Wednesday, December 07, 2011

THEATER: Maple and Vine

Nostalgia can be a crippling thing, which sends people who are afraid of the future hurdling back into the safety and comfort of the past. But it's served the young and talented Jordan Harrison well, for he writes of times that he never knew, pulling lessons out of the '60s (Doris to Darlene), '40's (Amazons and Their Men), and '20s (Act a Lady) to help inform the present, to give a context to where we are. Even Futura, which was set in a dystopic future, centered around those brave few souls who remembered the days of paper. His latest, Maple and Vine, walks that same ground, as an unhappy Katha (Marin Ireland) convinces her husband, Ryu (Peter Kim), to move to the SDO (Society of Dynamic Obsolescence), a gated community in which every day re-enacts the values, attitudes, and lifestyles of 1955 America. If the slow food movement is about limiting one's ecological footprint, then this is slow mood movement, which aims to give one freedom in the bustling world by limiting their choices and reverting to a simpler time.

Of course, the 50's weren't a simpler time: they were simply more repressed. This works for Dean (Trent Dawson), a gay man who gets off on his guilt, the sort to sharply fill out a suit, patter glibly, and rendezvous with his boyfriend, Roger (Pedro Pascal), for some rough and secret sex. It's an interesting dynamic, the idea that the freedom to be gay might actually be difficult for a select few, and it allows Harrison to fully explore the dimensions of his '50s paradise, particularly in the "mixed marriage" of Katha and Ryu (only a decade after the internment camps and reparations) and the character of Ellen (Jeanine Serralles), whose prim attitude wasn't serving her in the real world, but who is built manipulate with the hidden powers of her apron strings and talent for gossip. Harrison suggests that there's a place, a role, or a character for all of us -- just not necessarily in a global culture as all-inclusive as today's. After all, if everything is permitted, is anything true?

Anne Kauffman, who has handled realist, surrealist, and surreal realist plays (The Thugs, God's Ear, Sixty Miles to Silver Lake), is a perfect fit for Harrison's material: she's visually distinct enough for the short scenes, quick cuts, and montages, and knows exactly how to stage dream sequences, in which Katha's new paradise is haunted by echoes from her old publishing job. If there's a flaw, it's that Alexander Dodge's scenic design doesn't better distinguish between the present and past -- sets from both times are wheeled about  (or elevated in) in little dioramic frames (good for cubicles, bad for the "freedom" of the '50s), and a steel-rimmed modernity hangs both above the set (a triangle that represents the roof) and in a long staircase off the stage-right wing.

In terms of decor and tone, however, Maple and Vine does a fabulous job, and there's genuine growth from the hesitant and skeptical views of this society (a major faux pas comes not from aggressively playing charades, but from accidentally pouring Grey Goose) to the actual happiness shown within. Katha, depressed over the miscarriage of her child, finds herself embracing pregnancy again, and even goes so far as to suggest (at the local "authenticity meetings") that her neighbors actually be a little less accepting (and more suspicious) of her and her foreign husband. A little controlled adversity can help a relationship grow; you'd also be surprised at the fulfillment Ryu, a plastic surgeon, gets in his new job as a box maker.

I can't speak to life in the '50s, but given how many electronic distractions there are, Harrison makes a valid argument toward people being more present in the past. It's a clear and potent argument, thanks to the extremely present cast -- some of whom get rather close to those of us in the aisles. There are some real standouts, too, like Ireland (who plays instability better than anyone else), Serralles (steely, but not inflexibly or unemotionally so), and Pascal, who flickers not only between tough-guy floor manager and tortured gay lover but also doubles as Katha's comically Queer Eye-like coworker in the "modern" world. Maple and Vine illustrates a "simpler" time without sacrificing complexity, reminds us that we're all "playing" characters of some sort or another, and succeeds in proving that less can absolutely be more.

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