The Valley of Astonishment, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, is a vague and unhinged piece of work that floats in front of your eyes like a spider web gone all but loose. It is a story of the mind that circles round and round like a cat searching for the right spot for repose. What keeps you engaged are the performers: Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill – who are superb.
This is the story of three people who have minds that dominate their lives in a most forceful way. Samy Costas (Hunter) has total recall. She remembers who you are and what you said and what you did and what you want her to do. She can memorize a sheet of numerical columns forward, backward, crosswise and clockwise or counter. When she is found out she is examined, and then put on stage as a spectacle.
Magni has two roles – that of a man with no balance perception and a one armed man of cards. So similar in odd ways….. This was one advantage to sitting in the second balcony: we could see his cards. Not that it helped to figure out how he did what he did – and one-handed. Serious magic.
McNeil is a painter who sees and hears in colors. They come splashing across his internal line of site until he is nearly mad, and all he can do is fling color onto canvas. Once again our height made it possible to see what the folks downstairs could not. His canvas on the floor never changed.
The three excellent performers wander in and out of each other’s existences playing observers and clinicians of one sort or another. Their interconnections are like waves in a large bay – constantly moving without injury.
In the end these folks don’t come to harm. They just peter out. Samy eventually has a had full of lists that she cannot dislodge. What exactly happens to them all remains unclear – just as the focus of the evening is unclear. How could it be otherwise. Brook is asking us to take a trip not only through the minds of these characters, but makes us acutely aware that in order to do so we must use our own noggins.
It is a little like a grand hall of mirrors. Intriguing and revealing at the same time.
One final note – what I should have said was “what kept me engaged was the top of the performers’ heads”. While Hunter was at first very aware of us up in the second balcony, she was soon pulled back to her blocking. Once again the blocking a a thrust stage missed the mark. Even the glorious Mr. Brook fell victim to the habit that directors using a thrust stgage cannot seem to escape. Everything was focused to that small group of folks sitting center at the end of the thrust. Each monologue was aimed down stage center. Every movement directed there as well. The folks seated on the side saw mostly profile and butt. As to me, I was seated so far forward on the second balcony that it was easier to look back at the audience ringing the theatre on three levels than lean over and look at the actors. Let me be clear – I do not begrudge the choice of this seat by the wonderful PR folks at TFNA. I wish PR people treated critics to unthought-of seats so that we could remind directors of this continued oversight (CSC and the Public come to mind). What I begrudge is the seat itself. There is no way to get a decent look at this – or I suspect ANY – production from that bird’s eye perch. And to charge money for it is absurd.
I invite Mssrs. Brook and Howoritz and Mme. Estienne to explore the higher altitude and see for themselves.
The Valley of Astonishment – Written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
WITH: Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill (Actors) and Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori (Musicians).
Lighting by Philippe Vialatte; production stage manager, Richard A. Hodge. A C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord production, presented by Theater for a New Audience, Jeffrey Horowitz, founding artistic director; Henry Christensen III, chairman; Dorothy Ryan, managing director. At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, at Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; 866-811-4111, tfana.org. Through Oct. 5. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.