I'm always interested to see what Just Theater is cooking up. The Berkeley company produces plays on an irregular basis and skipped last year entirely, but when it reemerges it's usually with just the right play, whether it's Anne Washburn's I Have Loved Strangers and The Internationalist or Jason Grote's 1001. Co-artistic directors (and spouses) Molly Aaronson-Gelb and Jonathan Spector have a real affinity for challenging new work that's convoluted in the best sense of the word, with dizzying language, unconventional structure, and heady subject matter.
Now Just Theater is back with not one but two plays in repertory at Berkeley's Live Oak Theatre, and the first of them is a stunner. Aaronson-Gelb directs the West Coast premiere of Piittsburgh playwright Rob Handel's A Maze, which debuted in 2011 at New York Stage and Film. Starting Saturday, July 20, it'll be joined in repertory by Glen Berger's Underneath the Lintel, a one-man show about a Dutch librarian who finds a book returned 113 years overdue and is drawn to find out who had it all this time, leading him on an epic quest across the globe. Oddly enough, American Conservatory Theater will be producing Lintel as well in November, directed by Carey Perloff and featuring screen star David Strathairn, which will surely be very, very different from Mina Morita's production with Mick Mize, a terrific local comic actor recently returned from clowning in Cirque du Soleil's Dralion.
A Maze opened Monday, July 15, and it's just stunning. Martin Flynn's fascinating set depicts blue-green building facades with swirling, abstract patterns on them, like a lost undersea city. Of course these are actually mazes all over everything, which will be a theme throughout the play, in case the title isn't tip-off enough. Whatever your expectations are, they can't really prepare you for the twists and turns of the story itself, which at first appears to be three stories.
There's the 17-year-old girl, abducted at nine and kept prisoner for eight years, who reemerges with a canny sense of how to handle the media coverage of her case. Frannie Morrison is marvelously assured and upbeat as Jessica, setting her terms for an interview with a famous TV personality (Lauren Spencer in artificial Hollywood nicey-nice mode). Miyuki Bierlein's contemporary costumes nicely convey subculture and personality in subtle ways.