For me theater is at it’s best when it most clearly reflects the social consciousness of our times. Put another way, it’s the antidote for being brainwashed. And by “brainwashed” I don’t mean “Manchurian Candidate” or water-boarding or torture generally. I mean social conditioning — all those assumptions, articulated or un-articulated, that govern our behavior. The formalities we observe when we talk, walk, acquire the trappings of fashion, the rules that govern how we react to each other.
Watching Capstage’s production of Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine” is like seeing a mashup of “Ozzie and Harriet” and “The Matrix” with a little bit of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to round it out. The work has a comedy to it, but a very distinctly dark and sinister side as well. It’s hard to escape the fatalism of the play; but it is delivered with enough humor to soften it up a bit. An opportunity for a little bit of brain drying.
Wayne Lee and Stephanie Gularte deliver a well-timed series of viewpoints into the lives of a married couple (Katha and Ryu) that are slogging through life — “just trying to get through the day” as one of them says. The play reveals them to be overworked, frustrated by information overload, and suffering from that most common of existential dilemmas: leading lives of un-quiet desperation.
They meet Ellen and Dean (Shannon Mahoney and Jason Heil), a formidable team of proselytizers for the “Society of Dynamic Obsolescence.” They are selling membership into a retro-culture cult — which stops time at 1955. Nothing beyond that is allowed. The promise is nostalgic happiness. Ellen and Dean are pleasantly smarmy cartoon like characters whose happiness might require inoculation if the exposure goes on long enough. Katha and Ryu decide the kool-aide is worth a sip.
Everyone has to acquire multiple identities during the play — it’s the nature of the script as well as the required social facade of 1955. Ryan Synder provides a wonderful counterpoint to Jason Heil’s social salesman. Synder’s shift between racist bully and vulnerable lover is well done. Heil goes from self-professed angel of happiness to tortured soul — several times. Wayne Lee switches between 2014 every-man and a racial stereotype (an odd idea these days, isn’t it? or is it?) Stephanie Gularte gives up the “I have it all” attitude to become a June Cleaver wannabe. Shannon Mahoney reveals an elegantly sorrowful character with moments of depth and heartbreak.
The play is at it’s best when the characters shed their thick identities and reveal themselves to be in the present — suffering, afraid, and full of desire. All the actors have their moments of intensity and they deliver well against the emotional dynamics of the script. I was particularly taken by a moment near the end when Shannon Mahoney is required to drop the cheerleader-Betty-Crocker facade and crash head-first into a wall of pain and shame. A full-stop no-way-round kind of moment.
What I took away from the play wasn’t perhaps what was intended — it’s easy enough for all of us to agree that 1955 came with a set of unacceptably rigid, and arbitrarily harmful social constructs — but what about today’s social constructs? How is 2014 so different from 1955?
Did the author beg the question? Or was that the point after all?