Preview: "Isolde" wrestles with blankness of contemporary life

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Call it a tale of two Richards.

First is Richard Wagner, who wrote not operas but “music-dramas.” Responsible for both words and music, he paid equal attention to each. His revolutionary, hyper-romantic works were dubbed “the music of the future,” and he remains as controversial more than 130 years after his death as he was in life.

Second is Richard Maxwell, playwright and artistic director of the New York City Players. The quintessential “downtown” artist, Maxwell stripped his plays down to their essentials and historically encouraged his actors toward a nearly expressionless deadpan. His May 2000 “House” at the Wexner Center was a perfect example of Maxwell as the anti-Wagner.

Fifteen years later, Maxwell’s “Isolde” comes to the Wexner’s Thurber Theatre for one night only. In the words of Wexner Director of Performing Arts Charles R. Helm, Maxwell’s approach has evolved, “now giving the actors a greater— for him — of range of expression and emotion in their performances. … ‘Isolde’ is still clearly within the trajectory he established early on … [but] signals an important shift in his work.”

Evoking Wagner’s 1865 “Tristan und Isolde,” Maxwell’s “Isolde” also features a love triangle, this time involving the title character, an actress suffering from memory loss, her building contractor husband, and the architect they hire to design their dream home. Incredibly perhaps, Maxwell claims in interviews to have had no knowledge of Wagner’s “Tristan” before starting work on “Isolde.”

Although Maxwell’s is a decidedly un-Wagnerian aesthetic, the playwright both has a great deal of respect for, and places a great deal of responsibility on, the audience. As Helm puts it, “The audience navigates the balance between the more poignant emotional undercurrents he reveals while simultaneously experiencing the subtle humor and pathos of the blankness of contemporary life.”

Call Maxwell’s a theatre spare yet rich.

Drake Performance and Event Center, Thurber Theatre

8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24

1849 Cannon Dr., Campus