Thursday 30 November 2017

Almost, Maine = quirky love vignettes
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.   
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Playwright John Cariani is an actor from Maine who had an idea for New York City audition pieces for himself. Surely the inspiration arrived immediately after chancing upon his Dad's archived Playboy magazine stash. There from back in the 70's was a piece by Tom Robbins. His article asks, rhetorically "Who knows how to make love stay?" At the end of it he teases "Answer me that, and I will reveal to you the purpose of the moon."

Quite so the general drift of Cariani's Almost, Maine too.  The script comprises all nine prospective audition scenes coagulated into a story. Each of the scenes is to be imagined as occurring at the exact same time -- 9 o'clock on a Friday night -- in the deepest darkest heart of winter in Almost, Maine that he describes as "almost, but not quite, a real place" a couple hundred miles out of Portland.  Up closer to the North Pole, it's a place where the Aurora borealis magically steals the dark. It steals hearts and watches them break, too.

All of the scenes involve 20-somethings from Almost, the bulk of whom have known each other since grammar school days it seems. One or two have "come from away", others have left to find life adventures elsewhere only to return for better or for worse. They all interact and intersect and are easily interchangeable with characters from Love, Interrupted. 

Gayle (Baraka Rahmani) and Lendalll (Giovanni Mocibob) find their decade+ romance is captured in a pile of ice-covered suitcases and a wee small box.
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
Played sequentially, the scenes betray how silences are as important in the soundscape of life as grace notes are. How a glance can reveal more than an intense deep gaze into another's eyes. How awkward and tentative and frightfully scary love can be every moment whether it's the original instant spark or years and years later : the Cariani script and Tom Robbins' question are wholly in sync here.

What the show brings to the stage : Often referred to as "the darling of regional theatres everywhere", Almost, Maine according to Wiki recently beat out Billy Bard's A Midsummer Night's Dream as the most-produced play in USA high schools. Fundamentally a series of rom-com vignettes, the play tries to straddle the chalk line between absurdity and truth that divides love and loss and always occupies that haunting space between the two. 

Rhonda (Kim Larson) throws slings of timber around at Bushey's Lumber Mill when she isn't snowmobiling with Dave (Peter Carlone) and projects a facade of crystal cool, until...
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
And not unlike Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone in Minnesota with its Powdermilk Biscuit plant and Chatterbox Cafe and Sidetrack Tap, Almost is equally small-town. Here it's the local Bushie's Lumber Mill where many of the characters work. For fun they ice skate on Echo Pond or circle 'round to the snowmobile club for chow. Typically on Fridays they kick back and have a coupla Buds at the Moose Paddy tavern or maybe go for a wee dance at the rec centre.  

Some scenes are pure Pinter in their meandering and desultory chatty-chat banter that seems pointless but is anything but. Others are more fanciful. Cariani gives us a woman with a broken heart she traipses about in a lunch bag -- until she meets a repairman who'll fix it. [The scene brought to mind Stephen Spielberg's offbeat Amazing Stories t.v. show from a couple decades back. Cariani admits to Twilight Zone re-runs being a strong influence on him.]  

From a mountain of suitcases said to be filled with "all the love I've ever given you". Or a missing shoe that whimsically and symbolically drops from the cold Maine winter sky just before insight finally arrives, too late. Or the millworker buds Chad and Randy who fall all over one another, lit.-&-fig, while burping back beers out in the potato patch. Lots of stagey imagination at work throughout, no question.

Ginette (Jalen Saip) doubles as Act 2 songstress / narrator who predicts those who love and lose will "just do it all again" as time goes by.
Photo credit : Emily Cooper

Production values that shine through : The familiar alley stage at Pacific Theatre is perfect for this show. And not a weak aspect anywhere : Lauchlin Johnston's hoarfrost-themed set and props by Jenny Jantsch were brilliant in their comfy freezey warmth that memory triggers. Amy McDougall captured country village contemporary Walmart costuming cleverly (and big city refinements where needed, too).

Delightful soundscape and orchestral backdrops by Jay Clift. Name a moment when Here Comes the Sun, Time After Time, and Someone That I Used To Know won't pluck at our heartstrings : heartstrings that search-&-plead for release and a moment's reconciliation : "I need a photo opportunity / I want a shot at redemption."

Acting pin-spots : Director Kaitlin Williams rounded up a passle of acting talent Galore! to work with for this catchy, charming string of scenes that Almost ties together. Five actors doing 19 parts, that ain't easy to pull off (but far more effective than having 19 players).

Peter Carlone as Randy. Giovanni Mocibob as Phil. Kim Larson as Rhonda. Baraka Rahmani as Hope. Jalen Saip as Ginette. My what priceless bits, each and every one (and not to take away from their other roles in the least). This is superb character acting plain and simple.

The characters'  stage business and gesticulation and blocking were all gripping and crisp and visually imaginative. Just. First. Rate. Gosh! we had a good time with all this quirky silliness & poignance. Initially it came from Mr. Cariani's pen, but to have life it was how his words were magnified and refined by the talents the actors brought to their character interpretations. Of particular note is the intuitiveness with which each of them trips over one another's words in stuttery overtalk -- just the way most of us jabber on with one another.

Who gonna like : This is altogether a Fun! night out at theatre. Proof positive that when humour drives pathos, the result is an investment in time and money and emotion that no flat-screen t.v. or multiplex experience will likely match. And the small-town vibe can't help but steal your heart as it makes you realize that any one of us, at any moment, is just a breath away from the truth about love. 

Whether it's the Northern Lights or the rings of Saturn or the moon above, love's purpose will in some way be revealed to you in this delightful, sprightly and a wee bit of oddball comic relief. You will no doubt come away, like us, wishing there were two or three more Almost, Maine scenes to tickle your fancy and tease your spirit.  

ParticularsWritten by John Cariani. Produced by Pacific Theatre.  At Pacific Theatre stage, Hemlock @ 12th.. Through December 16th. Run-time 110 minutes, including 15 minute intermission. Tickets and schedule information via or by phone at 604.731.5518.

Production team :  Director Kaitlin Willianms.  Set & Lighting Designer Lauchlin Johnston. Sound Designer Jay Clift.  Costume Designer Amy McDougall.  Properties Designer Jenny Jantsch.  Stage Manager Maria Zarrillo.  Production Manager Phil Miguel.  Technical Director Kougar Basi.  

Performers :  Peter Carlone (Pete; Jimmy; Steve; Randy; Dave).  Kim Larson (Glory; Marvalyn; Marci; Rhonda).  Giovanni Mocibob (East; Lendall; Chad; Phil; Daniel).  Baraka Rahmani (Sandrine; Gayle; Hope).  Jalen Saip (Ginette; Waitress; Singer).


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