Norma Jeane Baker of Troy – My Mysterious Device – Medium
First thing’s first: it’s true that Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is perhaps nor for most people, like James Tarmy of Bloomberg claims, but, believe me, no matter how much you would dislike this play, probably like those dozen people who, during a recent Friday evening performance, walked right out of The Shed’s Kenneth C. Griffin Theater on the sixth floor (“My Goodness, theatre in skyscraper?”) of Hudson Yard, the much controversial 20-billion-USD new development in New York, you’d remember it like no other.
Set on the New Year’s Eve of 1963/4, moments before midnight, in an eerily underlit Manhattan office, with snow falling ominously outside two windows at the back, a young businessman (Ben Whishaw) and a female typist (Renee Fleming), who is hired to transcribe what the man has to say, converse frantically, him speaking, her singing.
Through the spoken words of the unnamed man and the otherworldly singing of the woman, Anne Carson tells a story simultaneously about Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe — cue the title, Norma Jeane Baker, Monroe’s birth-name. The storyline jumps back and forth between the ancient Greek myth and the current day New York. One moment, it has you in Egypt, where Helen was actually sent to by Zeus (therefore Greeks and Trojans fought the war over some #fakenews), then next enters Mr Truman Capote, King Arthur (Miller), Pearl Bailey and more. So here is the deal, a man tells, a woman listens, but she’s not listening quietly; she has everything to say about the story, as well as the way it’s being told, by that man, those men.
Alex Eales’s elevated stage in this brand new Black Box theatre with seats propped up on canes, is like an open clam, revealing the almost disturbingly realistic details that engage with audience’s gaze with a flirtatious touch. With both side walls removed, the stage allows the enigma of the 60s typing pool room to silently overflow into the audience like the moving mist on the play’s official poster. Sitting in the back, I was thinking about theatre as an act of voyeurism.
On top of the nearly incomprehensible plot, the story presents itself as a theatrical playground strewn with cultural and artistic references. Apart from that Renne Fleming’s singing typist is a hint at Alejandro Jodorowsky’s dotingly motherly figure Sara in his surrealist masterpiece, The Dance of Reality, the play will unmistakably draw some similarities with Joan Jonas’s 2004 multimedia performance Lines in the Sand, in which, as a response to Hilda Doolittle’s poem Helen in Egypt, Jonas overlays moving images of modern day Las Vegas on photos of ancient Egypt ruins taken by her mother to create space for discussion of formation, deformation and transformation of sex, self and history.
Now back to the actors. According to Anne Carson, she wrote the character with Ben Whishaw in mind. (“He is iridescent. The needle jumps.”) And as it turns out, Whishaw’s androgynist quality immaculately delivers the character’s transformation. (Okay, I have to give out on this — Ben Whishaw’s character enters as a man in suit, and transforms, in the course of the entire play, into Marilyn Monroe. I don’t think it’d hurt much if you have already read through to this point.) Fleming, though who’s character should be posing the important questions and comments, is somehow let down by her overtly ethereal and hypnotic aria. In fact, it’s what she said that impresses.
Here is an example of what it feels like after sitting through the one hour and half that to some are excruciating, while to some intelligently stimulating. After the last line was spoken and sung, when the lights were out, for a few moments, there was no clapping. No one was sure what to do. Everyone was uncomfortably looking around to see what to do. Only when one — only one — faint, tentative clap was heard from somewhere far away did people nod knowingly to each other and strike their palms together. Out of what? I asked. Respect? Appreciation? Thank-you-for-the-work? Confusion? Confusion? Confusion?
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy. Enter, Norma Jeane Baker. Prologue Period, new line
This is the Nile, and I am the lion. Period, new line.
Those are both true (Period, new line)
Are you confused yet (Question mark, new line)
The play is a tragedy (Comma, new line)
Watch closely …