Review: Almost, Maine by Gaslight Baker Theatre
by Michael Meigs
Lockhart, Texas, is about as far as you can get geographically from this mythical almost-town in the wilds of Maine, but that hardly matters. Director Randy Wachtel and the Gaslight Baker cast of 16 actors open a big box of valentines here. Warm, humorous, comic and sometimes slightly surreal, these nine skits with a little modification could have been played anywhere.
The Gaslight Baker motto is "Putting the ART in Lockhart." Anyone who has been following the fine work of this theatre organization will have the additional pleasure of recognizing familiar faces, reinforcing the message that the Gaslight Baker is both a community theatre and something of a repertory group. GB president Steve Lawson, for example, and Todd Martin Allen, who recently locked in deadly, earnest combat in GB's Sleuth, in separate pieces transform into taciturn, practical Mainers with surprisingly soft hearts. Billy Alexander, Stephen Reynolds, Christy Smith and David Young were in Amateurs. Terry Bennett was a familiar face from City Theatre's Christmas Belles.
This style of theatre recalls the "blackout sketches" of American vaudeville, typically performed in front of the curtain as more elaborate acts were setting up backstage.
Two or at most three actors would play a sketch or exchange banter to keep the audience entertained. With the punchline, light would go down and action would continue. It was economical entertainment that was formative for the great radio and television comedians from the 1930s onward.
The arriving audience is advised that the theatre may be chilly, in part to replicate the climate in Maine, and staff kindly make available blankets for those who arrive unprepared for February air conditioning. This measure not only sets the stage but also helps the actors, some of whom are wearing high-thermal winter wear (in some cases, in several layers). In contrast to the epic scenery built for Amateurs and for Sleuth, this stage is mostly bare, with looming white snowbanks on either side, and the nine scenes are furnished with modest changes. Locale is set with a park bench, a table, the exterior and back door of a house, or a couple of garden chairs. Welcoming the audience, director Randy Wachtel told us playwright John Cariani specified that these scenes are playing simultaneously on a night of great activity for the northern lights.
Here's a gazeteer of Lockhart's creation of mythic Maine:
Pete (Billy Alexander and Ginette (Ashley Vogel) try to figure out how to get closer by getting further apart. Example: how to circumnavigate a snowball. . . .
Glory, a tourist hiker, turns up late at night to watch the northern lights. She posts herself in the snowy front yard of East, a repairman. He gradually comes to understand why she's here and what she is carrying in that bag that means so much to her. (Terry Bennett and Steve Lawson)
Jimmy, a heating and cooling guy, is asleep on the couch when Sandrine, his woman friend of eleven years, comes storming in with things to return to him. But how can they be measured? (Thomas Sandlin and Lydia Kettle)
Phil, a hard-working man, and Marci, his wife, go skating. But afterwards, she can't find her shoe. And why are they so angry, even though they don't want to admit it to one another? (David Young and Noelle Stroka)
On her way back to her bachelorette party, the honoree stumbles across a former boyfriend. His face lights up and he persuades her to talk. But that blonde waitress just won't leave them alone. (actors not identified in the program!)
An encounter in a laundromat on Friday night. The strangest things can happen from the most casual encounters -- including from an accidental whack on the head with an ironing board. What is pain and who's the one really feeling it? (Stephen Reynolds and Gillian Hickman)
Country boy Chad and country boy Randy are drinking beer in the park, sharing their most recent humiliations in dating. The winner will get to decide what they do for the rest of the night. Romance is bleak but there's always beer and bowling. Until a sudden slip occurs. (Todd Allen Martin and Thomas Sandlin)
Hope has traveled the world but comes rushing back to Almost, Maine (163 miles from the nearest airport in Bangor) to try to find Daniel, a guy who has not traveled the world. She owes him an answer to a question that she fled, years ago. But the man who answers the door looks nothing like the man who used to live there. (Tysha Calhoun and Braden Williams)
Snowmobiler buddies Rhonda and Dave get back to her place after doing twenty miles up the river and back. She exults that she has whupped him, once again. Dave gives her a present -- his own art, from a community class. It's one of those pictures that look like like a bunch of blobs until you can unfocus your eyes and sneak up on it and figure out what it really, really depicts. (Lori Z. Cordova and Todd Michael Wheel)
The cameos above provide you with the starting points for these sketches. Cariani takes them in some surprising and very comic directions, sometimes applying a deft dab of magical realism.
I was impressed by the consistently high quality of the acting -- believable individuals, perplexed, steering with changing winds of emotion, and played with an exquisite sense of comic timing throughout. One truth of the old vaudevillians was that nothing was as funny as silence -- the pause of befuddlement or enlightenment that telegraphs to the audience the amazement of the character. Randy Wachtel must be responsible for some of that accomplished pacing, but I suspect that one can credit, as well, the existence of a community of actors who learn from one another's work.
Hits as of 2015 03 01: 1931
216 South Main Street
Lockhart, TX, 78644