At the beginning of Richard Maxwell's ISOLDE, the title character, a celebrated actress, is trying to learn her lines for a dramatic version of Tristan and Isolde, the story most celebrated in Wagner's music drama. In that work of high romanticism, the erotic and the philosophical merge. Wagner's work is also greatly about memory. Maxwell's Isolde (Troy Vazquez), has memory problems. She has trouble memorizing lines and remembering what she has said. Isolde is married to Patrick (Jim Fletcher), a very practical building contractor who promises her freedom to make decisions, but is actually very controlling. When he tells her that she can control the building of a vacation house she wants, she hires Massimo (Gary Wilmes), a celebrated architect who talks a good game but never comes up with a design, perhaps because he has become romantically and sexually involved with Isolde. Like a character in a Pinter play, Isolde often stands around being enigmatic while Patrick plays dominance games with his wife's lover. He is aided at times by a mysterious, vaguely menacing man called Uncle Jerry (Brian Mendes).
I've never seen a Richard Maxwell play before, but this one is filled with echoes of Pinter. There are long speeches separated by pauses and lots of subtext. High stakes rivalry is masked by a sinister courtesy. The characters are wealthy, educated and supposedly refined, but all that seems to be a veneer to cover primal needs. Pinter would never insist on cultural references the way Maxwell does here, but I'm not sure that the references to Tristan und Isolde operate in more than obvious ways. Yes, unlike Tristan, this is not high romantic tragedy. Practicality wins out over romance or art. There's a lot of talk about artistic creation here, but nothing is created.
Maxwell has directed his own work on a spare setting with plywood walls, basic props, minimal furniture and plain bright light. The production only becomes conventionally theatrical when he presents a brief non-verbal version of Tristan und Isolde with the prelude to Wagner's work playing dimly in the background. The acting style is a strange combination of affectless delivery and naturalism. Vazquez's Isolde speaks in a flat, muted way as if she is living her life as a cold reading. Fletcher's Patrick and Wilmes's Massimo veer closer to naturalism--not quite naturalistic, but with more feeling than Vazquez expresses. The contrast underscored the old "woman as mystery" stereotype.
I can't say that I found anything particularly original or engrossing in ISOLDE. The style of the play and production lead to expectations of complexity that isn't really there.
ISOLDE. Theatre for a New Audience Polonsky Shakespeare Center. September 26, 2015.