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March 25, 2005

Richard Maxwell's 'Anti-Theater'

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That's how Financial Times critic Sarah Hemming described the work of this singular American playwright-director who is just now becoming known outside the U.S., where he's won an Obie Award and cult status.

Hemming wrote a lengthy profile of the young artist (he's 37) for the March 7 Times and yesterday reviewed his new production, "Showcase," playing in London at the Barbican and performed by his company, the New York City Players.

Maxwell's style is to have actors deliver their words with a minimum of expression, action or inflection, just the opposite of what your high school drama teacher demanded.

Maxwell finds himself frustrated with what normally passes for good acting.

He said in the March 7 story, "I was taught in college as an actor, essentially, to make my work convincing: to be believable and to be real."

"That whole idea is something that I've come to find totally unnecessary. I never ask the actors to pretend that what people are seeing is real. the reality is that we're doing a play."

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He continued, "Because it's a live performance there is an exchange happening between the audience and the performer, moment by moment. Realism in theater seems to me antithetical to what live performance is. I feel like most of the time it's reflexive, that kind of acting. I find a lot of that invented psychological approach to acting redundant."

Maxwell does not ask the actors to perform in a deadpan manner; rather, he asks them to make moment-by-moment decisions about how much they need to do.

Talk about quantum theater. But I digress.

Said Maxwell, "I notice, watching these performances with different audiences, that they'll shape what that moment could mean by their reaction. So it can be very funny or very sad. I like the fact that it can be open like that. There is a responsibility when you go to see something — it's not like watching television."

Maxwell remarked that working in this way makes him keenly aware of how much acting we all do in everyday life.

I am reminded of the great Polish director Jerzy Grotowski's observation, "Daily life involves endless pretexts."

Hemming wrote, "Maxwell gives voice to the unspoken dismay that can suffuse mundane life."

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Here's yesterday's Financial Times review.

    Showcase, Renaissance Chancery Court Hotel

    Strange things go on in hotel bedrooms but there can be few as bizarre as this. For Richard Maxwell's Showcase (presented by the Barbican as part of BITE:05) we meet our fellow spectators in the lobby of a smart hotel. We are then ushered up several floors to a darkened bedroom, where we squeeze on to a bed and line the walls like resting moths waiting for a flicker of light. Gradually, as our eyes become accustomed to the dark, we make out the shape of a couple of bodies on the second bed. We wait in the warm, dark room. Nobody dares move a muscle.

    Suddenly one body sits up and turns on the light. He is stark naked; his companion is completely encased in black. This is Jim, a peripatetic businessman, and the silent masked figure in black is his "shadow" - perhaps his conscience or alter ego. Jim starts to talk: a rambling monologue about his fever and sleeping patterns, the deal he has to cut, his contempt for taxi drivers. Breaking into his thoughts over and over again, however, are unresolved, painful feelings about a relationship. Is he cracking up? He rises from the bed and gets dressed, still talking. You can almost feel his clammy forehead and dyspepsia, his guts struggling with last night's Chinese meal.

    Richard Maxwell's shows often eavesdrop on people's quiet despair and lack of fulfilment. Here, sitting too close for comfort to a naked man, listening to his half-digested thoughts, we feel we are peering inside his head at his battling feelings. James Fletcher's striking performance has more expression than those in Maxwell's earliest shows, yet it is still muted, which produces a strange intensity. It also adds to the feeling that we are privy to his character's thoughts in some early form, before they find the level of animation and coherence that conversation demands.

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    It is an intriguing and unsettling show, sometimes suddenly funny. Because the thoughts we are hearing are so elusive, it is also a rather unsatisfying experience - perhaps deliberately so. But it confirms Maxwell as a writer and director still pushing at the boundaries of theatre, upending expectations and teasing your imagination. You leave feeling as though you are shaking off a peculiar and vivid dream, and you look twice at the businessmen congregating in the hotel lobby.

March 25, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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