Opening the fall season at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn is the New York City Players’ production of a modern play with a twist on a classical story. Richard Maxwell thought of his love triangle quite independently of the old “Tristan & Isolde” legend, and “romance” is not the focus in his play, Isolde. Maxwell’s Isolde is about memory and beauty and art and the need in the human mind and soul for culture and nature. In question: Who are we when our memory fails?
|The Triangle. (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)|
Richard Maxwell has been hailed as an auteur. When, during the brief evening performance, I found my interest waning on occasion, it was the director in him I held accountable. Mr. Maxwell wrote and directed Isolde, and cast his wife as the title character, the sole female. In the hands of this mediocre actress, I could still hear how very good and sometimes illuminating Maxwell's script was. Why then were his actors sometimes totally present, sometimes overly stylized, and generally inconsistent? As a director Mr. Maxwell’s work is uneven, the pacing stodgy. The director did not, in my opinion, do justice to his own tantalizing script that infuses us with high thoughts and emotions, dreams and nightmares. It’s a fine piece of work that holds the attention during the play and keeps it for hours and days afterward.
While I cannot claim to have ever championed “experimental” theatre, when stylized experimentation is intermixed with truthful human behavior, so long as the theme is examined and/or the story told, I’ll follow along. However, in this production the stylization was off-putting. I understand modern marketing theory is all about disturbances and disruption, but with the beguiling material and themes of this play, not to mention Mr. Maxwell’s lyrical script, why distract? The construction is in place with the chronology of “Tristan & Isolde,” and the script builds on it.
The elements of the spare scenic design enabled the actors to “watch television,” or stare at a lake with no change in the set or furnishings. Characters sometimes gave the impression that they were in a rather cold home, other times they may have been at an empty building site. Not that their behavior changed, but the lines indicated places we could not see. While I enjoy a Spartan setting, I did not feel grounded. Perhaps Mr. Maxwell did not want me to be grounded, did not want me to know where I was.
This off center sensation was supported by the scenic design by Sascha van Riel, which was clever in its elements of disconnected walls and floors that might suggest an unfinished building. Alternately, it could have brought to mind a deteriorating, disappearing building, like the memories and words in Isolde’s mind.
The warmest aspect of the scenic design was a large painted drapery, pulled to one side for most of the play, but revealed in full as the characters reverted to actors playing the legendary characters of Isolde, Tristan, King Mark, and…a friend in front of a painted tapestry that put me in mind of a medieval romance as depicted in a Classics Illustrated comic book.
|A hint of the tapestry behind Gary Wilmes as Massimo and Tory Vazquez as Isolde. (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein.)|
Elements that make this evening work begin and end with the script. The characters chosen to discuss the themes in the play make sense: the dreamy Isolde, an actress, vain, self-centered, losing her memory and therefore terrified; her loving husband Patrick, a building contractor; and Massimo, the award-winning architect who cannot draw a representational rendering of what he wishes to create for Isolde.
Jim Fletcher as Patrick, the pragmatic and patiently kind husband, sees the architect as any contractor would: an “artist” with no math, who can’t draw plans anybody else can read. Yet Patrick has the same needs as the more blatantly “artistic” architect — he too needs music and Shakespeare and art. This frequently inarticulate character has some of the most beautiful lines and visions in the play when he recalls his discovery, during his very practical business training, of museums, paintings and sculpture, of the theatre, opera and the symphony.
|Jim Fletcher, Brian Mendes, Gary Wilmes, and Tory Vazquez. (Photo Credit: Gerry Goodstein)|
But Patrick needs concrete representations of the surprise, the joy of the culture humans can create, while Massimo the architect only needs to think and imagine them. Massimo speaks well, but not actually to other humans. Like Jim Fletcher, Gary Wilmes as Massimo sometimes takes stage but is uneven, here completely in a moment, there seeming to stumble waiting for a cue. Where Fletcher seemed more alive when interacting with another person, Wilmes was most vivid when alone.
Brian Mendes as Patrick’s friend and colleague, “Uncle” Gerry, appeared to be even more down to earth than Patrick. Mendes’ Gerry was clear and focused, until the overly stylized final scene we could barely see in the dimness — the one objection I had to van Riel’s scenic and lighting design.
Unfortunately for the audience, all that Patrick and Massimo and even Uncle Gerry see in Isolde may be in the script, but she’s not on the stage. Tory Vazquez is uninteresting as Isolde, she brings no charm to the role, she is brittle and cold and there was no way of knowing who she once was. I’ve seen fine actors play characters losing their words and possibly their minds, but they did not make me wonder if the actor was forgetting her lines or if Isolde was forgetting herself. Ms. Vazquez’s speech and motion were choppy and posed and appeared overly rehearsed.
Isolde is the center of the play. She is often rude, curt, and eventually responds to non-existent stimuli. The character made me think of a groundbreaking performance by Joanne Woodward as a woman with Alzheimer’s, a woman we had never seen before when she appeared on our television screens in 1985. Mr. Maxwell’s play is more striking than that “Do You Remember Love?” television movie, but I still recall Ms. Woodward’s performance thirty years later. Unfortunately Ms. Vazquez is no Joanne Woodward.
Isolde the play and the character bring our fear of dementia to the fore: Without our memories, who are we? Did we live? Do we still? If Isolde does not remember her husband, does Patrick exist? Isolde herself says, “I don’t exist.” The themes of the play are important and inherently frightening, but the personification of the fears does not elicit sympathy as played by Ms. Vazquez.
Isolde ran 85 minutes but felt longer. This might not have been the case had someone else played the title role. There were moments of bare truth on the stage, moments of beauty. Since this tight-knit cast created the play in 2014, I think this is set where Mr. Maxwell wants it. Isolde is a very fine script and the production is smart and generally holds the attention. Despite any flaws I see, do go to TFANA.ORG to get a ticket — the play runs only to September 27th. Isolde generates conversation, and that’s always a mark of good theatre
~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some old poetry or perhaps some Arthurian legends.