The End of Reality
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
January 14, 2006
Richard Maxwell’s new play The Edge of Reality is a powerful exploration of what it means to have fear and faith in an uncertain time. The show challenges the audience to deal with the question of which is more reasonable in an unreasonable circumstance: the faith or the fear? It also looks at the unsettling issue of whether either will make you more secure, or if both are equally meaningless distractions from an otherwise mundane existence.
The show takes place on a stage mainly composed of white surfaces, which gleam with the kind of unnatural cleanliness and nondescriptness of a hospital, under a mild florescent glow. There are three male security guards onstage initially, and what appears to be a large constantly changing live video feed, presumably of the area that they are guarding. A female guard soon joins them. After some discussion, a stranger appears, who, after a brief struggle, drags one of the guards off the stage. The woman is fired for incompetence in the event and replaced by another woman, the goddaughter of the chief security guard. When the stranger returns and attacks her, she manages to fight him long enough to have other guards help her. The rest of play takes place literally around the prisoner, who remains restrained for most of the play in the center of the room, silent, as the lives of the security guards unfold and unravel around him.
Maxwell deals closely with the idea of fear in this play, and, by proxy, the idea of terrorism. The hallmarks of terrorism are all present here: a man appears from areas unknown, instigates an unexpected violent act, then disappears, and leaves those left behind in an uproar of fear, rage, and confusion. But Maxwell’s unusual style has a strange power over this otherwise familiar material. When the “terrorist” appears, he elicits a laugh from the audience. Dressed in mismatched kneepads and bicycling pants, Jim Fletcher (as the attacker) brings a huge presence onstage; it's not that he's not menacing, but he is also undeniably comical. And since terror is almost the polar opposite of hilarity, Maxwell’s juxtaposition here places a totally unused lens on how one might be able to view the concept of terrorism.
It should be noted that throughout the course of the play, Maxwell never uses the word terrorism. But, there are some words that should draw immediate attention from the audience in this timely piece. Maxwell manipulates words the same way many directors manipulate space and story, and it’s useful to note which words he does choose to include in his overtly verbose world. One of the characters, played with a tough grace by Marcia Hidalgo, talks to the prisoner about her life growing up. She speaks specifically about faith, and feeling uncomfortable in a home where she wasn’t living up to expectations, because she wasn’t sacrificing enough of herself for her family to be satisfied. She then asks him pointedly, “Are you a martyr?” It seems an especially strange word to use in this context, considering it is a “terrorist” that she’s speaking to.
Equally pointed is Maxwell’s highlighting of the word “security.” Costume designer Kaye Voyce has one of the guards onstage always wearing an orange vest that says “security,” in bold letters highlighted in yellow. Since they are security guards, the costume does not seem initially unsettling, but as the play progresses, and the actual security of the characters and the situation is made more nebulous, it is increasingly strange having someone dressed in an outfit that has such a loaded word written broadly upon their body.
Maxwell’s violence, like his story, is dream-like, unnaturally slowed down. It is also silent, which has the odd dual effect of making it both more funny and more frightening, helping to point at some of the play's central issues: What are the guards protecting? What is the meaning of the security in their collective and individual character worlds? Are their sacrifices meaningless, or are their lives meaningless without the sacrifice? And because of the themes being dealt with, most of what is happening onstage seems to be haunted by a dual relevance outside the world of the play. For instance, the prisoner on the floor, restrained indeterminately and berated by guards, produces unsettling echoes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
This play, which runs roughly 1 hour and 40 minutes without intermission, can seem slow at times. Maxwell toys with the audience’s conception of reality (in their relationship to time) within the structure of the play itself. Somewhere near the middle, he begins using a clock onstage—the live video feed, which at least one of the security guards checks constantly, begins to have the time included on it. It seems to reflect the real time, second by second, for about a minute or so, and then it disappears. When it reappears it says a different time; sometimes it says it is “Sat. January 14,” (which it is), other times that it is “Sun. January 15” (which it is not). No reference to those time leaps is made in the body of the play. And in these moments, the audience is implicated in Maxwell’s complex portrayal of reality. What we expect is true one moment is quickly challenged and changed by the next.
The End of Reality is likely a different show to every audience member. Maxwell’s tactics are in many ways anti-theatrical. He keeps shows of emotion to a minimum and generally, if changes happen, they happen very slowly. Maxwell’s style is not for everyone. Some might find the show’s tone and inaction tedious and unmoving. It provides, however, a relatively unheard voice when talking about fear, and since fear is being talked about so often these days, all unheard voices in the discussion are needed now more than ever.
The End of Reality is a challenging piece that is not always easy on its audience. It is, however, blessed with a gifted ensemble and design team, making what otherwise might be a bitter pill easy to swallow. Anyone hoping for a curious insight into an all too common theme need look no further than Maxwell’s experimental meditation on modern times.