If you could imagine the town of Taos transported to northernmost New England, it might look a lot like the mythical community of “Almost, Maine.”
Taos High School Drama Department’s production of John Cariani’s play opens for a two-week run beginning today (Feb. 23), 7 p.m., at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte.
“The fictional almost-town feels like everyone is connected,” said Adam Overley-Black, Taos High School drama teacher and director. “They refer to each other, everyone knows each other, they all refer to two or three places where they all go. Even though you only see a couple of them at a time, you understand that it’s a connected community.”
Playwright Cariani has described his work as a “midwinter night’s dream,” set in a Maine town that’s “so far north, it’s almost not in the United States.”
“I looked online at high school shows around the country,” Overley-Black said. “At the top of every list was this show I’d never heard of, and I got curious enough to get hold of a copy. I read it and loved it immediately not only because it would accommodate our casting — there are 19 characters in ‘Almost, Maine,’ and with our two casts, we were able to use 35 actors — but because it’s sweet and charming without going over the ledge into ‘cute.’ And there are many moments of magical realism that give the show an extra mystique. So much of what happens is unexpected. This show has never been seen in Taos, and I’m looking forward to people enjoying the surprises.”
The structure of the play, with each scene adding its own small story to the whole, also allowed the director and actors to work in greater depth. “Usually with a large cast, you’re trying to compose a bigger picture and not working one-on-one as much with your actors,” Overley-Black said. “But with this show, there’s never more than two or three people in a scene, and it’s given our actors the chance to really do some great work. They’re giving the best performances I’ve ever seen from them.”
“Almost, Maine” will feature collaborations with the high school’s animation and photography classes. The student actors and crew Tempo interviewed during a recent rehearsal were enthusiastic about the production and cheerful about the hours of work preparing the play entails.
Freshman Jasmine Stoner chose to do the much-needed work behind the scenes on this production, serving as both stage manager and assistant director. “I did costumes for the last two shows – and the more I worked backstage, the more I enjoyed it. It’s a lot of work and a lot of responsibility, and it’s been really fun.”
“Sandrine is my character,” said Layla Brooks. “She’s in her 20s and she’s experienced love in ways that I haven’t gone through, so it’s interesting to play. Drama ... is a way to get out of your own mindset and lets you become diversified characters and gives you new opportunities. We’re acting out a reality that people will be able to relate to.”
The scene shared by Jenna Basehart and Emily Vigard was originally written for two men. The playwright, aware of the preponderance of female students in many high school theater groups, rewrote some scenes to feature two young women.
“Our scene is about two best friends – my character, Shelly, and her friend, Deena – talking about their awful dates,” said Basehart. “It’s been so much fun rehearsing, and it’s an amazing experience to have so many types of love in one production. It’s a wonderful cast.”
“This was really fun working with one other person and having such a personal experience onstage,” said Vigard. “With fewer lines, you can focus on the emotions and get deeper with it. And I like the humor a lot.”
Ryan Kipnis plays a character named Page, which was a part also initially written as a male. “We gender swapped it,” said Kipnis. “It’s really cool. I’m working with Ryan Cox, who’s been my best friend for years. We’re two awkward people on our own little planet.”
“Our awkward couple is like the glue holding the story together,” said Cox. “We’re the prologue and epilogue. It’s so much fun being in a play and acting on the big stage at the TCA.”
In another gender-swapped pairing, Leah Epstein plays Phyllis, originally Phil. “Our scene is one of the more dramatic ones. My character is in a rocky marriage, struggling to connect with her spouse.” Scarlett Finnell plays Phyllis’ partner, Marci. “Ours is one of the only scenes that doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s emotional. We have to scream and get really mad.”
Caeley Stewart plays a character identified only as “the Waitress,” whose real identity is one of the play’s surprise reveals. “My character is bubbly and nice. When she’s working, she’s preoccupied and can’t read the mood of the scene, so she can make things more awkward or end up rubbing salt in a wound without realizing it.”
“She’s busy, not exactly paying attention to the awkwardness all around her,” said Alyssa Martinez, who plays the Waitress in the other cast. “Her mind is in a million places.”
Julianne Moyer’s character, Glory, has lost her estranged husband, Wes, in a tragic accident. “She’s a hiker, walking through Maine to see Wes in the northern lights.” Glory wanders into the backyard of a man named East, played by Vicente Jeantete. “He sees her through the window and he’s like, ‘Whoa!’” said Jeantete. “Then he interrogates her. Well, he kisses her. East is a very curious fella. He’s open-minded and open-hearted – and open-mouthed.”
William Duncan spoke about his character, Dave. “He’s kind of a simple guy. He works at a lumber mill and likes to snowmobile. He has a good friend, Rhonda, and the scene is about him letting her know he really loves her.”
Duncan is playing Dave in both casts with two different scene partners, Makaela Vogel and Sabina Jones.
“Rhonda is a tomboy for sure,” said Vogel. “She thinks he’s just a friend. She’s insecure and doesn’t know she’s beautiful.”
“It’s really fun to play such a big dynamic character, so sensitive and so rough around the edges,” said Jones. “Every character in this show tells a different story, and the stories are all threaded together. We’re all connected, we all have our unique stories – and we’re all really awkward. That’s what it means to be human.”
The show runs for two weekends, with 7 p.m. performances today through Saturday (Feb. 23-25) and March 2-4. There is a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee on March 4.
Tickets are $12, $8 for youth 17 and under and may be purchased in advance at the TCA office, 133 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. For more information, call (575) 758-2052.