Bitch-Slapped by Shakespeare
At a high-voltage bistro in the meatpacking district, Richard Maxwell stands out as a guy with more on his mind than his groovy downtown image. While actor-model types blare into their cell phones between forkfuls of seared tuna niçoise, Maxwell, a transplanted Midwesterner with a wholesomely kooky demeanor, orders a BLT and launches into a discussion of his latest undertakingdirecting Henry IV, Part I at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. While not exactly shattering news at Pastis, the production, which opens on September 30 and runs through October 4 at BAM's Harvey Theater, has been provoking quizzical looks within theater circles. After all, the 35-year-old writer-director has made his name staging his own consummately oddball concoctions, such as Obie-winner House, Cowboys and Indians, and Drummer Wanted. Maxwellwith a game if slightly daunted look in his eyesclearly doesn't need reminding that he's never tackled anything as canonical as the Bard before.
"The title of this article should be 'Maxwell Gets Bitch-Slapped by Shakespeare,' " he proposes before digging into lunch. In a more reflective mood, he acknowledges that he's been forced to revise everything he thought he knew about performance. "I used to talk about my work in terms of realism," he says. "For a while I felt like I was a realist. But I'm trying to get beyond that. Henry IV has been pushing me in ways that I hadn't anticipated. My old rules don't apply."
Realism, while not entirely missing the mark, is a somewhat misleading way of characterizing Maxwell's art, which combines pitch-perfect orchestration of the deadening rhythms of contemporary American speech with an acting style that, in its monotone affect, borders on the autistic. Bristling at the usual descriptions of his work as "deadpan" or "flat," Maxwell prefers the phrase "objective neutrality" to describe his signature theatricality. But semantics aside, it's clear that his impulse was to take his aesthetic in an unforeseen direction.
"I should say that I didn't really know anything about Shakespeare when I took this on," Maxwell says. "I'm hoping that's my strength and not my weakness." Perennially at war against theatrical phoniness, he set out to avoid the mothballed approach to Shakespearean acting, which he identifies as "people onstage talking at each other rather than to each other." His chief inspiration came not from theater but from Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight, the critically acclaimed film adaptation of Henry IV, which starred Welles as Sir John Falstaff.
"I saw the movie in college," Maxwell says, "and something about the experience stuck with me. I was surprised by how alive the language was. I think Welles was helped by the fact that he could actually take his cast to the locations where the scenes originally took place. He definitely found a way inside the writing that I haven't seen before. To be honest, I tune out of most Shakespeare productions."
Imitation, however, is not Maxwell's style. The 23-person cast he has assembled for the BAM production consists not of Shakespearean troupers, but a mix of Maxwell stalwarts (including Gary Wilmes as Falstaff and Jim Fletcher as Henry IV), fellow downtown performers (such as Gardiner Comfort, who plays Hal), and a few civilians making their professional stage debuts. Needless to say, this is a far cry from the upcoming Lincoln Center production of Henry IV, which, headed by Kevin Kline, boasts a Tony-winning cast that would need a small U-Haul to cart its collective statuettes.
Maxwell's version is a kind of anti-star vehicle. To attract unsung talent to his auditions, his NYC Players company tacked up flyers in libraries and handed them out at continuing-education programs. The idea was born out of a series of workshops he did last year at the Performing Garage, where he was presenting Drummer Wanted. "I had some actors on board who were from Brooklyn and to hear them speak Shakespeare in their own accents was really compelling. I'm sure that they didn't know the things that you're supposed to know about iambic pentameter. But the language was somehow liberated from its institutionalized sound. I'm trying to help the cast find an honest connection to what they have to say."
He also hopes to serve Shakespeare's complex treatment of Prince Hal's coming of age. The story of the carousing young monarch-to-be, who whiles away the final days of his youth exchanging tavern quips with Falstaff before owning up to his responsibilities of the throne, represents Shakespeare's most sophisticated handling of the history-play genre. Not only is there more assured freedom in the movement from fact to fiction, but the play offers a sly critique of the contested origins and human costs of power, with Falstaff's battlefield high jinx hilariously illustrating the moral ludicrousness of war.
"Henry IV is one of the first instances of someone telling the history not strictly from the royal standpoint," Maxwell elaborates. "What we get are perspectives that range from the lowliest servant to the king, which is part of the reason why I've cast actors of different ages and experience."
Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom might want to consider skipping this chance to see his beloved Falstaff engage in verbal badminton with Hal. The acting is not likely to recall his cherished memory of Ralph Richardson as the sack- and capon-stuffed Sir John. At an early rehearsal, Maxwell had Comfort screaming his Prince Hal lines at the top of his lungs while Wilmes's Falstaff adopted a colorless drone. Though the director says that he never tries to impose "the Maxwell style," his handling of actors reflects a consistent philosophy. "I'm not trying to tell people, I don't want you to feel or show any emotion," he says. "All I'm saying is that I don't want to put the burden on the actors of pretending that they feel anything, which is the cliché of what you expect actors to do onstage."
Still, Bloom would no doubt approve of Maxwell's unideological approach, which refuses to lasso the story into reductive pieties. If there's a political rationale to Maxwell's decision to stage Henry IV (say, the connection with George W. Bush sowing his wild oats before assuming his father's jingoistic mantle), he claims it's purely subconscious. After a lengthy pause, he admits that his interest is partly psychological, having something to do with the Falstaff-Hal surrogate father-son relationship, a bond he can relate to being the youngest of six kids, four of whom were old enough to be his parent. But rather than psychoanalyze, he'd prefer Shakespeare's words tell their own story.
"Rich likes to keep things simple," says Wilmes, whose work with Maxwell dates back to their Chicago-based Cook County Theater Department days. "Beyond the narrative, which is his main concern, he enjoys the playful dynamic between actors with experience and those with very little. The combination encourages us to rid ourselves of our actor baggage. We're forced to listen more closely to what the other is saying."
"I've been a Maxwell groupie for years," says BAM's executive producer Joe Melillo, who has made a rare institutional commitment to both develop and premiere this Henry IV, which has the honor of inaugurating the 2003 Next Wave Festival. "He's an original art maker who's not derivative of anyone."
"I'm still going to be me even though I'm directing Shakespeare," Maxwell assures. "As a director of my own plays I find that I'm subverting what I've written all the time. I guess I'm still caught between reverence and irreverence."
Michael Feingold's review of Henry IV, Part I
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