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.

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