Moe Angelos is sitting at a desk onstage at the New York Theatre Workshop, trying to remember her lines for Sontag: Reborn, and frankly, heaven help her. Proscenium-size projections of her face phase across the set’s many screens as deafening surf music plays—which in turn vies with prerecorded bits of text from elsewhere in the play. It’s multimedia bombardment combined with a concentration exercise, but Angelos remains unflappable. When Marianne Weems booms instructions through the “God mike” for Angelos to do all this, plus the Watusi, the performer gamely (if inaccurately) breaks into the Swim.
It’s early May, and the Builders Association’s latest digital extravaganza has entered its tech process, a time more techy and more processy than most companies ever endure. Angelos (also the work’s adapter) is playing Susan Sontag, the late doyenne of American letters—or, as she yells over the din, “I’m not playing her! I’m playing her journals!” Simultaneously, Weems and her designers are sketching a technological palimpsest over and around the live event. Video designer Austin Switser is mixing archival work with films of Angelos playing the mature Sontag, a video presence who looms above her younger, present self. It takes several moments to realize we are watching a solo performance; the stage seems crowded with the firing synapses of one of our culture’s busiest brains.
The relationship between the Builders and Sontag goes far back. Weems recalls, “Ron Vawter—one of the greatest living actors of our time—had just become HIV-positive. I helped him with his solo work [1992’s Roy Cohn/Jack Smith], and Susan fell in love with the show. We all went to an arts retreat at Lake Como to work on a new piece together, but when we got there, Ron went to bed and never got up....We put him on an airplane back to New York; he died on that plane. Susan and I stayed there, weeping and working. The project I was making was The Master Builder, the piece that started the Builders. It was a project I built next to her.”
Ever after, Sontag was a support to the Builders, but no collaboration ever materialized during her lifetime. Angelos, who approached her adaptation with a scholar’s thoroughness, recounts finding a cache of correspondence in the author’s archives at UCLA. “It’s all Marianne saying, ‘Susan! Listen! Let’s do a show about the structure of your consciousness!’ ” Weems laughs ruefully that she must have pitched her that idea ten times. “But her response was always, ‘My consciousness isn’t interesting.’ ” Weems lets out her trademark dirty chuckle. “But lo! I wreak my vengeance these many years later! I’ve made a show about her mind now!”
This calmly elegiac sense—a sense of farewell mingled with comradely humor—has infused much of the Builders’ work. Rather than using videos as backdrops, Weems and company tend to place their performers behind screens, so that live actors move like fish through seaweed, images of the absent occasionally obscuring the living faces. This makes it the perfect, slippery medium to make a work about, as Weems says, “a person struggling to come into being.”
Do not come looking for the famous Sontag, the writer who staged Beckett in Sarajevo or discomfited the socialist left. This piece follows her from the second page of her published journals—written at age 15—only to 1964, right before “Notes on Camp” would turn her into an intellectual superstar. “We already have plays about famous people,” says Angelos. “Culture tells that story enough.” This younger Sontag still struggles with her roving taste, crippling insecurity and a strangely hyperintellectualized personal life that would let her marry a man after a two-week courtship while also grappling with her own sexuality.
Despite these elements, the pair is resolute in avoiding the dreaded “bioplay.” They keep things at a Brechtian remove by capitalizing on the fact that Sontag perused her own old journals and annotated them. Says Weems, “That reflective thinking about self gave us the idea of the older Sontag overwriting the younger.” She is adamant: “So the show is really two people! It’s not a one-person show!” The longtime collaborators shudder in unison at the idea of a one-woman “impression,” and it’s true that the piece does not function as impersonation. Angelos has Sontag’s grave face, her same stiff sweep of black hair. But there’s distance here—we peer at Sontag through the flickering images, seeing a portrait illuminated by a brilliance just now extinguished.
Sontag: Reborn is at New York Theatre Workshop through June 30. Click here for discounted tickets from Time Out Offers.