People Without History
Thu Mar 26 2009
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
AT UNEASE Maxwell's warriors take a mess-hall break.
Photograph: Michael Schmelling
Stumping home after a medieval battle, soldiers march their prisoners across the green English hills. Bludgeoned by weariness and hunger, the men seem emptied as they wipe the blood from their chain mail and maces. Of course, since this is a New York City Players production, they are also wearing long johns and playing the sax. Huh? Yes, the company known for deadpan antispectacles like Ode to the Man Who Kneels is now catching crumbs from the table of Shakespeare. Richard Maxwell has written a grunt's-eye view of the Battle of Shrewsbury, the military crux of the Bard's Henry IV. With a costume nod to the later War of the Roses (disbanded Lancastrians wear red union suits; the rebels sport Yorkist white), the surprisingly politicized People Without History takes the group's most obvious step yet toward its theatrical forbear, Bertolt Brecht.
This time, company member Brian Mendes directs, though much remains the same as under Maxwell—screens suffice for a set, the acting is deliberately amateurish, the room seems lit by desk lamp. This is an aesthetic corrective to the wild emotionalism of Maxwell's script—it buries knifelike lines about violence and loneliness in a sheath of hipster affectlessness. As ever, alienation techniques have a price, and parts of People can get pretty taxing. But just as we start to suspect the work of archness, Pete Simpson sends a chill through us or Jim Fletcher gets his clothes torn off. Using structured dullness, Maxwell and company are making war stories strange again, a task that even Brecht might say is worth their stripes.—Helen Shaw
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