PRINT March 2018



Richard Maxwell, Paradiso, 2017. Performance view, Greene Naftali, New York, January 2018. Carina Goebelbecker and Charles Reina. Photo: Sascha van Riel.

“A MAN DRIVES A PICKUP into a Chelsea gallery” could be the start of a bad joke; instead, it’s the beginning of a Richard Maxwell play. The truck is a white Chevy with a licked finish, the gallery is Greene Naftali, and the massive windows, edged in weathering steel, are vertical blades, rudders pivoted by two guys I worry about in the cold, their irradiated safety hoodies thick but perhaps not enough.

Addressed to Dante’s Divine Comedy and borrowing the title from his third canticle, Paradiso foregrounds existential questions: What is our purpose? Where will we find salvation? But Maxwell’s work—always, but here especially—is equally concerned with mechanics and calisthenics, the exquisite difficulty of physiological how. How, that is, do we live on this Earth, wretched as we are? How do we navigate the reek of our own striving?

There are other questions, no more easily answered: How, exactly, do you get a vehicle into a gallery? Can you put theater in there, too?

Richard Maxwell, Paradiso, 2017. Performance views, Greene Naftali, New York, January 2018. Jessica Gallucci and Elaine Davis. Photo: Sascha van Riel.

The argent rig is delicately maneuvered inside, and Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” plays through the speakers until the engine is cut. Out of the cab is launched an appliance. It skulks and teeters around to the front and begins to speak. A camera watches us, the audience, who sit on wooden benches that define the proscenium. The device hangs from a metal frame, the gaunt proportions of which unsteadily roost on four small wheels: those of a toy truck. “Air quiet all around us,” a voice says with a familiar mechanized inflection. Its tone delivers opprobrium to all who came—or stayed away—because of the ostensibly flat affect that Maxwell’s theater is said to serve up cold.

One dream of theater is that the scrawling of a single man might be immaculately reproduced on the surfaces of another.

To be both playwright and director, as Maxwell has often been in his two decades of making theater, is to play God. (Only a megalomaniac would want to invent a world, populate it, and then oversee the intricacies of its survival.) Maxwell allows his actors and production designers to loosen that yoke, to cleave line from enunciation: I think of Kevin Hurley, playing “Kevin” in Good Samaritans (2004), who croaks out “Zzzz” while ostensibly asleep, or the way that, after being shot, the shirts of Brian Mendes (“Asi”) and Jim Fletcher (“Cosmo”), in The Evening (2015), are ripped open, throbbing squibs revealed like demented superhero crests.

When a human finally speaks, it is Elaine Davis in an easy, pedestrian second, stance rooted and voice plangent. She declaims her monologue emphatically, but with a near-total absence of gesture, save for the occasional demonstrative flexing of hands, which stay tethered to her sides. Expression, in a long-standing fallacy, is often thought (as in these pages) to look like wild flinging; in practice (that is, in life), it mostly looks like coiled restraint.

While Davis considers “resisting anything mythic” about motherhood as it was done by a mother, now dead, the other three actors—Jessica Gallucci, Carina Goebelbecker, and Charles Reina—are concealed, having slunk down inside the vehicle. Now they come slithering out, and as they lug and maul about the stage, I wonder: How did we ever become upright?

The play is concerned with Dante, but also with the inevitable death of the mother, and later, the avertable wounds of the child. It is both autobiographical and not, and is everywhere populated by those trying to do right but doing the ultimate wrong nonetheless. From Gallucci, on her knees and with ponytailed naïveté, we hear of the artist, the activist, and the philanthropist, fickle archetypes unchained from any individual actor. Her monologue grates with the impotence of being earnest, but alongside the rightful skewering of all this hypocrisy, the text dexterously flays the stories’ tender pinknesses, with a compassion that only precision avails.

Then, fleetingly, Maxwell gives up language entirely. He can whittle a perfect sentence and knows intimately the grip of its haft, and since he is sitting behind me, I wonder what it feels like for him to be hurled into wordless physicality, forsaken and groping around in that dark. Language precedes and imprisons us, but it is also, for some, a terrain of mastery, the mute room a landscape of exhilarating unknowing. In place of words is now theater’s vocabulary of movement: blocking, choreography, object work. These are the technical elements of acting; Theater for Beginners is the title of Maxwell’s 2015 book. Together, the four performers work through the basic lessons of pretending: Doors are opened, books are removed from a shelf, things are pointed at, decapitations are authored by the inner edge of palms, and a lunged rattling of claws is, as it turns out, an enchantment that kills, a lightning bolt shot from the ulnar nerve.

