Every time the stage lights dim and the soft, floating music restarts to signify the end of a love-saturated vignette, a silhouette in the shape of director Ryan Cooper, MCAS ’16, takes detailed notes and whispers quietly to a confidant sitting next to him.
Through a pair of dark-rimmed glasses, his eyes scour the stage, making sure that every prop is perfectly positioned where it should be. For reference, Cooper recalls just one of the play’s many set configurations that he has committed to memory, as the various characters, props, and set designs change almost entirely with each new scene. Of these, the show has nine.
The play is good—very good, actually—and he knows it. Just 10 minutes into the first act, the combination of the actors’ evocative performance and Cooper’s meticulous attention to stage direction has the audience swooning. He watches the actors intently: their every move and inflection studied, and the effect they have on the audience duly noted. The actors never seem to slip up, however, and scenes transition smoothly despite each scene boasting its own individual themes and plotlines.
Throughout the performance, the naive residents of fictional town Almost, Maine, fall in and out of love in the most peculiar—and awkward—ways. Funny when it needs to be and stone-cold serious on more than one occasion, Almost, Maine straddles a variety of contradictory genres, skipping from one to another and back again without missing a beat.
“It’s my favorite play,” Cooper said. Easily beating out others on the short list of scripts Cooper compiled at the advent of his directing stint, the heartwarming Almost, Maine emerged as a clear victor almost immediately. “It does have this underlying, sweet message,” he said. “It’s very much about how love has a place in the world. Even though things can go wrong, it still has this sense of hope.”
In one vignette, a giddy young woman throws caution to the cold, winter wind and confesses her love for a close friend. In another scene, arguably the most notable due to its humorous dialogue and inventive use of physical comedy, two best friends discover a compelling desire to be with one another after all of their relationships with girls go south. Wrestling with social constructs and gender stereotypes that initially keep their feelings under wraps, the friends unearth a love that they were previously too timid to explore.
One of the most interesting aspects of the performances is the play’s magical-realist genre. In the town of Almost, Maine, fanciful wonders exist as love becomes tangible, lost love physically hurts, and hearts break—literally. The centerpiece of the entire show (sheer, billowing sheets suspended from the studio rafters) gleam with iridescent beauty when colored lights illuminate them between scenes. The prop perfectly embodies the Northern lights, a staple that helps establish the play’s whimsical air and aides in extending the audience’s disbelief—a mindset that is so vital to the enjoyment and understanding of Almost, Maine. In reference to his production concept, Cooper said, “I wanted to play with this natural and ethereal thing. I wanted to make sure [the Northern lights] were represented in this kind of beautiful, magical way. In doing so, we’re able to kind of put in this wonderment and ethereal quality to the world of the play.”
The show is a marathon of wintery, will-they-won’t-they vignettes, and the impressive execution of the miniature scenes makes the overly sappy subject matter addictive instead of annoying.
A smaller and more versatile space than Robsham’s main stage, the Bonn Studio Theater allows Cooper some artistic leeway. Choosing to have the show in the round, or structuring the stage so that performers are surrounded by the audience on all sides, Cooper takes advantage of the intimacy of an emotional show like Almost, Maine. The decision to avoid directing the play in proscenium—with the audience watching the stage from just one side—was a deliberate and nontraditional break from the way Almost, Maine has historically been performed.
“Because the show is so much about love, so much about people and connection and relationships, I thought that having it in the round would provide a more intimate setting,” Cooper said. “It would actually make the show come more to life.”
For Cooper’s production of Almost, Maine, the Bonn Theatre isn’t the only thing that has to be versatile to meet the expectations of the director’s vision. The small cast of seven actors bustle in and out of scenes, changing costumes enough times to represent a total of 19 characters. The plotlines and relationships intersect at times, making for a guessing game of who’s who that lasts throughout the entire show.
“Oh, of course I have a favorite scene,” Cooper said, throwing his head back and smiling as if playing the entire vignette out inside his head. “It’s called ‘Getting it Back,’ and it’s really a very sweet scene.” He laughed. “By the end I’m in a puddle—I think it’s just the cutest thing.”
Charming and enchanting, raw and honest, Cooper’s interpretation of the play is just that: “the cutest thing.” A refreshing look at love in all its wacky and often unpredictable forms, the theatre department’s January 28-31 performances will have the audience falling in love with this interpretation of Almost, Maine.
Featured Image By Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor