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Players Pen – September 20

John Cariani wrote his offbeat romantic-comedy “Almost, Maine” to feature four actors portraying 19 characters; a tour de force for the performers to showcase their aptitude in developing and portraying several different characters.  In 2016, “Almost, Maine” became the most-produced play in North American high schools, beating out Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

With nine varying vignettes, each scene a short play onto itself, the play’s structure allows directors to expand the cast size or have flexibility with rehearsals. More notably, Cariani’s story resonates with audiences of all ages: first love, lost love, moments of inspiration, loneliness, loss, as well as the power of passion.

Cariani was a struggling artist living in New York City in the early 1990s seeking work as a writer and/or actor. When he couldn’t find audition pieces he could connect to, he started writing his own. Cariani wrote and performed for Performance Space NBC, a special theater the television network created in the late 1990s in hopes of creating new programs. Cariani wrote several short scenes to showcase himself, all set in a fictional version of his hometown.

“I didn’t really know I was writing a play until some really great, helpful artists who were directors and producers pointed out that I had a theme going,” Cariani said in an interview with FastCompany. This encouragement spurned him to thread his work into “Almost, Maine.”

I had the skeleton that became ‘Almost, Maine.’”

His family moved to Presque Isle, Maine when he was eight years old from Massachusetts. Only one other state borders Maine and its residents feel distant from the rest of the United States. Cariani said the people feel remote and a little bit removed.  

“Where I’m from is kind of like the Midwest,” he said. “It’s rural, and a lot of the country is rural. There are a lot of us who live in places that aren’t cities, and we have ideas and thoughts and opinions that matter. I do feel that life is really complex, but it can also be really simple. Living in a place like northern Maine–life is a bit simpler there. And that’s valid, you know?”

“Almost, Maine” features the love lives of waitresses, repairmen, housewives, mill-workers and more.  Average, everyday folks struggling to get by, but who are still hopeful about love.

“Most of the stories being told in plays [I saw] were city-stories—mostly about wealthy, worldly, powerful, well-educated people who live and worked in the closed quarters of the concrete and steel canyons,” Cariani said in an interview with Playbill. 

“This was thrilling because the city and its stories and its people were new to me! But, I started to get sick of those stories. What about rural stories? What about stories about the people I grew up with? I always wanted to write stories that featured characters that could be played by people who aren‘t hot.  I wanted to see regular people get the girl. Or guy.” 

Encouraged by theater director Gabriel Barre, Cariani started threading the vignettes together into a play while portraying Forensics Tech Beck on “Law and Order” and while making his Broadway debut as Motel, the tailor, in the 2004 revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” for which he earned a Tony Award nomination. 

“Almost, Maine” debuted Off-Broadway in 2006 at the Daryl Roth Theatre.  Today, “Almost, Maine” is available in more than 20 languages and returned to Off-Broadway in 2014, when Cariani starred in Transport Group’s revival of the comedy.

In 2015, Cariani received a nomination for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for originating the role of Nigel Bottom in “Something Rotten!”   Ironically, Nigel is struggling to find success in the theatrical world of 1959, where his major competitor is … William Shakespeare.

“’The Winter’s Tale’ is my favorite Shakespeare play and it’s full of magic—and magical realism—and romance,” Cariani said in Playbill. “And I think it had a huge influence on me as I made ‘Almost, Maine.’ I was in a spectacular production of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, and I realized that people love fairytales.  Adult fairytales. Done well! I consider ‘Almost, Maine’ to be a collection of adult fairytales. And adult fairytales are romantic.”

Cariani is slated to open a new Broadway musical in October that also features Green Bay native Tony Shalhoub. “The Band’s Visit” is based on the 2007 film about an Egyptian police band that mistakenly winds up in a remote Israeli town with book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, who wrote “The Full Monty.” 

Join us by the bay for this charming, romantic fairy tale crafted by Cariani, featuring Peninsula Players’ venerable and gifted performers Erica Elam, Joe Foust, Matt Holzfeind and Karen Janes Woditsch.  “Almost, Maine,” performs Tuesday through Sunday at 7 p.m., except for Sundays October 1 and 15 at 3 p.m.  For information or tickets please call the Box Office at (920) 868-3287 or visit www.peninsulaplayers.com. The Box Office is closed Mondays.  I’ll see you by the bay, where the sun sets, the curtain rises, the stars shine and the northern lights dance overhead!