For those who crave a walk on the theatrical wild side, Max Truax has become the go-to auteur—a sort of off-Loop Peter Greenaway. Since his Chicago debut three years ago, the 36-year-old Rockford native has made his mark by directing fever-dream productions informed by everything from theremins to Brecht heir Heiner Müller.
Last winter he reimagined Müller's postmodern Hamletmachine as a chamber opera for Trap Door Theatre, blending the German playwright's bleak meditations on power and destruction with a hypnotic score by Jonathan Guillen and a shape-shifting cast that worked multiple crossgender variations on Gertrude, Ophelia, and the melancholy Dane. Then, at Oracle Theatre, he turned Georg Büchner's 1837 Woyzeck into a layered tale, creating a subterranean nightmare world beneath a vertiginous wooden stage. Truax's earlier work includes a version of August Strindberg's Ghost Sonata, played out in a disorienting world of optical illusions,, and a multimedia, sci-fi treatment of Termen Vox Machina, Matt Deegan's 2006 script about theremin inventor Lev Termen.
"I'm drawn to what I often refer to as 'broken' plays," says Truax. "I feel like there are great works out there that need to be told visually." A little later he adds, "I don't stay true to the playwright's work in the strict sense. I'm more interested in the playwright's ideas. And I think that's where the core of the problem—or the opportunity—lies."
Truax is also interested in delving into the complexities of identity, which isn't "as simple as we take it to be." He tries, he says, to depict a world where "archetypes become fractured and shared and interwoven."
His path to the stage began with undergrad visual arts studies at Oberlin College. Assigned to draw student dancers in motion, he ended up joining them in improvisational exercises. "That led to me taking more dance classes, which led to choreography," he recalls. "Long story short, my choreography got more and more theatrical as I wanted to tell more stories through a series of images."
Already a resident director for Trap Door, Truax took over as artistic director of Oracle in July. Oracle executive director and cofounder, Brad Jayhan-Little, says he and executive producer Ben Fuchsen want Truax to develop "a director's theater—not so much director-as-God, but the director as a leader who can pull together something new and spit it back out to the individuals we work with."
Truax will helm a new adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Sandman at Oracle's shoebox home in Uptown next spring. But before that he goes to Red Tape Theatre, where he'll attempt to breathe new life into Brand, Henrik Ibsen's seldom-produced verse tragedy about an anguished priest and an avalanche.
In grad school at the California Institute of the Arts, Truax says, his mentor gave him a choice between two Ibsen opuses, Brand and Peer Gynt, for a directing project. Truax chose the latter—but he couldn't get Brand out of his head, perversely, because he'd found it "almost impenetrable." When Red Tape asked him what he'd be interested in staging for them "that marble just fell out of the machine." Asked for a taste of what audiences can expect from his staging of the play, Truax demurs, joking, "Well, there's an avalanche and mean people and everyone's cold all the time."
Though his unusual stagings are often tagged as "stylized," Truax is quick to point out that meat-and-potatoes American realism is itself a style. "I feel like I stage the analysis of life. As you observe, you're processing information. I'm more interested in how we experience things than in how they actually are."