“Almost, Maine”—a Spike Tape production co-directed by Fana Schoen ’24 and Shane Kleber ’24—premiered in the Westco Café on Thursday, Oct. 26 at 7:00 p.m., with two additional shows on Friday, Oct. 27 at 7:00 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 29 at 7:00 p.m. Though “Almost, Maine” was performed at the University before in 2015, this is the first time the production has featured puppets rather than human actors, a decision that blended perfectly with the show’s playful disregard for reality.
The play takes place in the dead of winter in a small part of Maine that never officially became a town, earning itself the name of Almost, and features nine loosely connected vignettes about falling in and out of love. Each one involves a metaphorical concept often associated with relationships—two characters fall (actually dropping to the floor) in love, for example—to add humor to otherwise serious scenes. Through the use of puppets—Muppet-style puppets, sock puppets, a large crocheted ball, and even some marionettes—instead of human actors, the literal interpretations of these metaphors feel natural in this non-human world.
“Part of the original idea was that…there are these magic moments where an absurdity overtakes the scene,” Kleber explained. “And these insane acts that aren’t real and aren’t how you interact with everyone in daily life, like you’re exposing a piece of yourself, and that’s very much what puppetry is. You’re putting this piece of yourself inside of this little creature that you created.”
Actors representing themselves through puppets allowed for the expression of these metaphorical aspects in a much more literal way. The third vignette—This Hurts, a scene that took place in a laundromat between Marvalyn (Priya Devavaram ’26) and Steve (Nat Wheeler ’25), involving Steve being alternately smacked with an ironing board and Marvalyn’s fist—highlighted exactly how the design of each puppet could enhance the character’s interactions. Wheeler’s puppet’s head was created so that it would fall off when hit, enhancing the ridiculousness of Steve being unable to feel any pain and adding to the comedy of the scene.
While every puppet was creative and adorable, my personal favorite puppet was Lendall, a rainbow ball crocheted by Kaleo Goldstein-Coloretti ’24. During the scene Getting It Back, Gayle (Emma Somol ’27), a Muppet-style puppet, storms into her home and confronts Lendall about never having proposed to her, pulling red bags representing all of the love he gave to her out of the trunk of her car (with her mouth, which was fairly impressive for a puppet, I might add) and slamming them down onto the table between them. Throughout the scene, Lendall struggles to explain himself over Gayle’s loud complaints, and his resignation and sadness are perfectly complemented by the puppet’s sad eyes and almost drooping form.
Each puppet was lovingly created by the actors themselves, and the directors intended this as a way for the actors to represent their characters however they desired, rather than being limited by their own physical appearances. Viv Orthwein ’27, who played Villian and Suzette, was the only actor to have created more than one puppet and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“I made one like a sock puppet and one like a Muppet puppet,” Orthwein said. “I thought it was really cool how [with] everyone in the cast, you could feel their personality through their puppet. It was really cute.”
In addition to each of the actors needing to put a fair amount of work into creating each of their puppets, they also had to adapt their acting styles to show expressions through hand movements. I was impressed by how each actor was able to effectively use their tone of voice and exaggerated movements of their puppets to show how their characters were feeling. Somol explained that these limitations were difficult from an acting perspective.
“One of the things that I think is the most difficult to do as an actor is what do you do when other people are talking?” Somol said. “How do you not just stand there statically? That was also true of having a puppet because you can’t just stand there…. We could only really do turning and opening our mouths, whatever our wrist and hand could do is all we could do to react to the person, which was probably the hardest part.”
In saying that every character was played by a puppet I have left one crucial detail out: the final scene in the play, aptly titled Seeing the Thing, starred Rhonda (Mia Shenkman ’26) as a human person who acted (quite literally) outside of the box that all the other characters had confined themselves to.
“In the script, they have to take off all their clothes, and puppeteering-wise that was just the hardest thing for us to wrangle,” Kleber said. “It also obviously adds to the scene a little bit that Mia’s character is very much saying ‘I’m different from everyone’…and she’s literally a human and [the others] are puppets.”
