The house lights remained on throughout Richard Maxwell’s production of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part One” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It soon became clear why. The steeply raked auditorium of the Harvey Theater has lots of steps, and the management presumably wanted to avoid accidents as patrons hustled up to the exits during the performance. Inserting an intermission in this stupefying evening would have been a more gracious alternative, both for embarrassed audience members and the sometimes sheepish-looking performers.
This mass exodus, which left whole rows empty by the time this critic joined the evacuation with just a half-hour to go, was clear proof that BAM’s decision to entrust a Shakespeare play — and one of the opening slots in its Next Wave Festival — to downtown theater darling Maxwell was a serious miscalculation. There was a lot more proof onstage, alas.
The commission was, in its way, a defensible if not exactly sensible decision. The Brooklyn institution has sometimes been accused of slighting homegrown artists in favor of more glamorous imports. Foreign companies tend to dominate its theater, dance and music programming. And Maxwell has a high profile — alongside the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman, arguably the highest — in Gotham’s experimental theater world.
His plays are small slices of contemporary anomie delivered in a monotonous, almost affectless style that appeals to young audiences mistrustful of stodgy, old-school theater that attempts to shape human experience into traditional dramatic forms. They can be potent, and poignant, in their denuded presentation of the ludicrous mundanity of life. And, really, “Henry IV” was a pretty apt choice for Maxwell, at least among Shakespeare plays. Falstaff could be seen as civilization’s first and greatest slacker.
But anyone who has seen Maxwell’s work would know that a belly flop was more likely than a revelation. Shakespearean language is not easy even for well-trained actors to master, and Maxwell doesn’t tend to use traditionally trained actors. Most of the performers in this production were non-professional and were cruelly exposed by the demands of the text. It’s a bit like expecting an aerobics class from a Lucille Roberts gym to get up onstage and dance “Swan Lake.”
In interviews, Maxwell has avowed that he was approaching the task with serious intentions. But I’m not sure he can be acquitted of some willful mockery. There was a touch of schoolboy insolence in the production’s deliberately cheesy production values. The sets are quaintly “realistic” painted flats, the costumes a garish grab bag of fusty traditional Elizabethan garb, seemingly grabbed off the rack at the costume shop. These are the kind of trappings that inspire sniggers from teenage boys dragged to local Shakespeare festivals by parents everywhere.
And there was plenty to inspire sniggering. Laughter came first from the Maxwell partisans in the audience, anxious as always to let us know they’re “getting it.” But soon enough, everyone got what there was to get: This was simply bad Shakespeare. Very bad Shakespeare. Indeed, risibly bad Shakespeare. The actors, standing in stiff postures, their arms flopping at their sides like dead weights, droned out the dialogue with virtually no regard for its complicated rhythms and only the sketchiest suggestions of its content. The staging was klutzy and labored.
The so-what attitudinizing of Gary Wilmes’ Falstaff, in an intentionally sloppy fat suit, was at least in accord with the rudiments of his character. And I suppose you could argue that Brian Mendes’ decision to chew gum during Hotspur’s dismissive encounter with his wife made psychological sense. But for the most part the ineptitude, intentional or not, shed no light on the play, and often obscured it entirely.
Most of the actors appeared, touchingly, to be trying their best, to precious little purpose. This made some of the laughter painful to hear, such as when the Asian actor playing Glendower mangled a long speech, and Hotspur responded, “I think there’s no man speaks better Welsh.”
Another moment of unintended humor came at the top of the same scene, on a line that, I think it is safe to say, has never before inspired the mirth it did here. Hotspur enters, and says, “Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower, will you sit down?” The actor gave particular emphasis to the last phrase, seeming to address it to the backs of patrons who were heading for the exits. I’m afraid they didn’t heed him, but he got the biggest laugh of the night.
The production — astoundingly — is next headed to London, as part of the Barbican’s Bite festival. Maxwell may want to rethink those plans for the sake of his reputation.