In Arthur Miller’s The Price, Victor, a New York cop on the verge of retirement, has wasted his life. He realizes this, conveniently, post-intermission, in the play’s final scene. He yells, tantrums, monologues. His wife, Esther, concurs in a monologue that could be summarized as: “Yes, you’ve wasted your life…and mine.” Next up, Victor’s brother, Walter, virtuosically delivers another block of text, in sum: “It’s not my fault you wasted your life.” Victor looks up, defeated, poised for a final Arthur Miller signature tirade, to bare the breadth of twentieth century American experience across his shoulders. Five hundred spectators rapt, fingers and spines taut, ejaculation of pathos imminent.
Then my cell phone rang. I had neither silenced nor powered it down and now, the audible beacon of my narcissistic irresponsibility exploded, a scream slicing, creating two worlds. No longer in an attic in 1968, the ring dumped us back to The Gate Theatre in Dublin on a Wednesday, to a play I was seeing thanks to complimentary tickets from work. It tolled a midnight of sorts, an expiration of fairy dust, the proscenium arch reappearing, Victor’s attic reverse-transmogrifying back into an expensive set, and Victor, our hero, back into Denis Conway, an actor. As I silenced the phone, verbal assaults rained from all sides: “Way to ruin it, asshole.”
The real inevitably ruptures illusion. I fall over at yoga. I fart during sex. All my dreams end in the same stupid bed.
Theorist Anne Ubersfeld might say the audience I angered is denying the inevitable ruptures of a live event. She uses the word “denegation,” defining it as
the psychic operation that permits the spectator to see the physical reality of what is happening onstage, to accept it as reality while knowing (or forgetting for brief instants) that this reality has no consequences outside the confines of the stage space.
In short, acknowledging the theatre space instead of getting “lost” in a play’s fictional world. Does one see Denis Conway or Victor? The set or an attic? Or could the savvy audience member toggle back and forth?
Writer and director Richard Maxwell’s work slides fluidly between these worlds. He takes cues from epic theatre, post-dramatic theatre, and performance art, but operates within realist conventions: single location, characters, linear time. Skepticism of realism defines his realism. If a cell phone rings during a Richard Maxwell play, odds are he planned it.
In Maxwell’s latest work, The Evening, Cammisa Buerhaus points a gun at Brian Mendes, pulls the trigger, blood spatters and streaks the wall. Mendes stands, unmoving. If this were The Price, Mendes would collapse in pain or launch into monologue, some mix of regret and pleading for his life. Instead, blankly he says “You shot me.” Rupture. The audience titters. We know Buerhaus did not shoot Mendes. What’s unclear is whether or not Beurhaus’s character, Beatrice, shot Mendes’s character, Asi. Second rupture: Mendes, or Asi, unzips his hoodie, revealing the bag of fake blood connected to a small hose velcroed inside his shirt. The bag falls to the ground. In this moment, is Mendes himself, the actor? Is he the character, Asi? Is he the ghost of Asi? A theatre of realism, dismantled.
The Evening unfolds in an indiscriminate American dive bar where Beatrice, a prostitute and bartender, dreams of running away to Istanbul. Asi, a washed-up boxer, wants her to stay. Asi’s manager, Cosmo, encourages them both to “relax” and “just have fun.”
Yet the show opens and closes with text completely outside this plot. Maxwell wrote the script last year, as his father was dying. “I couldn’t deny this experience was effecting me,” so he lets it in. The context of the writing process not reserved for interviews and reviews, but staged. When the lights come up on Buerhaus, she sits at a table reading what feels like Maxwell’s journal entries from his father’s final days. She’s not yet the character, Beatrice, and the table is not yet the table where the plot will take place. She reads aloud Maxwell’s accounts of his father’s inability to recognize him, of having to “scootch” his father up in the hospital bed, of being awake to hear the sprinklers in the hospital lawn click into action at five in the morning.
Is it possible for an actor to recreate the emotion Maxwell felt when he wrote this? Buerhaus reads evenly—she makes no attempt to imbue the text with the sorrow it describes. Even if Maxwell read it himself, could he drum up the same emotions, enough to be faithful to the moment of writing? And if he somehow did it once, could he repeat it night after night? “If I were beholden to what I felt, when I wrote it, it’d take on this redundant aspect,” he says in a recent interview. The emotional distance between a past event and its aestheticized presentation in the present depicted live. A rift, a rupture.
The set, designed by Sasha van Riel, is brown. Its wood bracing exposed. Table and chairs. Bar. Single flat screen TV. Enough to signify “this is a bar,” but deliberately shitty enough not to be mistaken for the set of Cheers.
Critic Sarah Gorman says one of Maxwell’s primary goals is to “make visible the labor behind theatrical illusion.” Following the gunshots, Beatrice announces her departure, and she, Asi, and Cosmo stand coldly still as the bar’s house band plays and four stagehands take over the show. They switch on hazers. They unlatch the set and it splits down the middle in two parts, they wheel it offstage, revealing the floor and walls, painted white, band playing, characters still frozen, haze filling the stage, walls gone, bar gone, the band and actors in a white void as stagehands clean around them, “performing” what are normally post-show tasks, clearing empty bottles, a pizza box, two stagehands carry the bar offstage, band mid-song when a stagehand unplugs the guitar and mics, carries away the amplifiers, the drum kit, coils the mic cables, band members stand purposeless then exit stage left, haze thickening, Cosmo leaves, Asi leaves, stagehands roll up the brown bar floor, hoist it on their shoulders, exit.
Buerhaus stands in silence, but with the set gone, every prop and set piece removed, she’s no longer the character Beatrice. She’s escaped the confines of The Evening’s plot. In a closing monologue, Buerhaus uses her own name: “In the distance, Cammisa finds snow capped peaks.” The white haze and white walls close in, as she navigates neither the fictional world nor the stage, a neutral space between. “A river with a swift current. Cammisa finds the bottom and the other side. Turns around, clothes wet. The moon is out, she continues.”
To Sanford Meisner, legendary acting instructor, good acting was “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Maxwell would agree, but with a different definition of truth.
Jim Fletcher, who plays Cosmo, has described acting as “neither a mode of self-expression nor an invitation to retreat into a fictional psychological state.” By not lapsing into character, Maxwell’s actors retain consciousness of the dramatic machinery. They are performing The Evening, on Thursday, March 19, 2015 at The Kitchen in Manhattan, and aren’t pretending to be anywhere else.
Years ago, I saw an old classmate in an outdoor production of A Streetcar Named Desire. A small audience congregated in the summer grass, and sat on a nearby stairwell. Passersby turned their heads, and would occasionally stop and watch, either enticed by the promise of catharsis, or puzzled by thirty of us watching four people fictionally yell at each other. One woman pushing a shopping cart stood behind the action, such that from my vantage point, she appeared “onstage.” Was she in the park in the present, or had she inadvertently slid into a hot night in the French Quarter, circa 1947? As the actor playing Stanley fell to his knees in fictional agony, infamously belting his wife’s name to the sky, the woman shook her head, said “Something wrong with you,” and walked away. The audience laughed, I laughed. It was a gorgeous day in the park.