People Without History
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
March 21, 2009
"So it's this kind of place, is it?" asks a prisoner when handed a large pickle for no apparent reason. On hearing this, part of the audience laughed heartily and knowingly while the other half remained still. In that moment the evening presented by the New York City Players at the Performing Garage, with its multiple layers ebbing and flowing, came into relief.
Richard Maxwell's plot is simple. Some knights in 15th century England and Wales take a couple prisoners to a slapdash prison while they go over what happened in the war. Meanwhile, Alice has been trying to survive through this time and comes upon them in the prison. War, loss of civility, attempts at reconciliation, and the quenching of deep-seated needs weave in this short long play/long short play.
It begins with the trumpeting of Middle English music behind three wide rectangular screens onto which are projected cold, craggy scenes of the dismal countryside. The actors wear a combination of modern clothes and pieces suggesting the period such as chain mail and helmets. Knee pads are in plain view as are long thermal underwear. There's an admirable what-you-see-is-what-you-get quality to the designs by Lara Furniss that puts one foot in then and the other in now.
Brian Mendes directs a cast that charms and frustrates in alternating turns. The uninflected quality of the acting, writing, and staging can leave you behind at times if you get lulled by the cadence and flatness of it all. I often found myself comparing it to an e.e. cummings poem where you are taking in something without capitalization or punctuation and having to do a good deal of the work to make it make sense. The fourth wall is removed and at times the actors sneak peeks at the audience like third graders but just when you think this is a put-on, they set off something akin to a dramatic hand grenade.
The ensemble is comprised of professional actors, poets, artists, and musicians. Most of them have been working together on Maxwell's material for ten years. There is a whole lot and big bunch of nothing going on frequently between them. Characters will tell you they are reaching for an object but do not move. Likewise, they will say they are feeling something and not express it. Within this confounding code of communication is found this very human jazz. A character will take a solo on a theme and play it beyond where you thought it would go and then end. They will riff off of each other and stop dead.
At this point, Maxwell has a loyal following of people who do have a history with his work. They understand and appreciate it. Others may want to buddy up with them so they might have a better chance of being one of the ones who laugh at the pickle.