It's easy to lose yourself in "A Maze."
Rob Handel's enigmatic new play spins around sly tales that intersect in unexpected ways in a two-hour, 20-minute mystery. The addictive nature of fantasy, reality and the fusion of the two known as art are all probed in this smash hit staged by Just Theater. This startlingly inventive West Coast premiere is now being remounted by Berkeley's Shotgun Players through Sunday.
The puzzle begins to unravel when a teenage girl named Jessica (a radiant Frannie Morrison) emerges from captivity after being kidnapped at the age of 9 and spending the next eight years of her life trapped in a basement. Snatched out of a grocery store while eyeing the candy aisle, she has her fate sealed in a few minutes of her mother's inattention. Despite the horror of her childhood, Jessica appears to emerge unscathed from her ordeal. The media-savvy survivor quickly bests the smooth Oprah-like TV personality (Lauren Spencer) trying to get to the bottom of her story.
In another piece of this dizzying spiral, a pair of rock stars, the edgy Oksana (an electric Sarah Moser) and the earnest Paul (Harold Pierce), try to bounce back from their success. Their band Pathetic Fallacy has made them celebs, but it has also driven a wedge into their romance. Paul goes off to detox to find himself when Oksana boots him out of the band until he gets clean.
Amid the plush environs of rehab at Desert Palms, Paul befriends Beeson (an intense turn by Clive Worsley), a twitchy graphic novelist who can barely be bothered to eat and sleep in between channeling the characters in a 15,000-page graphic novel that seems to write itself.
Director Molly Aaronson-Gelb's sharply detailed staging turns the narrative into a kind of Rorschach test for the theatergoer. What you make of the story and its themes may say as much about you as it does about the authorial intent. Handel layers the heady plot so carefully that it's not until far into the proceedings that you suspect how Beeson's fairy tale, the twisted fable of a king (a tart Lasse Christiansen) gradually weaving a maze around his queen (Janis DeLucia) and her baby, might connect with the rest of this jigsaw universe.
The actors display a depth and sensitivity that dares us to care for all of the characters, even the monstrous ones. Morrison grounds the production with an emotionally transparent performance that captures the heartache of confronting the facts. Christiansen displays a devilish wit as a jaded rock producer as well as the king. Carl Holvick-Thomas nimbly hops between playing a stressed-out lawyer, a nurturing drug counselor and a spaced out musician. But it's Worsely's depiction of Beeson as a tormented artist driven by the characters in his head that cuts closest to the bone.
Martin Flynn's intricate yet abstract scenic design further deepens the play's labyrinthine themes until "A Maze" has sucked you in.
By Rob Handel,
presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage,
1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours,
20 minutes, one intermission