On a muggy Melbourne afternoon it was quite a magical sight to see snow scattered across the set of Almost, Maine. Whether real or imitation I’ll never know, so convincing was its texture, and the request from Front of House staff to refrain from touching it made it even more tantalising.
Presented in an appealing format of nine vignettes, Almost, Maine sets the simultaneous interlocking love stories on a chilly Friday night in a mythical North American town. Each short piece (mostly two-handers, with the ensemble of six versatile actors playing numerous characters) explores the experience of falling in and out of love in all its messy, thrilling and heart-breaking forms.
The play’s strengths lie in its moments of delicate beauty – private moments shared between courting characters balancing precariously on the edge of love, intimacy and commitment. Symbols of love are aesthetic, sometimes literal: Scarlet bags of love are delivered by a woman to her lover’s door, wanting to return it in exchange for all the love she’s given him; a snowball shaped with mittened hands becomes a misunderstood declaration of how close a man feels to his girlfriend; and a missing shoe drops from the sky, resolving a problem (as the saying goes) and ending a marriage.
Similarly, frequent moments of absurdity are sweet and endearing, enhancing the piece with splashes of comedy: two men fight gravity as they literally fall in love; a couple strip gradually in turn to the tune of the Duelling Banjos; and an ironing board becomes an accidental slapstick weapon.
Unfortunately, between the numerous delightful moments are sections of the play that are somewhat contrived, old-fashioned in their representations of gender, and thus much less appealing. Most of the female characters seem overtly vulnerable, bordering on meek, with their doe-eyes set firmly on the prize of fulfilment symbolised by a wedding ring. And whilst the majority of the vignettes involve some sort of physical expression of love or affection – from a hug, to a kiss, to multiple kisses – the sole story involving gay characters is noticeably lacking in any physical contact.
At times the sweetness becomes saccharine, as plot twists steer the drama headlong into melodrama, conjuring cringe-worthy comparisons to a midday soap opera, aided by the distracting and inconsistent American accents. Music, mostly subtle throughout, sometimes pushes past the point of being a charming embellishment and becomes a heavy-handed indication that something ‘magical’ is happening. Added to these elements are some blatantly evocative character names, such as Hope and Glory, which all help nudge the play’s atmosphere into the realm of the schmaltzy.
That said, the play is a worthy exploration of ordinary human emotions. Unusual characters are finely drawn – Pier Carthew’s embodiment of a man unable to feel physical pain (and who thus keeps advisory lists of ‘Things That Can Hurt’ and ‘Things To Be Afraid Of’) is a stand out. The sketches of a town and its people as they play out an average Friday night are mostly appealing and achingly familiar. Set design is simple and effective, creating a distinctive look and providing a chilly and ethereal environment in which to stage the action.
And that snow. Glittering under stage lights symbolising the dazzling aurora borealis, it was as pretty as it was intriguing – the perfect decoration for a stage set to represent, as one character describes Maine, the edge of the world.
Rubber Dog Productions presents
Venue: Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham St, Albert Park
Dates/Time: Preview November 15 & 16, opening 17, 18, 19, 22,
26, 29, 30 November and 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8 December 8pm. Sundays 5pm.
Tickets: $22.50, Conc: $20
Bookings: 9699 3253 or online at www.gasworks.org.au