September 16, 2015

Why "Isolde"—And It's Ilk—Is Not for Me

Richard Maxwell clearly has a following. The night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw Isolde, the experimental work written and directed by Maxwell that's playing at Theatre For A New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center through Sept. 27, his fans in the audience, including the woman sitting next to me, started laughing as soon as the actors walked onstage. And they continued chortling for the next 85 minutes. I, on the other hand, didn’t laugh once.

This is the first Maxwell play I’ve seen but from what I can tell his aesthetic veers heavily toward absurd situations, rudimentary scenery and deadpan acting. All of those attributes are on display in Isolde, a contemporary spin on the Celtic legend about the love triangle between a king, his most trusted knight and the woman they both love that will be familiar to fans of both Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” and Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot.

The central characters in Maxwell’s version are an actress named Isolde, her wealthy husband Patrick, who’s a building contractor, and the architect they hire to design their dream house. He's called Massimo. Patrick watches a lot of TV and hangs out with a semi-thuggish guy he calls Uncle Jerry. Meanwhile, Isolde and Massimo start an affair that culminates in a bare-butt sex scene.

But nothing seems to perk any of them up, not even when Patrick figures out what’s going on between Isolde and Massimo. In fact, there are no grand arias to be found anywhere, even though bits of Wagner’s score do provide incidental music.

The New York Times’ Ben Brantley calls Isolde “smashing,” and The New Yorker’s Hilton Als calls it “elegant," (click here for his Q&A with Maxwell)They apparently see Patrick’s fondness for reality TV, Isolde’s inability to remember lines of Shakespeare and Patrick’s failure to complete the plans for the house as incisive commentary on the anodyne nature of contemporary culture.

I see those same things as familiar tropes that have been far better explored in other works and that here only give the actors, including Maxwell’s wife Tory Vasquez, who plays Isolde, ideas instead of characters to play. Maxwell's take strikes me as all head, no heart.

Or, as Bill put it in an email he sent me the next morning. “Maxwell—intentionally, I assume—leached out not only most of the emotions from his characters' dialog but also their natures. He gives us what is (just like the set) the mere skeleton of a play rather than a fully fleshed one.”

I don't mind absurd situations, rudimentary scenery or even deadpan acting but I prefer them with more meat on their bones than Isolde provides.

No comments: