as the season ramps up, I strongly suggest you call ahead or go online to reserve tickets.