- Purchase/rental options available:
Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 303-304
[Access article in PDF]
A palpable, uncomfortable silence filled the Harvey Theater during the opening moments of Richard Maxwell's production of Henry IV, Part One, the first offering of the 2003 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Under the soft glow of the house lights, which remained lit throughout the performance, the audience watched curiously as the King (Jim Fletcher) delivered the opening lines in a flat, enervated monotone, occasionally punctuating his words with an awkward bob of his brassy scepter. Suddenly, his litany was interrupted by the entrance of Westmoreland (Jimmie James), who stopped the action dead in its tracks by whispering in the King's ear. As the two actors continued their whispered exchange, which extended well beyond the customary time limit of the typical stage whisper, a wave of giggles rippled across the audience, finally breaking the silence that permeated the house.
This kind of metatheatrical moment, when the audience sheepishly acknowledges its collective dependence on theatrical convention, is one of Maxwell's signatures. The maverick director has garnered critical praise for his spare approach, which calls for as few facial expressions, hand gestures, and vocal flourishes as possible. To this end, Maxwell utilizes amateur actors and a core group of professional performers who can successfully shed their traditional acting training. The result is a performance free of artifice and emotion. Maxwell's method generated sporadic moments of humor and solemnity in Shakespeare's play, but I was left with the impression that this director's mode is more successful when partnered with his original texts.
Henry IV, Part One marks Maxwell's first production of a classical play after nearly a dozen Off-Off- and Off-Broadway projects conceived, written, and directed by him, including Boxing 2000, Drummer Wanted, and House (for which he received an Obie Award). His original plays dwell on the mundane aspects of life but become wry and insightful explorations of the human condition when presented in his deadpan style. Maxwell's innovative work has attracted international attention and has been presented at the Festival D'Automne in Paris, the Dublin Fringe Festival, and London's Barbican Center, among other venues.
Maxwell has admitted to harboring a fondness for community theatre and his admiration of amateurishness was visible in the costumes, props, and backdrops used in Henry IV.The jewel-toned velveteen outfits were caricatures of Elizabethan dress; silver paint was peeling off the end of every wooden sword; the cloth backdrops for the tavern, forest, and battle scenes seemed like painstaking but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to emulate Serlio's perspective drawings. The shabby-chic ambience of the Harvey Theater (á la Peter Brook's Théatre des Bouffes du Nord) brought back memories of plays in my high school cafeteria and I imagine it evoked similar recollections among the spectators who stayed for the duration of the two-hour show. Roughly one-third of the opening-night audience protested Maxwell's irreverence by noisily walking out while the performance was still in progress.
Those who remained were treated to occasional flashes of comic brilliance. The actors' lack of vocal variance lent a kind of subdued clarity to Shakespeare's words, particularly when the characters traded strings of colorful insults. When Falstaff (Gary Wilmes) and his cohort plotted to rob the King's men in 2.2, they hid themselves by standing next to a pair of painted trees on the flat backdrop—another moment of metatheatrical humor. A passionate kiss shared by Hotspur (Brian Mendes) and Lady Percy (Kate Gleason) in 2.3 was an amusing caesura in an otherwise aloof exchange. When Glendower (Lakpa Bhutia) appeared in 3.1, the contrasting native accents of the amateur actors turned the scene into a satirical study of language barriers. And the cast's stiff and awkward execution of its combat choreography transformed the final battle scenes into a long-running joke.
The evening was dominated by such tongue-in-cheek humor...