Theater review by David Cote
Richard Maxwell’s new work takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. You could say the same about most his plays, even the early, more “realistic” deadpan studies such as House, Boxing 2000 and Good Samaritans. They ostensibly depict family life, amateur fighters and charity workers, respectively, but Maxwell universes always seem blasted, cracked in the wake of an unspecified disaster. With 2007’s Western fantasia, Ode to the Man Who Kneels, the auteur’s writing—previously uninflected and spare to the point of comic absurdity—began to take an epic, mystical turn. His recent output (Isolde or The Evening) tacks between oblique lyricism and semi-literal settings. And now with Samara? Let’s just say Maxwell’s moral fable, directed by Soho Rep head Sarah Benson, goes full Cormac McCarthy Beyond Thunderdome.
We are in a brutal frontier land, and our protagonist is the Messenger (Jasper Newell) a dead-eyed teen who murders with flippant ease, but in private moments gazes longingly on a photograph—of his mother? Seeking to cash in on a debt, the Messenger tracks down a Drunk (Paul Lazar) and his lover, the barkeep Manan (Becca Blackwell). The youth demands they pay the exorbitant cost of his journey. They stall, all the time fretting about how to rid themselves of this pest.
One murder and many miles later, the Drunk and Manan come across the aged Agnes (Vinie Burrows) and her two “sons”—Cowboy (Modesto Flako Jimenéz) and Beast (Matthew Korahais). Will a connection between Agnes and the dead Messenger be revealed? We’ve been primed by the Noh-theater-via-dystopia vibe, so any tragic spasms will not come as much of a surprise.
Benson’s direction is daringly blunt and transparent—despite an abundance of stage effects—the stylized black-plastic set (by Louisa Thompson), throbbing, menacing banks of lights (Matt Frey) and a smoke machine that fills the room when it’s plunged in near-total darkness. Alt-country music star Steve Earle makes his Off Broadway debut as grainy-voiced narrator standing to the side. He also wrote haunting incidental music: piano guts strummed with a mallet and Celtic moans from uilleann pipes. Structurally, Samara is unpredictable, beautiful and wild: a violent quest narrative that morphs into mythic poetry then pure audio and visual stimuli. Even after following his work for 20 years, I’m still shocked anew by Maxwell’s broken worlds.
A.R.T./New York Theatres. By Richard Maxwell. Directed by Sarah Benson. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through May 7.
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