No Man’s Land

Jess Barbagallo on Richard Maxwell’s Queens Row

Richard Maxwell, Queens Row, 2018. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York, January 8–25, 2020. Soraya Nabipour. Photo: © Paula Court.

IN THE PHYSICAL SENSE, there is very little in Richard Maxwell’s play, Queens Row. His approach to directing actors has always appeared to be an act of distillation: Eliminating the excesses of dramatic interpretation so that actors speak and are heard not for the force of their conviction—a programmed contrivance of the meta-script which constitutes popular performance—but for their commitment to stilling the physical body in lieu of more obvious psychologically-motivated behaviors. No tics, unless required explicitly by the text. No histrionics. Pure presence.

In the eighteen years since I saw Maxwell’s work for the first time—Drummer Wanted at the Performing Garage, a truly life-changing experience for me as an undergraduate acting student—culture has changed significantly. Neutrality—employed by Maxwell as a physical discipline in conjunction with his recursive, declamatory, and self-reflective texts—once opened the doors to radically new aesthetics in the theater, equating itself with universality through the supposition that human beings might find a single meeting ground through an embodied resistance to meaning-making. If the theater is essentially a charlatan’s cloying game, as it has been described to me by various conceptual/performance artmakers more at home in white cubes than black boxes, Maxwell offered an alternative possibility in his productions that was clean, chiseled and authentic. He gave us a serious performance style, devoid of camp and slop.

To some degree, neutrality has since been slowly stripped of its gravitas. New theatrical experiments, when they still happen, are less concerned with the cultivation of esoteric disciplines and more interested in addressing the structural inequities which have bred one-size-fits-all training methodologies and a crumbling American canon. Hindsight begs the question whether or not Maxwell’s neutrality is merely an affirmation of masculinist postures and values, instigated by a straight white cis able-bodied male. There isn’t an easy answer. His characters’ apparent stoicism tows an intoxicating line as its emotional withholding allows the audience a space to mourn or yearn for jettisoned feeling while simultaneously privileging repression as an expression of vulnerability. But does repression actually have a fixed gender?

Richard Maxwell, Queens Row, 2018. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York, January 8–25, 2020. Nazira Hanna. Photo: © Paula Court.

As an audience member who has at times felt alienated by grandiose representations of heterosexuality in Maxwell’s work, I have referred myself to Audre Lorde’s 1984 essay “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in which she describes this cluster of identity traits where “the trappings of power reside” as constituting the “mythical norm” or that which “is not me.” She also advises that it would be a disservice to deny the particularities of those individuals who comprise the Other as a means to resist hegemony. I have entered Maxwell’s work from a vexed position that neither invalidates his abilities nor denies my ambivalent appreciation for his project. From the outside, it seems as if Maxwell is doing a silent tango on a minefield with these Others who have always been there.

But there are no men in Queens Row, unless you count the playwright-director himself, who is as much a poet-philosopher as he is a dramatist; his voice bleeds through bodies with a transparency that defies character. Another man who loosely circulates throughout the show’s three monologues is a cowboy-outlaw in the spirit of Sam Shepard who preoccupies the three women in this story: The son of Naz. At the top of the play, Naz (Nazira Hanna) steps onto a pedestal and describes the place she calls home: Queens Row, Massachusetts, a fictional microcosm for the greater United States, where economic precarity has paved the way for devastating unrest. “People felt wronged and whether they were wronged or not, it didn’t matter: They felt that way, and found there were others like them … revolt swept the country and we found ourselves in a full scale civil war.” 

Richard Maxwell, Queens Row, 2018. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York, January 8–25, 2020. Antonia Summer. Photo: © Paula Court.

Her speech is rich with the cool beauty that comes of surveying a wasteland that she has survived without special flourish. Proceeding from Gertrude Stein’s dictum that it is paragraphs and not sentences which contain emotion, Maxwell’s “unemotional” prose includes the silent gazes performers hold between each other as one leaves the stage while another takes her place on a low, circular platform; the extended plays of light that dance across the bare stage like the details an idiosyncratic painter attends to in the corner of a canvas; the revelation of a window that looks out onto 19th Street; and the sweet sounds of a car passing the Kitchen, which reminds us we are inside, and that there is a world outside. All is taut with intention. I was seated just a few rows behind Maxwell and as I watched him taking notes, sometimes whispering to his children, I couldn’t help but feel that this too was a piece of the performance.

If there was levity in the first lines of Naz’s story—“I was born and no one could stop that from happening”—it quickly dissipated when we learned that she lost a son who committed a crime of passion for a woman he loved in Odessa, Texas. Naz’s faith in God, and her profound sense of freedom in the relinquishment of grief leads to her discovery that empirical knowledge does not pave the most desirable road: “The Qur’an contains everything that is knowable that isn’t learning.” Her feminism is arid—it seemingly disdains collective or utopian aspirations—and her chillingly, thrillingly unapologetic religiosity is all the more harrowing in an age where fundamentalism actively sustains individuals in the face of collapse.

Is Naz a figure of admiration? After she finished speaking, a second woman ascended the pedestal: Antonia (Antonia Summer), the lover of Naz’s murdered son, who takes us back in time to the moment before his death, when she was waiting for him to return from the hills where he lay in hiding from the police. She addresses herself to that shamelessly seductive and sublimely romantic “you” who is not here to hear her:

I keep thinking about how our chests mashed together.

And when you don’t answer, I feel less like one and more like two.

Richard Maxwell, Queens Row, 2018. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York, January 8–25, 2020. Soraya Nabipour. Photo: © Paula Court.

Life does not grow clearer, but reality does. Antonia’s daughter Soraya (Soraya Nabipour) is the last to speak, reflecting on her parents’ courtship and the decline of Queens Row. Here the play takes its greatest conceptual license: Soraya’s monologue is a linear collage of words, sounds and a physical score of isolated movements, making strange what is so often taken for granted as a body’s daily gestural vocabulary: the opening and closing of the mouth or the tandem motion of arms extending over a head to achieve a side stretch. Her long hair parted in the middle, and her silver sneakers and hip sweatshirt, combined with this cryptic physical language, unfortunately felt more like a simulacra of performance art, rather than the incarnation of an original tongue. I was intrigued, but I strained to catch the pathos as she described losing a father who continued to live inside her dreams, and how she was becoming her mother, desirous and nomadic.

And then, in the play’s closing moments, Soraya spoke a perfect sentence, a trifecta of them, making, I suppose, a little paragraph:

An while we may struggle.

from time to time.

we would never say that we suffer.

Good art has a habit of busting syntax, even with uneven success. That’s what experimental theater should do at least. Maxwell’s work periodically discredits my theses when I sit with it in real time, perhaps because what once felt critically major—from Steinian proclamations on the probable structure of drama to the default dignity once ascribed to white male existential angst—now feels minor in a theatrical landscape rushing after the algorithm-based affirmations of social media networks and the perfect readymade production image for Instagram. These tendencies leave me longing for the kinds of difficulty still to be relished in Maxwell’s commitment to a cultishly rigorous stagecraft. I remain in dialogue with his work because it is legitimately weird and deep, tenderly persisting after the question of how to live in a broken country, how to feel free when no one really is.

Richard Maxwell’s Queens Row was performed at The Kitchen in New York City from January 8 to January 25.