Director/writer Richard Maxwell was included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, an unusual, though not undeserved, honor for a theater director. His Isolde, now running at the Abrons Arts Center, is a departure from his recent work, a surprisingly conventional play, which he presents in his customary flat, affectless fashion.
Maxwell has founded two highly regarded theater companies, first the Cook County Theater Department, in Chicago, and in 1999 the New York City Players. The uninflected delivery that he encouraged in his actors seemed to correspond to the unspectacular world in which many of his characters operated.
Isolde, however, harkens back to a 19th-century tradition of well-made plays with strong emotional content, heavy symbolism, Romantic themes, and upper-class characters. The name of the play and its title character link it to the legend of Tristan and Isolde, made famous by Richard Wagner’s groundbreaking opera, whose unrelenting pathos and harmonic ingenuity drove some to detest it utterly and others to find it the most affecting piece of music ever created. In the opera, Isolde, chosen to marry King Mark, and Tristan, whom the king has trusted to fetch his bride, fall in love and, after hours of agony, die together.
Though Maxwell’s work frequently includes or is inspired by music, his Isolde does not hew too closely to Wagner’s plot. His Isolde (Tory Vazquez) is a contemporary successful actress, married to practical Patrick (Jim Fletcher), a successful building contractor. Enter Massimo (Gary Wilmes), a successful, dreamy architect, hired to build Isolde’s dream house. Massimo’s artistic genius makes Isolde swoon, and pretty soon they’re having an affair. The plot and character clichés, the upper class love triangle and Patrick’s almost modern tolerance for his wife’s affair aren’t so much Wagner as Douglas Sirk. The play includes lines like the following: “Take a step back… examine nature and you start to see there are no straight lines. Why? Everything is bent but nothing is out of place. Circles serve a purpose. They aren’t just strong, they are strength, you know?” Far from Tristan und Isolde, this kind of talk recalls Ibsen’s The Master Builder, a play about an older man who is in love with a younger woman and goes on about building castles in the air.
But that’s just the script. Maxwell’s presentational style and his excellent cast of regulars hold the text at a distance for the most part, endeavoring to counteract its conventionality. As a director, Maxwell embraces the artificiality and repetition of theater as a medium.
Maxwell’s cast performs as if there were quotation marks around the play’s words and content. Sascha van Riel’s flimsy-looking, abstract set, with its handful of chairs and a big curtain at the back, underscores the perception of this stage as a stage, revealing the wings and the back wall of the playing area. Between scenes, there is no transition music or any effort to mask the change; rather, the actors march to their marks for the next scene in silence, adjusting the few pieces of furniture on the stage as necessary. Often, when a character leaves a “scene,” rather than disappearing into the wings, the actor will linger, watching the scene from which he or she is absent. When Massimo has sex with Isolde after Patrick has left the room, Patrick nonetheless observes them nonchalantly from a Barcelona chair on the other side of the stage. Music, when included, is presented self-consciously, played at scarcely audible volume or on a cell phone that Massimo carries. Toward the end, the actors don the medieval armor of Wagnerian drag to mock the weighty allusion of the title.
Maxwell’s direction and control of his aesthetic are very sure-handed. And he could hardly ask for a better cast. Jim Fletcher is always fascinating to watch: he projects a kind of corporeal solidity that detaches itself naturally from the words that, in Maxwell’s plays, flow somewhat mechanically from his mouth. Tory Vazquez’s Isolde convincingly emodies the ambivalent attitude toward the text, at once the lovelorn, dependent woman and an actress who forgets her lines and stands outside the events portrayed. Gary Wilmes manages to make the stereotypical Massimo three-dimensional enough while uttering fatuities about beauty, love and architecture. Though he gets considerably less stage time, Brian Mendes seems almost born to play “Uncle Jerry,” Patrick’s contracting buddy and advisor.
There are many pleasures to be found in the meta-theatricality of the production and the fine gradations in the acting that are necessary to communicate the different levels on which Maxwell operates. This approach, seen in European theater, though rare in the U.S., has been well articulated by Paul Binnerts in his book, Acting in Real Time. It rejects both the stylized alienation of Brecht and the false illusionism of Method acting, which dominates American theater, film and television. This species of post-dramatic theater intends to have a more direct relationship with the audience and an open acknowledgement of the artifices of theatrical representation.
Maxwell’s play does not, however, elude the sentimentalism and clichés of naturalistic theater. Naturalism, in the tradition of Ibsen, shows life driven by unavoidable fate; perhaps once Maxwell started writing in this genre, he couldn’t find a way to stop. Massimo winds up pleading, “Tell him… I’ll take a break. But I’m really looking forward to this project. I – I want to see this through for you. He can’t stop me from loving you. And this is my one chance to, because I really feel it this time, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.” Uncle Jerry, closes the play with a cri de coeur, “Ya ever feel like, alone? Like – that’s not what I mean. But like something will always be missing? Like, no one can hold you? Just want a space where you can be like, I don’t know, not feel that way.”
Richard Maxwell and New York City Players: Isolde continues at the Abrons Art Center (466 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 26.