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“There’s a feeling I get, when I look to the west,” sing the immortal rhapsodes Led Zeppelin. For writer/director/composer Richard Maxwell, that feeling is part nostalgia, part hallucination and melancholia. On one level, his newest bare-to-the-bones production pays homage to old western movies, the kind of pictures where the heroes always wear white and villains black; where more men and fresh horses are eternally on the way as reinforcements; where salt-of-the-earth women offer thirsty gunslingers frothy mugs, advice, and sympathetic smiles in a dusty saloon.
Ode to the Man Who Kneels is off-kilter funny and dead-on enjoyable whenever Maxwell’s flights of poetic abstraction play against the gruff dialogue and bygone types of such flicks. If you really need a storyline, you can trace one: Standing Man (Jim Fletcher) faces down Dashing Man (Brian Mendes) to win and lose a pair of local lasses (Anna Kohler and Emily Cass McDonnell), with some shooting included. But the playwright collapses and reassembles this narrative skeleton quickly and often. Sometimes exchanges of dialogue send up the genre amusingly: “Tell me where to find the riders.” “You fool, they are loyal to none.” “They won’t turn on me.” “There’s nothing you can do to me they haven’t done already.”
But mostly, Maxwell’s mysterious characters speak and sing about their inner lives, matter-of-factly and through free-associative language—imagine John Ashbery meeting John Wayne to plunk out a few ditties. When speakers find themselves alone, their soliloquies and songs run wilder, turning untamably existential. Beneath their affect-free speech and flat intonations, Maxwell’s plaintive westerners express loneliness, fear, and welled-up desire. His enigmatic cowboys are pioneers of the soul, tough guys and gals who brave harsh emotional frontiers. Their monologues contain some of Maxwell’s best writing to date, full of Beckettian intimacy, but in an original American idiom and form that’s frequently beautiful.
Maxwell’s directing—always austere—here gets as parched as the Utah desert. Ode features one basic lighting cue, a garish white follow-spot that casts striking shadows but strains the eye after an hour. At times I longed for gentler and more assimilable visuals, for Maxwell’s figures to break out of the profile-relief he keeps them in, and for more radical staging choices. But Maxwell wants us to see and hear what we normally cover up and miss—and that means looking harder and seeing familiar appearances in a different light. And for a playwright-director whose trademark is minimal inflection, Maxwell finds surprising versatility within that aesthetic. Ode shows this challenging theatermaker riding his talents tall and high, at home with the strange.