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What of the Night

This tedious play about Djuna Barnes fails to capture the best qualities of the acclaimed author's work. logo
Jane Alexander in What of the Night
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Acclaimed author Djuna Barnes has a fascinating life story and was known for her dark humor, lyrical prose, and bold approach to her characters and subject matter. Unfortunately, the tedious bio-play What of the Night fails to capture any of these qualities. Barnes is most famouse for her 1936 novel Nightwood, which incorporated a fictionalized account of her tempestuous affair with her lesbian lover Thelma Wood (referred to in the novel as Robin Vote). The play utilizes excerpts from Nightwood as well as other writings by Barnes; it was created for the stage by Jane Alexander, Birgitta Trommler, and Noreen Tomassi. Alexander stars in this solo show under the direction of Trommler.

With three different people working on the script, you'd think that one of them would have noticed its numerous problems in regard to meaning and flow -- or perhaps this is simply a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Regardless, the play does not hang together well; it contains many forced transitions and clichéd devices. At one point, Alexander as an elderly Djuna decides to read through some of her old press clippings so that the audience can learn what people such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas thought of her work. While it's useful to hear Barnes's contemporaries describe her writing, the sequence is handled in so contrived a fashion as to be laughable.

Alexander segues into playing Thelma/Robin at several points, but the script is conflates the two in a confusing way. The character addresses Djuna by name, indicating that she is at that point playing Thelma, but she then declares herself to be Robin in the same breath. Similarly, Alexander also portrays Djuna's younger self conflated with her doppelgänger from the novel, Nora. The play's authors seem to have intended to demonstrate how the elderly Djuna Barnes mixes up memories of her younger self and her ex-lover with the autobiographically based characters from her novel, yet it all comes across as awkward dramaturgy.

The pacing of the production is inordinately slow, and while the entire performance lasts only an hour, it feels much longer. Alexander often seems to have no plausible motivation during several sections of the piece; she twirls aimlessly about the stage, romps barefoot on a cushioned platform, and at one point inexplicably starts acting like a tiger. This last bit is most likely meant to evoke the description of Robin Vote in Nightwood, "sometimes one meets a woman who is a beast turning human," which is quoted earlier in What of the Night. But since the tiger sequence is dislocated from that line in the script, it's unlikely that most audience members will make the connection. Furthermore, Alexander's attempts at acting bestial seem half-hearted at best, and the sequence doesn't have the visceral quality that it needs to be effective. Throughout the show, the actress relies heavily on affected voices and different body postures to indicate character. Never do we get the sense that she is actually inhabiting the role of Djuna Barnes; the portrayal is too superficial.

Rob Odorisio's set design requires that the audience view the entirety of the production through a transluscent scrim. Various images are projected onto this scrim at different times (video design by Dennis Diamond), and are effective for the most part, yet the design also keeps the audience at a distance, preventing intimacy. This is perhaps intentional, since Barnes was famously reclusive; in the play, she consistently refuses to answer her phone or door buzzer, and the only contact she makes with the outside world is to order groceries by phone.

There are several witty lines within the play, most of which are presumably either direct quotes or paraphrases from Barnes. Some are readily identifiable, such as her quip lamenting her longevity (she lived to be 90): "Life is painful, nasty and my case, it has only been painful and nasty." Barnes also rather famously declared she was not a lesbian; "I only loved Thelma," she stated, and that line is in the script as well. In fact, much of the play feels like a series of disconnected words and phrases strung together with no coherent center. The loose narrative frame has an elderly Djuna celebrating her birthday alone in her room, reminiscing about her life; but, sadly What of the Night is not a fitting tribute to this remarkable woman.

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