By Sarah Downs

Invasive Species at the Vineyard Theatre, interrogates the confluence of certainty and accommodation in the search for, or creation of, identity.  The performance is colorful, inventive, visceral, funny and a bit manic.  Playwright and actress Maia Novi narrates her real-life voyage from her native Argentina to the Yale School of Drama, in flashes of dream, memory and parallel storytelling.  Bright-eyed and determined, Maia holds our attention with her insistent sincerity.

Maia has spent her youth pining for escape from Argentina.  Bitten by the acting bug, she wants to be in pictures, as it were, and only Hollywood will do.  Off she goes to acting school, eventually landing at Yale.  Yet she cannot settle.  At the mercy of preconceptions of who she must be as an Argentinian woman – part Eva Peron, part taco maker with gang affiliations (because some idiots will believe anything); she is less a person (to others) than a tabula rasa.  In pursuit of ‘received pronunciation’ that gloriously bland, multi-purpose, theatrical accent, Maia is encouraged to imitate Gwyneth Paltrow – literally.  Already communicating in a foreign language, adapting to a foreign culture, Maia must now also cloak her identity in a false accent.  How do you hold on to what you are when you have to pretend so much?

As she barrels through, Maia suppresses roiling oceans within, but secrets don’t follow the rules.  On the verge of graduation, the dam bursts and Maia is whisked off to a psychiatric hospital.  We nearly drown in Maia’s confusion as she is held captive with a group of ‘troubled’ youth.  As dream and experience converge, we see her trapped between the poles of competing needs – to find an answer for her pain and find her way out.  The two authorities representing this push me/pull you – the doctor who holds her freedom in his hands, and the director who holds her future in his, pepper with questions in a way that drive one to distraction.  We don’t know what is real or what is fantasy, but as doctor and director communicate in parallel, we see they are two sides of the same theme.  Maia bounces between them, powerless in the face of their authority.  First robbed of her authentic voice, she is now also robbed of agency.

The at times frenetic energy and loud volume of the piece are certainly fitting, as the majority of the action takes place in a heightened emotional environment.  A talented band of four excellent actors, Raffi Donatich, Sam Gonzalez, Alexandra Maurice, and Julian Sanchez, construct the emotional and physical environment, moving fluidly among a dizzying array of characters, real and imagined (and sometimes not even human).  Director Michael Breslin brings the story to life with an economy equal to that of the production design.  cole McCarty’s dramatic lighting, including flashes of white light straight at the audience signals scene changes  We toggle between worlds as abruptly as the swift handclaps Maia has developed to cope with unbidden memories.  How will she fare on these shifting sands?

Reality, identity, even agency, are not immutable.  For Maia, in a world of received pronunciation and assumed identities, it distills into an accent – an accent that can make or break her career, expose her, or change her destiny.   In a journey cleverly book-ended with parallel gesture, the difference between a jump of predation and a jump of joy says it all.

Invasive Species, written and performed by Maia Novi;  directed by Michael Breslin.  With Maia Novi, Raffi Donatich, Sam Gonzalez, Alexandra Maurice, Julian Sanchez, Paloma Maia Aisenberg.

Beth Gill, Movement Director; Yichen Zhou, Lighting; cole McCarty, Costumes; Jessie Char & Maxwell Neely-Cohen, Sound Design and Music.

At the Vineyard Theater (108 E 15th Street) from May 7th through June 30th.  Buy Tickets:  or go to www.invasivespeciesplay.com.  Run Time: 75 Minutes.  NOTE: This play uses strobe lighting and contains explicit language and references to suicide.