Theater archives

Maxwell’s Misshapen, Often Riveting People Without History


Lumpy men with flat affects. Physical eruptions depicted in maladroit slow motion. Melodies warbled without a pitch pipe in sight. It’s time for another discombobulating visit to the world of Off-Off-Broadway’s great underwhelmer, Richard Maxwell.

For the misshapen but often riveting People Without History, Maxwell has returned to the Battle of Shrewsbury. This 15th-century skirmish marks the climax of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I; Maxwell’s track record received a rare and extremely public blemish in 2003 with an excoriated BAM production of said play.

Here, however, he and director Brian Mendes shift from the battlefield itself to its aftermath, in a P.O.W. camp peopled by bedraggled soldiers. 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?

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