The Corn Maiden
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
August 17, 2008
In The Corn Maiden, Jess McLeod and Justin Swain's adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates novella, young Marissa Bantry is the new girl at an upstate New York girl's school. As her mother drops her off for her first day, the troubled Jude watches, jealous of Marissa's platinum blond hair—although, the lonely Jude may also envy Marissa her doting mother as well. Then during a class trip to the Museum of Natural History, Jude sees a diorama depicting the ritual tribal sacrifice of a victim called "The Corn Maiden," and comes up with a horrifying idea for Marissa; enlisting her friends Anita and Denise, they lure Marissa to Jude's basement, feed her drug-laced ice cream, and hold her captive for days.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Those playing younger characters are spot-on at playing tween-age girls—Hana Kalinski is never too cloyingly sweet as Marissa, and Maria Teresa Creasey swings effortlessly between the tough girl Jude wants/tries to be and the wounded little girl she actually is. Kate Shine and Heather Bonahoom hit exactly the right uneasy balance as Anita and Denise slowly realize that Jude's taking their game a bit far—they know they should stop, but Jude wouldn't like them any more if they did, so... Erin Roberts is also compelling as Marissa's mother Leah, and is especially so in her scenes with Jessica Day, playing her brittle sister Avril. Rounding things out is Michael Markham as Mikal, the indifferent teacher who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight when he becomes suspected of Marissa's disappearance.
Director Jess McLeod wisely leaves most of the action to the cast, but has also added a handful of short films to the piece—cutout photograph animations, the kind sometimes used in old Monty Python episodes, which I assume are supposed to depict Jude's dreams or subconscious fantasies. A couple are cleverly done, but not all of them quite seem to work—I couldn't recognize any of the faces in one early one, and thus didn't understand its "message." Even with the ones that do work, the cast's performances more than make their characters' states clear, so the films don't seem to add anything. However, they also don't detract anything as such, so save for one or two moments of confusion I didn't mind them.
Viewers should also be warned that a good deal of scenes take place with characters seated on the floor toward the front of the stage, and it can at times be hard to see them in the space; a young woman sitting to my left was sitting behind someone fairly tall, and had to keep trying to peer around his head and even got up to her feet once or twice just to see what was happening. This seems to be more an unfortunate quirk of the space [The New School], though, and not the fault of the production. Don't let it stop you from seeing this, but do choose your seat wisely and considerately.
This is a fine and finely performed adaptation of a chilling tale. Definitely worth the trip.