Writer: Jordan Harrison
Director: Jules Dameron
Reviewer: Robert Price
New York Deaf Theatre selected a timely piece to follow up last year’s production of TITUS. In Maple & Vine, a mixed-race couple dealing with the aftermath of a miscarriage is seduced into joining a community that lives life as if it were 1955. When Jordan Harrison’s play premiered at The Humana Festival in 2011, this summary might have suggested a satire of Madmen fandom with a Twilight-Zone-inspired political message. This fascination with a not-so-idyllic past played out as a modest proposal? How fun! Now the script wields updated significance.
Maple & Vine began as a documentary theatre project about leaving the modern world behind. There were interviews with the formerly Amish, off-the-grid artists, and erstwhile Civil War reenactors, who described what it felt like to attempt to live authentically in the past. Though the play is fiction, the actions of the characters are based on the experiences spoken of by actual escapees of cloistered sects. The social pressures that work slowly to break down a resistant mind; the skewed priorities created by a cooperative denial.
Jules Dameron’s direction allows for a goofy rhythm that serves the humor and honors the camp urgency called for by the narrative. Projections by Gregory Casparian add a striking specificity to the severe, perhaps ominous, set design by Jen Varbalow. Casparian’s supertitles expertly guide the hearing audience through a play performed entirely in American Sign Language, prompting one to think on how life has changed since the 1950s for those who do not hear. C.J. Malloy’s presence as Ryu, the skeptical husband, grounds the first act in reality. His subtle shift into the machine is fascinating to watch. As his wife Katha, Christina Marie serves her sitcom punchlines with an eccentric gusto, which helps the audience root for her as she’s beaten down by the Stepford leader, played by Liarra Michelle. Michelle’s shiny veneer is appropriately admirable and it’s a joy to see her facade come down. Christopher Corrigan is channeling the happy wisdom of Joel Osteen as Dean, leading the congregation and putting his perfect marriage on display. Cast member Dickie Hearts is a visceral force playing Roger’s contradictions, but his doubling as Omar seems to lack sensitivity toward stereotype. The humor written for that brief role has aged a bit and Dameron’s guidance may have overcompensated for the script’s shortcomings.
Seeing, or rather, hearing this play, one is surprised by they how they see themself in its text. The specificity is effectively universal, in the age-old paradox, and the ritual is only more powerful enacted through ASL.
Runs until 27 May 2018 | Image: Conrado Johns