The setup: A few years back, playwright Jordan Harrison was approached by Anne Kaufmann of The Civilians, NYC's "investigative theater" troupe, who'd become fascinated with intentional communities such as Hasidic Jews, nuns, and the Amish, bearing transcripts of interviews and a request to let the concept marinate and come up with a script.
The result, Maple and Vine, premièred at Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2011 and then ran at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan. Attending the current production by Theatre Artists Studio, I got to sit near some people who had no idea ahead of time what the play was about. Now that I've experienced their reactions, that's what I recommend. Even the theaters that present this show let slip too much. If it's not too late, don't even read New Times' Night & Day item about it.
The execution: A trend in contemporary theater that I've always kind of liked is the very short scene. Perhaps inspired by film-making or the nature of human memory, a full-length play made of very short scenes can seem marvelously astute or simply lazy and unfocused. Either way, it's a lot of extra work for directors, designers, actors, and crew.
Maple and Vine's two acts add up to 32 scenes. Almost every one contains some piece of dialogue that was so drenched with under-the-surface meaning, it just about made my jaw drop. It doesn't take a lot of effort to follow the plot -- if you don't know where you are right away, relax and trust that the playwright benignly intends that you might not know and it's totally fine. You'll get there under your own power, and that's the best way.
The two lead characters, Ryu and Katha, are in the same boat -- finding out what they've gotten into as they go along -- which makes it convenient for the audience to identify with them. The couple lives in "a large East Coast city," according to the program, but if you work at Random House and think about moving to Nyack because there'd be more room, I'm pretty sure you live in New York.
Life is stressful and confusing and sad, and when Katha encounters a representative from an intentional community, it seems like a possible cure: freedom from the paradox of choice. Some of The Civilians' interview subjects explained, "they were scared of how much freedom they had in the modern world, and it was confusing not to have someone tell them what the right choices were," as Harrison told The New York Times (again, don't click if you want to remain unspoiled). So the play raises several pertinent questions about what happiness is and how much of life is pretense and how much of that pretense is deliberate. But it's also a gripping story of realistic, specific characters and how they work things through, with easy humor and surprises where you really wouldn't expect surprises (I know: That's the definition of a surprise, but I'm sure you've consumed enough movies and TV and trashy novels to get what I mean).
Director Richard Hardt and his design team have chosen to incorporate appropriate furniture and props into each scene. Within that concept, they and the crew have done just about all they can to make the frequent scene shifts move right along, but the scenes are so brief that by contrast, the details and the time required to set them still feel like overkill. The show might seem even more coherent to more people if it could achieve even shorter blackouts, perhaps by stripping it down physically/visually.
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The cast is amazing. Most of what's necessary to sell this is low-key work, and Theatre Artists Studio's intimate space is a good showcase for that. The five-person ensemble does almost as much to lay the groundwork for things that will turn out to be creepy, heartbreaking, and/or shocking as the script does. And the collaborative costumes have nearly the depth of the performances.
The verdict: There's much more than meets the eye in Maple and Vine, and I'll be surprised if there's ever a much better version of the show in town than this Arizona première.
Maple and Vine continues through Sunday, March 17, at 4848 East Cactus Road in Scottsdale (though it feels like Paradise Valley). Click here to order tickets, $10 to $20, or call 602-765-0120.