Saturday, October 27, 2012

Theatre review: "Maple and Vine" at City Theatre. Sunday, 28th October 2012

Unconventional staging populates the territory of Maple and Vine at City Theatre but the 2011 play by Jordan Harrison, opening the season, remains thought- provocative, imaginative and amusing.

Social conventions themselves dwell in this script whose premise hovers on the borders between fantasy and reality. Certainly the essence focuses on how reality often can’t live up to fantasy, even when such fantasy can truly be explored.

Note the title of the play. It sounds like an innocent city intersection, but vines twist and turn, sometimes choking off life. And, in this fable, modern people have chosen to escape the intricacies of their existence to immerse themselves in a tight, reinforced, thoroughly constructed alternative society; they want to flower in what they perceive as a more innocent time in America: 1955. They seek to escape the presumed pitfalls, complications and anxieties of when and where they have been living. Near the start of the play you get the point; a 1950s-wardrobed man named Dean reminds us that, despite television family situation comedies, things in that period were not all black and white.

Harrison’s concept has a good satirical edge, as if sending up those of us who yearn for the presumably golden times of the past where brighter moments inhabit our memories amid the fluffy clouds of selective memory. i.e You can’t go home again. Harrison excellently furthers his premise: Katha has graphic dreams which threaten her stability, as if the dream world is getting confused with what happens when her eyes are open. Moreover, he excellently points up the idea that we sometimes disguise ourselves in order to better conform to what others expect of us.

Katha and her husband Ryu live hectic, urban lives, fractured by losing a not-yet-born baby. When she encounters a man who touts the seeming innocence and simple virtues of living in a community replicating 1955 U.S., she is strongly attracted. Katha and Ryu try to adapt to being, full-time members of the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence. They become close friends with Dean and his evidently cheery, uncomplicated wife Ellen. Ryu, a former plastic surgeon, takes a menial job supervised by Roger, whose persona embraces the standard anti-Asian prejudice of the times. But the actual pasts of all five outside this clinging cocoon still color their behavior and threaten to destroy fervent attempts to exist in a simulacrum of the good old days.

As the story progresses, some developments and revelations become a little too pat and unconvincing, as if Harrison is trying to wrap it all up into a neat package, looking almost as slick as a man in tightly-pressed pants, matching jacket, thoroughly-knotted tie, starched white shirt and firmly-perched hat.

Impeccable acting enhances it all, although, when Robin Abramson’s initially well-defined and vulnerable Katha evolves into an overly made-up, over- dressed smiley doll, that goes a little too far. The rest of the cast, coming here from out of town with major credits, give their roles the right dimensions. I found most memorable Ross Beschler’s playing of Roger, the least predictable character.

Director Kip Fagan usually keeps the playing within the right bounds, as if not pushing too hard for caricature. But I question his choice of a set design by Narelle Sisson. It spreads the action on a long platform across the entire center of the theatre, arranging the audience as if in bleachers. The play would be better served in a tighter space to make clearer the narrow, potentially oppressive confines of the characters lives, wherever they are.

Sound designer Eric Shimelonis’ choice of 1950s records sounds nifty, including zingy stingers along with darker colors for moments when things seem more black than white. And costume designer Robert C.T. Steele has even come up with the right clothes for scene-changing stage hands.

How has everything been with you? Could this turn out to be one of your good old days?

Maple and Vine continues through November 4th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Southside. 412/431-CITY (2489) or

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