Like Shakespeare’s mechanicals, who disassemble Paramus and Thisbe, for the Fall season, two American directors have also deconstructed Romantic legends. The contemporary artists are Richard Maxwell, who has rewritten the Tristan and Isolde story (Isolde at Theatre for a New Audience/the new Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn closed September 27), and Eric Tucker, whose A Midsummer Night’s Dream (at the Pearl Theatre Company in Manhattan will run until October 31) presents the Bard’s country players wearing jump suits.
What is perhaps most arresting about these works is what they don’t or can’t say about their overwhelming antecedents. Maxwell, also the dramatist of Isolde, writes “when you break thought down, there is nothing connecting.” He, like Tucker, is a post-modernist pushing for the next new thing (and both directors may be part of what does come next). They’re less cold, sarcastic, and nightmarish than a Sam Shepard or Jan Kott–artists who have stomped similar artistic terrain in the past (Julie Traymor executed the latter’s vision for Midsummer in a production that opened Brooklyn’s Polonsky Theatre in 2014). Maxwell and Tucker are also forming their visions with the inheritance of Internet technology, which fragments their work in the daylight—in the Shakespeare play, for example, the actors become machines, creating a human electric fan at one point, cogs that can be virtually interchangeable.
Maxwell, through existential, metaphorical analysis, wants to have an artistic conversation about where art should go next—he knows it’s time for a new paradigm, but he’s not exactly sure what it will be or how he can be part of a movement. He also doesn’t want to tear down what has come before, haphazardly. Wagner, of course, is about as big a sitting duck as any great artist–yet Maxwell leaves him alone and does not contradict the composer’s messianic vision and power. Shockingly, he allows the story’s paternalism to be kept intact, even as he examines his own gifts–and paralysis.
Patrick, the contractor in Isolde, talks about the power of pre-Post Modern art: "I remember going to see the symphony. And that music moved me so much. I was just sittin there. I'll just never forget that. The power, and thinkin ‘This must be what love is.' (Patrick is lost there for a moment) It was – extraordinary. And I'll never forget thinking, no matter how much you have nothing can take the place of this. This feeling. This is why I also love Shakespeare by the way…there's no substitute. …It's just incredible. Why were all these great classic works made? And why did they stop getting made? I don't get it. What was it-?…(he raises his glass) to the unseen geniuses of antiquity …"
The two directors recognize that they can only accomplish utilitarian ends—they’re lousy at Romanticism (Shakespeare has a legacy of being played in this mode, recall Mendelssohn's Wedding March)—and they really aren’t so great at telling their stories in traditional ways. Left to their own devices, the contemporary artists are both concerned with rhythm—and part of Maxwell’s point is that he doesn’t have any. In one section, Isolde, an actress, losing her memory, says, “ I’m tired of your voices. They don’t work for my – ear. They sound – against- my ears.” Maxwell’s musicality is like a proverbial white boy who can’t dance—he's tone deaf and he examines flatness:
"(Isolde and and her lover Massimo enter)
PATRICK: Hello Massimo. Come in. Patrick, hi. Come in.
MASSIMO: Hi, nice to meet you. You’re a contractor, Isolde said.
PATRICK: Yes. It’s funny right?
MASSIMO: Well, I hope we don’t have a disagreement.
PATRICK: Yes, me too. Funny. Have a seat. Can I get you something to drink?
MASSIMO: Do you have water?
PATRICK: I think we might.
PATRICK: Sparkling water, you mean?
PATRICK: Isolde, will you take something?
ISOLDE: Let me get it. Sit down.
MASSIMO: Thanks. I’ve been looking for a substitute for Cocacola, so I was happy."
Maxwell’s story, told so unheroically–in an unmistakeable American context–is what we know from the Celtic legend: of a cuckolded husband and his wife and her lover. We have seen the tale many times before, from many countries—even Bergman’s The Touch, which was almost impossible to find until relatively recently, is strikingly similar. Bergman is important to Isolde because there are moments in the play which remind of Persona—of the inability to make sense or connect to someone else.
"Isolde: When you break thoughts down to the smallest degree you see there is you feel there is nothing connecting when you feel the texture and of the neurons into the synapses vacantly from hairbrush to the reason you entered the room, to the mirror, the room and the mirror and why you’re looking in the mirror."
The acting in Isolde, like the writing, can seem as unemotional and banal as computer typing. Only Brian Mendes’s and Tory Vazquez’s sex-making refers to behavioral sense memory. Elsewhere, the actor’s intentionally do not use subtext. This may be part of a larger trend in the arts: the actor’s final revolt against Realism, which did grow out of Romanticism. Patti Lupone’s portrayal of Mama Rose in Gypsy, in 2008, may be defining, in a popular sense—here she demonstrated her changed working style in a Broadway musical (influenced by her discussions with David Mamet). The actors in Isolde would not be recognized in 1982, when Sam Shepard wrote Fool for Love, as played by Ed Harris and Kathy Baker (a new production is currently playing on Broadway). A Rorschach for America at the time, audiences could still count on the idea of imitation. The characters in that play didn’t have a lot going for them, stuck in a motel in the Mohave Desert, but audiences would watch, in part, to possibly imitate the actors, in their own lives, like parroting John Wayne to feel manlier. One wouldn’t think to do that with Isolde’s cast, although one might have considered casting Jim Fletcher, Tory Vazquez and Brian Mendes in the Shepard play.
One also wouldn’t consider copying, with regard to the behavior of the actors in Tucker’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, despite their virtuosity. Their psychologies, necessarily, aren’t sustained and the importance of the storyline is neatly subverted—instead we meet escapees from the Theatre of Cruelty doing a tightly choreographed Bob Fosse dance. Rather than intellectualize the inherent problems of Romanticism in today's social context, five actors circumvent the plot and background (or baggage), difficult enough to understand even with a full cast. Instead, the actors form a hive of activity—and become Shakespeare’s brain, rapidly physicalizing his ideas onto a cork, woodchip, and gravel composite playing surface. Are they ex-cons, monsters, insects, machines, or knockabouts—maybe all at once? Their names are Mark Bedard, Sean McNall, Jason O’Connell, Joey Parsons, and Nance Williamson—fabulous entertainers, funny and clever and quick–who, with Tucker, have found a way to become destroyers–and like the many-armed Indian goddess Kali–replace what has gone before.
© 2015 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from Isolde are by Richard Maxwell, (c) 2015. All rights reserved.
Visit the Pearl Theare Company at: http://www.pearltheatre.org/
Visit Theatre for a New Audience at: http://www.tfana.org/
Photo: Tory Vazquez and Jim Flectcher in Isolde. Credit: Gerry Goodstein. All rights reserved.
Stage Voices Publishing for archived posts and sign up for free e-mail updates: http 2015:// www.stagevoices.com/ . If you would like to contribute a review, monologue, or other work related to theatre, please write to Bob Shuman at Bobjshuman@gmail.com.