Theatre Review – ISOLDE, by the New York City Players


About: New York City Players –  Isolde
@ Culturgest auditorium, Lisbon, 15th January 2016

Review by: Paula Varanda

The New York City Players have come to Lisbon this month for a double bill with Isolde (2014) and The Evening (2015).  The piece I saw on Friday – Isolde – was perfect. Perfect because of it’s conceptual outreach, striding out from a clear contemporary narrative, delivered with a clever and rich set of performative triggers and performed with precise and convincing actors.

The plot develops around Isolde, her husband Patrick, and the architect they hired to design them a new house. A house for her, Patrick stresses out, declaring devotion to the wife he admires and cares for – a woman at the turn point, ageing, beautiful, but less confident about herself and her career as an actress – the house project makes her dream and hope; everything must be according to her will.

Massimo is an awarded architect and he theorizes on the project’s conceptual stance, ecological excellence and cutting edge design – showing expertise, insight and vision. Isolde is fascinated with his glamorous scholarship and creativity. Patrick, in contrast, evaluates materials, budget and other pragmatic issues – he is a contractor and, out of the three, the sensible and conventional one.

This multilayered story is cut short incredibly well in a 1h25 performance. There are temporal and spatial gaps and it is often the details that accurately disclose what is going on, who are these people and what are their beliefs. Events, feelings and conversations are to be deduced and imagined from short phrases, sometimes single words, discrete facial expressions and meticulous body language, reactions between characters and props manipulation, positions on stage and with the stark and versatile visual setting. Nothing is superfluous in this bare to the bone staging that leads to an intricate intellectual and emotional plot. The economy of means is a strong and highly effective quality of the piece, which has compelling immerse power.

In the beginning the acting may seem awkward because the performers sound dispassionate and put minimal energy into moving around and saying the lines. This realism, however, facilitates gradually empathizing deeply with the characters’ individual perspectives and sometimes take a good laugh. The way the performers relate to the audience also contributes to our engagement: we are their horizon and thus become the subject of their gaze; for example, we can either be the surrounding landscape view that Isolde admires with Massimo, or be the draft of the new house pinned on the wall that Patrick and his friend uncle Jerry criticize. Illuminating the stalls softly during the show was a skillful choice to strengthen the feeling of being part, of watching from within.

The piece builds up around the tension of adultery emerging from an arbitrary and relational triangle – Isolde and Massimo will become lovers. This is predictable and a recurrent issue from Greek theatre, to medieval folk tales, to American soap opera. The good surprise relies on how the writer-director has detoured the cliché of tragedy avoiding the woman or even the couple’s degradation as a consequence of this affair. Instead, we encounter a mature perception of human relationships today that eschews traditional morality but is yet tackling honor and respect.

I also think that in Richard Maxwell’s Isolde we witness high culture stepping into the suburban and mainstream society household. The timeless and universal disputes regarding taste and status, associated with dominant erudite cultural values, are here addressed in the frame of democratic and capitalist North-America, enacted by middle class white people; but this could well happen in Portugal. Again, to our surprise, control shifts position: while the architect becomes trapped in the affection (and cannot turn his imagination into the sketches of a real building), the constructor remains clear-minded and proficient (although he knows about the affair). The scene of a wine tasting moment where Patrick demonstrates the skills of a connoisseur is a symbolic clarification. Isolde stands on Patrick’s side of the living room when the three make a toast; by now she has already chosen not to unsettle her marriage with the erotic passion for Massimo.

© Paula Varanda

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