|Peter Brook's The Valley of Astonishment at Theatre for New Audiences|
Ruth treated me to a trip to New York to see Peter Brook’s show The Valley of Astonishment for my birthday. It is the third Brook show I’ve seen and it did not disappoint.
Director Peter Brook is a huge source of inspiration to me as a theatre artist. He turns 90 years old next year. He has a long and varied career in his wake – 70 years - and with his current show The Valley of Astonishment he proves that he hasn’t lost any of the creativity and theatrical inquisitiveness that has so set him apart.
The show is staged, in usual Brook fashion, with pristine beauty; nothing appears on the vast empty platform of the Theatre for New Audience’s three-quarter thrust stage that is not used. There are a few wooden chairs, a rolling table, and a pale stage cloth spread out like a large rectangular rug on the black stage.
The acting, like the visuals, is similarly unforced. This allows the audience’s imagination to run as extreme as the ones that belong to the characters, played by Kathryn Hunter (so amazing), Marcello Magni, and Jared McNeill. The three actors who portray an assortment of people who have synesthesia and the doctors they consult. They all seem perpetually shuffled between pain and exaltation, terror and wonder, bewilderment and revelation.
The thread of the show follows the excellent Ms. Hunter’s character Samy Costas, a 44 year-old woman of seemingly infinite and exact recall, someone for whom memory is a vivid, three-dimensional vista. After a visit to a pair of neurologists (Magni and McNeill), she becomes a nightclub sensation as a master of mnemonics. Her state of being becomes a spectacle, on a par with the card tricks of a one-handed magician – Marcello Magni, in a delightful audience participation sequence, confounding the senses of the actual audience as he spontaneously amalgamates sleight of hand with laughter. Samy finds herself suffocating under a barrage of memorized names and numbers she can never erase.
All of the actors' performances are genial, bighearted, and memorable. Hunter, in particular, is thrilling as Samy, bravely charting her journey from a woman content with her place in the world to one who is completely lost once she confronts the amazing powers of her own mind.
Not to be overlooked are the two excellent musicians, Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori. The sounds swing from solemn to frantic, mysterious to jazzy. The chief function and glory of the music is how integral it is in underscoring the show's quiet astonishment at the miracles of the human brain.
What's refreshing about The Valley of Astonishment is how Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, the theater-makers responsible for the script, never bog down the text in overly-detailed facts and psychobabble; instead they present their research through relatable human stories. They engross us in the human predicament of Samy, whose mnemomic power is both glorious blessing and traumatizing curse.
The thing I walk away with, as someone who studies and follows Brook’s work, is the profound mindfulness of the piece. It is so vividly presented, yet so simple. There is very little glitziness. With the exception of one sequence where a fluid wash of changing colored lighting (designed by Philippe Vialatte) covers the stage while Mr. McNeill’s painter works, all the while, listening to jazz we get no easy externalization of the internal world of the brain.
It is in essence, a very mature work. It is clean, calm and graceful. Brook is not trying to show off (not his thing). Nothing flashy. Only thoughtful. He is not trying to do anything except explore, on stage, the wonder of the human brain. With his simple aesthetic, he has trimmed away the excess.
The only real problem comes from just how simple the presentation is. It may come off too simple for the unenlightened. The argument may arise, similar to those people who look at Picasso works and think they too could “do that,” that if this wasn’t a piece done by the great Peter Brook it would just be some minimal amateurish work. It doesn’t make a loud statement in a grand theatrical way that this is a production done by a master. It whispers and is confident with itself. The work is very entertaining and clear, especially considering it involves something as complex and mysterious as the workings of the human mind, but more than that it is distilled and essential. It is simple in the way a Zen ritual is simple. It is simple because of the mastery involved.
|These Peter Brook shows are kind of like little pilgrimages for me.|
|Ruth and I getting ready to watch the show|
|While in NYC I hooked up with friends for drink and talk:|
Here is Will Harper, Dominic D'Andrea and Kim Adams outside the Meatball Shop at 3:30 am.