Chicagoans may remember Richard Maxwell as a founding member of the experimental company the Cook County Theater Department, known for stunts like restaging Puccini’s Tosca with nonoperatic singers, projected film clips, hand puppets, and saxophone accompaniment. But since leaving Chicago he’s won an Obie award and become the toast of the New York underground. “A genuinely original new talent,” Ben Brantley called him in the New York Times. “Watching Mr. Maxwell’s work makes you think of what it must have been like to stumble upon the baffling but seductive creations of the young Sam Shepard in the early 1960’s in the East Village.” This weekend we’ll have a chance to find out what Maxwell’s been up to when he returns with his New York City Players for a four-night engagement of his off-off-Broadway success Boxing 2000.

The play focuses on the relationships between Jo-Jo, a Latino high school janitor in his mid-30s who’s mired in child-support payments; his younger brother, Freddie, who may still have a shot at something better; and their father, whose domineering personality haunts his sons even as age erodes his perceptions. A character called only “Promoter” sets up a boxing match for Freddie, but instead of reversing the sons’ fortunes, the final showdown in the ring is deflated by the patriarch’s stubbornly defeatist pronouncements. When Maxwell was 12–right around the time his family moved from North Dakota to Chicago–he learned the basics of boxing from his father, a judge who wrote plays in his spare time. “My dad was an amateur boxer himself, doing exhibition matches,” Maxwell recalls. “He thought I had real potential….I decided I didn’t want to do it, but I liked the metaphor of the father figure using boxing techniques to raise his son.”

After high school Maxwell took acting classes at Illinois State University and received a fellowship from Steppenwolf, and during the 90s he made a name for himself with the Cook County Theater Department. Justin Hayford, writing in the Reader, numbered Cook County among a handful of local companies pushing the boundaries of performance: “Addling the brain and confounding the senses, these companies push audiences to think rather than merely spectate. Even when they’re awful, they’re awful in fascinating ways.” (Gary Wilmes, one of Maxwell’s coconspirators, has also decamped for New York and become a hot item; this weekend he’ll reprise his role as Jo-Jo in the original production.)

Though the plot of Boxing 2000 might suggest violent drama, the New York critics remarked on its curiously understated tone; deadpan is the word most often used to describe Maxwell’s actors. “Their voices are as uninflected as a refrigerator’s drone, their postures those of exceptionally passive people who have been parked somewhere and told to wait,” wrote Brantley. Maxwell describes his direction as a process of elimination: “When you reduce things to their essence, you reveal something about yourself. An actor uses technique to protect himself–his bag of tricks allows him to guide the audience, to tell them what they should be experiencing. But when I ask an actor to do something very simply–but still sincerely–I’m asking the person, rather than the actor, to show himself.”

Boxing 2000 will be performed at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Thursday through Saturday, January 24 through 26, at 8 PM, and Sunday, January 27, at 4 PM. Tickets are $20, available from Performing Arts Chicago at 773-722-5432.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Schmelling, Albert Gasciewicz.