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Isolde: Theater review by David Cote
Maybe I’ve seen too many plays by hugely influential writer-director Richard Maxwell, but Isolde seems different. From Maxwell’s low-budget, minimalist beginnings at St. Marks Church to this fancy collaboration with Theatre for a New Audience, I’ve been to nearly 20 works that bear the Maxwell stamp: stiff-backed performers with blank expressions, delivering lines at near-monotone. The stories, usually about men struggling for dominance over territory or women, were funny, weird, then funny again. He’s been tagged for nearly two decades as the “deadpan auteur.” But in Isolde, you see Gary Wilmes fidget, slouch and smirk or Tory Vazquez unfurl a radiant smile then scrunch up her brow, as if the two were in a naturalistic drama. Such normal behavior registers in Maxwell-land like Nathan Lane screaming to the balcony seats. Perhaps the director has pushed his zero-fakery, total-truth aesthetic to its logical conclusion: letting gifted actors act.
Isolde (which premiered last year at Abrons Arts Center) follows a basic love-triangle trajectory. As you may guess from its title’s mythic resonance, it’s about a married woman torn between two men. Star actor Isolde (Vazquez) is losing her memory, maybe her mind. Her husband, Patrick (stonily hilarious Jim Fletcher), a contractor, wants to build a dream house for his dear, damaged wife. Enter Massimo (Wilmes), the oily and pretentious “artist-architect” who proceeds to get little work done—besides furtive hookups with Isolde. Brian Mendes steps in as Patrick’s gruff work buddy, Uncle Jerry, who sees through Massimo’s (unbuilt) facade. The infidelity plot is practically an excuse to explore big dichotomies: nature versus architecture, concepts versus materials, artistry versus craft.
Maxwell has been working with these actors for so many years, he seems to be challenging them and himself by loosening up the rigor, imbuing the scenes (on Sascha van Riel’s elegantly sparse set) with greater personality and warmth. It’s the most frankly erotic show I’ve seen from Maxwell—not that anyone will be titillated by the robotic rutting of Isolde and Massimo. And sure, to any Maxwell newbie, the non sequiturs, cryptic pauses and jarring shifts in tone will seem utterly absurd and weird. So not to worry: Maxwell may be Off Broadway, but his vision keeps its beguiling, hypnotic, beautiful severity.—David Cote
Theatre for a New Audience (Off Broadway). Written and directed by Richard Maxwell. With Tory Vazquez, Jim Fletcher, Gary Wilmes, Brian Mendes. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote