Richard Maxwell Discusses “Isolde”

imageAs the run-through of Isolde–the latest piece from New York City Players, which opens April 10 at Abrons Arts Center–started, I found myself thinking that it was, for lack of a better term, quite Richard Maxwellian.

The design was clearly stark and abstract (even without the full lighting design implemented). Tory Vazquez enters and begins delivering a monologue presentational-style, direct to the audience, in a flat monotone.

“We know the story,” she begins. “I was to come by boat and save him. But aboard that boat we know there was a saboteur. That bitch. She was my undoing. She put up the black flag. And then I saw…” She trailed off, then turned to face Jim Fletcher, who’d entered and was sitting in a chair, and asked: “Line?”

“It’s a more ‘interior’ kind of text,” Maxwell told me afterward in an interview. “It’s very, ‘We’re going to look at one another in this room while we do this,'” he added, laughing.

Indeed, for those who suspect they know Maxwell’s theatrical style–the flat, affectless performances of poetic text on variously abstracted stages–Isolde will come as a shock. It has all the appearances of being a well-made play. An actress, Isolde (Vazquez) is facing retirement. Her wealthy husband Patrick (Fletcher), a general contractor, wants to distract her from this big life change by letting her help design and build her dream house, designed by artsy, high-end architect Massimo (Gary Wilmes), with who she conducts a passionate affair. Not only is the story fleshed out in a way one doesn’t expect from Maxwell, but the performances are even more emotive and passionate than in his previous work. Of course, this being Richard Maxwell, it’s not as simple as all that.

The origin of play came from Maxwell toying with a concept that’s almost a joke about Method acting. The main character is an actress who can’t remember her lines. Method acting requires the performer to construct a complex and compelling backstory for a character in order to allow the actor to inhabit the same emotional space as the character. But if that character is an actor who can’t remember their lines, is a Method approach even possible? The actor’s very ability to deliver a line in the show seems to take them out of character.

The original idea was shelved for a couple years before Maxwell revisited it, combining it with a separate idea about what it would take to build the perfect house. And in terms of realization, it continues his ambitious attempt to interrogate–even to minimize the formal elements of–theatrical production.

Despite being known as the “neutral” or “affectless” theater director (which was the subject of his 2012 piece Neutral Hero), Maxwell’s never operated out of a real commitment to developing a style or aesthetic. For him, choices were always practical, a means to an end, and he’s long been uncomfortable with the notion that he has a particular style of his own, rather than an approach. For several years, his plays have allowed for more and more expression of emotion, without ever going over to psychological realism or abandoned the strategies that seem to compress so much of the force of his texts into a narrow vehicle for delivery.

“For most of my directing career, in discussions with actors, I’ve usually asked, ‘Why are you pretending?'” he told me. “In terms of relationship to the text, but also to each other and the audience. But when you have four actors like this”–the cast features four long-time NYC Players performers and collaborators–“I realized I have to ask them, ‘Are you afraid of pretending?'”

By challenging his performers to go deeper into how to realize a text which provides for more concrete backstory and characterization, Maxwell has produced a compelling and discomfiting show. The scenes between Patrick and Massimo–the one wholly pragmatic and dedicated, the other passionate and indeterminate–achieve an alarming level of emotional intensity. The are scenes that feel like they’re about to explode into violence, particularly those featuring Patrick’s uncle Jerry, played by Brian Mendes, who brings a sort of primal, edgy presence to the stage. But like a melody that never resolves, each such moment is pulled back, restrained, and ultimate simply ends as the actors reset themselves onstage for the next scene. It gives the entire affair a vaguely surreal, David Lynchian quality.

“Putting a person on stage,” Maxwell commented, hesitating: “It’s not about ‘not pretending’ but being in a place where they can either pretend or not pretend.”

When the show was originally done at Theater Basel in Switzerland, there were a few elements that have been excised for the New York production, including live orchestration and the presence of three actresses playing Isolde simultaneously. (“The created some unintentional connotations,” Maxwell admitted.) Backing off those directorial experiments has made Isolde appear closer to a standard, well-made play. Which is intentional for Maxwell.

“It feels like, for me, it’s a scary place to go,” he told me. “I’m not sure what it does. But we’re in a conventional theater, and it’s dealing with that.”

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