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A CurtainUp Review
Isolde, Revisited at Theatre for a New Audience
Nearly a year and a half after its American debut performance at the Abrons Art Center, Richard Maxwell's Isolde now receives an extended run at Theatre for a New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center. The production remains much the same, but benefits tremendously from the configuration of TFANA's Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage, in which the audience has been raised above the level of the stage and the distance between many of the seats and the stage has been drastically reduced.
These changes may sound minor, but they change the audience's relationship to the performers significantly. They also more fully showcase the show's technical components, such as the way Sascha van Riel's scenic and lighting design (produced in consultation with the original lighting coordinator Zack Tinkelman) creates shadows on the sparse, pale stage, or how the music in the play is given a tinny quality by having it play from a cell phone carried by Uncle Jerry (Brian Mendes).
These technical pieces are well tuned with the overall direction of the play, which remains in Maxwell's hallmark style (discussed in detail in my original review reposted below) and has been further refined since the Abrons production. I didn't remember finding the play as funny last time around as I did here; much of that humor comes from dialogue, delivered with careful calculation, where the lack of emotional charge characteristic of Maxwell's characters reveals the shortcomings of language as a tool for self-expression.
The most interesting consequence of this second viewing of the play was a reconsideration of who its central force actually was. In my first encounter with the piece, I saw Isolde (Tory Vazquez) as the clear protagonist, and her struggle with memory as well as her affair with Massimo (Gary Wilmes) as the primary conflicts. This time, however, something—it's hard to say what—shifted much more of my focus to Patrick (Jim Fletcher), as he grapples with the thought of losing his wife mentally and romantically.
Isolde remains effective at probing the artifice of theater and the ways in which verbal communication can be both vividly expressive as well as woefully inadequate, but the fact remains that Maxwell's project is something of an acquired taste. Some viewers will find his philosophy dissatisfying in its opacity or feel like his disaffected characters aren't sufficiently engrossing.
The show's description on the popular discount ticketing service TodayTix, consistent with its marketing elsewhere, doesn't call attention to these more experimental elements—in keeping with Maxwell's own resistance to the idea that he has a signature style—and it's likely that a number of audience members will arrive expecting a very different performance from the one they're about to see. Some will probably be disappointed. Others might be unexpectedly intrigued.
It's a gutsy move for Theatre for a New Audience, but a great one for Maxwell, an artist who has always straddled the similar but disparate worlds of "theater" and "performance art." This is perhaps the closest he has come to the mainstream, and this kind of exposure to new audiences gives new vitality to his work. Whether or not you buy what he has to offer, this new production of Isolde certainly makes it hard to deny that Richard Maxwell knows what he's doing.
Written and directed by Richard Maxwell
Cast: Jim Fletcher (Patrick), Brian Mendes (Uncle Jerry), Tory Vazquez (Isolde), and Gary Wilmes (Massimo)
Scenic and Lighting Designer: Sascha van Riel
Original Costume Design: Romy Springsguth
Additional Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Production Stage Manager: Rachel Gross
General Manager: Michael Page
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission
Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
For tickets: (866) 811-4111 or www.tfana.org; $55–$85
From 9/6/2015; opened 9/10/2015, closing 9/27/15
Performance times: Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 9/11/15 performance
The 2014 review of Isolde at the Abron Arts Center
"How long have I been doing the same thing? Every new project is the old project, then do it again... how many times? Get on a plane, go through a tunnel, go over a bridge. Is this how I see myself? No more, no more acting, thank you very much."
"Ok. So don't do it. Who needs it? It's a hassle."
"But I love it. I do love it. I need to be somehow a part of the stories. It makes me feel... alive."
Richard Maxwell has created a predicament for himself. In his fifteen years since founding the New York City Players, the avante-garde playwright/director has earned a reputation for productions characterized by the affectless performances of the cast, despite his resistance to the "notion that he has a particular style of his own" (see Jeremy Barker in Culturebot). By now, the style that first put Maxwell on the map has grown into a full-fledged aesthetic.
(L-R) Tory Vazquez and Jim Fletcher. (Photo: David Pym)
What of his latest production, Isolde? Very loosely inspired by the eponymous medieval legend, the play depicts a star actress named Isolde (Tory Vazquez) who increasingly finds herself unable to remember her lines. She resorts to building her dream home as a distraction, and her husband Patrick (Jim Fletcher), who owns a construction company, jumps at the opportunity. However, the award-winning architect to whom she turns to design the house, Massimo (Gary Wilmes), doesn't work well with Patrick. That might have something to do with their creative temperaments, or it could be related to the affair Massimo and Isolde begin nearly immediately after commencing the project.
Stylistically, this show is certainly recognizable as Maxwell's, though there are some differences. Even though the actors are still operating under characteristic Maxwellian direction, delivering their lines in a flat tone and rarely taking time to let the words sit before moving on full steam ahead to the next thought, the dialogue itself seems to be tonally distinct from what the playwright has written before. The characters do have emotions, and these emotions create direct conflicts.
When I read Boxing 2000 (CurtainUp's review), my first exposure to Maxwell's writing, his style felt apparent in the text. The dialogue was oddly stilted; it wasn't just that the lines would be performed as flat, the lines were themselves emotionally detached. The characters always seemed to be talking at, around, and past one another, rarely evincing any true connections or bonds.
But the script for Isolde doesn't offer the same indications. These characters do understand one another, and they do have emotions.
How they express these emotions onstage, however, is a different story. If the script of the play doesn't immediately betray Maxwell's hand, the staging and direction do, even while respecting the greater emotionality of the script. Vazquez, Fletcher, and Brian Mendes (who plays Uncle Jerry, a friend of Patrick's) are all NYCP veterans and look quite natural moving and speaking in even the most unnatural ways. Wilmes doesn't do so to quite the same degree, but this feels appropriate given his outsider status to the other three characters.
The performances all feel solid, but it's hard to judge them when so many of the criteria one normally considers in a review (chemistry, nuance, dimensionality, etc.) are so soundly neutralized in the name of the overarching project that is going on here. Even while employing a full set (by Sascha van Riel) and dramatic lighting (by Zack Tinkelman), Isolde is, on the whole, so anti-theatrical that it can feel overwhelming.
The play has a Brechtian obsession with the artifice of the stage; comments like "They're not my words" stand out, for example. And, of course, there's the conundrum of the actress who can't remember her lines.
All this inevitably begs the question, "So what?" If we are to accept that Maxwell has a characteristic style, and if we are to accept that Isolde successfully continues to explore that style, what is the purpose of it all? It's hard to come up with a satisfying answer, but it's intriguing how the questions Maxwell's approach always begs —What does it mean to act? What is theater?—enmesh with the specifics of this particular play and its focus on theater.
Isolde also poses a number of other interesting questions, too, about desire, love, and loyalty. It's still a Maxwell show through and through, and that's a highly compelling reason to see it, but it's more than just another extension of the playwright's grand experiment. At times strange, dreamy, stinging, and comic, it's a complicated show to digest, but well worth the energy.
This production with the same actors and design team ran at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street from
From 4/10/2014 to 4/26/14 andwas reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 4/10/14 performance
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