Sunday, April 5, 2009

People Without History


By Richard Maxwell. Directed by Brian Mendes. The Performing Garage. (CLOSED)

Whether or not critics enjoy People Without History has a lot to do with how they feel about Richard Maxwell's work in general. As described by critics, his signature style--amateurish acting, modern speech, sparse sets-- is present in the play, which takes place after the Battle of Shrewsbury (the climax of Henry IV, Part I, which Maxwell directed at BAM in 2003). Except for That Sounds Cool's Aaron Riccio, critics think that these devices work well to portray the aftermath of battle.

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) Yet “Henry IV” evidently stirred Mr. Maxwell’s imagination to fruitful effect. “People Without History,” written by Mr. Maxwell and directed by Brian Mendes, considers the aftermath of the Battle of Shrewsbury, in which the forces of the Lancastrian king, Henry, defeated a rebel army. And — dare I say it? — I have the feeling that this work comes closer than Shakespeare and certainly closer than any period costume movie, in making 21st-century audiences feel what it must have been like to be a foot soldier in the early 15th century… When these people speak — and they do at length, often in lyrical monologues of unexpected beauty — it is with the semicatatonic air of someone waking from a long sleep, grasping for fragments of vanished dreams. (Their language, for the record, is not Chaucerian or Elizabethan, but Mr. Maxwell’s own cadenced, fragmented brand of contemporary American English.)

Village Voice B+
(Eric Grode) Tension builds with the arrival of Alice (Tory Vazquez), a camp follower who offers the disoriented men the promise of baser pleasures but also of redemption: "The past, if it bothers you that much, leave it there! Unknown and unsought." The tug between naturalism and Maxwell's brand of antirealism gains far more traction in these charged sequences than in an early paean to nature or a Charles Mee–esque lurch into technical jargon halfway through People Without History. The title proves illusory: The past will never dissipate, regardless of whether you know or seek it. Why else would a much-lauded theater artist return to the scene of his infamous failure, this time on his own inimitable terms?

CurtainUp B+
(Jenny Sandman) Coming to the play cold, all you know is that these men dressed in chain mail and red long johns have just been through a battle of some sort, that some of them are prisoners, and that their speech and syntax resembles that of PTSD sufferers. The language is not 15th century English, French or Welsh but a stunted version of modern American English (typical for Maxwell’s plays). There are no references to landmarks, historical personages, the time frame, or anything else that might ground this play in the concrete. In a sense, it’s a strangely accurate way of portraying what 15th century Englishman must have felt like after a battle——unmoored, lost, lacking basic information like whether they even won or lost, and too tired to care.

The New Yorker B+
(Hilton Als) But to use the word “emotional” in the context of Maxwell’s universe is misleading. Like the late filmmaker Robert Bresson, who forbade his performers to “act,” Maxwell places similar restraints on those who appear in his shows, emphasizing their awkwardness and inexpressiveness, so that we concentrate not on the performance but on the language as a “thing.” This approach is bound to make audiences uneasy, but one should think of oneself not as being held hostage to Maxwell’s style but as being expanded by its difference.

Time Out NY B
(Helen Shaw) As ever, alienation techniques have a price, and parts of People can get pretty taxing. But just as we start to suspect the work of archness, Pete Simpson sends a chill through us or Jim Fletcher gets his clothes torn off. Using structured dullness, Maxwell and company are making war stories strange again, a task that even Brecht might say is worth their stripes.

That Sounds Cool D
(Aaron Riccio) It hardly helps that Maxwell's aesthetic--his New York City players are a mix of amateurs and professionals--is monotonic. That's perhaps fine for Laura Furniss's empty set (five blackboard-looking walls open or close the space, projections lend it a rustic abandon), but the lack of distraction there is confounded by Furniss's costuming, which mixes chain hauberks and coifs with old-timey one-piece pajamas--not just people without history, but people without time, and ultimately, people without people. (There's also an anonymous character, with a do rag and biker beard, who remains mute for most of the show.) And while much of the "plot" revolves around reactions to the arrival of Alice (Tory Vazquez), the solitary female in the ruins of a masculine battlefield, the choice to prounounce rather than converse makes the enigmatic nature of the show a rather brittle affair.

The New York Times A 13; Village Voice B+ 11; CurtainUp B+ 11; The New Yorker B+ 11; TONY B 10; That Sounds Cool D 4; TOTAL: 60 /6 = 10 (B)

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