BrandoCapote is a play with a script by Sara Farrington inspired by a fascinating interview Truman Capote conducted with Marlon Brando at the peak of his popularity in 1957, while the movie star was filming “Sayonara” in Japan. It is also a dance theater piece choreographed by Laura K. Nicoll that mixes modern American with traditional Japanese movement, enhanced by vivid Japanese costumes. And it is the latest showcase for director Reid Farrington’s inventive technical experiments in integrating filmed images into live theatrical performance: Very brief clips from more than a dozen of Brando’s film performances (from Oscar-winners “On The Waterfront” and “The Godfather” to such oddities as “The Island of Doctor Moreau”) are projected crisply onto Japanese umbrellas of varying sizes that the cast members suddenly unfold.
Each of these elements of “BrandoCapote” intrigued me and impressed me. But all three put together lost me.
The play begins as if it were a dramatization of the actual candid interview that took place in Brando’s hotel room in Kyoto, Japan, which resulted in Capote’s profile of the actor in the New Yorker Magazine. Indeed, some of the dialogue is taken more or less directly from that article. But the script breaks free of the reality of that 1957 interview, ranging over the rest of Brando’s life (he died in 2004 at the age of 80), touching on some of Capote’s as well. (There are some surprising similarities between the two famous men, who were born just six months apart.) Much of the script riffs on a horrid event in the lives of two of Brando’s 11 children. In 1990, Brando’s son Christian murdered the boyfriend of Brando’s pregnant daughter Cheyenne. Christian was imprisoned; Cheyenne, diagnosed as schizophrenic, committed suicide five years later. Both are characters in BrandoCapote, as is “Dodie,” Brando’s mother.
Cheyenne and Capote both describe what it’s like to die by hanging, Cheyenne because that’s how she killed herself, Capote because that’s what he witnessed for his book In Cold Blood. With the play’s glimpses into both Brando’s and Capote’s neglect in childhood, and Brando’s neglect as a parent, one can try to make the case that “BrandoCapote” is trying to say something about the cyclical nature of family dysfunction.
But in truth I struggled to see some point in this show that’s more than just a fractured, avant-garde variation on the more conventional behind-the-scenes dramatizations feeding the public hunger for celebrity gossip and scandal. Usually, they are presented as morality tales of the ravages of fame – a justification for the sensationalism.
There is a hint of sensationalism, albeit low level, in two moments in “BrandoCapote” that are extrapolated from a passage in the New Yorker profile.
Capote writes that after the director Josh Logan told Brando to make any changes he wanted to the script of “Sayonara,” “I rewrote the whole damn script,” Brando told Capote, but the director ignored all but eight lines. This helped sour Brando on the role. As a result:
“I’m going to walk through the part, and that’s that. Sometimes I think nobody knows the difference anyway. For the first few days on the set, I tried to act. But then I made an experiment. In this scene, I tried to do everything wrong I could think of. Grimaced and rolled my eyes, put in all kind of gestures and expressions that had no relation to the part I’m supposed to be playing. What did Logan say? He just said, ‘It’s wonderful. Print it!’ ”
A phrase that often occurs in Brando’s conversation, “I only mean forty per cent of what I say,” is probably applicable here…
This is used for two unconnected moments in “BrandoCapote”
Capote:Tell me about this film you’re working on now.
Brando: Well, I’ve been doing this experiment. I’m trying to do everything wrong I can think of. Grimace, roll my eyes, I’m putting in all kinds of weird gestures and expressions that have no relation to my role. And they still call me a genius. I suppose you think I’m a genius.
What was in reality just once in a single scene as an experiment, in reaction to a slight, has become a concerted effort to do “everything wrong” throughout the movie, motivated only by weird impulse.
In the second moment about a half hour later:
Brando: All that stuff about my parents, my old man hitting my mother, my mom’s drinking, her singing, my kids, you know, my son’s crime, my daughter’s suicide? I made all that up.
Capote: You did?
Brando:Yeah. I really only mean about forty percent of what I say. And even that’s bullshit.
But he didn’t make this information up, and he didn’t say that even the 40 percent he means is bullshit. Perhaps the creative team is going for what fabulists like to call a higher truth. Perhaps they’re trying to reveal Brando’s evasive personality. Perhaps it’s based on extensive research from sources other than the New Yorker profile. Perhaps they just made it up.
Whatever the answer is, it feels moot, given how vigorously the production works to keep any straightforward character interaction at a remove. The dialogue is repetitive like poetry, often in voiceover, and accompanied by dance movements and/or film clips that may or may not be related to what the characters are supposed to be saying at any given moment. The credits assign specific roles to each of the cast members. Jennifer McClinton is credited as “Capote, or The Devil,” but dressed as a geisha, and then the playwright Sara Farrington is credited as “Voice of Capote or The Devil” and Akiyo Komatsu as “Vocal Impression of Truman Capote” – which hints why I found it difficult to discern who’s who, much less judge their performances.
More adventurous theatergoers might better appreciate the bold stagecraft of “BrandoCapote” and be unperturbed by its lack of clarity. In the past, I’ve enjoyed theatrical experiments by letting them wash over me. But, at a time when I’m finding it increasingly difficult to understand what’s going on in the world, I seem less inclined towards theater that creates sensations but doesn’t make much sense.
Sara & Reid Farrington
Written by Sara Farrington
Directed by Reid Farrington
Choreographed by Laura K Nicoll, Noh Consultant Mayo Miwa, Video Design by Reid Farrington Stage Manager: Jaclyn Pageau Lighting Design by Laura Mroczkowski, Sound Design by Marcelo Añez, Costume Design byAndre Joyner, Costume Construction by Kelvin Gordon. El Prologue song performed by: Daniel DeWald
Cast Rafael Jordan as Brando, Jennifer McClinton as Capote, or The Devil, Lynn R Guerra as Dodie, or The Mother, Laura K Nicoll as Cheyenne, or The Daughter, Cooper Howell as Christian, or The Son, Sara Farrington as Voice of Capote or The Devil, Akiyo Komatsu as Vocal Impression of Truman Capote
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission
BrandoCapote is on stage at the Tank through November 24, 2019