He’s been the darling of the experimental theater scene in New York for well over a decade. Last year he received the Spalding Gray Award, which honors genuinely maverick work in the theater. This weekend Seattleites have a chance to experience the latest commission by playwright and director Richard Maxwell and his New York City Players ensemble.
It’s a piece called The Evening and is being presented by On the Boards — part of the consortium that conferred the Award — following its world premiere as part of the Walker Art Center’s Out There arts festival last month in Minneapolis.
Although Maxwell has been engaged by On the Boards before (Drummer Wanted 12 years ago, back when Lane Czaplinski took over as artistic director), last night’s Seattle premiere was my first encounter with his work.
And it’s a signature of Maxwell’s theater that it sends you out into the night with the feeling that you’ve just recalled an interesting dream and now have the work of trying to figure out why it interested you and whether it’s meant to “tell” you something — or just happens to be an arresting collage of images that won’t stop flickering in your mind.
The Evening involves a cast of three characters interacting in a depressing dive bar. Beatrice (Cammisa Buerhaus) tends bar and manages the sexual advances of the hedonist Cosmo (Jim Fletcher) as well as the petulant neediness of her sorta ex-boyfriend Asi (Brian Mendes), a washed-up fighter managed by Cosmo.
Framing this “slice of life” core of The Evening is a monologue delivered by Buerhaus: she reads from a diary documentation of a (Beatrice’s?) father’s dying days, a text replete with high-flown poetic cadence and rhetoric. Then comes the pseudo-“naturalist” dialogue of the bar sequence, followed by another poetic flight — this time rendered visually, after the bar stage set has been pointedly struck and deconstructed by stage hands. The Beatrice character cocoons herself in snow-expedition wear and disappears into the now heavily fogged upstage region, where we imagine isolated wintry mountains.
During the bar sequence we learn that bartender Beatrice (who also works as a stripper) yearns to get away from it all and head to Istanbul. Testosterone-addled Asi has just won a fight but knows he is unhappy, and he can’t seem to win Beatrice back, but he doesn’t want her to go. Track suit-clad, cheesy gold chain-adorned Cosmo confines his interest in life to drinking, getting high, insulting Asi, and making the moves on Beatrice.
The characters voice a Three Sisters-ish longing to go “there,” to escape. But Cosmo at least seems content with the bar — the drab-minimalist brown wall set and slightly menacing lights are Sascha van Riel’s design — and even finds it a kind of paradise. Cosmo’s also the one who first notices the live music (written by Maxwell) that becomes part of the action when a trio of musicians walk in and start that evening’s gig. He tries to incorporate the music into his exchanges with Asi and Beatrice.
Is this coda meant to be a vision of the adventure Beatrice pursues after bringing the situation at the bar to a violent denouement? Was it her father who died, as recounted in the “prologue,” thus lending a layer of motivation to her need to snap out of the hopeless humdrum patterns we see in the more Edward Hopper-esque scenes?
Ah, there’s the rub: Maxwell’s dramaturgy is neo-Brechtian in that it de-familiarizes the familiar by highlighting its theatricality. The whole business of “motivation” becomes suspect, just as the seemingly “real-life” setting deliberately draws attention to the artifice of its naturalism. The actors deliver lines that can make sense from moment to moment but that add up to a maze of non-sequiturs and repeated patterns. And Maxwell plays with the compositional cliché of the triangle, with the archetypes that get triggered from seeing the clues he gives us to each character.
The apparently “realistic” throughline in The Evening, which we’re so conditioned by TV and mainstream film to expect, to be served, is a decoy. (There’s even a TV set hoisted above the bar showing a sports channel as part of the set, but it acquires a Big Brotherish aura as the play continues.)
We become frustrated by the lack of all the rest following suit (understandable motivation, easy-to-read cause and effect etc.) — which is exactly what Maxwell seems to be aiming for. It reminds me of the effect of hyper-realist paintings: beneath the shimmering, “life-like” detail, a kind of uncanny valley opens up where we find ourselves in a twilight zone. The zone of evening.
So The Evening exaggerates realism to undermine it. And even the framing parts seem to be “placeholders” for the deeper aspects of an evening in the theater: these are the “visionary” parts that are meant to endow the proceedings with meaning, the “take-away” that tells us our time was well spent.
Yet in just 60 minutes — the duration of The Evening — the theatrical trickster Maxwell lays out a crossword puzzle of clues, teases, resemblances, and images that isn’t meant to be solved. What’s also striking is the pivotal role of audience response. Last night a fair group of spectators seemed bent on “figuring it out” by chuckling and guffawing as if Maxwell were merely endeavoring parody of theatrical clichés — turning the experience at times into a kind of meta-sitcom.
I found that adversely affected the haunting strangeness of The Evening — an attempt to re-familiarize what’s happening onstage. Sure, Cosmo might be a sloppy, self-satisfied creep — or, rather, Fletcher plays Cosmo playing that archetype — but Maxwell constructs a context for these characters that speed-bumps our knee-jerk tendency to read them as we would read a group of people when, say, we stroll into a bar for the evening. It’s the empty spaces that are left to resonate — and, as Beatrice/Buerhaus remarks in the opening section, meditating on the father’s death, “they say that atoms are made of 99.9% empty space.”
If you go: Richard Maxwell’s The Evening plays at On the Boards through this weekend, 100 West Roy Street. After the Friday performance there will be a post-show discussion with Richard Maxwell and Todd London; following Sat’s performance the musicians will continue with post-show music. Tickets here.
(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.