(Peter Brooks' production The Valley of Astonishment has opened at Theatre for a New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Here is the review I filed after seeing it at London's Young Vic in June.)
The interest Oliver Sacks takes in the human brain fascinates Peter Brook. The Valley of Astonishment is another consequence of that fascination, and, as presented at the Young Vic, currently Brook's London outlet of choice, it, too, is fascinating.
Just after it begins, small and child-like-voiced Kathryn Hunter, these days Brook's frequent leading lady of choice, introduces herself as Sammy Costas and announces she's a "real phenomenon." A reporter, she illustrates why she's a phenomenon on a visit she makes to a clinic at the suggestion of her editor after he becomes aware of her unusually impressive memory.
The doctors testing her (Marcelo Magni, Jared McNeill) diagnose her case as synesthesia. She's able to remember long series of words and numbers because she instantly associates what she's told with colors, sounds and objects.
Although she's fired from her newspaper job for being overqualified, she gets stage work based on her astonishing memory. It's a life that goes well for quite a while, until she realizes that everything she's been asked to remember has cluttered her brain. She needs to forget, but can she construct a way? That's her dilemma for the remainder of Brook's enthralling 75 minutes.
The formidable director, now 83 and working as he often does with Marie-Hélene Estienne, intersperses two other conditions with Costas's. The first involves a patient (McNeill), who associates sounds and letters of the alphabet with color. Confiding that he was an unhappy child among other children -- he made the mistake of telling friends that "A" is pink -- he found himself when he realized that if he paints the colors he sees when listening to jazz, he'd have a career.
The other patient (Magni) consulting the doctors (McNeill, Hunter this time) suffers from proprioception, which is the loss of a sense of how body parts coordinate. He's of particular enlightenment for the physicians, because he's formulated a system by which he has partially recovered: focusing his eyes on whatever body part he wants to move and having it respond. On entering the doctors' office, he's especially proud that he arrived on his own, awkwardly but successfully.
As an addition to his preceding Sacks-related pieces The Man Who and Je Suis un Phenomene, The Valley of Astonishment -- which the painter declares is the place reached where an affliction becomes an asset -- has great charm. (It's enhanced by Raphael Chambouvet at the piano and Toshi Tsuchitori on wind instruments).
Much of the charm -- in a piece that ultimately doesn't come to any conclusions about the brain's infinite capacity -- is due to the playing and includes an interlude when actor/sleight-of-hand artist Magni uses audience members to execute several card tricks. Exactly what the music-hall turn has to do with synesthesia and proprioception is obscure, but it definitely adds to the overall, uh, astonishment.
Two current solo entries of more than passing interest about men needing to discuss their successes and transgressions:
A Sucker Emcee - Bank Street Theatre: Craig "muMs" Grant relives his life leading up to and away from the years he starred in HBO's Oz. Lucky to have a supportive father and mother, he still endured setbacks from childhood on and spent much time wandering off the straight and narrow. His determination to keep on trucking saw him through--and is continuing, as this 90-minute solo show attests, to see him through. Intent on doing the thing he loves, he passes along his observations and advice mostly in hip-hop rhyme. (Hip-hop rhyme, of course, means off-rhyming as often as, or more often than, perfect rhyming.) There is no gainsaying the enhancement dj Rich Medina lends as he jives upstage of Grant's with the necessary equipment. Jenny Koons directed the Labyrinth Theater Company production economically.
The Bullpen - Playroom Theater: Joe Assadourian pulls off a tour de force that's built around his experiences in a holding cell and in court in relation to being arrested for threatening a policeman in a street fracas. Claiming he's innocent of all impending charges until he lets up on his protests, he not only plays himself in the unpleasant incarcerated circumstances but also impersonates 16 characters whom he encountered during his couple of visits to that cell and one high-pitched judge in court. Having developed the piece while in prison--oh, yes, Assadourian served time--he's become adept as a mimic. As a function of his ability to switch characterization in nanoseconds, he manages to be funny and earnest in quick turns. Richard Hoehler directs the Eric Krebs presentation in association with The Fortune Society.