Sunday, May 1, 2011

Almost, Maine

Almost, Maine, now on stage at Redwood Curtain, is a collection of love stories told in ten scenes with two people in each, united only by the time of a winter night and the place, a mythical unincorporated town in rural northern Maine.

 Only a couple of the 19 characters recur in more than one scene (though you do hear some names repeated.) Cumulatively it’s a romantic comedy, perhaps even a sideways small town portrait in a literary line that includes Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  Though there are suggestions of larger meaning that may stick with you, the play itself doesn’t aim for the depth of those works, especially since its sole focus is love relationships: some over time, some coming together or coming apart in the moment.

 Without giving too much away, it takes a number of figures of speech, familiar metaphors, even cliches, and makes them literal. (So two people literally fall in love.) The comic surprise this stratagem achieves is itself surprising. It adds a kind of magic realism to dialogue with a realistic ring—a repetitive terseness that may owe as much to Mamet (without the vulgarity) as it does to Maine.

 But then as we all know, there is inherent bittersweet wonder to living in a rural town, where the night sky is a presence and a reminder of influential mysteries.

 All 19 characters are played by four actors. Dmitry Tokarsky, Wanda Stapp, Daniel Mariscal and Brittany Williams pretty much nail every moment. The roles are great for actors (it’s no surprise that the playwright, John Cariani, is primarily an actor) and they all make these characters live, with conviction and presence.

 Some scenes are better than others, but the actors make you believe in the innocence and wistfulness, the bursts of anguish and joy. They perform the at times hilarious physical comedy just as well. With focused direction by Gail Holbrook and a simple set by Daniel C. Nyiri, the actors run away with this script. It’s a sweet and poignant theatrical evening.

 This play has a fascinating history. Cariani drew on his background in rural Maine to write his own audition scenes for acting jobs in New York. Assembled as a play, Almost, Maine was named (by the Wall Street Journal and American National Theatre) as one of the best regional productions of 2004-05, and (by Entertainment Weekly) as one of the worst shows of 2006.  After its disastrous New York run, it became an international hit, and replaced A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the most frequently produced play in American high schools.

 Apart from its other virtues, it solves a contemporary production dilemma by the genius of 19 characters that can be played by 19 actors (schools love large cast plays) or just four (almost every other kind of theatre loves small casts, for mostly economic reasons.)

 Michael Burkhart and Meeka Day did the lighting, Karen Kenfield the costumes, John Turney the sound. Almost, Maine plays at Redwood Curtain in Eureka on weekends through May 21st. Redwood Curtain has a special “cheap date” price on Thursdays—and this is a date night play if there ever was one.

Coming Up:

 On Friday (April 29) and continuing Fridays and Saturdays at 7 PM, Sundays at 2 PM, through May 8, Humboldt Light Opera presents a version of Mozart’s comic opera, The Marriage of Figaro, in the Forum Theatre at CR. Director Carol Ryder has condensed the basic love-and-marriage story to an hour of dialogue with all of Mozart’s musical “hits.” “We're not performing it as high opera,” Ryder said. “Instead it's musical theater with fantastic vocalists.” Mozart is paired with a modern take on the same marriage theme: The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown. Both are fully acted productions, with costumes by Kevin Sharkey and lights by Justin Takata. James Gadd, Essie Bertain, Bill Ryder, Katherine Kinley, Sarah Benzinger, Bonnie Cyr, Jim Willits and Mira Weidman are the “Figaro” cast, with  Kevin Richards and Molly Severdia starring in The Last Five Years.

 Dell'Arte's first year students present the self-explanatory Clown Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Carlo. 

Native Stories: Basically Factual by California Native performance artist James Luna (Luisueno) visits for one night only, Friday at 8 p.m. in HSU’s Gist Hall Theater. It's free and doors open at 7:30.

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