Next Stage Repertory Company’s Almost, Maine: A Fine Piece of Theater Is Undone by the Calendar
– by Lee Greene
Next Stage Repertory Company’s production of the record breaking, critically acclaimed, poignant, multi-vignette John Cariani play on the joys and pains of love, Almost, Maine opened to a thin audience at the Craterian Theatre at the Collier Center for Performing Arts on Thursday, April 7, 2016. The empty seats were NOT a reflection of the play, the production, the cast, or the performances, all of which were notably exceptional, but a victim of unfortunate calendaring. The production is being staged during the beginning of the Ashland Independent Film Festival, which screened 11 films and held its ballyhooed Opening Night Bash on the evening that Almost, Maine opened. It also happens to be the weekend of the local Pear Blossom Festival festivities, which undoubtedly pre-occupied the attention of an additional portion of the natural performing arts audience. And, as if to add insult to injury, the Calendar in the Ashland Daily Tidings Revel Section erroneously omitted the Thursday, April 7 performance of Almost, Maine altogether, listing only the performances on Friday, April 8, and Saturday, April 9. [Note: all three (Online, Downloadable, and Glossy Printed) of our Calendars of Performing Arts correctly listed all the performances of Almost, Maine, including the April 7 opening. We don’t wish to gloat, but find it sad if any calendar error reduced the audience to a performing arts event.]
The play itself is well written, insightful, affecting, and entertaining. It broke box office records and garnered critical acclaim at its 2004 premiere at the Portland Stage Company in Portland, Maine. [Wikipedia, Almost, Maine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almost,_Maine] When it made it to an Off-Broadway run in 2006, it was featured in Smith and Kraus’ New Playwrights: Best Plays of 2006. [Id.] And it “has proved popular in professional and nonprofessional theatre companies worldwide.” [Id.] Notably, it has recently supplanted Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the most produced play in North American high schools. [Id.] The play, which has generally been popular with audiences as well as theater companies, and has attracted very healthy box offices, was well described in a 2013 New York Times review of a Hartford TheaterWorks production:
“John Cariani’s Almost, Maine is a series of nine amiably absurdist vignettes about love, with a touch of good-natured magic realism…This is a beautifully structured play, with nifty surprise endings (most but not all of them happy) and passing references to characters from other vignettes, which slyly tell us more about them. Mr. Cariani describes the play’s subject as ‘falling in and out of love.’ It is just as much about pain.”
[The New York Times, All Bundled Up, but With Hearts on the Wing: A Review of ‘Almost, Maine,’ at TheaterWorks Hartford, Feb. 15, 2013, http://nyti.ms/1SUdXdC]
So Next Stage Repertory Company and Director Doug Warner were working with superior raw material, well received in other earlier productions elsewhere, of Almost, Maine, and the pertinent question becomes how well did they realize the show’s potential in this production? The answer is an enthusiastic “quite well!” For starters, Director Warner and Next Stage assembled what represents an all-star cast for this production. There are 19 characters populating the 11 scenes in the fictitious homespun town of Almost, ME in this show (a Prologue, continued in a later Interlogue beginning the Second Act and again in a concluding Epilogue, bracketing eight additional scenes, titled: Her Heart, Sad and Glad, This Hurts, Getting It Back, They Fell, Where It Went, Story of Hope, and Seeing the Thing. The roles are traditionally performed by no more than a handful of actors, each taking on multiple roles, changing roles as the scenes progress. For this production, Next Stage Repertory Company enlisted five actors, all veterans of previously acclaimed stage work: Jade Chavis Watt, Adam Cuppy, Presila Quinby, Ric Hagerman, and Max Gutfreund.
Ms. Watt is well known to Southern Oregon theater audiences, performing regularly with Next Stage Rep, Camelot Theatre, and Craterian Music Hall, as well as singing with the Rogue Valley Gospel Group, and consistently earning glowing notices and reviews, e.g.:
“The divine Etta herself could’ve picked Jade Chavis Watt to portray her life of song in Spotlight on Etta James at the Camelot Theatre. Ms. Watt nailed the energy of the songs and the emotions they evoke, . . . She seemed to be feeling every word in each song . . . . the audience felt the pain, the angst and the hunger for love that Etta went through. Ms. Watt did an exemplary job of singing these songs and telling the story of Etta James. I wanted to go back and see it again!” [Erika Perkinson, Jade Chavis Watt as Etta James, Wow!, The Rogue Valley Messenger, Jan. 15, 2013, http://bit.ly/1WhT3bm]
Adam Cuppy is a Next Stage Rep favorite (this is his eighth production with the company) and for good reason: he can be depended upon to give a memorable and noteworthy performance across a wide range of roles and characters in an apparently unlimited universe of situations and settings. His versatility has been recognized and applauded by audiences and critics alike, e.g.:
“Several of the overworked actors deserve special mention. . . . Adam Cuppy shows incredible versatility as both a Lincoln functionary and a horse (no connection intended), and many other characters. Another amusing character is a mule, and when horse spies mule, a love aria from Turandot plays.”
