World premiere Richard Maxwell’s ‘Neutral Hero’ kicks off Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2011

It feels as if you’ve walked in on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a community center in a small town in the midwest. But then someone picks up a banjo and they start to sing. And they tell stories as well. Neutral Hero, the new play by acclaimed American theatre director Richard Maxwell and his company New York City Players kicked off a new edition of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels), yesterday evening. It immediately reminded me of the reason why I like festivals: they broaden your horizon. You buy tickets for performances that you might skip otherwise. And afterwards you’re glad you’ve seen them, even though they leave you slightly puzzled.

Puzzlement. Judging from the conversations I had (and overheard) at the opening party afterwards, that was the feeling many people were having after the premiere of Neutral Hero. My guess: probably due to the strange mixture of elements. The 12 actors on stage draw you in, but keep you at a distance as well. It’s cold and it’s warm. As those two parts in the title: the neutral and the hero. Sometimes it looks as if you’re watching a bunch of amateurs, but at the same time you feel that these professionals really know what they’re doing. And then there’s that story: it describes real people and real situations, but it borders on the mythical and the abstract at the same time.

Neutral Hero starts off with one actor walking on stage, picking up a newspaper and reading an announcement of a concert, somewhere. Then one by one other actors walk on stage too and one after the other they describe in all its details the streets, houses and shops in a particular town. When they’re done, they go and sit on one of the chairs. Then three of them pick up instruments and they all start singing. Beautifully. Sparse and simple. Folky, Americana. And gradually the stories they tell shift towards family situations and archetypes. A hero. A father, a son. Why was he never there?

But as I pointed out already: all of this stays rather abstract. The stories ánd the way they are told. Because Maxwell opts for a dry, neutral and detached tone, in this play that draws its inspiration from The hero with a thousand faces, written by Joseph Campbell  (the man known for his follow your bliss credo) and the concept of the neutral mask by Jacques Lecoq. The interesting thing is that by doing so, Maxwell lets you, the audience, do the work. It’s up to your imagination. It’s what you make of these stories, this play. And it’s interesting to see that some people aren’t willing to do this, as rather a few members of the audience walked out of the performance during the evening.

In the end I wasn’t really convinced either. I liked the concept, the music, but it felt as if the play in its continuous slow pace and detached tone, was taking too long, and the writing somehow didn’t succeed in lifting all of this to another level.

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