Your experience will vary: an elusive Isolde from New York City Players

Three corners of a love triangle: Jim Fletcher, Gary Wilmes, and Tory Vazquez (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Three corners of a love triangle: Jim Fletcher, Gary Wilmes, and Tory Vazquez (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

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.

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2 thoughts on “Your experience will vary: an elusive Isolde from New York City Players

  1. Thanks for this! I saw the play, enjoyed it, and found it very interesting, but even more interesting in retrospect after reading your review. Brilliant insights, erudite refs, makes me want to see it again, and I must say that “Je suis ergo sum” in general is one of my fave intellectual pleasures.

    One thought of my own on Isolde: During the play I was occasionally distracted and even bothered by the idea that Isolde’s condition gave the play a copycat quality vis a vis the recent movie “Still Alice,” which I have not seen entirely yet (just a clip) but which I know is about a brilliant woman linguistics professor losing her edge and identity to early-onset Alzheimer’s.

    Now, reading what you say, “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,’ ” it occurs to me that I can’t offhand recall any movie or play or novel so centrally about a man facing memory loss, and I wonder if that has to do with the difference between a woman’s experience and expectations of life after youth and a man’s. Is it more poignant for a woman to lose her memory and, with it, much of her linguistic power? Does her identity come to center more on what she has been—beautiful, eloquent, with the power to move others sexually, intellectually, and emotionally, with the power to create and take part in living stories—rather than on what she is or expects to become in the future, and does that make memory much more central to her well-being than it would be to a man of the same age?

    About 10 years ago (I think) I heard a performance of a composition for soprano called “Red Berries.” The singer is a woman with Alzheimers who sees a plant with berries growing in the woods and suddenly remembers the words “red berries,” and sings a long rhapsody on just those words, repeated over and over, the music they are set to expressing her feelings about the thing itself, the name for the thing, and the gift of a sudden memory. It was a wonderful composition, as I remember, or at least a wonderful performance. Don’t know if the piece ever passed into the repertoire (so many new ones don’t), but it is much to the point above.

    Thanks again for this review and essay!

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  2. The comparison to Still Alice hadn’t occurred to me; thanks for pointing it out. Isolde was (to judge from the copyright date on the script) written in 2013, and it was first produced in spring 2014, so I’d say the similarities are probably coincidental. It’s unusual, though, that these two works emerged at roughly the same time. Maybe, thanks in part to the work of Oliver Sacks, disorders of memory and of other mental faculties are in the cultural air these days.

    Your questions about the difference between a woman’s loss of memory and a man’s are more potent and far-reaching than I can answer. A couple of minor counterexamples from the realm of film come to mind: The Lookout, a 2007 film about a brain-damaged young man, and Memento, from 2000, which dealt with a man unable to form new long-term memories but which was constructed more as a puzzle and a thriller. If your observation is correct, it may say something about the status of women, femininity, and beauty as subjects (which Wendy Steiner discussed in a book called Venus in Exile), but someone else will have to write that essay.

    “Red Berries” sounds like another good example of what you’re talking about. Thanks for that and the rest of your comments.

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