Theater archives

The Art of Artifice


“She’s, you know, she is what she is.” The speaker, a race-car fan named John in Showy Lady Slipper, gives up before even trying to describe his girlfriend; but his words do identify, precisely, the quality that makes Richard Maxwell’s theater so engrossing. Throughout his new play, Maxwell deflects all but the most empirically strict interpretations. He teases the symbol-mongers with shaggy-dog stories, apparent confessions, and the gestures of psycho sexual drama, only to de-emphasize, or with hold altogether, the denouements. The stories dead-end in meaningless silence; characters don’t change after baring their souls; and the stakes are too low to turn the various encounters into conflicts. (The plot, such as it is, depicts John’s betrayal.) Even the title is a red herring: As far as I can tell, the play has nothing to do with orchids. We’re left with the two-dimensional scene before us, sealed off from any context, invited only to take inventory. It is, you know, what it is.

The flattened acting style, familiar to those who saw Maxwell’s House last year, enforces this decorum. But it would be a mistake to call it cold. With their vacant stares, uninflected voices, and minimal movement, the actors seem to clear a field on which emotion can arise naturally. Since the dialogue consists mostly of small talk (three women—played by Ashley Turba, Sibyl Kempson, and Jean Ann Garrish—gossiping about bands, boyfriends, and shopping), and the only “dramatic” plot twist, a fatal accident, affects the surviving characters no more than anything else does, we are free to attend to subtler matters. These include the hierarchy obeyed by the three women, as revealed in the patterns and procedures of their conversation; a throwaway line startling in its honesty (“My mother hates me, ha ha,”); and the moments when the pressure of an actor’s presence punctures the sleek, unvarying persona of her role. One woman has only to inhale, slowly, after a conversation ends, for her character to become three-dimensional.

Scenes like this reveal just how incomplete have been both Maxwell’s claims that he’s strip ping theater of “style” and those of his sympathetic critics who instead see the work as the triumph of artifice. In fact, here the fake and the real, or the veiled and the transparent, exist in productive tension. The set encapsulates the contradictions of the action: A painted back drop depicts, among other things, two chairs; on the floor sit two real chairs, made more tangible by the contrast.

In such a milieu it seems inevitable that one woman would ask her friends to describe their dreams. Maxwell mocks the pretensions of psychological drama, yet won’t relinquish his faith that, beneath the superficiality of everyday life, there are depths of feeling illuminated only when consciousness with draws. Jennifer speaks of “people who had interesting things to say, unlike what they wanted to say.” As with several other lines, once the banality and infelicity of the sentence fades, we find ourselves moved closer to the serious center of Showy Lady Slipper: it can no longer be mistaken as just a satire of adolescent chatter. Jennifer’s unwitting reference to the talking cure is apt: Max well seems to let his characters ramble on in the hope they’ll strike upon truthful self-description without knowing or controlling its significance. Yet despite (or because of) their fluency, the three women also seem to be seeking deeper modes of communication. Their confessional anecdotes, the sudden bursts of physicality (a hug, a shove), and, especially, the plaintive songs in which they couch emotions too earnest for Maxwell’s kind of speech—all seem at tempts to break through the vernacular limiting their knowledge of one another.

— David Herskovits also patrols the border between truth and artifice. His well-known presentational style insists we acknowledge theatrical conventions before losing ourselves in the world they create. In his new Target Margin Theater production of Todd Alcott’s Tulpa, this policy leads to an experiment in realism that manages to be simultaneously ironic and sincere. The sincerity comes through in the acting—aggressive yet warm—and especially the decor: Louisa Thompson’s low-ceilinged East Village railroad flat is a fascinating study in garish, pack-rat domesticity. The irony surfaces in the deliberately long stretches of setting up between scenes, when we register the effort needed to sustain illusion (one of Tulpa‘s subjects), and in the uneasy relationship between Herskovits’s production and Alcott’s language.

The deeper one gets into Tulpa—the story of a seer (played by Melody Cooper) pushing for social change yet also insisting that reality is a “tulpa,” or figment of the imagination—the more the director’s verisimiltude seems necessary to ground a fatally vaporous text. Alcott turns even his play’s most visceral elements into abstractions. Characters are unintended caricatures; their conflicts are schematic; metaphors are uprooted from lived experience. It’s left to Herskovits, with his compositional intelligence and brisk rhythm, to argue the true complexity of a reality Alcott’s prophet would have us dismiss.