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A CurtainUp Review

"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."
(L-R) Tory Vazquez and Jim Fletcher. (Photo: David Pym)
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.

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.

Written and directed by Richard Maxwell

with Jim Fletcher (Patrick), Brian Mendes (Uncle Jerry), Tory Vazquez (Isolde), and Gary Wilmes (Massimo)
Scenographer: Sascha van Riel
Original Costume Design: Romy Springsguth
Additional Costume Pieces: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Coordinator: Zack Tinkelman
Stage Manager: Katherine Brook
Technical Director: Tavish Miller
Run Crew: Eryk Aughenbaugh, Vero Barr, Chimmy Gunn, Julia Mounsey, Darielle Shandler
Sound Sample: Daniel Ott, performed by Sylwia Zytynska, Lanet Otero, and Malte Preuss
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street
For tickets: (212) 352-3101 or; $25
From 4/10/2014; opening 4/12/14, closing 4/26/14
Performance times: Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 4/10/14 performance
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