The outlines of the love triangle traced by Richard Maxwell’s play are at least as old as, well, the Tristan and Isolde story from which it borrows its title, the 12th-century French-Celtic legend on which the playwright riffs, starting with the name of his main character, played by Tory Vazquez. Isolde is a great actress whose mind is slipping, and the play opens with her running lines she can’t recall with her husband, Patrick (Jim Fletcher), a contractor who indulges her caprices, the latest being a grand lakeside house. This brings us to the other base angle of this romantic isosceles: the renowned architect, Massimo (Gary Wilmes), who’ll design the house and subsequently become Isolde’s lover. She flirtatiously tells him that the lines on her face aren’t caused by aging, but by smiling—even though her default mood, while performing or at home, is utter melancholy. “I feel an evil unfeeling,” she confesses in her final monologue.
Maxwell’s story is loosely inspired by the original legend, about a knight and his uncle’s wife, who fall in love after drinking a magic potion. The definitive version is Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera, to which all other adaptations refer. Wagner’s finale, referred to as the “Liebestod,” climaxes with one of the most heartfelt and hardest-fought-for high notes ever written. The antic theater troupe Kneehigh brought its Tristan & Yseult to St. Ann’s Warehouse last season, a self-aware, Baz Luhrmann-esque retelling that concluded quite seriously, with the narrator screaming about unrequited love over the “Liebestod”—played at a seat-rattling volume—and exploiting the music’s astonishing poignancy, stealing some of its pathos. I mean, who wouldn’t be moved by such overwhelming raw emotion?
Maxwell avoids such shortcuts, and I suspect he’s out to make the audience think more than feel. Using it more as subtle intertext, he employs Wagner only once, near the end, playing the opera’s famous prelude through a cellphone speaker (perhaps a direct criticism of the wailing-loud decibel level at which Kneehigh played it), while the actors in period costume pantomime the legend against a painted-curtain backdrop. Maxwell’s archetypes—master builder, tortured actress—seem borrowed more from Ibsen than Wagner. In fact, the play begins with Isolde rehearsing a classical role, what sounds like Isolde of the White Hands, a second Isolde-named character in the original legend whom Wagner cut from his version.
Maxwell, who also directed, pairs his “White Hands” with Massimo, who wears black gloves when he’s introduced to Patrick. The costuming cleverly introduces the contrasts that define the production: The spare set allows scenes to dissolve into each other, an austerity at odds with the descriptions of the luxurious and environmentally responsible building that Massimo designs. (When the characters look at the blueprints, they stare at the fourth wall, meaning the object of their gaze is invisible to us.) It’s also at odds with the settings described, theater pushed to its extremes with such little pretense of pretend it feels almost hostile: the bar is just a folding table, and natural light is played by artificial lights, lakeshores by bare boards, houses by exposed frames, and furnishings by cheap chairs.
This aesthetic flows into the acting, by a cast of veterans of the Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service, two companies committed to atypical theater. The performances are conspicuously stilted; the actors speak and move in an unnatural rhythm that’s not only distancing, but downright off-putting. (Despite this, Maxwell can still be quite funny. When the husband urges the architect to use the lumber out back, the adulterer reassures the cuckold, “We’ll get your wood in there.”) This holistically alienating approach creates a show that’s not really about the contrasts inherent in the story, the pragmatism and idealism represented by the contractor husband who wants to build the house and the designer who wants to make it perfect. Maxwell intentionally introduces other lazy contrasts—the husband likes sports, but the architect doesn’t—so he can sweep them away. These two characters are actually, essentially, the same, the architect suggests, and that’s the source of their antipathy. Isolde explores the artifices we invent to avoid admitting such painful truths to ourselves, the way we pretend, in art and in life, and the loneliness such feigning begets. This might be part of human nature—older even than the Tristan and Isolde story.
Richard Maxwell’s Isolde runs through September 27 at the Theater for a New Audience.