All the classic love stories are tragic, it seems: Paris and Helen, Tristan and Iseult, Abélard and Héloïse, Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps not much should be hung on such a slender thread, but common usage typically refers to the man first, the woman second. Writer-director Richard Maxwell has turned that around, and a good deal else, in a play now running at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, under the auspices of Theatre for a New Audience. His Isolde modernizes and thoroughly transforms the old tale.
The title character is an actress who’s struggling with a faltering memory. Her devoted husband, Patrick, who’s a building contractor, decides to boost her spirits by encouraging her to design a dream house. She begins working with Massimo, a highly regarded architect, whose approach requires him to get to know his clients. It’s no surprise that an affair develops between Isolde and Massimo. Its playing out mostly reduces the legend to the level of domestic drama, yet the clash between Massimo and Patrick also suggests an elusive commentary on the artistic process—one is an artist, one is a craftsman, but surely both are needed in order for something new to be brought into the world. Meanwhile, Isolde speaks to us of memory and identity, and she prompts us to consider the loss of youth—“When a woman gets to be my age she disappears.… All the parts dry up.”
Ambiguity is built into the production; Maxwell, whose work I haven’t seen before, insists on giving interpretive freedom to his spectators, who thereby become participants. “I think it’s important,” he said in a recent TDF Stages interview, “to be mindful of how much the viewer can make out on their own.” One can see in this a Marxist critical argument that the viewer produces an artwork in his or her mind; one can also see Susan Sontag’s implied proposal, in “Against Interpretation,” that stage directors should present the work itself and forget about its presumed “meaning.” Whatever the basis, Maxwell and his compatriots, New York City Players, give us a lot of leeway. The performers deliver their lines in a declarative style, not totally flat (as some have described it) but with subdued inflections. The setting, by Sascha van Riel, is spartan, schematic, with abbreviated, blank walls and a few pieces of furniture, all set out in a rectilinear way; it’s far from the verisimilitude that customarily accompanies domestic drama. The staging ignores some of the invitations to gesture and movement that arise in the dialogue; Massimo, for instance, presenting his initial plan, says “here, and here” as he’s pointing out particular features, but we see neither the plan (which we imagine to be hanging on a wall before them) nor his pointing. What’s most surprising is that, for a climactic confrontation, the production moves away from the domestic scene entirely, instead giving us a mock-historical epic in vaguely medieval costumes: a part of the play Isolde has been working on, which is the very legend on which Maxwell has based this curious and fascinating excursion.
One can take this to mean that the theatrical arts play a part in, may even be essential to, the working out of our lives. Alternatively, one may scratch one’s head and go “Huh?” For me, it worked both ways. In the theater, I was nonplussed by much of the production, but Isolde came alive after the fact, as I replayed it in memory.
The Maxwell style calls for a degree of not-doing that presents a challenge to performers and to theatergoers, including critics, as well. The players give us colors, but the particular shades we see are apt to depend partly on us; they give us outlines whose exact shapes we contribute to filling in. Tory Vazquez, playing Isolde, came across most vividly to me; I felt in her a kind of wiry insistence, a quiet determination, a probing or questioning quality. My response to the others arose in part from their physical qualities. Thus Jim Fletcher, as Patrick, led me to think of an imposing, sometimes almost threatening version of Ron Howard; Gary Wilmes, playing Massimo, was like a more intense version of New Yorker editor David Remnick (who is tall, lanky, and somehow an embodiment of competence); and Brian Mendes, in the role of Patrick’s fixer, was the sort of stocky guy with slicked-back hair I might share a beer with in a sports bar but would shy away from contradicting.
Traditionally, critics have been warned against introducing personal reactions. I. A. Richards, for one, included these in his study of the many ways readers of poetry can go awry. But Richard Maxwell and New York City Players seem to welcome them. See their work; see what you think.
Isolde runs through September 27. Performance and ticketing information is here.