Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy was written by Anne Carson and stars Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming. Performances at The Shed run through May 19, 2019.

How do I even write about this play? While I was watching it I was constantly saying to myself "I get this . . . I think," but I really wasn't sure. I felt emotionally engaged but intellectually out of my depth. Anne Carson, who penned it, is a Classics scholar who teaches ancient Greek for a living. She's also a poet and, more than anything, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy feels like a poem written for the stage. I made a point to find out as little as possible beforehand, but I almost wish I could see a second performance, knowing what I know now. What I knew going in was that it starred Ben Whishaw, who I am absolutely enchanted with (yes, he's the reason I bought the ticket), and renowned soprano Renée Fleming. I'm not well versed in opera but I know she's a big deal (she was, after all, on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack). I knew it was a melologue - partly spoken, partly sung - and that its intention was to draw parallels between Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe. I knew Whishaw was "sort of" playing Monroe, even though promotional photos showed him in a suit with slicked back hair, looking more door-to-door salesman than blonde bombshell. It sounded fascinating, ambitious, and a little peculiar. 

The abstract from The Shed's website states: 
It is 1964. An office manager has hired one of his stenos to come in at night and type out his translation of Euripides’s Helen, but his obsession with the recently dead Marilyn Monroe kidnaps the translation.

The scene is a drab office, after hours. It's snowing outside and the space is cold. The two characters never identify one another by name. Whishaw's character arrives first, fiddles with a cassette recorder, and begins tacking images of Marilyn Monroe onto a cork-board behind his desk. Fleming enters a few minutes later, and the two get right to the business of transcription, with Whishaw alternately dictating, or playing cassette recordings for Fleming. At the outset Fleming's character is very much the subordinate in the scenario. There are no perfunctory pleasantries to ease the audience into the action, we are just dropped into the situation. In this regard Fleming is almost our proxy, because, like us, she doesn't appear to have much intel going in - she's just there to do a job. She doesn't speak, but her thoughts are occasionally conveyed to the audience via audio track.

After about ten minutes or so, Whishaw produces a bottle of bright pink nail polish and begins casually painting his fingernails (and this was absolutely the moment where I realized I was not just interested but really interested). Fleming does not acknowledge the action, and neither of them says a word about it. A few minutes later he removes his dress shoes and puts on a pale pair of feather heel slippers. Over the length of the show's ninety minute runtime Whishaw gradually transforms "sort of" into Marilyn Monroe, applying makeup and swapping out his suit for a padded bra and girdle, Monroe's signature Seven Year Itch halter dress, and, finally, a blonde wig. The end result is far from perfect - patches of Whishaw's own dark hair are still visible beneath the wig, and he never quite manages to get the padded inserts properly situated inside his undergarments. The actor could've been made up off stage in advance, or an intermission could've been written in to allow for a costume change, but the transformation itself, and its imperfectness, seem to be the point. 

As he transforms physically, Whishaw's voice and manner also become more feminine; It's as if he's being kidnapped by Marilyn along with the translation of Helen. And as his character's voice is slowly subsumed by a facsimile version of Monroe's, Fleming's character begins to assert her own voice. At first she mostly repeats lines of transcribed dialogue back to Whishaw, but eventually she's interjecting her own insights and ideas into the narrative. Sometimes they're spoken, sometimes (and almost entirely by the end) they're sung. 

Is this some sort of symbiotic witchcraft? Is the male voice being muted so that women can finally have agency in their own narratives? The dialogue often has the cadence of a spell or incantation, with several lines repeating at various points, taking on new meaning each time they are spoken or sung, but the relationship between the characters does not come across as an adversarial one. In fact there are several tender moments that suggest a mutual sympathy, an understanding, between the pair. Like when Whishaw begins applying foundation to his face and Fleming fishes through her handbag to find a compact to lend him, or when he first offers her a drink from the flask he's been tipping into. If I had to choose a single moment from the performance that resonated with me it would be the one where Fleming helps Whishaw apply his false eyelashes. It's so gentle and intimate. As Whishaw becomes more Marilyn he becomes more vulnerable, and Fleming becomes more maternal and protective towards him, even as her character is asserting her own autonomy. And because their spoken exchanges are not structured like traditional dialogue (it's more stream of consciousness built around ideals of celebrity, womanhood, and the devastating destruction of the male gaze - and the characters talk at one another more than they speak to each other), it's their unspoken interactions that must build their relationship. 

