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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review: Neutral Hero

Photo credit: Michael Schmelling

The Hero In Maxwell
Acclaimed NYC director Richard Maxwell Brings Us This Year's Anti-Musical
David King

One by one actors appear, on a bare stage with a dozen chairs and a few musical instruments, all framed by a flat, white proscenium. One by one, each artist picks up where the other left off in telling us about a mid-west U.S. journey, tossing out redundant, small town snapshots that are about as interesting as the GPS in our car if it were to start having a conversation with us. Moving through the streets and into the suburbs, their voices take us towards a more intimate locale, a "home", if that even exists outside our heads. And in his quest to find out about his past, our hero will soon take a fall, while those around him remind him of his identity.

For the audience, it's a kind of out-of-body experience...

This, my friends, is the narrative of NEUTRAL HERO by New York's acclaimed director Richard Maxwell, who visits the FTA after a decade. As a directing student who has studied Maxwell's work among others, I was excited to see Centaur Theatre participating at this year's FTA with a Maxwell piece, and although this one is not yet fine-tuned, it's trademark Maxwell. A huge contributor to Chicago's Steppenwolf, Maxwell's New York City Players mixes untrained actors with professionals, and although incorporating narrative, the work is often stripped down to the Brechtian core. For the audience, it's a kind of out-of-body experience one feels when they don't know whether they should be immersed in the world of this play or just accept the fact that they're crammed together in a room watching some actors on stage. 

(Photo credit: Michael Schmelling)
As even Maxwell notes in the programme, NEUTRAL HERO is intentionally both "irritating and provocative", and judging from the ongoing number of audience members who walked out on last night's performance, he got his wish. Watching them leave, I had this Maxwell moment, the reminder that we are all in a theatre space, Centaur this time, that the space and the work are now naked from all angles, and we're listening to traditional all-American hero narrative that not only breaks into song, but becomes a sort of anti-musical if you will, suspended in time under a hypnotic trance. Our characters, including a protagonist somewhat inspired by the hero archetype of Joseph Campbell, each step downstage, sit, stand, lay down, play music, or formally traverse the stage in a choral pace. 

A gel fell off a light, descending into stage left. Those still in their seats tried desperately to focus on the all-American text they were hearing, delivered by the actors like they were read from the back of a cereal box. Perhaps the patrons leaving were part of this production, too, I thought: planted walk-outs scratching their heads and saying "THIS is art?". And for those of us who stayed, that's exactly when this piece became interesting. 

More editing needs to be done on this one-hour, forty minute invention with no intermission.

Featuring some incredibly atmospheric music and rhythmic ensemble work (the choreography still needs some work), the closest comparison that comes to mind in describing NEUTRAL HERO is One Yellow Rabbit's beat-inspired DREAM MACHINE, a fantastic work that also hypnotizes the audience with a suspension in time and space. NEUTRAL HERO, although exploring that "frustrating suspension" that Maxwell describes, brings us something a little more static and monotonous in the beginning, particularly due to its culturally biased, all-American narrative and aesthetic, yet the words are at times so rich, so detailed, that with enough focus, it will reel in your imagination to do the work for you. 

More editing needs to be done on this one-hour, forty minute invention with no intermission. If we were to imagine the opposite of the neutrality that Maxwell is trying to achieve, this would be your average full-blown, epic musical, our hero taking us from place to place and breaking out in song when mere words are no longer enough to express the moment. What Maxwell is showing us, in creating this anti-musical, is the paradox of theatre itself: "the story is fiction," says Maxwell, "but we [the audience and artists] are in a real space. If we recognize that the space is more important than the fiction, we acknowledge the specificity of theatre - bodies travelling through real time as they tell a story".

That's a paradox that you'll either love or hate, and while NEUTRAL HERO is ho-hum in its raw form, love it or hate it seems to be the running theme at this year's FTA. And after all, aren't new experiments what the FTA is all about?

NEUTRAL HERO continues tonight June 5 and 6 at Centaur Theatre as part of the Festival TransAmériques. Visit the FTA web site for tickets.

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