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Opening Night

Ivo van Hove's multimedia adaptation of John Cassavetes' film is a captivating and theatrically complex work.

A scene from Opening Night
(© Jan Versweyveld)
Director Ivo van Hove's most recent outings in New York, notably The Misanthrope and Hedda Gabler, have been volcanic explorations of how individuals reconcile themselves and their self-perceptions with the expectations of society and the people around them. His latest production, Opening Night, being presented in Dutch with English subtitles at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a terrific conclusion to a triptych of productions exploring how flawed and insecure people navigate their worlds.

As in its source material -- John Cassavetes' 1977 film of the same name -- the play focuses on a theater company's preparations for the opening of a play called The Second Wife, about a woman who has hit a point in middle age where she's unsure of herself and her direction. The main character's dilemmas -- specifically, her concern about growing old and her uncertain relationships with her ex-husband and current lover -- hit a bit too close to home for leading actress Myrtle (an electrifying Elsie de Brauw), who reacts by criticizing everyone around her, particularly Sarah (played with nervousness, anxiety, and a slightly steely edge by Chris Nietvelt), who may have written the play from firsthand experience.

Moreover, other characters experience crises similar to Myrtle's, particularly Maurice (an explosive, yet sensitive, Jacob Derwig), her leading man and real-life ex-husband, and Gus (Oscar van Rompay) the young intern who's playing her play-within-a-play ex-husband. Even director Manny (movingly played by Fedja van Huêt) has doubts about himself and his ability to steer Myrtle and the company to their opening.

A diva through-and-through, Myrtle's behavior goes from haughty to erratic after young fan Nancy (imbued with ethereal exuberance by Hadewych Minis) is killed in a car accident in front of the theater. Nancy begins appearing to Myrtle, offering advice and attempting to liberate the older woman from the fears that constrict her both in life and performance. When Nancy joins Myrtle on stage, her ghostly presence adds a marvelously hallucinatory effect to the multimedia production -- which under van Hove's careful and deliberate direction, has already demanded that audiences parse overlapping scenes and split focus between the action on stage and live video (a meticulous and often ingenious design from Erik Lint).

Indeed, the duality of the production -- and a theatergoers' need to select what to watch (or read) -- beautifully underscores how an individual's internal reality may not match his external one. What theatergoers may see in the video indeed is a representation of the action taking place onstage, but it is only a fraction of the complete picture, relieving frustrations for anyone who's ever watched a movie and been frustrated by the inability to see what is happening just outside of the camera's focus. Here, one can "edit" the action for themselves.

Eventually, the curtain does indeed rise on The Second Wife -- actually it's parted on one side of the stage where scenic designer Jan Versweyveld has shrewdly placed a bank of seats for actual BAM theatergoers. Yet, it's at that very moment that the work begins to disappoint, as Myrtle's character (or is it Myrtle herself?) offers up the answers to the questions she's been having about her life. Unfortunately, coming on the heels of a particularly dramatic confrontation and after two intermissionless yet captivating hours, these final moments -- despite some remarkable work by de Brauw -- seem like an overly simplistic conclusion to a marvelously complex work.