In the scene, Dave (Kyra Kushner ’24) and Rhonda are sitting on the porch outside Rhonda’s house when Dave suddenly confesses his love to Rhonda, eventually leading to a scene like nothing I’ve ever seen before in theater. Shenkman pulls Kushner’s puppet off her hand and started aggressively making out with it, inspiring cheers from the audience. The characters then decide to hook up and skip work the next day, leading to Shenkman ripping off no less than four layers of clothes and unzipping Kushner’s puppet’s tiny jacket.
While the acting in “Almost, Maine” was memorable and impressive, especially given the limitations of puppetry, it wasn’t the only part of the show that struck me. The set—designed by Cheyenne McLaskey ’26 and built in collaboration with Nate Simon ’24, Bryan Wolf ’26, and Julian Fried ’26—was created with a partially transparent polyester fabric that allowed the audience to see parts of the actors’ faces, which were lit by ceiling-facing LEDs set up diagonally on the floor next to the set. Because this was a puppet show, the set was designed to include a gap between the polyester fabric and the front of the box, leaving a place for the actors to stick their hands up and move their puppets.
However, the set wasn’t the only technical aspect I enjoyed. As a former lighting designer myself, the show’s lighting—designed by Cas Kauffman ’26—stood out to me personally. It was beautiful and strong in its subtlety. When each vignette reached its climax, the lighting grew brighter and literally highlighted the emotional moments happening on stage. One moment that I noted as an especially nice addition to the scene was in the vignette Her Heart—featuring Glory (Emma Dhanda ’24) and East (Andres Angeles-Paredes ’24)—where Glory was looking up into the sky to see the northern lights and the ceiling was lit in a soft green color that made me feel like I could see the northern lights too.
In addition to the lighting design, I also appreciated the ambient background noises that complemented each scene and fully immersed the audience in the experience, designed by Alex Moynihan ’24. During the vignette Sad and Glad—a reunion between exes Jimmy (Lilah Steinberg ’25) and Sandrine (Olivia Hoffman-Paul ’26), awkwardly staged at Sandrine’s bachelorette party—the background noise of talking voices softly played behind the actor’s lines, making us feel like they were in a crowded restaurant without making it hard to hear them speak.
Returning to the content of the play itself, some aspects of the text stood out as being a bit out of date, as “Almost, Maine” was written by John Cariani in 2004. Almost every scene featured a non-consensual kiss (sometimes multiple), and there was only one queer couple out of the nine pairings that were featured. The queer couple—Randy (Stuart Conrad ’26) and Chad (Maxwell Levy ’24)—were marionettes who were designed to literally fall over as their characters fell in love, and they spent the entire scene fighting against their feelings for each other, believing that they could only ever be best buds.
“We discussed changing [the genders of other characters] and we thought that that would take away the power of the scene that is about a gay couple because that scene is [where] against all odds in this small town, this relationship can exist,” Schoen said. “They’re trying to fit into this heteronormative standard of relationships, they’re going on all these dates with women, and it’s not working. We thought that making these other scenes [queer] would have detracted from that.”
The only major change made by the directors was to create a loud, musical, and explosive bows sequence at the end of the show that perfectly matched the energy from the actors throughout the play. Typically, the play ends with the actors walking onto stage and bowing, but Schoen and Kleber adapted this. The actors ran out screaming and sang the song “Memories” by Maroon 5 with their puppets.
“It’s puppets, and it’s Muppety, and it’s fun, and it’s a better celebration of everything and the people in the cast,” Schoen said. “Everyone runs out and sings a Maroon 5 song that is silly and fun and awesome in the way that we wanted it to be.”
Although this was Schoen and Kleber’s first time directing a Spike Tape show, they both enjoyed the process and the opportunity it gave them to make so many new friends around the University.
“Almost 30 people are involved in this play, so I really cannot leave my house without seeing one of these new friends and that’s so awesome that everywhere I go I see these people who made such awesome stuff with me all semester,” Schoen said. “I’m just so proud of everybody working so hard and pushing through and never giving up on ourselves.”
Caleb Henning can be reached at email@example.com.