Review: Just Theater’s West Coast premiere of Rob Handel’s ‘A Maze’ is just plain magnificent

(Charles Kruger)

Rating: *****

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The 13P playwrights’ collective is one of the great tales of the American theatre for the 21st century. Founded in 2003 by 13 playwrights who were doubly frustrated by the difficulty of getting plays produced and the manner in which new playwrights were treated if and when they were fortunate enough to find a producer. The collective had a single purpose: each of the 13 playwrights would get to produce a play the way they wanted to do it. When all 13 had been produced (it took nine years), the collective shut down in 2012. The results were fantastic. The plays won four Obie awards, and several of the playwrights have gone on to hugely successful careers. Among the founding members was Rob Handel, author of “A Maze”, currently head of the playwrighting program at Carnegie-Melon University, and a resident playwright with New Dramatists.

“A Maze”, has been recently produced in New York and Washington, D.C., and now has its west coast premiere with Just Theater. Both the play and the production are dazzling.

As befits the title, the play starts out with some confusion. There are surprise twists, rapid changes in narrative and unexpected turns. But this lack of clarity does not confuse so much as enchant, like a beautifully written but hermetic poem, that only gradually reveals its many depths and facets.

At the outset, we encounter a situation too familiar from the evening news. A young woman, 17 years old, has escaped from the home of a kidnapper who has kept her prisoner for several years. She has been returned to her mother, and is now preparing to tell her story on network television to an Oprah-like journalist. The young woman surprises our expectations by being rather unpleasant and an evident publicity hound. This is the first of many surreal and amusing twists to come.

A brilliant Clive Worsley as the eccentric Beeson in Just Theater's west coast premiere of Ron Handel's "A Maze". Photo Credit: Just Theater.
A brilliant Clive Worsley as the eccentric Beeson in Just Theater’s west coast premiere of Ron Handel’s “A Maze”. Photo Credit: Just Theater.

Just as the story gets underway, the play shifts to a new narrative, with no apparent connection to the first. This involves a young, highly successful rock  star who is entering rehab. His story gives way to yet another: while in the hospital he meets and befriends an eccentric, also highly successful, graphic novelist, who has been working on a single multivolume story for many years. We learn that for hundreds of pages the story doesn’t even begin, but involves maps and diagrams and elaborate supporting material and history just to get ready. It is sort of a maze, sort of amazing, and sort of like the play we are watching. We begin to feel like we are locked inside a puzzle box trying to find our way out. But we like it here.

Then another transformation: actors are now performing the peculiar fairy-tale like plot of the graphic novel. It involves a mysterious king who, to protect his yet unborn daughter and the queen, builds a maze around his palace that will be impenetrable. Nobody will be able to get in or out. Is he protecting or imprisoning his family? Is he good or evil? Who is the mysterious half man/half dog whom he commissions to design the maze? And why does he abandon his family for years to spend all his time building the maze to the very edge of his kingdom?

And what does all of this have to do with the rock star, the graphic novelist, and the escaped abductee (remember her)?

With ever more complicated interconnections and amusing complications, the playwright leads us to the heart of the various mazes he is exploring. Love and art, hope and family, truth and falsehood, dogs and humans, mothers and daughters, fathers and monsters… everything has its moment.

It’s just plain magnificent.

The company at Just Theater has served this marvelous script marvelously well. Director Molly Aaronsen-Gelb makes certain that we are never confused, unless, of course, she intends to confuse us, only to lead us further into the deliciousness of the maze. And the actors! Just Theater has assembled a dream cast of some of the finest talent working in the Bay Area. Their list of credits is singularly impressive. Particularly excellent among the excellent are Clive Worsley as Beeson the graphic novelist and a wonderfully funny Carl Holvick-Thomas playing multiple roles.

This is a must see. And you have no excuse to miss it, because Just Theatre offers all unsold tickets at every performance on a pay as you can basis. Don’t let that generous offer fool you. This work is as good, or better, than anything else you are likely to see.

Just  go. You will be amazed.

For more information, click here.


“A Maze” by Rob Handel, a west coast premiere produced by Just Theatre. Director: Molly Aaronsen-Gelb. Sets: Martin Flynn. Costumes: Miyuki Bierlein. Sound: Teddy Hulsker. Props: Devon LaBell.

Oksana: Sarah Moser. Paul: Harold Pierce. Beeson: Clive Worsley. Kim/Tish: Lauren Spencer. Tom/Alexander/Gunter: Carl Holvick-Thomas. King/Gareth: John Mercer. Angela/Queen/Hermione: Janis DeLucia.


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