THERE MAY BE no experience more excruciating, or more essentially human, than that of rising to the occasion of a loved one’s death. What to do when there is nothing to do? How to tell a story as form is falling away?
Playwright/director Richard Maxwell wrote his most recent play, The Evening, as his father was dying. It is his first work in a forthcoming trilogy inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Rather than adapt or remake, Maxwell has so far loosed threads from the classic, weaving them through a story set not in hell, purgatory, or heaven precisely, but in an unremarkable bar in an unnamed American town. From Dante, Maxwell takes a hallowed name: Beatrice. Here she isn’t a muse from on high, but a self-described “prostitute slash bartender in one lonely corner of the universe” (played by sculptor/composer Cammisa Buerhaus). Drawing her into a love triangle that includes a Mixed Martial Arts Fighter named Asi (Brian Mendes) and his manager Cosmo (Jim Fletcher), Maxwell, a theater artist of staggering achievement, has produced a tender and arresting story of love and leaving.
The Evening is a performance in three movements: a prologue, a play, and its dissolve. At the top of the show, with the lights at half, Buerhaus sits at a table, looks out into the audience, and reads lines from Maxwell’s journal of his father’s last days. She, as Maxwell’s stand-in, recounts sleepless nights, an ill-fitting bed, water drunk from a sippy cup, and the aching poignancy of their final exchanges. She speaks Maxwell’s memory of a Native American man who once entered the family house uninvited, and how his father helped sober him up and drove him home. It was a kindness, of course, as well as a moment of confusion that his father calmly made sense of. The crossing from life into death, even at this late stage of his father’s illness, is unfathomable to Maxwell. “I won’t let him go,” he writes, “I can’t.” But he must, and he does, at which point his elegy ends. Buerhaus stands, takes her place behind the bar as Beatrice, and the play begins.
The subsequent plot is straightforward enough, slip-sliding along the lines of cliché. Asi and Cosmo care for Beatrice, but she seems not to care for either of them, or at least not more for one than the other. She wants to go to Istanbul and needs money to do so. Grief is, in part, her propeller. “Look,” she explains, “a lot of people have died on me, lately, and. Yeah. I mean fuck. What are you supposed to do when you miss people?” Asi, her ex, wants her to stay, demands that she stay, tells her he loves her and then, finally, asks to go with her: “I can’t let you go. You’re in everything. You’re in the walls. You’re everywhere. I really need you. You know that, right?” Cosmo encourages Beatrice to go, but believes she should return: “I want you to be… alone… not for me… I want. Love but. I want love, but…” Each in their own way, Beatrice, Asi, and Cosmo articulate a particular response to the world such as it is: seek, fight, surrender. Over the course of The Evening, the knots that bind them tighten. They drink, dance, and fight. Blood is spilled. A band plays. A fog rolls in.
In Maxwell’s work, character is always a complex concoction. In both the writing and the direction, he allows the seams to peek out between the performers and the fictions moving through them. His actors deliver their lines from point-blank range; they’re straight shooters, with little-to-no theatrical flourish. Maxwell has long been a master of halting speech, marking the spaces between thought and word, and around the entwined conditions of love and grief, he has written dialogue that is by turns declarative and faltering. Out of the mouths of Asi and Cosmo, the word “love” can sound as raw-hearted as it does trite, in no small part due to the deft achievements of both Mendes and Fletcher, two of his long-time collaborators who, while on constant boil, still hit the play’s many registers with precision. Both Mendes and Fletcher find a singular note that sounds like macho bluster and romantic overture all at once. “In my life. If I see something I like, I grab it,” Asi calls out to Beatrice in a deadpan staccato, “That’s just how it is. Do you see that?” He continues through her silence to deliver some of most simultaneously absurd and heartbreaking lines of the play: “And. If I say I love you, it means I love you. [pause] I’m not saying I love you. But if I did. [pause] But I think I do love you. [pause] I really do think that sometimes.”
Buerhouse’s Beatrice by contrast speaks and moves as though she’s always looking for herself, a disoriented quicksilver counterpoint to the men’s more forceful gravities. Maxwell has long counted on the virtues of the untrained actor, a certain affectless presence, to give his theater nuanced, contradictory textures. Flatness has great surface value in his work, creating tension around what’s traditionally perceived in the theater as depth. In The Evening’s “girl with a gun” sequence, Beatrice shoots both men and then rips open one of their shirts to uncover the special effects contraption oozing fake blood beneath. Why? Why not? Real death happens as part of life offstage; here, the actors remain standing. The fact of the fake gunshots, loud and clear, tells a far more revealing and resonant story here.
In A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir’s elegant, clear-eyed memoir of her mother’s dying, the writer/philosopher recalls her mother saying, “Death itself does not frighten me; it is the jump I am afraid of.” The jump, the leap into the unknown: This is the action in question that hovers over both those who will stay with those who will go. The day Maxwell’s father was able to stand on his own was his last day alive: “He took off, like out of sprinter blocks.” As Beatrice explains to Asi and Cosmo: “I walk up to the lines that have been drawn and I shy away every time. Every time… It’s like, I am caught between two worlds and the dreams keep me from getting out and into either one.” Maxwell’s set is shallow and claustrophobic, pushing the actors and the three band members to the front of the stage, limiting their movements to such a degree that one wishes them some kind of release or liberation almost from the start. At one point in the action, Beatrice tries to get away from the men, running to a patch of carpet two-shoes wide between the band’s mic stand and the edge of the playing space. It’s then we recognize she has nowhere to go.
Maxwell has written before of people who find themselves in a kind of limbo, who for whatever reason are neither fully here nor there. In Isolde (2014), his last, an actress begins to lose her memory, finding herself untethering from herself, her life, her husband. The binding force, the connective tissue, for the condition in which they are living, is love.
Like Dante’s epic, The Evening is also fueled by love. Though not a quixotic pursuit, it is of course an ill-fated one. All of us leave or are left, someday, one way or another. Grief is what we feel in their absence, the agonizing proof of having loved as best we could. Jump is what we might do when the world we know breaks apart, is taken away, and we’re left staring into the haze. As Maxwell writes near to his father’s death, “amazing how much beginning there is in the end.” Near to the end of The Evening, we watch Beatrice cross a foggy new space a few deliberate steps at a time, dissolving into the light. Where she finds herself next is anybody’s guess.