PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 26.2 (2004) 103-109
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Shallow Hal, Chipper Bob
Mood Swinging at the Next Wave
Henry IV, Part One, by William Shakespeare, The New York City Players, directed by Richard Maxwell; bobrauschenbergamerica, by Charles L. Mee, The SITI Company, directed by Anne Bogart. BAM 2003 Next Wave Festival.
The 2003 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted two theatre productions from directors with genuine avant-garde credentials, a refreshing move considering a recent trend toward the glitzy and the mainstream in Next Wave dramaturgy. Richard Maxwell and Anne Bogart offered the tantalizing possibility of some innovative and provocative work and each, not surprisingly, generated moments of brilliance in their productions. In the end, however, neither Maxwell in Henry IV, Part One nor Bogart in bobrauschenbergamerica was able to deliver a groundbreaking or even consistently stimulating piece, but rather produced theatre that was disappointingly slight in proportion to their proven capacity to make entertaining and thought-provoking theatre.
Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, a play about the rise of a prince amid his country's fall into civil war, is routinely praised for the rich cacophony of voices it contains, ranging from those in the high court of its title figure to others carousing in the rough and tumble tavern world haunted by Hal and his boon companion Falstaff. The play thus poses a delicious challenge for director Richard Maxwell, whose signature style is a uniform flatness. Maxwell is a great leveler of voices, and perhaps the current reigning avatar of the laconic-ironic downtown school of playmaking. Taking him out of downtown, BAM let Maxwell recreate a downtown aesthetic for the Next Wave with a deadpan revival of Shakespeare's famous comic-history play. The result was an occasionally rich but mostly unsuccessful and somewhat narcissistic experiment in application and confrontation, as Maxwell made the meeting of his own minimalistic dramatic mode and the famed plentitude of Shakespeare the central point of his production. Maxwell first gained notice for House, a 1999 Obie award-winner, and has since lulled audiences into mostly blissful inertia in plays like Caveman, Boxing 2000, Drummer Wanted, and last year's Joe. After [End Page 103] some exceedingly safe choices for classic revivals during last year's Next Wave (see my "Murder by Timidity" in PAJ 74), BAM took a genuine risk putting Maxwell at the helm of Henry IV, Part One, and by some measures, they paid the price. The drama of audience reaction at BAM was in fact almost as interesting to observe as the play itself. The night I saw the production, audience members walked out left and right, starting as early as ten minutes into the performance. In addition to the masses who headed for the door throughout the show, there were some audibly and visibly disgruntled playgoers who nonetheless stayed to the end, loudly exhaling, shaking their heads and muttering in disgust all the while. Apparently, this pattern of abandonment and resentment occurred during each night of the show's brief run. As a counterbalance of sorts there was also a loud faction of those who normally dominate audiences at downtown productions: the avant-garde cheerleaders who have no real critical interest in a given show, but rather go out of their way to demonstrate their sophistication by laughing uproariously at any perceived moment of unconventionality.
Maxwell gave them plenty to laugh about. As the play opens, King Henry (Jim Fletcher) enters to deliver his long opening speech expressing self-doubt over his legitimacy and desire to lead a crusade to redeem himself for usurping the crown, an adventure that would simultaneously help to quell the civil strife that plagues his country. Fletcher delivered the poetically dense lines that express all this standing still, with no change in intonation and no sense of line breaks, barely pausing at any point along the way. From the get go, then, it was clear this was not going to be Olivier's or even Branagh...