By Gareth Watkins
CALGARY — Experimental theatre is one of the scenes, outside of the glare of mainstream media and beyond commercial concerns, where the future is being made. The techniques being developed in front of 20 people in Lower East Side lofts might be a little esoteric for public consumption 99 times out of 100, but the one per cent remaining is going to end up in sitcoms and superhero franchises.
Richard Maxwell is quite rightly regarded as a major figure in late-20th and now-21st- century theatre. A former alumni of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company (alongside John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen and others), a founding member of the Cook County Theatre Department and now founder and director of the New York City Players ensemble, his plays have been performed in 16 countries and have garnered him two OBIE awards.
He is comfortable with the ‘experimental’ label, saying: “I think it means an unwillingness to accept a rote method or system of making work. It means a continual examination of the form of theatre and what that exploration will yield. It’s a continual moving forward, and what goes along with that is an acknowledgement that as an experiment it might fail.”
His newest work, coming to Calgary early February, is Isolde, based in part on Tristan and Iseult, the nearly millennia old story of doomed, adulterous love that has been adapted by Richard Wagner, François Truffaut and German power-metallers Blind Guardian (seriously.)
“I was drawn to the idea of an actress who was losing her memory as a way of interrogating the method approach to acting,” Maxwell says, “where you don’t only need to remember your lines, but you need to remember past life experiences in order to be convincing onstage. I also like this image of the idea of building a dream house, where we can’t show the house so everyone has to imagine what that house would look like. I have the character of this actress’s husband be a contractor and they hire an award-winning architect to help them realize their vision.”
The actress, Isolde, and the contractor, Massimo begin an affair, causing the contractor’s friend to step in to defend his honour. Maxwell didn’t bring in the Tristan and Isolde inspiration until much of the play had been sketched out: he had a dream and woke with the word ‘Isolde’ on his lips, giving him a title, a structure and a character’s name all at once.
The resulting play, starring Maxwell’s wife Tory Vasquez as Isolde, has been a Critic’s Choice in the New York Times and was given five stars by Time Out New York. It’s at once refreshingly familiar (who doesn’t like a love triangle?), unsettlingly deadpan and well, well worth your time.
Isolde runs Feb. 10-13 at Theatre Junction GRAND.AB, Alberta, Isolde, Theatre Junction GRAND