Why? Review: Peter Brook’s Paean to Theater and a Theater Martyr

Those for whom theater is their religion are more likely to appreciate “Why?,” a 70-minute theater piece about theater that, aptly, begins with a whimsically modified Biblical tale: God proclaims “There shall be theater” on the seventh day, because the humans had gotten bored on the day of rest. This segues into a series of questions that one might ask as part of a Seder for Theater:

Why do we do theater ?

Why do we give our lives to the theatre?

Do we give  our lives to theatre ?

Isn’t the theater that gives us our life ?

Written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, and running through October 6 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn,

“Why?” is less a play than a kind of elliptical lecture-demonstration of, and paean to, the beauty and danger of the theatrical arts. It is the inaugural event of Peter Brook/NY , a celebration of the 94-year-old theater artist and his long-time collaborator in “theater, opera, film, television, literature and the development of the next generation of theater artists in New York City, 1953 to the present.”

“Why?” is split precisely in half. In the first 35 minutes, occasionally accompanied by pianist Laurie Blundell, the trio of veteran theater artists — Hayley Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni – dressed all in black on a nearly blank stage, offer  nuggets of theatrical wisdom of the sort that you might hear in an acting class.

“Art is to reality as wine is to grapes.”

“The real work of an actor begins after the first performance,” because acting “finds its true nature only with an audience.”

They talk about their experiences on stage (though it’s unclear whether the experiences are of the performers or the writers)   “I’ve probably died about 500 hundred times. I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been hung, I’ve died of a broken heart. Dying is relatively easy, but how do you make your soul leave your body?”

Magni hilariously acts drunk, with the help of audience members in the first row. It is one of several  demonstrations of the use of movement rather than internal psychology to present an emotion and create a character.

“When we study a role, we should not dive into its psychological substance but  we should reach it by studying its movements.”

The quote is from Vsevolod Meyerhold, a Russian director and student of Stanislavsky whose acting theories diverged from the master (and who is said to have influenced Brook’s work.)  The second half of “Why?” focuses on Meyerhold. His story begins in inspiration, with the three performers explaining his approach, and its reception. They quote one contemporary critic (to continue with the religious analogy): “My attention was drawn toward the stage the way a believer in a cathedral is drawn towards the choir.” The trio even performs a brief excerpt from Meyerhold’s 1926 production of Gogol’s “The Government Inspector.”

But Meyerhold’s story ends in horror, with the trio reading letters and other documents that relate how the Stalinist regime accused him of being anti-Soviet, his theater was shut down, and he was thrown into prison. From notes taken during his trial: “He doesn’t believe in God, he believes In truth. And he is sure that truth will win at the end.” But at the end, he was executed, never learning that not long before, his wife, the famed actress Zinaida Reich,  had been brutally murdered in their home.

Suddenly the “Why?” took on a different meaning — like a cry to the Heavens.

Hayley Carmichael and Kathryn Hunter



Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply