Ode to the Man Who Kneels
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
November 2, 2007
I love the way a good psychological thriller will bat emotions around like a cat that's too old to be playing with a ball of string. The tension builds slowly and passions flare into a frenzy of action only to wane back into everyday life. Richard Maxwell takes the psychological thriller and turns it on its head by detaching it from the expression of feeling and questioning why we even bother with emotions.
The Man Who Kneels opens the show with a long speech. It is his lament. A woman has broken his heart and he is ready to die. The Man Who Stands is pointing a gun at his head. The Dashing Man works behind the bar. He's with the Woman Who Waits. He dreams of being an opera singer. The Man Who Stands is looking for riders with broken hearts. They're stronger. He wants the Woman Who Waits. Nothing will stand in his way. He knows he can woo her with song and his trail of dead will sing chorus. However, there's Another Woman. She has more to offer.
Maxwell's dialogue is very smart and poetic. I found it easy to listen to his voice. He gets right to the heart of his subject and even goes beyond into the metaphysical at times. This play is sad but wiser through its sorrow. Its epiphanies, paradoxes, and songs evoke a lot of very thoughtful, though passive, emotion.
The songs right around the score's very subtle climax are enjoyable but many of the others have slow and sometimes staccato music behind them. The dead really do sing chorus as they lay dead. That's my favorite part of the music. Maxwell composed, and plays guitar along with Mike Iverson on piano. Together they create a solemn, lonely score that if anything perfectly matches the acting style.
Without a doubt, the most striking thing about this play is its acting style as directed by Maxwell. Everything is played so very stoic and unaffected, like a Brecht play without the labor disputes. I really got into this world of no expressions for a while. It felt honest. The characters move deliberately and speak with certainty. It's like everyone has dropped their armor and talking straight with you. They even talk straight at you and sometimes they speak their stage directions even after they've already shown you the action.
However, I was hoping that someone would break and explode with emotion. It never happens. There is nothing to break the monotony of the monotone. I began to feel disconnected. The songs are sung in mostly the same manner and that made me want the explosion of passion even more, but it never happens either.
Still that doesn't mean that I didn't feel the emotions the actors were giving me. Jim Fletcher, Anna Kohler, Emily Cass McDonnell, Greg Mehrten, and Brian Mendes do a great job making the style consistent and accessible. I loved Anna Kohler as the Woman Who Waits with her deep, accented voice and her heaving breast. Fletcher is commanding as the Man Who Stands and Mehrten nails his opening speech. The single-source, soft-edged spotlight casting shadows against the stark white background looks great. I caught myself watching the shadows.
Maxwell's words and concepts are beautiful and lyrical and so rooted in the myth of existence. This play really had me for a while and overall I liked the style but it sort of flat-lined for me. It has a lot of heart but not a lot of heart beat.