Review: Richard Maxwell Considers Life After Life in ‘Paradiso’


As for those of us assembled on the semicircular benches in this blank white space, we are presumably part of the now extinct species of Homo sapiens — subspecies americanus — that reflexively destroyed its chances of survival.

Throughout his 20-some years as a creator of sui generis theater, Mr. Maxwell has practiced an art of extreme purification. He burns away the histrionic excesses of traditional acting and stage design, placing often nonprofessional performers in empty environments to speak everyday dialogue in neutral voices. His characters have usually felt all the more affecting for their affectlessness.

Much of Mr. Maxwell’s work has been coolly observational, with the Olympian calm of a playwright with a god’s-eye view. In recent years, though, he has been introducing directly autobiographical elements into his scripts. His beautiful “The Evening” (2015) included a first-person account (read by an actress) of his father’s death, before continuing into a classically cryptic Richard Maxwell play.

The death of Mr. Maxwell’s mother figures in “Paradiso,” in the first of three extended soliloquies that follow the robot’s prologue. The performer here is Elaine Davis, a middle-aged woman of clean-scrubbed eloquence and an almost accusatory air of detachment.

She begins with a philosophical abstractedness that shades into a very particular account of the last days of a woman’s life, as witnessed by her son. Its poignancy becomes even more pronounced when the speaker shifts to a consideration of how a domestic landscape changes when the person at the center of it is gone. And from there, it seems natural to progress into a greater vision of life without lives.

That shifting scale — among past, present and future; between the personal and the pan-historical — is essential to “Paradiso.” Another soliloquy, delivered by Jessica Gallucci, transforms a view from the window of a train into an eloquent summing up of 600 years of American history.

Ms. Gallucci traces the evolution of a people who crossed the water and then the desert, and “beat back nature,” who were “tolerant so long as we felt we could do what we needed to do.” Another monologue, performed by Charles Reina, is addressed to a God his character describes in increasingly anthropomorphic terms. Such are the reach and limits of our imagination.

Though Mr. Maxwell is cherished by avant-garde European audiences, his work has always been quintessentially American, and never more so than with “Paradiso.” His human ensemble members, rounded out by Carina Goebelbecker, arrive in the gallery in a gleaming white truck, like the cast of a television ad that associates driving in open spaces with a frontier spirit of independence.

The production is punctuated by wordless interludes in which the four performers go through ritualized movements that suggest a classic nuclear family working together and breaking apart, comforting and confronting. The ambivalence of belonging to a clan — and by extension, to a race of beings — is pervasive.

That is true even of that early description of Mr. Maxwell’s relationship with his mother, and scenes that would seem to portray a mother and father dealing with a seriously ill daughter. People are never portrayed as entirely noble here; purity of intention and action doesn’t exist.

That doesn’t mean that love, a word that crops up frequently in “Paradiso,” is merely a fiction. Mr. Maxwell would appear to be as fixed on the idea of love as he is on the concept of our extinction.

And though it may be a mechanical being that is left to tell the stories of what we once felt and thought we knew, “Paradiso” is steeped in what could be described as a ruthless sentimentality. Maybe nothing human remains when humans themselves are gone. Yet you are likely to leave this starkly poetic show with an inexplicable glow of hope.

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