The late cultural icon Susan Sontag's formative years are the subject of The Builders Association's fascinating Sontag: Reborn, at the Public Theater.
Adapted and performed by Moe Angelos from the first volume of Sontag's journals -- as edited by the writer's son, David Rieff -- the piece covers Sontag's development from a 14-year-old budding intellectual up through the publication of her first novel at the age of 30. Along the way, she tells stories of her first lesbian experience, her unhappy marriage, her years spent studying abroad, her tempestuous relationship with playwright Maria Irene Fornes, and more.
While the show is technically a solo, Austin Switser's exemplary video design allows Angelos to occasionally interact with a pre-recorded "older" version of Sontag (also portrayed by Angelos), who chimes in with comments, or even reads excerpts from Sontag's later works, like Against Interpretation.
The mixture of live camera work with existing footage gives the production a striking visual look. Dan Dobson's sound design utilizes music to underscore the emotions of particular moments within the piece, and director Marianne Weems should be credited for making the entire piece come together as well as it does.
But ultimately its Angelos' funny and magnetic performance and Sontag's own words that resonate most strongly. They combine to create a portrait of a woman full of passion, intelligence, and above all, a fierce desire to invent herself.
-- Dan Bacalzo
The work centers on a movie that four castmates shoot during the hour that precedes theatergoers' arrival. One ensemble member (Bastian Trost) plays the movie's hero, while another (Mat Hand) serves as the publicity manager for the central character, putting up posters and shouting about the character's presence to anyone who will listen. And while a third (Erik Pold) endeavors to find a stranger to take part in the movie's finale, a fourth (Sarah Thom) serves as the scout to find the location where it will take place.
While these artists are on the streets pursuing their various tasks, they continuously videotape their activities and encounters, and this footage is projected onto four screens and mixed live with music to create the "performance."
Obviously, results of the quartet's interactions each evening will create vastly differing experiences each night. At Thursday's offering, the performers seemed to have the unusual ability to stumble upon willing collaborators. Trost had particular good luck, starting with his first encounter, a guy who sincerely tried to give the hero a mission, and ending with his penultimate one, where "Big Mike" offered the sage counsel: "How can you be a failure? You're doing your thing." And even when New Yorkers proved unwilling to take part -- his attempts to get a car of subway riders to laugh failed miserably -- the resulting footage proved both hysterical and profoundly telling.
Similarly, Pold had the extraordinary good fortune to meet Sarah, a young woman from Astoria, who joined him for nearly 30 of his 60 minutes -- and gamely (and sweetly) took part in the hero's big final scene. And if Thom's almost continuingly self-contained work never attracted quite the same amount of attention as her compatriots (including Hand, who managed to scare a group of diners at a fast food restaurant with his ranting), audiences were fixated on the group's adventures.
The piece is certainly not traditional theater by any stretch of the imagination (the performers do not appear on stage until the curtain call), and yet, there is an immediacy and spontaneity to the piece and the taped improvisation that feels entirely appropriate for the stage. And at Thursday's performance, when volunteer Sarah took part in the bows, theatergoers' cheers certainly signaled -- at least for one night -- that the group's "war" had ended in victory: somehow she, and the rest of the Squad, seemed like family.
Written and directed by Toshiki Okada, the three-part work begins with a trio of office temps (Riki Takeda, Saho Ito, and Fumie Yokoo) planning a farewell party for one of their co-workers. As each takes center stage, he or she moves in a stylized manner that sometimes seems derived from commonplace gestures, and at other times seems quite removed from everyday behavior.
Their monologues -- which are often quite funny -- use word and phrase repetition in a deconstructive manner reminiscent of the works of Gertrude Stein. (The text is spoken in Japanese, with English translations projected on the back wall of the set.)
The second segment of the show introduces two full-time workers (Mari Ando and Taichi Yamagata), who discuss political talk shows and the chilly temperature of the office in a similar fashion, although in addition, their conversation and movements gradually take on a flirtatious dimension. The final part is primarily a monologue spoken by Erika (Kei Namba), the employee who has just lost her job. There's more of a straightforward narrative progression to her speech -- at least compared to those of the other characters in the play -- but the stylized movements continue.
The entire cast commits wholeheartedly to the action, with the most impressive physical work coming from Ito and Yamagata. The piece, as a whole, blends humor and cynicism, which proves to be a very potent mix indeed.
-- Dan Bacalzo