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.
Then there's the rock star (a bright and vulnerable Harold Pierce), gone into drug rehab because his lead singer, co-songwriter and girlfriend since childhood (quirkily charismatic Sarah Moser) has kicked him out of the band until he gets clean. There he meets Beeson (Clive Worsley as a fascinating bundle of neuroses), the author of an incredibly complex, 15,000-page series of graphic novels that he claims to simply be channeling, not writing. The story wants to be told, and he's just the delivery guy.
Meanwhile, the musicians wonder if their one-hit band has hit a creative drought. Carl Holvick-Thomas is the sincere and nurturing counselor at the rehab center, whom they like to make fun of but are terrified to leave. Holvick-Thomas also plays an amusingly spaced-out bandmate and Jessica's coldly realistic brother (whom, weirdly, we never see in a scene with Jessica).
If that's not enough, we keep returning to a fantastic parable about a jovial and epicurean king (a hearty Lasse Christiansen) who learns that his queen (touching, fretful Janis DeLucia) is pregnant and becomes obsessed with building a maze around the castle to protect their unborn heir with the help of a bizarre dog-man (a hooded and shuffling Worsley). Christiansen also appears as a wryly sarcastic record producer, and DeLucia does triple duty as Jessica's mother -- tenaciously clinging to any lead about her daughter's whereabouts, no matter how ludicrous -- and a smug media critic who's not buying Jessica's story at all.
That all these stories are going to intersect is obvious, but the way they do is mind-blowing and often disturbing and hilarious at the same time. Along the way Handel raises interesting questions about the lure of celebrity, the myth of the crazy artist, and whether great art justifies the otherwise irredeemable life that created it.
With an awfully strong cast and sharp design elements (Teddy Hulsker's unnerving sounds between scenes set the mood especially well), Aaronson-Gelb's staging leads you through the maze of the story beautifully. At two and a half hours with intermission, there's nary a dull moment. Every step of the journey is fascinating, without knowing where you might end up.
A Maze runs through August 4, 2013 at Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit justtheater. org.
All photos by Jay Yamada.