NEW YORK—Things that are supposedly “perfect” on the surface, be it apples, diamonds, or people’s lives, often fall apart under scrutiny and pressure. This point is the message in Richard Maxwell’s penetrating “Isolde,” now at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
Isolde (Tory Vazquez) is both a beautiful and admired actress. Fan love and adoration have gone on for so long, it’s become part of the very fabric of her being, and something she now expects and requires in all things.
Fortunately, her loving husband, Patrick (Jim Fletcher), successful in his own right as a building contractor, is more than happy to play the subordinate role in their relationship. He quite willingly caters to her every need. Isolde’s temperament has become more demanding of late, due in part to the fact she’s slowly losing her memory. Thus, she is determined to make her mark on all things for as long as she can.
Isolde’s current fixation is the creation of a perfect dream home for herself and her husband. To that end, she and Patrick have engaged Massimo (Gary Wilmes), a highly regarded, much-in-demand architect to design the structure.
Not long after their initial meeting, Massimo comes up with an ideal concept for the new home. However, he is never quite able to articulate his premise, other than to say he is continually refining and rethinking it. Massimo’s approach irks the more literal and deliberate Patrick to no end.
Massimo’s refusal to give Patrick a straight answer about anything reminds one of a politician trying to stay true to his principles while keeping them secret for fear of offending someone and thus being forced to change them.
Massimo also keeps himself occupied by entering into a torrid affair with Isolde—another reason for his continual visits. Whether Patrick knows about the affair is open to question, though his devotion to his wife is unchanging throughout.
Based on the opera “Tristan and Isolde,” Maxwell, who also directs the piece, strips away most of the surface emotions of the characters, so that what is presented seems almost as if done by rote. The anger, rage, and even the overly sensual moments are spoken in a matter-of-fact way.
The actors often speak their lines with a marked lack of inflection. Even Patrick’s comment to Massimo about “pistols at dawn” is presented in such a halfhearted manner that it’s hard to tell if he’s serious or not.
Maxwell’s method encourages the audience to look beneath the surface and see the truly empty lives these people inhabit. One person continually waits for happiness to happen; one tries to amuse himself without truly committing to anything; and one tries to hold off the inevitable darkness that awaits.
This quiet yet forceful “less is more” feeling is also evident in Sascha van Riel’s set, which offers a half-finished, almost skeletal perspective on Patrick and Isolde’s current domicile. The bits and pieces present—a chair, a bar, a window—reflect the incompleteness of the characters’ lives.
Only Patrick’s Uncle Jessie (Brian Mendes) seems to have everything pretty much together, and he’s more of an outsider looking in. Uncle Jessie, being utterly pragmatic, acts as a sounding board for Patrick, while his very presence seems to make Isolde uncomfortable.
Although the monotone delivery may try the audience’s patience from time to time, Maxwell presents an interesting experiment. “Isolde” is an insightful excursion into the human soul, all the while showing just how desolate and lonely it can be.
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or tfana.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Sept. 27
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London newspaper The Stage.