Ben Whishaw has a reputation for playing fragile, ethereal characters and, on occasion, he's played female and gender fluid parts as well. His role here, while not quite like anything else he's done, slots in nicely amongst his impressive and intriguing body of work. I love to watch him because he plays all his roles with great empathy, but there's sometimes an elusive, ephemeral quality to his acting as well. He can be very present but also, somehow, somewhere else. He does this in Jane Campion's Bright Star as the consumptive, lovelorn John Keats, and he does it here as well. As if he's both transforming and receding before your very eyes. Watching Whishaw it's not hard to believe that Carson penned the role with him in mind. For a play that deals with the notion of celebrity as subterfuge -  it's all just smoke and mirrors, baby - he's the perfect embodiment of the tangible made intangible. 

Renée Fleming is a great foil for Whishaw - at turns subdued or commanding depending on what the role dictates - and the two play off one another beautifully. Because it's just the two of them, and because the actions they're performing are often so private, I had the sensation more than once of being a voyeur, like I was seeing something I really wasn't meant to be seeing. "How did I manage this?" I thought more than once, because at times it felt completely surreal, and a little unnerving (in a good way), to be witnessing something like this so up close and personal. I won't pretend to know what all of it means from an academic or historical standpoint, but then I'm reminded of what Whishaw's Keats says to Fanny Brawne about poetry: It's not meant to be worked out. "It is an experience beyond thought," he tells her. "Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery." Perhaps Carson's Norma Jeane is not something that's meant to be worked out. It exists to be experienced.

I can say that the performance moved me tremendously, and I appreciate the risk involved in presenting an unconventional, at times inscrutable, piece of work to an audience. I'm glad work like this exists and that performers like Whishaw and Fleming are willing to take the creative risk and bare their souls for their art. Ultimately I am left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I am so very grateful that I was able to experience this.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Piercing

What to make of Piercing? The kinky psychological thriller, about an anxious would-be murderer and his unwieldy victim, certainly boasts an impressive pedigree. It's directed by Nicolas Pesce, who made 2016's The Eyes of My Mother, an assured and uncompromising movie about a traumatized, isolated young woman who works through her grief and loneliness in atrocious ways. It's based on a 1994 novel by Ryû Murakami, who also provided the source material for Takashi Miike's Audition, another effectively unsettling movie about a young woman committing heinous acts that's gleefully nihilistic in its depiction of male / female relationships and power dynamics. It stars Mia Wasikowska, a fine, understated actress who can play a beloved literary heroine like Jane Eyre with intelligence and conviction, and can just as easily imbue a budding serial killer or an impulsive teen vampire with those same qualities. How did this combination of bold, provocative talent manage to produce a movie as tepid and underwhelming as Piercing?

Reed (a twitchy Christopher Abbott), away from home for a weekend "business" trip, checks into a hotel and hires a prostitute, intending to murder the unsuspecting woman when she arrives at his room. Reed's never done anything like this before, though, so he's extremely anxious about committing the act itself. After he settles in at the hotel he studiously play acts his impending crime, stabbing and slicing at the air, taking into account all the possible outcomes, considering all the scenarios. He'll suggest they experiment with S&M, giving him an excuse to tie his victim up. Then he'll produce an ice pick and stab her to death. What if she struggles or screams once she figures out what he's planning? He'll have to muffle the sound. He'll need a change of clothes, cause there'll be a lot of blood. He'll have to make sure to clean up after himself very carefully. The more time the movie spends with Reed, the more inept he seems to be. Maybe an aspiring murderer with this level of performance anxiety should find another way to exorcise his demons and get his kicks? 

