‘A Maze’ goes the extra mile

Theatre Vertigo's latest show wants extra credit for illustrations, a concept album and more—but in the end, it's all about the story

In a maze, there are bound to be some dead ends. In fact, that’s what you sign up for. Whether there are just enough or too many is open to interpretation, but one thing’s for sure: in Theatre Vertigo’s production of Rob Handel’s A Maze, there are none too few.

“Creating the world of this play has been a gargantuan feat,” writes Nate Cohen in his Director’s Note. “Our team has composed over a dozen original songs, generated more than 50 pieces of visual and projection art, and written a computer algorithm that has generated over 1000 unique mazes.”

Did they? Because the presence of multimedia works within the play is significantly subtler than those metrics suggest.

“This play demands this level of creative output…”

Does it? An apter word might be “inspires.” This cast and crew may have decided to do a few extra laps of legwork, but their process hasn’t drastically changed the outcome. More on that later.

Kidnap victim Jessica (Kaia Maarja Hillier) leads a complex life in the dual realms of captivity and fantasy at the center of “A Maze”. Photo: James Krane

At the end of the day, the make-or-break elements of this play are story and acting— particularly between the two characters whose relationship is the most bizarre and fraught. Kaia Maarja Hillier plays Jessica, a kidnapped teen, and Nathan Dunkin plays her longtime captor. He’s using her as his muse in a Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing game, which she obliges and guiltily enjoys. As she teeters on the cusp of sexual maturity and he grapples with the imminent consequences of his crime, holy Stockholm, does their situation get sticky. Their dynamic is riveting, really, and it forms the core of the story.

We arrive smack-dab in the center of their dysfunction in the second act, after first following various pathways of a split narrative: A talk show host interviews a just-rescued Jessica. A rock musician checks into rehab. A medieval king and queen anticipate the birth of their firstborn, with the king promptly setting out to build a maze around his queen and child, then seemingly getting lost in that process.

Spoiler alert: it’s somewhere within this meandering that we meet the man we’ll later learn is the kidnapper. When we first meet him, we kind of like him, and naturally later that haunts us. While that’s important to the whole experience of the story, the other subplots vary in their necessity.

The talk show content is expository, but not particularly enriching. When given an opening to express philosophy and perspective, the characters tend to stop short. Perhaps by omission, they show that humanity isn’t ready for certain hard questions, or maybe they just admit that A Maze doesn’t pretend to offer many answers.

The rehab scenes are sympathetic to a point, but also alienating—a reminder that the cool and privileged artist class is hand-held through healing. Again, the lines in these scenes offer limited introspection, beyond exalting the creative process as a “calling” rather than a choice.

And the king-and-queen story is anachronistic in more ways than one. As the only characters who are fictional even within the world of the play—meta-fictional, if you will—they’re pretty hard to connect with, and if their situation is in fact an allegory for the play’s later events, that parallel feels pretty oblique. Frankly, we could lose the king and queen without losing any meaning. All they prove is that some narrative roads lead nowhere.

Which brings us back to the excessive multimedia materials the team prepared to support this show: Russell Foltz-Smith’s drawings are displayed in an innovative way, projected onscreen as animations of illustrations being done in real time, complete with pencil-scratch sound effects synced to the virtual brushstrokes as they emerge. Any time a character onstage draws, we see a giant image of a drawing being done. This effect is cool. Hypnotizing, even. But the images themselves…less so. Foltz-Smith’s figurative style is naive and sometimes downright unfinished, often leaving us unsure what we’re looking at, and the smudgy similitude of one image to the next leaves a viewer confused. Are these symbols we’re supposed to begin to recognize? Cognitive dissonance is inflicted as we’re told that the character who draws is a precise perfectionist who obsessively “cross-hatches,” while we’re shown his supposed paintings that are instead impressionistic, with linework that’s more scribbled than crosshatched. Would some images of, say, antique woodblock prints from some publicly-available database have served the story as well or better? Probably.

The same is unfortunately true of the 12-song soundtrack the crew has created. Regrettably, some well-chosen Florence and the Machine or My Brightest Diamond songs would have served the purpose these originals were put to—namely, ambient filler at intermission—better than the new songs did, mostly because Florence and Shara can professionally sing. Music that’s supposed to be subtly infused into the milieu of the show (“leaked,” as per a plot point) instead sticks out as perceptibly amateur due in large part to some pitchy, gaspy, and far-forward-in-the-mix vox. From a sound design standpoint, there’s plenty of wheat in that chaff—some truly nice instrumental tracks could be salvaged, remixed and repurposed. The solution from an audience standpoint? Use the intermission for its intended purpose and tune out the music. And if you want a rock opera, hurry over to the closing weeks of Wild & Reckless to hear how one’s done.

As for the algorithm that birthed 1000 mazes…it must be especially adept at its task, because as potential value-added they’ve completely gotten lost. Perhaps they’re incorporated into Foltz-Smith’s projections, in a layer superimposed over or submerged within the scribbles.

I wish every auxiliary project were an enhancement to the actual play; instead, some detract and some break even. Hopefully the processes of drawing, recording, and programming have at least enriched the cast and crew’s creative experience in immeasurable ways. That said, A Maze needn’t have gone above and beyond; the story itself is sufficient. Haunting, odd, and full of surprises, well acted and brilliantly blocked, it’s a play that will keep you on the edge of your seat all evening. Dead ends be damned, it’s still a worthwhile journey.

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Theatre Vertigo’s A Maze continues through May 13 at The Shoebox Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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