“Grounded,” a play directed by Julie Taymor and starring Anne Hathaway as a drone pilot, could not be more newsworthy: It is opening at the Public Theater just days after the news that a U.S. drone strike accidentally killed an American aid worker held hostage by Al Qaeda, which brought to public consciousness once again, as one news report put it, “the perils of a largely invisible, long-distance war waged through video screens, joysticks and sometimes incomplete intelligence.”
Since it debuted two years ago, George Brant’s one-character play has been produced in theaters all over the United States (including last year in Tribeca) and as far away as New Zealand; there are more than a half dozen opening just within the next few weeks in places like Portland and Wappingers Falls and South Brisbane.
The production at the Public is undoubtedly the highest profile, featuring both a major movie star and one of the best-known theater directors in the world.
Yet, it’s my guess I would have liked “Grounded” better in almost any of its other productions.
This is not because of the acting. Hathaway is fine as the initially cocky unnamed ace fighter pilot, who becomes credibly unmoored as the show progresses.
She tells us how she loved everything about her job, from the poetry of flight –“You are alone in the vastness and you are the blue” – to the macho camaraderie of a pilot bar, where she could “drink with my boys” and tell stories about flying. But then, as she tells us, she meets a civilian, they have a one-night stand and fall in love; she gets pregnant, which means she’s “grounded”: The military forbids pregnant women from flying. She and her boyfriend get married, she gives birth – but when she returns to work, she is informed she will be reassigned to operate military drones from a windowless trailer outside Las Vegas. “Driving to war like it’s shift work, like I’m punching the clock,” she says. She is not happy – she derides her new role as being stuck in the “Chair Force” – but she adjusts. The way she adjusts worries her supportive husband – and the audience as well.
Brant’s script seems less concerned with specific U.S. drone policy and practice than with issues that are as much cultural as political, all worth contemplating – the psychological effect that such remote-control killing has on individual members of the armed forces, the rise of a surveillance culture in daily life, the loss of privacy.
But Hathaway’s performance and Brant’s script seem themselves nearly grounded in order to allow Julie Taymor her flight into visual spectacle. There are moments here that recall Taymor’s eye-catching production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which inaugurated the Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center two years ago. At one point in that production, Puck seemed to pour himself slowly from the ceiling. In the very first moment in her “Grounded,” a steady stream of (what we eventually learn is) sand pours very slowly from the ceiling onto Anne Hathaway’s helmet, ominously lit by Christopher Akerlind. Sand covers the stage as well, in a deliberately disorienting set designed by Riccardo Hernandez. Much of what Taymor does visually in “Grounded,” though, is in collaboration with projection designer Peter Nigrini, as you can see in the photographs below.
Now, I’ve been a fan of Nigrini’s work in such shows a Fela and Here Lies Love. Here, there are straightforward projections such as of Hathaway’s face on a backdrop of reflective black glass. But most is much fancier. Everything the pilot says seems to be illustrated, sometimes quite literally — she talks of driving through the desert between her suburban home and the air force base where she works, and there she is standing on a moving desert road, with a yellow stripe down the middle and sand on both sides. She mentions Las Vegas — we get a jazzy Las Vegas. There are startling images, sometimes vertiginous, and often accompanied by smoke effects, loud bursts of sound, and flashing lights. The overall effect is to make you feel as if you’re trapped in a video game — which, one might argue, is a conceptual fit with the script. But one senses the director is giving us this ride for its own sake. Her illuminated trip into the pilot’s mind crowds out the trip the audience should be making in our own minds, a journey guided by the pilot’s words, and the feelings they provoke.
No one would deny that Julie Taymor’s “Grounded” is visually arresting. But it is also dramatically arrested. Her emphasis on the special effects is distracting and (excuse me) overkill.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
425 Lafayette Street
Julie Taymor (Director)
Riccardo Hernandez (Scenic Design)
Christopher Akerlind (Lighting Design)
Will Pickens (Sound Design)
Peter Nigrini (Production Design)
Elliot Goldenthal (Original Music and Soundscapes)
Cast: Anne Hathaway
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Ticket prices: “start at $90”
Grounded is scheduled to run through May 24, 2015