I might go a great distance to watch Ben Whishaw strip off his suit and turn into Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe before our eyes. But I only had to travel to 30thStreet and 10thAvenue, in between the High Line and Hudson Yards, to the Griffin Theater on the sixth floor of The Shed, a new $500 million performing arts center .
As it turns out, though, it was the creative team that went far — too far. “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy,” which is half sung and half spoken by both Whishaw and Renee Fleming, combines the myth of Helen of Troy with the story of Marilyn Monroe (birth name: Norma Jeane.) This inaugural piece at the Griffin reflects the mission of The Shed, as articulated by its artistic director Alex Poots, to commission original works that “take creative risks and push artistic boundaries.” The show, with a starry cast and impeccable avant-garde credentials, is an intriguing and erudite experiment on multiple levels. On too many of those levels, however, it just didn’t work for me.
Its author, Anne Carson, a poet and a scholar of Ancient Greek literature, was inspired by “Helen,” the play by Euripides that told the story of Helen of Troy and the Trojan War from her point of view. Carson created a text that is neither a translation of Euripides, nor an adaptation, but more of a poetic riff on the play, as well as on warring men and abused beauties. It’s threaded through with a kind of fever dream that more or less merges the two misunderstood women, so that, for example, the text turns Arthur (as in playwright Arthur Miller, Monroe’s third husband) into “the king of Sparta and New York,” mixing him up with Helen of Troy’s warrior husband Menelaos. That’s in the storytelling sections, which are largely in the first person and could be considered monologues. The best of these are entirely in the voice of Norma Jean. Here’s a long, beguiling excerpt:
“One thing I learned from psychoanalysis is how to fake it, with men. The guy I went to, Dr. Cheeseman – one day we were talking about Arthur’s dimpled white buttocks and how I felt no sexual attraction for them or for him, which was awkward as we were newlywed and Arthur, king of Sparta and New York, hoped to engender a tiny prince Arthur – and Dr. Cheeseman went into his Lacanian riff, about how “desire full stop is always desire of the Other capital O”, which I took to mean “visualize Yves Montand when screwing Arthur” but that didn’t work for me and what did work for me, oddly enough, was when I found myself one day describing Arthur to Dr. Cheeseman as an Asian boy – Asian boys being Dr. Cheeseman’s own little problem – and so discovering Arthur to be desirable by seeing him shine back at me from Dr. Cheeseman. Is this too weird? I don’t think it’s uncommon. Psychoanalysts call it triangular desire. “
From there she goes into an analysis of the difference between faking it and acting.
These lively storytelling sections alternate with explicitly labeled “history lessons” – e.g. “The economy of ancient Greece, like that of early modern America, depended on the institution of slavery. “ – which include subsections announced as “teachable moments” or “discussion topics.”
While there are some clever, enlightening and even entertaining passages, the text can feel like something one would be assigned in school to study.
As it happens, Carson also wrote the lyrics for the songs in “The Mile-Long Opera: a biography of 7 o’clock,” one of my favorite theater pieces of 2018. But I favored it not because of the text so much as the way it was staged: 1,000 performers sung little excerpts of it over and over again as the audience members made our way along the entire 30 block length of the High Line.
By contrast, director Katie Mitchell’s staging of “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy” doesn’t so much enhance the text as compete with it.
The two performers divvy up the text, with Renee Fleming mostly singing her (much fewer) lines to an original bluesy score by Paul Clark, and Ben Whishaw mostly speaking his (although sometimes they switch.) They’re doing this in the context of a scenario in which it is New Year’s Eve 1963 (as we hear in a radio at the outset), and Whishaw is apparently a Greek scholar and simultaneously obsessed with Marilyn Monroe (who has died several months earlier.) Whishaw as the scholar is in an office late at night dictating much of the Carson text (presumably as if it’s his adaptation/analysis of Euripides’ play) to Fleming as if she is his secretary. And while doing this he speaks aloud the punctuation – “period,” “brackets,” etc. – as if phoning in a telegram to a telegraph operator.
Now, there are undeniable pleasures in “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy” – Fleming’s lovely singing, Wishaw’s meticulous and sexy morphing from male to female; I even get the conceptual brilliance of this transformation, its underscoring of Carson’s themes — the reversal of gender roles show how unfair the traditional assumptions about women have been.
But there are ample examples of the creative team being more interested in experimenting than in communicating. Composer Paul Clark has explained that almost every sound effect in the play — from the sounds of the air-conditioner to police sirens in the background – are made up of digitally processed recordings of Fleming’s voice. Why? Well, it’s cool.
At least this audio playfulness doesn’t hinder audience perception. Yet the sound design also involves performers’ lines sometimes emanating from a tape recorder rather than live, which doesn’t create optimal audibility. Far worse: “Norma Jeane” was the second show I saw in three days with a set that featured little more than an ugly metal office desk and a couple of table lamps that provided much of the (very dim) lighting. The proceedings were conducted largely in near darkness – as they were in The Diary of One Who Disappeared, which Ivo van Hove directed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
When did making the audience struggle to see or hear what’s going on signal that a show is on the cutting-edge?
This brings up an issue about the Griffin theater itself, a black box theater (meaning it can be altered for each show.) It is part of a new performing arts center whose architects make a point of how forward-looking it is, that they designed it for the future. Don’t they think there will be disabled theatergoers in the future? Perhaps they’re just working out the kinks, but as of now, the theater offers far from state-of-the-art accessibility, which is worse than a disappointment. They should be embarrassed.
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy
Griffin Theater at the Shed
Written by Anne Carson, composed by Paul Clark.
Directed by Katie Mitchell, set design by Alex Eales, costume design by Sussie Juhlin-Wallén, lighting design by Anthony Doran, sound design by Donato Wharton
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Renee Fleming
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $45 to $125
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is on stage through May 19, 2019