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Maine Stage 

Sweet Comedy at Redwood Curtain

Almost, Maine, now on stage at Redwood Curtain, is a collection of love stories told in 10 scenes with two people in each, united only by the time and place: a winter night in 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 Thorton 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 because 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 clich├ęs, 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 dialog 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.

The 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 21. Redwood Curtain has a special "cheap date" price on Thursdays -- and this is a date-night play if there ever was one.

Russian Scenes at the Grange and Other Stories

Coming up later in May

This is the final weekend for the Humboldt Light Opera production of a "greatest hits" version of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro paired with The Last Five Years, by Jason Robert Brown. Both stories are told primarily in song, and they provide a contrast (said director Carol Ryder) in what marriage was like in the late 1700s versus today. Shows are Friday and Saturday, May 6 and 7, at 7 p.m. and Sunday May 8 at 2 p.m. in CR's Forum Theatre.

The Young Actors Guild of Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy presents A Russian Promenade at the Bayside Grange, beginning May 11. Director Gretha Omey Stenger uses the framework of Gogol's play The Government Inspector with characters from two Chekhov plays and a number of his short stories to create a dramatic world that both the actors and audience will literally walk through as they promenade to scenes featuring characters from all walks of 19th century village life. Audience members who prefer to sit still will have the option of watching it all from one location, but those who join the promenade and the shifting audience space might interact with the characters, as they all prepare for the arrival of the government inspector.

A Russian Promenade plays Wednesday May 11 through Saturday May 14 at 7:30 p.m., with an additional 1:30 p.m. matinee on Saturday.

Beginning May 12, the graduating MFA students at Dell'Arte School present their thesis projects of original work in The Thesis Festival: A Tuesday, a one-act dark comedy in which Death has a speaking part; Master of All Splendor, an adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; and Land of Dreams, a two-clown show suggested "for couples who drive each other crazy." Another date night! All three of these shows play Thursdays through Sundays May 12-15 and May 19-22 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.

Dell'Arte School's first-year students present the not-quite-final show of the year -- The Finals -- Thursday May 26 through Saturday May 28. The following weekend, June 2-5, the second-year students tell stories in Storytelling. Both showcases are in the Carlo.

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