What of the Night
This tedious play about Djuna Barnes fails to capture the best qualities of the acclaimed author's work.
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.