Postmodern Pilgrims: Richard Maxwell’s Paradiso by Helen Shaw

The third in a series of plays inspired by the Divine Comedy

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Richard Maxwell, Paradiso. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.

Richard Maxwell’s current production—the hour-long fever-dream Paradisodoesn’t happen in a theater. It takes place at Greene Naftali Gallery, a giant room with polished concrete floors, huge columns, and a wall of glass. The place is, of course, fluorescent art-world white, full of the kind of matte brightness that eliminates shadows and confuses the eye. Performing bodies look strange here; everything is very close but feels very far. Yet the space works beautifully for a New York City Players production, since Maxwell and his designers (in this instance, Sascha van Riel) have long specialized in these uncanny environments. The influential Maxwell aesthetic reduces as many elements of “staginess” as possible. He allows very little pretense, an effect that the group often gets by casting non-actors. People are meant to seem unmoored, isolated, distant, in limbo. This time they’re not in purgatory, though. It’s Paradiso—we’ve made it through to heaven.

This is the sequence of events. Two men swing open part of the glass wall. A white Chevy pickup drives in from the alleyway, its radio playing. (We can see there are four people in the cab, but no one gets out.) A robot—a very basic rig of a speaker and a camera on wheels—does get out, and it rolls forward to introduce the play. Then: a woman (Elaine Davis) delivers a monologue about a woman dying; a tender post-apocalyptic moment unfolds between two people drinking tea; a darkly comic bit in a hospital features a dying girl (Carina Goebelbecker) exasperated with her mother (Davis again); the girl’s father (Charles Reina) begs heaven for her life but seems to slip over into another persona; and the robot reappears with two friends on a hike, only to be abandoned when it can’t cross a river. Its vocoder burps out something like “Goooo duh Byeee,” and the others laugh. They aren’t coming back. Everybody loads up, and the truck drives away.

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Richard Maxwell, Paradiso. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.

Woven through these unconnected scenes are some simple, silent dance numbers (people mime chores or point at things) and a long, somewhat silly, expository monologue by a woman (Jessica Gallucci), who describes how civilization ended. She’s tart about those who were meant to avert apocalypse; she says the artist, the philanthropist, and the activist all got distracted. “We ran out of havens for greed and lust,” she says. “And the only legitimized avenue for these uncontrollable urges, ultimately, was war.” According to the script, the robot should have broken this news already; there’s a prologue that notifies us that we’re in a not-too-distant future, when most of the people are gone. The robot is supposed to do all this, but the night I saw it, the little machine muffed his lines. He ground forward, looked at us with his gun-sight eye, and then just … went clunk. (We’re not post-human yet, apparently.) Even with the glitch, though, the robot’s non-speech clanged less than Gallucci’s monologue, which tosses away all of Maxwell’s poetry. When Maxwell wants to, he writes beautifully, so it’s odd that he doesn’t always want to.

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Richard Maxwell, Paradiso. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.

Maxwell’s third work inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paradiso is a deliberately sere meditation on the world that comes after this one. It isn’t obviously linked to its source. There’s no god, no angels, no Primum Mobile here. The silver thread of Dante does exist, however, drifting somewhere in Maxwell’s loose-woven text. Maxwell’s interest in the Divine Comedy has resulted in a series of plays about journeys that evaporate rather than end: The Evening (2015) concluded with a woman in snow-camouflage vanishing into a fog, and Samara (2017), an emo-Western, finished with a man walking blindly through a dark wood. These are modern versions of Dante the Pilgrim, a person always moving just out of sight into the sphere beyond.

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Richard Maxwell, Paradiso. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.

These earlier works, though, began with nearly conventional narratives, and only turned into reverie in their final moments. Paradiso is all reverie. After a long career of writing (and basically inventing) deadpan melodrama, Maxwell has incorporated postmodern collage dramaturgy with, most significantly, explicitly autobiographical sequences. Attached to his recent texts are accounts of his father’s illness and a walk with his child, for instance. In Paradiso, there’s heartbreaking material about his mother’s death, some of it difficult to hear. In the middle of Davis’s monologue, which seems to be nearly randomly talking about family, suddenly we hear his mother address him. “Rich, I wanna go.” Our attention snaps out of its haze. To honor her, Maxwell has cut away even more than he usually does—excising the connections that would make it feel like a play, eliding and interrupting character, skipping from scene to scene without letting anything take root. This makes Paradiso difficult to remember, even as you’re seeing it. But then—Maxwell’s mother is gone. Her effect on the world is fading. And so the play he wrote for her erases itself, vanishing before our very eyes. 

Performances of Paradiso continue at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York City until February 10.

Helen Shaw writes about theater and performance for Time Out New York, American Theatre, the Village Voice, and 4Columns. She lives in Brooklyn.

Elizabeth LeCompte & Richard Maxwell
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