[Jean Lowerison, THEATER REVIEW: “A Civil War Christmas”, SDGLN.com, http://bit.ly/1XlqM21]
Presila Quinby has performed extensively at every theatrical venue in Southern Oregon, in addition to 16 years on the stages of New York City. She is a consummate performer, who invariably delivers an unforgettably superlative performance. I have had the pleasure of watching her work and writing about it before, with high praise, for example:
“[T]he cast delivers what amounts to a master class in fine acting. At the head of the class . . . Presila Quinby in the rich role of the Lady Macbeth character, Mrs. Iselin. . . . I am tickled to say that Presila Quinby succeeds in the Mrs. Iselin role on the Camelot stage, to an extent that almost makes one forget Ms. Lansbury’s film performance and certainly rivals that. The role requires great range and depth from an actress, with different scenes calling for projecting calculating, cool evil, childlike vulnerable innocence, universal maternal protectiveness, overt aggression, provocative sexual abandon (at least some innuendo of the illicit sexuality in the book is back in the stage play), and even an abrupt discomforting nosedive into complete desolation. Ms. Quinby does a very polished job of portraying all of those aspects of the Mrs. Iselin role. It IS a larger than life character, but Ms. Quinby makes her a real and believable one for the Camelot Theatre audience (not to mention her fellow actors on stage, who must play against her in rendering their characters).”
[Performing Arts Reviews, Camelot Theatre’s The Manchurian Candidate: A Master Class In Fine Acting, http://bit.ly/1OYJ6vn]
Ric Hagerman is a veteran actor who spent many years practicing the craft in the theaters of Seattle before relocating to the Rogue Valley, where he has repeatedly turned up in the casts of well-reviewed ensemble theater pieces over the past few years. Working regularly for Camelot Theatre as well as Next Stage Rep, he has drawn positive notices from many reviewers, like “Ric Hagerman offers a sour Count von Strack, dismissing Mozart’s music as ‘too many notes.’” [Roberta Kent, Camelot’s ‘Amadeus’ is a requiem for two composers, Ashland Daily Tidings, Feb. 7, 2013, http://bit.ly/1SjUSyz] or my own note: “The cast was . . . loaded with veteran actors and actresses, who provided yeoman portrayals of the other busload of characters in the play. . . . Rick Hagerman provides a journeyman effort as the licentious, inebriate, intellectual, Dr. Lyman.” [Performing Arts Reviews, Bus Stop: William Inge’s Romantic Comedy Laced With Melancholy Lonely Souls, http://bit.ly/1qyl1DI]
The youngest member of the Almost, Maine ensemble, recent Southern Oregon University theater student Max Gutfreund, is hardly the least of the prodigious talents assembled on the stage for this show. Mr. Gutfreund may lack the long resume and many years of stage performances of his peers in this production, but he has made the most of his multiple opportunities to perform, for Camelot Theatre and Next Stage Rep, earning the highest praise for his previous efforts among similar companies of veteran thespians:
“Max Gutfreund brings us a Mozart we can love and agonize over in a comedic/tragic way. He is impressive, impetuous and aggravating in turn, and it’s fascinating to see how in this sad tale his boyishness and buoyancy offer contrast to Salieri’s somber conceits. . . .” [Catie Faryl, High Notes and Glorious Praise for Amadeus at Talent’s Camelot Theatre, Catie Faryl’s Better Stories, http://bit.ly/1V3ci9F]
“Southern Oregon University student Max Gutfreund provides the matching dramatic arc as the young Mozart. We see the character change from a rude, impetuous young adult to a sick, delusional man who believes he has lost everything. Gutfreund begins by romping around the stage, chasing his future wife Constanze (Grace Peets), braying laughter and hurling insults. As he matures, he understands that he is no longer an idolized child and that his actions have professional consequences.” [Roberta Kent, Camelot’s ‘Amadeus’ is a requiem for two composers, Ashland Daily Tidings, Feb. 7, 2013, http://bit.ly/1SjUSyz]
Having assembled this veritable “all-star” cast for this production of Almost, Maine, Director Doug Warner turns them loose to do what they do so well, and the result is a titillating, entertaining joy to watch. Taking turns, playing multiple roles in successive scenes, these supremely gifted actors almost turn the show into a talent competition: “Can you top this?”, “Oh yes, I can – your turn!” No one can deliver dialogue better than Presila Quinby, and she DOES deliver with near perfection, in four scenes with Ric Hagerman. In Her Heart, she explains why she carries around her broken heart in a paper bag to Mr. Hagerman’s game “repairman”. In Getting It Back she delivers 5 huge red bags filled with the love received from her long time paramour and demands that he, in kind, return to her the love she has given to him; Mr. Hagerman ups the ante in the “performance competition”, while presenting an affecting solution to her challenge.
