Review by Caitlin Connelly
Those who read Hudson Valley Ovation’s recent piece on The New Deal Creative Arts Center’s production of Almost, Maine and were disappointed to have missed it, you are in luck: the show has been picked up by Clove Creek Dinner Theater and showcases many of the original performers while making some wonderful new additions as well. It is worth noting that even those who saw the premiere performance at the Cunneen-Hackett Theater in February will be entertained by Clove Creek’s production as a show worth seeing in its own right. The chemistry between the actors played out in the more intimate space at Clove Creek allows for the show to be seen in a very new, moving and magical light.
If you are new to this remarkable show, Almost, Maine is a romantic comedy written by John Cariani. It is about a fictional, “unorganized” community nestled beneath the Northern Lights in northern Maine. A place where people pride themselves on their stereotypical small-town-Maine friendliness, but are too far from the ocean for anyone to work on a stereotypical Maine lobster boat. A place where everyone is clearly connected, but you still only “know who you know.” These unifying traits of the community are depicted in a series of short vignettes depicting nine highly relatable human relationships at various stops along the timeline of hope, love, and loss.
One of the more interesting devices Cariani uses in this play is the sense of surrealism throughout it, which adds magical layers and, often, comedic relief. For example, in the scene “Her Heart”, a woman carries her broken heart in a bag while searching for a place from which to see the Northern Lights. Her search leads her to the yard of a repairman, who claims, in a perfect ending to the play’s first vignette, that he can fix it.
In “Getting It Back”, a young woman rushes into her boyfriend’s house claiming she wants all the love she has given him back, and offering to return all the love he has given her. The symbolic manner in which she returns that love (which won’t be given away here!) is a clever metaphor which delights the audience and sets up her momentary disappointment when her boyfriend responds with something far less impressive. The result is a hilarious, heartwarming twist to the end of the scene. In another story entitled “They Fell”, two longtime friends quite literally “fall” for one another. The exaggerated physical action connects the audience to the characters through the quirks and oddities of Cariani’s style as a playwright.
Cariani intended that the play could be cast using as many as nineteen actors or as few as four. In this production, it was magnificently done with only five performers. To produce such a quality performance, where the actors must believably transform into new characters, and present distinct stories which hold their own, requires unfaltering professionalism and adaptability from each member of the cast. The cast at Clove Creek includes Steven Bendler, Teresa Gasparini, Josie Grant, Brandon Patterson, and Louisa Vilardi, all of whom skillfully prove up to the challenge.
The production’s deceptively simple set requires careful attention by Stage Manager, Katherine Abell. Scene changes are marked by only the smallest details which distinguish the sense of place and are integral to each scene. The flow of a show with so many quickly moving scenes performed by so few actors moving through costume and character changes requires steadfast attention to detail.
The play opens amidst a simple yet stunning stage and lighting design, created by Teresa Gasparini and executed adeptly by Matthew Woolever and Jeff Wilson. It shimmers with reflecting lights that recreate the beauty of the Northern Lights on a snowy evening in Northern Maine. A bench is centered between snow brushed pine trees and doorways strategically frame each side of the stage. The serenity of the set and lighting, paired with musical repertoire performed and recorded by Vitamin String Quartet, invites you in immediately. The music for each scene enhances the emotional flow of the stories perfectly and was artfully chosen by Ms. Gasparini.
Actors Brandon Patterson and Josie Grant open the play by capturing the audience’s hearts in a sweet profession of love that leaves us smiling and laughing in anticipation of a later conclusion. Patterson was exceptional in his comedic timing and ability to embody new characters within very fast scene changes. His ability to make the audience respond to each of his characters in so many ways in one night is astounding. He held natural chemistry with his scene partners throughout, making him easy to fall in love with on stage.
Josie Grant brightens the stage with energy and expressiveness. She makes it easy for the audience to empathize and relate to her frustrations where the moment calls for it, while in other scenes she effortlessly lifts the action and reflects the hope the scene requires.
Teresa Gasparini is a phenomenal performer, an absolute natural on stage. The range of her characters provides her with opportunities to make audiences laugh and cry, and she provides a most memorable performance. Her chemistry with all three of her scene partners was clear and deeply moving.
Louisa Vilardi was convincingly beautiful in all three of her scenes. In her first scene, she plays a woman who leaves someone broken-hearted and has been found by someone else; in another it is her character who hopes there’s still a place for her in someone’s heart, and in a third, she plays a character who knows (she thinks) exactly where the relationship stands. All three are played with great humor and feeling.
Steven Bendler really pushed the limits of creating very different affects for each of his characters as well. In one scene, he has the audience laughing up a storm as he and Gasparini tear off each other’s clothes, in another, everyone swoons as he wraps his arms around Vilardi, and in a third, he and Gasparini leave not a dry eye in the room as a struggling husband and wife before being left sitting alone on stage.
The show was originally directed by Tamara Cacchione for The New Deal Creative Arts Center. Her talent and vision as a director are carried over here, but are also well combined with new directorial insights from Teresa Gasparini and Louisa Vilardi.
One intriguing choice which distinguishes this production is the use of two women, Gasparini and Grant, instead of two men, in the scene portraying two friends who quite literally “fall” for one another. It is a choice Cariani leaves up to directors. Despite controversy over the same-sex scene within as recently as the last five years, it is a credit to the production that the audience found the scene incredibly relatable. No small part of that credit is due Grant and Gasparini. They each bring the scene to life skillfully and in the universally human way to which Cariani’s script aspires.
What is truly touching about Almost, Maine is that there is a story in it for everyone. As one sits and watches this show, it touches upon moments in our lives, past, present, or in a foreseeable future. It is storytelling at its finest, allowing the audience to see and understand themselves through the lens of live theatre. Clove Creek Dinner Theater’s rendition of Almost, Maine is so sweet and funny that it inevitably uplifts. On the other hand, it is thought provoking to a degree that may leave audiences doing some personal pondering as well. It makes for a brilliant show and some great discussion afterward.
Almost, Maine runs Thursdays through Sundays until Sunday, March 24, 2019. Matinees are scheduled for Sundays, as well as for Thursday, March 21. The weather outside may still be frightful, but inside Clove Creek Dinner Theater, the Northern Lights are quite delightful. This show, paired with a delicious meal, is guaranteed to warm your heart. Tickets are available at http://www.clovecreekdinnertheater.com/.
Caitlin Connelly is an actor, vocalist, and artist living in the Hudson Valley. She is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Bard College at Simon’s Rock, from where she holds degrees in Vocal Jazz/ Music Performance, Accessories Design, and Performing Arts. She is an avid storyteller and through it hopes to create the change she would like to see in the world.