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Jeezum crow!

Talk about cognitive dissonance ...

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I've never felt such contradictory reactions to a play as I did to Almost, Maine at Olympia Little Theatre. It's an anthology set in a fictional settlement on a cold winter's night, and I both loved and despised it. Depending on where you sit, it might be the best date show you've ever seen. John Cariani's lovable script is now the most-produced in American high schools, stealing the crown from A Midsummer Night's Dream. But we arrived ten minutes before curtain on opening night, so our options for seating were limited. OLT uses a three-sided thrust stage; we sat at the "upstage right" side close to the backdrop. The actors were blocked so one-dimensionally we felt completely ostracized.

It's director Tim Shute's first time helming a show. I get that. The set design is also his own. But he's a solid actor and a smart guy, so he must have realized at some point his actors were ignoring half the room. In a play of 10 scenes, was it necessary to begin each at the same location on stage?

This grew totally obnoxious, and it was fixable. Moving actors onto the porch of the upstage set piece would've helped considerably. Also, in a show in which actors play multiple roles, how ‘bout playing multiple roles? With the sole exception of Korja Giles, none of the players took any discernible effort to differentiate characters. The performances were so identical from scene to scene that Shute felt obliged to inform us the characters changed in his curtain speech. We shouldn't need to be told.

But wait! Does it sound like I hated Almost, Maine? I certainly hated those two elements. You will, too, if you sit on the upstage side. But as much as Shute drops the ball on blocking and character separation, he knocks it out of the park on elements of romance and magical realism. What this show must do, first and foremost and probably second as well, is pummel sentimental "Aww"s from its audience. And it does, several times. It's a show drunk on love.

I already mentioned Giles's capable work; but paradoxically, while the other eight actors create one variously-entitled character each, they each play the hell out of that character. The show is cast well. Since few of these actors are formally trained, they share credit with Shute. I suspect his work was aided by veterans Brittni Reinertsen, last seen in How I Learned to Drive at Prodigal Sun, and McKenzie Clifford, the lead from OLT's Bell, Book and Candle. We relate to these characters, emotions all atwitter, and we root for them to find their Northern lights.

The town of Almost, one character observes, "is a little further away from things than I remember." But what works best about Almost, Maine - and it does, in spades - is that it's close enough to our inner worlds of emotions to overrule more rational objections.

Almost, Maine

Through Feb. 5, Thursday-Saturday 7:55 p.m.
Sun. 1:55 p.m., $10-$14
Olympia Little Theatre, 1725 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia

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