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Stilfragen des Pathos (English Version)

By Daniel Mufson
The German version of this article was originally published with minor changes  in  Theater Heute,  February 2000


You know you’re at a Richard Maxwell play when the phrase, “Oh my God,” is said by the same character with the same, detached tone regardless of whether she’s reacting to a discussion about movies or the news that her boyfriend was just killed in an automobile accident. Showy Lady Slipper, written and directed by Maxwell, continues the experiment that won so much attention for House and Cowboys and Indians: To find a style by pretending to reject style, and to create a wealth of signification by appearing to undermine the notion of significance. It also provides another snapshot of American life, and an unsettling one at that.

Two-thirds of the hour-long Showy Lady Slipper focuses on three young women, Lori, Erin, and Jennifer, filling time with circuitous chatter about movies, horseback riding, their circle of friends, and strange dreams that they’ve had. Occasionally, they break into songs purposefully riddled with bland, cliché lyrics. Lori’s boyfriend, John, arrives to watch them try on the clothes they bought earlier in the day. After being caught in a passionless but illicit embrace with one of Lori’s friends, John flees the scene. Lori, spurned, tries to strangle her treacherous friend until the phone rings and notifies the three girls that John has died in a car crash. The three suddenly break into the grating harmonies of the evening’s final song, “O how I loved you / I can’t live without your love,” after which they exit as stoically as the play began.

The idea behind Maxwell’s directorial technique, deceptively simple, is to drain as much of the emotional life out of the actors’ voices and bodies as possible. Showy Lady Slipper begins and ends with a phone call, and indeed, throughout the play, when speaking to each other, the characters have all the passion of a greeting on an answering machine, verbally detached in a way slightly reminiscent of how actors talk in some of Hal Hartley’s movies, but carried even further. As for movement, the actors spend the bulk of their time slouched and inert, and when they finally muster the energy to move, they do so with a deliberateness of children taking orders from a parent. In the most extreme gesture at economy of movement, sexual penetration is suggested when John slides his left leg between Jennifer’s knees. Maxwell’s results oscillate between comedy and pathos, a parody of anomie hinting occasionally at darker, frustrated thoughts.

Although Maxwell has never had the opportunity to see any of Christoph Marthaler’s work, their interests and tastes are not entirely dissimilar. Just as Marthaler’s characters in Murx den Europäer strained to fill the emptiness and boredom of existence, so Maxwell’s characters seem deadened to their own dialogue. The difference is that, in Maxwell, melodramatic events and thoughts rupture the small talk, but the actors’ line delivery never deviates from one of steadfast neutrality. Both directors punctuate and interrupt scenes with songs; Marthaler often chooses music that is loaded with historical implications, whereas Maxwell, firmly planted in an ahistorical American context, writes his own songs that often seem to be simultaneously parody and homage to the heavy metal ballads or soft pop tunes that constitute one of the last pathetic remnants of a shared culture. In traditional musicals, characters usually break into song as a way of signifying that the magnitude of their feelings has outgrown the dimensions of speech; in Showy Lady Slipper and Maxwell’s other plays, the notion of pedestrian characters expressing grand feelings is mocked not only by the banal lyrics but also by the cloying harmonies and the frequency with which the characters sing woefully flat.

The aggressive directorial hand that imposes stillness on the actors’ bodies and what Maxwell calls a “neutral” line delivery often distracts critics from the strength of Maxwell’s writing. But the directorial style and the writing are inextricably linked. Conversations have a stop-and-start rhythm of as characters clumsily force topics out of themselves to avoid the awkward silences that betray the futility of their attempts at a meaningful exchange. Instead of lazzi and musings about the arrival of Godot, the girls in Showy Lady Slipper fill their waiting time with the banal topics of daily American life. Beneath the patina of verbal trivia lurk traces of a deeper pathos; Erin’s remark that her mother hates her pops out of nowhere and then vanishes as oddly as it appeared. When confronted with John’s death, an event that defies trivial banter, the characters and the play erupt into a final strained cliché and then abruptly shut down. This universe is not equipped to cope with such things.