Richard Maxwell, Paradiso, 2017. Performance views, Greene Naftali, New York, January 2018. Elaine Davis,
Jessica Gallucci, and Charles Reina. Photo: Sascha van Riel.

Even after dialogue resurfaces, these mimetic and symbolic études remain. There is walking with a fictional limp, swiping of a nonexistent phone, drinking from an imaginary bowl. What does it look like to timidly slake your thirst? How does the chin lift, how does the throat enclose around wetness?

This is hard-earned knowledge, the actor’s labor.

Rhetorical excursion, swerving away from the topic at hand and allowing it to drop uncaught, is a signature Maxwell move. So, when Davis says, “It feels kinda . . . propped up . . . and it . . . any moment . . . any moment,” I fully expect the drywall to come crashing down or the gallery to fill with smoke. Instead of elaborate stagecraft, there is a straightforward transition to the next act. Reina begins it by saying, “Been thinkin’ ’bout you,” his soliloquy eliding the audience and God, a recanted atheist’s Book of Common Prayer.

Knowledge is, supposedly, how we got booted from paradise. In Dante’s version of Paradiso, we are trying, slowly, to make our way back. In Maxwell’s, one moves through a barren future knowing all the things a person is supposed to know: God is dead and so is the author, the subject must be critiqued, governance is murderous, capitalism is vampiric drain. This information is, in the modern myths so often shared by the artist, the activist, and the philanthropist, thought to be apotropaic. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would call such thinking “paranoid,” the skeleton key to a private room above the fray. But one can spend most years in autodidactic accumulation, in books and paintings and theaters, and yet find herself foundering on the shores of other people.

One dream of theater is that the scrawling of a single man (and it is, too often, a man) might be immaculately reproduced on the surfaces of another. In that idiom, performers hunt for the character’s “motivation” and then dress in its skins. In contrast, Maxwell’s work is often described as benumbed or sapless; I remain astonished by the number of smart people who take this position, who seem not to have spent a lifetime dissimulating, neither riven between inside and out nor between thought and word, who seem never to have shaken their heads while howling a silent yes. To my mind, Maxwell’s ecstatic form of theater grapples with the pas de deux of estrangement and solicitation as they are bound up in our primary dilemma, that of living in ethical relation, among rather than alone.

Halfway through the play, the couple next to me are violently whispering, plotting the means of their escape: How will they depart the pews with minimal ruckus; what is the quickest route to the exit? (They do not yet realize that their mutterings and the strident creak of the door disturb nonetheless.) This is not an act of refusal in the familiar vein of avant-garde shock and attrition. Rather, they have somewhere else to go; I heard their machinations before the performance even began. Good patrons of the arts though they may be, like those inside the text, they have placed their desire to have it both ways above their regard for anyone else.

I say this not in sanctimony, but rather in brute empathy, and because, in Maxwell’s work, the motivations at stake are not those of a “character,” but rather yours. Why are you, actor or audience, here, when of course you could be elsewhere? As Davis acknowledges at the top, it’s almost always “less hazardous to stay away.”

Dante’s final canto, his thirty-third, written in heaven and trembling at the sight of God, is exactly about the cruel inadequacy of human parlance: “O how pale now is language and how paltry / For my conception! And for what I saw / My words are not enough to call them meager.” I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in theater, which at its best leaves me dumb, at its worst is still worthwhile, and, as Maxwell’s text at one point obliquely describes, is “beautiful because: for whom was this?”

Now the camera-being is sibilant, its jerky head at once desperate to capture everything and aware of its own failing. The press release says that Paradiso describes “three great loves: family, country, and god.” But how many loves, great or meager, thwarted or bent, is one allotted? In the play Davis admits, “It was said seismic events always happen in threes. But then found they also happen in fours, fives, and sixes, if you were willing to wait for it.” The better question is, How many quakes can one withstand or accommodate? More pressing still, like a thumb to a bruise, just how?

Catherine Damman is an art historian and writer.