New York City Players create a complex, discomfiting modern version of the medieval romance.
Photos by Gerry Goodstein
A wealthy actress and her husband hire a famous architect to design their dream home. The actress and the architect fall in love. As the actress starts to lose her memory, her husband wonders how to best help her, and if the new house is a good idea or a bad one.
Such a modern and understated plot hardly sounds like the epic medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde, and yet Richard Maxwell's Isolde draws inspiration from that famous love triangle. This production by the New York City Players at Theatre for a New Audience toys with the limits of the audience's comfort, challenging viewers to find meaning amongst the sparse dialogue and plot. As Isolde, her husband Patrick and architect Massimo contemplate if the perfect house really does exist, we find ourselves wondering something entirely different.
Maxwell's stylized dialogue is jarring at first, and can take a good portion of the 85-minute play to get accustomed to. This often surreal mode of performance stands out against the actors' everyday clothing and the simple set, creating a distinct contrast between what is seen and what is heard. The language is clearly the focus of the piece, and you can soon imagine the words on a page as the actor speaks them, much as Isolde does in her opening monologue as she rehearses a role.
There is a studied juxtaposition between the secret lyricism of certain monologues, such as Massimo's lustful ode to Isolde, and the extreme disjointedness of dialogues between characters. Such scenes draw the audience into the world of the play and then push you back out in turn, constantly leaving you on the edge of your seat as to what will come next. Still, if you commit yourself to engaging with the piece, it can surprise and even enthrall you until a single offhanded joke leaves you sputtering with laughter.
Isolde's memory loss is slow and subtle but ultimately devastating, and is the true heart of the piece. That Tory Vazquez, who plays Isolde, is a mature, sophisticated woman of color rather than an old white man meant to remind us of King Lear is a particular strength of the play, adding new dimensions to the otherwise simple piece. As Isolde's failing memory comes up against Patrick's (Jim Fletcher) inability to express his love for his wife and Massimo's (Gary Wilmes) weakening artistic vision, the play falls into a state of paralysis that only the straight-talking Uncle Jerry (Brian Mendes) can ultimately rescue them from.
The penultimate scene of the play, when the characters transform into their medieval counterparts in a wordless pantomime, feels a little forced, though the scene that follows it between Jerry and Massimo is a beautiful, expansive conclusion to the piece despite the almost bare stage it takes place on. The world of Isolde grows as we see less of it, proving how unnecessary even the few set pieces are to imagining the perfect home.
Ultimately, Isolde proves a challenging play to watch and to understand, though the company seems to have succeeded in creating the play they wanted to make. A puzzle as much as a performance, this new play at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center does what Theatre for an Audience seems to do best: putting an unexpected new twist on the classics.
Isolde plays at Theatre for a New Audience through September 27.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.