Theater review by Helen Shaw
The Shed, the turbocharged new culture venue at Hudson Yards, has commissioned Norma Jeane Baker of Troy as its first theatrical offering: a piece that is luxurious and glossy, and that radiates intellect and pedigree. This is what Shed curator Alex Poots does: He assembles supergroups for superprojects. But Norma Jeane never manages to be more than the sum of its superparts. It is stifling in its self-conscious gorgeousness.
Katie Mitchell, a British director with a talent for deep atmosphere and beautifully designed productions, directs Anne Carson’s “melologue,” a declamatory poem that is both spoken and sung. Carson’s lyric does a lovely job of weaving together its many strands; in its weft you’ll find Euripides’ Helen, the myth of Persephone and the tragedy of Marilyn Monroe. The sumptuousness of Carson’s language (“his army rippling ‘round him like bees smelling honey”) is frequently interrupted by tart little etymology lessons, which trace the language of war back to Ancient Greek. There is no greater classicist-dramatist alive than Carson, and the show is worth a visit just for a chance to hear this text.
Mitchell’s staging adds yet another layer: we’re in a dimly lit office at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1963. A nervous man (Ben Whishaw) has summoned a stenographer (the superstar soprano Renée Fleming) to take down his thoughts. He speaks to her or to a tape recorder; he’s sometimes speaking as himself and sometimes as the stage directions. The mood is paranoid—he checks the door frequently—and then we see him start to shuck his gray flannel for Marilyn drag, complete with heels, wig and bustier. First in voiceover, then in person, Fleming echoes and embellishes on his thoughts about womanhood. “It’s a disaster to be a girl!” she trills, to Paul Clark’s modern music. It’s such a disaster, apparently, that Whishaw’s nameless man dies of it at almost exactly the moment he transforms into one. Perhaps he’s overwhelmed by champagne and pills, or perhaps just by cliché.
Although everyone involved is at the top of their games, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is not affecting. Whishaw has the delicacy and precision to work his way through the thickets of Carson’s poetry, and Fleming can send a chill down your spine just singing “I need a drink!” (which she often does). But the match between Mitchell and Carson feels wrong; the former artist is velvety, enveloping and mannerist while the latter is a quicksilver postmodern trickster-poet. As at Troy, the two sides are too evenly matched for easy resolution: The claustrophobia of the production and the lightness of the text wage war against each other. Neither wins.
The Shed (Off Broadway). By Anne Carson. Music by Paul Clark. Directed by Katie Mitchell. With Ben Whishaw, Renée Fleming. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
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