Enter Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), Reed's would be victim, who is introduced into the story not when she shows up at the hotel, but at her apartment, before she gets the call to go to Reed's room. By introducing her this way, off work, passed out on her bed in a top and granny panties, she's presented as a character in her own right. She's more than a stylized glamazombie dropped into the narrative to satisfy the male lead's bloodlust or bring about his demise: This is her story, too! And once Jackie and Reed meet and begin to interact the focus and intention of the film starts to splinter. It's a deadly game of cat and mouse where the roles constantly shift, but it's also a deranged seduction story. And every time Reed's uncertain predator loses the upper hand to his volatile, unpredictable prey, it feels less like a fight for survival and increasingly like a type of foreplay between two demented individuals who may have found what they needed (but didn't really know what they were looking for) in one another. 

Unfortunately, neither character is fleshed-out enough to make a love story between them compelling or palatable. Reed is neurotic and deranged in a non-specific way, driven by impulses he doesn't seem to understand any better than the viewer does, and Jackie is essentially reduced to a broken-mirror version of the manic pixie dream girl, devoting her time and energy to trying to suss out what the "damaged" male protagonist needs so she can be that for him. Wasikowska, usually so dependable, is wasted here. Like her character, she tries every approach, there just isn't anything substantial for her to work with, so she's limited in what she can actually accomplish. Jackie's erratic, inscrutable actions don't exist to illuminate her character's thoughts, feelings or motivations; they're a plot device designed to drive the story from one fucked-up destination to the next. 

When Jackie first arrives at the hotel, as she's making her way to Reed's room, there's a split screen shot (the first of many) and the soundtrack starts blasting Goblin's Profondo Rosso. "This one is trying awfully hard," I thought to myself. Piercing certainly wears its giallo aspirations on its sleeve, and if its foundation had been a little sturdier, a well-placed visual or musical homage could have worked to its advantage. But because the original content the film offers is so lukewarm the homage feels like a cheat, a shortcut meant to evoke a reaction from a crowd who recognizes those beats from dePalma, Argento, even Tarantino. And since they don't feel earned, these flourishes disrupt the story far more than they enhance it.

Piercing is a semi-coherent assortment of rough character outlines and imagery that feels tiresome when it should be titillating, with one or two compelling and disconcerting moments thrown in to keep you hoping that it's all going somewhere interesting. At 81 minutes it might have benefitted from a longer run-time, but, short as it is, the movie still manages to overstay its welcome, because it just spins its wheels, uncertain of exactly where it wants to go or how it wants to get there. As a viewer I had absolutely no idea how to react to what I was seeing, or if I was meant to react at all. I wanted to feel something while I watched, even if it was something entirely unpleasant. I mostly felt nothing, and just when I thought the story might be getting around to having some sort of purpose or intention, the closing credits started to roll. 

Piercing did, finally, manage to offend me, though. Not because it traffics in taboo subject matter, but because its handling of that subject matter is so cavalier, and pales in comparison to the work of other filmmakers who have explored dark sexual urges and proclivities with far more thoughtfulness and empathy. It would be a tall order, an impossible one, perhaps, to present the motivations at the heart of this story in a way that could normalize them, or even make them relatable, but Piercing's conclusion seems to suggest that this was the movie's intention. And if it was then it fell terribly short, owing to a tone that lacks any real sensitivity towards the characters or their impulses, opting instead to construct an inscrutable narrative mostly out of garden variety kink and gore-soaked imagery. 

Maybe this wasn't Pesce's intention at all, though. Maybe he just wanted to make a raunchy exploitation flick. If that's the case, Piercing still comes up short for me, because it never pushes the boundaries of extreme cinema enough to be truly shocking or surprising. It has so much potential, it just can't seem to go far enough in any direction to deliver a unique or satisfying experience of any sort. There are some intriguing ideas knocking around in Piercing and I would like to have seen them more fully explored. Ultimately this movie feels undercooked, immature, and callous. It doesn't seem to care. So why should we?