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A CurtainUp Review
Showy Lady Slipper
By Les Gutman
There is a common perception that it takes a good writer to make a good playwright. Less well understood is that it takes a good listener to make a great playwright. With the debut of his third play in the last year or so, Richard Maxwell establishes that he is a great listener.
Maxwell is keenly aware, also, of the way other people listen and, in turn, how (that is, to what effect) they use words. This, more than any "plot," is what drives Showy Lady Slipper. An esoteric exercise? Well, it is, actually, but you'd never know it from the way the audience erupts in laughter. Forcing us to listen to how we converse can be fun, and funny, and even compelling. Maxwell makes it all three.
For those not yet exposed to Maxwell's version of theater, be prepared for something different, something, alas, that is difficult to describe without diminishing it. There are certainly elements of what Maxwell does (he is his own director) that can be compared to others (Harold Pinter and Richard Foreman come to mind easily), but Maxwell's plays have a logic that is unique, a term I don't use casually. He's the first American playwright since Mamet who seems destined to have his name turned into an adjective.
In House, Maxwell painted affectless characters on a virtually blank suburban canvas. In Cowboys and Indians, linked below, (written by Maxwell and Jim Strahs, whose play North Atlantic is currently under reëxamination by the Wooster Group), there was considerably more context, but the actors' voices and body language denied the text any meaning or emotional effect. That, in Maxwell's persuasion, is audience work, not actor work.
Here, he expands on these concepts without repeating them. As before, there are long and increasingly comical Pinteresque pauses, engines for the generation of the words that will soon gush forth. But now one can occasionally detect a bit more amplitude and even inflection in the characters' voices.
They have other things to worry about: they speak as if perhaps they don't know what they are saying, and without regard to whether they need to say anything at all. Topics of coversation shift almost by accident; conclusions, in those instances where they are actually reached, are likely to be regurgitations of the premises on which they are based; reactions, both verbally and physically inappropriate, belie the comments to which they are seemingly directed. The precient is accorded as much attention as the obvious, and the non sequitur becomes an art form. What's frightening, perhaps, is how vividly all of this resonates -- enough so that one audience member at the performance I attended was compelled to blurt out her own inappropriate "Oh My God" as she watched.
What happens in conventional terms is almost beside the point. Erin (Ashley Turba), Lori (Sibyl Kempson) and Jennifer (Jean Ann Garrish), all young women, hang around the house talking and waiting for Lori's boyfriend, John (Jim Fletcher), to show up. When he does, they try on some new clothes. He spends time talking to Jennifer and they make plans to connect behind Lori's back. When they are discovered, John is kicked out; Lori and Jennifer fight. Later, John's mother calls to report he was killed in a car accident after he left.
There are also songs here -- enough that Maxwell is not just being silly when he calls this a musical. (They are his own composition, enhanced by the presence of a two-piece band.) In their artificial way, they are able to express in a medium in which we expect artifice, much that eludes the spoken word.
It's wrong, and folly, to apply too much neaning to what's going on here. Res Ispa Loquitur (the thing speaks for itself) seems the best policy to apply, as Maxwell's fruitless efforts to explain himself in interviews has amply demonstrated.
Massive demands are placed on the performers here, and all are game, disciplined technicians. It's easy to underestimate the complexity of engaging this drastic form of expression; the actors succeed in pulling it off.
If there were a doubt before, it's now pretty clear that Maxwell is not a gimmick peddler. He's a significant voice in experimental theater and beyond. As we try to assess the human condition at the millenium, it would seem he arrived at just the right time.
LINK MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of Cowboys and Indians