Maxwell subverts the opposition between irony and sincerity by producing performances so saturated with irony that they end by seeming somehow plaintive, naïve, and even vulnerable. He simulates amateurism with a most professional discipline. As with so many directors who manage to find something original to do, Maxwell runs the risk of becoming predictable. Showy Lady Slipper is not quite as strong as the two previous works, but for now, the results of his experiment are rich with paradox and continue to surprise. It is a very, very strange theater.

While Richard Maxwell devotes all his energies to shunning every hint of artifice and polish from theatrical presentation, a theater company called GAle GAtes et al. is careening in the opposite direction of baroque spectacle. Like all their work, the latest production, 1839, is written, designed, and directed by twenty-nine year-old Michael Counts. Where Maxwell’s characters fumble with language, Counts subsumes language in a cascade of images that overwhelms concerns with any character’s journey or even the idea of character itself. Counts replaces narrative with themes, characters with personae. The work, unimaginable without the benefit of advanced lighting, sound, and set technology, is an off-theater’s reinvention of art for art’s sake, surrendering social engagement or political commitment for the sake of often astonishingly beautiful stage pictures.

The company was co-founded in 1995 by Counts and producer Michelle Stern, who recently performed in the Wooster Group’s re-staging of North Atlantic. In 1997,  GAle GAtes et al. made the move from Manhattan to Brooklyn and rapidly became a prominent part of a burgeoning arts scene fuelled in no small part by the numerous refugees from Manhattan’s overheated real estate market. Counts and Stern received a generous deal from a family that owns a large swath of property in a dilapidated area of Brooklyn known as DUMBO¾Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Using over 3,600 square meters in what used to be an abandoned warehouse, the group has created an artistic outpost on the kind of desolate street mother always told you (or should have told you) to avoid. Previous theater works by Counts, such as Field of Mars, very loosely inspired by Tacitus’s account of the burning of Rome, used all of the warehouse’s immense space to create a sprawling labyrinth of scenes through which the audience could wander. This year, they’re using part of the theater to host an exhibit called Size Matters, showing 400 paintings by as many different artists. (Commissions from such exhibits, as well as income from renting the building for film shoots and parties and running a business designing and constructing sets for other theaters, helped generate almost 40% of the company’s $300,000 income for the 1998-99 season.) The remaining space in the building is reserved for 1839, GAle GAtes’s fourteenth production.

1839 takes its name from the year in which the development of the Daguerreotype was announced. Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s invention was the starting point for his creative process. 1839‘s themes impinge directly on formal issues intrinsic to all Counts’s previous work: the relation of image to narrative, and the role image and text play in memory and the invention of memory. His work is unabashedly associative, and free association is also one of his themes. The performance begins with characters debating the significance of a classical frieze on a plinth: Does it depict the story of Artemis and Orion, or that of Oedipus’s father, Laius, and the origins of Oedipus’s tragedy? The image begins as something open to interpretation, but words, dialogue, narrow this openness. In a way, the vagueness of a picture stimulates the desire for narrative, a desire satisfied when one of the characters declares firmly that the frieze depicts the story of Oedipus.

Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex becomes an anchor for the digressive flow of symbols and tableaux that follow: an estranged relationship between a boy named Henry and his mother, repeated references to a woman jumping out a window, a gigantic armadillo that lurks menacingly about the landscape, an archer shooting arrows into the distance, Apollo incarnated as a woman wearing a fatsuit and ruff. Any connection to Daguerre remains oblique. The video used in 1839 opens by showing a red curtain slowly drawn back; is this a reference to Daguerre’s work with dioramas or as a set designer for theater and opera? The closest connection, it seems, is Counts’s decision to borrow numerous images from Academic paintings roughly contemporary with Daguerre, particularly those by Jacques Louis David¾the outstretched hands of The Oath of the Horatii or the reclining nude in Madame Récamier. Even these visual quotes are merely implied. The scene vaguely reminiscent of the latter painting shows the boy Henry, dressed in a three-corner hat, standing by his mother, naked, stretched out languorously on a récamier. Their conversation becomes secondary as the piece of floor on which the récamier stands breaks off from the rest of the stage and begins to float deeper and deeper into the stage’s abyss of darkness. As the ambient light fades, the mattress begins to glow, lighting the underside of the mother’s pale body for a few gorgeous moments before she and her child disappear into the shadows. Jumbles of references to personal history and art and literature assemble themselves into a scenic structure briefly before dissolving to allow the next associations to congeal. Counts puts a great deal of trust in the belief that phrases and images gain significance through modified repetition, and if an audience member is not willing to make the production part of his or her own arduous, creative process as a viewer, then the evening will probably appear as little more than a pretentious series of pretty pictures without a soul.

Borrowings from what has become the tradition of the twentieth century avant-garde run throughout the work. Although the video design for 1839 is by Philip Bussman, who did the video for the Wooster Group’s House/Lights and The Hairy Ape, much of Counts’s work feels like a Generation X version of Robert Wilson, accelerated and accompanied by the techno-influenced compositions of GAle GAtes composer Joseph Diebes. If one has ever seen the way Robert Wilson sketches the design for various scenes and uses the architecture of these designs to structure the whole work, one might sense a similar construction process in 1839, whose motifs and refrains are both verbal and visual. The occasionally fevered pace and strident line delivery of 1839 sometimes evokes works by Reza Abdoh, no less so on account of actor and longtime Abdoh collaborator, Peter Jacobs.

Like many other contemporary works, 1839 makes heavy use of found materials, but the pedigree of its citations combined with the rejection of narrative and the elusiveness of meaning bear resemblance to some of Godard’s later films¾the ones that cause almost all but a handful of postmodern theorists to cry out with enraged nostalgia for the days of Vivre sa vie . Correspondingly, many American reviewers, while admiring Counts’s visual gifts, have already expressed impatience with what strikes them as the abstruseness of the work. Apparently, if you are intent on presenting a work open to infinitely many interpretations, you are apt to find viewers dismissing any single meaning and concluding that the work is hermetic, wrapped in a code understood only by its author, if at all. Counts, by now anticipating such criticisms, has laced 1839 with lines that sound a bit like proleptic defenses of his theatrical style: “I rediscover certain periods of my life in a single image,” or “The more dramatic the situation, the more it becomes an empty landscape,” or “What does it mean to remember? It is to live in more than one world.” One character says vehemently to another, “Do you understand what she said? She just wants you to see what she’s seeing.”

Yes, the images are often as evocative as they are beautiful; yes, there are clearly interesting ideas bubbling beneath the surface of dialogue; yes, these ideas often connect with the images to create a potent emotional experience. Counts has run headlong into the contrary expectations people have when encountering a theater piece as opposed to an art installation. He appears to be in a profound struggle to discover whether or not thought and emotion will become enlisted in the service of his formidable technical talents, or the other way around. These conflicts make the work as interesting as it is frustrating, and it’s not clear whether they should be resolved or if their lack of resolution gives 1839 its strength.

Although Counts’s and Maxwell’s styles look and sound completely different, they have in common a strong aversion to theater that broadcasts to an audience what it is supposed to be thinking and feeling. It is a reaction against the crassness of commercial entertainment as well as a not uncommon artistic tendency towards heavy-handedness. In both cases, the technique is precise but the significance is vague. Having grown accustomed to theater about which one can easily form an opinion, it’s refreshing to be intrigued by work without being sure of the  reason why. In a generation of young New York theater artists such as Collapsible Giraffe, Elevator Repair Service or Builders Association, Counts and Maxwell are among the most baffling—refreshingly so.

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