The Thrust: ‘Almost, Maine’ and Spirited, Northshore

From a relative theatre desert to abuzz with stories, two theatre companies have enlivened a Kenmore stage. One show closes this weekend. 

HEART Repertory Theatre’s Almost, Maine runs through this Sunday. Later this season, As If Theatre Company returns with a full-length show, on the heels of its Kenmore Quickies shorts fest in August. Both companies perform at the Kenmore Community Club. 

 

HEART Repertory Theatre: Almost, Maine 

Through This Weekend

Awwk-warrd. 

That’s where these tales of falling in and out of love appear to be stuck. But they quickly take a turn for the fantastical, mixing hyper-realism with the supernatural and unexpected.

Almost, Maine is a series of vignettes by writer and actor John Cariani, set near-simultaneously on a sliver of cold night in a fictional far-north town — an unincorporated stretch of (almost-in-Canada) land called Almost. As stand-alones and in concert with each other, the pieces are amusing to watch unfold, even as they’d be mortifying as real-life exchanges. 

The night opens with a man and his girlfriend on a solitary bench, surrounded by the audience gaze in an intimate theatre-in-the-round setup, as he tries to explain to her his theory of love and closeness. But it’s so counter to popular notions of romance, he succeeds in driving her away instead. He’s left there with the bench, perplexed and alone.

Love isn’t off to a good start here in Almost.

Next enters a woman who possesses none of his social skittishness. This intrepid traveler barges onto private land, tourist brochure in hand, to inform a long-time resident how real Mainers do things. The lopsidedness of the exchange — his disbelief, her steamrolling — makes this setup, like the first one, horribly awkward to watch. 

But then things get real weird. The tables are turned. Maybe it’s her messiness we should feel bad for. 

Throughout the night, scenes present literal interpretations of love-related idioms and cliche phrases — a broken heart, love hurts, falling for you — in which things tend to take a turn from the mundane to bizarre or otherworldly. The vignettes are also slow burns, about characters in close exchanges. They’re perfect vehicles for actors to test out, hone, or show off their skills, and their chemistry with one another, in creating a mood, or conveying a truth, in a totally absurd situation. 

That’s by design. Almost, Maine arose from some shorts Cariani wrote not as a single play, but as bits to showcase himself as an actor — essentially, as audition pieces. Though connected only loosely, together they paint a down-to-earth picture of a could-be town. They’re blips of passing connection, common places, and momentary but momentous interactions.

In HEART’s rendition, an ensemble of six actors — Cheyenne Bilbrey, Samantha Hogue, Dov Joel, Denny Park, Karli Reinbold, and Sonja Rose Usher, directed by Steve Cooper — trade off effortlessly between scenes. They feel committed to the sweetness, the oblivious absurdity and, at times, the ruthless physicality, of the scenes. Around them, an austere staging in-the-round accentuates both the smallness and immediacy of relationships under a big, starry sky in this lovely, strange little show.

Also, there’s an extraordinary prevalence of flannel. 

‘Almost, Maine’ runs through 9/11 at HEART Repertory Theatre in the Kenmore Community Club. Tickets are $25, here

 

 

As If Theatre Company: Kenmore Quickies 

Performed in August 

From the tunnels of a bootlegging scheme to the depths of something resembling hell, and from the end of a dock to the end of a rainbow. Whether tying to avoid turning into a worm-eater, turning tricks on a golf course, or completing a simple hotel checkout without further incident. These are among the places (real and imagined) and ambitions cooked up in the latest round of a locally-grown short play festival.  

The eight shorts in this year’s Kenmore Quickies each took viewers on an unlikely journey, all steeped in Kenmore history. Or at least quasi-history. 

As If Theatre Company’s annual festival follows a randomized approach similar to 14/48: The World’s Quickest Theatre Festival, minus the latter’s frantic pace. For these shorts, eight local playwrights are paired up randomly with a director and cast, a topic, and a limited array of props to incorporate (or not); and the writing and rehearsals take place over a period of a few weeks, rather than the weekend circus of 14/48.

The inaugural Kenmore Quickies (held pre-pandemic) used chunks of an enormous local mural as prompts. (Read more about it here.) This second edition, a couple years delayed — though with a virtual “Quarantine Quickies” put up in the meantime — instead prompted playwrights with local lore and odd historical bits, all curated by the Kenmore Heritage Society. Whether to let the historical bit guide the story’s action or merely inspire a theme, however, was up to the writer.

Writers and prompts were Simon Astor (the prostitution house of Inglewood Golf Country Club); Susan Bailie (Richard “Bottles” Smith, the man from the swamp); Roz Cornejo (the railcar skeleton at the end of the dock); John C. Davenport (the S.E. Hitsman Dance Hall burns to the ground); Caitlin Gilman (the brick road from Lake Forest Park to Bothell); Thomas Pierce (the haunting of St. Edwards Monastery); Curtis Rawls (how Cat’s Whiskers Road got its name); and Scott Stolnack (the secret tunnels to stored liquor). Actors from an ensemble of 14 rotated in and out of the action, with each performing in two plays. A couple of standout portrayals included Diane Jamieson in some especially eccentric roles, and Jana Blumberg as a surprisingly likable devil.

With programming that balances works rooted firmly in Kenmore and nationally known plays, next month As If puts on The Foreigner by Larry Shue (October 6-23). It’ll mark the company’s fourth full-run production of established works, after The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl, Kimberly Akimbo by David Lindsay-Abaire, and, earlier this year, The Cake by Bekah Brunstetter.

‘The Foreigner’ runs 10/6-23 at As If Theatre Company in the Kenmore Community Club. Tickets are $27, here. ‘Kenmore Quickies – Tall Tales’ ran 8/12-14, also at the Kenmore Community Club.  


For shows by date, see the Performance Calendar.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.