Where It Went raises the dramatics another notch, as two long time, but sadly detached, spouses squabble after ice skating on their anniversary, while looking for a lost shoe. And in the best and last of their four scenes, Story of Hope, a long lost love returns to her young lover’s home years later to finally give him a response to the marriage proposal he had presented, that she left without answering. Both Ms. Quinby and Mr. Hagerman are at the top of their games in this scene, which is an entertaining example of stage acting at its best.
Meanwhile, Jade Chavis Watt is a consummate actress with a very effective palate of facial expressions, gestures, motion, and physical movement to communicate a powerful, unambiguous repertoire of emotions and ideas, similarly put to good use in multiple scenes in Almost, Maine. In the Prologue, Epilogue and This Hurts, she is paired to good effect with Mr. Cuppy, who is similarly very effective as a physical actor. He plays the Interlogue without her, and without dialogue; purely non-verbal acting, which is well done and quite amusing.
In This Hurts, he plays a character whose genetic nervous disorder prevents him from feeling physical pain, who encounters Ms. Watt’s character in an apartment building’s basement laundry room. Their performances are near-slapstick, with Ms. Watt striking (inadvertently) Mr. Cuppy’s character in the head with an ironing board, and (intentionally) with a book. It’s all very funny, and, as most of the scenes, concludes with a surprise, and happy, ending. Ms. Watt is paired with Mr. Gutfreund and Ms. Quinby in an early scene, Sad and Glad, in which his character encounters Ms. Watt’s character (his former girlfriend) at a bar, where it turns out that she is celebrating her bachelorette’s party. The bar provides free drinks to any patron willing to confess being sad, and he appears to be a good candidate for the freebie, until encountering Ms. Quinby’s cocktail waitress. All very amusingly performed, to entertaining effect.
But in her best scene, and one of the most entertaining in the show, Ms. Watt is paired with Mr. Gutfreund in the penultimate scene, Seeing the Thing. Mr. Gutfreund, whose character is romantically interested in Ms. Watt’s character, who has a “problem down there”, gives her a supposedly “abstract” picture he has painted, and challenges her to “See the thing.” “You gotta trick it. Kinda look at it, but not let it know you’re looking at it.” As things warm up between them, they hysterically shed layer after layer of clothing, in an entertaining, energetic, sustained burst of physical motion and gestures, getting down to the most amusing looking matched pair of red long-johns (great costuming!). It is very well done and was very well and enthusiastically received by the audience.
One additional scene pairs Mr. Cuppy and Mr. Gutfreund, They Fell. It is hilarious, physical humor, with both actors repeatedly physically falling and unable to stay on their feet. The conceit is that they, two male best friends and drinking and bowling buddies, have “fallen” in love, with one another – and the falling is humorously depicted quite literally. Surprisingly, this scene has been the source of some controversy, with opponents of gay love objecting to it and preventing a school performance of the production. [Wikipedia, Almost, Maine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almost,_Maine] That’s quite a stretch because there really is nothing objectionable depicted in the scene – nothing anywhere close to sex, not even any touching, just a hilarious, antic repeated falling down, which Mr. Cuppy and Mr. Gutfreund render to near perfection.
As noted near the top of this review, Almost, Maine is an audience favorite, a breaker of box office records. It is well written, very amusing, poignant, and entertaining. Next Stage Repertory Company has done a superlative job of mounting the show in the current production, corralling a fantastic group of actors, who enthusiastically enjoy themselves while producing a very entertaining, satisfying theater experience. This show OUGHT to be seen; it is unfortunate that the calendar has it competing with other popular entertainment events that siphon away some of its natural audience (and that its opening performance was overlooked in some quarters). If you’re not totally tied up seeing films at the Film Festival, and/or parading in or celebrating the Pear Blossom Festival, make it a point to attend one of the remaining performances of Almost, Maine – you’ll be glad you did and thank me later. Almost, Maine will be performed again at the Craterian Theatre in Medford on Friday, April 8 at 7:30 pm and Saturday, April 9 at 2:00 pm. Tickets can be ordered by visiting the box office at 16 S. Bartlett, Medford, OR 97501, calling the box office at 541-779-3000, or online at http://bit.ly/1NYQzv8.
ALL photos by Craterian Theatre photographer, Jim Craven.