Richard Maxwell takes the individuality, drama, poetry, mimesis, emphasis and virtuosity out of the story of a hero . . . so what’s left?
Project Arts Centre
Heroes have many qualities – bravery, rage, jealousy, to name a few – but neutrality does not rank high among them. The Iliad, for instance, would be less involving and certainly much shorter if Agamemnon and Achilles preferred not to take sides. The experiment in Richard Maxwell’s 2011 work is to construct an epic story from the tale of an average Joe. True, that’s been done before, but unlike Everyman or Ulysses, Maxwell also removes most traces of drama, poetry, mimesis, emphasis or virtuosity. That raises an obvious question: What’s left?
From the title onwards, New York City Players’ production is a sustained contradiction. A cast of amateur actors maintain Maxwell’s trademark style – an attempt at anti-style. Twelve performers gradually assemble on a bare space, with a line of chairs, and orate Maxwell’s text in flat, affectless voices, arms awkwardly by their sides, like children in a school pageant.
The America they introduce – a similarly flat and affectless landscape of highways, malls and chainstores – seems entirely non-descript, yet it is given perversely thick description; a surfeit of detail that actually prevents access. Overwrought and underperformed, the project is so deliberately gauche that many will give up on it here, and the stabs of humour that leavened Maxwell’s earlier works, House or Ode to the Man Who Kneels, are almost entirely absent.
Our hero, played by Alex Delinois, is on a quest to find his father, a philanderer who has abandoned the family in pursuit of “the life not lived”, a motif that winds through the play. If that shadows the story of Telemachus, another son on the trail of a deadbeat dad, Maxwell introduces further low-rent Greek allusions: monsters in paper masks, shop girls who turn oracular, and a chorus that deliver frequent songs, equally ragged in execution.
The politics of the approach are meant to underline those of the story: just as the hero is unexceptional, Maxwell’s methods are supposed to resist theatre’s inclination towards individualism, hierarchy and virtuosity. In practice, though, it actually exhorts the notion of the auteur: nothing distracts you from the presence of the show’s creator, who polices the style and whose voice is the only one we really hear. There’s something jarring about this, even insincere, as though it depends on the cult of Maxwell and a work that purports to elevate the common man, seems ultimately to be an exercise in hero worship.