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Monday, March 7, 2011

35th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays: Maple and Vine

Photo Credit: 
Jeanine Serralles as Ellen, Kate Turnbull as Katha in Maple & Vine
Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville  2011
Photo by Michael Brosilow
How did we get here? Is this where we wanted to go? Is there a way back? If there is should we take it? Can happiness and contentment be manufactured? I've been thinking a lot about these questions and discussing them with my wife Susan in the wake of our latest Humana Festival adventure Maple and Vine. The show is playwright Jordan Harrison's fourth Humana Festival entry since his debut in 2003. 
During the past 24 hours I have gone round and round with Harrison's presumptions, or what I assume to be his presumptions, regarding race, sexuality, the role of women, and Utopian blueprinting. That is certainly one measure of successful theatre. I finally decided that some of the presumptions represented in Maple and Vine may not actually be those of the playwright (watch this space for an interview with Jordan Harrison to find out). 
Harrison has created in his play an opportunity for the main characters, Katha, (Kate Turnbull) and Ryu, (Peter Kim), to leave behind their hectic modern lives in the big city for a recreated universe where it is always 1955. The play is directed by Anne Kauffman who initiated this play with The Civilians, a theatre company specializing in documentary theatre. Harrison was brought in after the company had already conducted more than 100 interviews with people in a variety of separatist communities including the Amish, cloistered nuns, and Civil War reenactors to format the work for the stage. Ultimately he left behind most of the documentary material that inspired his vision for an original work that explores the complexities of a lifestyle bounded and contained by the strict expectations of a community. 
Harrison addresses some of the obvious challenges in attracting people back to 1955--Ryu is a Japanese American in a Mixed Race marriage with a white woman. He gives up his medical practice to fold cardboard boxes. But, what does he gain? Part of the allure, as Harrison's dialogue puts it forward, of living in 1955 is the "rich subtext" created by suppression and guilt. As his wife embraces the idea of stuffing her reactions to a personal tragedy that afflicts them at the beginning of the play, she grants Ryu emotional control and the ability to "take charge" at home. His inability to cope with Katha's emotions in an equal partnership are hinted at early on. 
It would be easy to point out the shortcomings of 1955: virulent racism, unimpugned violence against women and children, the societal hatred and self-loathing of gays and lesbians. Unless you are a heterosexual, Christian, white male there is very little incentive to consider a return to the "golden age" of the mid-twentieth century. But, at a time when some  on the social right are touting the advantages of an imaginary America of 1955 as the solution to our current shortcomings, perhaps Maple and Vine is just the kind of story needed to remind us why we changed.
Photo Credit: 
Peter Kim as Ryu, Kate Turnbull as Katha in Maple&Vine
Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville  2011
Photo by Michael Brosilow
Maple and Vine continues through April 3 in Actors Theatre of Louisville's Bingham Theatre as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Special ticket prices are available for Louisville area residents who want to participate in this international event. Call the box office at 502/584.1205 or go online www.actorstheatre.org. Next up watch for a review of Molly Smith Metzler's Elemeno Pea.






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