More than halfway through Rob Handel’s agreeably ramshackle drama “A Maze,” a debate breaks out about the special nature of artists. Are creative people different from the rest of us? Are they allowed to play by different rules ethically? Emotionally?
“You don’t get to write ‘Layla’ unless someone’s got you on your knees,” one character contends.
That dry, quirky line is swapped among members of a confused megastar rock band called Pathetic Fallacy. And the debate comes as the wildly disparate strands of Handel’s graphic novel/pop-culture satire/abduction drama start intersecting in patterns you may anticipate quickly but that are weirdly watchable anyway.
A centerpiece is the graphic novel’s fantasy, which makes “A Maze” terra firma for Rorschach Theatre. The scrappy troupe, settled at the Atlas Performing Arts Center after a decade performing all over town, has a taste for tales that stretch reality. So the plotline about the oddly dysfunctional cartoonist writing a super-elaborate, multi-volume saga featuring a defensive maze designed by a half-man/half-dog — well, in local theatrical terms, that’s pure Rorschach.
Not that “A Maze” is full-on wacky; it’s measured, thoughtful and largely sober (also Rorschach traits). The main character is Jessica, a 17-year-old girl who was kidnapped at age 9. She’s just broken free, so of course she’s now a celebrity. So is Kim, the TV personality who seems to own Jessica’s story, and Paul and Oksana, the damaged former child prodigy stars of Pathetic Fallacy.
Rounding out the roster of the famous-but-wounded is Beeson, the reclusive graphic novelist who’s in rehab with Paul and whose dark books become central to the play. Escape and coping are themes, and as the characters grope toward their various freedoms and protections, the maze becomes a neat metaphor.
It’s also the essence of Robbie Hayes’s set. Large jigsaw hangings and big sections of the floor are on hinges, and the actors push them into different configurations between the scenes.
That’s clever, but you end up watching it happen a lot. Handel’s brief scenes toggle and toggle between subplots, and director Grady Weatherford hasn’t entirely solved the problem of constantly switching gears while sustaining momentum through the 21 / 2-hour show.
In his favor, Weatherford has a largely winning cast charting Handel’s complex psycho-scape. Andrew Ferlo and Sara Barker, in ripped-up leather and denim, have a relaxed intensity as the brooding rockers (Ferlo is especially good with the relaxed bits, and Barker delivers the intensity). Ryan Mitchell does well not to make the near-manically focused Beeson too precious, and, as the precocious Jessica, Jenny Donovan grows more compelling the more mysterious the character gets.
The crime and its connection to art: Does Handel’s shaggy fantasy soft-pedal that? The thought nags briefly now and then, and it seems that Weatherford and crew might have made the show creepier, possibly pressed for connections with recent events (the sadness around “The Dark Knight Rises” is an inexact parallel, but in this issue’s orbit). Mainly, though, you see it their way, that “A Maze” isn’t that kind of disturbing social critique. It’s a gentle puzzle.
by Rob Handel. Directed by Grady Weatherford. Costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; lights, Eric Grims; sound design, Thomas Sowers. With Robin Covington, Megan Dominy, Luke Cieslewicz and Francisco Reinoso. Through Sept. 9 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993. atlasarts.org.