Why They Walked Out On Shakespeare

At last! An audience protests at the theater!

I’ve written before how curiously, dangerously docile New York audiences are when it comes to protesting. A standing ovation, on the other hand, is normal-so normal that if a show doesn’t receive one, something must be horribly wrong. But a time-honored, lusty boo or two, let alone the slamming of upturned seats, remain unheard throughout the land. It’s as if the legit theater has become a solemn house of worship in which the respectful congregation has no vital presence, no rights or voice .

The members of the stunned audience who started to leave Richard Maxwell’s production of Henry IV, Part One in droves after 20 minutes were therefore making an extraordinary protest. I’m afraid there can be no doubt that the sorry production inaugurating the latest Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music reached a new nadir-the worst Shakespeare many of us have ever seen. In such circumstances, I usually feel badly for the performers. But this was different.

Those who left, according to the New York Times reviewer, “were showing good sense, if not good manners.” Oh, please. Good manners aren’t the prissy point. It’s an audience’s right to protest. They’d had enough! They’d worked hard all day, paid a lot of money for their tickets and were looking forward excitedly to the show. What about some respect for the audience?

Audiences are not infallible. But in every man and woman is a critic. I can always boo (and cheer) in print. The protesters at B.A.M. were making their voices heard in the only way they could. Thank God for them! They made the theater alive again.

As a matter of fact, they were polite-and lethally so. Most left only when there was a break in the action; nobody booed. They walked out in silent protest, leaving the rest of us, as far as I could tell, to take refuge in defensive naps or stare in frozen disbelief at the stage. We were attending the Moose Murders of Shakespearean productions. We live in an ironic age. Hence the bravos-rather than boos-that were shouted occasionally from the balcony during the action. The production itself could be interpreted, if we choose to overthink it, as being deliberately, ironically bad . In that sense, the big battle scene, performed like Monty Python’s Life of Brian , was a particular winner. The audience had little choice, however, but to erupt into happy applause when the unfortunate actor playing Percy said the line, “No more! No more!”

So it went …. Even so, the large cast-which included “non-professional” actors (a trademark of director Maxwell)-received a generous round of applause at the curtain. They’d done their best. Nobody wants to see honest performers humiliated. They lined up like unruly kids taking a bow at the end of an annual school production, looking relieved just to have got through it all.

Unless Mr. Maxwell is now going to shelter behind the all-purpose defense of “misunderstood artist,” he’s surely having serious doubts about the wisdom of his entire enterprise. To begin with, the hip downtown director and playwright has no previous experience staging Shakespeare. Only one of the 25 cast members-Kate Gleason as Lady Percy-has any previous experience even performing Shakespeare, not to mention that several were making their theater debuts.

It isn’t that the Bard should be sacred-far from it. It might be that the novice can bring something fresh to the table. But Shakespeare does need a little experience, practice-in sum, knowledge. We wouldn’t expect musicians performing Mozart for the first time to be invited to play at Carnegie Hall. We might be outraged if they were. How did Shakespeare get so lucky at B.A.M.? Joe Mellilo, B.A.M.’s executive producer, told The Village Voice before the Henry IV opening that he’s been “a Maxwell groupie for years.” Obviously, he thought the production would be both exciting and innovative.

He was mistaken. Least of all did the production-conceived, it seems, in carefree, giggly ignorance-offer us anything innovative. Actors performing Shakespeare in a Brooklyn accent, for example, were first produced by Joseph Papp at the Public Theatre some 30 years ago (and the Public has been trapped in the populist style ever since). Then again, Mr. Maxwell’s use of flat, painted backdrops-an inn, a castle-was abandoned even a century ago as old-fashioned stage decoration. But that doesn’t account for all that went so badly wrong.

Mr. Maxwell brought to the B.A.M. production his own downtown signature of non-acting. His avant-garde work in small, intimate spaces has consistently tried to rid theater of its artifice. Maxwell actors often stand stiffly in a line, all theatrical emotion repressed and fractured. It’s an attempt to capture a new, more authentic reality of humdrum life onstage. In the past, our man at The New York Times has championed it all as a “compellingly original” insight into “burned-out American lives.” Politely excusing the Henry IV production, The Times nevertheless reaffirms that “Affectlessness is the bedrock of Mr. Maxwell’s sensibility, which he has deployed in a mesmerizing series of short plays in which all the world seems to be less a stage than a catatonic ward.”

But if you see life as catatonic, you will see Falstaff as a burned-out case, too, whereas he’s the very juice and vitality of life itself. You will reduce him-and Shakespeare’s greatest prose-to the droning, unpoetic witlessness of “the real thing,” the Richard Maxwell thing . In depressing essence, that’s what went wrong here.

A bland “life-like” style has been imposed on Shakespeare, who firmly rejects the style. The Henry IV actors thus traipse onstage in single file, standing limply in a line as if tranquilized. (For not to do so would be too “theatrical.”) They have no nuance or innate rhythm and poetry in them. (Too actorish.) They are amateur theatricals having a bash. (Good.)

I’ve seen three of Mr. Maxwell’s plays- Joe , House and Boxing 2000 -and truly wish I could find them revelatory. At worst, they’re as mechanically tedious as watching video images on an endless loop. At best, there are only flashes of interest-for me, anyway-in odd, robotic things, or in the theatrical equivalent of an art installation where a replica of suffering, mundane humanity sings a song badly, or takes a pee in a bucket, or can’t connect to mom, or eats pizza. The time I sat among a rapt downtown audience watching a Maxwell character eat a slice of pizza, I actually thought he was eating it wrong. He was acting eating pizza too much! He was, in other words, locked in Mr. Maxwell’s own self-conscious non-style, which in turn has created its own artifice.

The Henry IV production is essentially no different from Mr. Maxwell’s experiments with his own plays in a studio space for 50 or so people. Whether you know the plays or not, his Shakespeare isn’t the unfortunate exception to the Maxwell rule, as The New York Times rationalized very defensively. It’s the rule. It wasn’t a lapse in alien territory. Shakespeare isn’t “apart” on some rarefied pinnacle “out there,” but here and now in the rough and tumble and mess and glory of life. He’s the crucial, living link to our troubled times and therefore to our future.

I recently quoted Eric Bentley, who was pointing out half a century ago in his essay “Doing Shakespeare Wrong”: “The fate of Shakespeare in modern times is the fate of modern theater as a whole. Drama presents life. It has meaning. Even Shakespeare has meaning.”

I would add only that Shakespeare is the best modern playwright we could ever have-if only we could see it. But, I regret to say, the harsh spotlight thrown on Richard Maxwell’s work at B.A.M. held up a mirror to life made meaningless.