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Invasive Species

Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 15, 2024

Alexandra Maurice, Maia Novi, Julian Sanchez,
Raffi Donatich, and Sam Gonzalez

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an "invasive species" is one that "has been intentionally or inadvertently brought into a region or area. Also called an exotic or non-native species." Born in Argentina and with aspirations to be a film star in the United States, writer and performer Maia Novi uses the metaphor to explore her own experiences and the ways in which immigrants' identities are shaped, molded, and reconstructed to conform to what people expect them to be. Now playing at the Vineyard's Dimson Theater (although it is not a Vineyard production), Invasive Species is a highly theatricalized, alternately dark and uproariously absurd examination of the costs of assimilation.

Directed by Michael Breslin, most of the play proceeds at breakneck speed. Maia explains that one of her first experiences with American culture was seeing The Amazing Spiderman starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. In a flash, the young woman is bitten by the Acting Bug, literalized by a performer (Julian Sanchez) wearing an exaggerated mosquito get-up. (Cole McCarty designed the witty costumes.) A determined Maia explains: "I left my home. I left my friends and family. I even left myself. No matter what it took I was going to be in the American movies."

In another flash, Maia flees first to France, then London, and she finally lands in the United States, where she is accepted into the Yale Drama School. Over the course of her time there, her teachers try to train the Argentinian accent out of her, claiming it is "unplaceable," "unmarketable," and unAmerican." What had singled her out as a unique and exotic creature now needs to be tamed and normalized. The pressure seems to be too much for the young woman to handle. As she prepares for her final acting showcase and doing her best to sound like Gwyneth Paltrow, she suffers from debilitating insomnia.

She visits a psychiatrist, who gives the impression of being sympathetic. He offers her a sleeping pill in his office, and Maia wakes up in a juvenile psychiatric hospital (she is 25 at the time). There she befriends her fellow patients, including the queen bee of the ward, Akila (Alexandra Maurice), the intractable Jacob (Sam Gonzalez), and the noncommunicative Eduardo (Sanchez). They are presided over by the hospital's own Nurse Ratched, dubbed Nurse Elsa (Raffi Donatich). Maia appeals to her parents to get her released, begs her doctor, and requests help from Yale, but it appears she is doomed to remain in the facility. Finally, the wise and troubled teenager Akila gives her advice that will set her free.

With movement directed by Beth Gill, the first half of the play seems to be in constant motion. The protean cast members play an assortment of characters, and in addition to the psych ward patients, they play Maia's parents, doctors, teachers, and cast and crew members of a Hollywood-inspired revery of an Eva Peron film adaptation. Performed on a mostly bare stage with just a few chairs and props (there is no scenic designer credited), Yichen Zhou's striking lighting design convey the shifts in time, place, and imaginative leaps.

Jessie Char and Maxwell Neely-Cohen's sound design and original music help create the sense of a fever dream in which fact and fantasy collide. It's like watching Maia's story in a fever dream, and the absurdist elements call to mind the psychic violence of Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro. In both plays, the protagonist's sense of self is at war with what the dominant culture expects her to be. Breslin's aggressive direction and Novi's relentlessly energetic performance in Invasive Species grow enervating, and perhaps that's the point. In the final minutes, Maia reveals the source of her trauma. If she may not ever be able to completely banish the personal demons or the voices telling her who she should be, she can at least live with them. And that, the play suggests, might just be the best any of us can do.

Invasive Species
Through June 30, 2024
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: