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A CurtainUp Review
" Home. Psh. That's just the name of a place you leave and don't ever go back to."

(L-R) Vinie Burrows and Becca Blackwell (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)
Nearly twenty years after Soho Rep presented Richard Maxwell's original Western, Cowboys and Indians, the company once again looks towards the frontier through the unique lens of the avant-garde playwright in his latest work, Samara. While, as in much of Maxwell's writing, plot isn't of paramount importance here, this experimental play centers on several journeys. First, a young messenger (Jasper Newell) ventures out into a dystopic wilderness to collect on a debt. Later, a transgender "Manan" (Becca Blackwell) and their drunken companion (Paul Lazar) must travel back towards Samara as they seek a path forward from a life-changing mistake.

It's generally safe to assume that any Maxwell work will be loved by some and hated by others (a selection of links to CurtainUp's past coverage, below, offer a sampling of varied responses). Even among those who appreciate what he offers, it's commonly acknowledged that these plays require effort.

With Samara he might simply be asking too much. Speaking as someone who has, in the past, found rewards in grappling with the complexities and provocations Maxwell sets out, this play felt frustratingly opaque and, at times, unfocused.

Of significant note here is that while Maxwell is known to often work as an auteur, controlling both the content and staging of his plays as writer and director, here he has not only integrated musical contributions by Steve Earle—who also performs as the play's narrator—but also entrusted directing responsibilities to Soho Rep's own Sarah Benson.

In his capacity as composer and narrator, Earle is quite central within the production. The music, played by Ivan Goff on the Uilleann pipes and Anna Wray on percussion, combines Irish and Native American influences, while his gravelly narration adds a bit of a Johnny Cash–style country flavor. The sonic backdrop to the production, aided by sound designer Palmer Hefferan, is thickly atmospheric, transporting us to a gritty frontier world that is further drawn out in the costume design by Junghyun Georgia Lee.

Standing on the east side of the in-the-round staging, Earle reads the playwright's directions at the top of each scene. At first, this just seems like a useful way of smoothing over transitions that aren't illustrated in Louisa Thompson's scenic design, which makes a stage from flattened milk crates and several platforms of the same plastic packaging material. (The audience also sits on benches made from these crates, and while you're given a foam cushion, be forewarned that it isn't the most comfortable.)

For the final scenes of the play, however, Earle becomes the only speaker, taking control with a seemingly unending narration of what might be stories or impressionistic observations. The language is intensely poetic, yet untethered to the rest of the show. It's also difficult to process as you hear it, as if something about Earle's manner of speech here—somehow simultaneously expressive and monotonous, hurried and drawling—seems elusive by design.

This continues at length and eventually gives way to an extended period of silence during which the stage lights appear to cycle through their settings, to unclear effect. By the time it's all said and done, the line between poetry and pretension has become dangerously hazy.

Of course, while Earle may be the central orchestrator, he is hardly the only member of the cast. The other performers employ a semi-detached acting style that recalls, but does not recreate, the affectless, deadpan delivery for which Maxwell's plays have often been known (though he denies this as a signature). Instead of each individual neutralizing their emotions, what we tend to see here is a give and take where an emotional outburst from one character is absorbed and flattened by another.

One standout is the 88-year-old Vinie Burrows, who maximizes her short stage time. While the most physically diminutive of the cast, her presence looms large within the theater, and her performance—which includes the only actual song in the play— is the most affecting.

It's surprising, though, that the term "affecting" comes up anywhere near a Maxwell play. There's an inherently anti-theatrical essence in his work that feels constantly at odds with the more dramatic staging that we're offered here. Tension isn't out of place in Maxwell's work, either, but ideally of a generative kind, offering us a point of entry into the work and a lens to understand it. Here, it just seems to push us away.

Other plays by Richard Maxwell reviewed at CurtainUp:
Isolde, 2014/15
People Without History, 2009
Good Samaritans, 2004
Joe, 2002
Drummer Wanted, 2001
Caveman, 2001
Boxing 2000, 2000
Showy Lady Slipper, 1999
Cowboys and Indians, 1999

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Samara by Richard Maxwell
Directed by Sarah Benson
Original Music by Steve Earle

with Becca Blackwell (Manan), Vinie Burrows (Agnes), Steve Earle (Narrator), Roy Faudree (Supervisor), Modesto Flako Jiménez (Cowboy), Matthew Korahis (Beast), Paul Lazar (Drunk), and Jasper Newell (Messenger)
Musicians: Ivan Goff (Uillean pipes) and Anna Wray (percussion)
Scenic Design: Louisa Thompson
Costume Design: Junghyun Georgia Lee
Lighting Design: Matt Frey
Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan
Props Design: George Hoffmann and Greg Kozatek
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Choreographer: Annie-B Parson
Production Stage Manager: Rachel K. Gross
Running Time: 1 hours and 20 minutes with no intermission
Presented by Soho Rep at The Mezzanine Theater at the A.R.T/New York Theatres, 502 W 53rd Street
Tickets: $35-$65; (212) 352-3101,
From 4/4/2017; opened 4/16/2017; closing 5/7/2017
Performance times: Tuesdays–Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm; Sundays at 8 pm, except for a 5 pm performance on May 7
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 4/13/2017 performance

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