Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010

Winter Romance At The Stiemke

The Rep’s ALMOST, MAINE Cleverly Conjures Winter Romance

By Russ Bickerstaff
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As much as romance has been explored in drama and comedy onstage and screen over the years, it’s kind of surprising that there hasn’t been a prominent winter romance. Spring and summer, even autumn are often seen in romantic light. Winter gets the cold shoulder, which is odd considering the amount of interpersonal warmth people have to produce just to get through the season. It’s possibly the most romantic time of year and yet . . . there’s no epic romance prominently featuring the season. Playwright John Cariani’s Almost, Maine is one of only a few winter romances to make it to the local stage in recent years. Cariani’s play is a collection of 8 romantic shorts that brisk, enjoyable and endearingly cute. 

The Boulevard Theatre’s intimate studio theatre did a really fun production of Almost, Maine in February of ’07. The intimacy of that studio theatre (one of the smallest stages in town) captured the intimacy of the proceedings quite well, but the small space hampered the immensity of the setting a bit. Now through February 14th, The Milwaukee Rep brings Cariani’s romantic shorts to the stage in a production that compares quite favorably to the Boulevard’s production three years ago.

 

Susannah M. Barnes’ set for the Milwaukee Rep’s Almost, Maine does a pretty good job of bringing the immensity of rural winter without compromising the intimate nature of the romantic stories being presented. There’s a vast sky in the background with Keith Parnham’s delicately twinkling stars in a vast sky over a wintery terrain that seems to stretch out into forever beyond the stage. Simple doors, walls and other elements slide out to establish 8 or nine different locations within the title location. This is Almost, Maine…a tiny, little unincorporated area of the northernmost state in the lower 48. It’s the dead of winter. All the scenes take place on the same night—a Friday.  

Cariani’s tiny town of Almost is reminiscent of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone. There’s a delicate sense of humor about its people that seems peppered with all kinds of quaint, small town wisdom. Not everything that goes on here is happy or pleasant. Those shorts with happy endings seem pretty well balanced with genuinely sad moments. The characters all have unique enough names to illustrate the small size of the town. Characters from one scene get referenced in another. The small size of the town is exaggerated by the fact that everyone’s played by the same four actors. Everybody looks alike. Time and again, we see people narrowly making and missing real, intimate romantic connections contrasted against a kind of immensity of empty space Barnes has managed to find in one of the larger studio theatre spaces in town.   

With 8 scenes playing out in a very short span of time, the large number of characters played by a cast of four could, quite possibly, end up seeming a bit homogenous. Complicating matters, Cariani’s script attempts no cheap dialect changes or any other such novelty to try to exaggerate the character’s differences. The cast isn’t given a whole lot to work with as far as making each of the eight scenes distinct. Director Laura Gordon has done a brilliant job of making certain each story is unique and memorable without over-exaggerating a distinctly different feel for each story. Gordon’s overall sense of the nuances in the script seems to have helped render a production that feels very real and authentic, even as bits of the script end up being very abstract and poetic.

Guest actors Steve Haggard and Elizabeth Ledo are most memorable n the quirkier end of Cariani’s characters. Ledo makes quite an initial impression as Glory—a woman who has come to Maine to see the northern lights, delicately holding shattered fragments of her heart in a paper bag. Ledo is irrepressibly charming in that role and a couple of others. In This Hurts, Haggard plays a man incapable of feeling pain who is compiling a list of things that can hurt him and things to be afraid of. The quirkiness of THAT character (and a few others played by Haggard) comes across with a refreshingly human amount of charm.

Rep Resident Actors Gerard Neugent and Deborah Staples bring out the more traditional end of Cariani’s appeal. Deborah Staples is given a number of apologetic roles here. She’s a woman running into an ex-boyfriend on a night out with the girls and then she’s a woman confronting a man on all the love he’s given her (in a very corporeal from.) Then she’s a woman returning to northern Maine to finally give a man an answer to a question he’d asked her years ago. The similarity in her characters would be a bit annoying were it not for the fact that Staples brings it across with compelling appeal. Neugent plays most impressively on the wistful end of the play. Among other things, he’s the ex-boyfriend who is run into at the bar and the man getting all of his love returned to him. His most memorable turn here is also one of the cleverest stagings in the entire production—a short he shares with Ledo called Seeing The Thing. Ledo plays an aggressive woman completely oblivious to the love her best friend (the Neugent character) has for her. The physical end of the comedy in Seeing The Thing is brilliantly executed from beginning to end . . . and beyond into a scene change involving Ledo and Neugent that is really fun to watch.    

 

The Milwaukee Rep’s Almost, Maine runs through February 14th at the Stiemke Theatre.

 

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