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Wonderful Acting and Lovely Singing

New York
The Shed
04/06/2019 -  & April 7, 9, 10*, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, May 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 2019
Anne Carson & Paul Clark: Norma Jeane Baker of Troy
Ben Whishaw (Writer, Norma Jeane Baker), Renée Fleming (Secretary, Amanuensis, Writer)
Katie Mitchell (Director), Lily McLeish (Associate Director), Alex Eales (Set Designer), Sussie Juhlin-Wallen (Costume Designer), Anthony Doran (Lighting Designer), Donato Wharton (Sound Designer), Simona Scotto (Choreographer)

B. Whishaw, R. Fleming (© Stephanie Berger/Courtesy of The Shed)

Anne Carson’s Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is described as a melologue, a combination of song and spoken words. Over the ages, composers have grappled with the conundrum of launching words into sound. Should they be spoken? Should they be sung? The problem is addressed with novel solutions by poet Anne Carson and composer Paul Clark in this production.

The entire sound cloud that surrounds the stage is based on recorded tapes of Renée Fleming singing and also clucking and tisching. She recorded her song lines with composer Paul Clark, at first in London and then in New York. Her voice is at times manipulated, magnified beyond recognition in booming sweeps and also quadrupled to sing a sweet a cappela jingle suggesting “Mr. Sandman, send me a dream, make him the cutest that you’ve ever seen.”

Fleming live is the secretary to a writer, Ben Whishaw, who is preparing a new script on Helen of Troy cum Marilyn Monroe. Both Ms. Fleming and Mr. Whishaw wear body mikes. There are two lavalier mikes on stage. One brave keyboard artist sits backstage adding live music to the varied sound images which play throughout the show.

During the course of the writer’s work on New Year’s Eve 1963, the writer is overtaken by Monroe and in fact becomes her. Monroe had died the year before. It is snowing outside the office window, as it snowed across the Eastern seaboard when the sun set for the last time in1963. We are reminded briefly of the past year, in which John F, Kennedy was assassinated. The Kennedys have been memorably tied to Monroe, certainly as users, and maybe as murderers.

Truman Capote is a friend, and he and Monroe caroused around town together, Monroe was his Holly Golightly. It is Truman who has the voice of ‘a negligee falling off the shoulder.’ One had hoped to hear Fleming sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in that baby voice. She doesn’t, but it also doesn’t hurt that if any opera singer were to be cast as Monroe it would be Fleming, a dishy blonde who is much smarter than a pretty girl deserves to be.

Carson is a writer full of humor. Although her take on Monroe as a successor of Helen of Troy suggests victimization by men, she gives us a peek at the other side of Monroe’s character, a wily woman who got her way by being It, a died-in-the-wool exhibitionist and a shrewd if not brilliant maneuverer. Director Billy Wilder, who worked with her twice, called her a rascal. Carson has her complaining about her new husband Arthur’s dimpled white buttocks, a turn off sexually. The prospect of his exodus from her life prompts her to wonder who will keep tyrannical director Fritz Lang away. Remember her search for an ocean liner wandering around a pier and asking, “Does anyone know the way to Europe, France?” Or her quip, “I can be smart when it’s important.”

Her downfall was at the hands of a man, Lee Strasberg. Some people’s deep dark past should be left in darkness. When Monroe entered the Actors Studio, leaving behind the Copacabana School of Acting from which she graduated in All About Eve, her acting had to be rooted in the past. An unloved child who was molested, she dealt on screen with love and sex, the same treacherous territory of her early years. No wonder she appeared late on the set and had to deliver the line “It’s me, Sugar” 47 times in Some Like It Hot before she got it right. Wilder described her as a face that burned 1000 kilowatts as Helen’s had launched a 1000 ships.

Whishaw, as Norma Jeane, dons her bustier, silk stockings and finally the iconic white dress, which does not blow up over a grate. He/she plays the ukulele as Monroe banged like “jello on strings,” her co-star Jack Lemmon commented.

Norma Jeane Baker is thickly layered on the bed of Ms. Fleming’s voice, which gets richer and deeper as Monroe ascends to darkness. If you keep your focus on the story arc in which the writer becomes Monroe, you can latch onto images or catch phrases erupting from the different layers and get great pleasure. Don’t work too hard to figure out the interweaving. Its thickness is rewarding and can be appreciated as it comes moment by moment.

One could ask, is this what opera is coming to? Is this what music is coming to? But look at Francis Poulenc’s La Voix humaine, based on a Jean Cocteau monologue. The writing is recitative, as it is here. The approach is fragmentary and declamatory. Mr. Clark introduces lyricism as Ms. Fleming and also Mr. Whishaw loft lovely lines, mixed with repetition and the step-wise motion of words spoken.

We are introduced to Monroe first as a cloud. It is her shape, but it is also her image, clouded by time. Cloud is also a very modern term for a central storage for information. No movie star has had more information stored, and yet remained as elusive as a cloud. We are perhaps not brought closer to understanding here, but we are pushed to contemplate our icons amidst some wonderful acting and lovely singing. Anne Carson, when asked why she wanted Mr. Whishaw and Ms. Fleming for their roles, replied, “He is the best actor and she is the best singer.”

Susan Hall



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