The Brooklyn Academy of Music mines the
world’s performing arts community for avant-garde talent, but
to helm a new production of "Henry IV, Part One" -
one of two productions kicking off the 2003 Next Wave Festival,
the organizers didn’t have to look far.
"I’m not a big Shakespeare guy, but when I came across the play in college, I thought the story was compelling - the relationship between Hal and his father and Hal and Falstaff. There are things in the play that resemble my personal life," says Richard Maxwell, director of New York City Players’ "Henry IV, Part One," which he will stage at the BAM Harvey Theater Sept. 30 through Oct. 4.
Maxwell, 35, has lived in Brooklyn for the past several years and currently resides in Boerum Hill.
"Henry IV, Part One," which was written circa 1597, is considered one of Shakespeare’s later histories. The play deals with the English monarch during the 15th century, when the divine nature of kingship was beginning to be questioned.
"Richard II," which takes place immediately prior to "Henry IV, Part One," deals with the rebellion that brought Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, to the throne as Henry IV, ending the reign of the Plantagenet kings.
In "Henry IV," young Prince Hal comes of age in a dramatically changed world - a world in which traditional order and authority have been overturned. Hal is torn between love and fear of his father, obedience and rebellion, responsibility and revelry. This chronicle also introduces the character of Falstaff, a drunken rascal who, with the help of his tavern companions, mocks the king and court and leads Prince Hal into a life unworthy of the heir to the throne.
The central father-son relationship of "Henry IV, Part One" is set against the background of rebellion, with the seemingly devoted Harry Percy, an upstanding young man in sharp contrast to the wayward Hal, secretly plotting against the king. And in the end, it is Prince Hal who reforms, reconciles his differences with his father and, at the battle of Shrewsbury, rises to his father’s defense and kills Percy.
Although "Henry IV, Part One" is certainly well known, Maxwell says, "It doesn’t have the baggage of ’Hamlet’ or ’Romeo and Juliet’ [so] you don’t run the risk of commenting on what you’re doing."
On the other hand, Maxwell believes the histories are more complex and more demanding.
"Hamlet seems to be clear," he says. "But with ’Henry IV,’ you’re asking the audience to know the history."
Having achieved renown with the downtown theater scene in the 1990s, and having won an OBIE for his 1999 play "House," Maxwell is confident enough to say, "I don’t worry about how the audience feels. I’m not one of those directors who want the audience to be seeing the same thing at the same time."
Nor is Maxwell particularly concerned with putting his personal mark on the plays he directs.
"I’m unique enough to make [plays] original," he says. "I know I’m going to have to make choices. And I have to know why. I don’t want to get hung up on making an original play. My aim is not to be original, but to find an honest connection to the material. I’m asking my actors to do the same. Their connection doesn’t need to be the same as mine."
Maxwell believes the plot is the motivating force for "Henry IV, Part One" and it needs no further enhancement.
"A concept like putting the play during World War II or Revolutionary times, a statement like that wouldn’t carry," he says. "The play doesn’t need things like that. The story is the best thrust I could come up with."
Maxwell’s directing style has been called "hyper-real" because of his tendency to strip away theatrical artifice in his productions.
"When I stage something, I don’t expect the actors to put energy or effort into convincing the audience that what they’re seeing is really happening," he says. "I feel that acknowledging the theatricality of the play makes it more real."
This blurring of the counterfeit and the real - a notion, Maxwell says, that’s "within the context of the story" - has also influenced Maxwell’s casting, which includes "non-professional" performers in the cast of 23.
Having non-professionals "levels the playing field," he says. "Having people up there with all levels of experience shows that people with no experience have just as much value as those with experience. Professionals appreciate that."
Maxwell studied acting at Illinois State University and began his professional career with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where he later co-founded the Cook County Theater Department.
"I was an experimental theater anti-director because we were tired of directors manipulating actors," he says. "Our shows were put on in a loft in a post-industrial area."
Maxwell moved to New York City in 1994, where his sister, Jan Maxwell, was establishing herself as a Broadway actress.
"I got tired of doing work for six or seven people. In New York City there’s always an audience," he says. He also decided to concentrate his efforts on directing.
"I had little chance of gainful employment as an actor. There were too many people who wanted to act. I got tired of waiting for the phone to ring."
At first, life in the Big Apple wasn’t easy.
"I worked at odd jobs, borrowed money and used credit cards," he says. "I’d try to get a gig at places like Ontological Theater. Then I’d have to write something."
Today Maxwell is artistic director of New York City Players and his newest play, "Drummer Wanted," premiered at PS 122 in November 2001. But he still considers himself a "failed rock star," which is why he tries to put his own musical compositions in plays he directs. For "Henry IV, Part One," he’s writing a song that will be translated into Welsh and sung by Lady Mortimer, who does not speak English.
But directing at BAM has particular rewards.
"It’s great to be working at BAM and living in Brooklyn," he told GO Brooklyn. "You feel like you’re part of something. I walk home from rehearsals every night."
The New York City Players production of "Henry IV, Part One" will be staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St. at Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene) Sept. 30 and Oct. 1-4 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20, $35 and $50. For tickets, call BAM Ticket Services at (718) 636.4100 or by visiting the Web site at www.bam.org.