The Art of Courtly Love was a treatise written in the 12th century which outlined the rules of chivalric romance as celebrated in the tales of lords and ladies that were the soap operas of the Middle Ages. Besides the adulterous affairs on which such tales usually hinged, the treatise offers surprising lessons for modern lovers such as “Marriage is no real excuse for not loving” and “When made public, love rarely endures.” These maxims ring oddly today but are explained by the underlying principle of the courtly genre which held that true love was a metaphysical condition that transcended social convention: an ennobling art that did not require consummation – and more usually abstained from it – to reach fruition.
Isolde, Richard Maxwell’s newest play, is a very loose riff on the medieval Celtic romance Tristan and Iseult – immortalized by Richard Wagner’s hugely influential opera – but in its treatment of questions of love and art, his text intuitively rubs against the fundamental preoccupations of chivalric amour. Maxwell might not yet be the troubadour of devised theater but his latest creation finds him singing the praises of a passion and an artistic vision that, in their aspiring to perfection, cannot be realized in the run-of the-mill world of contemporary men and women.
That humdrum place is precisely the setting of Maxwell’s theater, however. In shows ranging from Drummer Wanted to Neutral Hero which have defined his aesthetic of the ordinary over the last 15 years with New York City Players, the company he founded, what we take away from his epic tales of mundanity is much more than what we see on stage. So again with Isolde. On the surface, this more conventional story in Maxwell’s oeuvre is in the vein of the most dryly satiric comedy of manners: an affluent couple with nothing better to do than build themselves a third house hires a famous architect to design it, but the plans are never drawn up because the husband also throws his wife into the bargain in the hope of re-energizing his stalling marriage.
There’s good material here, too, for a chivalric romance: the radiant, bored wife in her tower, the preoccupied, devoted husband with a gift for spinning gold from all he touches and the handsome wayfarer on a quest for the sublime. But this Isolde, as played by Tory Vazquez, is more Evil Queen than Celtic princess, with an affected manner of holding her head and articulating her speech, so that she seems frozen from the neck up, only her lips moving over clenched jaws. Her stiffness translates both her fame and beauty – she is a celebrated actress – as well as an unnamed, Alzheimers-like affliction, which is slowly robbing her of her ability to remember recent events, and worse, memorize lines. Patrick (Jim Fletcher, dependable and solid) is her nuts-and-bolts contractor-husband, who at first appears outclassed by the brilliant Massimo (Gary Wilmes). But while Massimo/Wilmes’ affable casualness opens up the real possibility that this self-proclaimed architectural visionary is a fraud, Fletcher’s Patrick displays an unsuspected level of calculation and discernment that proves him to be the mastermind of the play’s action. As such, he is supported by his Uncle Jerry (Brian Mendes, comically sardonic in the role): a builder like himself, with whom he can rock out to Tom Petty on his iPhone, watch some football, and have a little fun at the gentler Massimo’s expense.
In these pairings, which match off in the dead corners and empty spaces of Sascha van Riel’s plywood and trestle-table suggestion of a house, a fair bit of fun is had at everyone’s expense, in fact, thanks to Maxwell’s wryly humorous eye for human nature. It’s not enough to keep the mood from souring, however, as Isolde and Patrick eventually discard Massimo as easily as an empty bottle of the “Della Borgo… dadada” that these nouveaux riches like to open at cocktail hour. Though all they talk about is building the perfect house, each of them proves to be a ruined specimen of humanity on some fundamental level.
But for a brief moment, art and passion are all that matters in this amorous triangle. Isolde and Massimo quickly become carnal lovers: actress and architect connect on a spiritual level, climbing hills to watch the light fall over the land where the house will be built and believing with the faith of innocents in his fantastical design, though the rules of gravity will never allow it to get off the ground. The cracks in Isolde’s confidence as an actress and in Massimo’s unrealized blueprints cancel each other out as long as each believes in the other. Patrick, too, is moved by music and his feelings for Isolde and while his clashes with Massimo over engineering flaws become barely concealed jousts for the right to ride off into the sunset with the lady, they also reveal, in one telling exchange about his first experience listening to Schumann, his understanding of how art and love are inseparable expressions of each other.
Indeed, the mists crowd in briefly in a penultimate pantomime scene where Isolde, Tristan and Marc, the cuckolded king of legend, silently pour forth the lofty passions of their pure hearts. True love is momentarily elevated to art, in Wagner’s vision as in the troubadours; it inspires greatness by ennobling those who follow its grail. In this contemporary Isolde, where the glory of sunlight though trees is measured in solar watts and the best that the artists among them can hope for is to peddle a “craft” for cool, hard cash, aspirations such as these are as hollow as the cardboard decor: they have no viable defender, no challenger to come to their rescue. At their best, we might call these failed lovers and artists “hip,” to quote Isolde as she gushes over Massimo’s design. “It’s cool to think,” he gleefully acknowledges. Now that chivalry is good and dead, Maxwell’s love song blasts a Wagnerian chord to failed dreams and fleeting ideals in the language of vacant lives that speak so clearly to us as well.